On Books: Glittering Achievement

The Book: Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

I was first introduced to this novel through Stephen Colbert, when he had the author come on his show to promote it. I was thoroughly intrigued, more so than I have been in a long time, and I made the immediate decision to purchase the book as soon as possible. So if anyone thinks going on TV to promote something doesn’t work, well, it does.

Lincoln in the Bardo was inspired by the story that, upon his son’s death, Abraham Lincoln visited the crypt and held his child’s lifeless body. Bardo, in the Tibetan tradition, is the space between death and what comes after it; in the book it is where many of the characters are stuck – dead, but not believing themselves to be. The novel takes place over the course of one night, and delves into the interaction between Lincoln and his newly deceased son, Willie, who is now a shade. It includes a cast of unconventional characters, many of which are also ghosts, as well as excerpts from historical documents pertaining to the situation at hand.

To get this out of the way first: Lincoln in the Bardo was unlike anything I have ever read. This is a common thread among reviews, and that is because it’s actually true.

The style takes form in a series of different voices, all woven together to create a massive, dynamic, and sometimes contradictory portrait of Lincoln himself, of death, life, sadness, happiness, and all that is happening in the novel. There are passages that make you think, passages that make you laugh, others that can bring you to tears – all are profound. It is a whirlwind of emotion, and Saunders takes his reader through it masterfully.

This is a book that requires a little patience. If and when you decide to read it, take your time. Let the story flow at its own pace. As for audiobooks, I would not personally recommend it for this one – the sheer amount of different voices might make it confusing.

Never have I felt so near speechless after reading a novel -it is a book that one simply needs to experience for themselves. Lincoln in the Bardo is pure brilliance, and now stands with pride at the top of my list of favorite books.

Overall score: 5/5 stars

-MC

Connection

Have you ever seen rain fall upon a river? When the sky and the land become almost indistinguishable, and there you are, sitting on what was the shore, and the clouds are low and gray and touch the water, which is churning and bubbling as the downpour meets it? And you can hear nothing but the sound of the torrents falling around you? You tilt your face towards the sky and it’s hard to look up into the pelting rain, but through squinting eyelids you can see that the clouds are thick and bright. And maybe you see a few leaves or a bird being tossed in the wind, but the rain is blinding and so you look down and wipe your eyes so you can see again. The grass by the river is green and there are shapes in the water, you think maybe they’re ducks and you decide they’re brave for being out there in the middle of the chaos. And then you think you’re brave too because you are also out, but not quite so crazy because you’re not in the water. So you decide that the ducks are crazy as well as brave, but you suppose they’re built for such things. Then the wind comes and whips your hair into your face, and at first you deal with it, because looking windswept might be cool, but then it gets in your mouth and you have to frown just slightly and you pull the hair away and tuck it behind your ear as best you can. Something else floats by in the river and you can see this time that it’s driftwood, and you wonder if it’s from somewhere far away or if it’s from closer to home, and you think perhaps if that piece of wood could talk it might have some amazing stories, but then maybe not, maybe all the story would be is “crack fell splash wet current fast and that’s not very interesting at all. And then you feel that there is suddenly less rain now, and you can just start to see the other riverbank, and you can see that it is also green and you wonder if your side looks as nice as that side, and you resolve to find out tomorrow. You realize the sun is just starting to peak out now, and you look down and shiver, realizing all at once that you’re soaking wet, and when you look back at where the sun is you feel just the slightest drop in your chest, just the smallest bit of sadness because the spell is broken. The river is calmer now and you can see that what you thought were ducks are ducks, and you watch them for a little while until they swim upstream and out of your vision, and by this time the rain has stopped and the sun is fully out, and you smooth your hair back so it doesn’t dry into tight curls that stick out in every direction. And before you get up you take a deep breath and smell the freshness that the rain has brought, and you feel better, like you’re also a part of this freshness, and the river was part of it too. And you close your eyes and feel the sun on your face and smile, and once you open them again you can see that the river is blue now, like the sky, and you stand and stretch and keep smiling, and with one last scan of everything you turn to go home, and the river laps the shore gently, and you know everything’s going to be okay.

-MC

Two Seconds to Goodwill

I decided to walk partway home from work, because the weather became summer in February. At nearly 70° F, I couldn’t pass up a chance to stretch my winter legs.

I’m not a big fan of walking in crowds, having to dodge left and right to pass people, and I happened to be in the middle of one when I noticed something small fall from the person in front of me. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the object was a student ID: worn around the edges, with a smiling visage and the university name printed colorfully on the top right corner…

First second, first thought: selfish, hateful side that retches at human contact – I can just keep walking

A split second later: the rush of compassion – I remember being a student, I remember having an ID, I remember it being my lifelineHow I got food, how I got into my dorm, how I did laundry

Two second mark: I bent down, grabbed the card off the ground, ran up to the girl who had dropped it. Tapped on her shoulder. Held it out.

“You dropped this!”

Startled, relieved: “Oh my God, thank you so much!”

I kept walking ahead, out of the crowd, quickly.

-MC

On Books: Children Have Literature Too

The Book: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon – Grace Lin

“The secret of keeping young is to read children’s books…” ~John Cheever

Every once in a while I thoroughly enjoy reading a book meant for people much younger than I am. It was time for me to do so again, and Grace Lin’s novel jumped right off a Goodwill shelf and into my hands.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never heard of Lin before, so I’d never had a taste of her writing style. I realize there is a saying that goes “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but the bright red dragon was all I needed to be convinced to give the book a try. I was not left disappointed, however; instead, the book provided a rousing tale complete with adventure, dragons (yay!), and, ultimately, a lesson in thankfulness.

The story follows Minli, a young Chinese girl who lives in a tiny hut in a very poor village with her parents. An imaginative child, Minli loves her father’s stories and believes them to be true. Her mother however, who is dissatisfied with their life, often tells Minli to stop being so ridiculous. Seeing her parents labor endlessly in the rice fields, Minli becomes determined to find the Old Man of the Moon – an omniscient character from her father’s tales – in order to see how to change her family’s fortune.

After leaving a note, Minli heads off on her journey, following the instructions of a talking goldfish. She soon hears a cry for help from a dragon who has been trapped by monkeys in his sleep, and she frees him. Dragon (as he is aptly named), who can’t fly and wishes to know why, thus finds his first friend, and the two band together and continue traveling, encountering many different characters and challenges along the way.

What I enjoyed about this book was the combination of traditional Chinese fairytales and Lin’s own imagination. The author weaved many different short stories surrounding either the characters or mythical entities into the main plot, enhancing it and adding a magic that would not have been there otherwise. I also loved that the point of view switched between Minli and her parents, allowing the reader to see what was happening at home while Minli was away.

The ending of the story was also quite wonderful. It contained a message to all: be thankful for what you have. Despite my cynical nature, I appreciated the sentiment and found great truth in it.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy fairytales and to those who enjoy taking a step back and reading a simple but engrossing story.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

-MC

Mystery on Amtrak

While on the train home, a woman took the aisle seat next to me. The car was quite crowded, and she accidentally knocked the seat check out of the baggage holder.

“Sorry!” She exclaimed, while also making no effort to pick up the slip of paper.

“It’s okay,” I replied, and looked down at it as it laid sadly on the floor. I too made no effort to pick it up. If it stays there, I thought, that’s fine and actually kind of funny.

“Sorry!” The woman repeated, pointing at the paper as if seeing it for the first time, “I can get it!”

“Thank you, it might be slightly important!” I said, smiling a friendly smile.

The woman replaced the paper and proceeded to sit. At this point, I was minding my own business and had no objections to my new neighbor.

“Sorry!” She cried as she plopped into the seat.

Confused, I fumbled over the words “It’s okay!”

Things went back to normal after that. I looked out the window, and my neighbor read a book.

I have to wonder though, why was she so apologetic? Is she just that type of human being? Am I an intimidating person? Perhaps I behaved as if the fallen paper was a grave insult? Or did my face do something I didn’t intend it to do?

Knowing my luck, it’s probably the latter. Curse my unconscious expressions!

-MC

On Tea: Cloves Forever

The Tea: Rooibos Chai, Numi.
Caffeinated: No
Water Temperature: 212° (boiling)
Steep Time: 5-6 minutes
Milk/Sugar: Neither – others can add sugar and/or milk as they so desire.
Ingredients: Fair Trade Certified™ rooibos, cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom
~All ingredients are organic.~
Aroma: Cloves for days!! Reminiscent of gingerbread cookies.
Taste: The clove is very strong in this tea, followed closely by allspice, which gives it a rather bitter aftertaste. Though the smell of the cloves is amazing, it does not translate well to the flavor and is simply overpowering. I couldn’t taste the rooibos at all – just the spices. It quite literally tasted as if I bit into a whole clove, which I do not recommend if you’ve never done so before.  On second thought, milk might have helped to cut the bitterness…
Would I venture to buy a whole box?: No, the clove flavor was too strong for my tastes.
Overall score: 2/5 stars

-MC

Impossible Questions

I’ve been asked the following on more than one occasion:

“Who do you like more, Mozart or Beethoven?”

The response is as follows:

Some spluttering – “How dare… I don’t….”- followed by a narrowing of the eyes.

“I love them both the same.”

Beethoven and Mozart have been constant, steady figures in my life for many years. The earliest memory I have of them is from middle school, when I was trying hard to work on a project and couldn’t focus until my mom put a “Smart Symphonies” CD on. My ears pricked – there they were. Beautiful and safe and strangely familiar.

I cannot possibly choose between the two. I love them both fiercely. It tears me apart to even think of who could be better, so I don’t.

Besides, how could you pick a favorite from them?

Beethoven: “Beethoven can write, thank God; but do nothing else on earth.”

Mozart: “Our riches, being in our brains, die with us… Unless of course someone chops off our head, in which case we won’t need them anyway.”

Two brilliant, sarcastic souls.

-MC

On Books and Tea: Cardamom and Blackbirds

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The Tea: Cardamom Pu-erh, Numi.
Caffeinated: Yes
Water Temperature: 212° (boiling)
Steep Time: 4-5 minutes
Milk/Sugar: Neither for me – would suggest the same for others, especially on the milk end.
Aroma: Strangely fishy(? my nose leads astray), with an aftermath of spice.
Taste: Thankfully not fishy! The tea brewed to a brilliant, rich, and dark reddish-brown.  The cardamom shines through- a sweet spice reminiscent of my Aunt Leslie’s cardamom cookies (which are amazing).  The tea leaves contribute their own specific flavor- pu-erh is fermented, and so its taste is lasting and clear.
Would I venture to buy a whole box?: Probably not, but I did enjoy the cup that I had.
Overall score: 3.5/5 stars


The BookThe Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

I stood in front of the bookshelf two days ago and let my eyes fall on whatever spine they felt drawn to. This is the typical way I choose what to read next – let the book call to you. An orange cover grabbed my eye, and I knew.

I read The Secret Life of Bees long ago for summer reading, and remember that I enjoyed the strong bond between the women of the novel – one that penetrated the walls of race and time. The Invention of Wings shares this theme, something I appreciated diving back into.

The story follows Sarah Grimké, Handful (Hetty), her slave, and Angelina (Nina), her sister, throughout their lives together. Sarah, who has abolitionist values despite the family she is born into, receives Handful as a gift when she is eleven and immediately wishes to free her. She is, of course, denied her wish, and so the two are bound together. Nina, who appears later in the novel, is Sarah’s closest sister and also shares her abolitionist views, taking them even further into action.

The novel switches back and forth between Sarah’s telling of her story and Handful’s of her own, which I found wonderful as it provided insight to both characters and their lives. To see the two from their own eyes added a dynamicism to the book that made it all the more compelling. Through this, it was easier to draw parallels between the two women, both of which would otherwise have been seen as complete opposites.

Wings and water held great symbolism throughout the book. Handful’s mother had always sewn black triangles into the quilts she made, representing blackbird wings and liberation. Water was also a sign of freedom for both women- Sarah imagined flowing water when she couldn’t speak, and Handful looked out to the ships on the harbor and sang for the ocean to release her. These themes were at times heavy-handed, but overall well woven into the story.

What made the book enjoyable for me was the roundness and strength of each female character. They were spirited and believable, imperfect and determined. Though at times I found Sarah to be a bit whiny, or wished for more of a push in her relationship with Handful, I appreciated that she was not feeble-minded or entirely too timid. I also enjoyed how important the bonds between these women were- despite distance, race, or time, they were always there for each other, unbending in their love and loyalty. I also found I could truly relate to the characters, especially in how they questioned what the future held for them and where they belonged.

Something more to acknowledge: Sarah and Angelina Grimké were real people. They were the first women agents for the anti-slavery movement, and were also incredible proponents of women’s rights. Though their stories were heavily fictionalized, the essence of their true selves was still there, which I found inspirational and moving. Certainly, after reading The Invention of Wings, I would like to learn more about them.

In terms of writing style, Sue Monk Kidd’s prose was quite beautiful. Her descriptions flowed, simultaneously creating beautiful imagery and framing the horrific treatment of slaves in the true and real cruelty of their situations. This quickly brought me from bemoaning the font size on the page to being swept away into the novel – not an altogether easy feat.

I’d recommend this novel to those interested in historical fiction, especially the antebellum South, and to those who desire to read a book with strong female relationships. Though I am hesitant to call the story “searing and soaring” (you do you USA Today), I can definitely say that it was truly worth the read.

Overall score: 4.5/5 stars

-MC

Many Years Later

Upon going through some old writings, I happened to find a poem I wrote long ago for a friend.  I am still rather fond of it, so I post it here now to share with you.

 

Shaking are the hands that write-
The ones that
With their nimble fingers
Paint words like petals on paper.

Nervous
These hands spill forth what has happened.
Always shaking
They spin together the tales,
The thin strings of language
Twined together like the branches of trees.

With constant movement
These shaking hands
Search for a way to rid themselves of what they have been through—
The other hand that has held them,
The hair they have brushed through
Or pulled out…

They write, these hands
They write, pouring out a shaking beauty;
Words and phrases and poems
Locked together in columns of black and white.

They write, and write, and write
And someday,
When the columns have become pillars,
When there has been enough written
To create a fortress of words,
These hands will no longer shake.

-MC

Sing Like the Birds Sing Someday

Tea: Quince-Linden, Doğadan.

Ever since I was little, I remember being petrified of singing in front of people.  I could do any number of other activities; acting, public speaking… but as soon as anything musical would come up, I would freeze and choke with tears, unable to utter even the smallest sound.  This fear slowly but surely spread to the piano, when I discovered the wonder of that glorious instrument and began to teach myself to play.

I never could understand why this fear is so deep-seated in my being. I certainly enjoy singing. I think, perhaps, I just never truly believe I’m any good. Despite this, I record song covers on a semi-regular basis. Many of these never see the light of day; I am my own worst critic.

It would be untrue for me to say I’ve  never sung in front of groups of people.  One time I had a solo in sixth grade chorus. Another time I sang at my own birthday party. The last time was against my will at an end of the year dinner for my mom’s German class. Each time, I was terrified. The last time, I silenced a chattering group of people.

Someday, I hope to have confidence in my voice.  Then I could at least participate in karaoke!

…Then again, I probably wouldn’t.

-MC