Archive for September, 2016

Hornet’s Nest

In dusky ink, it seems to
hum with electricity, surrounded by
a swirl of constant motion.
That unseen malfunctioning bulb,
beyond reach and screened
by leaves, throughout the summer,
sound alone illuminates it.

Yet when an autumn storm
disconnects it from a threaded
tree socket, having been
muted by night’s lengthening grip,
almost weightless in hand,
that bare bulb turns out to be
an elegant paper lantern.

Now serving as a torch
tossed to ignite a pile of leaves,
unexpectedly aroused
into November’s frigid air from
its snug hibernation cell,
an angry queen wasp emerges,
electrifying the gloom.

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Waiting

What we do while waiting…

Rake the leaves. Watch a cool, wet
spring day paste them back on.
Attend Sunday church. Saturday weddings.
Unexpected funerals. Turn over
the calendar a page at a time. Note
the solstice and equinox.
Add another candle to the birthday cake.

Become preoccupied with the details.
Grocery lists, vacation plans.
This month’s bills. Dishes and laundry.
Invitations accepted and
regretted. Hammer on new additions.
In time’s abundance, never
noticing the balance has finally tipped.

We grow old without meaning to.

Funeral Suit

Dug out of the closet,
his weddings and funerals suit,
acquired at fifty-five,
for the next three decades
was only worn on
those specific occasions.
In his declining years,
wakes and burials alone saw
him so properly attired.

Shrunken into a stoop,
trouser cuffs were taken up.
Despite the poor fit,
he put on that suit for every
committal save one.
Reduced to protruding bone,
for that final ceremony,
in its baggy folds, another’s
hands dressed him.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand / Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson’s delightful novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, takes the reader to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the rolling English countryside. Picturesque, it is filled with thatched cottages and populated by a cast of characters (slightly exaggerated) so traditional that is seems difficult to believe that the story is actually set in the 21st Century.

The main character is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired). Even his closest friends address him as Major Pettigrew; one suspects that, for a good many decades, the only person who dared to call him Ernest was his deceased wife. He clearly is an opinionated curmudgeon, with a strong sense of honor and duty, and intent on preserving English traditions. A young friend lovingly refers to him as him an “old git.” More importantly, he is kind, courtly, and totally endearing; a chivalrous man blessed with a heart of gold. I took an instant liking to this book’s unlikely hero.

The heart of the story deals with his unexpected friendship with the widowed Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. This sprouts when she provides him with some needed assistance following the death of his brother. Simonson, populates her first novel with numerous, interesting subplots. Be it wayward sons, the clash of differing religions and races, or the threat of redevelopment of the village, the author never lets the reader’s interest stray. Even the hunting guns that Major Pettigrew inherits play a large part in the story’s climax. At its heart, the book is an amusing comedy of manners and a love story that never seems clichéd.

Pettigrew’s growing affection for Mrs. Ali is a delight to watch unfold. And with so many colorful neighbors thrown into the bargain, Edgecombe St. Mary is a village that I took great pleasure in getting to know. Turning the last page was a bittersweet moment; I was pleased for how the visit went and the people met, yet sad to have to bid the place and them goodbye.

A Shooting Star / Wallace Stegner

I have read a number of novels by Wallace Stegner, and I came away impressed with his story-telling ability. A Shooting Star, published in 1961, is one of his earlier novels. Without a doubt, it is an engaging read and one that addresses issues that are still relevant today. While it draws the reader in, the story itself does not seem wholly creditable. The biggest flaw for me was its main character, a wealthy middle aged woman trying to figure out her purpose in life.

Sabrina Castro is an attractive woman born into wealth. She is married to an older physician who devotes more attention to his patients than her. A bigger issue is their failure to conceive a child together. Feeling unsatisfied and adrift, Sabrina enters into a brief affair with a married man. She immediately confesses her indiscretion to her husband and then flees to her mother’s estate to ponder how to piece together the shattered pieces of broken dreams.

While she is quick to blame her husband for lack of affection, he continues to try to reconcile with her. Despite his efforts, she refuses to accept his attempts as genuine. In the meantime, living with her mother, surrounded by servants, Sabrina continues a slow spiral into disintegration that includes heavy alcohol use and drunken interactions with other men, which in the end leads to an unexpected pregnancy on her part.

Throughout the story, confronted with demons from her past, Sabrina focuses on the fact that her family never provided the supportive love needed to give her a foundation in life. Until the book’s end, she agonizes over the emptiness she feels, while refusing to fully acknowledge her own faults that have led her into the morass she finds herself in. She places blame on her upbringing to explain the emptiness she feels, condemning her family for their unfulfilled lives, while she follows in their footsteps, wasting the gifts wealth has presented her with. While she might be envious of poorer friends who have settled into jobs, she refuses to stoop to their level by looking for work which might make use of her intelligence and liberal perspective.

I found it impossible to feel sympathetic to the Sabrina’s situation. She struck me as a spoiled child who refuses to accept the fact that her husband actually loves her. While acknowledging her faults, she lacks the ability to fully accept her own guilt, but rather is quick to blame others to explain her own inner demons. The book’s conclusion, with her decision to reconnect with her mother, struck me as an easy out which solved nothing.

What did make this book interesting to me is Sabrina’s family and their history. Her mother, aged and recovering from a stroke, is someone that I instantly felt much sympathy for, and Wallace does a great job of portraying her generosity and strength despite her disappointments in life. There are also a number of other characters who enrich the story. Their life stories proved more interesting than Sabina’s need to be wanted and loved.

The setting in the Peninsula below San Francisco plays an important place in this story. It is a rural area threatened by neighboring suburban development, with the conflict between the status quo and urban sprawl being a riveting component to the book’s subtext. While it kept my interest throughout, placing Sabrina Castro as the main character proved to be a fault that detracted from my being able to give this novel an enthusiastic thumps up. It is a flawed story which still has much to recommend it.

Ancient Rock

After last night’s snowfall
a cleansing north wind revealed
the moon swollen to
twice its size, or so it seemed,
as if that ancient rock
had cleverly sucked the sun dry.

Hours later, loitering to
greet its pale companion peeking
hesitantly in the east,
that moon, charred into embers,
darkens and shrinks,
a faint smudge so easily erased.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane / Neil Gaiman

The narrator of this novel is a man who returns to Sussex, England, his childhood home, to attend a funeral. He remains nameless throughout the story. However, it is only in the book’s prologue and its epilogue that the reader meets the man in middle age. The story itself is told from the perspective of his boyhood self.

After attending a funeral (His father’s perhaps? –Gaiman never actually tells the particulars), the book’s protagonist is drawn to the home of a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. While there, a forgotten memory from his past emerges. It deals with the suicide of an opal miner who was staying in his family home when the narrator was seven years old. The death unleashes into the world a supernatural being, a creature who uses the young boy as a portal to escape from the netherworld into present time.

It is on the day of the suicide that the boy is introduced to Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother. They are a family who reside down the road, at the end of the lane, near the place where the miner’s suicide took place. On their farmstead is a pond, a body of water that Lettie keeps referring to as an ocean. The boy quickly realizes (and easily accepts) the fact that this young girl possesses magical powers and is wise beyond her years. Not only that, her family might be as ancient as the beginnings of time itself.

The entry of the supernatural element into the world unleashes the story that the middle aged man recalls when he visits the Hempstock farmstead. And as the epilogue reveals, it is an event that he will quickly begin to forget again once he drives away. One of the book’s main themes is to show the disconnect between the child and the adult self. Where the child accepts the possibility of demons as a matter of course, the adult denies that such things could exist outside of a dream state.

By using the perspective of an innocent child, one who has no idea that what is occurring is strange at all, Gaiman is able to draw the reader into accepting the paranormal events taking place. However, this unnamed boy is also the story’s weakest link; throughout, he remains a passive victim rather than the hero. He relies, instead, on the Hempstock family to save the day.

Fortunately, Lettie, her mother, and grandmother are such delightful characters that the narrator’s deficiencies are easily forgiven. While by no means a great novel, it is an enjoyable read nonetheless. It is refreshing to have a book of this sort that features such strong women characters as heroes of the day. One does not need to buy into its mythical elements to get caught up in the story’s spell. Just as the adult narrator did as he drove away, I’ll probably soon forget most of the story; the Hempstock family I will long remember with a smile.