Archive for June, 2017

Middlemarch / George Eliot

Middlemarch, published in 1871, is considered by many to be among the top English novels of all time. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, the novel covers the events taking place during the time period of 1829 to 1832. It features a large cast of characters, enough so that it is advised to have a list on hand to keep track of them all. The primary issue that Eliot addresses in this novel is the status of women in society, and the relationship between husbands and wives. But numerous topics are also touched upon, including the political concerns of the time, religion, and the insular aspects of provincial life.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Middlemarch, she referred to it as a forerunner of Peyton Place. And indeed, it does delve into the intrigues of small town life and the scandals that can often sweep through the community’s gossip network. Three couples serve as the book’s centerpiece. There is Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent and wealthy widow, and her growing relationship with Will Ladislaw, a younger relative of her deceased husband. Tertius Lydgate, an idealist physician, marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful but vain young woman intent on keeping her status in Middlemarch’s high society despite her husband’s growing debt. And there is Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, who is struggling to find a suitable career, and Mary Garth, a woman from a lower class who has captured his heart. Plain and practical, she and her family rescue him from the excesses of his privileged life and help to set him on a path to a better life.

Diving into Middlemarch, at first I found the book’s density of detail to be overwhelming. It is not a story one can race through. And its length is daunting as well. I found that all I could read in one sitting was ten pages before reaching overload. Eliot’s description of life in a small town seems to leave no stone unturned, as a parade of characters pass in and out of the story. Patience is required on the part of the reader as the plot unfolds. The reward for wading through such thoroughness is to get a full understanding of the place and time she is describing.

I am not sure I myself would rank this novel as one of the top English novels of all time, but Eliot has certainly written a book that stands a good chance of being read for many generations still to come. Thanks to her writing skills, Middlemarch becomes a living entity to the “fly on the wall” reader. While the story’s wrap-up has a “happily ever after” feel, it remains a frank account of the difficulties of married life, small town life, and how dreams often come true in unexpected ways.

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Cathedral

A walkway
dappled in fading sunlight
Fenced gardens
announced by their scent
Cottonwood
seed hairs populating
the breeze
Trees on either side
genuflect
with sagging bows
Congregating
drab monk sparrows
in the rafters
Accompanied by work’s
noisy aftermath
today you barely sense
Spring’s prayer
Wearing the headphones
of thought
a cathedral’s balm falls
on deaf ears

Fireflies And Crickets

Once upon a time
we kept lightning in a jar
violins inside
the drawer of a matchbox
and awoke to find both graves

Such foolish children
to think by punching air holes
with grass for carpet
that we could perpetuate
an orchestrated light show

Wondrous decades on
summer’s length the container
their distant broadcast
framed by an open window
in a repeat performance

Celestial Murmur

At ninety, her world had shrunk
to the size of an upstairs bedroom with
a bathroom ten steps down the hall.
Her only lifeline to the outside world was
a radio console that glowed
soft as moonlight through the long nights.
At dusk, local stations would
fall silent following the national anthem
as the boundaries of day,
weather permitting, became elongated.
Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver
faded in and out as she methodically
navigated the bandwidth;
sometimes finding herself in Canada
before drifting on to Cincinnati.
Despite a Victorian attitude, baseball
was a passion, and any game
she came upon caught her attention.
Translating balls and strikes
through the crackly hiss of the static,
she intently followed each pitch
as if blessed with a front row seat.
Disembodied in that ether,
the ache of her years disappeared.
And whether it was sports
she found, music, or the day’s news,
sitting there in her tiny room,
comforted by that celestial murmur,
Aunt Minn was never alone.

Cain Isn’t Abel

He cannot bring himself
to obey.
Instead, he conveys the gift
of a marriage
between sun, soil, and water.
A succulent offering
from summer’s abundance.
Cradled in
calloused hands, he presents
fruits plucked
from his cultivated fields.
It is understood
that his younger brother
will arrive
with portions carved from
the firstborn
of his shepherded flock.
As the elder,
a farmer blessed with
such bounty,
how can the Lord reject
his overture?
Cain knows a blood sacrifice
is required.
But then, Cain isn’t Abel.

The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World is an ingeniously constructed piece of fiction. It is presented as a posthumous sampler featuring excerpts from the diaries of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an artist who created dazzling (and often frightening) multimedia installations from the 1970s to her death in 2004. The sampler also features critical reviews of her work and interviews with her family, friends, and collaborators.

Harriet is an amazing character, a flawed protagonist filled with rage, an intense creative energy, and a neediness to have her artistic endeavors acknowledged and acclaimed. In her fifties, she comes to believe that the reason that her work has been dropped from galleries is because of her sex and age. To prove her hypothesis, she decides to produce a series of installations for which she enlists men to present as their own work.

Over the course of five years, from 1998 to 2003, Harriet then creates three pieces (“The History of Western Art,” “The Suffocation Rooms,” and “Beneath”), each of which she attributes to a different male artist. The first two installations do garner critical approval, but it is the third that proves to be a huge success, both commercially and critically. The piece’s advertised creator is a 24-year-old artist, a hunk who looks great and thrives in the public eye. When Harriet, using an alias (presenting herself as a male reviewer), “outs” herself as the true author of the work, angry reviewers and gallery owners refuse to believe her… and the young male artist dismisses her claim as well.

Harriet Burden is a woman who is often loud, who lectures and can come across as too aggressive. But she also has a big heart, over the years sheltering a number of street people in her own home. At 6-foot-2, she is a towering presence, prone to explosive rage when it comes to the critical indifference to her art. It is only after subordinating her own ambitions as the “perfect” daughter, wife, and mother that Harriet begins to truly turn into “Harry”. She even claims that her works take on a different quality when she creates the piece impersonating a man.

In this novel Harriet Burden wears many masks, and the glimpses into her diaries reveal a complex personality, obviously creative and intellectual, but also often crippled by self-doubt despite her aggressive public persona. The Blazing World is a dazzling read, one that touches upon numerous subjects, including art history, philosophy, and even neurobiology. It is a novel that engages both the mind and the heart. The book’s title is well-chosen, for this story does blaze with the energy that creativity generates.

Did You Ever Have A Family / Bill Clegg

On the morning of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life disappears in a sudden flash. A gas explosion in her home takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband, and Luke, her much younger boyfriend. June survives only because she happens to be outside when the explosion takes place. Unable to face the smoldering ruins of this tragedy, she flees her small Connecticut town to a roadside motel on the Pacific, where she withdraws into the room’s shell, cut off from almost all human contact.

While the gas explosion is never actually described, the events leading up to it and the ripple effect it causes are fully explored. June herself only appears in a handful of the book’s chapters. Instead of making her the story’s focus, Clegg broadens the canvas to show how this tragedy changed the lives of people who knew and loved those killed on that wedding day. This includes the parents of the fiancé, friends and neighbors, and the mother of Luke, June’s boyfriend. For me, Lydia Morey, Luke’s mother, proves to be this novel’s most interesting character. She is also the thread that unites the separate lives presented, and ultimately she becomes the knot of the story’s conclusion.

This is by no means a great novel. Clegg’s writing style is plain and direct. He lets his characters speak in their own vernacular, stripped of all poetic embellishment. Nonetheless, he succeeds in creating a community that rings true on the page by fully providing his characters’ complicated pasts. Detailing a small town’s secrets and whispers, he sympathetically weaves a tale of tragedy into one that concludes with hope and forgiveness rising like a phoenix from the ashes. In doing so, Did You Ever Have A Family proves to be a book difficult to set down.