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.

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Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

jones_0000fea

Yesterday was another cold day in Calgary, but I did manage to do the circle at the pond, came home and nested for a bit and then decided to curl up on the red sofa in the afternoon sunlight, covered with the green quilted blanket, tiny sip of sherry in hand and set out to finish the book, Mongrels.  I was determined. This book has been a challenge over the Christmas holiday, not because it was long or complex, but in fact, the subject matter was entirely foreign to me.

Anything I’ve read about Stephen Graham Jones, his prolific writing habits and his prominent reputation as a writer of “literary horror”, seems to be positive and for several reasons.  However, I’m not one for reading about mythological creatures or for delving into the world of fantasy.  I must confess that I have read several of Anne Rice’s novels, starring vampires, beginning with The Interview with the Vampire and I’ve followed the vampire, Lestat, to the point where I could imagine the smell and taste of blood.  Yes!  It’s true. Disgusting!  Anne Rice’s vampire narratives are that believable! The vampire is a more popular ‘creepy’ character in contemporary writing; much less common is the appearance of the four legged man-wolf, the werewolf.

I found some aspects of the book, as it moved along, redeeming.  There was just something about the structure, though, that hounded me.  This is what went on…I became intrigued by the story of Libby, Darren and the youthful narrator (a young dude hoping that he begins, at some point, to transform into a werewolf, as his Aunt and Uncle do).  Problem is that this narrative was intruded upon by alternating chapters that spoke from a different point of view, in a very uncanny way.  At regular intervals I was forced to sort out a shift as the young dude became ‘the vampire’ (at Halloween), Darren, the vampire’s Uncle and Libby, the vampire’s Aunt; ‘the reporter’, Darren, the reporter’s Uncle and Libby, the reporter’s Aunt; ‘the criminal’, Darren, the criminal’s Uncle and finally Libby, the criminal’s Aunt….and so it went in alternating chapters for the entire novel.  What was that about?

I’ve read so many reviews on this book and there isn’t one that addresses this shift in point of view.  For me, it adds a complexity that doesn’t seem necessary.  The reviews are generally positive and share accolades for the unique approach to telling a werewolf story, the freshness of the ‘coming-of-age’ angle and the situational originality.  I agree with these positive aspects, but I really did struggle with the structure.  In this particular review…they refer to it as an ‘episodic’ structure.  Not a fan of graphic novels and such, perhaps this is where the problem is for my reading preferences.

While the episodic structure sometimes causes the novel to feel as aimless as its characters, it’s still an often moving portrait of a family struggling to survive in a world that “wants us to be monsters.” (May)

Generally…readers see it the way of this particular review.

“A compelling and fascinating journey, Mongrels alternates between past and present to create an unforgettable portrait of a boy trying to understand his family and his place in a complex and unforgiving world. A smart and innovative story— funny, bloody, raw, and real—told in a rhythmic voice full of heart, Mongrels is a deeply moving, sometimes grisly, novel that illuminates the challenges and tender joys of a life beyond the ordinary in a bold and imaginative new way.”

I think that if it touches me in any way, it is to feel empathy for ‘the outsider’.  I did grow to listen to the narrator’s young voice with a big heart.  I haven’t given up on a book before.  In the case of this one, it was an ‘almost’ situation…but, LOOK!  It is done.

And, yes, mongrels survive! :0)

Now, I’m into a book that has a very traditional flow and seeming linear story line, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.  Stay tuned as I explore the story, opening with the description of John Singer, who rents a room in the Kelly house after his fellow deaf companion, Spiros Antonapoulos.

 

 

 

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris

Another Oprah recommendation, Songs in Ordinary Times has felt like an epic read…taking me a surprising month to complete just 740 pages.  It was snowing this afternoon.  I curled up under blankets and finally finished this tale of a very sad family. Someone who reads a book a week, I had to ask myself, “What was it about this book that hung you up?”

Here are just three reviews from Amazon.  I chose the following three reviews because, in a few areas, they express my thoughts.  I’ve indicated in bold text, my agreement.  You may be interested in perusing the others before you take this book on.  Warning!!  Not everyone who writes a review, knows how to write!  YIKES!!  I can’t take liberties with editing in this situation.  Sorry.

Review #1

2.0 out of 5 stars I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ THE WHOLE THING! February 6, 2000

I purchased this book because I trusted Oprah’s judgment, and I wanted a long book to get lost in during summer ’99. Well, it is now February 2000. Through great discipline on my part, I’m finally finished. I feel gypped. There were so many extraneous characters, and their fates were never disclosed. Why introduce characters when they ultimately fizzle out? Why couldn’t the author spend more time giving insight into the main characters? Reading this book made me feel voyeuristic. There was a lot of surface “dirt,” and I was frustrated by not knowing what made the characters tick. The adults were despicable: sleazy Omar, irresponsible Sam, needy/abusive Marie (I’m no shrink – was she manic-depressive?), among other losers. However, my heart broke for the children. I truly cared about Alice, Norm and Benjy; and I was pleased that the story ended somewhat optimistically – for Alice, at least.

This book should come with a warning: Only read it if you’re too happy. It’s guaranteed to bring your mood down several notches.

Review #2

4.0 out of 5 stars If you have patience… December 23, 2002

By Theresa W

If you can get through the first 150 pages, you’ll be happy you did. With a slow start, that’s when the story really starts to pick up & you start to remember the characters, there’s a lot of them! I agree with an earlier reviewer in that there were too many sub-plots & characters.

I did end up liking the book, and I was VERY close to putting it down & not finishing it. I am glad I stuck it out. The characters are memorable. Their plights, long & hard. You will cringe with them when things go wrong. It’s a story that is so believable it feels real. I see why Oprah picked it.

Just remember, there are many books that start off slow, but they don’t always have such a rewarding ending.

Review #3

4.0 out of 5 stars Knowing the setting isn’t everything January 11, 1999

By B. Michael Harlow

A friend who lives in nearby Rutland, Vermont, loaned me this book because she had loved it. I should trust her taste. I guess I’m a snob because knowing it was an “Oprah Book” and that its setting was Rutland, Vermont (thinly disguised as “Atkinson, VT”) slowed down my beginning to read it; I’d had it for a year before guilt set me going once my friend had asked so much whether I’d started it yet. I loved it! It is not a layered piece of philosophic artistry, but the characters are so true and the honest striving of so many of them is so palpable that I’ll buy a copy for my classroom library. These people are flawed, for sure, but most of them are striving mightily to live a good, moral life, especially Marie Fermoyle, whose kids probably see her as mean. But the novelist’s keen and unflinching sympathies let us see a woman in a hard place trying to do right even if she does not always succeed. I found many scenes very profound emotionally, especially the scene where Benjy wants to drown [285–6] and the scene in which Benjy tells his brother Norm the truth [438]. Many of my favorite scenes involved Benjy, the youngest Fermoyle who just wants his mother to be happy, but who carries the load of so many secrets. I also loved occasional descriptions such as this: “Her perfume smelled of roses and wrinkled dollar bills.” [502] The language does not often call attention to itself, but the characters are unfailingly well-observed and believable. There are enough psychologically complex but accessible characterizations to fill a family’s social circle in a small city like Rutland. The book also unfolds slowly enough that a reader can really get the sense of the passage of time in the summer of 1960. I moved to Rutland ten years later in 1970, but it was still essentially the town from whose Catholic high school Morris had graduated in 1957. Knowing the geography, however, is not the main pleasure of the novel; its compassionate and accurate reach goes well beyond merely regional items.

My thoughts on character….

I despised the characters both individually and as a collective.  They felt weak.  Omar’s manipulation and his lies were disturbing.  Marie’s needy dependance on Omar even when she knew that he was impossibly corrupt and her disregard for her own children angered me.  Benji kept secrets because of the ideal life he wished for his family.  Norm was overwrought with anger.  Alice was merely coping.  Sam was busy trying and failing and trying again. Father Gannon was weak. I don’t ditch books.  I am stubborn and so I kept reading even though the content was dark and disturbing.

The redeeming qualities of the novel included the authentic description.  Also, the world is NOT ‘all roses’ and the pain was true-to-life.  I suppose I would say that fiction offers us an opportunity to escape the sadness a little.  This novel was humourless.

I have no idea what the criteria was for Oprah’s recommendations and this one really makes me wonder.  I’m posting the list of her reading group questions here, in the case that the questions give some sort of insight into her motivation.

The Oprah synopsis:

About the Book
It’s the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. Marie Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable divorced woman whole loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for dangerous con man Omar Duvall. Marie’s children are Alice, seventeen – involved with a young priest; Norm, sixteen – hothead and idealistic; and Benjy, twelve – isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother’s happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Duvall.

We also meet Sam Fermoyle, the children’s alcoholic father; Sam’s brother-in-law, who makes anonymous “live” calls from the bathroom of his failing appliance store; and the Klubock family who – in contrast to the Fermoyles – live an orderly life in the house next door.

Songs in Ordinary Time is a masterful epic of the everyday, illuminating the kaleidoscope of lives that tell the compelling story of this unforgettable family.

Epic!  YES!

  1. Omar Duvall is known to the reader as a dishonest and potentially dangerous man. Why do you think the people of Atkinson are drawn to such a reprehensible figure? What does he offer people like Marie, Benjy, Harvey Klubock, and Bernadette Mansaw? Why do these characters refuse to accept the truth about him, even when it’s clearly evident that he has lied to them?
  2. How do you feel about the character of Marie Fermoyle? Given the circumstances she’s had to face — the breakup of her marriage to the heir of a prominent family, the economic hardships she’s endured, the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors and other members of the community — can you sympathize with her actions towards her children, Oman Duvall, and her ex-husband?
  3. Although most of the novel’s characters are flawed, few of them are truly malevolent. Discuss, for instance, Renie LaChance’s telephone calls to women, Sonny Stoner’s affair with Eunice, Father Gannon’s affair with Alice, Robert Haddad’s Thievery, and Sam’s alcoholism. What do these characters, and their failings, have in common? What compels them in their actions?
  4. What do Joey Sheldon and his popcorn stand represent to the novel and/or to the town of Atkinson? Why do you think people feel so strongly about Joey, one way or the other?
  5. How does Morris use humor to offset the darker events of the novel? Do her humorous passages make you more sympathetic toward characters such as Omar Duvall, Jarden Greene, or Astrid Haddad?
  6. Why do you think Norm, who had been Omar Duvall’s greatest detractor, is taken in by the soap-selling scheme? How does Omar manage to manipulate Norm’s feelings about him, and why, eventually, does he fail?
  7. What does Father Gannon mean when he tells Alice, “I realize that my faith has become a wholeness. It’s a unity of mind and soul. And flesh … I finally feel like a real priest!” Do you think he really loves Alice? What does she give him and what, in turn, does he offer her?
  8. Omar insists that he truly loves Marie, despite all the ways in which he has deceived her. Do you believe him? Do you believe his involvement with the Fermoyle family has changed him? What clues does Morris offer, especially in the final scene involving Oman, Norm, and Benjy, that affect your feelings either way?
  9. How does the concept of salvation figure in the novel? Which characters can’t be saved from their own desperate acts, and which are trying desperately to save themselves?
  10. What do you think the future holds for Marie Fermoyle and her family? How has the presence of Oman Duvall changed each of them, as well as their relationships with each other?