Monday, May 27, 2013

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY – Rachel Joyce

Who doesn't like a good pilgrim story? I do and I have no idea why everyone isn't reading this British import and talking about it. It is delightful. Harold is six months into his retirement living with his long time spouse, Maureen. The times have not been so good for their marriage and it seems they are no longer lovers but co-exist each in their own space and bedrooms, puttering about their daily lives. Their life together seems colorless and mundane. There is no spark or interest. Then Harold gets a letter from a previous co-worker whom he has not seen or heard from for many years. Her name is Queenie Hennessy and she is writing to tell him she is terminally ill and to thank him for being a good friend.

Harold and Maureen live in the south of England and Queenie is in a hospice in the northern most tip of the country. Harold writes Queenie a note and sets out to mail it at the neighborhood post box. However, once at the box he pockets the letter and decides to walk on to the next box. Thus begins Harold's pilgrimage. While delving into deep thoughts about his life, his loves, his family, his decisions, and the world in general Harold makes a pact with himself and Queenie to walk to where she is to say goodbye in person. Of course he must phone home and tell Maureen and he has taken no supplies with him so he depends on the help of others. The whole book is a beautiful story of introspection, loss, love, finding meaning and acquiring wisdom, but also a wonderful look at many unusual pilgrims who come and go on the walk to the North.

On the journey Harold travels back in his memories to dark times as well as the good times, like when he was a boy and his mother abandoned him, “In the morning, her frocks were strewn like empty mothers all over the small house.” He meets so many different people all with their own foibles and cares. He is joined by young and old, some wearing “Pilgrim” t-shirts, some with agendas, some from the press, and one wearing a gorilla suit. But they all come and go and when some decide he is actually a detriment to the “cause” they start their own group!

All through the pilgrimage Harold keeps Maureen informed and she must complete her own mental journey sorting through her feelings so she will be ready when the trek is over to decide with Harold where they should go from here.

Everything about this book is enjoyable, as I have been most of the contemporary British imports I've read. The story was great but the physical book is nice too. The cover is artistically appealing in umbers and ecru with interesting type and bold black illustrations of Harold's shoes (yachting shoes mentioned many times) and a crow (from chapter 12). Even the back has an illustration relevant to the story, the back of a postcard. The chapters begin with small illustrations representative of something coming up. Most of all I loved the pilgrimage map in the back – It took Harold 87 days to go 627 miles.

Let me leave you with this quote from page 107, “He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others.” Ah, accepting the strangeness of others, yes, we all need to do a better job of that.

THE PROPHET – Kahlil Gibran

What a melancholy day. Memorial Day, May 26, 2013. Cloudy, dismal, and cold. I drove to the small town cemetery where my father is buried to offer up my thanks and leave a bit of beauty. On the way there NPR was broadcasting poets reading somber and heart wrenching poetry about love and loss. The way home was even sadder for the broadcast had moved on to memoirs of Vietnam veterans. The little town by the cemetery has become seedy, run down, and sad looking.

Home again I picked up my beat up copy of The Prophet that I scavenged from an antique mall. It's been reclining by my bed for weeks now. Finding it at the mall had stirred up memories of my friends and I passing it around in college and memorizing quotes that seemed so relevant during the Vietnam era. This particular copy was published later than the one I would have had (1977) and I had forgotten that it was originally published in 1923. Not remembering anything about it I was still thinking about college times when I opened the book to see this written inside the front cover, “Maxine, I want you to have this. Consider it my Christmas present to you. I hope you do take the time to read it. Sorry that I didn't know. Vicki.” Hmmm, who were or are Vicki and Maxine? What did Vicki need to know and didn't? Why did Maxine let this treasure get away from her and end up in a dusty dank pile of old books? I had to have it, and so it goes.

In some unnamed time and place a wandering prophet (I think I might be getting addicted to pilgrim stories too!) has been in a coastal town for twelve years while waiting for a ship to come and take him back to his home that he so misses. He wants to give his devoted followers something. Since he has no possessions he decides to spend time talking with them and requests each to ask an important question from the heart. The answers from the prophet are written like poetical philosophical essays. My favorite chapters and quotations at this time are as follows:
Giving - “There are those who give little of the much which they have and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.” 
Teaching - “If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” 
Death - “And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
If you have this book and take it down periodically and peruse the chapters I am guessing different chapters will speak to you at different times. I'm sure when I was 19 the above were not the ones I quoted. More than likely it was Love, Joy and Sorrow, and perhaps Self-knowledge.

This book also reminds me a lot of Coelho's The Alchemist. I guess I like my philosophy delivered via a pilgrim and also cloaked in mystery and in story. I wonder what ever happened to my college days copy? Bless Vicki and Maxine wherever they are.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

THE SWEET IN-BETWEEN – Sheri Reynolds

Things seem to be piling up and I can't get my wits about me but I still need some downtime reading so while looking through the books at Goodwill I spied a great clean hard copy of this little novel by Sheri Reynolds. In 1997 my friends and I had passed around copies of her Rapture of Canaan and we all really liked it. So, remembering that off I went to pay my $2.50 for my weekend escape read. Well. It wasn't a weekend read, it was only a few hours and I didn't want to put it down but it wasn't my normal pick for “escape” reading. Where to start?

I like Reynolds style of easy dialog, fast moving plot lines, and great complex characters. Here we have a book about a sexually confused teen, Kendra/Kenny trying to decide who to be in a turbulent family of misfits in which she doesn't even belong. “Aunt” Glo is actually her father's girlfriend and dad is in prison for drug trafficking. Kenny adores Glo's small granddaughter Daphne and in actuality is the responsible caregiver to the developmentally challenged little girl. In the home also lives Glo's sons Quincy and Tim-Tim. There is never enough money or good food, Tim-tim is a thief and Glo remains stoned much of the time.

Interspersed with chapters of Kenny maneuvering the halls of high school trying to find a place to just “be,” and to be real, the reader (or at least I did) remains on edge while she tries to keep her family together and functioning. They live in a duplex and on the other side is a lecherous drunk who shoots and kills a teenage girl who mistakenly enters his house thinking it is one she rented. So throw in all the trauma of that mess and what a great tale Reynolds tells. Kenny's coming of age tale is so poignant and also shocking at times. Reynolds did a good job making the reader see how the minds work of those who traverse a world that we, or at least I, have no experience with. It is hard to read about a young girl being sexually assaulted and then having her take it in stride and not think it is the end of her world. It is hard for readers like me to read about people living in subcultures where that is not uncommon and not perceived as being that bad.

Kenny is the hero of the book as well as the main character. You feel when the story is over that she will be fine and she will be well. She does find good things and goodness, her best friend, her friend's dad, some good teachers, photography, and her love for Daphne. It is heart-wrenching getting there but worth the read. The only thing is... this book haunted me. As a high school librarian I met many students over the years who were prickly, seemed to be negative, guarded, and operated on the edge of being disrespectful. I, like many, would lose patience with them and perhaps just didn't understand that they needed to be “seen” in a different way.

Here is what I really didn't like – the cover of my hard copy book where Kenny is shown in a dress which she never wore, sitting on the porch of the duplex with the wrong house number on the door! Grrrr. I hate that kind of messed up detail.

Monday, May 20, 2013

THE ROAD – Cormac McCarthy


This 2007 winner of the Pulitzer prize is dark and murky, hard, and yet tender. Apparently I simply cannot stop reading post-apocalyptic fiction and I continue to marvel at a good story presented to me by great authors. We will discuss this work on May 20 at the Jay County Public Library and I am almost certain that the very proper good ladies of group will mostly not like it, and perhaps there will be only a few of us who finished it. Update to follow this post after group. That being noted, I loved it and read it twice.

It is disconcerting always to begin a book by an author who uses no quotation marks and haphazardly interjects apostrophes, but one soon gets used to it and it doesn't keep the reader from knowing what is being said or who is speaking. However, I would like to know the reasoning for this style of writing.

I was hooked on page one with the line, “Like Pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of a granitic beast.” For pilgrims they are and the “granitic beast” is actually the post apocalyptic world they are stuck in. My first sticky note was on page 5, “They set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire,” and already I knew that the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it has happened, years have gone by in a type of nuclear winter, and the boy and his father are seeking people and refuge. Reading a book with sparse wording so full of emotion and clear imagery is fun. I admire a writer that can do that so well. It is clear to me why so many say The Road is too dark, too depressing, and yes even boring. Those readers are looking for escape, or plot driven intrigue, or intricate characters. But it is also good to read for the nugget of wisdom hidden in a good story, and a book to make you wonder about what it would be like if the end did come, without codling the reader and making things come out too easily or unbelievably. That is what usually happens in YA lit and we should be beyond that.

McCarthy makes the reader afraid, and makes one able to anticipate what is going to be down the road when the boy and his father trek on. There are cannibals, marauders, dead carcasses aplenty, much dirty rain, and many cold nights. The father teaches the boy lessons as they travel and also tries sometimes to shelter him from the most ugly or evil for as he says more than once in this book, “...the things you put in our head are there forever.” One can see and feel the textures and colors, and even feel the cold through McCarthy's creative use of language like, “cauterized terrain,” “vestibular calculations,” and “cold autistic dark.”

There are warm scenes also showing the total love and devotion of a parent for a child and a belief that goodness is there but you may have to search for it. Honestly, I don't know why so many people shy away from the tale noir. I find a great dark tale fascinating.