Archive for August, 2015

Confronting August

Call it a mid-life crisis.
The upward growth spurt has stalled.
Its flowerbeds
have developed a middle-age spread.
There is no denying,
it lacks the daylight that its youth
once possessed.
Even the bright makeup of bouquets
is a scant disguise.
The emergence of sunspots on petals
betrays its age.
Birds have quieted their daily praises.
Overweight with fruit,
the stems of its spine can no longer
stand fully erect.
Soon, flocks of migrating geese will
wrinkle clear blue skies.
Still, the ardor of its hot afternoons
is not easily cooled.
How bewitching Summer appears,
profiled in moonlight.

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Memories

Memories fade.
Sometimes, they disappear in
time’s crowded drawer,
never again to raise a sparkle
in the human eye.
Tucked away and inaccessible,
they seem to have
been buried before the body.
And yet…
However deeply smothered
with sticky clay,
that silent grave still contains
the earliest seedlings.
When coaxed, the pleasure of
a childhood rhyme
is effortlessly rediscovered.
“Row, row, row your
boat, gently down the stream.”
Dancing on the tongue,
not a single word is forgotten
as she sings along.

Vanity Fair : A Novel Without A Hero / William Makepeace Thackeray

The subtitle of this classic novel is an important key to its theme. In this story, which satirizes society in early 19th Century Britain, almost none of the characters are portrayed in a good light. But neither are they made out to be truly evil. Instead, they are presented as merely human. What makes it such a gratifying read is Thackeray’s ability to show the vanity and greed that all of us possess beneath the social masks we wear.

Vanity Fair follows the lives of two schoolgirl friends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, as well as their families and friends. The two women could not be more different from each other. Becky, coming from the lower classes, is cunning and determined to make her way in society, no matter whom she steps on in doing so. Amelia is good-natured, kindly, and easily manipulated by those around her. While it is quickly evident that Becky is totally self-centered, the author does an excellent job of gradually revealing that Amelia is no paragon of virtue either.
The delight of the book is Thackeray’s nameless narrator. He takes great amusement in poking fun at the tawdry glamour of British society. His asides and wry observations are what make this novel so special.
It is a long book and full of terms and customs not readily understood by a modern audience. Still, while a reader might not catch all the barbs that the author throws, it no way hampers one’s appreciation of the story. It is a dark portrayal of human nature, especially in the upper classes, but done with such a light touch that the book elicits laughter and groans of recognition. The characters portrayed still abound here in the 21st Century.
The lone character that defies the book’s subtitle is William Dobbin, a soldier who pines over Amelia for decades. Until the final chapters, she remains blind to his devotion and sacrifices for her. And yet he is made to appear less than heroic when his dream does come true but it turns out to be not quite as glorious as he expected. I appreciated that Thackeray does not settle for a fairy tale ending.
Vanity Fair is by no means an easy read, but it is almost always an interesting one. Since its themes are still relevant today, the word “timeless” certainly applies to this 19th Century masterpiece.

Cat’s Eye / Margaret Atwood

In the novel Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood presents the recollections of Elaine Riley, a painter who in late middle age has returned to her home town of Toronto. She is there to attend a retrospective of her collected art. While she has gained some fame, she is considered by many to be well past her prime. Leaving her family in Vancouver, her home base for decades, this return evokes a flood of memories from the past. The puzzle of her childhood is used to piece together the adult that Elaine has become.

The focus of her recollections is on her childhood in the late 1940s and a trio of girls she befriended then. In their company, she was initiated into the dangers of the world awaiting her outside the family home and the betrayals friendship can bring.

Atwood does a marvelous job of recreating the longings and confusion that accompany the transition from childhood into adolescence and ultimately the scary advance into adulthood. Elaine, the book’s narrator, is a character I was instantly drawn to and able to sympathize with. This novel is a story of her many different personalities: daughter, friend, mother, and finally the artist who reflects a composite of these separate pieces.

Her memories are at times disturbing, often humorous, and always a realistic portrayal of the life journey all of us make. The book is a compelling read throughout. As I neared the conclusion, I began to fear the story would take a misstep and veer into a feel-good ending. But Atwood is too good a writer to settle for such a false, “easy out” conclusion. She remains true to Elaine’s growth and maturity based on her childhood experiences.

Turning the last page, I found myself both satisfied and saddened that I would not be spending any more time in Elaine’s company. This is a novel that I will be recommending to one and all. It is an evocative story that delivers the learned life lessons sure to resonate with most readers. While it deals with the dynamics of female relationships, it also addresses the broader human journey through the highs and lows that all of us experience. It is a remarkable book, both funny and serious. Atwood is a gifted author with many excellent novels to her credit. Cat’s Eye stands out as one of her best.

Doppelganger

I call him Bob.
He hunts, is good with tools.
Has a 190 average in
Friday night bowling league.
Father of three,
a proud union electrician,
he doesn’t cook
but is master of the grill.
Coaxed by his wife,
they volunteer at every
school function
and sing in the church choir.
The same paperback
has been on his nightstand
for the past year.
Married since high school,
Bob is a man who
takes things at face value.
Not once has he
given thought to who his
double might be.
He’d deny the suggestion
of a resemblance.

Furtive

After bedtime,
and furtive, the snow begins,
fat flakes
impacting without a sound.
An accomplice,
a breathless wind refuses
to betray
the ghost haunting this night.
Nary a pane
is rattled to raise the alarm.
Yet the tracks
of witnesses are evident.
Its softened
fur worn like a blanket,
green eyes alert
and sphinx-like, the cat
dries by the fire.
There is no alerting clang
from city plows.
In on the secret, a wind-
chime doesn’t.
The accumulating silence
waits for dawn.

Handshakes

With a viselike clasp,
and grimy as their necks,
the men of Father’s
generation had heavy paws.
Before the extension,
out of courtesy, the palm
was first swiped
down a soiled pant leg.
Rough, calloused,
tools in and of themselves,
those dirty hands
were never paper-white
and soft like mine.
Scarred roadmaps, each
had a story to tell.
Bearing blackened nails,
cracked leather,
sometimes missing a joint,
all were tattooed
with indissoluble grime.
A little dirt, Father
taught me, is the currency
of trust and respect.
Today’s cumbersome hugs
cannot compare to
the arms-length meeting
of the other’s eyes.
Or so it seems as I recall
the grip and grit of
their honest handshakes.