A pair by Joanne Harris

I have previously extolled the virtues of Joanne Harris, so no one should be surprised that I picked up two more of her books:  Holy Fools and Coastliners.  I had Powell’s credit, so I went to ‘Harris’ on the shelf and grabbed the cheapest two that I hadn’t already read.  I did not realize that they were actually linked to each other – and I even read them in the proper order!

Holy Fools was my favorite of the two.  Set in the 17th century in a French nunnery on a secluded island, it examines love, evil, miracles, organized religion (the institution vs. the belief system) and being true to yourself.  This story is told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Juliette, a gypsy & itinerant player who hides away in a nunnery with her young daughter after a brush with the law.  Regardless of whether you like her or agree with her, Juliette is a vivid and real character that is hard to stop reading about.

The world as I see it is one where there are few easy answers, and knowing yourself and being true to that self offer the only chance of retaining one’s sanity and still being happy.  Juliette loves the wrong man, makes poor decisions and doesn’t always do the right thing – but loves with her whole heart, and cares for all of the people she loves to the very best of her not-inconsiderable abilities.  When put in an impossible situation, she strays pretty far outside the box to protect her friends and her daughter, and even punish the bad guys a little.  The ending is left up to the reader, no easy answers and no plot tied up in a neat package – another preference of mine. No one’s story has a precise beginning or ending, and I prefer fiction that knows how to end a book without a metaphorical ‘they lived happily ever after.’  This one didn’t have the emphasis on food that her other books had (at least, the ones I’ve read), but the mood is powerfully rendered and hard to leave behind.

Coastliners might have been a fine book if I hadn’t been comparing it to Harris’s other work. It certainly is not a bad book, by any stretch.  Good characters, setting was unique, interesting and well-written, plot was effective. I think what was missing – for me, at least – was a powerful theme.  All of Harris’s other books have a guiding focus that uses every plot twist, character flaw and detail of setting to support her message.  In contrast, Coastliners read more like a great summer read without too much depth to it.  Of course, in comparison to a true ‘summer read’ kind of book (I’m thinking of something like Evanovich or Shopaholic-type reads) this one is plenty deep. Mado is a young woman returning to the island she called home as a child after her mother dies.  Her reclusive father still lives there, and she’s soon caught up in the drama of the haves vs. the have-nots on the island. My favorite thing about the book?  Harris has two nuns that were inspired by Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls!  I love it when the strange pieces of my life intersect.

I am currently revisiting my obsession with The Wheel of Time, after reading the latest book.  Suddenly, not spending so much time on the computer…

Master James

I discovered The Master by Colm Toibin in a Powell’s newsletter.  It won several awards and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize (likely because of it is just the kind of book us lit-geeks love – books about literary figures that are written by powerfully articulate authors) and it was on sale when I saw it on the shelf.  The Master is a fictional account of Henry James’ life from his own perspective.  Henry James, of course, is a huge figure in Modern fiction, a prolific author of novels as well as literary criticism.  His most popluar works are probably The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of a Dove (both of which I have seen film adaptations of, neither of which I enjoyed very much).

If you had asked me – before I read this book – where Henry James was from, I would have said he was from England.  And if you’d asked me if he was gay, I would told you that I’d heard nothing to the contrary (but I would never rule it out, of course).  Oscar Wilde – everyone (read: English geeks) knows he was gay; Henry James, never heard a whisper.  Well, James was American – and gay.  However, I often confuse Henry James and James Joyce in my head – so I’m hardly a good person to ask these questions of.

James is portrayed as a character on the edge of, but rarely involved in, many experiences and events.  He had two brothers who fought in the American Civil War. He was born and raised in America but spent time in Europe as a child and young adult and eventually made his home there.  He never married but had close women friends and was closest to his sister of all his siblings.  He was welcomed in high society in Britain and Europe as an artist but was not truly included in that strata. He was attracted to men but was not able to truly pursue that as a lifestyle.  He was a lauded author but not actually well-read by the general public.

The Master is engaging and well-written, but doesn’t paint Henry James as a very likable character, at least in my eyes.  Well, not truly unlikeable, but probably not someone you’d want as a close friend or lover.  He seems to have a difficult time actually experiencing any moment that he’s in.  Rather, he removes himself as much as possible from what is happening around him and only later allows himself to feel one way or the other about it.  We probably all know people like this, but few count them as close friends.  Some might think it horrible that he used his personal experiences as fodder for fiction, but that doesn’t really bother me. What bothers me is that he only seems to really be able to connect with people through fiction, either his actual work or the stories he tells only to himself.  So any happiness he might give or receive is difficult, if not impossible.  Instead, he hurts the people he cares most about and doesn’t seem to realize it until after they’ve died and it’s too late to do anything about it.  Such a sad way to live.

Strange coincidence – I read this book right after Sandra Day O’Connor’s book, and Henry James was a friend of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (as young men and throughout their lives).  It even implies – and again, this is a work of fiction based on facts, not a biography of established facts – that James and Holmes had a one-time sexual encounter during their friendship.

Toibin is clearly a skilled writer (a master, one might say) who can create authentic atmosphere and character for people, places and eras.  He made the character of James interesting and sympathetic without ignoring his negative traits.  I will surely be looking for other books by Toibin.  If you are looking for an enjoyable way to learn more about Henry James, artists in the early modern period, American ex-patriots, gay men in the Modern period, the English relationship with Ireland, American views on the Civil War, or the thought processes of conflicted people – all of these and more can be found here.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For- Alice Walker

It’s one of those things that reminds me that there is mystery in the universe.  One of two epigrams in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?  “It was the best of times , it was the worst of times, etc. ”  A Tale of Two Cities. Now, I understand that AToTC is a popular, widely quoted book. But what are the odds that a book of essays published in 2006 by an African-American woman would quote a Victorian white guy’s book from the mid-1800s that I just finished reading?  Not a scary coincidence, but still strange.

This book is a collection of essays. The title refers to a theme that runs thru this book (the line is from a poem written by June Jordan, the other epigram) that we may be the generation that has all of the skills and tools to put an end to the horrors still left on Earth – war, poverty, ignorance, discrimination and the like.  And that is where the to connection to AToTC lies.  There was war, death and upheaval all around, but it was the result of a desire to end oppression and suffering.  Alice Walker sees our generation as uniquely qualified to end them once and for all.

Alice Walker is skilled at finding unusual metaphors for common themes, mostly those dealing with race and caring for the planet.  When giving a commencement speech, she refers to the I Ching.  In a talk given to an alliance of midwives, she invokes a Vietnamese poet, Native American poetry, the work of an M.D., some of her own poetry and essays, and discussions of Osama bin Laden and the war in Iraq. And somehow everything comes together as a whole that is new and illuminating.

One of the reasons I love Walker is because she believes in things powerfully and is not afraid to express an unpopular opinion. And many of the things she believes in are things I believe in, and it seems that in each new book I find something new that we have in common.  In this collection, she talks about honoring ‘the pause’ – those times in life when something big has  been accomplished or is changing, and the need to sit still with that change rather than just reacting (my paraphrasing).  Apparently a part of the I Ching encourages this as well – so it’s not just me and her.  I used to be a very reactive person, and as a result I did things that didn’t really make me happy, and people who knew me could easily push me into doing what they wanted by telling me not to do it.  I’ve mostly gotten rid of this button in my life, but it still pops up in times of stress.  If you can’t pause and reflect on your decision, then it is difficult to figure out what all the choices are and which one is right for you at any particular moment in your life.  These are the reasons I read Walker, to remind me that the choice is always mine, and the results are mine as well.

I read her daughter’s memoir Black White Jewish, also well-written. It does not gloss over how her mother’s preoccupations were not always a good thing for her young daughter.  But I still find comfort and inspiration from Alice’s words – maybe because she doesn’t always make the right decision any more than I do.  I used to read Living By the Word regularly to help me remember that I was not the only person trying to live by the guidance of the voice in the back of her head.  My favorite novel of hers is The Temple of My Familiar, a book about people trying to live a life that feels true to themselves and the interconnected nature of human life.

When I read Walker, I have to remind myself occasionally that, when she speaks at length of the horrors visited on the underprivileged in the past and present, that she is not just speaking of displaced Africans and their descendents, but also Native Americans, women and, yes, poor Caucasians.    Her focus is often on the African-American experience – understandably so – but she was also poor, and is still a woman and has experienced discrimination because of all of them.

For me, it’s clear that her writing is as much therapy for her as anything else, and the fact that the rest of us want to read it or hear her speak about her life is just a bonus. It allows her to live a life that makes her happy and support herself at the same time. And isn’t that what we all want?