ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Extraordinary Worlds of Alice Hoffman and Nick Arvin


A few days ago, as I was turning the final page on Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Nick Arvin posted (rather humbly) to his Facebook page that his short story “The Crying Man” had just been awarded this year's Alice Hoffman Prize by Ploughshares.

Alice Hoffman, as final judge for the Ploughshares award, was obviously impressed with Arvin's writing.  She singled his story out from an elite field, as did the final judges (myself, and two others) who selected his novel Articles of War to receive the Colorado Book Award for Best Novel in 2007.
 
How interesting if we could somehow weave a web made of all the synchronistic strands that link judges to winners.  More than luck connects us - some mysterious "call and response" seems to be at work, an invisible silky strand linking this particular story to that particular heart and mind.

Arvin’s work first impressed me when I read Articles of War, his spare and powerfully moving novel about an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa who enlists in the Army during World War II, arriving in Normandy just after D-day. 

Unlike the steel-nerved, real life character in the recent movie blockbuster The American Sniper, Arvin’s young soldier is consumed by fear and ultimately must face what for a soldier with a deep sense of cowardice is a horrifying job—to be a member of the firing squad assigned to kill a fellow soldier committed of treason.

In the novel Articles of War, Arvin takes us back to America of the mid-1940s.  In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman takes us back more than a century, to New York City’s Coney Island in 1911, and to a young woman raised by the sinister impresario of a museum filled with grotesque and extraordinary things. 
 
Born with webbed fingers, trained to breathe underwater, Coralie lives among these unnatural creatures (and for whom the public pays good money to gawk)—the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, a two-headed fetus—hundreds of exhibits all either natural oddities, or gruesomely manipulated to appear so by the man who raised Coralie.
 
Eventually, Coralie finds herself in a glass fish tank, exhibited to drunken men only an arm’s length away, her father’s patrons leering at her night after night—this pale and sensual creature, falsely portrayed as half mermaid, half girl, floating in illuminated water.  Unlike Arvin’s crying man, her sorrowful tears fall unnoticed.
 
In an interview with Nick Arvin for the blog Eudaemonia after Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire magazine, and received several other prestigious awards, Arvin was asked if the book had been optioned for film. 

“It's become almost commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques,” said Arvin, “and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)”

More than once, when reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I closed my eyes and imagined the scenes Hoffman was describing - the Wolfman, covered in hair, kissing the beautiful woman whose face had been scarred with acid.  Or young Coralie confiding in a 100-year-old turtle held captive for nearly a century.  I imagined Coralie swimming alone through the cold, dark waters of the Hudson River—a lonely young woman more at home with fish than with humans.  I imagined the young Russian man who visited her in her dreams, his immigrant heart steeled against his own father until he met Coralie.   

All of Alice Hoffman’s books have been optioned for films and  she has written several of the screenplays herself.  Yet I doubt if any serious fan of Alice Hoffman novels wishes the movie "had come out first."

According to Shortlist.com, The American Sniper is the first of eight books to read before they become movies in 2015.  Too late for those of us who have already seen the movie but haven't yet read the book.  I saw The American Sniper  the same week I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

Yet it is the world of creatures, both natural and unnatural, rendered vividly by Hoffman, that stays with me in my waking dreams.
Yesterday, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I felt my body swayed by the current, like the sea turtles riding the waves, imagined the lives of the whales in the waters beyond the reef, and I thought of Coralie.  I felt grateful that the boundaries of my imagination seemed wider than the waters of the Pacific, unbounded by the square-cornered walls and flat screens of even the most luxurious movie theaters. 

Also noteworthy:

WATCH Alice Hoffman talk about the transforming power of the imagination.

Nick Arvin's story "The Crying Man" was recently featured in a dramatic reading by actor Michael McNeill during the Stories on Stage event, Another Fine Mess.) 
ATTEND the upcoming Stories on Stage production, “Son of Very Short Stories,” featuring wildly eclectic flash fiction performed by the Buntport Theater Company Saturday, March l7, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, and Friday, March 13, at the Chautauqua Community House, Boulder.












Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oxford Junior Silences Wind in the Willows, Strikes Fear in Piglet

Audible cries rattled the WILLOWS along the river where OTTER lived when good-natured Mole brought news that the head honchos at Oxford  had struck his name from their Junior Dictionary.  Toad, who enjoyed all the latest fads, wasn't upset until he realized that there would be no more stilted HERONS pounding down the river (a lovely phrase he discovered reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men). 

"Yea gads!" exclaimed Badger. "Will I be the next to go?" Even the WEASELS, who had taken over Toad Hall, were aghast.  "Hair today, gone tomorrow!" 

In Winnie the Pooh's forest, just a short dusty walk down the bookshelf, another ruckus broke out when Christopher Robin brought the news to his woodland gang.  "Dear dear little PIGLET," he said, "I'm afraid you have become defunct."  Piglet's smile turned upside down.  "What's defunct?" Pooh asked.  Christopher Robin shook his head. "It means kaput. Gone. A blip on the radar." Eeyore's ears drooped. "What's a radar?" he asked.

And so it is.  Words come and go.  In 2008, author Richard Louv (Children & Nature Network) and a pack of journalists and conservationists ferreted out the news that the folks at Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed dozens of nature, farming and agricultural words, like these ones:

Photo by Alistair Fraser
Beaver, boar, cheetah, colt, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, porcupine, porpoise, raven, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.  Acorn, almond, apricot, ash, beech, beetroot, blackberry, bluebell, bramble, brook, buttercup, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, fern, fungus, gooseberry, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy.

Photo by Alistair Fraser
The list goes on: lavender, leek, melon, mint, mistletoe, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, poppy, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

Yep, even Steinbeck's stilted heron as pictured here in Alistair Fraser's blog Exploring Kootenay Lake (the largest natural body of fresh water in southern British Columbia) was removed.

Enter instead words like blog, celebrity, cut-and-paste, broadband, and analogue.

Now, with the latest Oxford revision, a swarm of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) have sent a letter to Oxford expressing why they are profoundly alarmed. "We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends."


Alistair Fraser, the Kootenay Lake explorer, digs deep in his blog post "Shooting the Messenger," posing the question that perhaps the Oxford editors aren't to blame so much as their decisions are a reflection of the culture - kids want to play inside because, as a child once told Richard Louv, "That's where all the electrical outlets are."

I have no desire to read or write a book about an electrical outlet.  Yet I love Shilo Shiv Suleman's Ted talk, "Using Tech to Enable Dreaming" and how she takes us inside the world of interactive books.  "Storytelling," she tells us, "is becoming more and more sensorial."  A sensory experience: something you can taste, touch, smell, hear or see.  Its how our bodies interpret the world.

I like Mole's world. "Hullo, World!" he calls out to Rat.  And I like Pooh's world, where Piglet asks, "What about me?"  A.A. Milne answers, "Yes, what about us?" And I can't help but hear the entire world of Nature answering, "Yes, PLEASE, keep us on your radar!"

NOTES: Read more at CBCNews/Arts & Entertainment. Read more in Nature Canada.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beauty, Mystery and Community - Gary Ferguson's "Carry Home" Bridge

When my sister and I told our beautiful Hungarian stepmother that we would honor her request to wait to scatter our father's ashes until she also passed away, we didn't realize "Dad" would be sitting on the bookshelf for 17 years.  We also didn't realize that when she passed, the sense of grief would be twofold.

Over the years I consoled myself, joking that Dad wouldn't mind being nestled between the books he had written, and his presence had surely comforted our bereft and beloved stepmother.  And now, on the wake of casting both their ashes into the salty sea air of San Francisco, I think back to scattering our mother's ashes among the Ponderosa pines nine years ago. 

A few weeks ago, Gary Ferguson and his wife, consultant Mary Clare, stayed with us while Gary was on book tour for his new book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness. The book is about Gary's remote journeys into the wilderness to honor a promise to his wife Jane before she died - that if anything happened to her, he would scatter her ashes in the wild locations she loved the most.

Over dinner and red wine, Gary, Mary and John and I talked about the complexity of life and love, and of death and grieving.  "I learned the importance of community," Gary said, "and of the need to honor the mystery of it all. Beauty, Joseph Campbell reminds us, is what nudges us toward a new vision of ourselves as we come out the other side of grief. Community, mystery, and beauty - these three things formed the bridge for me."

I found beauty in the seagulls wailing over the soft wash of waves on the seashore, just as I found beauty today in the snow layering the boughs of the Ponderosas, the way their trunks bend to the wind without breaking, the way the earth holds their roots, and my mother's ashes. 

But perhaps the most mysterious beauty of all is found in the way the human heart can choose to heal by choosing to love again, and again, and again.

Wishing you beauty, community, and a New Year imbued with the mysteries of the heart.

Note: Gary Ferguson and Mary Clare have begun a new venture, The Carry Home: Life Changes and Here You Are, offering retreats and programs designed to help people traverse life's changes with vision and integrity.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Contemplating the Dark and the Sweet with Chickasaw Writer Linda Hogan

Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan gives us both these things in her essays and poetry and novels—the dark and the sweet.  Today is a good day to honor the gift of Linda’s words—the insight that enables us to take that which is bitter and find sweetness.  

Send white lightning prayers of gratitude shooting through the heavens to her today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, and each day that you feel her presence, each day that you count your blessings as you read her words.

Today is a good day to buy at least one of Linda’s books.  Perhaps Dark. Sweet. filled with "forty years of life." Or People of the Whale.  Or The Woman Who Watches Over the World.  Or Power or Dwellings or Solar Storms.  Or Rounding the Human Corners.  

And then do just that—round any sharp edges from the words that find their way from your tongue, to the world.  Begin again to dwell in that place where you are the best you can be - for Linda, for her great-granddaughter Jayla, bring a deeper way of knowing into all that you do. 

These things will honor Linda at a time when we need to be the ones to watch over her, the ones to hold to the light all that Linda holds dear - family, earth, animals, truth, spirit. Reach out - to an elder, to a child, to a grandchild, to a great-grandchild. 
Send love to Jayla as she travels to the spirit world. Believe in the mystery, in the ecosystem of the heart. Linda's poems often start outward - with a larger but intimate vision - and then she moves inward, Once, I was... It is from this place, I believe, that our compassion takes root, from knowing and loving ourselves. 

 At West Side Books a few weeks ago, when Linda greeted John and me, we spoke about our grandchildren, and her return to Colorado, and the mountains we love, even about tribal issues back in Oklahoma.  "I have been working with Indigenous knowledge and Native science," she told the audience, "working with people who are returning to an older knowledge about their own ecosystems."  

Linda reminded us that, "History is the word that always leads ... now another country is breaking this holy vessel... we are so used to a country that does not love enough. History has continued to open the veins of the world."  

I am reminded that the current of love that travels through our veins connects our hearts to the world - that our families and our own backyards are merely microcosms of the larger ecosystem that sustains us all.  In Linda's poem "The Eyes of the Animals," Linda tells us that the eyes of the universe look back at us with the true knowledge of who we are.  

 Human, woman, man, child
this world even your self
you must learn to love.  

NOTES: Read about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) at National Geographic.  Read Linda Hogan's bio and more about her work with TEK. Read less about the tragic story of Jayla's death, and more about the family's story of her life in Last Real Indians.  DONATIONS for Jayla's family may be sent to P.O. Box 392, Pine Ridge, SD   57770.