February 28, 2017
This is the second post in my Book Cover Project, and it highlights four of the best books I read during the month of February:
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I have been reading books featuring Texas in anticipation of a planned trip there in late April. News of the World by Paulette Jiles takes place in post-Civil War Texas. Captain Kidd, a 71-year old widow makes his living as an itinerant performer who gives readings from newspapers in small towns throughout northern Texas. He is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young 10-year-old girl, Johanna Leonberger, to her relatives near San Antonio. Four years earlier, Johanna was captured by the Kiowa in a raid that killed her parents.
The Captain and Johanna encounter many dangers during the 400-mile journey — lawlessness, a corrupt Reconstructionist government, continuing Indian raids. The trail narrative itself is compelling, but the author also gives a sympathetic portrayal of the challenges facing those whites who were “rescued” from their Indian captors. “The Captain never did understand what had caused such a total change in a little girl from a German household and adopted into a Kiowa one. In a mere four years she completely forgot her birth language and her parents, her people, her religion, her alphabet. She forgot how to use a knife and fork and how to sing European scales. And once she was returned to her own people, nothing came back. She remained at heart a Kiowa to the end of her days.”
“She never learned to value those things that white people valued. The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts.”
The Nest by Cynthia D’Arpix Sweeney. This is a novel about four adult siblings who are each anticipating coming into an inheritance from their father, the “nest,” when the youngest sister turns forty. Although their parents had taught them not to count their chickens before they hatched, the siblings have watched the small nest egg grow to a considerable amount, and each counted on the money to relieve financial stresses due to choices they made in their adult lives. For example, the youngest sister was anticipating using the money to fund her daughters’ college educations. One of the brothers had secretly taken an equity loan against a cherished vacation property in order to keep his business afloat.
Then disaster strikes few months before coming into their inheritance. One of the brothers, driving drunk, is in a car accident that severely injures his passenger — a young woman caterer with whom he was about to have an illicit liaison. In order to settle with the young woman, the siblings’ mother and trustee uses $2 million from the “nest,” leaving just a modest remainder for distribution. This novel depicts the family’s clashes and adjustments arising from the loss of their “nest.”
Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford by Kim Stafford. The poet William Stafford died in 1993, naming his son Kim his literary executor. This memoir lovingly celebrates the life and poems of the elder Stafford. It touches on Stafford’s childhood in Kansas: “The Great Depression could be rich for a poor family that loved to read and talk. Without prosperity, they were free to revel in the local and the everyday.” And it reveals how Stafford’s life was shaped by his pacifism — he was a conscientious objector in WWII, which was not at all a popular or understood stand: “. . . I absorbed his clarity about aggression: it’s never okay. Nor, if you are alert, should it be necessary. Violence signals a failure of imagination.”
William Stafford exemplified “loyalty to the self.” He strove to be authentic to his visions, asking, ‘What is my particular calling among the quiet voices of the world?” His son described him as follows: “He was objector, writer, wanderer — a three-way isolation by choice.” And, “It was how he thought — taking an idea, a conversation, a class, a child — or a poem — to the brink of difficult truth.”
I was most impressed by the descriptions of William Stafford’s writing practice. He got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to write for three hours before the rest of the household awoke. Kim says, “You have a family you love. You have a job you do and some days love, if you are lucky. But you also have an inner life, a quiet voice, a realm of intuition and expression that may be largely dormant through your busy days. In my father’s practice, this inner life happened first.”
“Taken as a whole, the daily writing constitutes a symposium with the self, where questions of ethics, aesthetics, education, aggression, and creation are posed, debated, and then practiced in poetic form by one intelligence — my father’s academy of one. The writing practice reveals the critical and intuitive faculties of a fertile mind in conversation with itself almost every single day for over forty years. Out of this meditative practice, what he called his ‘compost pile,’ his poems appeared at a rate of about one a day. . . .
The daily writing was not a diary; what might be considered important events by others were nothing to him. Rather, the daily writing is a realm for the timeless.”
I found the example of such a disciplined and obviously rewarding writing practice to be an inspiration. I finished the book wondering if I could commit to a daily art practice of my own.
I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck, from the writings of James Baldwin. When James Baldwin died he left notes for an unfinished book project, which he called “Remember This House,” about three Black leaders — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — who were murdered before they turned 40 years old. Peck received permission from the estate of Baldwin to use these and other of his texts to direct a movie (which I have not yet seen).
Baldwin saw his role as one of witness to the lives and deaths of his Black brethren. He said:
“I was not, for example, a Black Muslim,
in the same way, though for different reasons,
that I never became a Black Panther:
because I did not believe that
all white people were devils,
that I did not want
young black people to believe that.
I was not a member of any Christian congregation
because I knew that they had not heard
and did not live by the commandment
‘love one another as I love you,’
and I was not a member of the NAACP
because in the North, where I grew up,
the NAACP was fatally entangled
with black class distinctions,
or illusions of the same,
which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.
I did not have to deal with
the criminal state of Mississippi,
hour by hour and day by day,
to say nothing of night after night.
I did not have to sweat cold sweat after decisions
involving hundreds of thousands of lives.
I was not responsible for raising money,
for deciding how to use it.
I was not responsible for strategy controlling
prayer meetings, marches, petitions,
voting registration drives.
I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers
more or less in passing.
I was never in town to stay.
This was sometimes hard on my morale,
but I had to accept, as time wore on,
that part of my responsibility — as a writer —
was to move as largely and as freely as possible,
to write the story, and to get it out.”
There is so much in Baldwin’s writings that illuminate the state of our current world. Some progress against racism has been made, but not nearly enough. Baldwin says, “. . . when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”
This is how he sees white Americans: “I’m sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that’s really not the question, you know. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.” He sees this moral apathy as the “death of the heart.”
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. . . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
This is still a question for our time, I believe. The slogan “America First” carries with it overtones of American superiority — the outdated, erroneous beliefs that white Christian males are better than immigrants, minority citizens, women, the “others.” What is at the root of the need for that feeling of superiority? This book asks us to ponder that question.
January 31, 2017
I mentioned in my January 4th blog post about The Book of Joy that I would paint copies of the book covers from some of my favorite reads in 2017. Some of my paintings are adaptations rather than true copies. Here are the covers from the best books from among those I read in January:
Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren. I wrote about this book in my January 5th blog post and how it heightened my anticipation for the total solar eclipse on August 21st of this year.
Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. I liked this book of essays and Neely’s musings about collecting and collections. He says, “. . . I had the collection bug: the impulse to hold, and possibly hoard, the world.” His objects are familiar to my landscape — salmon, madrone trees, beaches, rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Mink River by Brian Doyle. I liked this novel so much that I am reading more of his works.
Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. The photos of Tasha Tudor in her garden are luscious. I love the little watercolor vignettes, too. This book takes us through the four seasons of the year.
One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer. I love this book because one of the protagonists is 62-year-old Aunt Edna who for the past twenty years was the live-in caregiver for her ill mother and an elementary lunch lady AND an artist. She painted only one subject over and over — chairs. “She was still painting chairs and only chairs . . .” She painted for herself: “Painting isn’t for bill paying. Painting is for painting.”
The story takes place after the death of Edna’s mother. The clan gathers and her niece Sarah — who is experiencing a life crisis of her own — decides to stay on with Edna while she closes up her mother’s estate. Sarah is a successful commercial artist of Christmas ornaments, but she regrets not following her dream to become a fine artist. Edna’s advice to Sarah is, “It’s the only important thing, the work itself. I want you to stop worrying about what your pictures look like for now. You should just enjoy holding the brush or pencil in your hand, the time spent. . . . you have to like the moment of working or your work will become valueless.”
I love how art-related musings and philosophy intermingle with the story. And how the subject of a painting, like a chair, can evoke metaphors about life. The characters are quirky and flawed, family dynamics are stressed, and yet this is a warm-hearted novel.