Following Elizabeth Berg

Berg

I discovered Elizabeth Berg’s Durable Goods Early in the early 1990’s, a tough story of an Army brat, Katie Nash, who was twelve years old and lonely and a little bewildered. Spunky, too, though. I read it and enjoyed it.

I was at home then, for the most part—at home with a long-awaited toddler who was showing some signs of being a challenge. I gave up teaching to be an at-home mom, and I loved the being-at-home. But family finances implored, “A little work here, please?”

I thought perhaps I could earn some money writing, which was a long-held, hazily formed dream, anyway. So I got a copy of Writer’s Market, and I sent off several tentative essays, and to my surprise, some of them sold—for whopping fees like 15 or 25 dollars. And I applied for and was awarded a gig as a columnist for the local weekly paper. My first column, I remember, was about local female clergy on Valentine’s day.

So I was feeling a little like a journalist when I saw Berg’s article in a magazine I read, something like Family, I think, and I felt a little kinship there. She was definitely far down the path ahead of me; she was doing what I wanted to do. And then I found a new book she’d written, which had to do with losing a dear friend to cancer. It was a road I was traveling; I wrote her a note and told her the book had meant a lot.

She wrote back on stationery I might have picked out myself. Her note was gracious and kind.

*************

And life got busy. I went through a part-time gig at the local library and a year of providing day care at home before going back to earn my master’s when that toddler turned four. A graduate assistantship materialized; a college teaching gig (teaching the intro journalism class that none of the literary profs wanted to touch) fell into my lap.

Time ran very short. I gave up my weekly column. Little by little, I stopped sending out essays and articles; parenting, a thesis, teaching, and academic advising became my life. I took my dream of Being a Writer and buried it in a shallow grave, hoping the right time would come to resurrect it in the not-too-distant future. (And a little voice in my head told me I must not have wanted it so badly if it was that easy to put away.)

But Elizabeth Berg kept writing books, and I kept reading them, delighted whenever a new book appeared on the library shelf. Her main characters aged and matured, and I struggled to do the same.

By the time I was in my fifties, entrenched in a college career, Berg’s heroes were dealing with post-career issues, wrestling with loss and re-imagining themselves. I almost felt like my long struggle to grow up into a mindful, caring, effective adults was mirrored by the aging, and the challenges, and the joys, of the women in Berg’s books.

All of this is to say that, when I saw Arthur Truluv on the New Books shelf at the library, I took it home despite my towering stack of books to read.

Arthur Truluv, a sweet and hopeful story, begins and ends in a cemetery. Arthur goes there every day to visit Nola, his recently passed wife. Maddy goes there every day to escape the kids at school. They develop an unlikely friendship—the fragile old man, the glowering Goth girl—and that friendship turns them into family. And family is there when challenges smack your face.

A quick read, Arthur Truluv weaves loss and grief and hope together; it suggests that, no matter how bad things seem to be, there might be a next step that offers healing and growth and a good way forward. It suggests that the unconventional solution might just be the best one. I wasn’t at all disappointed; I enjoyed the book.

And doing a little research afterward, I discovered that Berg has a webpage (http://www.elizabeth-berg.net/) and a Facebook page, which I will follow. I’ll be aware when the next book comes out; Berg is pretty prolific, so it might not be too far away.

Meanwhile, I found a copy of her Dream Lover on the clearance shelf at a great used book store. Dream Lover is a departure—a historical novel about the author George Sand. It’s another vaguely mirror-type occurrence for me: I’ve discovered an unsung local woman, someone who flirted with fame in her own right and was the love of a famous author’s life, although she ultimately rejected him and followed another path. She deserves some notice, I think, and I’ve been puzzling about how one writes about a fascinating historical figure. Creative non-fiction? Factual essays? Short story or novel based in fact?

Berg is still and always far down the path ahead of me; I will be interested to clear the reading decks and dive into Dream Lover.

 

 

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When the Place is the Most Important Character: Mary Ellen Chase’s Windswept

MEC Smith College Archives

The day was coming, nor was it far off, if he read the signs of the times aright, when, at least in America, it would be difficult to put down roots in any one place, roots sufficiently strong and deep to hold one against the fluctuations already apparent in the changing face of things. A man’s roots mattered, he thought, his identification with a given place which might well serve as an anchor to windward against the storms of time and chance.

Mary Ellen Chase, Windswept

**********

Mary Ellen Chase was firmly rooted in the wild coastal lands of Maine where she grew up, so maybe it’s no surprise that her three best-known novels, Mary Peters, Silas Crockett, and Windswept, are set there.

**********

I picked up Windswept out of curiosity when the campus library sent out an urgent call: American Lit stacks have been culled! Culled books in the back room. Those that no one takes will be discarded!  My heart did a little clench when I read that; as soon as I could, I hurried across campus.

“I’ll just look,” I promised myself. But it was too hard to leave those wonderful books to a potential trash-masher fate. I dragged two bulging bags back to my office, and then I toted them home and stacked them on the shelves.

Mary Ellen Chase’s name sounded so familiar. It felt like I’d read at least one of her books, but none of the titles pinged when I looked her up. (Maybe, it occurred to me, I read about her in Sylvia Plath’s biography—maybe she taught Plath at Smith?) I didn’t waste much time, though, figuring out that sense of familiarity. I put Windswept on top of the to-reads, and then I got pulled into the current of busy days.

Retirement opened a flood of reading time. I set a kind of pattern, alternated old books with new ones, and library books with owned ones. And it wasn’t long before I came to Windswept.

**********

Windswept is the story of the Marston family and how they established a stronghold on a wild piece of Maine coastal land. The characters are finely drawn; we know them, their loyalties and weaknesses, their strengths and their secrets. We see the decency; we rue the flaws. Chase unfolds three generations; she gives us the family and the people the family draws in.

But always, Windswept, the place, is the constant. People may travel, but its pull brings them back. It has a pulsing personality of its own. It brings solace, redemption, and joy. It is the site of unbearable tragedy.

**********

Once I thought I’d design a course based just on Ohio writers—and there are many. Mary Oliver, RL Stine, Sherwood Anderson, James Thurber. Margaret Haddix. Louis Bromfield, Jennifer Crusie, Toni Morrison. Jeff Smith. On and on the list goes, and it varies from realistic to science fiction and fantasy, from essays and novels to poetry and short stories and graphic fiction. A hotbed of writers, Ohio is.

And the question that fascinates me is how place affects and defines them. Chase hit place head-on; she made the Maine of her youth the setting for at least three of her major works. She wrote about her second home, England, specifically and thoughtfully. Some of Mary Oliver’s poetry leads us into the Ohio woods. Thurber talks to us about the clocks of Columbus. Anderson gives us a fictional Ohio town, with its supportive blessings and suffocating curses.

But is an author’s place there, even when the setting does not reflect it? Are there echoes of the sounds and smells and the feel of the earth beneath the feet of the land that shaped the writer’s thoughts?

And is place becoming, as Chase hints, way back in 1941, irrelevant as people become weedier, less perennial—as our roots burrow only shallowly, waiting and willing to be pulled up? “…at last in America,” she writes, “it would be difficult to put down roots sufficiently strong and deep to hold one against the fluctuations already apparent…”

What is lost, and what is gained, in literature and in life, as people grow more mobile and less planted?

***********

Windswept takes me back to something I never know—to a different time, to a life before the United States entered into the second world war. It goes back to a time before computers and cell phones, and to a time of intense connection with the home place and the home people. Windswept was worth the read; it’s a keeper that will stay on my shelves.

Books Were Her Superpower….

Anne McC

Anne MC Caffrey’s An Exchange of Gifts

*****

I couldn’t remember where it came from—Anne McCaffrey’s little book, An Exchange of Gifts. It still has its library spine tag; probably it came from one of those ‘fill a bag’ sales, here in town or when we were off on a book-searching adventure. Maybe Jim, who loves fantastic literature, scooped it up.

Maybe, having discovered McCaffrey when I was a young woman, having cut my teeth on A Wrinkle in Time, and on the idea that women can write sci-fi and fantasy really, really well, I grabbed that book. I read McCaffrey’s Pern series in my late teens and early twenties, watching for new books (and reading Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi books as consolation during the waiting times.)

However An Exchange of Gifts came to be on our shelves, it sat and waited there a long, long time. Then, this Christmas, a book-themed holiday for us, I happened on it, and thought it was perfect to display this December. I tucked it on the mantel, centered behind a hand-thrown plate from our new hometown and a silly Luci ornament. The comic icon is forever knee deep in a plastic vat of grapes in this iteration; Lucille Ball hailed from Jamestown, New York, where our oldest boy lives, and near to where we both grew up. The plate and the ornament seemed like nice holiday connections to our old world and our new…

And, because this Christmas WAS all about reading, one day, sitting in the chair by the fireplace, fuzzy-socked feet comfortably on the ottoman, putting down a book I’d just finished, I thought, “I should read that little McCaffrey book.”

So I did.

**************
It’s a sweet little story about a princess who’s not allowed to use her gift for gardening. Meanne can bring almost anything organic to life, given the right plants and the right, rich dirt. Gardening, she tells us, is her gift, and the way she talks about gifts reminds me of those memes on Facebook: What’s your superpower?

Maybe we don’t all have super powers. But I believe, like Meanne, that every one of us has at least one great gift waiting to be discovered and fully used and appreciated.

Meanne’s father and current stepmother—the King seems to marry quite frequently; no back story there—do not regard the coaxing of foodplants from the loamy soil as appropriate work for a princess. She can, they concede, nurture beautiful flowers—that’s something royal born ladies might be expected to do. Meanne seethes, her gift unwelcome, unappreciated, but she sustains until her father announces he’s arranged a marriage for her to an unknown baron.

And that’s when Meanne bolts. She steals a horse from her father’s stables, and sends it back home bearing a bloodied scrap of her gown. She flees to an old hunting lodge of her father’s, deep in a wood, far from prying eyes.

That’s where she meets Wisp, a cruelly battered slip of a young boy. Meanne’s botanical knowledge lets her heal his wounds, and Wisp helps Meanne survive in the forest. It takes a while, though, before she realizes what Wisp’s true gift is… and therein lies the tale.

Sweet and uplifting, An Exchange of Gifts was just the right read for a cold December afternoon, for a dreamy day ensconced by a fireplace offering flickering flames.

********
And within the lovely little story, the message is so right on target, so needed right now. And so universal. It’s our job, as learners, to unearth our gifts. We need to find what we are drawn to do, and what we do well, and we need to find ways to share that with the world.

As nurturers, we need to help those we teach and raise and train to find their great gifts, too. There’s one thing about consulting job prediction charts and recommending exploring, say, the health care field—there will always be jobs in THAT area, we intone, sensibly. It’s another to watch and look and learn about what a child or young adult loves. What is the thing that draws them in, that they spend hours doing, that gets them lost in a dreamworld, happy and fulfilled?

We need to help them recognize THAT thing; then we need to help them finds way to morph that into their life’s work. That could be compassionate care for others. But it could be, perhaps, sorting and saving things digitally, or something else entirely.

********
More and more often these days, I realize this is especially important for those folks on the fringes—people with autism, people with developmental disabilities, people who are mentally ill…people disenfranchised in whatever way. These are folks who are constantly reminded of their deficiencies. They are pushed aside and discounted.

But each of them I am convinced, has a beautiful gift to share.

********
Nice to think of those kinds of gifts during a holiday we all bemoan as numbingly commercial. Nice to have a copy of Anne McCaffrey’s little fable to remind me. She gave us books: her gift.

 

 

Not Your Hallmark Kind of Miracle

McBride

Miracle at St. Anna, by James McBride

I read James McBride’s The Color of Water many years ago, in a book club during Mark’s law school years, and I couldn’t remember: was the book really good, or was it one of those reads enriched and dynamized by the far-reaching discussion it engendered? I thought, reaching back to remember, that it might have been both.

So when I saw another book by McBride on a clearance shelf at our favorite used book store, I snapped it up and shelved it,–shelved it against that reading day that would surely come.

And this year, a month or so before Christmas, I returned all my library books, and browsed through my own bookshelves. We had decided to honor the Icelandic practice we kept reading about on Facebook (a reliable source, as everyone knows.) This is what we read: in Iceland, it’s traditional to exchange books on Christmas eve, then to snuggle up and read in bed, with chocolates, all night long.

That sounded like a perfect custom for our little family. We thought we’d modify it from reading in bed to reading in front of the fire, wearing soft warm fuzzy new flannels. But we’d keep the book exchange. And we’d darned well keep the chocolate.

In preparation, we all wrote out lists of books we couldn’t wait to read, and, in the interim, I thought it was time to take down some of the wait-ers, the lingerers, among the books already shelved and read them. I was getting that excited, buzzy holiday feeling, so I thought I’d read books that seemed to have a holiday theme. I looked at Miracle at St. Anna, and I thought of The Secret of Santa Vittoria—a story of warmth and goodness nestled in among serious evil. I thought that McBride’s book might be something like that.

So I made my stack of pre-Christmas reading, and I put Miracle at St. Anna on the top.

********

Miracle at St. Anna is a compelling read, but it is not an easy story to absorb or an entertaining tale to read. It starts with a violent image—Hector, working at the post office in something like the present, recognizes a customer from years ago, from his time in the war. He pulls a gun out from under the counter, and he blows the customer’s face off.

What?????? I think.

And then the story shifts back to WW II.

I read a story of Black men, drafted and made to serve in a segregated unit in Italy, led by southern white officers. Like all men, the unit we travel with is a mixed bag—the larcenous and the lofty, the simple and the complex. There’s a damaged young boy to be rescued. There is an Italian village at risk. There are Germans on every side, and there is miscommunication that puts the heroes of our story at deep risk.

Hector is not African American; his family is from Puerto Rico. His light skinned brother was assigned to a ‘regular’ Army unit. Hector, darker, is slotted into a troop of Black men. There is Train, big, innocent, and well-meaning. There is Stamps; there is Bishop: two very different men.

There are the people in the town—people who are giving and sharing, people who are greedy and grasping, people with regrets and people with secret plans.

There are the Resistance fighter ‘heroes’—although not all are as they seem.

There are the officers back at command who plan and plot to get the Buffalo soldiers out of the village—out, they hope, with a captured German who will give them the information they need to outwit the enemy.

And there are the Germans, thousands of them, marching forward, implacable, even though they must have known, by the time this tale unfolds, that they had lost the war.

*************

I was hoping, I think, that all the soldiers would survive, that the folks in the village would resolve their differences, that love stories would unfold and futures would be altered—changed in magical, wonderful ways. This wasn’t, though, a book about those kinds of miracles.

To say any more might be to give away more than is necessary. There IS a miracle here—but it is not, completely, the feel-good resolution I was hoping for.

Still, I am very glad I read this book.

**************

McBride has a website: jamesmcbride.com. In the bio section, I learn that McBride attended music conservatory at Oberlin as an undergrad, but went on to get a master’s in journalism at Columbia. He’s written six books—one of short stories, one historical, and four novels, if I remember straight.

Miracle at St. Anna was made into a movie, released in September 2008, according to IMDb.com. The film, for which McBride wrote the script, was directed by Spike Lee. On IMDB.com, it’s awarded six starts out of ten. (“Not bad,” my movie-watching son assures me. I watch the trailer, and I determine to watch the whole movie. Looks like good acting and tension build on a white-knuckle story.)

I look up the Buffalo soldiers, too, and find that they started as all-black troops commissioned after the Civil War, earning themselves the Buffalo nickname. The Buffalo soldiers in McBride’s book evolved from the 92nd Infantry in WW I; they were reactivated for WWII. Black soldiers from all over the US were pressed into service, trained in Kansas, sent to Italy. They served, McBride tells us, under southern white officers.

Many of them served unwillingly, not sure why they were tapped to fight for a cause that offered them little benefit. But they served effectively and honorably; their division sustained huge casualties in Italy. (And then later of course, Black troops were integrated into regular units, which strikes me as a dubious kind of earned equality.)

**********

Miracle at St. Anna is a good story; like all good stories, it makes me think and it makes me question, and the questions don’t always have easy and comfortable answers. Although it takes place around Christmas-time, it does not resemble anything concocted, say, by Hallmark. There’s no Santa here, no star-crossed lovers re-uniting under the mistletoe. But amid the realities of war, there is so much to admire. There are unexpected heroes. The title miracle, too, is unexpected.

This is a story that will stay with me a long time. I will watch the movie. I will come back, after a certain length of time has passed, to re-read the book. I’ll do a little more homework to understand the Buffalo soldiers and WWII in Italy. I will do my best to stretch my understanding, to broaden my thought.

I can’t say Miracle at St. Anna was a “fun” read, although it’s written with humor, and with understanding and a sympathetic knowledge of human nature. But I can say for sure that it was a book worth reading.

Old Wives Tale #2: The Way-Finder (Out of the Woods, by Lynn Darling)

Out of the Woods

                   In that moment [of finding her way out of the woods], I knew that  everything would be all right; I could look past my own doubt and see that the world was immense and my future as rich in possibility as the  swelling belly of the brown mare. I remembered that moment always.

                               Lynn Darling, Out of the Woods

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 Lynn Darling has a little problem with direction. Her memoir, Out of the Woods, opens as she is driving to her off-the-beaten path house in Vermont. She gets herself hopelessly lost; she winds up sitting by a scarecrow in a field, crying.

Eventually she gets to where she needs to be, but the process is painful and painstaking. And, oh, I can relate, both to her geographical challenges and to the challenges of navigating this time of life.

******

Darling, the author of Necessary Sins (which I haven’t read yet, but look forward to reading), begins this path-finding memoir on the day she drops her daughter, Zoe, off at college. The author was 44 when her husband died, twelve years before; Zoe was a young child. When Out of the Woods opens, Darling is 56. As a writer, her work is portable; she is not retiring, but she has the liberty to work from wherever she likes.  And she decided she wants to live in really rural, un-trendy, Vermont.

She tells us bluntly that the house she bought is kind of odd, and I admire her optimism and courage, even as I think, “No way. Not for me, anyway.” But she’s in search of time alone, and the house, she thinks, will give her the solitude she needs. It’s a belief we have, I think, many of us who are women of a certain age—that solitude will heal us. Solitude, we expect, would bring us clarity and calm; it would enable us to rediscover ourselves, and to move forward, fortified and centered. And at this point in her life, Darling tells us, she’s not sure of who she is or what it is that she does.

Solitude is a seductive concept, I think, for women who have devoted their lives to the care of others, putting their own needs last. The rhythms of care push things like writing and reading to the back burner; pursuing interests like drawing or making music can only be sandwiched into the leftover, available time.  If I lived alone, we think, I’d have all day to pursue my passions…

This may be a romantic fallacy; it may be a convenient excuse for some of us, who neglect our own passions. But Darling boldly forces herself to find out. She makes a list of metaphysical challenges she will embrace, a list that includes these items:

  • Get sense of direction
  • Find authentic way to live
  • Figure out how to be old
  • Deal with sex
  • Learn Latin

Solitude, she vows, will allow her to develop that sense of direction; from that, all else will flow. She will learn, very literally, to find her way.

Her wonky house backs up to a wood, and Darling makes it her challenge to navigate that wood, to be able to plunge in and find her way—to another farm, to a lovely clearing, back to her home. She connects with neighbors in her quest; she consults with expert trailblazers. She runs into obstacles, and she encounters the challenges that, I am finding, life seems to offer to women of a certain age: she deals with relationships, refining the concept of ‘home,’ confronting her physical self, handling inevitable loss, gaining essential self-knowledge and finally, creating a new vision.

Relationship. Zoe has filled Darling’s life since the loss of her husband twelve years before. Darling had friends and family, but Zoe’s care focused her attention, required her presence and involvement. The thought of a romantic relationship was long back-burnered. Now, though, Darling writes, “I had craved solitude, but what I had found instead was a loneliness that pressed like a stone on my chest.”

She goes to the Internet, to online dating sites, and she tries it out. Her encounters are awkward and courageous; they awaken awareness. They do not lead to long-term commitments.

But she does develop new friendships; she becomes a part of the small rural community and connects with neighbors. She lets her relationship with Zoe morph and change as her daughter spreads her wings. She adopts a puppy. In the process of exploration, she understands more clearly what she wants and what she needs.

Home. Darling’s wonky Vermont house is very different from her New York City apartment, and maybe difference is what she needs; she can spread out the blueprints and consider what she really needs ‘home’ to be. But, oh, the challenges. She describes a season of mice infesting the house, and confesses that there are times she welcomes their company.  And then, as she does throughout the memoir, she rouses herself and deals with the situation.

Wasn’t it better, she writes at one point, to be walking through slippery snow after some stick of wood than to be trudging in the rain at rush hour to the corner store for milk? I am liking it here, I thought, a little startled.

She will make the house a home; she will not fail in this task she’s set herself.

It’s the same kind of determination she brings to her way-finding. Darling pitches herself in; she gets lost. She finds her way home. By the end of the book, she has decided what she needs, and where she needs to be.

The Physical Self. In the midst of this growth and exploration, in the midst of trying out dating and coming to grips with Zoe’s increasing maturity and independence, Darling learns she has cancer. Treatment means illness and surgery and fear, but in her illness, she learns to value her solitude.

Cancer is a good teacher, Darling writes. It forces you to understand what you should have known when you were healthy: there is little time left and none at all for regret.

 Loss. Darling, of course, is not a stranger to loss, having been widowed as a young woman. But the emptying of her nest has her examining that emptiness. At the same time, she helps her failing mother leave the family homestead. There is loss in the letting go of what she’s always considered ‘home.’ There is loss in the knowledge that her mother needs her support instead of being an anchor for her daughter.

There is loss in dealing with cancer, in facing the vulnerability of the physical self. There are hopes and dreams that must be jettisoned to make the journey possible.

Self-knowledge. Darling learns from her venture into new territory. For me, she writes, solitude was roomy—it provided a space in which my half-formed assumptions about myself, the world, other people, unpacked themselves, stretched out and assumed their full shapes and walked about, giving me a chance to see them as they really were, and to assess them accordingly.

She continues: Here was a place where I was none of the things I had been: not widow nor wife, not mother, a place where I would not encounter the ghosts of old selves and old lives.

For Darling, the removal to rural Vermont, where no one had any preconceived notion of her role or her personality enabled her—forced her, really, –to confront and understand who she is.

Vision. Darling’s Vermont time helps her shape her future. She does not, ultimately, stay in her forest house, but during her sojourn there, she learns to find her own way. The years of Zoe’s college teach her much, and some of the lessons are brutal and frightening. But Darling embraces the learning.

With luck, she writes optimistically, I would walk into the future the way I walked into the woods, with my wits about me, with curiosity and humility, with a first aid kit and a compass.

***********

Reading Out of the Woods, as I contemplate some of the same transitions that Darling describes so vividly, is enriching and enlightening. The book is copyrighted in 2014; tonight, I went on-line to see what I could find out about Darling since then. I could not find much news. I hope that the author is healthy and happy and enjoying her return to New York City. Whatever the situation, though, I have no doubt that she is capably getting her bearings and mindfully making her way.

 

 

Finding Precious Stone

Cutting for Stone

I have had Cutting for Stone on my shelf for a long, long time, and every time I needed a new book to read, I resisted it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was on too many ‘great books’ lists, and I was stubbornly refusing to read something just because a whole bunch of smartly literate people told me I would enjoy it.

Maybe the blurbs made it sound, with their talk of betrayal and and love, brotherhood and ordinary miracles, a little like Kite Runner.  Kite Runner was a book I could live in, but not in an easy, carefree manner. I lived in that book and came out scalded and changed. Was that what Cutting for Stone promised, too?

If so, I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to take the plunge.

Whatever the reason, once every couple of months, I would take Cutting for Stone off the shelf and consider. And then I would put it back.

But last week, I returned a stack of books to the library, and came home determined to at last tackle the waiting books on the shelves. And Cutting for Stone was the first book waiting.

************

I’m guessing I may be the last person in the world to discover this book, so it will be old news that it’s the story of mirror twins Marion and Shiva Stone, born in sadness, abandoned by their stunned and grieving father, raised by loving surrogates in Ethiopia. They sleep facing each other, foreheads touching; they communicate in special twin telepathy. But they are very different people.

Marion narrates, and he is humble and self-deprecating, so I am almost ready to agree that he’s a bumbler, kind of a fool, maybe. And then I weigh the evidence. The preponderance of friends. The compassionate time spent with Tsige when her baby is clearly dying, and she is desperately alone. The trust Ghosh places in the boy, and the confidence Hema has in him–she does not worry that Marion will, always, do the right thing.

That makes it very hard for her to accept and forgive when she believes Marion has done very, very wrong.

But it wasn’t Marion: it was Shiva who set the wheels in motion by his seduction of Genet. Paths were solidified, and turning back was not an option. Genet would be a terrorist; Shiva would stay at home. Marion would take his brokenness and disillusion to the United States, where he would thrive, meet his birth father, and reunite with Tsige and Genet, and the final reconciliation with Shiva would be staged.

The humility of the narrator makes reading about shocking actions and incidents of great import seem smoothly ordinary.

**************

We readers bring ourselves to the books we read; I live with sensors wide open to the phenomenon of autism. And so it struck me that Shiva, who amassed great knowledge but would not bother answering questions put to him at school, was an autistic genius. Shiva didn’t much care about other people’s feelings. As a teen, curious about sex, he set out to couple with as many women as possible. Sometimes he lied about being Marion to be intimate with women who loved his brother. And then he would move on, oblivious to the feelings and the actions he set in motion. The interests of other people did not concern him.

His own interests, though, consumed him. And so, as an apprentice to Hema, he learned as much as he could about female fistula, a debilitating condition that happened, most often, to girls who had been abused, forced too young, brutally mutilated. The action wrecked their insides, caused urine to dribble, infections to start, odors to rise, and disgusted backs to turn. Injured against their wills, the fistula caused them to be shunned and derided.

Shiva and Marion see a girl with this condition when they are very young. Its correction become Shiva’s passion and obsession. He finds a way, without leaving home, without bothering with medical school, to work on fixing female fistula.

And he becomes, this brother who does everything wrong, famous for his work.

Intelligent, obsessed, self-focused–Shiva has many symptoms of an autistic mind.

Perhaps his birth father, Thomas Stone, has many of those symptoms, too. Perhaps the best thing Stone ever did for his sons was to abandon them.

**************

There is betrayal in this story, but, if pushed, I would say Cutting for Stone is a story about forgiveness. All his life, in all of his righteous anger at abandonment, Marion searches for his father. And when he finds him, he wants to punish him, but it is not so simple. Sitting in his son’s darkened room, Thomas Stone tells his story–tells it starkly and unsparingly. And Marion’s vision shifts.

How could his father leave him?

How could he not?

Now Marion understands.

And he understands Genet’s long wander to what she hoped would be greatness. He knows why Hema kept things from him, and why his mother chose to be a nun, and then chose to be a mother.

Understanding punches a giant hole in anger, inflated. Understanding leads to eyes that meet and forgiveness being tempered across a field strewn with painful rubble.

*************

There is loss and there is triumph in Marion’s story, in his deep cutting for Stone and in his discovery of something totally unexpected. I am not sure why it took me so long to open this book and read, but I’m very, very glad I finally did.

Siri and Friends

Siri
To Siri With Love, by Judith Newman. Harper, 2017.

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I remember reading about the autistic kid who talked to Siri. It was back when I was indulging myself by getting the New York Times on Sundays.  I read the article, thought it was neat, and then saw it popping up all over the Internet. (Here is the article: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/fashion/how-apples-siri-became-one-autistic-boys-bff.html)

People were amazed, I think, that a machine, a mechanized voice, could bring out the social side of a kid with autism. I worried a little that people were making some kind of connection–like, this worked because the autistic kid has a mind that’s basically like a machine, too. The real point, I thought, was that Siri’s programmers had created her with compassion and courtesy. Gus, the autistic kid, responded to that.

The reason I worried is because I have an autistic kid, too. Well, Jim’s not a kid any more–he’s a 27-year-old man who is empathetic and caring in many, if not most, situations, who is praised by all who know him for his good manners. He is bright and articulate. Ask him anything about sci fi or fantasy movies and his eyes will light up, and you’ll be drawn into a long conversation. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about the chosen topic.

Jim doesn’t drive, he lives at home, and the world of work has been impenetrable for him. Currently, he runs a little business transcribing recipes and other important family documents. He creates cookbooks and memorabilia booklets for people. It’s work that requires organization, computer skills, and good judgement.

It is not, just yet, something that would support a person. But Jim has had continuous clients; we think the concept has a future.

But it doesn’t bring him friends.  And after school ends, where do you make your friends? You make them at church maybe, but organized religion doesn’t work for Jim.  You make them in clubs or organizations, perhaps, and Jim does belong to some young adult support groups. He likes the people he meets there, but there is no one that he would, say, call up to see a movie.  And you make them at work–that’s where, as employed adults, most of our social contacts come from.

When you work by yourself, and your social skills are tenuous, the opportunities to make friends can be pretty rare.

I worry about Jim having robust and meaningful friendships.

I find, in reading Judith Newman’s To Siri With Love, that she has the same worries about her son Gus.

To Siri With Love grew out of the international response to the article Newman wrote for the New York Times. Gus found that he could talk to Siri on his mother’s I-Phone. They would have long, actual conversations. Newman, who is whip-smart funny, writes that she had qualms at first about letting her son find his social outlet with a machine.

But Gus was learning from the exchanges. Siri was unfailingly polite and appropriately responsive. She would listen attentively to his long discourses on subways and buses–something most human listeners would not or could not do indefinitely.

She would encourage and explain. When Henry, Gus’s brother, urged Gus to use inappropriate language in a conversation with Siri, she promptly called him to task. “‘Now, now,'” Newman writes that Siri chastised Gus, ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.'”

When asked the answer to “What is zero divided by zero?” Siri showed a little attitude. Here’s what Newman writes Siri replied:

Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn’t make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies. And you are sad that you have no friends.

As Sheldon would say, Bazinga!

You go, Siri.

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Newman’s book has only one chapter about Gus and Siri; the rest is a memoir about motherhood, particularly mothering an autistic kid and his neurotypical twin.  There are many things that are unique and intriguing about Newman’s life.

She is, for instance, married to a man she loves who is thirty years older than she. John, a retired opera singer, is now in his eighties. The twins were born when Newman was just past forty. One kind of conversation she reports having with both boys on a semi-frequent basis starts with, “When Dad dies….”

Also, the family’s living arrangements are thoroughly unconventional. John leaves the apartment and goes to his own place every night, walking, even with his bone-on-bone grinding knees, to the subway.

John likes his privacy and his order, Newman writes. She herself does not much like to be touched; she writes about the friends who’ve given her massage gift certificates over the years. That’s the worst gift she could possibly have received. So…little strains of autistic-like symptoms run in mom and dad, and one son is born with full-blown autism.

I find that true in my family and in other families-with-autism that I know. Someone will have a brilliant, quirky talent, but otherwise be normal–whatever ‘normal’ means. Someone will offhandedly memorize sports scores or home run records dating back to aught 2, a kind of parlor trick that’s valuable and commended in the right group at the right time. Someone will go crazy if people rearrange their desk items or touch their arms.

But, in all other ways, these folks are able to function, in school, in groups, on the job.

But sometimes, it seems, those little quirks and tendencies converge in one person, who can’t then STOP talking about home run scores, or bear any kind of touching, or sit through a lecture on human reproduction. Two-way communication is a complete challenge; changes in routine are catastrophic. Food must be familiar and repetitive, and a whole slew of sensory issues come into play.

No longer quirks, these things make life in the neurotypical lane unbearable; that person, we say, is autistic. And, even when they are agreeable, attractive, and intelligent, their life is going to be filled with challenge.

Such is the case with Jim. Such is the case with Gus.

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One of the things that parents of autistic people struggle with is how much independence? Do we push or do we accommodate? When Newman writes about letting Gus walk the six city blocks to school without shadowing him, I understand. What if someone stops him? Because he will stop and talk, and he will believe the story he’s being told. He will want to find the lost puppy, or give the last dime from his wallet to someone who needs it…or says he does.

How do we armor our autistic offspring to navigate a world that operates by rules they don’t understand?

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Newman writes about why–what did she do to create a child with autism? She cites many possibilities. There do seem to be correlations between aging parents and incidences of autism. There are chemical and environmental theories; there are theories that something is happening or generated, womb-wise, that is different than happened in wombs generations before.

There is the fact that autism has only recently, as time goes, been defined, so of course more diagnoses are being made. How can we compare the current rampant diagnoses to the number of people who muddled through, labelled oddballs, labelled ‘retarded’, in other ages?

And there is genetics. I look at my family, and my husband’s family, and I see, popping up here and there, the positives of autism–flashes of brilliance, incredible memories, a whole-hearted devotion to one consuming passion. I know some older people, quirky, wonderful folks who’ve navigated meaningful lives: Hmmm, I speculate. High functioning?

For many people, finding the right mate seems to make the difference between disaster and fulfillment; that seems especially true for high-functioning people on the spectrum.

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The world is expanding; understanding is expanding–slowly, it’s true, but I do see the boundaries stretching, making room for unique and quirky, for people who do not fit the mold we label ‘normal limits.’ Part of the reason for that growth is the availability of true, well-told stories of people who live on those fringes of that normalcy–people like, for instance, Newman and her family.

To Siri With Love brings me, as a mother of an autist, great hope. I think it brings a little more understanding to those who’ve never encountered an individual on the spectrum–or to those who have dealt with people on the spectrum and been confused or irritated. And there’s a great list of resources in the back.

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But beyond the importance of understanding autism, To Siri With Love is a warm, compelling read written by a smart, funny author. Whether for understanding or entertainment, it’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend.