AN ARC, AN ARC, MY KINGDOM FOR AN ARC

LAUREN GROLL

Now, I seldom, maybe almost never, talk much

about the arc of a story. Even books I don’t much care for have one, for good or ill, and I tend to concentrate on character story in terms of reader impact. But I recently read two novels in a row that are very disappointing in the arc department. Not a frequent happening. It’s sort of liking spotting a dodo bird, then realizing it’s a mirage. Normal approach would be to treat them separately, first one, then the other, but their deficiencies are to similar, I’d rather clutch them together in my hot little fist and toss them into the nearest bin together. Unfortunately, the printed page is by nature linear, so first comes Lauren Groff,  it says here, is a two-time national book award finalist. I assume her other works are far superior to The Matrix because I respect that particular award and would hate to think the quality has sunk to this novel. I bought it because it sounded fascinating, a 12th century tale about a middle daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became a power-wielding nun and created a fascinating abbey shorn entirely of men. Sounds like a sure winner. Prose style is good. Characters are vivid. What could go wrong? Read on.

Hernan Diaz sets his In The Distance primarily in the American west in the gold rush era. Main character is Swedish, who is shipwrecked with his brother on the coast of South America (I think) and is saddled with the task of finding his brother, from whom he became separated in the wreck. Speaking no English, the only knowledge of his new-found land is that his brother was headed to New York, so he figures he should go there to connect. Not a bad setup, especially if, like me, you’re particularly interested in that time and place. See my novels, The Maxwell Vendetta, The Second Vendetta, Bonita, and the upcoming Swindle in Sawtooth Valley if you don’t believe me. I believe all three of these are far, far superior to either of the books I’m describing here.

And that’s enough said in general about these two tales. Obviously, their settings are disparate, but what they have in common are the distinct lack of what I refer to in the title of this article. Aristotle (How often do I quote him? Once again, seldom.) said a well-told tale needs a beginning, middle and an end. The arc. Not to be pedantic about it. I can point to plenty of stories whose progression are not exactly clean. The Sound and The Fury is one sometimes-baffling example. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is anything but linear. In the volumes under consideration, we have beginnings, certainly. Perhaps we have middles, but I don’t think you can have an ending unless there’s an ending. Matrix has no end except that the main character (at last!) dies, demonstrating nothing except perhaps that all human works–male or female–are pretty much in vain by the end. Beyond that statement, which doesn’t require hours of reading to arrive at. I admit to not quite finishing In the Distance, and I don’t usually quit on a book. Being an author myself, I feel disloyal laying aside the best efforts of another toiler in the literary vineyards. But once again, the main character trundles along from one crisis to another without much sense of progress. Does he reunite with his brother? That’s probably where the book is headed, but I don’t much know nor care.

As for this piece? At least it is now coming to a stop. You judge whether the stop qualifies as an ending.

HERNAN DIAZ

 

WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DIE

       Because I could not stop for death

It was Emily Dickinson who wrote that. I thought of her lines a couple of nights ago when we gathered to remember, to laugh and pray and praise our dear friend and colleague, Peter. He was a young man who, as the phrase goes, "died too soon." And I've been pondering what that phrase means. Is there a time when we (or someone) can judge--"All right. You're old enough now. This far. No farther."
                       
He kindly stopped for me –

Surely, Peter's passing was a shock and well short of the biblical "three score and ten" we are supposedly allotted. But then, what is "too soon"? Abraham Lincoln was 56 when he was assassinated. JFK was ten years short of that. Martin Luther King, Jr. 39.We'd probably agree, on these,  but what about all those others? That guy Adolph, for example? Was he too soon or too late? But those are exemplars, not answers. 
One way to put it might be this: "Too young" means way too soon to accomplish what a person might have accomplished had they been able to continue. Or  too soon for the rest of us (jealously) fully to treasure their gifts.  
I think that's a rather poor summation. But then, I'm not qualified to judge these things even though I seem to insist writing about them. When, I ask, should you to call a halt and when should you keep things going? Beats me. All I can do is love and remember and be grateful for the time we  had with him here below.

         Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
         Feels shorter than the Day
         I first surmised the Horses' Heads
         Were toward Eternity – 

AIRPORT FANTASY

 

An airport you’d think was set up as a place for transportation, and I mean the swiftest known on earth outside rockets and spaceships. But add it all up, the time, I mean, getting to and from an airport, sitting in airport waiting for a plane, for a delayed plane, a meal you’re paying 200% for, waiting for a rental or a bus or some other snailish form ground-wheeled transport, and you have to conclude that an airport is nothing more than a way station set up to block or at least delay your ability to take your butt from one place to another. Or maybe a storage locker for aluminum Da Vinci feathered creatures to rest up before or after some arduous journey from hither to yon.

Today there’s lots of glass to look through more taller and wider than anything I might need but still not enough to see what I really want which is what happened to put me here or what is going to happen when I leave. For I will have to eventually leave I think. There was a movie once about a guy trapped in an airport. I don’t remember much about it except that it wasn’t a situation a person would want to be stuck in.

But, I remind myself, I’m not stuck. I have options. I have a ticket in my pocket, which I could use to board one of those leap-into-the-sky machines. Or I could cash it in, get a refund, and walk out to somewhere else. Or I could skip the part about cashing anything in and just walk out.

But where would go?

I don’t know that any more than I knew it when I bought this ticket to—where was it again?—Boise, Idaho. Weird name Boise. Boy—see. Or is it Boyz—ee? I looked it up once, but those things never stick in my mind. The name itself has something to do with wood or trees. None of these things mean a thing to me or my life, so why would I gravitate toward this place? I must have laid down my cash because of some inner urge I was seeking to understand or to discover.

At any rate, now I don’t know why I started all this or why and figure I might as well give it all up and go back to what I was doing before.

Which was what, exactly?

And that was what she always said, Gretchen, that is. That she loved me and all and we had great times together but that she needed someone she could stick with and she could never stick with someone as aimless as I am. No goals, no direction. It’s as if she said I had no past or future, was born into the moment, whatever that moment was, and never moved beyond it.

She’s right, of course. But I always figured what was wrong with that? I love the moments, the moments of every day. What else is there to need?

Well that didn’t go with Gretchen, so she is now off somewhere else in some other moment that doesn’t include me. And as for me, it looks like I’m headed to Boise, or will be shortly, unless I cash in my ticket, or don’t, or just walk away, or just wander around the airport till someone apprehends me or interrogates me or arrests me. Then will I know why I’m here?

I don’t know. Real question is do I really care why I’m here? Or anywhere else for that matter?

These are questions to be asked as Falstaff says in some play or another as if it made or makes a difference.

I seem to recall that in that play, it doesn’t make a difference, and I seem to remember there is something about blackberries in that line, though what shakespeare was doing writing about blackberries or what Falstaff was doing talking about them I can’t imagine.

Maybe if I’d been less aimless (or more aimful?) about things, I’d know the answer. Or care.

As it stands, I am standing in a Southwest Airlines line, boarding pass number C22 and I guess I’m going to shuffle my way through this door that looks like it belongs in a bank vault and find out what I’m doing here. Or there.

I might even care.

 

BARBARA LEE SPEAKS FOR ME (AND FOR THEE)

I am just now sitting down at the computer after having watched the new film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, and I confess to being a bit awestruck. Lee has been my congressional representative much of my politically aware life. In 1998 She succeeded the iconic Ron Dellums as the 13th district representative to congress  and has since become an icon herself. What I took away from the film was not so much information about her life or her ideas, but a sense of the experience of the woman herself.

I was treated earlier in the week to some biographical information via Joe Garofoli’s It’s All Political podcast on the subject. Before that I knew next to nothing about her early life, about her struggles with poverty and an abusive relationship. And, happily, there was her recent joyous wedding. If anyone deserves that, she absolutely does. Certainly others will glean much from those facts; but  for me, who was here during all of her political life (though I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have), it was the  experience of vicariously reliving her growth amid enormously challenging  circumstances, that I found so compelling.

From her courageous and unique vote against the much-abused post-9/11 war powers resolution (And hasn’t that been proven right over and over and over again on that one?) to her tireless work on behalf of her constituents– especially the unfranchised (children) and the disenfranchised (women and the incarcerated) and pandemic (Aids) victims, she has been a champion of values that represent everyone and everything American.

Shirley Chisolm

When she took her seat, she was virtually the only black woman in congress past or present. Dellums had his own challenges, of course, but at least he was male, and he was not a single parent. Lee had her own (to overuse the word) iconic predecessor in Shirley Chisolm, but Chisolm was gone by the time Barbara came along, so hers was a lonely position to say the least. Not that she started from exactly zero. Her work as a staffer for Dellums gave her some Washington D.C. presence, but not at all a prestigious one.

So what we have here is a hard working politician with compassion and integrity who has become a premiere voice for the downtrodden, one who can take her remarkable life and integrate her experience into legislation and actions that benefit us all. And she did it without seeking the star-power publicity and status that could easily have been hers. But then she wouldn’t be Barbara Lee, would she? She’s almost an anti-politician in perhaps the most political of eras. How fortunate I feel to be one of her followers.

CANCUN BOOGIE

WHITE SANDS, BLUE SEA, AND RESORT POLLUTION

The first family reunion since the last family reunion is now actually in full production here in all-inclusive color and sound. Last reunion was in October–an annual affair featuring a hayride in the vicinity of Sally and Bill’s farm in Floyd Knobbs Indiana. This one–fast forward to January–is in honor of Sally’s 70th birthday.

Probably most of you have had at least one experience at an all-inclusive resort. You pay big money up front, then everything else you eat, drink, and get merry over is “free.” That’s what we’re doing here at the Hyatt Ziva. We had a pretty decent flight down–4.5 hours non-stop. A bit of drama at the beginning with some health issues that were taken care of with a minimum of fuss and bother.

SATURDAY–On arrival, sat down immediately to one of those “free” dinners. Quite delicious, actually. Decent wine, even though certain of our party disagreed, thought we should be imbibing the $60.00/bottle variety instead of the (thumbs down) house edition.

SUNAY–This morning we were able to catalogue the items left behind. Nothing fatal, except maybe the sunglasses. I purchased a pedestrian pair for an exorbitant price because I didn’t feel like bartering. But I got them. Highlight of the day so far was the dolphin show. Our room looks out on the dolphin pool, and quite a number of the party–various ages–got to swim with the mammals, who were rewarded with fish.

Debits so far–incessant bass beat and yelling uncomprehendables over a SHUT UP, ASSHOLE, p.a. system. Had a pretty good walk. Only a little lost. One needs that. That was Saturday.

TODAY Sunday (yesterday, I keep reminding myself. Things tend to slurry together.) was rather different. Slept late–for us, being 8:45. Mixing and mingling and reacquainting. Getting some acquaintance with newest whom we’d not had a chance to interact with much in October.

MONDAY–This is the day of the signature event of the event–the “surprise” banquet at day’s end. Lots of conversation and organization around all that. Myself, I started this blog. Sally’s birthday blog by me, which has more than a tinge of sadness around it because of circumstances surrounding my own sister Sally who shares a birthdate with Susanne’s younger sister (also Sally) on January 24. Sally (my younger sister, now called Samantha) also has a January 24 birthday.

But but let the sad thoughts pass and let the good times roll. We eat drink and be merry, all (how many? 17?) of us. We went to bed relatively early and happy and what was that dark rim around the moon? Did you see it? Not I

TUESDAY–

Son-in-law Randy loves to seek out new projects and explore new frontiers. One of his current enterprises is scuba diving. I have a bit of resentment stored up about this. Not because of him, but because of me. I had the notion that in my retirement I would take up diving. My first crack at that came shortly after I joined the ranks of the unemployable and, coincidentally enough, ended up here in Cancun for my first try at it. I went to a booth for beginner lessons. Warning sign. “No asthmatics.” Certain female family members of the group thought that should apply to me. I didn’t agree, so I did the deceptive thing–appeared to agree, then sneaked behind their backs to start my Jacques Costeau career. We began–logically enough–in a swimming pool. I donned my rented gear, followed all instructions, and couldn’t breath. Kind of a basic requirement flunked right there. So, now, while Randy is out there doing deep dives and night dives and god knows what else I’m stuck with the occasional snorkel.

In the meantime, we thought we’d go to the French restaurant which is one of the eat drink and be merry choices. However, there is a dress code that appeared to contain directions that leave us out. Me out. Long dress pants, no tennis shoes, a couple of other things. on the way to another restaurant, we presented ourselves at the French restaurant (La Bastille) to see if we could negotiate something. Turned out what we thought would disqualify us would be fine, so we’re going to give it a shot. Doesn’t work? Hey, they’re not the only game in town.

[In the end, we got distracted by happy hour and never even tried the French restaurant. Ended up at a sort of Benihaha place instead. Entertaining and palatable if not exactly gourmet.]

HERE IS A SUMMARY PARAGRAPH ON SUNDAY THE 15TH BECAUSE I DIDN’T KEEP MY ONCE-A-DAY COMMITMENT.

After the Japanese restaurant experience/event–guess you can’t just go to an activity any more. It has to be an experience or an event–we returned to find a coupon for a massage. We’d wanted one, but the price was so outrageous we decided to pass. Now we changed our minds and booked for the next day.

BTW, found the coupons while opening the patio doors on returning to our rooms. We always had to open the doors to warm up the room. The A/C was so cold everywhere inside that only the outside air would heat things up.

Very fine massage. Gentle touches (I usually like things a bit more vigorous) and hot towels.

All that was left was a nice non-stop home. Hotel-to-airport transportation was flawless. We got escorted through every bureaucratic step right up to security, which went swimmingly. Flight on time and a bit bumpy, but nothing serious.

Then came the SFO adventure. The taxi driver suggested we take a route over san mateo bridge instead of bay bridge. We don’t go that way and rejected the offer. Two hours later the 40 minute drive from SFO to home had taken more than twice its usual. To add to the horrors, one of our people discovered a cup of pee–yes, pee–in the back seat, which spilled on herself and belongings. We assume the driver had long waits for fares and needed relief. Pretty disgusting.

Another nice–not exactly a surprise–complication was that the deluge of decades had been continuing while we were gone. Basement flooded. But that’s another tale. Thus ends the Cancun Boogie. Bet you can’t wait for more.

FADING RESOLUTIONS

Well, not fading exactly, but not thriving either. Deep dark secrets here. I’m wasting time here, and at 81 years of age I don’t have time to waste, and yet, I am not meeting goals. I want to finish this damned novel, Nita, the third in the Bonita series. The world needs me to finish it, else they will never know what happened to my beloved Bonita’s daughter. And they do need to know. Action cures fear and procrastination.

So, Lord, or whoever, is in charge, At least I got me post for the day done. That’s one goal met, anyhow.

Help me to get at least three single-spaced pages typed today.

Will let you [meaning me, myself, and I] know how I do.

[maybe even fix the toilet?]

NEEDING A NEW YEAR–23

A THANK YOU NOTE TO AARON

Okay, let’s start with this. Appropriate because I’ve been trying to bring it off for 6 months or so. It’s a homage to Aaron Davidman and his words at the Peter Foley tribute/celebration of life gathering in June. Aaron gave one of his wonderful end-of life tributes at the event (“Don’t know if it’s a welcome distinction to be noted for eulogies,” he said at one point.) He had some nice things to say about me, and our relationship over the years. It took me a long time to come up with what’s below, but I think it’s the best I’m going to be able to do, so here goes:

Words are a struggle

sometimes

they pour forth

sometimes

they heal

sometimes

take us soaring beyond ourselves

for always they are more

than what is seen

or heard

or understood

in the mind

or even the heart

and

sometimes

they fly away

sometimes

fly back

sometimes

emerge

sometimes

merge

in the soul

of whoever hears speaks reads them

and live on

Aaron Davidman–actor, director, writer, good friend

Peter Foley and wife Kate Chisolm. Kate is spearheading the effort to raise funds for the “Peter Foley” project, dedicated to preserving and promoting Peter’s music. The web page s only a click away:

https://www.peterfoleymusic.org/about-peter

LISTENING FOR THAT SECRET CHORD

“They say there was a secret chord

that David played to please the Lord”–Leonard Cohen

If there was indeed such a chord, Geraldine Brooks has gone a long way toward discovering. The breadth and depth of Brooks’ literary explorations is stunning. I have written reviews of three other of her books and am working my way through a fourth. She’s carried me from ante-bellum horse racing to the Civil War and now to Deep BCE biblical history.

GERALDINE BROOKS

David has for a long time been one of my favorite historical characters because he is such a hodge-podge of contradictions. A pious and holy man, a musician, a warrior, a hypocrite, a savage betrayer of all that is sacred, a revered ancestor of one of the most revered prophets in the history of religion. He sent to death the husband of one of his rape victims. He danced naked into Jerusalem like a shameless heathen. He is one of the mightiest of generals. And yet, he composed some of the most beautiful poetry in the history of language. Doubtless if we had access to the actual music of those hymns, the melodies would have been just as wondrous.

It is said that God often chooses the weakest among us to do his greatest work. Thus Moses needed Aaron. Martin Luther King was a plagiarizer and a womanizer. LBJ, racist and political brute brought about our greatest USA civil rights actions. Not that these are quite of David’s stature or breadth of talent. But you get the point.

In many ways, Brooks has written a biography of a towering historical figure. It is told through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, who according to legend was the only one who dared tell David the truth, who labeled him to his face a murderer in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, among other things. Still he couldn’t keep his master on the straight and narrow. Yet brooks has composed also a portrait of a profoundly ugly human being, one capable of brutalizing and betraying family and friends for the sake of his own power. She has also dropped us into a historical period cram full of unimaginable misogyny and viciousness. The Old Testament is replete with cruelty, but in Brooks biblical world, even Nazi cruelty would have a hard time competing.

Nevertheless, in Brooks’ hands with we have the spectacle of sacred and profane existing not only side by side, but integrated into a whole human capable of a full range of every possible human greatness and depravity.

Look out for your soul. As Nathan is warning, someone is coming to get it.

HORSE OF A VERY DIFFERENT COLOR

A strange title, I thought, but it turned out to be incredibly appropriate. I’d expect something like “The horse that. . .” or “The 19th Century Secretariat . . ” or something to point me in some direction or another. There is a particular horse in question, but you don’t know that at first. In fact, the first animal in the narrative is an elephant. Actually, an elephant skull. We are in the company of a lady named Jess, who works as a caretaker of sorts at the Smithsonian museum of natural history. It takes a while and a lot of unwrapping to discover that the skull is not that of an elephant, but of a horse. At this point, we believe that it will be Jess who leads us through the tale of this horse skull. I was looking forward to the story, since it would be my first foray into a novel about an equine skull. Jess investigates the provenance of this hunk of bone. She has the skull dated and discovers an anomaly in the cranium. The investigation eventually leads to a whole passel facts and folks that keeps readers spellbound throughout.

Geraldine Brooks

It’s hard to do an in-depth review of this book without spoilers, but I’ll do my best. Along with the story of Jess, her romance, and various other characters, we follow the life of the horse whose hide once covered the skull we discovered in the first few pages. Jess’s investigation leads her from present time all the way back to the antebellum south. We focus on an enslaved black jockey and his trainer-father. It isn’t long before all the racial strife and civil war conflicts imaginable boil around us readers. And very, very deftly, Brooks brings the past into the present. It shows us how completely idiotic it is to think that that war and those conflicts are behind us.

And all this because some humans become enamored of and tangled up with Horse. Horse does have a name, and it is rewarding to find what it is and where it came from. Read the novel and see if I’m not right. In the meantime, enjoy a fine novel by a very fine writer.