Saturday, February 18, 2017

Letter to Self

It has been slightly over ten years since I gave up a regular paycheck.  After a number of years of consulting, I gradually wound it down and settled into what I guess you would call semi-retirement, basically I recreated myself. It has proven to be a very fruitful time in my life, devoted to meaningful work of my choosing. My work now consists of genealogy consulting, writing, artwork and public speaking, but I do it on my schedule and on my terms. Awhile back in this blog,  I wrote a letter to my 22 year old self, telling the then me what I would later learn in life. Then I was on the threshold of my work life. It occurs to me that there are many times in our life where we could benefit from a word from our future self. So with that in mind, I offer a letter to my 52 year old self, the age I was when I was considering taking the plunge of leaving my job. It was a decision accompanied by some trepidation.  



Dear Self,
Life is good from where I sit.  To get there you are going to have to learn let go, be open to the unknown and let life unfold, all things at which you are not very good. Don't worry, you'll learn and the rewards are great. You've done a good job of preparing for your future.  The hard thing is knowing when to say "It's time," to let go of titles and paychecks and start to reinvent yourself.  It takes a while to let go of the idea of a paycheck, even when it is more psychological than necessary. If you can't go cold turkey, either because you need the income or merely think you do, do some consulting or part-time work. You'll know when you are ready to let go. When you get a call on a project, ask them to describe it. If it interests you, you will know. You will start wrapping your brain around it, considering how you would tackle it. You will feel a zing. When there is no zing, it will be time to move on.  



But what about income you ask? You forget, I know you, you are a bit of a worrier, a belt and suspenders type. The savings you socked away and a lifetime of living within your means will pay off. By the time the zing is gone you will have learned to trust the time value of money. It really does grow, that's not just theory you know, even if market shocks cause it to drop precipitously now and then.  Just a heads up, it will tank right after you leave your job.  Yep, you'll be examining your portfolio every time the market dips that first year. Relax, everything will be fine. Just stay diversified and live modestly. 




Now you can begin to fully take control of your life and your time. When you are still consulting, you are always attuned to work emails and not fully attuned to yourself. When you leave that behind,you will start by settling into your natural rhythms. You've always been a night owl by nature so pretty soon you'll be pushing lights out to 2 AM, reading well into the wee hours of morning, just because you can.



As a result you will ban morning meetings before 10 AM, yet another reason to reject consulting jobs where they want you in the office in the morning.  If you're invited to serve on a board that meets over breakfast you will coyly tell them that it won't work for you as it sounds slightly impolite to say "I don't do morning meetings" to someone who doesn't have the luxury of that choice.



When the world turns topsy-turvy, you will get involved politically, stating your opinions freely on social media and in your blog. Oh almost forgot, you will join Facebook in 2008 and begin a blog in 2009. I'll explain later what those are, suffice it to say that you are more public than you ever imagined.  Anyway, it will dawn on you one day that you would have felt a bit uneasy being so open about what you thought when you were receiving a paycheck. When you had a work persona you were more careful about expressing political views, even though they tended to leak out around the edges. You were never very good at hiding what you thought. Now you will find that it feels freeing to be open about who you are and what you believe.

You will rediscover a sense of possibility. You remember when you were first starting in your career, how you always felt such a sense of anything can happen, as if opportunities lurked just around the corner. The world felt like a magical place and you discovered your ability to create something from nothing. It was exhilarating. Along the way, that got tamped down. That sense of adventure began to wane as you were called on to perform specific functions. Creativity wasn't the priority and you discovered that a well-paying job, while it has its rewards, doesn't encourage you to use all your talents. You began to wonder if that early creativity was still there. Happily you will discover it is. Your sense of possibility will be reawakened and you will feel re-energized.


Sometimes you will hear of different careers that sound interesting. You will think for a moment "I could go into that!" Then you'll remember that you've already done the career thing and typical careers eliminate flexibility in your life. That of course doesn't mean you can't dive into something new. You can be a writer or an artist or a genealogy consultant or a public speaker or any number of flexible roles. In fact you'll begin all of those paths, sometimes amping up an existing activity, sometimes discovering a whole new direction. Often you will be surprised to discover new abilities you didn't know you had. You will feel freer to experiment with new things because you have nothing to lose, no perch in a corporate hierarchy to preserve. 




You've always done a lot of volunteer work. Now you choose your commitments carefully, engaging in things that have meaning to you and where you can use the skills you enjoy using. If things don't meet that test, you bow out or take a pass. One day you look at your involvements and realize they accurately reflect your interests and values.



You will be surprised to discover many avenues to creating new friends, every interest has a community that accompanies it.  You will be out in many different circles and accumulate new friends easily, friends who share your interests, not just your career path. Writing and speaking publicly introduces you to people you might never have met otherwise.


Now the bad news, that study or closet that you've always figured you'd clean up when you had time. Not going to happen. Stop pretending. Just because you have more flexible time, doesn't mean you will commit it to things you don't like doing. Oh you might do a bit around the edges, enough to hold the chaos at bay, but when you've successfully built your new life, you will much rather spend your time exploring it.


And yes, you are getting older. On a good day, one might say you look good for your age, always that damn qualifier.   All in all though, this is a pretty good time in your life, a growing time. You can almost hear the synapses snapping.



Love, 
Your Future Self

Thursday, February 9, 2017

In My Family

Occasionally I reread past blog posts, a bit like one might reread a journal, for I have eight years of my life well documented in these pages.  I notice that in many of my posts, I say "in my family we..."

Value education,
Love words,
Write protest letters,
Have strong opinions,
Value creativity, 
Make use of failures,
Speak up...

All defined within the construct of a family, one which now has lost those two central people who created it.  Fortunately my sister had two daughters and so the family continues. My nieces were close to their grandparents and absorbed much of those underpinnings directly, as well as through my sister and perhaps a bit of me.

 I've also written about my grandparents who were immigrants and how that immigrant history informs my politics. Who we are doesn't spring out of nowhere. It is born in a family of beliefs, in a family of experiences that are passed down to us and within a heritage and cultural history. It is one of the most important things we get from family.  Whether we concur or rebel, it influences our world view.

Some of us grow up in a religious tradition that influences our perspective. Mine was as a Reform Jew and it echoed and supported the beliefs of my family, one grounded in questioning and challenging, in speaking up for what we believe is right.  That perspective is
My niece's cape at the DC Women's March
*
often the wellspring of creativity.  Questioning allows us to see the world through fresh eyes.

We also grow up in a community.  I grew up in downstate Illinois in what was a pretty conservative area. Sometimes we define who we are in opposition. I found little to rebel against in my family's belief system, but I did define myself in opposition to the politics around me. In high school I used to work in political campaigns to meet people who thought like I did. My candidates invariably lost.

We each have a story defined by family, religion, community and our life experiences. We also absorb the experiences of our family as if by osmosis, not always realizing the source, but absorbing the message.  As a reader I have always valued story, it is the focus of my artwork and my writing.  

I've been working on a project for many years that grew out of interviews with Jewish elders. It has grown from interviews to artwork to public speaking and hopefully in time will be available in a book.This project has been important to me because I think it is important to acknowledge and understand the history that defines who we are, that underlies our beliefs which in turn feed our actions. Family history tends to become important to people as they age and begin to lose the people who embodied that history, but even if we don't take that deep dive into family history research, it is important to share our family stories and their embedded values with children and grandchildren. As I explored questions around family history, I ran across the research by Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush.  They work within Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and have found that young people who know about their family history have more effective skills in dealing with life challenges. They call this awareness our "intergenerational self." For this reason alone we all need to be family storytellers, linking past to present and ultimately to future.

But it is not just about the next generation. We also need to remember our stories ourselves, to keep ourselves centered in challenging times, to remember the values and traditions from which we come and to act in ways that are consistent with that which is integral to who we are. In this time of turmoil, I take a deep breath and remind myself, "In my family we value education, we value creativity, we write protest letters, we have strong opinions, we speak up ..." 


*Text on cape: My Great-Grandma Immigrated, so my Grandma could Learn so my Mom could Work, so I can March so my nephews will see women as Equals

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Does Democracy Look Like?


I am not a protester by nature. Well that's not strictly true. I have strong opinions and I don't hold them back.  I prefer to do it with the written word from the comfort of my home, allowing me to be thoughtful in my approach. In real time, I can be a bit of a hothead. Most of the time my Midwestern roots kick in and I bite my tongue. Still my husband has watched me nervously in airports when I've not been happy about how things were unfolding, worrying a bit that I might push my displeasure too far.

Part of my aversion to "in the streets protesting" is that I don't like crowds. It is not just the discomfort of crowds.  I don't quite trust a crowd mentality, on the left any more than on the right. I prefer nuanced well-thought-out and articulated ideas and those come from a different channel. In today’s environment, I am rethinking my resistance to crowds and protest. 

After the election when we both were deeply distressed, my husband did a lot of preaching to the choir. That's me. Fortunately, we share the same views and the same distress. I kept saying, "We should all be out in the streets!" This choir was ready to sing, albeit a tad off key. My crowd aversion was quickly forgotten. When things are so wrong, my instinct is to take to the streets to declare it.

It was a small step from that sentiment to attending the Women's March in DC and that caused me to reassess my crowd aversion. It was a joyous and inclusive crowd, driven by the same instinctive awareness of wrongness that drove me. There is a time to take to the streets and this is it. Marching to the chant of "Tell me what Democracy looks like.  This is what Democracy looks like" felt absolutely right deep inside.  I chanted with fervor, believing those words. I believe in democracy and inclusiveness and yes, kindness.  Those are the things for which I am comfortable protesting.


You know it's bad when Ole and Lena protest
You know it's bad when Sven and Ole protest
The action against immigrants and refugees upset me more than anything prior and between choice, health care and the environment, that is saying a lot.  I think it is because we can clearly see the impact on people. To me, it feels personal. My grandparents were immigrants and fortunate to have immigrated in the early 1900s. Had they waited until the middle of the century, they would likely not have escaped. Jews were not welcome in the United States and many were turned away and sent to their death. Many of my family did not make it out. With fifty family members murdered in the Holocaust, I am well aware that in another time, I could easily have been trapped on the other side. I also realize that it takes a certain comfort in one's safety and place in the world to challenge, to protest. I imagine that few of those detained felt that safety. For that reason, I have a responsibility to protest on their behalf.

Responsibility. That is a lot of what it boils down to.  Lately my husband and I have talked a lot about personal responsibility. We are fortunate to have flexible time and the financial ability to support causes that matter to us, to grab a flight to join a protest in DC or elsewhere. That underscores our responsibility and eliminates many of the excuses we are often prone to for not engaging.

This feels like a pivotal point and I have been trying to find the best ways to respond. When the news broke barring immigrants from seven Muslim countries, I wrote to my senators and congressman. My congressman, a conservative Republican, gets a steady stream of notes from me. He needs the most prodding. I gave money to the National Immigration Law Center, I signed a petition and posted information, all pretty small steps. 

I was greatly heartened however by the protests at the airports. There is something about showing up that feels important. It is how we say "This is not normal nor right".  Our biggest threat is if we allow these government actions to become the new normal, if we post on Facebook and then move on with our everyday lives. Protesting requires our bodies to follow through and there is something about that physical action that kicks the rest of us into motion.  It is the difference between a spectator sport and actually playing.


You know it's bad when Susan and Marty protest

The United States has not always inspired pride.There have been times when it was mired in isolationism and bigotry, much as is threatened today. I hope we can help our country be one of which we can be proud, but I know it takes critical mass and I can't make it happen by myself. So tonight, I did something about it.

My husband and I went to a political protest this evening.  We first stopped at our studio to make a sign, then joined at least 5000 people in downtown Minneapolis. When we first arrived, I spotted an artist friend. She told us that she had gone to the Women's March in St Paul, her first protest. Her friend commented that this evening was her first protest.  That is what I find remarkable. People who would normally never protest are stirred to action, so disturbed that they are taking to the streets. Tonight, I chanted loudly, half dancing down the streets of downtown, feeling the energy of the crowd and grateful for our shared passion. 

This is what Democracy looks like.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Being Visible

Soon after hearing of the plans for the Women's March in Washington DC, I decided that I needed to be there. Me, someone who really doesn't like crowds. When Prince died and people gathered in downtown Minneapolis at First Avenue, I had a brief moment when I forgot I didn't like crowds. "Maybe we should go there," I said to my husband as we watched the throng of people on the news. Then I remembered that he disliked crowds even more than I do.

This time I went and joined the crowd. I went to the Women's March because I felt so deeply that it is important to be visible. I wanted to make my physical presence known, to occupy my space on this earth, to assert I am here.  I voted, I gave money, I even door knocked during the election, but save for door knocking, they are all quiet ways of showing support. And believe me when I say, I must push myself past my internal boundaries every time I door knock or phone in a campaign. There is a part of me that hesitates to intrude.





I have been so filled with disgust over our recent election, an election that was stage managed by the FBI and Russia, that elected by a three million popular vote deficiency, a man who fills me with loathing and supports policies that are antithetical to who I am.  So now I was ready to intrude. Now I needed to show up. I needed to let my body take up space, to exert my physical presence and be counted.



Some have asked what the purpose was of the march. Every person I spoke with felt that the values and the tone of this administration were diametrically opposed to their own.  This is not just a matter of dissatisfaction at "losing" an election, and I use that term loosely given the popular vote. In addition to values, there is a level of disgust at the method of generating support by appealing to the worst instincts of people, denigrating women, Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants. It embarrasses me as an American. I expected better of us. I want an inclusive nation, with policy and tone that is respectful of differences, without rancor. I want integrity and honesty, not lies in service of one man's ego. I marched for that hope and I was surrounded by people who shared that hope. 

Do I really expect it to change anything? I don't know, but I hope so. If the wings of a butterfly can create a tornado, imagine what three million people in 600 cities around the world can create when they are willing to show up, to intrude. Sometimes we have to let things unfold.  I hope it's a first step. I don't yet know what the next step will be, but sometimes you have to take the first step before you know what comes next. Life is incremental. Vision requires movement, one step at a time, we reach a new vantage point and begin to see what can be. This weekend my vantage point was people pressed tightly together as far as the eye could see, all sharing a common vision. It filled me with hope and a sense of possibility.

As I reflect on the past few days, I realize that one of the things which was very different was the level of intimacy with strangers, sometimes quite literally at the march as our usual sense of physical space was breached, but in other ways as well. I am an introvert and usually have my nose in a book on an airplane. This time was different.  On the plane, I talked the entire flight with the woman next to me, substantive talk about values and beliefs, how we struggle in our interactions with those who don't share our values and beliefs. It was not until the very end that we introduced ourselves.




Then I got into the shuttle and talked with the driver. There is a feeling out process. "Why didn't you come for the inauguration?" he asked. "Because I had no desire to see that man inaugurated," I reply. We are off and running, sharing our mutual loathing for "that man."


 

The seat mate who soon joined me in the shuttle was from Kansas City so we talked a bit about our respective state politics.  Then we shared our stories about health care and the canned responses from our state legislators to our letters. I have a regular 3 AM letter writing ritual when I can't sleep, letters to my conservative state legislator. I had recently gotten a canned letter back for the second time. In my third letter, I wrote,"Stop, do not send me your form letter. I am sending you a thoughtful and reasoned letter and I expect the same in response."  My seat mate shared a remarkably similar story. 



 
The next morning when I walked the mile to the metro stop, I chatted with a couple I encountered in route, also headed to the march. They had recently moved to DC and this was their first time using the metro. We talked of the various places they had lived, their politics and their desire to be present. The metro was packed with women in pink pussy hats holding signs, standing room only. I realized my phone was fast losing juice and my new friends had a charger they happily shared as we stood clinging to the pole.


 
On the heels of those experiences, I began the march feeling that this crowd was filled with people like me, people with whom I could have a real conversation on shared beliefs and values. I met up with a friend and my niece, but the crowds and poor Internet connection, caused some challenges in finding them. As I momentarily wondered if we'd meet, I consoled myself with the thought that all of these marchers were potential friends in the making. 




After the march, crowds filled all of the streets, restaurant goers spilled out in front of the restaurants, metro lines wound out around the corner and down the block. I flagged down a taxi and returned to my friend's home deeply engaged in conversation with the Somali cabbie. He was quite convinced that there were more than the half million estimate in DC based on the number of metro rides and lines at the metros. We soon took a deep dive into politics."My friend, let me tell you" was his preface to each comment and I indeed felt like a friend. He told me of how he took a week to go to Minnesota and Ohio to get Somalis engaged in the election. He then returned to DC where he gave people free rides to the polls. I was impressed. His knowledge of politics was deep and he was engaged. He dropped me at my door and I walked gingerly on tired feet.

Now I must say; marching is hard work. It involves a lot of standing for long stretches, tightly surrounded by other people, before you have that glorious release of movement, marching with others, chanting, waving signs and realizing it is not just you who is disgusted and ready to intrude. You've got lots of company. As I write this the morning after, feeling a bit achy in its aftermath, I am very glad to have intruded on the public consciousness and I intend to keep doing so, I suspect in good company.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blog Anxiety

There is a point early in each year where I invariably experience a crisis of confidence about this blog.  "Have I run out of new things to say?" I wonder.  Every time I write a blog post, I'm never sure where the next one will come from, or even if it will come. Often I experience a bit of blog anxiety. Will it resonate with anyone? If so, then how do I follow it with another that will also? Just as with paintings, not everything is a masterpiece and in the interest of timeliness, blog entries often are not our most polished work. 

I think it is about more than just writing, for writing is merely an expression of our thoughts and experiences. The past eight years of this blog have been fertile, a time of exploration and discovery in my life that in turn has fed this blog. The core of my unease is perhaps less will I have interesting things to write, more will I have interesting things to live? Exploration and discovery presuppose a path that is unknown.  And it is that very unknown, that is the root of unease, that also gives birth to the surprises that delight us with their unexpected nature.


* Photo credit
So let's leave those more existential concerns aside and consider blogging itself. I've been thinking about it recently as a friend announced she was considering starting a blog. I advised her to choose a broad topic and be prepared to expand it over time. Don't hesitate to knock down the walls of your house and add on rooms. Living in one space can get tiresome. Meaningful content is one of the challenges, but even a meaningful topic can begin to feel confining over a long period of time.

In writing classes we are given prompts, ideas that inspire us to write. I've learned that prompts are all around us. Sometimes an event is a prompt or a question that is posed that perhaps stumped me at the time and lingers. This post was started by something as basic as a friend saying she was thinking of starting a blog. If you're someone who ponders ideas, you will find that you can riff off just about anything. When you write a blog, you need to learn to pay attention to those curious thoughts that make you wonder. They usually contain a prompt.

Then there is the commitment to consistently write. The most important thing for any blogger is a love of writing, otherwise it is a lot of work. Well it's a lot of work even if you do love to write, but it's the difference between a labor of love and just plain labor.Writing can be magical. Metaphors appear as if out of air, cicadas and nesting dolls and tectonic plates. "Where did those come from?" I wonder. It is as if the experience of a lifetime is blended together and unexpected elements emerge. It is the magic that enthralls me the most, how ideas and images take shape through the mere act of writing.

There are annoyances as well. For me the most annoying aspect of writing a blog is finding photos and correcting formatting that somehow alters in the cybersphere. I swat at these impatiently, obstacles to metaphors and magic.

This is my ninth year of blogging. I began when I was heading off to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute to spend six weeks in Eastern Europe. I hoped to keep a record of my explorations. I knew nothing about blogging and frankly didn't care if anyone read it, in fact I wasn't sure I wanted them to. My objective was not to embarrass myself. The bar was set pretty low, good writing and proper grammar was all that was required (perhaps not so low after all). I spent time every evening writing and drafted my travel companion into the effort as well. There was no shortage of material given our surroundings. Each evening we explored the events of our day, something I found oddly satisfying.

When I returned from my travels I realized I wasn't quite ready to quit. My writing began to focus on my genealogy research and the artwork that grew out of my explorations. I was still protecting a zone of privacy. I got married upon my return and we headed off to Paris for our honeymoon, but I wrote very little about it. I hadn't yet deemed that in scope.  I was a private person writing publicly and rather shy about it.

Over time I wrote about travels in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, meetings with distant cousins who I tracked down through my research and of course my evolving artwork. My interview project with Jewish elders and the artwork that followed occupied a lot of blog real estate as well as a lot of my energy. For a time I wrote about the Artist Lab until I was invited to write a dedicated blog for it. Now I had two blogs to maintain. Later when I was a long distance caregiver for my mother, I began to veer into the personal, sharing my perspective as her memory faded. 

A funny thing happened. Readers seemed to like the personal, that stuff I'd avoided as private. My artwork began to move into the personal too as I explored memory and with the death of my parents in the past few years, my blog became a place to process who they were as people and who they were to me. My original title Layers of the Onion: A Family History Exploration still seemed oddly appropriate, but I had moved from ancestors to those who raised me. I began to let myself into my blog and gradually found my voice, sharing personal stories that shaped my perspective.

It dawns on me occasionally that I have gone public. Friends read my blog as well as friends of friends and many people I don't know. I am often surprised when people mention it in social gatherings and seem to know a lot about me. I've met new people through my blog so in many ways it has expanded my world. My greatest "ah ha" out of writing this blog is that authenticity is found by sharing who we are. Life gets easier when we do that. People connect and respond to us when we let them see the real person. All that hesitance to let people in, to preserve a zone of privacy, is distancing and I don't need that as much now as I once did. 

It is a risk to let people see who we are, to tell our story. Maybe they won't like what they see, but the benefit of getting older is we care less about that. Part of our journey as people is to find and share our authentic selves, the stories and observations that define us. It is from that effort that we begin to recognize the common threads between us and others. At its best a blog can be a path to our common humanity.



*Photo by Matthew Hull at Morguefile.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Balm of Fiction

This year of reading was much lighter on nonfiction than my normal reading. Frankly I got enough of the real world as I followed the political news. I needed some escape from it, something to absorb my energies which were too easily distracted by disturbing news. Much of what I read was based on history, a topic of interest to me. 

In my prior post, I wrote of two authors who I especially enjoyed and of whom I read widely. I also wrote of my reading on art related themes, both fiction and non-fiction. This post explores some of the additional fiction which I highly recommend.  There is no particular order to this list. As I assembled it,  I was surprised to realize that it all fell between 2014-16, so is quite contemporary.

Flight of the Sparrow (2014) by Amy Belding Brown is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson who was kidnapped by the Indians in the 1600s. In Brown's  fictionalized recounting, Rowlandson learns how to survive among the Indians and finds her ultimate return more challenging than anticipated. She actually had more freedom among the Indians. Indian life is not romanticized with frightening violence exhibited in raids, but the cultural differences are well delineated, many of them represented favorably over Puritan standards. This was not a topic I had previously explored and when I subsequently stumbled across Jiles' books (see prior post) I found myself inadvertently following a theme.

Last Bus to Wisdom (2015) is the last book Ivan Doug published before his death. It is a coming of age story set in the 1950s and somewhat autobiographical.  I have always been a fan of Doig and enjoy his wry humor. It is a defining characteristic of all of his work, but especially so in this book. The young man who is our protagonist gets wiser with each mile. As there will be no more Doig books, I plan to revisit those not yet read.

The Other Side of Life  (2015) by Andy Kutler makes use of a plot devise that lifts the main character out of Pearl Harbor and into the middle of the Civil War, two places I would never choose to be. Having said that, I must also say that I found it fascinating. I especially felt that it captured the reality of the Civil War.

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi is written in chapters that represent parallel generations of two sisters who experienced different channels of black experience.  One becomes the "wife" of a white Captain involved with the British slave trade while the other is captured by Fante warriors and sold into slavery. It is an interesting way to reflect this experience although each generational chapter could easily have become a book of its own. An interesting perspective on how blacks also played a role in the slave trade.

A Man Called Ove (2014) by Frederick Bachman is an utterly charming book that captures the kind of man who exhibits emotion through guy stuff: cars, using his hands to make things, helping out in practical ways. Ove lacks an emotional vocabulary, but stumbles into emotion none-the-less. This book finds the goodness buried beneath the trappings of being an inarticulate man. Very heartwarming.

The Atomic Weight of Love (2016) by Elizabeth Church is set in Los Alamos where Meridian, a promising young science student is married to a physics professor who is now working on the atomic bomb. It offers a glimpse of the social community of Los Alamos where well educated wives abandon their career aspirations in the manner of the times, seeking what fulfillment they can find on the margins. We have the opportunity to follow Meridian more closely and observe her inner life.

The Secret Chord (2015) by Geraldine Brooks is the story of King David, the unromanticized version, as told through the eyes of his seer. In this version he is a man of talents, but also hubris, all story drawn from the Bible, but reframed to place us closer to the action. It is an interesting perspective through the eyes of the women who surround him, both wives and daughter. 

The Henna House (2014) by Nomi Eve is the story of Yemenite Jews and the secret language of the art of henna. It explores a love story in hindsight, both of female friendship and romantic love. It is touched by betrayal, by loved ones and also betrayal by history through the Holocaust and expulsion of the Yemenite Jewish community.

Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett explores how a chance encounter both disrupts and reshapes families creating reverberations through subsequent generations. It is about family secrets and story and the ties between family in all its ill-formed misbegotten varieties. 

Miller's Valley (2016) is a novel by Anna Quindlen. I usually prefer essays by Quindlen, but I've watched her skills as a novelist grow and especially liked this novel. It is about a bright young woman freeing herself from a world that isn't designed for the mobility that she ultimately requires. She receives encouragement from her mother who recognizes her potential, and supports her escape from her hometown. Her home is soon to be flooded and the valley reclaimed, submerging secrets in the wake of her escape. The novel is strongest when it is focused on her life in the valley, struggling to maintain its momentum when she departs.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

So Many Books!

In past years I have selected my top ten books from the 60+ that I read in the course of the year. Sometimes it feels like a fool's errand to select ten books.  Forced choices mean that so many good ones end up on the cutting room floor. Plots that are not as fresh in my mind may suffer against those freshly read.  At my first pass through my list, I trimmed it, but was nowhere close to ten. Then I decided that since this is my list, I get to impose the order or disorder as the case may be.

I began to group them by theme and author. When I discover a new author, I often read a selection of their work. I also often have topics that I explore and this year art seems to top the list.  When I tally it up two authors accounted for over 20% of my reading while art topics took in another 10%+.  I think authors are worthy of special acknowledgement when I return to the well for more, so let me introduce you to two authors and the topic that merited my attention.

Connie Willis has been a name on my "to read" book list for some time, but I've long forgotten the source of this recommendation. I vaguely recall mentioning my penchant for time travel books and being told that I must read Connie Willis. As someone immersed in genealogy, I am fascinated by imagining life in earlier times. I am often surprised by how similar people are throughout time even as the world changes around us.  My interest in genealogy has also deepened my interest in history in all its forms, time travel, historical fiction and nonfiction. To say Willis writes about time travel, really doesn't do justice to acknowledging her literary talents which span many genres including mystery with a touch of romance and a dose of wry humor. The first book of hers that drew me in was To Say Nothing of the Dog which takes us back to Victorian England from 2057 to solve a puzzle from the 1940s. It should be read in conjunction with a timeless Victorian novel titled Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome which Willis draws on in her novel.  Now if you accept the premise that you can travel through time you must also accept the rules that accompany it. Nothing from the past can be brought to the future lest it change it, a rule that comes under examination in this book. 

Once captivated by Willis' talents I proceeded to read nine of her books taking me back to the medieval times of the plague in the Doomsday Book, to WWII England, from Dunkirk to the Blitz, in Blackout and All Clear. I was also intrigued by an exploration of near death and post death experiences in Passages. What fascinates me about her writing is her range and her ability to bring it all home at the conclusion in a clever solution that doesn't feel forced or disappointing. It is like watching a master juggler end their act with a flourish. She also does an extraordinary amount of historical research leaving me feeling much smarter than I was at the beginning without even realizing I had been studying.

The other author I discovered was Paulette Jiles. The important thing to recognize about her is that she was a poet before she became a novelist and that is evident in her writing. It is often beautiful, but not in an overpowering way that obscures the story. Her work is often based on history, but fictionalized to the extent that history leaves much unsaid and a writer has gaps to fill. The first book I read of hers was News of the World which follows the post Civil War story of a man who makes his living bringing the news to the towns on his route through Texas. In each city he publicly reads from a variety of papers to the townspeople. In route he is asked to deliver a ten year old girl to her family after her recovery from the Indians who kidnapped her.  A simple premise, but so beautifully told.  

I was taken with the sheer elegance of Jiles' storytelling, so followed this book with The Color of Lightening which has some overlapping characters and provides more of the back story of the theme of Indian life and kidnapping of children who readily adapt to it. I then moved on to Stormy Weather, the story of a mother and her three daughters who carve out a life in Texas during the Depression. I closed with her novel Enemy Women, set during the Civil War and depicting the struggles faced by both sides. Each one of these books was well crafted and beautifully written with well-developed characters who you come to care about.

My art reading accounted for seven books that took me into a deeper understanding of Velasquez, O'Keeffe, Soutine, Rilke, Rodin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, the School of Paris and the Abstract Impressionists.

The Vanishing Velasquez is nonfiction and explores a painting that has disappeared, but was believed to have been a Velasquez. It is as much an exploration of the 19th century bookseller who purchased it and defended its provenance as an exploration of Velasquez himself. Written by art critic Laura Cummings it reads like a novel and a fascinating detective story, exploring the passion that art can summon. I have another book by her on self portraits, A Face to the World, that I am eager to read.

Georgia is a fictionalized story of Georgia O'Keeffe, but appears to be quite an accurate depiction as it draws heavily on her correspondence. It explores her romance with Alfred Stieglitz and her efforts to define herself separately as an artist, distinct from her role as muse. Dawn Tripp does an excellent job of humanizing O'Keeffe and allowing the reader to see the world through her eyes.  

I am always intrigued to learn that lives of well known historical figures overlapped and influenced each other.  Two books explore this theme, one through non-fiction, the other fictionalized, but drawing on historical record. The first is You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett which explores the relationship between Rodin and Rainier Maria Rilke. Rilke was both a friend and one time secretary to Rodin and viewed him as a mentor in how he approached an artistic life. He was also ultimately disillusioned in his hero, perhaps a necessary step as he matured as a poet.  I followed that book with Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, a book that looks at the competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as they created their works of the Mona Lisa and David respectively during the same window of time.The book gave each of them form and personality and explored the process of creation of these masterworks.  

Other books on my art list included The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith,The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro and Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler.  The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos  is not about an actual artist, but rather a fictionalized story that follows a Dutch painting by a female artist in its journey in modern times. It is a well constructed novel that enters the world in which the painting was created as well as the modern day world of those whose lives it touches. The Muralist also is fictionalized, but placed into the actual world of the Abstract Expressionists. It too moves between past and present and incorporates family lost in the Holocaust, reminding us that events are never far from their historical context.  Shocking Paris is a nonfiction book that explores the artists who made up the School of Paris with a focus on Soutine and the other Jewish artists who emigrated to Paris and formed a significant part of this group. 

Now that leaves over 40 books out of which I will address some of my remaining favorites in a subsequent post.