November Reading:

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham takes the fantasy right out of the fairy tale in this dark book, going beyond the safety and comfort of the words ‘The End’.

What happens after the story ends? Misunderstood and misused, the characters in this book have failings, whether they be hero or villain. There are erotic idiosyncrasies and immovable convictions, lonelinesses, and very human emotions. The reader has no choice but to empathize.

This is Rumpelstiltskin, willing to help someone who has 24 hours to spin a room full of straw into gold; otherwise, the king will cut off her head:

‘It’s instinct then, that tells you, Help this girl, good might come of it. Maybe simply because you, and you alone, have something to offer her. You who’ve never before had much to offer any of the girls who passed by, laughing with their boyfriends, leaving traces of perfume in their wake; perfume and powder and a quickening of the air they so recently occupied.’

And the Tin Soldier:

‘He knows about damage the way a woman does. He knows, the way a woman knows, how to carry on as if nothing’s wrong.’

Cunningham crafts the two-dimensional fairy tale world into full 3-D.

Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

The Incantation – Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Act IV, Scene I

A dark cave. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
Thunder.
Enter the three Witches

FIRST WITCH
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

SECOND WITCH
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

THIRD WITCH
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

FIRST WITCH
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

THIRD WITCH
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

HECATE
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]

SECOND WITCH
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Enter MacBeth.

October Reading:

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of those overlooked writers, maybe due to the fact that The Lottery is required reading in high school lit classes. Kids grow up thinking she’s a one-hit wonder.

Shirley’s writing is tight, focused. A sign of a true professional is when the writing is so effective it doesn’t need an adjective. Those tend to bog things down. These stories have movement. At times, Shirley uses repetition but for the right reasons. In The Possibility of Evil, the roses are mentioned so often they can be smelled right through the page.

It’s not all grim. Some of it is dark but funny: I snorted out loud reading Louisa, Please Come Home.

Then there is the Kafkaesque quality of Paranoia. Maybe everyone is out to get you.

Shirley had a miserable marriage with her husband. She birthed out some kids and then settled into her house and her writing in Vermont. She became ever more reclusive as the years passed.

Maybe this misery contributed to the disturbing stories she wrote. The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best horror novels of the 20th century. As an aside, it was made into one of the best psychological thrillers of the 1960s.

Shirley died of heart failure when she was 48, in 1965.

It’s Banned Books Week

The Biloxi, Mississippi school board just removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum. Their reasoning: “It makes people uncomfortable.”

The writer Wole Soyinka said: “A book if necessary should be a hammer, a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world.”

Here’s a link to the ALA’s most frequently challenged books.

September Reading:

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick was best known as a travel writer (see A Time of Gifts) but he was also a soldier; after fighting in WWII for Cretan resistance, he lived in Greece. And as a scholar, he had no peer. Patrick was self-taught in multiple languages. He was a bon vivant in the best sense, a charismatic character who lived life to its fullest.

Patrick made a pilgrimage of abbeys in the 1950s to read and write, and learn from the abbey libraries he visited. At one, the father librarian handed him a key and let him take as many books as he’d like to his room. It was a book reader’s dream:

‘The library was beautifully kept, and considering the Abbey’s vicissitudes, enormous. Vellum-bound folios and quartos receded in vistas, and thousands of ancient and modern works on theology, canon law, dogma, patrology, patristics, hagiography, mysticism and even magic, and almost as many on secular history, art, and travel.’

The monasteries commanded silence, perfect for a writer. They were ‘beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.’ And Patrick was there to write, and to learn. His details of the rituals of mass are lovely:

‘The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of sound.’

When speaking was required, during the canonical hours, it was a complement to this long stillness. There is a soothing quality that comes with communicating in different languages. It is the prism of sliding between languages throughout the liturgies, all sides of the same glass. The abbots slip from Latin to French to Latin; then Patrick follows with the English narrative.

The book is more than a book of stillness; it is a history of monasteries, abbeys, and sects. It is a thank you letter from Patrick to each monastery he visited.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011. This is The Guardian’s obit for him.

July Reading:


W.B. Yeats

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

June reading:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery by Witold Pilecki

Pilecki in 1922

Captain Witold Pilecki spent much of his life fighting against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and then the Stalinist communist government. He was an officer in the Polish underground Home Army and made it his life’s work to infiltrate these regimes to shine a light on the atrocities being committed.

To that end, Pilecki volunteered to enter into a concentration camp as a prisoner. In 1940, he was arrested by the SS and subsequently spent 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz before he escaped. He then wrote a report on his time there, this book, which became the first evidence of the mass murders that were taking place under Hitler’s regime. This is a grim recollection during his early days there:

’I had noticed that fewer people returned from work every day, and I knew that they had been “finished off” at one task or another; but now I was to discover the hard way what a day “in the camp” looked like…’

Pilecki suffered greatly during his time there; starvation was his most difficult plight, and then illness, which terrified him greatly. The sick were the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoriums were, was less than a mile away.

Maps from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Pilecki recalls this from August of 1942:

’The SS men quickly surrounded the block. I have to admit that watching that scene for a moment my blood froze and then boiled …

What I was shortly to see, was also distressing.

The sick were pulled out and shoved into vehicles. Those who were unconscious and those who were now well, those convalescing having been ill a month earlier but who were still in quarantine, they were all packed into the vehicles and taken off to the gas chambers in several waves …

I saw an SS man throwing two small inmates into the vehicles. A little fellow, who was eight years old, asked the SS man to spare him and knelt on the ground. The SS man kicked him in the stomach and threw him into the vehicle like a puppy.

They were all finished off the same day in the gas chambers at Rajsko.

Then for two days the crematoria worked away, with new batches of inmates continually being brought in from the camp.’

After Pilecki escaped, he continued his work for the underground Polish army. But when the nazi regime to the west was overthrown, Soviet communism swept in from the east. Pilecki was arrested in 1948 by the Polish communist regime and executed. He was 47.

It can be argued that Stalin’s gulags were even more brutal than Hitler’s concentration camps. Historians agree on roughly 20 million killed in the gulags, though writer Solzhenitsyn places it closer to 60 million. 17 million died in the concentration camps, though this number gets conflated because around 80 million people total died during World War II.

Have you never heard of Witold Pilecki? It is no wonder, the communists in Poland expunged all memory of him. When the Soviet Empire fell in 1989 his story was revealed. Today, he is revered as one of Poland’s greatest heroes.

May Reading:

Educated by Tara Westover

This memoir recounts how Westover pulled herself out of and away from her fundamentalist upbringing, one that denied her an education. It is filled with moments of ignorance and danger, and both physical and mental abuse. The moment Westover realizes her potential, that she is autonomous of her parents is a revelatory moment:

Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

How does one go from zero education straight to college? Without any basic knowledge of history, or the perceptions gained from living a childhood amongst what’s considered commonplace. How does one gain enough insight to learn that fear no longer needs to be an everyday occurrence and that the suspicions and anxieties born from survivalism can be overcome? Westover proves that it is possible. She is a study in the potential of the human spirit.