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.

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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.

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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.

*********

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.

***********

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?

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

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.

***********

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.

******

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.

 

The Snug Comfort of a Murder Mystery: Anne Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet

AnnCleevesShetland_800x500.jpg

(Image from competitions.womensweekly.com)

The weather, after a warm and lovely Fall, has turned, and so on early dark nights, we light the fire in the fireplace. After dinner, I sit in the chair, feet up on the ottoman, soles toasting in the glow, and I pull a blanket over my legs, and I read. I am finishing up Anne Cleeve’s first Shetland quartet. I read about nasty murders, and I feel safe and snug in front of the fire.

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I was browsing Netflix for something compelling to watch–good, hearty, televised background to my knitting habit in the darkening evenings–when I discovered a show called Shetland.  The Shetland Islands are just north of the part of Scotland that my mother’s family hailed from. I remember a Scots art professor telling me, in my undergrad days, “Ah, that’s a Godforsaken land.”

     I had seen pictures, of course, heard reports about the bitter north winds of that place, but I thought it might be fun to watch a series that was set in those climes. Shetland was filmed on location and in Norway–the beaches and the buildings and the skies would be authentic. Let’s give it a shot, I thought.

     I was hooked from the get-go. Shetland is a murder mystery series. The acting, the story lines, the the lilt of the accents…they all drew me in.

     There were three seasons available: we power-watched them within two weeks, and then we felt bereft.

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

      I noticed, in the credits, that Shetland was based on a series of murder mysteries by a writer named Anne Cleeves. I had a gift card to a bookstore, so I ordered the first two books on line. They arrived within days, and I set aside my other reading to plunge.

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     I almost never read the book after watching the show; I do not want the faces of the actors intruding on my understanding of the characters, or my knowledge of the events to come to take my attention away from what is happening now, at this point, in the book. But I was surprised that Shetland the television show and Anne Cleeves’ Shetland murder mysteries were so very, very different. There was a firm connection, of course, but so much was changed that I could relax and fall into the books.

      In Cleeves’ books, the detective, Jimmy Perez, is a dark, rumpled, decent man, a boy from the isles himself, who decided against a crofter’s life. This bothers his parents, especially his mother, who calls him often, who encourages him to return to Fair Isle. There’s a troubled intensity in Jimmy’s dealings with his father, who is a very big man on a very small island.

     The dark looks Jimmy and his faster share and the Perez name, come, it’s said, from a  Spaniard shipwrecked in the Shetland Islands long, long ago. It’s a connection, in the books, that Jimmy often has to explain.

     In Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series, we learn that Perez is still mourning his marriage to Sarah, and their babe, lost in a miscarriage. That grief, he thinks, was the marriage’s undoing…that, and the total concentration he throws into his work. Perez is a good detective and a student of people. He has to know what drives the people he meets in the course of police-work. He knows he should have given his wife that same kind of intense attention.

     He is decent, conflicted, and driven, Jimmy Perez; he is feeling his way with his new staff, particularly Sandy, a young cop from the Shetland island of Whalsay. Sandy is more laconic, far less driven and meticulous than his boss. But under Jimmy’s tutelage, he grows.

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

     The setting for each book is the same as for the episodes, but the story-lines diverge, making reading an adventure. And there are other important differences. On the show, Perez is sandy-haired and slight; he looks like a Scot, or what we commonly associate with the appearance of Scotland’s people.

     In the books, Perez meets Fran, who, with her little daughter Cassie, will become very important in his life. On the show, Fran is long dead of cancer, making Perez a widower. He is raising a teen-aged Cassie on his own.

     And the stories diverge. The murderers in the books are different from the murderers in the episodes on Netflix. It makes for much better reading, never knowing what might happen.

     But the books are so good, I wonder why the producers of the show decided on such big changes.

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

     I look up Anne Cleeves on line–she has her own official website, annecleeves.com,—and I find that she is not from Scotland; she grew up in rural England. But she did work in the very setting she creates for Blue Lightning, the book I’ve just finished. It’s a bird observatory on Fair Isle, the island she makes Jimmy’s home. There she met her husband Tim.

     The website notes that she was not so compelled by Tim’s birding interests, but she was mightily drawn to the bottle of whiskey stowed in his backpack. A lifetime together grew from that interest. Anne and Tim have two daughters, now grown.

     After working a few interesting and various jobs, Anne returned to college, training as a probation officer. Her knowledge of the criminal justice field, and of the place she sets her tales, is earned.

     Anne’s work has won prestigious awards. She received the Duncan Laurie Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for Raven Black. She’s been granted an honorary doctorate. And on October 26, 2017, she received the highest honor a British crime writer can earn: the Diamond Dagger.

     There are four books in the first Shetland quartet–one for each season. A new quartet, set in the same place, with the same crew, will have a book for each element. She’s working on the fourth and final book now, and anything could happen. She might even, Cleeves challenges on her website, kill Jimmy off.

     Her books are full of surprises, of unexpected twists, and of the kind of random events that happen in real life. So I wouldn’t put it past her to do just that.

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

     I enjoy the books, and the television series, and I wonder why. Why is a story about a horrible, violent murder so comforting and compelling on nights that bring us roaring winds and spattering rain, uneasy weather when gruesome tales should, by rights, build our unease?

     Crime writer Walter Mosley, in an interview on npr.org, concludes that we all need forgiveness, and we all need someone to blame; murder mysteries fill these needs. Crime stories, Mosley contends in a Newsweek article, “cleanse the modern world from our souls.”

     I think, too, the the resolution offered in murder mysteries is a comfort: our good detective will not rest until he or she is sure the exact right person has been apprehended. And maybe the danger in the books gives us a heightened sense of safety in our own lives. (There must be very good reasons, mustn’t there, for someone as devoted to nonviolence as I am to plunge so heartily, so deeply, into these deadly tales that draw me in?)

     The best mystery series, too, have characters that grow and circumstances that change, and Cleeves’ books do not disappoint. Jimmy works to understand himself; he opens himself up to a whole new life with Fran and Cassie. Fran develops as an artist and a mother. Sandy, under Jimmy’s tutelage, builds self-confidence–he travels by himself on a plane to London, for instance, something he never thought he’d do. He handles tough challenges with intelligence and integrity. Jimmy’s respect for him grows.

     Each book brings growth and change and development. Separate from the murder to be solved, the characters who are regulars allow us to watch and celebrate their lives.

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

     I am sitting right now, warm and snug in the early dawning, as a thunderstorm crashes outside, and my aging, nervous dog pants, resting her fore-paws on my leg. She is terrified and twitchy; the rumbles and the flashes wear her down. But I am sipping coffee, feeling protected as the storm unfolds, looking forward to starting, as soon as I clear some reading decks, on Anne Cleeves’ Elements quartet. Murder will happen in those books; change will happen, too.

 

 

     And under Cleeves’ deft narration, in the fictional world, we’ll learn the reasons why.

Old Wives Tales #1: The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention, by Meredith Maran

(Wikipedia, in its discussion of the term ‘old wives’ tales,” notes that, in this case, a wife is not necessarily a married woman. Like ‘midwife’ or ‘fishwife,’ this usage just designates a woman at a certain age and stage of life..)

New Old

(Image from booksmith.com)

I was a twelve-year-old who brought a stack of books home from the library that told me how to be a teenager. The books had titles like How to Find a Teenaged Boy–and What to Do With Him When You Find Him.  I read and weighed and incorporated advice. Sometimes, I thought, the advice even worked.

As a young wife, I sought out other guidebooks–Cosmo magazine and novels like The Women’s Room, books by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and books, too, about pleasing your man. I wanted (oh, naive and foolish young one) to walk that tightrope between alluring and liberated, home-bound and free, between fascinating and untethered. The books gave me examples and helped me weigh my options, look at different models and ways of being.

I read my way into step-momming; pregnant, I read a book a week, devouring works by Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach; memorizing, practically,  What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

When my son was diagnosed with autism, my first stop was the library.

Oh, I have learned by living, too, and by the rich exchanges that take place between those who have traveled uncertain trails and those of us just embarking. But books have bolstered and challenged each facet of my life, giving me confidence, teaching me the jargon, making each new phase seems like navigable territory.

Why should retirement be different?

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

A friend I meet in the blogosphere, Kimberly, also recently retired, sends me a message about a book she recently read. It’s called A New Kind of Country, and it’s by mystery writer Dorothy Gillman, circa 1978. Gillman gives up her city life and moves to Nova Scotia when, at 60-ish, her nest empties. A New Kind of Country is a memoir detailing how Gillman acclimated to a whole new kind of life.

I think that sounds like something I should read, but I cannot find the title in any of our favorite libraries. I finally track it down on ThriftBooks.com, and I order it, slow-mail delivery.

While I wait, I think, I will see what other books  are out there on the topic. I take young James to the library the next day, and I come home with a stack of books to explore.

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

The first book I open is Meredith Maran’s The New Old Me: My Late Life Reinvention.

I am dismayed after I read the first few pages: I don’t think I’ll find any common ground. Maran is writing from a very different place than I inhabit. Her marriage recently fell apart; she is leaving free-lancing to take a 9-5 job. She is moving to a city far from where she has been living.

My marriage seems pretty enduring. I have retired from a stable career to begin a free-lance one, and I just had my little house painted: a visual symbol that I am, for a change, staying put.

Maran’s nest is empty, and my 27-year-old autistic son will not be moving out any time soon.

Will I find any commonality here? I am dubious, but I my mother’s voice is loud in my head: Once you commit to a book, she said, you must read until the end. I have relaxed that rule in cases of distaste or disinterest, but I do think Maran’s experience, different as it is, might teach me something. I keep reading.

At the beginning of the book, Maran is a mess: in fact, she’s on her way to the emergency room, having, in her solitary borrowed home, cut herself severely. At the ER, the doctor tells her the wedding ring must come off to save the slashed finger. Maran has to painfully confront the end of her marriage, the removal of a symbol that has, in part, defined her for many years. (Maran’s marriage was to another woman, but her discussion of pain and withdrawal, self-discovery and resiliency, seem to me completely un-gender-bound.)

In fact, as I read on, I see concepts that very much speak to me right now. Maran writes about work and what it means in her life. She is adjusting to a whole new schedule. She leaves free-lance writing to work for a new-age-y corporation; she suddenly has bosses and office mates and a new culture to adapt to. She works to fit into this new environment, and with new coworkers, all of whom are considerably younger. There’s a redefinition going on: I empathize, even as I take an opposite pathway.

I read and I recognize broad, universal themes that are very immediate, very meaningful, for a woman of my age. Don’t all women, having crossed the threshold to sixty, deal with these themes in some shape and form?

Relationship. Maran defines herself as a 60-something divorcee. Although her relationship had long been rocky, she didn’t welcome the divorce. It pushes her to go somewhere she prefers not to visit. And  this, I think  may be a reckoning all women of this certain age must struggle with.

If we are married, how does the marriage grow and change with our aging?

If single, how do we now define ourselves? What does single mean as we consider next steps, and time’s telescoping, and health issues? Do we want to date–are we anticipating a chance to find a mate, or do we embrace the freedom of our ‘one-dom’?

And what, for heaven’s sake, about Sex and the Sixties?

Home. Maran couch surfs while she settles in to a brand new city, meeting interesting people in the neighborhoods she inhabits before first renting an apartment and then, finally, buying a house. Her vision of ‘home’ is hammered in a new kind of fire.

And I think that has to be true for all of us during these years. I see friends down-sizing and buying condos. I know a couple who sold their house and bought an RV, whose concept of home has become mobile. I know city dwellers who’ve built homes in small towns, and farmers who’ve embraced city life to be closer to kids and grandkids.

And some of us stay, morphing our homes to new purposes, new challenges, to new uses and new joys. Whatever path we choose, we consider ‘home’–what it means, and what we need.

The Physical Me. There’s a strenuous emphasis on fitness and wellness at Maran’s new job; she gets a gym membership and a personal coach and the opportunity to jog alongside coworkers twenty years her junior. She confronts her aging, less-than-toned self.

And don’t we all have to slam, unwilling and appalled, into that mirror? How will we take on the physical changes this time of life brings? Will we dye? Nip and tick? Start a new exercise plan? What are the health realities we need to deal with?

Oh, the wrinkles.

Oh, the hammer toes.

Loss. Kids leave home and parents die, and this age and stage brings inevitable losses with it. Maran’s sons are far afield, and her father is failing fast.

Dealing with aging parents is something we all go through: mine died when I was much younger, but Mark’s mom is now an eighty-something widow in a town far away, and that consideration defines one part of our life together. Our older son is closer now, geographically, to that Grandma than to us. Holidays and birthdays and proximity are things we must consider. Planning for care and the inevitable day when Mark’s mom must leave the family homestead are present in our awareness.

We struggle with our friends and their health issues. We lose essential people.

“Loss is coming,” this time of life whispers insistently. It doesn’t matter if we’ve never married, become unmarried, or have stayed married through thick and thin. We all struggle with parents and beloved kids–ours or someone else’s–growing, changing, moving away. We all mourn the friends who leave us.

Self Knowledge. Maran learns a great deal about herself, about her relentlessness and insistence on perfection, about her high and sometimes unreasonable standards for herself. But she is open to that learning, and by the end of the book, she has grown, she has changed. Friends comment on this.

Her friend Dana, for instance, tells her: “Last time I saw you, your whole life was falling apart. And now look at what you’ve created. I’m so impressed.”

And Maran writes, “I’m getting used to people coming here and saying that. But it never fails to make me very grateful.”

What a luxury and a gift–the opportunity to deeply confront and know ourselves, not as defined by others or by job or role, but as experienced in our hearts and souls and bodies. This time of life brings that opportunity home–our last real chance, perhaps, to grasp it.

New Vision. Whatever our circumstances, this time of life demands a clear-eyed look at the future. Maran struggles to create a new picture of what happiness means, of what success is. Does she want and need to be half of a couple? Should she listen to friends who warn that another mate may never come along, that good-enough is better than alone? She sees herself as a single home-owner. She embarks on a workshop, accepted into a prestigious program she’d applied to as a lark. She lets go, and she receives new knowledge and new gifts.

As retirement settles around me like falling cloth, I see the need to recreate the vision, too. Who am I now? What is it I want to accomplishment in the next years? Where do I want to travel, and how do I want to go?

*********

 

Maran is feisty and persistent, and the three-year struggle she documents in her book is sometimes surprising, sometimes funny, and sometimes achingly sad. But she is triumphant, even if that triumph looks different than she ever could have planned. She embraces, finally, new challenges, new opportunities, new friendships. Toward the end of her story, she writes, “Drifting toward sleep, I wonder what I’ll come up with next year. Because it’s never too late to try something new.”

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

I resonate to that openness to newness and change. And I wonder if the themes I see here, in Maran’s honest and uplifting book, are the same themes I, and all my sisters of this certain age, encounter.

I suspect they are, but I know what I have to do. I need to find a whole lot of other ‘old wives tales,’ and I need to read them all.

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

Sometimes the Twain DO Meet

Huck

Penciled on a yellowing piece of paper, safe beneath the glass enclosure of its cabinet, here is the original title page: Adventures of Huck Finn, it says. Then:

 

Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.

 

 

By Mark Twain. New York.

 
 

 

Charles L. Webster & Co.

 

 

1885.

I feel…I don’t know how I feel. A little woozy, maybe; a little like a ghost has his hand on my shoulder, just as I have my hands on the glass, peering in. This is the original title page, hand-lettered by Twain himself, writing as if he were Huck.

Irony: I have traveled 300 miles to see this when, for the first forty-odd years of my life, I lived about fifty miles away. It’s been here–well, half of it has–all that time.

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

I am in the Twain Room of the Buffalo, New York, Central Library with my friend Wendy. She is, fortunately, just as much a book geek as I am; we are both enthralled.

Twain lived in Buffalo for a while; he was the editor of a newspaper, and the owner of a proud mansion on swanky Delaware Avenue. The mansion was a gift from his beloved Livy’s father.

Later, Twain and his family moved to Fredonia, New York, where I grew up, and where my family, years before I was born, had also moved from Buffalo. We were people of words, too, readers and writers, although not, of course, on anywhere near the same scale as Samuel Clemens. But the Buffalo to Fredonia exodus, the love of words, and the sometimes twisted paths of lives, all made me feel a kind of kinship to the bitterly funny, tragedy-laden, irascible, Mark Twain.

**********

My mother gave me a copy of Tom Sawyer when I was in third grade, I think; it was a cheap children’s version with a glossy cover embossed with a picture of a gawky, redheaded boy painting a fence and slyly eying a companion. I devoured the book, cringing when the boys walked into their own funeral, claustrophobic and terrified when Tom and Becky got lost in the cave. Tom seemed to come out all right, every time, but the book left me with a feeling of sadness and loss.

I watched film versions which portrayed Tom as mischievous and happy-go-lucky, and I did not like them at all. They rang false. It seemed to me the central truth of Tom’s life was loneliness; he had a sadness hole that no one could fill.

**********

My brother Sean became a Twain scholar in college; he uncovered an unpublished story and he wrote insightful articles.

Somewhere between my high school and college years, I discovered a local writer named Jean Webster whose epistolary novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, had been a smash hit when it was published in 1912. Daddy-Long-Legs was one of the first books to be filmed–it was made into three different movies, I think, over time. And it was one of the first to evoke spin-off toys.

And Jean Webster was Mark Twain’s niece, daughter of none other than Charles Webster. Twain had once relied on Webster, and then, his fortune dissolved in bad business deals, the author reviled the younger man.

Webster seemed to spin off into mental or emotional issues. After a trip to Europe, where he had an audience with the Pope, Webster appeared on the streets of Fredonia every day in a papal knight’s outfit. He kept a natural history museum in his big house on Central Avenue. It was there, it’s said, that he hung himself, too, when Jean was 15.

She went on to attend the Fredonia Normal School–forerunner of SUNY Fredonia, where I earned my degrees–and earned a degree in china painting. Later, Jean Webster attended Smith College and got an academic degree and began a life as a writer.

I was fascinated by Jean Webster and her family and by her famous uncle. I felt a little proprietary toward them both, as if, somehow, they needed, if not my protection, then maybe my ability to explain a little part of them. I read as many of Jean Webster’s books as I could find. When I took a Twain course in graduate school, one of our texts was an article by my brother Sean. That cemented, somehow, that feeling of connection.

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

And then I lost the thread, life swirling into marriage and parenting, teaching, and planning, finally, for the move to Ohio and Mark’s entry, as a 40-something, into law school. We were busy, busy, busy, running in front of time as if it were Indiana’s Jones implacable boulder. Then a year or two ago, Mark and I saw an amazing show, Hal Holbrook, who was 92, I think, at the time. Holbrook spent the evening being Mark Twain, white-suited, white-haired, puffing on a long cigar, and letting the author’s words trip smoothly, authentically, from his tongue. When he read from Huckleberry Finn, he WAS that lost lad.

On the way home, I said to Mark, “When I retire, I’m driving back to Buffalo to see that manuscript.”

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

And so here I am, standing feet–inches–away, reading the explanations. Twain left the original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn to the Buffalo Library, but on his death, only half of the huge, handwritten mass surfaced. And that was that until 1990, when Part Two was discovered, intact, in a steamer trunk in California. There were legal twists and turns, but the whole manuscript has been united. Portions are rotated out to be put on display in the Twain Room where I stand enthralled.

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

There’s a telescoping kind of effect–the wrinkling of time, the nearness of genius. A daring vision plainly laid out in pencil on yellowing paper. The first step, the beginning, of what would become legend.

I look at all the rest of the exhibit–the stories of the movies made, the plays based on his work, Twain articles from newspapers all over the world, stories about the author at all stages of his life, but I am impatient with them. It’s like I have to be polite to them, so I can do what I really want to do: go back and stare at the homely pages from a handwritten manuscript, a work of passionate genius, the proof that brilliance can spring up anywhere.

Even here. Even right next to me.

**********

Time now, to clear the reading decks, and tackle a monumental task: reading Twain’s entire autobiography.

Mark Twain Bio