The Boatmaker

51fwLWC3CrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Benditt, 2015

Wandering into my local bookstore, Green Apple, is always a treat. That shop has blessed me with countless literary treasures that I likely wound never have found anywhere else. Recently I was glancing at The Boatmaker‘s intriguing cover when the Green Apple clerk informed me that the author for the book in my hands was giving a reading at that very moment at the back of the store. Although John Benditt’s reading had just ended, such casual serendipitous moments are enticing invitations to explore a new author’s world – and with Benditt’s first book, The Boatmaker, what a world to stumble upon! 

The Boatmaker is a rich, yet simple story of self discovery and is best described as a fable written for adults. My reading found similarities to the iconic journey of Siddhartha stripped of the idealized and spiritually motivated vision of Herman Hesse’s book. I draw the parallel with Siddhartha because the The Boatmaker is a journeyman tale wherein the protagonist, an unnamed young man is motivated by a fever-induced dream to build a boat and sail away from his home on Small Island to reach Big Island, and later the Mainland. Other than his motivation to build a boat and set sail, the Boatmaker doesn’t know what to do with himself and like the protagonist Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in worldly distractions of drink, money, and sex as he attempts to make sense of his place in the workings of the world as he attempts to make sense of the world. However, unlike Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds a simpler answer to his worldly pursuits than Siddhartha’s transcendent revelations: the Boatmaker ultimately discovers the roots of his identity and his skill with carpentry and wood lie within his familial roots.

“He see that in each of his experiences he has been different: sometimes meek, sometimes hard, usually silent, occasionally talking too much, often gullible, sometimes suspicious, sometimes drunk for long periods, at other times achingly sober. All these versions of himself have played their part in bringing him here; he is grateful to each of them.” (230)

The charm of this book is the simplicity of its language. I mentioned above that this book  is best described as a fable for adults and that fable-like feeling arises from the novel’s structure and style. Few of the characters have names, the country wherein the plot takes place is also unnamed and is only referred to as “The Mainland,” permitting the reader to accept and find a larger application to the universal nature of the story’s themes. This is a story that could have taken place in an alternate history of any possible European country. Within The Mainland there is religious and political conflict as the nation struggles to economically and culturally redefine itself amidst the scramble toward modernity, and yet the lives of the nation’s people continue on, each with their personal economic and emotional struggles and celebrations. There is a sweetness to the imperfect simplicity of the Boatmaker, a man with vague ambitions who easily becomes lost to drink or the ambitions of his neighbors, friends, and lovers. And yet, this is a raw and gritty story with several surprising twists as well as explicit descriptions of both sex and violence, but what really makes this story a powerful read is the directness of its narrative voice, as highlighted in the passage below:

“When she fell in love with the man upstairs in her bed, she didn’t intend to change her world. But her world has changed. When she lived with Valter, the outer world was orderly. The people of Small Island were welcoming and respectful; she was the wife of a Big man. But inside her everything was like a damned river. Now the river has broken the damn and overflowed, foaming and surging downstream. Inside, she has been freed, but the outer world does not give her the respect it once did.” (25)

The example above is highlight of what makes this such a great read. Throughout the book the narrative voice speaks with a poetic economy of words that provide a setting to frame the action, such as the following line:

“Outside the wind dies; the oak leaves hang in ripe green clusters.” (238)

And the simplicity of that setting is followed by a gripping scene just a few lines later:

“He opens his eyes and raises the knife. Holding his nose with his left hand, he uses his strong right arm to slice off the tip. The stub of pink flesh comes away in his hand. He holds it up, showing it to the others, as blood washes slowly down his face.” (238)

The gruesome image in the passage above takes place when the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in a cult-like community, which is just one of the many scenarios and events he becomes involved in through his life’s journey. This book manages to cover a lot of ground  through thematic action. With fable-like prowess, the narrative manages to explore a lot of philosophical inquiry regarding culture, ethics, religion, and relationships without being overtly philosophical. The plot drives the philosophical themes, which is a refreshing alternative for this reader. Rarely do characters overtly speak of grand ideas because the actions and struggles they endure do the speaking for them. The only instance that was overtly explicit in dialogue was the following passage regarding money:

“‘Gold has value because we believe it does.’ Rachel Lippsted says; keeping her voice steady clearly requires an effort. ‘Gold is beautiful, yes, and easily worked. It makes wonderful jewelry. But as currency it has nothing but the value we endow it with. And this has always been true: Money has the power we bestow upon it by putting our collective faith in it.'” (150)

That passage stood out to me because it aligns with my personal beliefs and understanding about the great scramble for riches and experience. Money in itself is essentially useless, it is just paper, or more often in our present day, just numbers on a computer screen, but what really bears value is memory, experience, and relationship. And that is ultimately what the theme of The Boatmaker strives to explore, the main theme within this book is that the journey of discovery reveals itself through our relationships with others and how those relationships define our identity. The book’s ending of course provides a striking, and sad revelation of this theme, but the passage that most poignantly spoke to me was the following incident that details the self-defeating realization that the Boatmaker has misplaced his only physical tie to his home, a handkerchief that was sewn by his mother that artistically depicted the harbor of his small island home:

“He can imagine how it happened…the handkerchief lying in the rain under the wheels of pushcarts, under shoes and boots, until nothing is left but a few threads, green and white. Finally, even the threads wash down to the sewer drain at the end of the alley…As he imagines this slow progression of decay, the boatmaker feels he is taking a beating ten times worse than the one White’s giant fists delivered. After it is over, he is as empty as the sealskin bag.” (186)

When I read that passage I was nearly in tears and had to put the book down for a moment. That passage spoke with such power portraying the man’s realization that he had lost his one connection to his past and in that loss, he had lost a sense of his own identity. Compelling moments such as these give the The Boatmaker an importance that shines with clarity. This fable of a book speaks from a wizened voice, aware of the complex simplicity of life in this world, and for that this book is one of the best and most enjoyable I’ve read this year.

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The Bone People

download (1)Keri Hulme, 1983

I picked this novel up at the suggestion of my Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook. The travel book promoted this Booker Prize winner as the quintessential introduction to New Zealand culture and art. What a mistake it was to trust the Lonely Planet for a literary suggestion. This book was crap that dragged on and on. It took me almost two months to finish and with each page I couldn’t wait for it to get on with it and be over so I could start another book.

So, why did I even finish it?

First of all, glancing at reviews online, The Bone People was highly celebrated as a groundbreaking and original work, and admittedly it did start strong as I whizzed through the first 75 pages or so with excitement. Hulme employed a unique style that floated from the perspective of each character in focus. The sporadic insertion of Maori words and phrases throughout the dialogue (with an appendix dictionary at the end of the book for reference) might be a distraction for some but I found the usage of Maori an enjoyable framework that depicted the blended culture of New Zealand people. The novel’s narrative was told from a third-person omniscient voice capable of flowing back and forth into the character’s thoughts with poetic fluidity and the language had an intriguing quality to it, heavily laden with descriptive adjectives that brought a focused clarity on fine qualities of the novel’s setting such as weather, smells, foliage and the surrounding sea. However, as the novel progressed the pace began to drag on and the extensive descriptions became less a joy and more a burden and later a tired conceit. Furthermore, the fluid style that seemed unique in the first pages later revealed itself as a lazy attempt at stream of consciousness spoken by a rambling narrator that didn’t really know where she was going with her story. I’d give examples, but I don’t really want to open the novel’s pages again just to prove myself.

Secondly, the characters populating the pages of The Bone People are frustrating and unlikable. The story is focused on three unlikely characters. First, there is Kerewin, a half-Maori artist who is estranged from her family and a hermit but somehow unmeasurably  wealthy, expertly skilled at gardening, fishing, and fighting. Kerewin seems to have no faults other than her desire to be alone with her art – her lack of faults and overabundance of skills causes her to be unrealistic and annoying as a primary character. Second there is Joe, a Maori factory worker who has lost his wife and child to illness sometime in the past. And third, there is Simon, Joe’s European foster son who is mute, a kleptomaniac, a vandal, and incapable of following rules of society such as attending school. Simon came into Joe’s care after he was found on the beach alone, supposedly the lone survivor of a shipwreck. All three characters have a quality of loneliness about them. The narrative allows the reader to see into their thoughts as they wearily begin to grow in trust and care for each other.

These three come together haphazardly as Simon wanders onto Kerewin’s property and Joe later befriends Kerewin against her better will. A prolonged investment of the novel’s rambling is focused on the three’s developing friendship turned quasi-family as they spend all their time together, primarily drinking, smoking, drinking, and so on. Ultimately Kerwein discovers that Joe physically abuses Simon for the boy’s misgivings and although she desires to confront him about it, instead she obviously takes the moral high ground and decides to go on vacation with the two. On their vacation they drink and drink and drink. The amount of alcohol that is consumed is kind of ridiculous. Much can and has been said about the novel’s illicit glamorization of child abuse, but the ease with which all characters permit the prepubescent Simon to drink and smoke until he gets sick is just as noxious as the glamorization of child abuse. Ultimately everything falls apart for these three drunks after Joe sheepishly proposes marriage to Kerewin and she rejects him because she is strong willed and independent and just not into marriage or men or family. Simon then goes on a crazy glass-breaking rampage after seeing the decomposing body of the local child molester and in response to Simon’s vandalism Joe beats him until he is unconscious and requires hospitalization.

After the incident that sent Simon to the hospital, the novel takes an abrupt turn in pace as the narrative separately focused on each of the character’s outcomes rather than the drunken fluid blend that muddied the novel’s central action. Although the narrative style was focused and easier to read, the plot turns were appallingly disappointing.

First, Joe serves an astounding three months in prison for his brutality and on release he promptly breaks his arm and is serendipitously saved by a prophetic old man who is watching over a mystical hunk of Maori greenstone (jade). Joe promises to the man to watch over his property and protect the mystical greenstone, and then just as mysteriously fortuitous as their meeting, the man who had the strength to heal Joe suddenly dies. Then an earthquake conveniently destroys the property and Joe wanders off, breaking the promise he made to the dying man.

Then, after spending several weeks in hospital, Simon is later a ward of the state and somehow the reader is supposed to fall under the spell of the boy’s own infection of Stockholm Syndrome and appreciate the boy’s inherent need to be beaten as the priest that watches over the orphanage is driven to beat Simon for his truancy and misbehavior just as Joe did. Despite all that has happened to him, Simon still longs to return to his abusive father that cared for him so deeply. Simon’s thoughts are curious and appalling and the novel seems to glamorize child brutality as something that just happens with little consequence as demonstrated by Kerewin hardly batting an eye when she discovers it and the state only imprisoning Joe for a paltry three months for his crime.

And in the end Kerewin decides to destroy her home and go on a wandering walkabout as an unknown lump in her liver, likely cancer, begins to consumer her. She decides to face death by eating a bunch of mushrooms and painkillers and somehow her mystical experience cures her and helps her find resolution with herself and her need to be alone.

And ultimately the epilogue resolution somehow depicts the three back together as one happy family. The reader is expected to believe that all the conflict and turmoil that plagued the three somehow was resolved off the pages of this book. Or maybe they are all dead or the imagining of the three together is Kerewin’s fading thought before she dies. It really doesn’t matter.  I may have gone into a lot of detail describing the plot and ending of this terrible book, but I have done so, to prevent you the pain of reading this. Whatever happens in the end, the book tries too hard to be poetic in its exploration of themes of loneliness, alcoholism, violence, and child abuse and in its attempt to explore these afflictions it fails to really say anything other than people live with afflictions and life goes on.

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New Zealand Guidebooks


This past March and April my wife and I spent 19 glorious days in beautiful New Zealand. The trip was a whirlwind adventure and every day was packed with fun activities, jaw-dropping sites, and lots and lots of driving. When we travel we don’t really stay in one place for long and tend to pack in a lot during our vacation trips. With so much to see in New Zealand we were constantly on the move with plenty of hiking (tramping as the Kiwis call it), kayaking, and did I mention driving? This was by far one of the best trips I’ve had with enough nature-loving eye-candy to reflect upon and cherish for years and years to come. New Zealand definitely ranks up there as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

At 103, 482 square miles, New Zealand is only about 2/3 the size of California but in its small area it has as many natural wonders as all the United States including the beaches and volcanoes of Hawaii and the Glaciers of Alaska! This is a land formed by the crashing of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, which means that it is volcanic, mountainous, and filled with rugged and ever changing terrain. Prior to choosing where to focus our travels on this trip we spoke with several friends that had visited NZ before us to get an idea about the the best of the best sites to visit. However, after talking to our friends we picked up some guide books and began searching driving distance (and time) on google maps, we quickly felt overwhelmed by the amount of options available to us.

11072899The entire country is practically a giant national park with numerous sites to see around every corner. One could easily spend two to three months visiting New Zealand and only hit the top sites. Our trip, though long in relation to most trips, was limited in time at just under three weeks.  During our planning we discovered that we had to make some hard decisions about what we could see and which regions we would have to cut from our itinerary. We browsed our local bookstores to try to pick up some good guide books and chose Lonely Planet’s “Discover New Zealand” as our aid in picking the top sites and Scott Cook’s South Island focused “NZ Frenzy” to help us find lesser known sites in the areas near our top sites.

16907604978_f432120c4e_oAt the suggestion of several of our friends we decided to invest the majority of out time on the South Island and limit the North Island to just a few days focused on the cities of Auckland and Wellington, and the more touristy draws such as the Lord of the Rings focused Hobbiton Shire movie set, the black-water rafting in the Waitomo glowworm caves, and some hiking near the volcanic alpine park of Tongariro. Our South Island leg of the trip was closer to two weeks and in the planning we decided to build our trip around the top sites of Abel Tasman, Franz Joseph Glacier, and Milford Sound. These three sites cover the northern most, western and southwest regions of the South Island. Although there were several great sites on the eastern and southern part of the South Island, we decided that our theme for the trip would be “you can’t see it all” since we had to simply exclude the area surrounding Christchurch on the east and Dunedin to the far south.

16505803424_b2e759537c_oIn using the Guide Books, the Lonely Planet did its intended job in giving suggestions for the top sites to see, it had beautiful pictures that helped us add in some great highlights such as the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Hot Springs, the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, and the Punakaki Pancake Rocks in addition to giving us plenty of reason to see our already selected top sites of Abel Tasman, Franz Joseph Glacier, and Milford Sound. However, when it came to using the Lonely Planet while actually in New Zealand we found the book nearly useless. The maps it provided were either too zoomed out or too zoomed in to provide any help in navigation. When we were in regions looking for additional activities, the Lonely Planet’s suggestions were very vague and confusing. Its only merit were the restaurant suggestions in the cities and towns we stopped through. The city maps were helpful for finding restaurants, but little else. Thankfully there was plenty of wifi available throughout the country to assist us in mapping our on-the-fly explorations throughout the trip.
17230633815_50dae7e798_oThe Lonely Planet included 10 pages dedicated to top itineraries based on length of visit anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks and we had used these to give us a general idea for the trip when planning. However, once we were actually in the country and taking a look at these itinerary suggestions we laughed at how vague they were in direction and activity suggestions. Probably the biggest disappointment in the Lonely Planet layout was the 42 pages devoted to Auckland and the surrounding region. We left the final two days of our trip to explore Auckland and enjoy some city dining. The food was good in Auckland but when we arrived in the country’s largest city we found that the Lonely Planet’s discussion of Auckland activities were overly zealous with praise but deficient in any clear direction of actually what to do. The Lonely Planet lumps the Coromandel Peninsula with the Auckland region, but this would be equivalent to including a summary of Sacramento in a San Francisco guidebook – the two are so far apart and separated by long distances of driving that they really should be accurately identified as separate regions. The Lonely Planet fails to prepare the traveler for the distance and time of travel between regions.

17153146055_e8fa0a64de_oThankfully we didn’t rely soley on the Lonely Planet during our travels. Scott Cook’s South Island focused NZ Frenzy was a guidebook of a totally different sort. Written by a Oregon traveler that visited New Zealand over 5 consecutive summers, NZ Frenzy doesn’t pretend to be an all inclusive guidebook. NZ Frenzy is a straightforward, no-nonsense summary of outdoor activities both popular and obscure with detailed summaries why one should visit each spot described. Each location has explicitly clear directions that prompt the driver to follow km markers and also includes GPS coordinates to include in a google map for easy reference.

17128024476_d2f0fbfe8c_oWithout NZ Frenzy we would never have included Wharariki beach in our itinerary after our time in Abel Tasman because it was two hours out the way, but NZ Frenzy intrigued our interests with its description stating “Abel’s beaches are like a pretty cheerleader, whereas Wharariki’s beaches beckon like a moody, tattooed and tempestuous woman.” Not only was that description totally spot on, but NZ Frenzy was totally accurate in letting us know where to look to see the baby seal pups that were frolicking in the waves – a total ooh and ah cutesy moment that was totally pleasing. Without NZ Frenzy we would never have known about Motukiekie Beach and its crazy starfish tide-pools, because the beach has no signs and is totally inaccessible unless visited at low tide. Again, only through the suggestion of NZ Frenzy did we find ourselves tramping straight up hill through the mud to reach the jaw dropping mouth of the Rawhiti caves and NZ Frenzy directed us to the best hike/tramp of the entire trip, the Rob Roy Glacier Amphitheater.

16996691728_ef02c4ff99_oI think I’ve made my point, that NZ Frenzy was a great guidebook to discover a off the beaten path natural wonders. The book was stacked with great sites and we planned our trip around fitting in as much as we could and in some cases we had to forego a few of our planned stops simply because we were too tired from our busy travels. What I haven’t hit upon yet, is what a pleasure it was to read NZ Frenzy’s text – never have I read a guidebook full of snarky, tongue-in-cheek humor and we enjoyed reading aloud the humorous descriptions during our drives to each location. Additionally, NZ Frenzy was accurately explicit in preparing us for the horror of the South Island: the sand-flies. The Lonely Planet made absolutely zero mention of this prolific pest, but NZ Frenzy realistically provides detailed mention of the presence or celebrated absence of this annoyance at each of NZ Frenzy’s suggested locations. That forewarning in itself made our trip more pleasurable as we more prepared with proper clothing and protection at the more sand-fly prone areas. My only regret with the NZ Frenzy during our trip was that we didn’t have a copy of the North Island edition with us too, because it would have exponentially added to the enjoyment of our already wonderful trip.

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A Pale View of the Hills

download (2)Kazuo Ishiguro, 1982

“Memory, I realize, can be an unrealizable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.” (156)

The passage above offers a clue to the enchanting, silent mystery of Kazuo Ishiguro’s slim, first novel A Pale View of the Hills. This book captivated me with its simplicity and quiet voice. Within its pages there lives an erie oddness because much remains unsaid and isn’t written on the pages. This is a story of memory and loss told by a potentially unreliable narrator and the truth of the story’s circumstances is revealed only in the reader’s imaginings.

Within its first few pages we find ourselves in the mind of the first person narrator, Etsuko, a Japanese expatriate living in England. We learn that her first daughter, Keiko, fully Japanese and born from Etsuko’s first husband, Jiro, has recently killed herself. Etsuko’s second daughter, Nikki, mixed and born of her second husband in England is visiting to comfort her mother. Little is said of what may have prompted Keiko’s suicide, nor is anything said of what caused Etsuko to leave her first husband, nor is her second husband ever mentioned once. These pieces of the puzzle of Etsuko’s life are realities that exist but unexplored in the pages of  A Pale View of the Hills and their omission heightens the mood of mystery within the text.

The story in these is focused not on Etsuko’s present loss, but on her recollections of the years she lived in Nagasaki shortly after the war. When she was pregnant with Keiko Etsuko had befriended a woman named Sachiko who recently moved to Nagasaki from Tokyo. Sachiko’s life is full of mystery, but she is grateful for Etsuko’s friendship. Sachiko’s daughter Mariko exhibits signs of post traumatic stress, often wandering in the night and speaking of a woman who is never truly there. Sachiko was once a wealthy woman in Tokyo, but the war destroyed much of her influence and now her and Mariko live in a modest hut and pleads for Etsuko’s help in finding a job in a noodle shop.

Many of the themes explored weigh upon loss and discomfort with cultural change. There are many reflections on the city rising from the rubble that was destroyed by the bomb and several of the characters work in professions below their pre-war social stature. The developing roles of women in a largely male dominated culture causes much discomfort for the male characters and the new generation’s perspective on the totalitarian war-time regime causes distress in the older generation. From these many conversational reflections expressed through Etsuko’s memories of her life during the post-war Nagasaki the reader is presented with a cultural landscape that provides a rich perspective on a challenging and unique historical period.

The setting and backstory to A Pale View of the Hills are only a sliver of the novel’s worth. As I discussed above, there is an odd mystery to the book that is only revealed through the muddy recollections of our narrator. The story of Sachiko and Etsuko’s friendship is clearly more than it seems. The two have two many similarities and it is possible that Etsuko may be confusing some of her memories, displacing herself in Sachiko’s place or vice versa. Sachiko, like Etsuko has a troubled daughte. Sachiko desires to escape Japan and move to America whereas we know that Etsuko has moved to England at some later point in her life. Sachiko often tells the pregnant Etsuko that she will make a fine mother and both woman claim to be motivated to do what is best for their daughters, but it is clear that the elder Etsuko has regrets and the reader can see that both women’s choices are primarily motivated by self-preservation in ways that may cause greater harm to their daughters than they could imagine. The novel’s ending is quietly vague in a lovely way that seems to suggest that Etsuko and Sachiko may have been the same woman or at least the qualities of one were misplaced in the other.

This book made it’s way into my hands only by chance. I had read Ishiguro’s famously popular Never Let Me Go several years ago and on that reading I wasn’t very impressed by the quasi sci-fi mysterious plot twist hidden within the pages of that book and I didn’t imagine myself reading Ishiguro again. I found A Pale View of the Hills a better book. Ishiguro uses many of the same stylistic tricks in both books by creating an oddly mysterious setting with questionably reliable narrators that don’t reveal all the truth of their circumstances. However, I enjoyed A Pale View of the Hills more than my first exposure to Ishiguro because this book managed to say much about historical themes, the identity of womanhood and culture, and personal relationships with memory all within a slim and enchanting concise 185 pages. This book succeeds with its brevity in creating an aura hinting at so much more than is written on the page prompting the imagination of the reader to fill in the blank spaces – and that is truly respectable art.

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Nobody Is Every Missing

download (1)Catherine Lacey, 2014

“I wanted this moment to stay because I wanted to just walk and walk … and I wanted to just be on the way somewhere, I wanted to be on the way forever without ever getting there because that was what I really wanted, maybe to go and  go and keep leaving and leave and go and be going and never arrive.” (225)


The passage above pretty much sums up the themes this book expressed to me: lack of direction and aimless wandering that never arrives at any realizable destination.

I gave Nobody Is Ever Missing a chance. I actually finished it, so I guess that is some semblance of a chance, but in finishing it I have no more appreciation for this book than what I had expected of it from the impression I gathered from the first fifty pages of reading. In an attempt to highlight the positives, I can say that Catherine Lacey writes nicely structured sentences that carry the narrative along at a comfortable pace. As a collection of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adverbs Nobody Is Ever Missing is a decent book. However, as an engaging story, it totally missed the mark.

The basic story is this. The first person narrator, Elyria, decides to leaver her husband of seven years. She decides to leave him without telling him. Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand with the goal of staying on a farm owned by an author she met once at a dinner party in Manhattan. She hitchhikes from Auckland to the the South Island with an extended stopover in Wellington before arriving on  the farm. After surprising the author with her unannounced visit she overstays her welcome and is asked to leave. She wanders some more and eventually stays a while with a random couple doing chores for them but keeps to herself.  When they politely ask her to participate in their community she bounces at dawn the next day because she is unable to socialize and participate in any community. She eventually gets deported when she lands herself in the hospital after being bit by a stingray and arrives back in Manhattan to find her husband has changed the locks and boxed up all her stuff.

Don’t worry, if I spoiled it for you, the plot isn’t that important. This is really the story of a woman’s psychological unraveling. There is some backstory to Elryia’s relationship to her husband that involves the suicide of her sister and Elyria’s troubled bond with her critical and verbally abusive mother. The first person narrative often loses itself in long tangential reflections on her past, the wildebeast that is crowding her mind, and her inability to connect with the people around her.

In many ways I feel for Elyria as a person who is potentially handicapped by a psychotic break. The choices she makes are clearly directed by a fractured mind that is only partially invested in the reality of the world that surrounds her. The trouble with this is that as a novel, her first person narrative is difficult to sympathize with from the perspective of a reader who sees through the terrible decisions and challenging situations she creates for herself. In other words, Elyria is an annoying narrator. She doesn’t grow; she does the opposite of grow as she loses grip on reality and perspective. Her greatest social difficulties are simple requests by people who desire for her to participate with them in some sense of community or relationship, for example:

You know, we’re trying to create a full community here – this is important to us. And we can respect your privacy, you know I get that, but we really need you to participate in our ecosystem. Elyria. Can you do that? [This is followed by a page of Eylria’s inner monologue digressing about how this man reminds her of her husband and the way he looks at her is a mix of pity and long division, which causes her to go on a tangent about soap operas and a boy from her high school who was teased because he didn’t have fully functioning nerves and how she identifies with that boy, and after this long digression she finally responds] I believe I could do that, I said to Amos and he smiled, so I smiled a little and I was glad I had pretended to be better than I was because it would make it easier to leave because I knew I couldn’t live up to this pretend person I had made up.” (178-9)

After reading that that passage I could do nothing other than lift my palm to my face and shake my head in disappointment. I wanted to try to find a reason to like Elryia but she was to frustrating to like. The simple social requests of the people around her cause her to just up and leave in fear. She is constantly running from something she can’t even identify and she has no goal in her running. Time and again I found myself just simply rolling my eyes at Elyria, wanting her to gain some insight, achieve some goal, or at least get help for her psychological troubles, but she does none of these things.

Granted, although her marriage was free of violence or abuse, her husband does reveal himself to be a jerk towards her after she leaves and he doesn’t do much to defend himself. However, his actions are told from Elyria’s narrative perspective and the reliability of her perspective on their marriage is questionable. For example, she only refers to him as husband and never uses his name – this choice reveals how her mind has stripped him of his humanity and personhood, he has become a symbol to her and his symbolic nature makes it easy for her as she leaves him without a word or hint of her plans to travel around the world on a one way ticket.

Other than my lack of sympathy for Elyria’s story, I found  Nobody is Ever Missing a frustrating disappointment in narrative setting. I’m currently planning a vacation to New Zealand and as I began this book I was serendipitously excited to learn that the narrative was set in the country of my soon to be vacation locale. However, Elyria’s perspective is that New Zealand is a boring place where birds are just birds, mountains are just mountains, and trees are just trees and no more. Her fractured mind fails to find beauty in what is considered one of the most beautiful and captivating locations of scenery on Earth. This only further inhibited my potential sympathy for her story.

Not worth reading unless you enjoy mental frustrations and deflated hopes.

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Far From the Tree

downloadParents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon, 2012

“The affection my family have found in one another is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness.” (700)

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a masterpiece.

I had opened this book expecting an informative academic exploration of the challenges faced by families that raise children with unexpected disabilities, anomalous behaviors, and qualities that fail to mimic the father-like-son cliché. I had not expected to open a book that would totally challenge my perspective on identity, the relationship of self with society, and universal rights. Far From the Tree does all of the above and much, much more through an engaging presentation of true-to-life stories that are both inspiring and heartbreaking. These stories grip the imagination with an enlightened consideration that extends beyond simple illumination of fact and detail. Solomon has provided us with a book that explores literally hundreds of human stories he has gathered from first-person interviews in an effort explore the universal truths inherent in human relationship and identity developed by parenthood. This book is a phenomenal reference as well as an easily digestible narrative that is well worth any reader’s investment and attention.

It goes beyond saying that I like this book.

So, getting down to it, why did this book impress me so? Well, lets start with the opening line, “there is no such thing as reproduction,” a line that grabs the reader’s attention and challenges the paradigm of parenthood as a procreative “reproduction” of self. Solomon lets us know from the outset that the casual and idealized expectation that children reflect the behaviors, appearances, and qualities of their parents is falsely based on mythical and often unachievable ideals. This paradigm is far from reality as generational differences are apparent across humankind – and this is what is observed and expected in normal healthy offspring. The differences from parent to child are more apparent and surprising when the next generation exhibit anomalous devaitions from the standard expectation of normalcy.

Solomon spent ten years interviewing parents and children that were born with unexpected anomalies and he invests ten quality chapters of this 700 page epic exploring deafness, dwarfism, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability (both physical and mental), prodigies, children of rape, child-criminals, and transgender children. With admirable quality, Solomon avoids stereotyping or demonizing what many would consider “freaks” of nature by demonstrating that all these children exhibit human qualities despite their uniqueness. He does so by first introducing himself as a homosexual man, framing his own troubled identify as a man who struggled with depression and familial acceptance in his youth, and in so doing he establishes a voice that rightfully speaks for those who are under-appreciated, misunderstood, and disenfranchised by societal and familial expectation.

From the outset, I was challenged, intrigued, and inspired by some of his discussion of homosexual rights framed within perspective of the rights of religious parties, as demonstrated by this passage:

“Members of minority religions are protected not because they are born that way and can’t do anything about it, but because we affirm their right to discover, declare and inhabit the faith with which they identify. Activists got homosexuality removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 1973, yet gay rights remain contingent on claims that the condition is involuntary and fixed. This cripple-like model of sexuality is depressing, but as soon as anyone posits that homosexuality is chosen or mutable, lawmakers and religious leaders try to cure and disenfranchise the gay people in their purview.” (17)

This is the perspective of a man confident in his personal identity who paradoxically expresses discomfort with societal definition, boundaries, and perceptions of the identity class he ascribes to. This is a refreshing and mature perspective that reaches beyond community expectations of pride in identity by aiming toward a universal appreciation for the uniqueness of individual identity as part of the greater fabric of the human community. For these reasons Solomon establishes himself as a worthy witness and a worthy voice for the children and families that live with identities that are commonly misunderstood and under-appreciated.

Far From the Tree is the story of parenthood that defies the common expectation of parenthood. The parents of the children discussed in this book (with exception of the product of rape) chose parenthood as part of the basic human desire for procreation, but in their offspring they received less than what they expected in children that appear, behave, feel, sense, and react very differently than they do.

Despite these differences, the phenomenal story presented within the pages of Far From the Tree is that the parents of these unexpected children overwhelmingly love their children just as much as, and if not more than parents who are “blessed” with healthy normal children that are procreative fruits that fall a little close to the tree than the anomalies discussed in this book. Their stories are totally honest and heartwarming and it is hard to comprehend ourselves in their shoes, reacting and living as they do with total acceptance and commitment to their loved ones:

“Do I love my kids? Yes. Will I do everything for them? Yes. I have them and I love them. I wouldn’t do it again. I think that anybody who tells you they would is lying.” (241) autism

Through the discussion of deaf and dwarf children, Solomon presents intriguing stories of children who struggle to find their identity in a society and families that appear and communicate differently then themselves. There are unsettling stories of painful limb extension and use of cochlear implants forced upon the children before the age of consent that redefine the identity of deafness and dwarfism as medical conditions that should be corrected, mirroring the misinformed societal perception that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through therapy. Such stories are unsettling and reflect the paradigm that normalcy is the ideal, but not all parents suffer their children through such corrective natures. There are several heroic parents that learn sign and attend little people conferences to provide a peer based identity for their children. Some parents who would have never thought themselves activists find that their children’s differences cause the parent to rediscover their own relationship to society and speak out for the rights not just of their specific child, but the right of their child’s identity:

“If racial minorities and the poor deserved support and respect, then so did people with Down Syndrome and related conditions. If help to these other groups was best given early, then so too, was aid to people with intellectual disabilities.” (183)

However, not all the stories in this book are heartwarming. Several of the stories are chillingly sobering. The stories of poop smeared on the walls by autistic children and the mournful loss as once-promising adolescent minds are transformed by schizophrenia were hard to read. I found myself nearly in tears throughout the chapter dedicated to children of disability. The story of Imogen, a disabled young girl born with hydrocephalus and a brain that was not much more than a brain stem, was haunting. The mother of this child was honest with herself in her inability to care for her daughter of whom would never return the parental affection given her. Despite her own love and concern for the well being of her disabled daughter, this mother opted to surrender Imogen to the state in order to allow herself to reclaim her identity as an adult woman:

“On the day that Imogen was supposed to come home, Julia did not go to the hospital…Julia and Jay [came] in for a meeting the next day. At the hospital, Julia used the line the lawyer had given her. She said, “I’m not the right mother for this child.” The consultant did not question her decision…The doctor asked if they had ever thought of harming her, his tone suggesting the necessary answer. Jay said, “I can’t say I haven’t.” And the doctor said, “Then let us take this burden away from you.” (399)

The challenging situation with cases such as Imogen’s is the simple fact that her existence is supported by medical advancement. Unlike children of Down Syndrome that can live healthy but limited lives, or schizophrenics that can find a vague semblance of balance with medication, physiological  disabilities would not live at all without machinery and medications to ensure their survival. Their existence presents a new philosophical dilemma in the identity of parenthood and this dilemma has not existed for more than a generation – this is a dramatically small time-frame compared to the entirety of human history and it is questionable whether our philosophical ideals of ethics have kept in pace with our medical and technological advancement. Is Imogen’s mother a terrible person for giving up her child or is humanity unnecessarily creating new ethical challenges simply for the sake of utilizing technology to support life that would otherwise not continue? It is difficult to say and even harder to imagine myself making such a decision.

These ethical dilemmas are further highlighted in the discussion of children of rape. No chapter gave me more discomfort than Solomon’s exploration of rape. The appalling stories of fathers, uncles, boy-friends, and so-on fathering children from their children, nieces, and friends completely disgusted and saddened me. It is appalling that such violence is part of the human story, but even the more surprising that life can come of violence. Most of the children discussed in this book find acceptance in their family and communities but children of rape often face a stigma of shame, are unaccepted by their extended family, or may live in secret, not knowing the truth of their paternal origin. What is even the more saddening is that many of the children of rape suffer the same fate as their mothers, extending the cycle from one generation to the next. One victim, chose to serve victims such as herself and her words were touching:

“As a social worker, Marina frequently has to grapple with stories of sexual violence. “My personal pain is just a ripple in this huge ocean of pain that women feel every day.” (483)

In addition to the shocking stories of rape, the stories of children that turn to crime and violence was unsettling and sobering. Most parents expect the best for their children, providing them opportunities to make the best of their lives, but often social limitations or psychological aberrances prompt the child towards antisocial and destructive behavior. Solomon spoke with many parents but the most sobering were the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two boys involved in the Columbine shootings. They had offered their son a good life and his violent actions were a total shock to them. Due to the national attention of the event, the Klebolds live in the constant shadow of their son’s terrible legacy, yet they somehow find positivity and an ability to maintain a place within the Columbine community:

“We are able to be open and honest about those things because our son is dead. His story is complete. We can’t hope for him to do something else, something better.” (597)

Many of the parents interviewed voiced both regret and acceptance of what their children could have become if it were not for their atypical identities and physiologic deficits. The parents of transgender children have the a unique challenge unlike all other children explored in this book in that their child’s identity challenges social norms of gender identity in ways that is often unexplainable. Many transgender children face a lifetime of bullying and live with depression due to their isolation and inability to fully express themselves for who they are. Despite this, there are several remarkable parents that accept and celebrate their child’s identity for who they are, and such parenting is truly admirable and inspiring.

“Undermining anyone’s personal tautology by suggesting that he should not, in fact, be himself sabotages whatever he might become.” (611)

This may be a lengthy review, but Far from the Tree is a lengthy book that deserves attention. Though I am not a parent myself, Far from the Tree provided me with healthy perspective and respect for those who sacrifice so much of themselves to create a better world for their children and in so doing, they create a better world for us all. Solomon presents a balanced exploration of each of the anomalous children, interviewing parents that are full of regret and shame as well as parents full of acceptance and love. Solomon also provides fair evaluations of the dichotomous ethics of social identity and community while maintaining an unbiased appreciation for the difficult choices that many parents must make as they care for their unexpected children. Far from the Tree can be difficult to read at times due to many of the sorrowful stories explored here, but there is also much to celebrate and appreciate. Life is more complex than we would hope it to be, but in its complexity beauty and love are all the more valuable.

“By what logic does making a better world have to do with hewing to the norm?” (681)

Posted in Anthropology, Journalism, Medical, Non-Fiction, Pyschology, Social Commentary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blue Fox

download (1)Sjón, 2004
Translated from the Icelandic
by, Victoria Cribb, 2008

“All day long the vixen ran up the hill and down dale, the man following hard on her heels. She was his letter of commission, setting him a task to perform in the material world.” (26)

Ever since my trip to Iceland last January I have been wanting to read some Icelandic literature. By its mere size, at a slim 115 pages, Sjón’s The Blue Fox appeared as good a place as any to dip my feet in the Icelandic chill. Though this is a short novella, it offers much to consider and stands alone as a literary accomplishment worth reading – and for those with short attention spans, this can easily be digested in a single day’s reading.

This seemingly straightforward story takes place in three parts spanning the dates January 18-17, 1883 with a short prologue occurring as a written letter dates March 23, 1883, with the second part actually occurring two days prior to the introductory part. The storytelling weaves back through time with a mysterious and enchanting poetic lyricism that is both compelling and engaging with a dark and melancholic quality that captivates the reader.

12491455713_a1d8cfbc9c_zIn the first part an unnamed, lone hunter is tracking down a fox for her pelt in the deepest and darkest part of winter. The writing here transitions from the hunter and the fox’s perspective as though it were an ode to nature’s claim over the both of them. For example, consider this brief passage that describes the passing of daylight:

“In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colors they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and their in their wild caperings. This spectacle is at its brightest shortly after sunset. Then the curtain fall; night takes over.” (28)

Only at the end of the first part part does the narrator reveal the identity of the hunter and his name is ignited upon the page with the burst of his rifle’s fire. In the second part of the book, the narrative takes a chronological step backwards and moves away from the poetic voice into a descriptive and conversational tone. It is here that the reader learns of the rural lifestyle of the hearty Icelandic people. There is the discovery of a marooned ship and its life-giving cargo of fish oil as well as the surprising castaway of a battered woman, likely used as a slave-whore by the lost sailors. The woman is an island unto herself due to her neglect and apparent mental deficiency, but her simplicity gives joy to a naturalist who later marries her:

“The figure in the corner became aware of him. She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world.” (58)

Although the chronology of the second part claims to have taken part immediately prior to the hunter chasing fox, with the appearance of the girl who is a later revealed to be a dead woman, as well as a changeover from one town priest to another, it isn’t quite clear where in time the story exists. The lyric form apparently hides itself within the conversational narrative in order to transcend time and reveal the motivations of rural Icelandic peoples. It is here that the reader learns of harsh choices that prompt infanticide of those who are unfit to survive in the Icelandic climate and the text describes the assumed culture practices with harsh and shocking exactitude:

“No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.” (64)

12492211873_6602c50d91_zYet, the chronological narrative is an aside meant to add to the melancholic mystery of what is essentially a moral fable about man’s relationship to nature. The third part of the story returns the reader to the poetic dance between the hunter and the fox as the reader becomes witness to the hunter’s tragic subjection of nature’s vengeance against his actions. Within this lyric dance there are strange moments of magical hallucinatory events, as well as a gruesome description of the skinning of the fox pelt that may shock an unforgiving reader, but the narrative drives the necessity of these moments that verge on the edge of sanity and reality.

Without revealing the surprises buried within the book, I’ll acknowledge that it was jarring and captivating read. Having visited Iceland myself, the natural and poetic language reignited my admiration for that distant, beautiful, and harsh land.

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