This unusual novel features identical twin sisters, inseparable as children, living in a small town in rural Louisiana. The town’s founder, a light skinned Black man, insisted on maintaining a certain character for the town–only light skinned Black people should live there. At sixteen the sisters run away to New Orleans where they ultimately choose diametrically opposed lives, one passing as white, marrying a wealthy white man who knows nothing of her true past. In spite of the deception and lies, years later their lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. The novel not only addresses themes of race but also sexual identity and who we are as individuals and a country.
One Book a Week-9: “Flights”, Olga Tokarczuk
How to describe this unusual novel? Here’s a possible list:
-No over all plot.
-Several stories about individuals scattered throughout, e.g. read about a person and event, then many pages later back to that person and the consequences of the event(s).
-Short philosophical musings/vignettes interspersed here and there. One reviewer counted 116.
-One common theme relates to the title, Flights, in that in most of the “stories” people are traveling or have traveled on quests for “meaning” or escape from a cumbersome reality.
I learned the following from reading this book:
-Per his request Chopin’s heart was taken from his body. His body was buried in Paris but his sister secretly transported his heart in a jar of special preservation liquid back to Poland, the land of his birth.
-A Dutch anatomist discovered the Achilles tendon after dissecting his own amputated leg.
-Plastination is the method used in anatomy to preserve bodies and body parts. Several characters in the book make their living or are obsessed with this process.
This is not a book for those who prefer relaxing reading or for the “faint of heart”.
Note: The author won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2018. This book won the Mann Booker for translated literature from all over earth in 2018. I plan to read another of her books–have now read two of them–but since the other one in English is 1000 pages long rather guess it might take more than a week for me to read it. This is actually the 11th book I have read to date in 2023 but did not start blogging about them so two are missing in the blog posts,
One Book a Week-7: “Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir” by Natasha Trethewey
Published in 2020, and a must read for anyone who cares about abused women, their rights, and how law enforcement often fails them, this book by Trethewey, 2007 Pulitzer Poetry Price winner for “Native Guard”, voices her struggle to deal with her mother’s untimely death. When Trethewey was nineteen and in college, her mother was shot and killed by her step-father after the police officer assigned to protect her mother left his post early. Additionally, the memoir details the effects of the racism she experienced as the child of a white father and black mother (married when it was illegal where they lived) in Mississippi and later in Atlanta in the 1970s and 80s before her mother’s murder in 1985. The book gets its title from the street on which her mother lived when she was murdered. Through this memoir Trethewey discusses how her parent’s divorce, her mother’s remarriage to an angry, abusive man, and her mother’s murder has informed her life and affected the enduring love she holds for her mother.
One Book a Week-2
One book a week? To date this year it has been more like 3-4, depending on the book and week. I wrote reviews for four books today on Goodreads including The Sea of Tranquility, Little Fires Everywhere, An Imaginary Life, The Woman They Could Not Silence. I mentioned the first one in my last post.
I noticed that Little Fires Everywhere is now a series, streaming. I will not watch it because it is one of the few books that made me cry. I rarely cry. Is it worth reading? Yes. I view it as recommended reading for parents. How do you treat your child who is different, the child who is not how you want your child to be? Is conforming the best way to live? And at what cost? Is a poor minority child better off with wealthy parents from a different ethnicity who can provide everything?
Next I read a non-fiction book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, The Shocking Story Of A Woman Who Dared To Fight Back, by Kate Moore. Apparently I did not know as much about women’s history in the US as I had thought. This is the true story of the life of Elizabeth Packard. Here are some of the things I learned:
- In the mid 1800s if a woman was married, her husband could place her in a mental asylum as insane and she could do nothing about it even if she was sane. She could not get out even if relatives and friends tried to come to her rescue.
- Her husband could confiscate all her property and do with it whatever he pleased. She and everything she owned now belonged to him.
- People in mental asylums were terrorized and treated with methods now considered even illegal treatment for actual terrorists, e.g. water boarding.
- A common, accepted treatment for “difficult” and “emotional” women was clitoridectomies, female genital mutilation. Prominent psychiatrists viewed female genitalia as the cause of female insanity. Dr. Isaac Brown, a prominent London surgeon, stated that it was easy to cure female insanity, just cut off her clitoris. This was practiced in both the US and England.
Elizabeth Packard’s husband placed her in an asylum because she disagreed with his religious views and her outgoing nature. This book details her life in the decades she struggled to be released from the asylum and her struggles to make life better for those who were placed in asylums. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of women in the 1800s and the treatment of those deemed insane.
An Old Bowl and the Silver Spoon
My Aunt Julia, Mom’s sister, lived to 94. She loved fine antique china, linens, and French furniture. The ordinary bowl in this photo defies those inclinations, its origins a mystery. How did she acquire such a plain bowl and why? I will never know. In spite of its age, cracks, dull finish, I have used it every morning for decades. It is my breakfast bowl, filled with yogurt or cottage cheese with dried blueberries and a handful of walnuts, or, occasionally, oatmeal.
The spoon, on the other hand, is not ordinary, but rather good silver from the set Dad gave Mom on their first wedding anniversary. Unlike Mom, who saved her good silver for holidays and special occasions, I use these spoons daily and think of her unconditional love, strong will, determination, and love for beauty.
A few years ago Uno Mundo Press published my second book, a book of poems. Reviewers say it is a memoir. Oddly, that was not the plan; in retrospect, it seems apt. The poems’ topics are not chronological but rather via topic with quotations before each topic as a sort of introduction. For the foreseeable future, while I continue writing another book, I will post one poem from the book every Sunday.
The book begins with this quotation:
“Do something scandalous to give your descendants something
to talk about when you are gone.” Vanessa Talbot
The first section begins with this quote by Judith Jameson, the famous dancer and choreographer:
“I always tell my dancers.
You are not defined by your fingertips,
or the top of you head,
or the bottom of your feet.
You are defined by you.
You are the expanse.
You are the infinity.”
The first poem in the book goes like this:
I Have Lived
Depression, sad days, melancholy.
At 26, I said, “To hell with this!
You control you life, live it!”
I tried forbidden liaisons, trained horses,
Traveled around the world, a cobra wrapped around my neck,
Walked the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir,
Stood before the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi,
Watched the Taj Mahal reflected in still waters,
Walked the streets of Katmandu,
Talked to monks at Shwedagon Pagoda,
Bargained with sticks in dirt, math our only common language,
Downed raw turtle eggs in Costa Rica,
Danced on table tops, sang “Adonai”,
Roamed empty roads across the Navaho Nation,
Divorced four times,
Raised two talented children.
I have lived, running on the rim of wonder.
Gypsies, Deserts, and Random Thoughts on a Cold Sunday Morning
In less than 15 hours, it has dropped from low 70s to 9 here on my canyon rim–one of the joys of living in the Panhandle of Texas where a mere change in wind direction can dictate the weather. Yesterday afternoon, I was helping my daughter clean her back yard and ready the ground for planting some shrubs and a tree and now 60 degrees colder. This type of drastic weather change has occurred repeatedly in the last few weeks. Perhaps it has muddled my brain which keeps hopping back and forth from this to that. First, the “this”.
Mostly, I read Latin American, American Indian, and Middle Eastern authors. When I recently stopped by the library, I could find none of these that I had not already read so I picked up a book from a Dutch author of whom I had never previously heard, Margriet de Moor. The book, a novel, The Duke of Egypt, tells the tale of a Gypsy man who meets this young Dutch woman. They marry and lead a quite unusual life: in the winter he lives with her on the family horse farm; in summer he leaves and lives with the Gypsies, wandering around Europe in their caravans. When he is “home” with her, in the evenings he tells her tales of his Gypsy family and friends, centuries of history. These tales shocked me: centuries of discrimination, hangings–even Gypsy women hanged publicly for no other reason than they happened to be Gypsy in the wrong country at the wrong time, sick children whom no doctor would treat, starvation, driven from country to country. Of course, like many people I have heard stories about Gypsies: as a child my grandmother telling me that Gypsies stole other people’s children, a friend telling me the police said it was Gypsies when someone stole some silverware from her house, but I never really believed it. Reading this book caused me to delve a bit more into Gypsy/Roma history only to learn even more tales of horror. Hitler and his Nazis hated Gypsies almost as much as they hated Jews. It is estimated that the Nazis sent at least ten per cent of the Gypsy population in Europe to the gas chamber. On the positive side, I learned that many Gypsies were hired by people who raised horses to help them with their horse care because Gypsies were considered expert horse trainers and traders. In addition, some hired them for their music to play for social events and festivals.
When several friends came over for dinner, I mentioned the book to them and my shock. I wondered aloud as to why so many hated the Gypsies. The general response was this: Gypsies consistently live as they wish and refuse to follow the social norms of the rest of the population. They refuse to settle down and live in one place, they enjoy life, dancing, drinking, roaming. If you refuse to live like everyone else, the rest of the world will punish you.
Then I moved on to the book I am reading now, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide To The Future Of The Earth. I am only on page 27 of 327, and already I have learned: “Deserts generate most of the world’s airborne dust, contributing to a global migration of surface minerals. Dust blowing from the southern Sahara is the single largest producer of iron for the mineral-poor soils of the Amazon in South America. Half of this dust originates in the Bodele Depression north of Lake Chad, which produces about one hundred storms a year, each sending 40,000 tons of dust across the Atlantic to South America.” And a bit further in the book: much of the fertile High Plains here in the US (Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, basically from Canada to Mexico) sit on top of a desert, e.g. the Sand Hills. Currently, these sand hills remain stabilized by miles and miles of grass–our native short grass steppe. It does not take much to imagine what would occur if drought continues and the grass disappears. Once desertification occurs as it is now occurring in many places in the world, e.g. the Sahel, deserts consume. Jonathan Overpeck, a leading climate researcher claims, “…we are significantly underestimating the severity of drought we could get in the future.” He predicts many places now inhabited will become uninhabitable unless we initiate drastic changes in our water management. People will be forced to move from places of little to no water to places “wherever there is no desert”. He adds, “We are contributing enough change to the planet that we are moving toward more droughts instead of away from them.” In the Sahel alone it is estimated that 500 million people will have to move to survive. I think over this information and about the current drought here and look at the beautiful place where I write and live, wondering will it be habitable in one hundred years.
Now on to the “that”: grateful I live here in the United States in spite of all our “problems”. I could have been born in Ukraine, Syria, Central Aftican Republic, any of those places experiencing turmoil, fear, religious hatred, genocide, torture–the list goes on and on. Instead here I am happy, relatively safe, warm in spite of the 9 degrees outside, well fed–you get the picture.
Going Home Again
Last weekend I returned to the county where I grew up and the family farms in Andrew and Holt County, Missouri. It had been at least six years since I had returned to the place my great grandfather homesteaded over a hundred years ago. Strangers live in the house where I grew up and my father lived 80 of his 90 years. On the site where he was born, only the old carriage house still stands, a sentinel to a lifestyle long gone. Repeatedly, I tried to write a poem about all this, but have not been able to do so–perhaps the experience is still too close. Additionally, for the first time, I attended my high school reunion and chatted with individuals I had not seen since I was 18. Decades truly change people; I would have recognized only a couple without the name tags. Northwest Missouri this year presents an intense emerald landscape. Having travelled there from the semi-arid land where I now live, I suffered “green” shock. And tree shock. The Panhandle of Texas grows few large trees outside of towns and cities. Even with my very ordinary camera, these photographs capture the beauty I witnessed and family memories I want to remember and share with my children and friends.
This is the house where I grew up and Dad lived 80 years. The building in the foreground was built during the depression. Before it was put to its final farm use–for hogs and chickens at various times in my childhood–Dad held dances here. Because of prohibition, the sheriff always sent someone to make sure no illegal alcohol consumption occurred.
The old carriage house, just south of the site where a large house stood during my childhood, still stands. The stained glass transom window hanging in my own house now and an etched glass hunting scene are all that remain of the house where Dad lived as a small child. Emptiness and raccoons finally destroyed it. When he gave me the windows over thirty years ago, Dad said it was impossible to keep an empty house in good shape forever.
At the age of 18, my great grandfather, Gottlieb Werth, came to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Swiss army which hired out soldiers as mercenaries. My father told me what his mother told him: my father’s mother stood on the roof of her house in Switzerland and waved until she could no longer see her son; she never saw him again. This photograph shows his grave in the Fillmore, Missouri, cemetery.
Nearby, perhaps fifty feet away, lay the graves of Mom and Dad and my grandparents. I never knew this grandmother; she died long before I was born. My grandfather died when I small and sadly I do not remember him. The family stories tell that he taught me to talk at a very early age, nine months, because he held me on his lap and told me about everything occurring outside the windows. My first word was “tractor”.
Another family story tells that this grandfather walked to Andrew County, Missouri, from Illinois. Andrew County’s rolls are full of Lightles. It remains the only place I have ever lived where I am not the only person with my last name in the phone book. Dad claimed there would be even more Lightles except for the fact that several brothers died when they tried to walk across the Nodaway River on winter ice and it broke. They all drowned.
Dad built the large pond in this photo and stocked it with fish. Until a few years ago when someone bought the land and destroyed all the trees, a small forest of ancient oaks, black walnuts, and chestnuts grew between the house and pond. Dad kept it mowed and groomed–a park. Sadness filled me when I saw the trees all gone.
All my childhood we attended Antioch Christian Church. Although I could not see it from my house, if I walked across the road to where the carriage house still stands, it looms across the distance. Potlucks were a very popular activity here. Mom made such fabulous pies that everyone would get her pie first to make sure they got a piece.
The sign in front of the Andrew County Courthouse. This county remains filled with people of Swiss descent to the point they have celebrations commemorating their heritage. The following include photos of the courthouse and some of the restored buildings on the courthouse square.
Several reasons exist for my returning “home” at this time, including attending my high school reunion for the first time. The following photos show several people I had not seen since I was 18, including Melanie Eisiminger, who was the valedictorian when I was salutatorian so many years ago, and Jim Ahillen and his lovely wife. Melanie is in the middle.
My mother grew up in Holt County, Missouri, in the town of Fortesque and her family farm next to the Missouri River still remains mostly in the family. In my childhood, Fortesque was still relatively prosperous. Now fewer than fifty people live there. The farm lays right next to the Missouri River. I walked down the levee and took photos of this mighty river, the Rulo, Nebraska bridge, and the farm. If I turned one direction, I faced the bluffs where White Cloud, Kansas, resides and the other direction is Nebraska.
Between the Missouri River and the bluffs lays one of the largest wildlife refuges in the United States, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. It is especially important for migratory birds, bald eagles, wading birds, and various mammals. One can drive the new road ten miles through it to observe birds in particular but also other species. The huge cottonwoods and oaks fascinated me. It appears I had totally forgotten just how grand these trees can grow if given adequate water. In one area I drove for at least four miles through a tree tunnel, then several raptors screamed at me while I tried to photograph them, and finally I managed to photograph a red winged black bird and geese. After several days of semi constant rain, it felt fabulous to experience a perfect sunny day for my tiny trip to the wild.
After I left Squaw Creek, I drove to Mound City to find the graves of the Duke side of my family. The last time I had been there was when we buried my aunt, mother’s sister. I also remember going with her there more than twenty years ago. I recalled the general location but had to hike around a bit to find them. Because Grandfather Duke was much older than Grandmother, I never knew him. Aunt Julia came to visit me at least once a year until she neared ninety and could no longer travel easily. She never married and remained admirably independent until she became too feeble to get around on her own.
The E stands for Evelyn. She was named after a woman Grandmother worked for on the White Cloud Reservation, Evelyn Le Clair. On my previous visit to Missouri, I went to the White Cloud Reservation and inquired about the Le Clairs but had been told they had moved away a long time ago. Grandmother had to work because her father went blind and could no longer work. His name was Kaiser and he, too, came from Switzerland. The following is the gravestone of my great grandmother. Mother frequently recited sayings from her, e.g. you can’t tell by the looks of a frog how far he can leap.
In my childhood, we cut across the country side to go from the Andrew County farm where we lived to Grandmother’s Holt County farm. I remained unsure whether I could recall exactly how to do this but tried and met with success, feeling very happy with myself, remembering something I had not accomplished in decades. Because it had rained six inches the previous week, unlike last year during the drought, knee high grass grew along the backroads, corn was coming up, ponds were full. I drove by the houses of people I remember from childhood, not knowing who lived there any more except a few. People change, life proceeds, but the country still holds endless promise and beauty. Finally, with a few hours left before flying back to Texas, I stopped by a new area north of Kansas City, Briarwood, strolled around, visited an excellent natural food market, ate a rather exotic lunch, and took a few photographs of huge new houses and the Kansas City skyline.
Everyone asked me to bring some rain back to the Panhandle of Texas. It has rained three times since I returned home. A coincidence, of course, but very welcome.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Here I go again taking classes. This one is Part III of the series on modern women poets taught by Lorraine Mejia-Green through the Story Circle Network. We read poems by a variety of women and use their works and related assignments for inspiration. This week features Julia Alvarez and even though I have already read all her novels, etc. and a book of prose poetry, the selected poems are new to me. It seems I always take a different route from a lot of the others enrolled in the class. The following show cases draft two of my first assignment:
I keep coming to this part
where I’m happy
95 per cent of the time.
It’s my story
“Variety is the Spice of Life.”
Yes, but true.
Lovers-I lost count
Activist in “love” with
Che and other South American
Feminist for forty years
Up to maybe four careers.
Big city apartments
Old houses by the bay
Bricks with arched windows
A tree lined street.
Can I settle?
For what, with whom, where?
Variety is the Spice of Life.
Week two of the prose poetry class:
“It is a blessing to live out your destino.” Julia Alvarez
Long ago, in the hot summer, I could hear the corn grow at night with the windows open in northwest Missouri. Rolling hills of corn and soybeans still clad the dark brown earth left by glaciers thousands of years ago. So much time has gone without my returning to this land: colleges in different states, marriages, jobs in cities.
My father lived ninety years on this farm his Swiss grandfather homesteaded. He yearned for distant lands, to explore, to learn. He loved the West, endless space, rugged mountains, canyonlands, wildness. When it snowed too much for school, he loaded us in the car, turned wheelies, and headed for Kansas City. His yearning to be a doctor died when very young–the only child left at home, caring for a diabetic mother, recovering from a failed youthful marriage before he met Mom.
He gave me his love of questioning, traveling, reading, trying the untried, a pride in the land and work, and a sense of wonder. This night, after shoveling out from a dangerous blizzard, I sit in front of a fire, write on a Western canyon rim, look at his parade saddle and the photo of the farm for which he felt so much pride, and cry: my destino.