What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

This was another one for the throne room…this does not mean that books in the bathroom are any less interesting than ones on my bedside table or ones next to the red couch, it just means that I choose a different genre and always something a little less cerebral than my preferred reading, fiction or non-fiction.

Another second-hand-book-find, What Elephants Know ended up next to my other books about elephants.  I liked that Jane Goodall wrote a quick recommendation.  “You will be fascinated, angered, and charmed in turn by this beautifully written story.”

Dr. Eric Dinerstein is the Director of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program at RESOLVE and so I was very interested in the fact that he wrote a novel and I anticipated that the book would be written from a unique and knowledgeable perspective.

This was a lovely book that I’d recommend for students grade five to grade seven.  It was a quick read that left me thinking about the vulnerability of our wildlife and ecosystems.  The protagonist, Nandu, is a beautiful character who, through his young life, teaches about the numerous impacts made upon these, while exposing the reader to the vulnerability of humanity, as well.

I think this would be a wonderful book to read aloud to students.  It is refreshing to find a book that is culturally diverse and can open eyes and hearts to a different human experience.  Grade three students, in their study of India, may really benefit from this story.  Nandu’s relationships with his female elephant, Devi Kali and with the plants and other animals of the Borderlands are described beautifully.

This is a two evening (10 potty visits) read for an adult.  I recommend doing a quick review of the book before sharing with your students/children so that you know the sensitive topics that will come along.  Give it a go.

What Elephants Know

 

 

The Visions of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi

I cranked up Bruce Cockburn’s Bone on Bone this morning, washed up the stack of dishes sitting in the bottom of the sink and thought about the possibilities of the day.  The words of a meditation that was sent to my mail box was sitting with me, “For Bonaventure, the perfection of God and God’s creation is quite simply a full circle, and to be perfect the circle must and will complete itself.”  Bruce Cockburn’s words to Looking and Waiting.

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear view
of you

you’re a warm bright window lighting up the rain
I catch a glimpse of the glow but I still remain
outside where the shadows pool and bleed
chimney silhouettes semaphore in a code I cannot read

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear view
of you

you’re like the leaves that come down from the trees
a suggestion of a springtime to be
crunching underfoot outlined in frost
full of promise for the return of something lost

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear viewv of you

looking and waiting — it’s what I do

Having recently suffered the loss of a friend…having written yesterday about being a grandmother…I do firmly believe that the Alpha and Omega bring us to a place in our journey where there is no distinction, anymore, between the two.  The circle.

What does any of this have to do with Ursula Hegi’s novel, The Vision of Emma Blau?  Previously, I have read Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm and in my mind, the same themes are fundamental to all three books.

In Hegi’s writing, there is an unbelievable attention paid to the development of the pysche for each character.  It is as though she builds each person from the inside-out.  We know all of their fears and motivations, their crushing blows to the soul, before we know how this, then, is expressed through the events of the narrative.  If the reader is an empath, this is a deepening experience and the reading becomes rich and heart-rending.  Some of my friends would put the book down for this very reason.

This particular story takes us on a journey with Stefan Blau, a protagonist who teaches us as much about his lineage in the past as in the future, all the way forward to Emma.   Hegi writes this story’s beginning in the same fictional town as this reader encountered in both Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm.  About this, I dig to learn more about the author and where better, but on Oprah.com…

About the Author
“When I came to this country as an 18-year old,” Hegi reflects, “I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up, you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence.” For this reason, when people asked Ursula Hegi where she was from, she used to wish she could answer Norway or Holland. Hegi soon discovered that it was impossible to leave behind one’s origins. “The older I got, the more I realized that I am inescapably encumbered with the heritage of my country’s history.”

While her first two books, Intrusions, and Unlearned Pleasures and Other Stories, were set in the U.S., it was with her third book, Floating in My Mother’s Palm, that Hegi took the important step of exploring her conflict over her cultural identity. As she explains: “My own acute discomfort at being German is very much at the core of my writing.”

In Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Hegi first introduces readers to the inhabitants of Burgdorf, a fictional German town loosely based on her hometown during the 1950s. With her “prequel,” Stones from the River, Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf’s characters, and the exploration of her own heritage, by including the several decades preceding World War II and its immediate aftermath.

Stones from the River is Hegi’s attempt to understand the silence of towns throughout Germany that tolerated persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed. Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust to write the book. “It was an important part of my journey, of integrating the past within myself.” She also asked to interview her aged godmother about the period, who, to her surprise, complied. Hegi is pleased that Stones from the River will be published in Germany next year.

She is currently at work on another Burgdorf-based novel, The Passion of Emma Blau, and a nonfiction work, Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America.

The winner of numerous honors and awards, including an NEA fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards, Hegi is an Associate Professor at Eastern Washington University where she teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her partner Gordon Gagliano and has two sons, ages 21 and 24.

To arrive at Emma Blau, readers must find themselves in the ‘magical’ creation of Wasserburg in New Hampshire.  The settings, with their intricate detail and description, come alive for readers and their beauty and mystery somehow create relief from the painful loss within the family, the separation, the hard work and the challenges of being German in a small community before, during and after World War II.

Of such experience of disconnection, Hegi writes, “To detect rot is often impossible in its early stages,” German-American novelist Ursula Hegi warns in “The Vision of Emma Blau.” “It starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies.” 

It is a marvel how Hegi gets us to America.  We do the ocean crossing with Stefan.  We anticipate the marriages, the losses.  We sometimes feel bitter about what seem to be selfish dreams. His Wasserburg becomes an opulent return to the best of Germany, on the humble and wild setting of the American countryside.  Hegi writes about the ‘real’, not the imagined.  Wasserburg becomes a living, breathing presence that evolves over a century and with Emma, Stefan’s grand daughter’s birth, becomes an extension of her very soul.

If one is not concerned with ‘spoilers’ and doesn’t mind a lot of injected advertisements, this is my favourite review on the book.  If you take on this book, I’d suggest beginning with one of the other two; they have become known loosely as the Burgdorf Cycle.  I would also like to hear from my readers about how you feel about dear Helene Montag, a female character who is insanely frustrating.

This book was intended to be my ‘escapist’ novel over the Christmas holiday, but it turned out to be another connection with the abhorrent racism that lurks in the muck of the human spirit…just another expression of the same.IMG_3748

Inscription inside my second-hand book copy of Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi…love books that include an inscription…this one, perfectly, a sister to her brother, Gabe.

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And my own writing in the front cover of Floating in my Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi.

IMG_3751

An Unusual Book: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

I realize that I wouldn’t be very good as a book reviewer…I read lots, but move on to the next book, without archive or recommendation.  But, I have to take pause with this one.

Mark Haddon, himself, warns his readers against using his popular novel, The Curious Incident With a Dog in the Night-time as a textbook about any particular state of being on the spectrum.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, for its innovative use of text and for its heart warming story.  Christopher John Francis Boone is an engaging character, the first of his sort that I’ve met in literature.  I read this book some time ago and over the past months encountered ‘A Spot of Bother’ by the same author in a second hand book store and so picked it up.

I am sitting here chuckling as I type.  The book has such a refreshing angle and similar to ‘The Curious Incident With a Dog in the Night-time’, much of the intrigue revolves around the development of a very unusual character, in this case, George Hall, the patriarch of a fabulously discordant family.  What is it about laughter at the expense of these fictional characters?  I gauge the success of a book these days, based on my reactions to the believable foibles of invented characters.  George is so unreasonable.  I find myself laughing at him until that inevitable moment when my relationship to him and the events of the narrative cause me to do a 180 and cry for the sad state of his situation.

I’d love to know what you think of this one.  I think that Mark Haddon is an especially gifted writer.

Impeccable description.  A connection of the most impossible-to-connect states of mind and experience.  Fabulous!

A Spot of Bother

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

My first ‘read’ of the New Year, The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb.

Wally Lamb

It was very random that I picked this one up…I had just finished Guy Vanderhaeghe’s collection of short stories, Man Descending.  Hard covered and 750+ pages, this one was tricky to read in bed (hard to hold up, if you know what I mean?), but Wally Lamb’s writing always strikes a chord with me.  I think that his writing is moving because he successfully cracks the psyche of his characters so that in some regards we feel his characters reflecting something back to us about ourselves.  When I read She’s Come Undone several years ago, I really wondered how a male writer could find his way inside a woman’s mind as he did.

It was quite by accident that I started reading a book that begins with a fictional school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, only weeks after the real shootings of Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut…shootings that again, appalled citizens everywhere.  As a result of this,  the unfolding of the writer’s initial incident impacted me greatly and in a parallel fashion, impacted Lamb’s characters.  Gritty and raw, the exploration of relationship, family, family secrets and fortitude all struck a chord with me.

While Lamb does not spill it out for us in any literal fashion, we feel that Caelum is coming to a deeper and more acute experience of faith as he encounters and journeys the stream of his own life story.

A complex web is woven with the threads of characters’ lives in this powerful story.  I have no hesitation recommending this book to my readers.

A bit of a full interview that you can enjoy at http://www.authormagazine.org  In fact, this is a great list of interviews with authors.  Scroll to the bottom of the resource for a menu of the complete list.  You will find Wally Lamb there.