Read Me a Story

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If you’re in need of a little TLC, why not have Tom Hanks tell you a story? With just a smart phone and a library card, you can listen to everyone’s favorite Bosom Buddy read an audiobook such as my current title, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

Audiobooks are the ideal way to spend long hours driving or walking. In the past few  years, I’ve had occasion to make out-of-state trips by myself and decided to “read” a novel along the way. I listened to an Irishwoman voice the many characters in Maeve Binchey’s Minding Frankie. I loved Claire Danes’ dramatic rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I’d read many years ago and wanted to revisit. I even managed to complete such must-read titles as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, all while clocking the miles.

I can listen to an audiobook while accomplishing other tasks. Chopping vegetables or folding laundry are mundane and repetitive activities that are much improved by listening to a good story. And audiobooks have even improved my fitness. If I’m listening to a gripping book such as Emma Donoghue’s Room while out walking, I am much more likely to want to walk farther and for longer periods of time. I also prefer listening to watching TV when I am on a treadmill. It’s hard to focus on a screen with my whole body in motion but easy to listen to a disembodied voice while learning about The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

The key to a good audiobook is, of course, a good reader. Sometimes authors read their own work successfully. Malcolm Gladwell has a great voice and reads all of his own books. But many authors are great at creating the written word but not so gifted at speaking it. A good reader – essentially a voice actor – can bring their work alive. Such is the case with Tom Hanks’s wonderful narration of The Dutch House.

I hadn’t been planning to read Ann Patchett’s newest novel. I’d read one of her books in the past and hadn’t loved it. But Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a piece on recommended reading, and Hanks’s audiobook was one of her suggestions. The Dutch House is a story of a family and the centrality of the house to their development, trials and tribulations. Hanks has that warm and folksy timbre to his voice with just enough sass to enliven the first person narration and the brother-sister dynamic in the book.

There is a reason that being read to is such a cherished childhood memory for so many people. The warmth of a story cascading over us, allowing our imagination to conjure worlds while safely tucked under the arm of a loved one. Currently my daughter is rereading the Harry Potter series by listening to a succession of actors and ordinary readers voice the likes of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape and the rest. I fondly remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to a couple of my kids when they were younger. I’m sure that listening to the series recaptures some of that childhood for my youngest.

So if you have no time to read or your eyes are just too tired at the end of the day, give an audiobook a try. In these troubled times, it can’t hurt to be lulled to sleep by the likes of Tom Hanks.

 

Finding Literary Treasure

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With public libraries being closed, I have ditched my reading wish list and started mining the contents of my home bookshelves. Over the years, I’ve collected books that have gone unread. Some were gifts, others give-aways from the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, an event I’ve attended many times. I have even ventured into my husband’s wide selection of thrillers. And what I have discovered is literary treasure I may never have found if COVID-19 had not upended life as we know it.

One of those books is Enemy Women, a Civil War story about rural Missouri and one woman swept up in the disaster of war. Paulette Jiles’ novel reminds me of the acclaimed Charles Frazier work Cold Mountain. These works describe the wreckage of lives and hopes caused by a bitter conflict that rent the nation in two and left the South in tatters. What struck me was how many rural poor, none of whom had ever seen a slave much less possessed one, suffered to preserve the way of life for rich plantation owners. Missouri was particularly fraught because its citizens were split between Union supporters and those who fought for the Confederacy. Reading Enemy Women gave me a glimpse into that history while also providing a story of fierceness, determination, and survival.

I’ve also just finished a fascinating novel by Chicagoan Eric Charles May titled Bedrock Faith. Like many other Chicago writers, May was on hand during one of the aforementioned awards dinners, and I picked up his novel as a party favor at the event. Bedrock Faith had been sitting on my bookshelf for years while I favored other titles on my reading list. The novel is set on the far south side of Chicago in a fictional middle class black enclave called Parkland. The story is set in motion by the release from prison of a notorious troublemaker named Stew Pot Reeves, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the block where he grew up. I love May’s rich depictions of various neighbors, as well as the story being told from their various perspectives. The story also builds to an exciting climax as Stew Pot’s actions go from bad to worse.

Currently I’m reading a thriller by another Chicago writer, this one a tad more famous: Scott Turow. Turow made his name with the legal thriller Presumed Innocent, a page-turning story of a prosecutor turned defendant after his colleague is found murdered. The twist at the end of Presumed Innocent is chilling, and the book was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford. After many years, Turow came out with a sequel to his bestseller simply titled Innocent. Once again his character Rusty Sabich, now an appellate court judge, is accused of murder, this time of his wife of 36 years. Turow’s thrillers are a cut above many potboilers out there because of his superior writing style. I look forward to finding out whether Rusty has it in him to beat another murder allegation.

I know I could be borrowing electronic books from my local library even as it is closed. But I am having a great time finding literary treasure in paper right in the comfort of my home. What’s on your bookshelf?

 

The Secret Life of Trees

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Celtic-Tree-of-Life-Symbol-and-Its-MeaningI’m currently reading Richard Powers’ fascinating novel The Overstory. It’s a book in which the main characters are the trees and their influence over the Earth, over our lives. From The Overstory, I’ve learned that trees communicate with each other in so many ways: through vast root systems, through chemical signals they transmit with the wind. Powers describes a forest of aspens in Colorado as being one gigantic organism sprouting thousands of interdependent trees. What looks to us like a monolithic, unmoving mass is a complex, life-giving being.

I have always loved trees. My love for them stems from my father’s. He would often take us to the arboretum – essentially a cathedral of trees. To this day I love to wander among the oaks, maples, crab apples, and birches at the arboretum, finding my way along the wood chip paths and stopping to rest under their gentle canopies. I enjoy memories of gathering pine cones with my two-year-old son and the smell of autumn leaves that clung to my children after they had spent the day outside. I think fondly of the kids in the neighbor’s front yard, attempting to conquer the giant, soaring spruces and making me nervous as they climbed a little too high for comfort.

One of the saddest sights for me is the big red X on a tree that signals it needs to be cut down. Like people, trees can be hollowed out by disease. Invasive insects can wipe out whole species of trees. In my backyard, a solitary elm is surviving on a wing and a prayer, most of its relatives having succumbed to Dutch elm disease long ago. But we humans can also be the enemies of trees. Those towering spruces no longer stand sentinel in the front yard next door, having been chopped down to make way for a brand new home.

One of the messages in Powers’ novel is that humans have the dangerous illusion of dominance over our natural environment. And his characters, like humans in real life, do some major damage to the complex ecosystem created by trees. The book is not only a homage to the magnificence of trees. It is also a warning to us about the real consequences of underestimating their role in our survival.

Today is a good day to go outside and look at the trees. They are still naked and awaiting the buds of spring here in Chicagoland. Winter nests are visible in the highest branches. Yesterday I saw a squirrel perched perilously on a slender branch high up in a backyard maple, grasping for something I could not see from my window.  Thanks to The Overstory, I have a heightened appreciation for trees and what they mean to humanity. Thanks to my dad, I will always have a special love for trees.

In Love With Language

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I was reading over a former blog post and ran across the expression “in cahoots.” It’s kind of a funny word, cahoots. The dictionary explains that the term is possibly from the French cahute, meaning “cabin.” This gives me the image of a diabolical cabal gathering in some remote woodsy area to plot evil. In fact, the connotation of cahoots is mostly pejorative, even though people often use it jokingly.

Ever since I can remember, I have been in love with language: its sounds, spellings, multiple meanings, and etymology. In fact, when I was a college student, I fantasized about getting a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED contains a history of word usage for every word in the English language. How much fun one could have poring over the various uses of a word like cahoots! The development of the OED was the subject of a feature film titled The Professor and the Madman, which came out just last year. As you might imagine, I loved the movie.

I have always loved puns, malapropisms, and double entendres. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might have noticed that I use puns and double meanings quite a bit in my titles. Malapropisms – the inadvertent use of a similar word for the word one intends – are common in many farces. Last weekend, I saw the long-running play Shear Madness, which has great fun with the characters’ misuse of words. For instance, one of the characters exclaims, “Tony Whitcomb is a genital liar!”

Language is one of the things that made me love the comic MAD Magazine when I was a kid. They had a feature called “Horrifying Cliches,” which depicted monsters literally doing what the cliche said, such as “ironing out a problem.” It’s also why I have been able to watch my favorite television show, Gilmore Girls, over and over again. The snappy repartee gives me a laugh every time, and the characters even have discussions about funny words and phrases, such as the aforementioned cahoots. There is so much dialogue in every episode of Gilmore Girls, in fact, that the directors had a hard time fitting it all into a 42-minute time frame.

My passion for reading and writing stems from my love affair with the English language. When I do a crossword puzzle (another favorite activity), I am distressed when I find words that I’ve never heard of before. Yet I’m also thrilled to add to my vocabulary. I hope never to lose this passion for all things linguistic. To me it makes the word go around!

 

Belittled Women

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The irony was lost on members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at last night’s Oscars when it showed a film clip from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. In the scene, fledgling writer Jo March and her sister Amy disagree about the importance of Jo’s work. Confessing her doubts, Jo asks, “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” Amy responds, “Maybe we don’t see these things as important because no one writes about them.” The act of writing them, she argues,  “makes them important.”

Despite being nominated for Best Picture, Little Women did not garner a directing nomination for the gifted Gerwig, whose stories about girls and women are quietly subversive. In the case of Little Women, Gerwig took a cherished and sentimental classic and transformed it into a commentary about the limits society places upon women. These limits are still clearly being felt, as evidenced by the boys’ club in Hollywood that fawns over directors like Scorsese and Tarantino with their male-dominated, machismo-saturated storylines.

Indeed, the latest version of Little Women was looked upon by many as a “chick flick,” something no self-respecting guy would watch. A story featuring and dominated by women – “a story of domestic struggles and joys” –  still holds limited appeal in a society that glorifies war, racing, crime and other manly subjects.

Everything about Gerwig’s version of Little Women made it worthy of an Oscar. The acting, the script, the production design that created a series of impressionistic visual images, the soaring musical score: it was a masterpiece. And it did win an Oscar – for costume design. I guess a “women’s movie” is allowed to be praised for its fashion sense.

As inspiring as it was to see a relative unknown, Bong Joon Ho, win big for his movie Parasite, I was disappointed that in 2020, women are still struggling against a perception that their stories and concerns are too light and inconsequential to be taken seriously. Maybe if Greta Gerwig makes the sequel, Little Men, the Academy will finally take notice.

 

Story Lines or Battle Lines?

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There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the publication and promotion of a new novel called American Dirt. While Oprah recently touted Jeanine Cummins’ depiction of a Mexican migrant woman struggling to make it into the United States, others took issue with the fact that Cummins is predominantly white. These critics argue that this is not Cummins’ story to tell.

I have a problem with this argument. If authors are only allowed to write about people like themselves, where is the room for imagination? Where are the exercises in empathy that help us learn about other people’s experiences and put ourselves in their shoes – or in the inimitable words of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch, “climb into their skin and walk around in it.”

This is not to say that all writers are equally good at depicting the lives of characters far different from themselves. For example, years ago I read the novel A Widow for One Year by esteemed novelist John Irving. Having read both The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, I expected to love the novel. In Widow, however, I thought Irving was a bit tone deaf in depicting a woman’s mind and voice. But imagine if we insisted that no man should write stories about women or vice versa. Even my beloved To Kill a Mockingbird could be criticized for an outsider and somewhat patronizing image of blacks.

On the other hand, I have been amazed by writers such as Arthur Golden, who so beautifully and realistically portrayed a Japanese geisha in his novel Memoirs of a Geisha. It is possible, through research, imagination, and deep empathy to portray the lives of people very different from ourselves. In fact, several Latina authors have praised Cummins’ novel.

I have no problem when critics raise questions of quality and authenticity in literary works. And I understand that part of the criticism leveled at American Dirt is really directed at a publishing industry that favors mainstream white writers. Certainly a call for reform should be heeded by the powers that be in book publishing.

But the attacks against Cummins and her novel have been so severe that her book tour has been canceled due to security concerns. In today’s hypersensitive climate of opposition to cultural appropriation, publishers have created departments whose sole purpose is to screen manuscripts for depictions that might offend certain groups of people. In one case I read about not long ago, a young man who worked in one of these departments actually decided against putting out his own novel for publication for fear that it was not politically correct. This is a de facto kind of censorship that should be anathema to us as Americans. I do not want others deciding for me whether a given work is of sufficient value and authenticity to be published.

Interestingly, the controversy over American Dirt has not hurt sales of the book. If anything, the highly visible profile it has been given may have spurred interest in the novel.

We have come a long way in our society towards celebrating different cultures, whether it be in literature, film, music, dance or visual art. Promoting and making visible the works of marginalized artists should be an ongoing emphasis on the part of publishers, art galleries, movie studios and the like. But we should not sacrifice the freedom of artists to create as they see fit and allow the public to make up its own mind on issues of truth and authenticity.

 

 

 

 

The “They”s Have It

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I’m something of a stickler when it comes to English grammar and usage. Whenever I see a misplaced apostrophe or the incorrect “their/they’re/there” in a sentence, I cringe a little.

So it surprised me a bit that I didn’t have a more negative reaction to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year: the singular “they.” Of course, in ordinary speech, for some time now people have been using the word “they” to refer to either one or more people without regard to noun-pronoun agreement. But using it in writing was always taboo.

This led to difficulties such as having to use the awkward “he/she” or “he or she” when the subject was of unspecified gender. And many people just used “he” without regard to the sexist nature of assuming that human equals male. So it’s a bit of a relief to me that style manuals will most likely be updated to allow for the singular “they.”

There’s another reason that “they” was chosen as the Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster. “They” is often the preferred pronoun for gender nonconforming individuals. So the dictionary makers are right in choosing it as a significant movement in the English language.

There will be those who object to this modern use of the word “they,” whether because they are grammar purists or because they object to the normalization of LGBTQ matters. But as Benjamin Dreyer points out in The Washington Post, “Language is here to serve those of us, all of us, who use it, and when one’s perhaps unconsidered thoughts as to what is correct run smack into the honor we owe another person, one can only hope that it’s honor that wins out.” (“Language is here to serve all of us. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year shows that,” Benjamin Dreyer, Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2019)

So if a person wants to use the singular “they” in their writing, they should definitely do it.

Dystopian Lit Is Giving Me Nightmares

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I have been reading a lot of fiction lately about a future dystopian United States – from the vampiric world of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy to Octavia Butler’s nightmare Parables to Margaret Atwood’s scary land of Gilead in The Testaments, a sequel to the acclaimed work The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve got to say, I’m feeling more than a little unsettled.

You see, the worlds created by these masterly writers seem all too close to current realities. One of the themes that runs throughout dystopian fiction is that of an Earth ravaged by human excess and the resultant climate change. While many deny the existence of man-made climate change for political reasons, there is little doubt that the Earth is warming and that this warming is already causing sea levels to rise, Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt, and weather-related devastation in the form of high category hurricanes and arid lands being ravaged by wildfires.

Another theme of dystopian fiction is that of totalitarianism taking hold. In Margaret Atwood’s two books about the fictional land of Gilead, an ultra right wing faction has seized the White House, suspended the Constitution, and created a total police state. In Butler’s book The Parable of the Talents, a presidential hopeful promises to restore order to a lawless and broken country through heavy-handed means, including lynchings and burnings. Most ominous to me in reading Butler’s novel is this politician promising to “make America great again,” a slogan we have heard only too often in recent history. Yet Butler wrote The Parable of the Talents in 1998.

That’s what is so scary to me about dystopian fiction. Writers such as Butler and Atwood seem frighteningly prescient in their imaginings of future worlds. In some of Atwood’s other novels, pigs are implanted with human brain tissue, drones are used to spy on citizens, and for-profit prisons make ordinary people’s lives a living nightmare. None of these imagined realities seems out of the realm of plausibility.

In times of fear and stress, people are often willing to suspend their own freedoms in order to be protected. We saw this immediately after 9/11 when the Patriot Act was passed with little political opposition. We now allow agents of the federal government to search our possessions, x-ray our persons, and deny our right to carry particular nonlethal items just in order to board a plane. Technological innovations of the past two decades have also threatened to destroy our privacy in ways reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic 1984.

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought it would be possible for the United States to become a totalitarian state. I told her that the Constitution is only a document. It takes the will of the people and their leaders in government to assure that it is enforced. Today we are seeing individuals in the executive and legislative branches of our government refuse to abide by the norms and stipulations of that document. To my mind, it is not that far-fetched to imagine a group like the “Sons of Jacob” in The Testaments overtaking our democracy and turning it into a dictatorship.

Perhaps I should start reading other types of fiction for a while. These dystopian novels are giving me waking nightmares.

Play It Again, Sam

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My family likes to tease me about my penchant for watching certain television series over and over. How many times, they want to know, do I need to see thirtysomething or Gilmore Girls before I’ve had enough? The answer, of course, is: I’ll never tire of these or many other books, movies, and TV shows.

Repetition is a standard feature of life, starting in childhood. Mom and Dad might not enjoy reading Goodnight, Moon every night into infinity, but their sons and daughters can’t get enough of it. When my own kids were young, they wore out the VHS tapes of their favorite animated movies. They insisted on reading the same books time and again even though we had a gigantic library of selections.

Children’s fixation on repetition is actually important for their development. Repetition helps them learn. It not only helps them practice new skills, but it actually strengthens connections in the brain. Remember having to memorize poems or Shakespearean soliloquies? It may have seemed dull and pointless at the time. We saw no future in which we would suddenly launch into, “Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” But our teachers knew something we didn’t. Rote learning is good for our brains.

Beyond practicality, rereading favorite books or rewatching favorite movies and shows is comforting. It connects us with certain feelings and thoughts from times past. I can’t read a Curious George book without picturing myself in the children’s section of my childhood library, unable to read just yet but still eagerly poring over the pictures of George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat. Watching season 7 of Gilmore Girls reminds me of the summer before my oldest daughter went off to college, and I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.

“Play it again, Sam” is actually a slight misquote from the classic movie Casablanca. In the film, Ilsa asks the piano player at Rick’s, “Play it, Sam.” And at the end of the film, Rick simply tells Sam, “Play it.” By sheer repetition, though, the line stands for an iconic moment in an iconic movie.

So have no fear of playing it again, reader. Whatever it is, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, the first time around.

Beloved Author

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The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.