Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

Featured

Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.

Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.

In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.

An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.

I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.

Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” This results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure magic. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

How Much Was That?

Featured

HI Claudia! How are you?

Thought I would share this book-related experience with you.

Over the many winters that we have spent in AZ, John and I have enjoyed dining at a little family-owned café in Mesa called Mangos. They serve wonderful Mexican food and also have their own homemade fruit drinks called Agua Fresca. For these drinks they use cantaloupe, watermelon, mangos, lemons, limes — whatever is in season. The fruit flavor is incredible! It’s as though you have put a straw into a freshly opened watermelon or pineapple and sipped up pure nectar. Bliss!

Right next door to Mangos is a  second-hand book store called Book Gallery. I have wanted to visit this store for a long time. Last week we made an unscheduled visit to Mangos and there was time to go into the Book Gallery at last. It resembles a lot of other wonderful old bookstores: Floor-to-ceiling shelves, numerous tables, and carts, and glass cases brimming over with bookish items. The possibility of finding hidden or misplaced treasures lures me into these venerable places.

I had a question so I looked around for help and spotted a proprietor-type person seated in a low chair behind the front, book-laden counter. This being the Southwest, I asked the young man if they carried anything by Wallace Stegner. He asked what I had in mind, and I said,

 “A first-edition of Angle of Repose.” 

He stopped for a moment to study me. Then he said,

“I don’t have one here, but there is one at our other store in Phoenix on Indian School Road. I am afraid it is rather pricey,” he apologized.

 “What do you mean by pricey?” I asked.

 “A first edition, unsigned, is $1,000.00.”

“Oh,” I gulped and hoped the alarm in my voice wasn’t detectable. 

“Come this way,” he said as he walked toward the area of the store that housed their Fiction collection.

I followed the salesperson up a wide set of old, worn wooden stairs and we maneuvered around neat stacks of books to a well-lit corner on the second floor. I saw a small, white, rectangle of paper attached to a shelf. It had an “S” on it written with a Magic Marker.

The knowledgeable bookseller showed me their assortment of Stegner’s works in hardback, paperback, as well as various editions of his many books. None of them cost anywhere close to a thousand dollars, thank goodness. I bought three, all paperbacks: Crossing to Safety ($7), The Sound of Mountain Water ($4), and Wolf Willow ($4)

I had not read The Sound of Mountain Water or Wolf Willow, so I began Wolf Willow (full title, Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier) last night and was reminded again why Stegner is such a celebrated writer. Here are two paragraphs toward the end of the first chapter of the First Part of Wolf Willow entitled “The Question Mark in the Circle.” In this chapter, Stegner returns to Whitemud, Saskatchewan, just across the Montana border, in search of his boyhood identity. He has sought out the countryside, the river, the town, even his childhood house, but the essence of “home” and “self” eludes him. Then this:


“I pick up a handful of mud and sniff it. I step over the little girls and bend my nose to the wet rail of the bridge. I stand above the water and sniff. On the other side, I strip leaves off wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten — have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leafed bush, and I have it. That tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.

It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home. For a few minutes, with a handful of leaves to my nose, I look across at the clay bank and the hills beyond where the river loops back on itself, enclosing the old sports and picnic ground, and the present and all the years between are shed like a boy’s clothes dumped on the bath-house bench. The perspective is what it used to be, the dimensions are restored, the senses are as clear as if they had not been battered with sensations for forty alien years. And the queer adult compulsion to return to one’s beginnings is assuaged. A contact has been made, a mystery touched. For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.”  (p19, Ballantine Books, Comstock Edition, 1973)

Wow. Such skill! He has achieved in those two paragraphs what any memoirist would hope to capture in their writing, I think, and that is: “… reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied.”

Did I tell you we are in the process of buying a small house here in Apache Junction? I guess this means we will have more opportunities to enjoy Mangos and Gallery Books. We hope to be home to Zimmerman sometime in early May. 

I look forward to seeing you soon!

Much love 

Teri

Paul-A Biography by N.T. Wright

Featured

Paul: A Biography

by N.T. Wright

The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes. Dry and dusty? Nope.

In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)

In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:

“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:

   ‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT[1] (61 Kindle)

Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”

“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)

Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.

 In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.

By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright.


[1] The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)

The Allure of Library Book Kits

Featured

Have you heard about book club book kits? They are available from many libraries. Below are a couple of pics of a book kit from my local library. (The unreadable white sheet of copy paper on the table in front of the book kit bag is the Readers’ Discussion Guide. It has suggestions for ways to run a book club and ideas to help get the discussion rolling.)

BCBK’s contain 10-12 books – one large letter edition and one audio book, where possible – and a Readers’Discussion Guide in each kit. They are the only library “book” that has a return date that is six weeks from the date of check-out rather than three weeks. This extended period of time allows users to dispense the books, read, meet, discuss and return the kit, and pick up the next book kit so that the book club can meet monthly.

For those who want to join a book club but find buying a book every month financially prohibitive, or for people who simply prefer to use the library, BCBK’s are a super option. Laura, a librarian at my local library, said that the popularity of BCBK’s is becoming greater every year.

Maybe it’s time to start a book club using book kits? Check it out! 📚

“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri — a book review

A young woman with long black hair is sitting in a leather-backed wooden chair in an old library. She has on a light weight sweater that is a medium brown color. She is seated at a  large library table made of wooden planks. She has two large books in front of her, one open the other closed. The young woman has her arms on the library table top. She is resting her chin on her left hand, the right hand is lying flat on the table, her right arm is bent at the elbow and her right forearm is parallel with the bottom edge of the large open book. She has a large, amber-colored jeweled ring on the fourth finger of her right hand. The young woman is gazing thoughtfully off to her right. She is not smiling. She looks very at ease and relaxed. She has bronze skin and dark brown eyes and eyebrows. She is very pretty.
It must be love…

In Other Words is the fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. This 2016 publication (Vintage, 2016 – English translation) was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. That’s right. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with Italian, learned to speak and write in Italian, then wrote In Other Words – which is about the life-altering experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, she chose to use a translator.

In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts. Perhaps one could call it a work of non-fiction that features the author as one major character and language as another. In Other Words is a fascinating book for anyone who loves languages and appreciates learning about how one’s language affects the process of writing.

Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. On entering the story, the reader becomes happily enticed and wholeheartedly enmeshed in her prose. And there is plenty of insight as well. In an early chapterLahiri writes this as she begins to describe her journey into the Italian language:

“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”

Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically and in semi-actuality, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest to possess Italian, she recounts a story of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. In the process, her family practically meets itself coming and going when they lock themselves out of their apartment:

“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two Hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”

The traumatic moment passes, and the family begins their transition to living in the Eternal City. Janus has granted them entry.

One negative of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her inner struggle with choosing Italian over English or Bengali — her parents language — as the language with which she identifies. I grew tired of Lahiri’s self-analysis about three-quarters of the way through but continued reading because this is not a long book. The book is designed so that the left-hand page contains the Italian by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s work, so though the total number of pages is in the book is 230, the English language portion is 115 pages.

The decision to read the book in its entirety paid off — to my way of thinking, anyway — because of Lahiri’s comments of the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof in the last section of the book. Kristof arrived in Switzerland as a refugee at the age of twenty-one and began learning French when she was twenty-six so that she could write to a receptive French audience. Despite the fact that Kristof’s motivation to learn French was far different from Lahiri’s inducement to be proficient in Italian, Kristof and Lahiri share some of the same struggles and insights about what it means to truly learn, speak and write in a language that is not one’s native tongue.

If you are intrigued by languages, curious about how language brings people together and can drive them apart; if you have wondered about the inscrutable process of learning a new language, how it works and what effect that it might have on your life if you were to choose a new language to inhabit; if you want to acquire some guidance for your writing life, this intriguing book by Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, is meant for you.

I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book because in the English translation there are numerous Italian words, and it would add a lot to hear them read aloud by someone who can speak Italian. Requesting an audio book version of In Other Words from your local public library is a good (read that as “free”) way to experience the audio production of Lahiri’s book.


Final day of “Fun With Flannery”

What?! It’s over! Fun With Flannery is finished?? NO! Rats! Dang. Phooey. Sadness… sigh.

 

Flannery

But what an amazing week of discovery it was, led by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. A teacher I know frequently warns his students, “Don’t miss your moment!” This workshop was certainly the moment to experience an immersion into Flannery O’Connor –  her writing style, her art and her calling.

The larger context of the Fun With Flannery class is The Glen Workshop –  a marvelous week long art-and-faith event which seems to defy everyone’s attempts at describing it. I like the paragraph on the landing page of The Glen’s website:

“Situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains [in Santa Fe, New Mexico], the Glen Workshop is equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. The Glen’s arresting natural environment is contrasted by its casual and inviting crowd of artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes.”

If as an artist you are dry as dust, this gathering of kindred souls in the High Desert location of St John’s College, where The Glen takes place, will drench you in beauty, friendship and inspiration. The Glen Worksop is sponsored by Image Journal which is out of Seattle Pacific University,

But back to Flannery O’Connor. All thirteen of us Glensters agreed that the most surprising discovery of the workshop was the power of reading O’Connor’s stories aloud.  As we listened to a story, often read in long sections, Flannery’s uncanny insight into the human heart became more illuminating, more comical, more touching,  more shocking.

In addition, each short story video Dr. Prior presented gave us a new picture of a Flannery story, illustrating how wondrously visual she is in her writing. Color, setting, sunlight, shadows, symbols — all play a part in an O’Connor short story. “Flannery has a purpose for everything she puts in her stories, ” said Dr. Prior, “Nothing is extra, nothing is wasted.”

What about the violence contained in O’Connor’s stories? It wasn’t long before the class could see the paradox that Dr. Prior suggested was in Flannery’s work:  Violence was a means of grace for her characters. Violence was O’Connor’s method to force her figures to shake-off the blinders of the skewed moral judgments and cliched thinking that plagued them. As we students progressed through nine short stories together, we found that the lens we used to study Flannery’s tales transfigured itself into a mirror which reflected back to us our own flawed judgments and prejudices.  One commentator in the documentary we watched on Flannery’s life, called Uncommon Grace (2015), said that O’Connor was “continuing Jesus’ work by telling parables to the modern world.”  After spending a week deep-diving into Flannery O’Connor’s life and art, I believe she was indeed a parable teller of extraordinary skill.

Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at age thirty-nine from lupus, an autoimmune disease. At that time, according to Wikipedia, Flannery’s oeuvre included two novels, three short story collections, and five other works. An addition to her work, a prayer journal, was published in 2013. I am hopeful that more of Flannery’s work will be published in the future.

 

 

Flannery rules…

 

Can this be day three of Fun With Flannery? Again we had a deep and insightful discussion which included viewing a movie  based on O’Connor’s short story, “The River.” We will also watch a film version of her short story “The Comforts of Home” in a future class. The film interpretations of O’Connor’s stories have added significantly to our discussions and understanding of Flannery’s work. So grateful that Prof Prior has included them in the class. Paul Anderson, Director of Programs at the Glen Workshop, was gracious enough to take a class picture of the Flannery Glensters. Good country people, every one of them.😊

Fun With Flannery – class begins…

Prof Karen Swallow is an amazing teacher. Once I can get all of the class members together I will post a group picture. The gentlemen sitting with Karen in the cafeteria are attendees of the Glen Workshop who aren't in her class this year. At lunch they had some questions about Flannery – which she was happy to answer.

Arrived at the Glen Workshop!

Arrival at the Santa Fe airport was on time. The shuttle that took us from the airport (pictured left )to Saint John’s College, the site of the workshop, made several stops which allowed bus risers to get a glimpse of the city of Santa Fe — very enticing! Mountains are all around- what a gorgeous setting!
Tomorrow morning we will begin the workshop at 9am. Professor Karen Swallow Prior is the mastermind behind the class ( there are many other excellent classes offered as well, as you can discover when you go to the link) called Fun With Flannery, an in-depth look at the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. So, let the fun begin!

To the High Desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we journey…

 

… At the B19 Gate in the Phoenix Airport- American Airlines. Waiting for the flight to Santa Fe to arrive, then from the Santa Fe airport to a shuttle for a ride to St John’s College and check-in for The Glen Workshop. Never expected to be here too early to get into the dorms 😳but it just might happen! (Hope to include pictures of the Glen Workshop experience, but the WordPress mobile platform just crashed! Maybe pics can be edited in later…)