How Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” inspired an astoundingly beautiful book full of warfare, miracles, and ugly realities
In the “Afterword” of Geraldine Brooks’s book The Secret Chord–the title is drawn from Leonard Cohen’s song, published, I think, in 1984 or so–she states: “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium. Outside of the pages of the Bible, however, David has left little trace. A single engraving uncovered at Tel Dan mentions his house. Some buildings of the Second Iron Age period might have been associated with a leader of his stature. But I tend to agree with Duff Cooper, who concluded that David must have actually existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” (p. 350)
Brooks also mentions that it was her sons who inspired her to write the book as well, the younger by his energy in scouring the Biblical countryside with her where she was exploring, the elder by taking up the harp and later playing a version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for his bar mitzvah. This inspiration led her to her studies of other Biblical scholars’ works on David, his dynasty, his reign, the uniting of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the eventual passing of the united kingdom to Solomon in his youth, at which point the book ends, on an after all triumphal note, and after the recounting of much suffering.
When I say that there is much suffering in the book, and ugliness, it is also because there is a sense of much truth in it, whatever one decides about the actual details and whether or not they are accurate. It is poetic truth, even in the moments when the description is of warriors being disemboweled, the visionary Natan (Nathan, David’s prophet) in the grips of an inspired fit, a fratricide or the incestuous rape which called it forth, the relations amongst David and his many wives and concubines, David’s passionate and dangerous–because traitorous to King Shaul (Saul)–relationship with Yonatan (Jonathan) and many other realities which we imagine that we have curbed, modernized, controlled, or accepted today, but which from all we know of the news from the papers, are still realities that we often prefer not to see. This picture of a kingship calls them back into vivid relief.
As to David’s being a “flawed hero,” there is no question that he is so at least in this retelling; the matter is dealt with very craftily and well by having different people narrate their experiences of him to Natan, who is charged by David to gather the truth about him into one account. Some of the people concerned have kind thoughts, some have bitter and angry thoughts, there are even some humorous, bawdy, and mixed narrations. All of this helps paint a picture of a fascinatingly complex, savage, cunning, and adept ruler, who yet according to this account fears his God and listens when his prophet speaks. And by the end of the book, there is retribution more than enough to go around.
The book is exceedingly well-balanced, well-written, and totally gripping, no matter what you thought you knew about David before. Even if you are not inclined to be interested in Biblical accounts, the book stands on its own as a work of extremely accomplished fictionalized biography, and is not at all “churchy.” In fact, I suspect the churchy would tend to avoid it like the plague. To round matters off, let me say that this is easily the best book I have read in probably the last 5-10 years, if memory serves me correctly, and I used to read rather a lot. Why not give it a try? It is available on some library websites, and should be easily accessible in bookstores, though it is a few years old. Though the research Brooks did is considerable, and is listed in the back with the rest of the “Afterword,” you needn’t fear being intimidated by too much bookishness or academic verbiage, if that should be your aversion: the book, the subject, and the story are all immensely accessible. Shadowoperator
Though I suppose I shouldn’t ordinarily assume that I still have readers, after having been away for so long from blogging (but I see on my statistics page that you few faithful are still reading my old posts), this morning I have taken down my novel, Dot and Charlie (A Novel About Love, Sexism, and Infidelity) because it is the source manuscript for a number of poems I wrote to insert in it, which are now going to be published separately in a poetic manuscript. This takedown is for the purpose of not violating the poetic copyright; I expect to be able to reinsert the manuscript of the novel in its entirety as soon as all matters are concluded with the publication of the poetry (3 books in 1).
This is all I have to offer for today, but it’s the start of a bright New Year, which hasn’t started off so very brightly politically here in one sense, in that there have been major disruptions and protests against lawful passage into a new presidency in Washington, D.C. recently. Still, we are all hopeful here in the U.S. that our new President Biden and Vice-President Harris and their cohorts can remedy the ills this nation has suffered, and that others who have doubted it or them will come to see that they are intending and doing well and good. As for the rest of the globe, we have to hope for it as well that it will come back to health and well-being, especially with the virus vaccines now available increasingly to so many. All the best to you remaining from the holiday seasons, and take care. I hope to let you know more when I know it, and possibly can start posting again more frequently, as soon as I finish up some of my crafting projects and have the time to read and review books again (I look forward to finding this time again before too long). Happy New Year!
Shadowoperator (Victoria L Bennett)
When is a teenager more than a usual teen, and how are rulers formed? “Mithra: Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah”
I ask my readers to bear with me as I cope with the eccentricities and idiotic difficulties of the new editing systems now preferred by WordPress instead of the Classic editing form. Any more rational company would charge the paid-for plans for the amount of choice selection now forced upon the ordinary (unpaid) user like me, who would vastly prefer the old system of HTML editing by easy access to editing choices. Instead, WordPress has installed a complicated system of choices for editing on the ordinary user, and saved the lovely, simple, ordinary “Classic” editing format for their “business” users for another two years. I wouldn’t ordinarily inject formatting problems in a literary post, except for the incorrect typing, above, of the title of the wonderful book I am reviewing: full book titles are supposed to be put in italics, not in quotation marks, but even finding the system to use for a simple italic form involves one in learning the complete system of new formatting options. It should read, Mithra: Stone Sorceress Hidden Pharoah, but it was not to be. At any rate, that bit of business being concluded (and I hope the author, J. M. Rattenbury, will forgive the apparent citing of a short story when his book is a fine, more than 300-page YA novel), I get down to the more important “meat” of my discussion (flies around the table thus already having been swatted).
As many of you may remember, I have earlier mentioned that I was the proofreader of a bracing and energetic YA novel that was to be published late this summer. Well, it has made its appearance, and I would like to recommend it now to the public as the excellent historical fantasy it is. In its basic outline, it follows the adventures of a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old young woman in Egypt, who suddenly is made aware of her own royal status at the same time as she is deprived of all the adults she had previously depended upon who could guide her steps or help her achieve adulthood safely. Instead, she is forced to make do with the help of a slightly older young Roman soldier and a young boy, at a time when Rome was the predator upon Egypt for the sake of its grain shipments.
Mithra, it turns out, is a Ptolemy, and is the granddaughter of Queen Cleopatra, which leaves her open to the animosity and conquest-hungry behavior of the Roman Emperor, though it helps ensure her popularity with the average Egyptian citizens of her country, who are tired of the Roman occupation and Roman brutality and overreaching qualities. Along with the young Roman soldier, Lucius Crassus, who has been jailed by his own officers for refusing to kill Mithra, she travels by ship up the Nile from her home city of Alexandria to the area around Memphis and the Temple in Saqqara, where she hopes to find a way of solidifying her hold on the country through a mystical rite known as the worship of the Apis Bull, the symbol of the god Lord Ptah. She must deal with the accidental absence of Lucius and depend only upon the help of Inteb, the young boy travelling with her, after a while, when it seems that Lucius has met his mortal match. But although she is alone in some senses, she has with her a magical amulet named Sopdet, which gives her power over stone and metal, and has besides her growing adulation by the ordinary people of her country.
This book is a book for all those who like to ponder what would have happened if….if Cleopatra had left an heir, if they themselves as young adults had been in Mithra’s situation, if it were possible actually to be the possessors of a magical amulet, if the whole situation around them depended upon their own luck and skill at learning about people. But it’s also a book for older people who want to experience what their teenagers like to read about, what they daydream about, what heroic experiences they themselves still fantasize about in their more mature achievement-oriented lives. That is, it’s a family book, which could be read aloud as an evening’s entertainment on various evenings to amuse young and old. As an adventure story, it shares some of the better qualities of the great adventure and travel stories, like The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, The True Game Series, Dune, and others which have coming-of-age themes in them.
The book is available from booksellers in the United States and Britain at least, possibly elsewhere worldwide, but it is also available online from Amazon.com for $12.99, and Amazon.uk for 9.99 GBP (under the author’s name, J. M. Rattenbury), Mithra, and on Kindle. As well, it is possible to acquire it directly from the UK publisher at https://olympiapublishers.com/books/mithra, ISBN number 978-78830-744-4. For those in the Boston area (where the author hails from) it is also increasingly available and can be requested at the public libraries. I have deliberately not mentioned the ending, as it has an intriguing sort of cliffhanger at the end, not in the interests of posing resolution difficulties for the audience, I don’t think, but merely in the interests of taking a new view of the ancient world. Though the age of the protagonist is 14-15, I would recommend this book for anyone from a mature twelve-year old to a curious twenty-year old, or for any parents or family members interested in sharing the adventure. Shadowoperator
Vanity is one of the main ways you can decipher that you’ve been touched by something, one of the main symptoms of an emotional or psychological injury, and while this can sometimes be good, and a sign of personal growth, at other times, it just goes on and on in its own way, until we decide to forget about whatever troubles us and “live for the moment,” as we are often told to do.
But when personal vanity meets personal vanity in one and the same person, it’s a real battle royale, since there are two different blocking figures standing in the way in two different directions, Vanity One (as we’ll call her) on the left-hand side, and Vanity Two (as we’ll call her) on the right-hand side. What can one do then, to prevent being squeezed to death between the two of them as they become overweening, or to prevent being torn apart between the two of them as they pull in different directions?
All this fooferal is simply to announce for my readers and commenters that I finally stopped shilly-shallying (a dialectal expression which originally probably was derived from “shall I, shall I not”). I finally deletetd all the posts which contained my poems, deleted the page which contained my first complete book of poems, and started preparing to be published in print/ebook form, I hope by early next summer some time. The “take down” was necessary in order to avoid copyright violations, and all in all, though I hated losing the comments that people had made on my site in response to the poems (since they unavoidably come down too when the posts come down), it was a necessary stage of personal growth, which if I want to, I am free to feel has made me more mature (there’s got to be some way of getting the opportunity to pat myself on the back, right? Vanity Three is waiting eagerly in the wings).
I will wait to announce the final information for book accessibility and purchase until things are actually completed, and will on this site try to get back to reviewing and commenting on books and articles or just upon life, when the notion strikes me and I feel there may be a use for the comments I make. So, while I apologize for having to delete both the poems, if you enjoyed them, and your responses (and had a hard struggle with myself about losing the material), it was necessary in order to avoid getting torn apart by the two vanities to choose a side, and stick with it. I hope you will still comment and I welcome you to my site for that. I see by my stats that a lot of you are still reading my older articles and reviews, which is all to the good, and soothes all my vanities, but I do hope in the coming months to add some new items to the list. Thanks for your patronage and tolerance, and stay as happy and well as you can during this hard time of the pandemic, when everyone is feeling a bit out of sorts personally and professionally, whether they have had contact with the Covid-19 virus or not. Shadowoperator (Victoria L. Bennett)
Since the 1950’s, when America’s consciousness of race relations began to be raised willy-nilly (a good thing, one must see, long overdue), books on the topic of race have proliferated exponentially, from both black and white authors. My topic today centers around three books by three white female authors, and examines some ways in which the three books differ.
Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help perhaps attained the highest degree of somewhat mixed attention and notoriety because it not only drew excellent actors to it on screen, but also because it attracted a lawsuit, which hit the news as well. In the story set in the 1960’s, a Southern-raised white woman, nicknamed Skeeter, has her awareness of her black nanny’s life reality altered forever by getting better acquainted with her from an adult perspective rather than from that of a dependent child. She tries to help the nanny, Aibilene, and another black woman, Minny, by engaging in writing a book from their reminiscences of working for white families in the South. The entire community of black employees ends up contributing bits and pieces of detail, but this book is somewhat disappointing because as has often been said of other efforts of the kind, it has the sort of kindness that comes from noblesse oblige, from giving a hand up rather than offering a hand across. It’s a feel-good book in many ways, centering its disapproval on obvious villains and acts rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of the many tiny ways in which everyone can use lessons in cultural awareness. The lawsuit in real life which arose from this publication came about because even though Stockett apparently pledged herself not to use one of the contributor’s names (for this book has a meta-dialogue going on, in that it was researched in somewhat the same way that the fictional book was), she merely spelled it differently (fictional character, Aibilene, real-life nursemaid of her brother Robert, Ablene), with the result that Ablene Cooper was advised even by the brother to sue Stockett. Ms. Cooper apparently found the characterizations of her in the book insulting and embarrassing. All in all, this book is one stage, perhaps the first and most elementary, that a reader might travel on the road to awareness.
Another book takes a similar tack, but handles the entire relationship between the white child and her black caretaker more delicately (this time the white protagonist is a fourteen-year-old instead of being Skeeter’s home-from-college age). The child is instrumental in getting her black nanny, Rosaleen, out of a degrading job with the girl’s father and busting her out of a jail cell where she is being kept, beaten and weak, for a small offense and for defending herself against people trying to keep her from voting. Still, somehow, this child’s version of noblesse oblige is less insulting than that in the previous book, at least in the mind of this reader, precisely because the character is a child and cannot be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of adult discourse. In this book, The Secret Life of Bees, the child has a sense of natural justice regarding her black companion rather like that of Huckleberry Finn in that eponymous novel, as opposed to the high-handedness of Tom Sawyer. By a series of fortunate flukes and a sort of natural spiritual instinct, the two women find their way to the household of a group of black sisters with a connection to the girl’s dead mother, and learn the intricacies of the art of bee-keeping. This book maintains as well a spiritual element, in which the black women and the girl practice the worship of a Black Madonna, represented by a ship’s masthead they once came into possession of. This book is set in the 1960’s as well (in South Carolina), but the conflicts that arise from racial tensions and stresses are the background for the girl’s coming-of-age; Sue Monk Kidd has wisely chosen to center the novel closely to the subject of gradually evolving maturity and womanhood, and the child becomes a more mature adolescent in the company of her black saviors. This book is more affirmative of black politics and awareness because it reflects the reality that a young girl/teenager is more likely to be taken care of by a group of supportive women than she would be, or would be able to be, for them. The sisters are represented as caring for their own, and capable of caring for others, and as the centers of a vibrant and deeply spiritual community. This is perhaps the second evolution of awareness a person might pass through on the way to a more mature understanding of race relations.
The third book, Small Great Things, is a novel which takes place in contemporary times, in a hospital in Connecticut. The title is taken from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” I find it the most maturely conceived and executed of the three novels. First of all, the author took a notable risk: she is white, but chose to write not only from the perspective of a black labor and delivery nurse in a hospital, but also took the risk of entering the minds of a group of white supremacists, thus tackling the unenviable task of attempting to practice the old adage “to understand all, is to forgive all,” which is of course far from being literally true, but which has a germ of truth. She uses that germ and the huge overall injustice of what happens to the black nurse together, to show that though our situation is perilous, with difficulties complicating things from both sides of the racial divide, we can still sometimes win out over some of the problems we face. This book is a challenge to simplicity, particularly simplicities of the sort which arise in The Help. The nurse is attempting to take care of a white baby who comes under her care in the birthing unit of the hospital, but when the white supremacist parents see her, they demand that no black person be alloted to care for their child. The conflict comes for Ruth Jefferson (the nurse) when the baby needs to be resuscitated, and she is the sole responsible person available: does she go ahead and try to save the baby, or abide by the parents’ expressed and written instructions for no black person to touch the baby? She hesitates, and as another adage says, and as it is true for at least a while in the novel, “She who hesitates is lost.” The rest of the novel occupies itself with how the follow-up lawsuit against her (which deprives her of her job) affects her, and how her son begins to act out in response to his mother’s troubles, how her friends (and apparent friends) react, and what happens as well in the family of white supremacists. There is a certain amount of back story for both sides, which deepens and enriches our understanding of the whole conflict. As well, Ruth Jefferson is not pictured as a saint; she has her own moments of feeling petty or vengeful, which are truthfully related for the audience in the fictional courtroom as well as on the meta-level of the book, so that the courtroom scene isn’t an easy giveaway to one side or the other. For me, this book represents the best of the three books, with Sue Monk Kidd’s book coming in a good second. Stockett’s book, a book very popular with a lot of book clubs, just as the other two are, may certainly be considered a place to start in raising one’s own consciousness, the more especially if one has not read a lot of fictionalized accounts of race relations. I feel that if someone has not read these books before, now is the time to take advantage of being able to buy one’s books, of one’s Kindle account, of the cheaper prices of second-hand books, or of one’s local library offerings, to read them and sort out one’s own impressions. Keeping up with factual accounts is of course paramount, but fiction has a way of sneaking in that’s more subtle, and it can offer a range of suppositions and positions that can help people feel what their neighbors “across the way” feel, see what can be seen from other vantage points, and of course change their attitudes of prejudice. Fiction, in its subtlety, also can show us just how insidious such prejudice is, and we can see its trail where we never thought to be on its track. If I’m going to spend the post spouting adages, then surely the last should be “Know thyself,” which speaks to our ability to know the ways in which we ourselves, however enlightened we think we may be on either side of any situation of racial divide, fall short, with an eye to correcting ourselves. That’s all for today, and just in case you think I’m too solemn today, you should know that all three of these books are quite lively and not ponderous and preachy, though there are certain things worth preaching about, certainly. Shadowoperator
Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help, and What You Will Get Out of It
For many, many people, the GoFundMe campaign site is familiar only as a site which helps collect funds for scholars, people who need operations, children who are suffering from some disease which is costly to treat, or homeless people who need shelter. Some of the requests are even done in memoriam of some person or group of people, to help their survivors out in a time of grief and need. All of these more than worthy causes deserve your attention and a contribution, however small it might be. But it can also be uplifting to donate to the beginning of a creative enterprise which will bring interest, encouragement, and joy to the minds of young adults who encounter it, and to this end I am asking for your donation, however small, to the campaign organized by a friend of mine, John Rattenbury, for the novel now operating under the working title of Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah.
As you may or may not be aware, self-publishing even under the aegis of a publisher who covers many costs can be fraught with expense and financial setbacks, and it is to avoid these pitfalls that John is asking for your free will donation to his goal of raising roughly $2000 to cover cover art and initial publication costs. But I feel that probably at this point, you are beginning to wonder, “Yes, but what’s in it for me, other than a momentary feel-good experience? When if ever will I see the results of my effort to be helpful?” To the end of answering these questions, I am going to provide a couple of responses which I hope will encourage you to join this worthy effort and contribute whatever you can to John’s drive.
Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah is the story of a teenage girl, an Egyptian citizen of dual descent (she is also Persian), who learns to deal with challenges in a world which seems determined to underestimate her and her ability to influence affairs, whether small or world class events. It is a historical fantasy in the sense that it retraces not necessarily what actually happened, but what could have happened, in the Eastern world soon after the death of Cleopatra, always accepting that Mithra, the heroine, has a magical stone, thought to be behind some of the efforts to build the pyramids, which helps her and strengthens her considerable powers of personality. She and Lucius, a friend and cohort from a Roman legion whom she meets up with by accident and forms a lasting friendship with, make a perilous journey along the Nile to escape the Romans pursuing them, whom they both have reason to fear. This is a tale full of adventure and magic which both intrigues the imagination and provokes the support of young people everywhere in their search for justice and equal treatment of themselves and those whom they champion. Though Mithra relies upon her magical stone as she travels along the Nile, the resounding “message” (which doesn’t detract from the “fun” of reading the book) is that loyalty, personal fortitude, and persistence outweigh evil-doing and brutality and that however young, every person can make a positive difference in the world around them, with or without the fascinating powers of magic and mystery (which, however, also abound in the book to compel our interest).
As to when you may expect to see this book on shelves and on sites for purchase, John has been encouraged by the fact that his prospective publisher finds the book already well-written and compelling, which we hope will lessen the time needed for its finalization and presentation to the public. If you are interested in contributing to the fundraising for the publication of this book, please visit this link: Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help and What You Will Get Out of It
The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, is a curious and thoughtful book, and a bit of a category-defying one, about how religion affects two different women, distantly related, and how the conflicts about religion play out in the society around them. It bills itself on the back cover as “part detective story, part historical fiction,” but that is a bit of a misnomer. The historical fiction part isn’t about a famous person, as most historical fictions are traditionally–but maybe that’s a good thing, as in the huge five-volume non-fiction compendium called The History of Private Life, who knows? At any rate, Ella Turner, who pursues her family history in alternate chapters, eventually manages to “touch base” through time with her distant ancestress, Isabelle du Moulin, while living in France with her own husband, and getting to know the French people and the French countryside.
The book is a sort of a mystery as well, and a love story, because not only must Ella accept and come to terms with a large degree of loss in terms of history, but she also falls in love while in France (spoiler alert) with someone other than her husband, and this has certain consequences.
The two women’s stories shadow and reflect upon each other’s conflicts, Isabelle’s as a Huguenot in changing France, hunted by Catholic enemies, accepting a far less than perfect life with a brutal husband, and Ella’s, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to value her or appreciate her differences, but gives her the famous French cold shoulder.
Actually, to say that the two women’s stories are similar is an understatement, because some of the same sensations, exact experiences, and thoughts occur to the two of them in a sort of spooky and extra-sensory fashion, as if Isabelle were speaking to her descendant from the grave. And the grave is concerned in more than one way, though I won’t give that matter away.
A lot of men might think that this is a book mostly for women, but merely because it has a female character in the lead (who is also a midwife) and deals with some haunting and emotional experiences are not reasons to dismiss it as not fit to read for half of the human race. In fact, a lot of men might be improved by a reading of this book, in the sense that they might become more sensitized to some of the ways women think of and process historical data, the more personal way some women choose to interpret data, and the like.
And the picture of a contemporary small French town is yet another reason to reach for this book. Like small towns everywhere, these are gossipy, close-knit, and somewhat homogenous, but loveable in a lot of their characteristics, as Ella comes to find. I hope you will pick up this book soon and enjoy it as much as I did. For additional reading by this author, you might pick up Girl With a Pearl Earring or Falling Angels.
There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one. This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity. It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book. I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised. Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.” I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved. Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.
And this is the point: we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute. Maugham is none of that in this book. We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage. Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first. To begin at the beginning:
Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle. She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame. His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household. So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed. And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen. The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you. He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.” So far so good.
But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers. In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to. They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy. When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign. In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone. But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work. With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group. So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try. Again, it doesn’t work. They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin. They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church. They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head: it works, and she is healed.
The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego. They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.
Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself. A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.
A Record of Birth and Death, and a History of a Community–Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year”
Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes. She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you. She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles. Bird by Bird. Travelling Mercies. Help Thanks Wow. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.
No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott. She writes from the heart for everyone. She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship. She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same. She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child. And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding: she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges. And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year. You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all. Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,: my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it. Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works. But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!
There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness. In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray). Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.
How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up. One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense. And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion. A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.
I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen. That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more. I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice. I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient). Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.
A good many years ago now, when I was an awkward adolescent making timid but determined steps forward in an avocation of being culturally aware, there was a sponsorship group known as the Community Concert Association which made it possible for moderately well-known musical artists, soloists, and dancers or dance troupes to tour our complacent little backwater of a town. Our town would possibly have been omitted from this flattering arrangement if it had been one whit smaller, more rural, or deeper in the surrounding countryside. There was also the fact that it was the county seat, and had a number of professional people from larger areas and more prestigious educational systems living and raising families in what they thought of as a “safe” and unremarkable place. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who, though a widow, thought it important to make such performance viewing opportunities available to me, and so she set aside part of her small income, stretching it enough to cover my attendance at the season of concerts and ballets each year. It was just a taste of intellectual freedom and enjoyment, just enough to set my appetites for more as I grew older. I can still remember sitting in a crowd composed mainly of adult couples up in the balcony, where I had chosen to sit so that I could see better in the crowded high school auditorium. The seats were not ranked according to preferential spots as they are in most performances; it was first-come, first-served, and the balcony meant that I didn’t have to look over heads or miss the echoes of the music that floated up into the overarching ceiling.
I can still remember, and in fact except for a blurred recollection of many a night taken together, one night stands out as the symbolic equivalent of the whole endeavor, which took place during the 1970’s, when the entire area was burgeoning and growing with cultural and monetary progress, which only began to recede again once the mid-80’s were over. But let me concern myself with this one night, which stands out for me as the epitome of grace and accomplishment, though initiated by a failure, of sorts. It’s a shame that I didn’t know at the time just how strongly this impression would stay with me, and that I didn’t preserve the dance program, or remember the male dancer’s name. But perhaps by consecrating his memory in a stray paragraph or two, I have more accurately or feelingly preserved his moments with us on stage, which just dropping a name or a company moniker would not do, as that would only commemorate his gift to us for those who are knowledgeable enough to be acquainted with his or their work, and would neglect to foster awareness of just what he gave to me and others that night for everyone to understand.
The first few performances of the evening were by small ensembles of dancers, round dances and pas de deux and other such exhibitions of talent. And don’t get me wrong, all of those artists, as far as I can recall, were quite accomplished. But they were in no way remarkable each from the other, but were just as good as they were supposed to be. They filled the bill, as it were. Finally, as the last performance of the evening, the single male dancer who was going to dance alone came out to thunderous applause, which was possibly because he was known to be someone more important than the other dancers had been, the troupe’s manager, for example, or possibly because the county audience had more or less had enough for one evening, and was looking forward to the last moments of the night’s performance. He took his place on stage, struck a pose, and waited. And waited. There was a moment’s shrill squawk from backstage, then a tearing sound, then a wail. Still composed, he broke formation, stepped to the side of the curtain, and spoke with someone behind the scenes. We saw, I saw, him hesitate for just a split second before something in his manner seemed to state, “Right. Okay. Well, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that. We’ll have to go ahead.” As it turned out–and as he stepped forward to the footlights to explain to us in broken English heavily accented with Russian, or Slavic overtones–the tape had broken which contained his music. Seemingly unfazed by this, he proposed to us that he would dance without the music. There was a slight murmur from the crowd, presumably because now there was nothing to tap one’s foot to, and such a small-town area as this was not overly fond of male dancers as it was. The immodestly tight tights, and all that. Male friends of mine who were taking lessons in the only dance studio in town had already encountered such prejudices. But from his first leap high in the air, the audience seemed to waver, and change its mind: he was dancing in time to something which he could hear and we couldn’t, quite obviously. We watched him and marveled as he swept and swooped and cast himself upward like a reverse waterfall, and then came down again on both feet, and then started the whole thing all over again, with what seemed like a magical ability to keep pace with some hidden music. And in fact, that’s what he was doing: showing an extraordinary degree of preparation for moments of grace when he could have gone away and protested that someone or something he counted on had failed him. When he was eventually done, he struck a strong, masculine, and thoroughly accomplished pose on stage and let us look at him, the man who could suggest musical tones just by imagining them clearly enough. To my great delight, the audience loved him. When the troupe came out, group by group, he got the largest round of applause; his own troupe applauded him as well.
I hesitate to draw a moral from a tale like this, because it seems preachy and overly goody-goody. Suffice it to say, that when my own Ph.D. instructors told me about what my task in passing a Ph.D. exam ultimately consisted in, and they used the expression “Grace under pressure,” I knew what they meant, whether I can be said to have succeeded in showing it or not. It meant that I was going to have to leap high whether there was any music for me or not, and that the audience expected to be pleased whether or not I was feeling harmonious at the time. I needed to rely, that is, on hearing inner harmonies, and seeking out whatever grace I had come equipped with already.
On a lighter note, I was also privileged to see yet another exhibition of grace under pressure from a beautiful troupe of ballet dancers, mostly female, who were onstage up in Toronto during the time I attended graduate school there. They had been passing round and round on stage in a circle, doing parts of Swan Lake, when suddenly amidst the exhibitions of fluttering tutus and pointing toes there struck a huge clunking noise. The noise itself detracted from the visual elements, though it wasn’t easy to see what had caused it. The ballerinas continued to circle, some dropping out at the wings, some swooshing into the line from the same spots, and all circling close and closer to the front of the stage. Imagine the audience’s surprise when, just as the twelfth or so ballerina bent gracefully over her own toes, she also picked up a huge semi-circular object and carried it out of the round when next she exited! There was some nervous laughter as the watchers realized that the ballerinas had been dancing around a heavy weight which had fallen from the ceiling, which could have struck or tripped up any of them, and yet, since it didn’t, they had chosen the neatest, most audience-friendly way of removing it so that their fellows wouldn’t fall over it. Again, there’s no fail-safe remedy for such moments, such unpredictable moments, but there are people who manage to incorporate the grace notes and arpeggios of chance into their routines, and those people, to my way of thinking, make their own sort of music and sound their own sorts of rhythm for the universe.
We all have moments when we are in tune with something we can’t name, which yet fills us with a nameless sort of confidence and then leaves again before we can get its calling card or take its number down, something which is too busy in the universe to allow any of us to hog it. But we can prepare to greet it on those odd occasions when it walks up, slaps us on the back, gets our suggestions, and makes off again while we run off to tell the other so-and-sos in our life whom we met. As far as I know, the best way of being prepared for it to call again is to celebrate it when it comes, because as we know, everyone likes to hear himself or herself mentioned with approval; and who’s to say that grace isn’t like the rest of us, waiting to be approved of and mollified? In any case, rejoicing is rare enough, and we can all rejoice together when we witness an instant of grace, our own or someone else’s. And together we can hear the music of what was intended for us, even if it sometimes seems, as it sometimes does, that the music has been borne away, the tape rent, the trumpeter silenced. The music is ours, from the time we make it ours until it accompanies us through the final performance, and we strike the last post and wait for applause, the music that, though others may not be able to hear it, we can imagine as we dance, and can set our steps to, all the way to the very end.
©4/21/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett
(P.S. to my readers–This is my essay which was inspired by a reading of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.)