The Top Shelf

This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest, which invites the writer to write a short post about a cherished object.  See the other participants and discover some new blogs!

Some of my Grandmother's books.
Some of my Grandmother’s books.

My mother arrived outside my Queens apartment, the trunk of her aqua Hyundai Accent packed to the brim with books. But these were not ordinary books.  These were the classics, in cheap hardback covers, that my grandmother had ordered through the mail, one at a time as she could afford them. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Twain formed the bulk of the horde, with one-off novels from other authors like Dickens and Mitchell and Charlotte Bronte.   I’d stared at their gilted bindings most of my childhood, just waiting for the day when I would be able to read and truly appreciate them, instead of having to stop every paragraph or two to look up words I didn’t yet know.  (Grapes of Wrath…my twelve-year-old self is still intimidated by you.)  And now, my mother was giving them to me.

I grew up in the kind of place where people left their stolen shopping carts on the sidewalk and radios blared staticky commercials late into the night.  The first apartment that we lived in when we moved back to the States had to be abandoned when used syringes were found at the playground and prostitutes were discovered working out of the basement storage units, a few short feet from where I did our family’s laundry.  When we moved out, our apartment was taken over by the local neighborhood watch as a command station.  Whenever I think of that place, I still imagine their intent faces peering out the same square window that once was my entire view of the world.

The neighborhood that we moved to was better.  It was another long street of apartment complexes, but  the top of the street bled off into an estate of modest houses.  At the time, I thought the people that lived up there were rich beyond measure, because they had private walls and a yard, and I used to roam those streets for hours at a time, dreaming of what it must be like to live in such opulent wealth.  At Christmas time and Hallowe’en, I would jealously dream while I admired the beauty of their decorations.  I imagined refinement and culture behind those closed doors, then returned home to the sticky shared entrances of the apartment buildings where we lived and to the neighborhood children that responded quickly and viciously to any sign of studiousness.

And yet, books were my favorite thing.

I couldn’t escape my thrift-shop clothes or the skin that couldn’t fit in, but in the pages of books, I could learn to be anyone.  I studied them hungrily, looking for a the clues on how to behave to get myself to a place where I could walk down the street without the harassment of men twice my age.  My grandmother’s books seemed like the key to a future of wealth and culture, an entree into neighborhoods that were beautiful and safe. Somehow, I knew that the people that lived in those houses had all read Hemingway.

I never found the key to the secrets that I was looking for, but all that reading paid off; I landed in a high school program that put me in the same classroom as the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers.  It was what I had always wanted, wasn’t it?  And yet, I discovered that I didn’t feel at home there, among so much casual wealth.  While their parents took them to private lessons and bought them cars for SAT performance, I juggled an extraordinary academic load with my after-school and weekend jobs. One of my first boyfriends belonged to a family that kept horses, who I met in the same year that our cat died after falling off our 9th floor balcony. When it became obvious that my new school friends were afraid to go to my house, I avoided theirs, because I felt like I was selling out my childhood friends.

I still feel bad about this.  Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
I still feel bad about this. Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
I no longer belonged at home or at school, and the consolation was fiction.  I tried again with my grandmother’s books, but when I broke the binding of Gone with the Wind as I neared the final pages, I became too afraid to touch any of the other books in the collection.  They were too delicate for my teenaged hands, so I waited until my mother gave them to me as an adult to try reading them again.  Now I carefully carry them in my commuter bag, cherishing them for the family history that they hold.  In a world where books are increasingly less tangible, they are a luxury, a treasure that can be touched and smelled and held.

Published in the 50s and 60s, their typeface and binding instantly throws me back in time, to a place before cell phones and cable TV and Internet speed.  I envision my family — a well-educated and argumentative bunch — reading these books as they sprawled over couches and floors.  I imagine my mother as a young woman, inscribing her name inside the cover of each book with a blue ballpoint pen. She wrote the date — 1977.  Now that they are mine, I wonder if I should write my name too.

Some Reviews from The Top Shelf:

Dracula
A Moveable Feast
For Whom the Bell Tolls

A Slow Motion, A Mad Dash

mohair-bias-cowl-detail
Knit, knit, knit, knit.

This week, I finished a knitting project (the Mohair Bias Loop BY Churchmouse Yarns and Teas) that I started two weeks after Cora was born.  It is a fuzzy cowl of indeterminate length, knit on the bias, which can also double as a shawl.  It is the simplest of knitting patterns, with two rows that repeat until the desired length.  I usually go for intricate projects that bring me a lot of mental interest – either in their construction or the new techniques that I’ll have to learn to complete them, but with a baby in immediate view, I thought the simpler that I could go, the more likely I would be able to work on it.

I didn’t even get creative with the yarn.  I admired a friend’s cowl so much that she led me to the same booth at Rhinebeck where she had bought her yarn and I picked out a color that I liked.  In the fiber world, we call this mindless knitting — the knitting your fingers do while your mind goes elsewhere.  It’s knitting as meditation, a way to free your mind to be calmed by the simple repetitive movements of your fingers as you loop and pass the yarn from one stitch to the next, from one needle to the next.  The only challenge in the pattern was the yarn itself — it takes a brave or foolhardy knitter to commit to a large project in mohair, but I was not afraid.

mohair-bias-cowl
If you think this bears a resemblance to a certain muppet, you wouldn’t be the first to suggest it.

For the first time since Cora was born, I’ve taken my knitting with me on the train to work.  I was so close to the end of the cowl that I wanted to use the train time to sew the final seam.  I want to start other things because it’s taken me nearly five months to knit a single, simple project.  As I sat on the train this past week, I put in my headphones and plugged into my Audible account, picking up with listening to Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind, which I started listening to a very long time ago. Is there anything more relaxing than quietly creating while having someone read you a story?  Combined with the motion of the train as we whizzed through the suburbs of Queens, I rediscovered a place of tranquillity that I have missed over the last year.

I was so relaxed, in fact, that on Thursday night I walked off the train without my cooler of breast milk — which is perhaps the most important thing that I do all day long.  Losing it would be such a disaster that I’ve occasionally dreamt about misplacing it and woken up in a panic.  It’s taken a special significance lately, as my body seems to be steadily producing less milk, despite my many efforts to encourage it to increase.  Thursday was a good day — four bottles — and the thought of losing them threw me into a panic.

I ran.  I ran to my car and whipped out of the parking lot and down the road to catch the train.  I live two stops from the end of the line, so there was a possibility that I could catch the train before it turned around again to go back into Manhattan, but I knew I had to hurry.

It’s amazing how long four miles can seem.  Every light that turned red against me seemed to take forever, though in reality they were not red long enough for me to unlock my phone and send a message to my Beloved to let him know why the milk cow was late. The thought of delaying Cora’s last feeding as I chased her bottles was horrible, but the thought of losing them was even worse.

I got the cooler back.  I ran up and down the platform like a crazy thing until a kind MTA employee unlocked the closed cars and let me retrieve it.  Panting and sweating, I made it back to my car and raced home.  Parking as fast as I could, I walked around the corner to the sight of my Beloved and Cora standing in my doorway, waiting for me to come home.

A smile broke out across my face and my anger at my carelessness was forgotten.  My family.  My home.  My everything, right there in the doorway, waiting for me, despite my mistakes.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 

Front cover For Whom the bell TollsWritten in 1940, Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a 500+ page diary of the four days leading up to an assault on Segovia in the Spanish Civil War.  The hero of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American professor whose Communist sympathies have led him to volunteer to fight for the Republic, a revolutionary government that is fighting the fascists for control of Spain.  Written in a close third perspective, the novel follows Robert Jordan — who is alternately known as Ingles and Roberto  — as he meets up with a band of guerilla fighters hiding in the mountains ahead of the fascist lines, and lays the groundwork for a major Republican assault.  His job is relatively simple — he is a trained dynamiter that must ensure that a strategic bridge is blown up as the attack begins.

But the simple task is not easy.  When Robert Jordan meets up with the guerillas, he discovers that their leader Pablo has been ousted in favor of his mujer Pilar.  Pablo becomes a metaphorical stick of dynamite in the group, as he drinks and insults his companions, and Robert Jordan wonders whether or not it would be better to kill him before the attack begins.  His mind is further distracted from the task at hand when he meets Maria, a young woman who has survived a gang rape by the fascists that executed her parents.  Drawn instantly to her, he falls in love and enters a whirlwind relationship with her that is intensified by the dangers of the upcoming battle.  Knowing well that his chances of survival are slim, he engages Maria as his common-law wife within hours of meeting her.

In the mountains in the days before the attack, the relationships between the characters are intensified, as there is little to distract them from each other or the coming danger.  As Robert Jordan balances the needs of his mission with his own introspection and his feelings for Maria, we are treated to Hemingway’s understanding of the complexity of the emotional state of soldiers at war.  Robert Jordan fights through his fear, while also revelling in the camaraderie of strangers thrown together for a common and dangerous purpose.

I have been all my life in these hills since I have been here. Anselmo is my oldest friend.  I know him better than I know Charles, than I know Chub, than I know Guy, than I know Mike, and I know them well. Agustín, with his vile mouth, is my brother, and I never had a brother. Maria is my true love and my wife. I never had a true love. I never had a wife. She is also my sister, and I never had a sister, and my daughter, and I never will have a daughter. I hate to leave a thing that is so good. He finished tying his rope-soled shoes.

Hemingway also delves briefly at points in the novel into the mind of Anselmo, Robert’s Jordan’s guide and the viejo of the group in order to give us a sense of Robert Jordan from the outside perspective. Anselmo fights with his moral understanding that killing is wrong, even though he knows that it is necessary to protect himself and the lives of his companions.  Through the parallel views of Robert Jordan and Anselmo, we get a deeper portrait of the psychology that allows an ordinary person to destroy human life.

All that I am sorry for is the killing. But surely there will be an opportunity to atone for that because for a sin of that sort that so many bear, certainly some just relief will be devised. I would like to talk with the Inglés about it but, being young, it is possible that he might not understand. He mentioned the killing before. Or was it I that mentioned it? He must have killed much, but he shows no signs of liking it. In those who like it there is always a rottenness.

Although the novel could easily be a relentless barrage of the human cost of political upheaval, there is an enjoyable bravado that Hemingway employs in his characters that really gets the reader on their side.  Robert Jordan knows that his task is nearly impossible to survive, but he still wonders if he has a future back home in Montana, while Pilar revels in the base sexuality of the  love affair between Robert Jordan and Maria.  Agustin can’t utter a sentence without profanity (though, charmingly, these words are represented as ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscentiy’, which leads to charming phrases such as ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother’). Even Maria, whose backstory paints a truly damaged woman, shows the world her courage through her willingness to love Robert Jordan. Pablo is the closest thing to a villain that the novel has, but his true crime is only cowardice, as he allows his fear to drive him into inaction and then, later, sabotage.

He was seeing the expanding wedges of threes, silver and thundering in the sky that were coming over the far shoulder of the mountain where the first sun was striking.  He watched them come shining and beautiful in the sun. He saw the twin circles of light where the sun shone on the propellers as they came.

One of the most memorable chapters of the novel is when Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the Republican victory in her home town, so that he will understand what Pablo was before he lost his nerve.  The chapter stands out in the brutality of the Republicans, who punish the Fascists and Fascist sympathizers.  Forced to walk a gauntlet, the losers march to their deaths, while the Republican winners are equally horrified and enthusiastic about meting out revenge.  Hemingway’s moral is clear — even the idealistic Republics use the same behavior as the Fascists, making it clear that idealism doesn’t protect anyone from their own culpability in the violence of war.

Pablo is very intelligent but very brutal. He had this of the village well planned and well ordered. Listen. After the assault was successful, and the last four guards had surrendered, and he had shot them against the wall, and we had drunk coffee at the café that always opened earliest in the morning by the corner from which the early bus left, he proceeded to the organization of the plaza. Carts were piled exactly as for a capea except that the side toward the river was not enclosed. That was left open.

Although war is shown as a terrible thing, Hemingway also shows us  moments of beauty in it, both in the emotional human connections and the aesthetic appreciation of war machinery.  The battles seem quaint to the modern reader, as the guerillas learn to use their maquinas — the automatic machine guns — and escape from battle on horses.    When the sleek planes of the Fascists fly overhead, the guerillas are almost certain that they are dead. As with all war stories, the stakes are as high as is possible; through every moment of the novel, each character knows that they risk their own death.  For many of the characters, it is even worse — they risk surviving and remembering the killing that they did in the name of idealism.

His eyes, watching the planes coming, were very proud. He saw the red wing markings now and he watched their steady, stately roaring advance. This was how it could be. These were our planes. They had come, crated on ships, from the Black Sea through the Straits of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, through the Mediterranean and to here, unloaded lovingly at Alicante, assembled ably, tested and found perfect and now flown in lovely hammering precision, the V’s tight and pure as they came now high and silver in the morning sun to blast those ridges across there and blow them roaring high so that we can go through.

Mostly, Hemingway leaves us with the solid understanding that there is no escaping the war when it takes place in your country — a lesson that is all too real when we compare the death tolls of Americans and Iraqis.  At some points of the novel, the similarities are eerie between the two conflicts, which gives For Whom the Bell Tolls a particular modern relevance.  Yet, at no point do the characters of For Whom the Bell Tolls question their idealism; for whatever reason they are drawn into the war, they are committed to seeing the fighting through, no matter the human cost.  Does that echo the voices of our soldiers today?  I am not so sure.

The title is based on a John Donne poem, which I will leave you with:

No man is anIland,intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the

Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne
were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the
bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Genre: classics, fiction
Subjects: communism, facism, love, spanish civil war, war

Was I Ever So Young?

This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
But we won’t
Although we’ll want to

(Billy Joel — “This is the Time”)

I’ve been doing some organizational work with my computing lately, as long-time readers of the blog may have noticed.  As part of it, I found myself cleaning up my digital pictures, which are now a collected set of folders dating back fifteen years.

Fifteen years!  How is it even possible?

Myself as a baby shutterbug in Aruba in 2001.
Myself as a baby shutterbug in Aruba in 2001.

Aside from my awe that digital photography has been around and accessible to the casual consumer for that length of time, looking through the years of my life captured in this way was really emotional.  I found myself searching for the rare pictures of myself, because I’m still struggling with coming to terms with my post-partum body and I wanted to compare my mental image of what the numbers on the scale mean to some reality.

It’s a strange pursuit.  Most days, I can keep focused on the fact that this amazing body created a human being — a human being that fills my days with relentless joy.  Baby girl is at a really nice point in her development, now that we’ve transitioned from days of constant upset stomachs to watching her learn how to use her body to maneuver into the basics of mobility.  Newborns are relatively inert, but now that she’s five months old,  she spends her days interacting with her world in the most innocent ways. I spend my days waiting to run home and watch her.  There’s really no better consolation to the changes in my body, but it’s still difficult to accept that there have been changes in my body that are beyond my control.

When I first left home, I gained a hefty amount of weight.  I was eighteen, with no conception of nutrition.  I grew up feeding myself egg sandwiches and Ramen noodles and whatever else I could scrounge in the kitchen. (My mom was very dedicated to her job and, more importantly, hated cooking.)  When I moved out and into a ridiculously paid dot com job, I could suddenly afford eating out regularly and lots of dessert.  The pounds packed on.  When I moved to working a night shift, I used soda to keep myself awake, not realizing the extra meals I was taking in every day in all my empty cans of Mountain Dew.  I reached an all-time high score on the scale by the time I was 20, which I didn’t see again until I was seven months pregnant.

I did learn.  I learned about exercise and nutrition.  I got the weight back down again, as college classes sent me to the gym.  Better yet, I learned what it felt like to be fit and strong, rather than just having the effortless thinness of my teenaged years.  Pregnancy hit me hard because it took a lot of that confidence and put it on a shelf for a while.  For the first time in many years, my feet ached from the weight of my body.  I had to catch my breath after walking up the stairs.  I couldn’t keep up with the guys at work when we went out to lunch.  I had to ask for help to lift things.  Looking back, I wish I had enjoyed my pregnancy more, but I spent nearly all of it dreaming of the day when I would have the strength of my body back.

Now, five months after the birth of my baby, I’ve lost most of the weight that I put on, which was significantly more than the recommended thirty-five pounds. The majority of it came off in fluid and baby in the first two months, and there has been a slow but steady decline since, but the last pounds linger.  I’ve been doing my best to lose the rest while not thinking about it, but inevitably I will pass a mirror and feel an unwelcome dismay.  There are so many other things in my life that are so much more important, but my rounded mommy belly feels like a step backwards to my days of poor fitness. I admit that it hurts my pride.

Charlotte  John-bw-073
A rather momentous day, 2012.

But rarely does a day go by where I am not grateful for being able to do something that was inaccessible in pregnancy.  My abdominals are still rebuilding, thanks to the planks and bridges that are now part of my daily routine, but I can change the water bottle at the cooler at work without having to think about it.  If I need something out of the top shelf, I can climb up on the counter and get it.  I lift and swing and move baby girl around wherever she needs to go.  I can carry her without rest for the better part of an hour.  These are all glorious things that seemed impossible a year ago.

And yet, in looking back at my oldest photographs, I don’t see such a dissimilar body. What surprised me most is how unimaginably young I look. I was out in the world on my own, living in an apartment with roommates, working a good job without any knowledge of the upcoming recession that was going to make the next few years full of financial struggles.

My hair, long from laziness, hangs past my shoulders and down my back.  It’s usually carelessly clipped up, just to keep it out of my face.  My clothes are often unfitted and unflattering, because I didn’t understand those things either.  My face is rounder, my waistline bumpier, my arms looser.  I could not have predicted what was in front of  me, though I remember feeling a lot of anxiety about it. But I didn’t feel young.

Has gazing at my younger body given me any insight into my conception of my body today?  Even now, I am fitter, older, more experienced.  Then, my fat curled around my waist like a tire; now it hangs in the front as a long reminder of where baby girl lay, head down and waiting, for so many months.  Our bodies are still joined, as I guide her to my breast every morning and night so that she can suckle and get the nutrition that she needs to challenge and conquer her world.  She has changed me, through the fading stretch marks and the shape of my body.  When I look at photographs of myself now — or at the end of my pregnancy — I see our connection in the shape of my waist.

I want to raise a girl that doesn’t spend so much energy on such ridiculous things, as much as I know it is probably impossible.  But still, in looking back at my young body, I was reminded of all the places that I’ve seen since — trips to Aruba, Jamaica, Belgium, New Orleans, Canada, Cornwall, California, Paris — that I’d completely forgotten about.  There are few pictures of me in those albums, since I’m usually the one behind the camera.  Perhaps the takeaway here is to hand the camera over — to make certain that someone records me, not as a record of my body and its shape, but as a reminder of who I’m holding in my arms at the time.

Cherished BlogFest

cherished-blogfest1As part of the Cherished blogfest, I thought I would invite everyone to look at the full list of bloggers that are participating.  The personal blog has very much declined (just ask any expert) and I am delighted to see so many new Internet people come together to connect.  I’ve been browsing the list and have already discovered some new-to-me blogs that are fascinating.

I am just the right age to really remember the personal blog as a dominant force on the Internet.  Social media has really come together to offer a lot of advantages to the world, but there’s a deep part of me that waxes nostalgic for the days of diary-x and Livejournal.  (I even lost a few years worth of blogging in the great diary-x hard drive crash, for true Internet street cred.)  I am as much of a Facebook addict as anyone else, because it offers me an easy way to connect with my giant — and geographically-dispersed — family, but it is not the same.  Microposts have their place, but I miss reading the thoughtful journaling of so many people that don’t blog any more.

This brings me back to the Cherished goal — on the weekend of July 25th, all participants will post a short post an object that’s meaningful to them.   I had to do a lot of thinking for mine, but I think I’ve finally settled on what I want to share with you.  I can’t wait to see what the other participants come up with.

See you then —

Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway

 

sisters-of-heart-and-snowIn Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway returns to the central theme of her award-winning novel An American Housewife; the biracial and first generation Japanese-American experience.  Sisters Rachel and Drew Snow are the daughters of a merciless American businessman and his Japanese catalogue bride Hikari, who are thrown together as adults to take care of their declining mother after nearly two decades of estrangement.  When Hikari sends Rachel after a book that she hid in a closet in the family home, she enlists her sister Drew to help her retrieve it and translate it.  The book quickly becomes a mystery for the sisters to solve, as their mother’s increasing dementia makes her unavailable to provide any answers as to why it was so important to her.

Rachel and Drew find a translator for Hikari’s book, which turns out to be the legend and life of Tomoe Gozen, a famous onnamusha of middle age Japan and concubine to the feudal warlord Yoshinaka.  When Yoshinaka makes a marriage alliance to Yamabuki, a delicate young courtier who is ill-suited to their rough rural life, Tomoe surprises herself by developing a deep friendship with the girl that comes to hold more meaning than her love affair with Yoshinaka.

Outside, Yoshinaka sat atop a snorting black Demon, in his full battle gear of bearskin shoes and grand iron helmet.  Minammoto banners waved in the summer air.  Hundreds of soldiers cheered when they saw her.  “Tomoe!  Tomoe!”

She lifted a hand and their voices rose.  Without looking back at her family, Tomoe walked out from the porch and across the courtyard.  Cherry Blossom waited, with her scarlet saddle, her silken blankets, her tasseled bridle.

“Let us go!”  Yoshinaka shouted!  “We will show my cousin who the true leader is!”

Tomoe nodded and swung atop the horse.  They began walking out of the fortress, the dust kicking up.  Tomoe sat tall.  Only once did she turn  in her saddle and watch as the figures of the women on the porch grew smaller and smaller, waving at her until they shimmered and faded, like a memory.

As the sisters follow Tomoe’s life, they each wonder what their mother’s message was.  Does the relationship between these two legendary women parallel their own?  Is Drew the warrior, Rachel the wife?  Or was it meant to be the reverse?  Searching to understand their mother’s love, Drew and Rachel search the story of Tomoe for the parental involvement that they never found at home.

While the book-within-a-book structure of Sisters of Heart and Snow is a familiar one, Dilloway’s writing and thoughtful insight into the psychology of her characters makes the novel a compelling and sincere story about healing from family dysfunction. Lost in their own problems, the sisters must work to find common ground and a permanent place in the other’s life.  Now a mother herself, Rachel struggles with accepting her young daughter’s upcoming marriage, while fighting to keep her father from moving their mother to an overcrowded and underfunded nursing home.  Returning to San Diego at Rachel’s request, Drew quickly becomes involved in the day-to-day routines of Rachel’s family life, while she tries to piece together her own ambitions and a desire for the sort of lifetime partnership and love that she sees in her sister’s marriage.

As happens in so many broken families, every move the sisters make is fraught with the emotional history of unhappy memories.  As they move forward through the story, the sisters also move backwards into their childhood memories, where they must confront their wildly different experiences.  Their father’s bullying and their mother’s seeming negligence scarred Rachel and Drew, and much of the novel is engaged in coming to terms with what it means when your parents fail you.

Dilloway lets the story unfold simply, letting the straightforward thoughts of her characters dominate the prose.  As Rachel reflects on her childhood, she does it with the memories of a young adult, but with the understanding that only adulthood and time can bring.

I longed to talk to her, to cry into her shoulders, and several times I almost did.  I went to her quilt room where she sat sewing, sewing, sewing, like she was in some kind of factory with an imaginary deadline.  As I stood in the doorway, watching her head bent under the orange yellow desk lamp, I knew two things to be true.  She had her own demons.  And because of those, she’d be unable to be a mother in the way I needed a mother.

Even her memories of her father lean more towards understanding than anger.  While Killian hasn’t lost the power to hurt Rachel, he has lost his power to surprise her.  Her understanding and acceptance of his character protects her, while giving her the strength and determination to keep protecting her mother from him.

“Thanks,” I said, in response to the cash he handed me.  I’d trained myself not to respond to his barbs now, not the way I had when I was little.  When somebody is like him, you expect all kinds of mean things to come out of his mouth.  It barely affects you anymore.  Or so you think.  It’s like swallowing something sharp without realizing it, the object sitting undisturbed until years later, when your insides suddenly begin to bleed.

Likewise, the story of Tamoe Gozen is filled with moments of insight, as Tamoe balances her relationship with Yamabuki with their shared lover Yoshinaka.  Tomoe’s story is action-filled and fast, contrasting with the slower pace of Rachel and Drew’s unfolding drama.  Yet, Tomoe’s story fits well into the novel, as Rachel and Drew draw on it for inspiration and strength.  Although the road is rocky, they work to form a family again, just as Tomoe and Yamabuki did, when they could so easily have been rivals.

Without Yamabuki, Tomoe thought, she would have turned out like Yoshinaka and her brother.  Bitter, inflexible, battle-hungry, unable to take pleasure in anything but a fight.  It was because of Yamabuki that Tomoe had learned to enjoy the daily humdrum routine of life.  To find the poetry hidden in laundry day.  To learn how to become a mother.  To love somebody better than you loved yourself

The obvious theme of Sisters of Heart and Snow is the power and difficulty of sisterhood.  Dilloway looks at it from every angle, drawing together a thoughtful story of modern adulthood that stays with the reader long after the  last page is finished.


Genre: chick lit, contemporary, fiction
Subjects: america, asian-american, dysfunction, family, japan, multi-cultural

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

MoveableFeastWhen I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife,  a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction, which is what led me to A Moveable Feast.  He has been much discussed, not only as a writer,  but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living.  Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during  World War I, then a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Hemingway very much lived the stories of love and danger that fill his novels.

He also knew nearly all of the literary greats of his day and was himself an overnight success with the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Always wary of losing his own authentic voice by being sucked into the world of wealth that surrounded him, he frequently took dangerous writing assignments that put him into the front lines of conflict.  He loved outdoor sports and had a life-long fascination with bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting that appears again and again in his work.  But for all the dangerous and exhilarating pursuits, it was alcohol that would get him in the end, destroying his ability to write, from both a physical and mental perspective.  His last book, his memoir A Moveable Feast, is frequently cited as proof that his talent was declining.  And yet, A Moveable Feast was still a delight for me, as I fell into the enchantment of Hemingway’s distinct cadence, sharp dialogue and forthright description of the glittering literary expatriate world of Paris.

Oh, how I love the dialogue of Hemingway.  As a writer, I can’t help but admire how well he describes character through dialogue.  It is the work of a master.  When he first meets Gertrude Stein, he writes:

‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said.
‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do
both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention
at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort
and durability, and you will have the clothes money to
buy pictures.

 

”But even if I never bought any more clothing ever,’ I
said, ‘I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the
Picassos that I want.’

 

‘No. He’s out of your range. You have to buy the
people of your own age – of your own military service
group. You’ll know them. You’ll meet them around the
quarter.

There’s just no one that writes dialogue like Ernest Hemingway.  I can only sit back and admire the eloquently rhythmic exchanges, enjoying the beautiful simplicity of the language.

When Hemingway arrived in Paris,  he was a young man and an unknown in literary circles.  Thanks to an introduction by Sherwood Anderson,  who had mentored him back home,  he was able to enter the same social circles of the most famous Modernist writers.  A Movable Feast is a tell-all memoir about many of the famous people that he knew; Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald feature prominently, with chapters devoted to Hemingway’s relationship with each of them.  He gives us his impressions of them, both from his perspective as a young man and the perspective of his older self — the mature and confident writer that he became.  When Hemingway describes his first meeting of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he writes that

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty.  His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the colouring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.

It’s moments like these that make A Moveable Feast so enjoyable.  The modernists were larger than life people, so Hemingway’s memories of them are delightful for literature fans.  Although the book could run the risk of sounding like a gossip column, it is Hemingway’s devotion to writing that saves it. When he criticizes the relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is because of its affect on Fitzgerald’s work.  He writes:

He was always trying to work. Each day he would try and fail. He laid the failure to Paris, the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is and he thought always that there would be some place where he and Zelda could have a good life together again.

As a memoir, there is not much in the way of insight into Hemingway himself — but A Moveable Feast can sometimes be painful in its honesty about the other writers.  When he writes about Gertrude Stein that “she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible, although she needed to have publication and official acceptance, especially for the unbelievably long book called The Making of Americans,” I couldn’t help but wince for Stein.  Yet, having read The Making of Americans, I have to agree with his commentary.  Still, it’s painful to read such a public pronouncement of his opinion of someone he once considered a friend, and made me wonder about the cost to the author about writing so truthfully in a memoir.  A Movable Feast was published posthumously by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway a few years after his suicide.  Would Hemingway himself would have gone forth so bravely? I suspect, given the courage with which he lived his life, that he probably would have .

This concern with the writing that the modernists were producing drives the book, which provides fascinating insight into how these writers work.  We learn predominantly of Hemingway’s own routines as a young writer and hear his version of the famous lost manuscripts. He ends the book with the publication of The Sun Also Rises, telling us about his transformation from journalist to novelist and the failure of his first marriage. Given the celebrity and curiosity surrounding Hemingway as a man, it’s a must-read for any Hemingway enthusiast — and an excellent companion to The Paris Wife.


Genre: memoir, nonfiction
Subjects: Hemingway, lost generation, modernists, roaring 20s

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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