Caleb’s Crossing

Beautiful prose by Geraldine Brooks:

Whatever joy there might have been in the summer that followed Caleb’s coming to us, it ended on a day so sweet and still that I moved through it as if floating in a bath of honey. It had rained hard the night before; that kind of heavy, sharp-scented summer rain that lays the dust and washes the pollen from the air, leaving everything rinsed and bright. The fragrance of ripeness and bloom grew more pungent as the morning waxed fair. The harbor sparkled, and when the lightest of breezes rippled through the sea grass, each blade shimmered like a filament of beaten silver.

On a day so Godsent, your mind is untroubled, the entire world seems well. You gird for tragedy on a different sort of day.

— from Caleb’s Crossing (2011)

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Home

A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have. Mamas are supposed to spank and rule you so you grow up knowing right from wrong. Grandmothers, even when they’ve been hard on their own children, are forgiving and generous to the grandchildren. Ain’t that so?

— from Home by Toni Morrison, 2012

Follow the story of Frank and Cee Money, if you can. Delve into Frank’s war-twisted mind. Find out how Cee gets out of her mistakes. See if you like the little town of Lotus by the end of the story. See if you like Toni Morrison’s way of pulling her readers through the story. I do. In Home, humanity is so cruel and so full of hope all at the same time.

I’ve read two books called Home now. Toni Morrison’s and Marilynne Robinson’s. I feel at home in both books because they are so expertly crafted. I recommend both.

Pale Harvest

Inside the cab of their most powerful tractor he turned the old corn stubble from spent gold to scallops of deep brown one narrow strip at a time. The plow dug deeper than the disc and churned the roots and soil upward. He was an alchemist working in reverse, preparing the soil for the spring, and he imposed his will upon the field.

— from Pale Harvest by Braden Hepner, 2014

This is the only book I have ever read that captures my husband’s dairy farm life so perfectly. This is not the dairy farming of years ago; this is farming with big machinery, milking 100+ cows in a milking parlor, spending long hours in a cab tractor in the field when it’s planting or harvest time. This book takes place in Utah, so the land is different from our Wisconsin home, but nonetheless I couldn’t believe how accurate Mr. Hepner was concerning dairy farming.

Not only that, the main character of the book (a young man) is the meditating, introspective sort, like me! So it felt like reading a book that synthesized myself and my husband. If it weren’t for that, I would have put the book down because of the bad language and because of one horrible character who likes to talk in speeches about his terrible, anti-Christian beliefs. There was some redemption in the book, but it was ambivalent, more closely aligned with the environment than with actual souls.

Still, the writing was very poetic, the main character quite sympathetic, and the setting beautiful. The above quote does a nice job on the concept of plowing.

Home

They had always been so careful of him, almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile. It had enforced a peculiar decorum on them all, even on their mother. There was always the moment when they acknowledged this–no hugging, no roughhousing could include him. Even his father patted his shoulder tentatively, shy and cautious. Why should a child have defended his loneliness that way? But let him have his ways, their father said, or he would be gone. He’d smile at them across that distance, and the smile was sad and hard, and it meant estrangement, even when he was with them.

— from Home by Marilynne Robinson, 2008

This selection is only one of the ways Marilynne Robinson wins my heart through her characterization. Here she is describing Jack, a prodigal son come home during the last bit of his father’s life. Home with him, and taking care of their father, is his sister Glory. Both brother and sister are revealed slowly, satisfyingly, and lovingly. Home has a plot, of course, but I like to think the book is more about who the characters are. The reader delves deeply into their lives, their histories, and their thoughts. I have been reading stories by the Bronte sisters lately, and they do characterization so well, too. It is my favorite thing about reading: meeting new people, and learning about them so much more intimately than I can learn about my own friends through conversation.

The Red Garden

Yesterday was my birthday, and in the tradition of my elementary school years, I am offering you a treat to celebrate the special day. It has food in it, but it’s more magical than edible. It is a short quote from a novel I’m reading, The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (2011). I enjoy Hoffman’s magical stories very much, and I’d love to write as well as her someday. This quote is only a small taste of what she can do with words, the natural world, and strange and lovely people fulfilling her fairy tale plots.

They had reached the garden, ignored for many years. It was a wild tangle filled mostly with thistle. A clutch of larks and sparrows took flight when the women approached.

“It must have been lovely,” Emily said.

There was still some scarlet amaranth and a stray crimson larkspur, nearly six feet tall, the likes of which Emily had never seen. There was a scraggly row of ruby lettuce and some bright radishes that Olive had put in, which she now pulled from the ground to have with their dinner. The family lore insisted that only red plants would grow in this stretch of ground. Even those blooms that went in as white or pink or blue turned in a matter of weeks. Emily took a bite of a small, muddy radish. The juice in her mouth was red.

The Time Is Noon

She was making her life, shaping it about the children. One had to take life and make it, gather it from here and there–yellow curtains, carrots, a bed for a little boy, milk for a sick baby, sheets of music to write, her unfinished child, a house–out of such and everything she would make her life. And underneath was the strong sustaining web of love unspoken. What if it were unspoken and unreturned? A phrase came flying out of her childhood, her father, from the pulpit, reading, “And underneath us are the everlasting arms.” She had caught the phrase then because it was lovely, listening to him idly in the careless fullness of her childhood. But now when all childhood was gone she could take the beautiful words, like an empty cup, and fill them to the brim with her own meaning, her own secret meaning.

— from The Time Is Noon, Pearl S. Buck, 1966

I wasn’t going to write about this book. I loved it, but I wasn’t going to admit that publicly. You see, the book is about Joan, a pastor’s daughter, and the beginning of her adulthood. Though her relationship with her devout father grows, even beyond his death, her relationship with God stops. She denies there is a God. She chooses to change the meanings of spiritual things to suit herself. The problem with all this… I sympathize a great deal with Joan. And that makes me uneasy because I do not deny God. I don’t know if I ought to admire and relate to Joan so much.

And yet, the book has its charms, drawing me into the story, into Joan’s life and her family. Perhaps I can take the story, like an empty cup, and fill it to the brim with my own meaning. I don’t have to remain true to the unfaithful spirit of the book. I can bring my own faith to the story and see how despite trials and deaths and unwise choices, my story differs from Joan’s. My triumph is everlasting, while her triumph is something lovely but fleeting.

Report on My Second Book Reading

I am home from a book reading at MUGS Coffee House in Ripon, WI. If you’re a coffee shop person and you’re in the area, you ought to check this one out. I read from a tall stool in front of the fireplace, facing a cozy arrangement of leather couches and chairs. I had an audience of three people, which includes the employee (but she’s my cousin, so it counts). The other two were a former classmate of mine and his friend. It was, at times, awkward because my little speech seemed too formal. But when I actually read from my book, it was all good. So, I had a good time, we had a nice talk after the reading, and I’m not so sad about the lack of a big audience.

One discussion that came up had to do with short stories versus novels. Personally, I enjoy both. Some find short stories to be more accessible because they are short and don’t take a big commitment to read. Some prefer novels because they tell more. A short story may leave some readers hanging, wanting more information. What are your opinions on the matter?