Serenity . . . & Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Reposted from The Patient Path January 16, 2015

Tian Tan Buddha_Cheri Lucas Rowlands on WP_2015-01-16

“Serenity” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands, WordPress Staff Member

Mid-January already! So much to write, so much not written. But I am being patient on the path as I sort through my list and take my to-dos all the way to dones.


While I gather my thoughts, I thought you would like to hear from someone who is showing great grace under health pressure. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things (signed copies are available through her Two Buttons online shop), posted an update on Facebook the other day (1/14/15) about having to cancel a trip to India to take care of herself—take a look: “Trust the Timing of Your Life.” She was planning to attend a literary festival in Jaipur, a city I have visited. Not only did the title of Elizabeth’s Facebook post arrest me—because I can so relate to her message on several levels, having canceled my own trip to India last year to take care of myself (story here)—but today I saw this lovely image of Buddha by WordPress staff member Cheri Lucas Rowlands, taken on her recent trip to Hong Kong, where she visited Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. I thought of Elizabeth as soon as I saw Cheri’s post today. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert would approve, and love, this image. She has quite a wonderful marble statue of Buddha outside her Frenchtown, New Jersey shop, Two Buttons (that’s me with the Buddha below), which contains troves of treasures from Asia, as well as signed copies of her books. And it’s right in my own backyard. I have visited the shop several times and brought home a few lovely items. My husband, who is from Mumbai (Bombay) and travels throughout Asia frequently,* was also very impressed and heartened by the authentic collection of mostly handcrafted objects from his favorite parts of the world.

Two Buttons Buddha & Me_2014-10-10

Last summer, I also had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak during our Hunterdon County, NJ, tricentennial celebration (check the calendar for August 9, 2014). Now that we know the title of her next book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, due out in September, I think she was giving us not only a glimpse into her creative process, but a peek into her near future. She gave an inspiring, heartwarming, magical-yet-down-to-earth talk, adjectives that describe Elizabeth herself. Soon after, I read and very much enjoyed The Signature of All Things. You can follow Elizabeth on any of her many social media sites. Do so—it’s worth bathing in the glow of her life, even when she is facing challenges. Her brand of serene joy leaps off of each page. And if you’ve ever had the delightful experience of hearing Elizabeth speak, you, too, will believe in magic. . . . Oh, yes—and read her books.


*In fact, he is leaving on Sunday, 1/18/16, for India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I opted to wait until the next trip to accompany him to India—more about this later.

Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer No More: Lessons from the Ghost of Christmas Past

Reposted from The Patient Path 12/19/13

The Patient Path takes a literary detour “in keeping with the situation” . . . Christmas. View the only manuscript version of Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. 

A Christmas Carol_1843_50%  


A Christmas Carol was published 170 years ago today, on December 19, 1843. Click the book to view the only manuscript version of the novella, which is housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Do take a look–it’s a treasure.  

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Ghost of Christmas Past

Yesterday’s post, “Emotional Reflections in Blue Places,” was my attempt to connect my current medical story–which is so much more than a mere “organ recital”—and the deeper reality of my life. But more important than my personal experience is what anyone’s life–or life itself–is truly all about, as far as we mortals can understand it. As I mentioned yesterday, I defer to the three-ghost device Charles Dickens used in my favorite story—which, of course, is not just a Christmas tale—to try to figure out what is true and eternal and to put my limited understanding of temporal existence into the context of whatever that is. In my opinion, Dickens captured in his 1843 novella the essence of what it means to be human. And he did it by imagining what can be learned beyond the boundaries of time as we know it in our three-dimensional world—a fascinating prospect.

Reliving Dickens’ moral tale of “reclamation,” or redemption, is the very essence of Christmas for me. More than that, it exposes and explores the nature of what life is about here on Planet Earth—a very strange and wondrous place that often defies comprehension. The heart of the story is that it teaches us how to make the journey of life a bit easier for the others who are our “fellow-passengers to the grave,” those whose fragile hearts we carry in our hands as we walk along the roads of human experience–those traveled and those less so–together with them. Humans can be the most self-serving and cruel of creatures. But they can also be self-sacrificing and heroic, relieving the suffering of other people—and of animals—in moments of spiritual clarity when their better, higher natures guide their hands in healing what their lesser, lower natures may have harmed, intentionally or unconsciously. One moment of kindness can redeem a lifetime of pain. Why, then, do we indulge our small minds rather than expand our inflatable hearts?

How different things are this Christmas from last year. Then, I had no idea that the problems and worries that plagued me would be overshadowed months later by a life-threatening disease, which, thankfully, is now coming under control. How much precious life force do we expend in the worthless pursuit of self-centered concerns that are not only transitory, but trivial—as if time were at our command to spend and waste from a limitless supply of vital life force? In some ineffable way, I believe that whatever makes up the true basis of life is beyond the mere physical, which is confined within and dictated by the passage of time. Perhaps true experience—which, when you think of it, is quite an abstract thing—lies in a dimension where all things that have ever happened, are happening, and will happen co-exist, in a sort of matrix. I can’t pretend to know, but contemplating what may be possible leads me to believe that whereas biological life occurs in time, experiential life exists, somehow, beyond it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has the job of leading us to a place beyond time where we can think about our lives. For me this year, that has taken on a new meaning, now that my life—which I have not always valued–has been threatened. Yet I know there can be worse diagnoses than cancer. In the span of my 61 years, I have experienced many things that have eroded my love of life and interfered with my ability to appreciate it: parental separation and eventual divorce; the loss of a baby sister to a “death” that turned out to be an adoption (see My Sister’s Story a difficult and lonely childhood that led to a terribly insecure and painful adolescence and young adulthood; a misguided first marriage that eventually ended in divorce; years of infertility that were, however, followed by the blessed birth of my only child (Matt); single motherhood accompanied by identity crisis and profound confusion leading to inept parenting of my beloved son and even worse management of my own life; remarriage requiring sometimes bewildering adjustments; the death of my father (I will be writing My Father’s Story soon); the death of my childhood friend not long after (see My Friend’s Story); the loss of, or distancing from, many other friends over the years; job and career challenges that were always far beyond what I thought I could handle and that consumed so much of my life’s misdirected energy; recurrent crippling depression, anxiety, and loneliness; chronic serious weight issues–a factor in uterine cancer, other health problems, and most of all in not developing a strong sense of self, which may have helped me make fewer errors; the loss of jobs–and eventually my career as I knew it–which profoundly altered my sense of who I am in the world and destroyed any hint of financial security; near bankruptcy with no clear plan to resume solvency; and, recently, potentially fatal illness that I am still grappling with. And I’ve left a lot out!

Notice, of course, that many gifts are woven throughout this litany of challenges. I’ve also left out so much good. It is the lesson of the Ghost of Christmas Past during pre-Christmas reflection to help us realize that every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we. And I believe the Ghost of Christmas Present will help me acknowledge the beauties among the beasts.

For now, the Ghost of Christmas Past is beckoning me to the holiday of 1983. At that time, and for the first (and last?) time, I felt as if my notion of who I thought I was completely merged with the actuality of who I truly was, if only for the moments beyond time when I could sense that I was an inextricable part of the fabric of life. I was no longer just an observer: I had become a full participant. I remember spending glowing moments in front of the fire in our next-door neighbors’ living room. They had invited another thirty-something couple over for Christmas cheer, and we were happily chatting in a warm, convivial atmosphere that I believed would not end, they drinking wine, I drinking ginger ale. I was protecting the contents of my (now absent) womb, which for that shining moment was doing what it was destined to do. Two-and-a-half months pregnant with my first and only child, I felt like the most important woman on the face of the earth–and the most sanctified of mothers.

This madonna-like impression of myself, of course, faded pretty quickly. But it left a permanent change in me because I felt I was sharing in the profound experience of bringing forth life, accomplishing what I think of as my most important mission, then or ever. Sitting there talking about my hard-won pregnancy, and then drifting to a dreamy place where I felt connected to every other person—and, especially, to every to other woman—was transcendent. Yet, even as I write this—and believe it—in no way do I mean that women who have not borne children are themselves any less the children of the universe. Birth takes many forms. And nurturing—of babies, fellow creatures, or ideas—is the highest endeavor of every human soul.

Thank you, Ghost of Christmas Past, for reminding me that what I recently lost had already fulfilled its consecrated purpose. I have no reason to mourn, and a marvelous 29-year-old reason, among many others, to rejoice—as I’m sure the The Ghost of Christmas Present will remind me.


 

Ghost of Christmas Present
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT–12/24/13

Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS YET TO COME–12/31/13

Illness Is Not Identity: Butterflies Are Free

Reposted from The Patient Path March 31, 2014

Butterflies

“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to [me] what it concedes to the butterflies!” – from Bleak HouseCharles Dickens.

If you’re not familiar with Bleak House, one of the most complex—and one of the most rewarding—of Dickens’ novels, perhaps you’ve heard this quotation in Butterflies Are Freea 1972 film (based on a play by Leonard Gershe) about a young blind man, Don (Edward Albert), who rents his own apartment to become less dependent on his overprotective mother (Eileen Heckart). As she still struggles for control, he meets his neighbor, Jill (Goldie Hawn), a “free spirit” who inspires him to become his own person. After she tells him that the Dickens’ line is her favorite quotation, he writes a song about his spirit learning to fly.

For several years, long before I was diagnosed with and treated for uterine (endometrial) cancer, I have thought of the butterfly as a personal spiritual symbol. Many cultures and traditions turn to this beautiful winged creature to symbolize the soul and other essential aspects of life, such as metamorphosis. Few things top the list of shattering changes more than potentially life-threatening illness. Yet, even when it is serious, illness is only part of our life experience. True, it sometimes commands center stage. But in the next act—or even in the next scene—some other, deeper aspect of who we are takes its star turn.

butterfly-totem-temp-300

By no means do I intend to diminish the supreme challenges faced by those who are debilitated by illness or injury or to dismiss uncaringly the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to terminal disease or early death. But the message of the butterfly is available to all, even to those who suffer. Because even if we sprout wings that don’t have the strength to free us from the pain and limitation of earthly life, they can still help our spirits to soar. If we don’t have the strength even for that, our spiritual wings can at least help us float gently on the soft winds of the universe as it continues on its infinite course, reminding us that we are part of all that is, ever was, or ever will be.

Having passed through the metamorphosis of serious illness, I think back to decisions I’ve made that both hurt me and helped me arrive at the place I now find myself. And I’ve had to face that many of the external markers of identity are now lost to time—reproductive status (first in menopause and now in the absence of organs), the joys and responsibilities of young motherhood (my only child is now a man), marriage and name change (one divorce behind me and a total of three last names), the comradeship of friends and colleagues (many losses and gains over the years), the pride and sustenance of career and income (gone and none at present), and so on. These things have shifted so significantly that at times I feel adrift in the cosmos, unanchored to earth or to anything that feels comfortable or familiar.

But these moments pass. And I realize that what remains after pseudo-identity is irrevocably altered is the emergence of what lies beneath and within, which can be surprising. Having lost so much, and having spent so much time alone confronting my very existence, I nevertheless have experienced an integration of the essential aspects of myself with how I navigate external life. I discussed some of these things in the March 14, 2014 post, “Reading & Writing as Therapy.” The message was simply this: Find, or rediscover, what you love. This tells you who you are.

It is my hope for all who face grave or passing illness, permanent or temporary loss, and terrible loneliness or even somber solitude that they can find their butterfly selves by turning inward to where they can see that the outward path is visible but ephemeral—and also by connecting with similarly affected, like-minded others, who can not only share their experience, but enter into it with them.

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 2

Anne Perry's Necklace
Pamela wearing “her and Anne Perry’s” beautiful blue sparkly necklace.

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 1 Is Here

Originally Posted on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


In Part 1, we left off where my friend Pat said, “You have to go up to her [Anne Perry] and tell her she got your necklace!” And I heard myself say, “I would never do that!”

Walking toward the next session, I spotted Anne Perry casually standing over a trashcan, eating one of those bagels. Unprepossessing as the image was, being in the same circumstances as the rest of us made her seem approachable—unfortunately for her. Again, I watched myself walk toward her and heard things come out of my mouth that some unseen ventriloquist with a bad sense of humor made me say: “Hello! Did you happen to just buy a beautiful sparkly blue necklace at the jewelry stall?” “Yes, I did. Did you want it?” “Well, I was thinking of buying it yesterday, but I told myself I’d wait ‘til today, and if it was still there I’d purchase it.” “Oh, I’m so sorry—but not enough to exchange it.”

Her friendly yet frank response had actually charmed me, but I now knew what “being mortified” felt like. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean that! The vendor offered to make me another one. Now we’ll have a psychic connection.” Twit! But did I stop?

“Let’s walk,” she said. “Are you going to the next session?” “Yes, I’m looking for Meeting Room 6.” “So am I. I’m on a panel.” As if I didn’t know. And so we walked—in the wrong direction—as I chattered on about her books and characters, making mistake after goofy mistake as I mixed them all up and she gently corrected me. I could no more stop myself from spouting gibberish than I could avoid sounding like my mother in the presence of my son.

We parted so she could speak and I could listen (which is what I wish I had been doing all along). She repeated some of her comments from the previous evening, but I would have listened to the same remarks multiple times if I could self-correct the earlier conversation—at least in my mind. In take two, I would make myself sound authoritative and confident, someone Anne Perry would remember for her prescience and insight—not someone who coveted her blue sparkly necklace and made inane comments about her books.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that she’d probably had many hundreds of similar encounters and that her gaze was ever fixed on that far horizon, not on me. She would never have registered me as an individual, but that was OK. Just listening to her eloquent commentary made me want to be a better person—and a writer.

Anne Perry, even though she had endured a dark episode in her own early past (or possibly because of it), is a penetrating yet compassionate observer of human existence. She articulates with ease matters of the heart, mind, and soul, and she does it with kindness, even gentleness, despite her imposing presence—tall, forthright, unabashed. She has no children, she says with what may be a tinge of regret. Yet I sense her to be a tender, if firm, mother to her brainchildren, and I can imagine her caring deeply for the people in her life. She stated that the whole purpose of her five-part WWI series can be summed up in a single sentence: “I will not leave you.”

The day after I returned home, my husband and I went for a leisurely walk in nearby Ken Lockwood Gorge. A narrow arm of the Raritan River flows through the wooded, rocky area, and the bank running alongside is flat and easy to stroll on, as well as tree lined. It is difficult to imagine a more serene setting. I watched the water gently moving over, under, and around the rocks on this beautiful day—no tension, no struggle, no indecision. The crystalline water reminded me of the necklace—not in color, but in clarity. Clarity, I realized, is the gift your mind gives to your spirit when the stream of consciousness flows unerringly around perceived obstacles.

Decisions I had deferred for lack of clarity now demanded to be made. It was hard, because selecting one thing means letting go of another. Recognizing this natural rhythm of life, however, makes the transition between the world you live in pre-decision and the one you inhabit post-decision short lived and relatively peaceful. By the day of my birthday, I had begun the post-decision transition from anxiety to acceptance after making some hard choices, even as I knew I was on the road to another pre-decision period about more challenging matters. This steady movement based on decisive action, though, is a precious gift and was my best birthday present, one nobody else could have given me. Letting old things burn away leaves clean spaces for new ones to germinate.

One of my to-dos in honor of having made it through another year was to head back to the Frenchtown shop to see whether the kitchen accessories I had passed up a week earlier were waiting for me. There they were. Now here they are. But they are not material possessions to me, any more than the necklace would be when I got it. They are physical manifestations of aspects of myself that I wasn’t completely aware of. What lives deep inside is reflected outside yourself once you achieve clarity. So it follows that making decisions would be much easier . . . I hoped.

A few days later, Chris emailed: “Forgot to ask. I had made two versions of the necklace, 20″ and 18″—the one you and Anne Perry looked at was 18″.  Is this what you wanted?” She’d forgotten about the measuring tape, but that was OK: “Yes, 18″, beautiful blue mixed with pewter. Just like Anne Perry’s.”

I went with the 18-incher because I wanted a twin of Anne Perry’s necklace, which had almost been mine. After the email exchange, I searched for some Anne Perry factoids to supplement my musings and came upon an interview she had done for the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I stopped open-mouthed when the interviewer, as a follow-up to Anne’s statement about hope, asked her about why she thinks American audiences are more “optimistic”: “I think if they see something somebody has possession of that they want, they . . . think, ‘How can I acquire one of those? How did you get it, so what can I do?’ There’s a generosity of spirit and an optimism that I hope they never lose.”

So necklace envy proves I’m a typical go-getter American (!)—one with a generous spirit, if not an optimistic nature—even though I had seen the object of our desire first. But perhaps my wanting the same necklace Anne Perry chose was a sign of optimism, of the hope that we had something even more important in common than a blue bauble: a love of writing. Well, maybe. But this would require decisions—and decisions are so hard. In the same interview, Anne Perry explained that this is because we need to be put to the test, pushed to the limit, before we know what we really want:

I have a little exercise that I make my main characters go through. Imagine that you are standing at the edge of the world, at the end of the world; volcanic darkness is coming; there is the abyss. It’s just you and Satan, nobody else left. And he says to you, “What do you really believe? If you tell me the truth, I have no power over you. If you lie, you’re going over the edge. And you are never coming back.”  . . . Then you discover what your deepest core values are.

The lesson of the necklace for me is recognizing that clarity is the basis of all good decisions. Those watery-hard, brilliant beads were meant for me after all, and somehow I knew it. When the necklace arrived, I put it on and had a photo taken as I was thinking: To capture the essence of what it means to be human; to articulate it so that others can benefit from it; to entertain, elucidate, and educate with kindness and generosity . . . these are marvelous qualities for a writer. I’m not Anne Perry; but I can let her inspire me. And I, too, want to be a writer.

There, I’ve said it, even though some Anne Perry hope would be an asset at my age. I will imagine the picture of me wearing the “blue sparkly,” as Chris calls it, on a book jacket. And I can at least imagine Anne Perry wearing her own blue sparkly on a future book jacket of hers. I can further dream that each of us is as content as the other that our work has manifested itself in its highest form, each of us having achieved the best version of herself through making sound decisions based on clarity—mixed with a little courage.

One of Anne Perry’s favorite quotes, from Henry Ford, sums up the essence of decision-making, no matter the choice—from purchasing a necklace to changing a career:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t . . . you’re right.

Might as well think I can—in the spirit of American optimism as seen through the eyes of Anne Perry, who I’d like to believe is now wearing our necklace.

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 1

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 2 Is Here

Originally Posted October 5, 2013, on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


On Friday, September 20, with time to kill at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany—my first convention for mystery/crime/thriller writers and fans, I browsed the vendors’ stalls. Typical for writers and readers, on this gorgeous day we were indoors, inside “The Egg”—the oddly shaped and named convention center. My eye caught a hypnotic blue sparkle and wouldn’t let me move past it. Bluebonnet, dark cerulean, fiery cobalt, medium sapphire, fresh blueberry, intense indigo . . . I had no idea what to call it, other than “spectacular.”

I lingered, gazing at the brilliant light coming from the faceted glass beads, blue with a hint of purple, calling to mind the colors of both water and rock, of liquid and solid. This infinite pairing created something beyond the elemental, something cosmic and unified. Although it was September, my birthday was just days away, and sapphire is, after all, my birthstone (this color was close enough), it was hard to justify the cost of beauty—even when it came with matching earrings. So simple, so easy to reach for. But so complicated, so hard to decide on.

“With a name like that, I hope you’re not in construction.” The jewelry vendor, Chris, grinned amiably at me, nodding at my nametag. I smiled dutifully, explaining the origin of my husband’s last name and the British pronunciation, “Con-TRAC-tor.” “Ah. Then I hope one of your children doesn’t marry someone named ‘Expander.’” After puzzling over this for a moment, my mind contracting and then expanding, I laughed—this was a first after years of repetitive namejokes. My former married name was also British, so Bond, Pam Bond, was used to it.

The next panel session was about to start. So I left the vendor stall, glancing backward as I moved on. I guess saying no to yourself is a decision. . . . Anyway, I wanted to hear what the “new” (to me) authors had to say. I was nibbling on tidbits from so many writers, but it was like grazing at a buffet of appetizers. I longed for an intimate supper with a writer whose work—and mind—I could feast on.

My reading group unexpectedly decided to leave for home the next day rather than on Sunday, so Saturday was a bit rushed. Albany more or less shuts down on the weekend, so the only food available inside was free bagels and coffee, as well as rapidly depleting trays of finger food—no restaurants were open on the concourse, and only one food truck stood in the plaza. The volunteer organizers hadn’t planned the feedings very well, but I was somewhat pleased that writers who were respected worldwide were mingling with their fans and muddling through the same predicaments we faced. Tepid coffee and dry bagel downed, I followed my group’s lead and made a decision: if that blue sparkly necklace was still there, I’d make it mine.

And then I saw her. Anne Perry, the international guest of honor and one of the contemporary authors I admire most, stooping over the jewelry vendor’s wares. Her historical crime series—finely wrought literature cloaked in mystery (“Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard,” according to Booklist)—had unveiled a Victorian London that I could feel myself living in. Her plots involve all strata of society, its inhabitants meandering through sections of London and aspects of life that grab hold of your imagination and fix you so firmly in another time and place that you find yourself at dusk looking for matches to turn on the gaslight. Her massive amounts of research shine between the lines in condensed form, like laser beams illuminating the places and people she has crafted—and whom she makes you care so terribly much about.

Through her Monk and Pitt novels—two of her series—we get to explore deeply an era of shadows and mist, of a prosperous yet repressive conventionality lying atop nineteenth-century social ills and aristocratic complacency, a mask that was gradually torn away by Dickens, Darwin, Freud, Maxwell, and the Industrial Revolution. The Pitt novels take place roughly during the time of Jack the Ripper, who had lured Anne Perry to this period—a figure that her stepfather, she has said, believed was never caught because he was a politician!

And then I watched myself go up to her, momentarily forgetting the necklace. I heard myself say: “Excuse me, Miss Perry, I don’t want to interrupt you. I just wanted to tell you that you’ve given me many hours of pleasure through your work. And I really enjoyed your talk last night.” Fan babble. I hadn’t known I was capable of it, having always vowed to remain silent in the presence of celebrity so I wouldn’t succumb to mush-brained utterances. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” Although she looked at me, her focal point was somewhere on the horizon of her interior landscape. I wasn’t surprised. Reality couldn’t compare with her inner vision. I left her to her jewelry gazing.

The night before, I’d gotten close to an “intimate supper” by taking in an hour of Anne Perry talking about her work, passionately and compellingly. She related a story about her five-book World War I series, a treasure I’ve reserved for future reading, in which she named a main character after her grandfather. She has him carry a picture of Dante’s bust to the battlefield because, she says, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them,” and The Inferno exemplifies the torments from within for her—and for her character. When her mother learned of this metaphorical use of Dante’s image, she asked, “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” “That your grandfather took a picture of Dante to war with him?” Anne had never met her grandfather, who died before she was born, and had never heard this story. She and her grandfather had a psychic connection, she said; and this series was “close to her heart” because of it.

Turning back toward the jewelry stall, I saw she had left. I decided: I would purchase the necklace. I walked over to the spot where it had lain. Gone! My heart thumped and slowed, and I rued the previous day’s indecisive decision that caused me to walk away from something I now felt sure was meant for me.

This was a pattern. The day before we left for the conference, I had found in a Frenchtown shop a set of pottery kitchen accessories in colors that reminded me of the sandals with ice-cream-colored straps I’d worn and loved as a child. These fifties-style kitchen accoutrements took me back to an era of innocence and possibility, a time when I felt like me because I knew what I liked, what I wanted—a time before others started calling me a “person.” Persons lose their identities; children do not.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe indecision and decision intertwine, like yin and yang symbols, one blending inevitably into the other. This means that indecision is an inextricable part of decision-making. And maybe the point is to accept this and make choices without fear, knowing that another option will appear and that another decision is waiting just around the corner. I suddenly felt that my indecision about the necklace had a purpose: it was meant for her.

I looked up at the vendor. “Chris, did Anne Perry happen to buy that beautiful blue sparkly necklace I was looking at yesterday?” She looked down at my nametag and smiled in recognition, saying animatedly, “Yes, she did! And she also bought my friend’s book!” As I absorbed this news, I realized that Anne Perry had, unknowingly, created a psychic connection with me by choosing my necklace. I was quietly thrilled. Maybe my indecision was my anonymous gift to her—and indirectly to myself because now I felt connected to someone who had manifested her passion through her work.

Then Chris said: “You know, I have a small bag of those beads left. I can make you another necklace just like Anne Perry’s.” Aha! “That would be wonderful! Thank you so much!” My indecisive decision had turned out to be a gift to both of us after all. Chris got out the measuring tape, and we decided on a 15-inch choker on the advice of my friend, Pat, who had wandered over. Pat is very outgoing and had gotten her picture taken with Anne Perry the day before! She said, “You have to go up to her and tell her she got your necklace!” Was she kidding? “I would never do that!” I heard myself say to Pat.

In Part 2, we’ll see whether I would—or would not—ever do that to Anne Perry!

Book & Author Review: Tana French

author_photo_tana french

Reposted from the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room: Part 1, Overviewappeared on September 22, 2012. Part 2, In the Woods, followed on September 29, 2012.


BOOK & AUTHOR REVIEW: TANA FRENCH – PART 1: OVERVIEW

Young, talented Tana French (born 1973) is an Irish novelist whose debut psychological murder mystery/crime thriller won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for best first novel. To date, she has written four books,* all published in the US by Viking Penguin (the abbreviations are used within the blog posts; the page numbers refer to the hardbound editions):

In the Woods (TW, 2007—award winner for best first novel)

The Likeness (TL, 2009)

Faithful Place (FP, 2010)

Broken Harbor (BH, 2012)

All of French’s tales, which we will look at in more detail next week, probe the underbelly of a society known to Americans only as the stuff of St. Patrick’s Day and The Quiet Man, enabling us to peer into the heart of Ireland through the eyes of its troubled inhabitants—yet with the perspective of an outsider. The daughter of an economist father who worked on resource-management projects in the developing world, French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US, and Malawi before settling in Dublin in 1990. Because she did not grow up in Dublin, French has said that her relationship with her new hometown is the perfect vantage point for revealing the lifeblood of a place she loves without having actually been molded or enfolded by it, as her characters inevitably are.

French also acknowledges that her actor’s training at Trinity College, Dublin, was excellent preparation for her meandering, this-is-my-story narrative structure: the tales are all told by a central character, each successive book’s story-teller pulled from the ranks of the preceding novel. Her dramatic dialogue, both interior and interlocutory, captures the essence of relationships that are often twisted, but sometimes tender. And her settings are frequently the lurid, phantasmagorical interior landscapes of her protagonists, offering up worlds that seem to have been designed and sketched in blood—almost as dark, viscous, and brutal as the murders that provide the framework for the stories. In the course of pursuing their ruthless, sometimes perverse brand of justice, the policemen/women of the fictitious Murder and Undercover Squads attempt to create order from the chaos they find in the external world while battling the demonic dimensions of their own internal lives:

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. . . . What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [TW, pp. 3, 4]

These novels are masterful explorations of the human psyche, which endures repeated collisions with an unholy reality populated by untrustworthy beings. The stories become eloquent contemporary explorations of the human soul as it struggles to survive the ravages of life that too often leave its victims broken and bereft. Whether scenes and events are exterior or interior (or somewhere in between), they contrive to give us glimpses into lives so traumatized by circumstances—and the hell that is other people—that it becomes difficult to know whether the relentless clawings and scratchings that drive the characters mad live in the walls of their houses or in the corridors of their minds. Yet the world French creates is not so much psychotic as it is labyrinthine, a frightening, near-hopeless maze of devastating experiences and eerie perceptions:

I kept staring at my hands, till they slipped out of focus and turned into strange white things crouched on the table, deformed and maggoty, waiting to pounce. Finally I heard the door close. The light raked at me from every direction, ricocheted off the envelope’s plastic window to spike at my eyes. I had never been in a room that felt so savagely bright, or so empty. [BH, p. 384]

French’s writing style is much like Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic technique: both are laden with suspense, suggesting almost otherworldly planes of existence through evocative, atmospheric story-telling; yet nothing supernatural ever happens. It is the workings of the characters’ minds—their impressions, interpretations, moods, emotions, associations—that invoke a sense of what lies beyond the deceptions of surface life, a world creeping with menace and things unfathomable. Dark and tangled woods, obsession-driven archeological digs, ragged claw marks in children’s shirts and attic beams, mysterious doppelgängers (“evil twins”), and the strident shrieks and ugly betrayals of families and friends conjure up a bleak, richly metaphorical world that works on us, blurring our sense of reality. Whether French is describing shadows in the environment or the specter of what the external world conceals, her images take us to places we must see with eyes that have grown accustomed to the dark.

Adding to the pervading sense of unreality, French plays with time sequencing. Her story-tellers give us generous helpings of hints about the outcome of their tale right at the outset. The narrator is still alive at the end; we know that. But how much of his or her mind survives the ensuing events? By midway through each book, we know that something is going to go very, very wrong. Witness the defeated, sagging spirit of a narrator consumed with self-loathing before he ever tells us why:

When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices. . . . I knew Richie was lying to me. [BH, p. 225]

But do not be put off by French’s benighted tales of human travails. Despite all of the desperation and torment of her characters’ lives, we often see a dim light at the end of the tunnels they are pulled through. We hold out some hope that the protagonists’ higher natures will beckon them to some kind of better future, that the noble will emerge from the feral. Even in the densest woods, leaves part to allow light to filter onto the footpath, revealing a new way home. And for all of French’s digging around in her characters’ murky minds, she loves them. Some of them even love each other. For almost every character that sacrifices a family member, friend, or stranger to the forces of uncontrollable impulse and self-preservation, there is another that selflessly protects a loved one:

Let me tell you the biggest secret I’ve ever learned. . . . All we really need in life is to make the people we love happy. We can do without anything else.  . . . [BH, p. 193]

Next week in Part 2, we will take a closer look at the four novels and how French takes us on her precarious journeys with one eye trained warily on her disturbing situations and the other focused laser-like on their profound effects on her characters. Although all of the stories are set in and around Dublin, which colors and texturizes the dialogue and setting, the themes are universal. Many of us will never give voice to the churning emotions that underlie our lives. But stark novels such as those of Tana French do this for us. Reading them from the safety of our beds and chairs, such tales save us some of the pain of confronting the sins and sadnesses of the outside world as we go through our daily lives. With the help of a perceptive author, we can vicariously gather needed insight into human nature. Thus enlightened, perhaps we can protect ourselves from a few more bumps in the night while we rest before confronting another day.


*Her fifth book,The Secret Place, was published in September 2014.


BOOK & AUTHOR REVIEW: TANA FRENCH – PART 2: IN THE WOODS

This marvelous first book, one of the selections of our reading group at Marilyn’s Flemington, NJ bookstore, explores the treachery of memory. The protagonist-narrator, Rob Ryan, along with his joined-at-the-hip partner and friend, Cassie Maddox, are Dublin Murder Squad detectives in pursuit of the killer of a young girl whose body was found near an archeological dig. Both the dig and, especially, the woods become a metaphor for the protagonist’s arc in the novel: Rob has a very strange and troubling past that he seems to have completely repressed, but that beckons to him with skeletal claws from deep within his subconscious mind (page numbers refer to the hardcover edition):

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye.  . . . [p. 2]

It is Rob’s fractured voice, heard in last week’s post (What I am telling you . . . is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [p. 4]), that takes us on a journey exploring memory and its connection to truth. About 20 years before the current action of the novel, Rob was found catatonically hugging a tree after the disappearance and presumed killing of a small group of children in the woods near their home. Because he remembers nothing, he reads to us from his own case file that when he was found he was wearing white cotton socks that were soaked with blood from the outside in, white lace-up running shoes that were more heavily blood-soaked from the inside out, and a white cotton T-shirt with four parallel tears running diagonally across the back. He does not remember what happened to him or to his three friends, with whom he was planning to run away from the adult world and “into legend.” And he doesn’t want to.

As the lone survivor of an apparently horrific crime, Rob (whose childhood name was Adam) has locked the black box of his childhood memory—and thrown away the key?—as he and Cassie set out on Operation Vestal, hiding his identity from even her. Yet despite the power of Rob’s conscious mind to defend itself against the ravages of the deep past, his subconscious mind has a potent urge to regurgitate what he has long repressed. His cause—to protect himself from the truth, whatever the cost—requires him to evade honesty in the present as he compromises the current investigation and sacrifices his relationships. The damage to his psyche is so severe that he cannot relate to anyone on anything like a vulnerable human level—relationships require, at minimum, emotional honesty. The child still alive within the man scorns not only human companionship, but often human decency. He both loathes and longs for the irretrievable aspects of himself, becoming surprisingly unsympathetic. As he grapples with his need to shelter his tender, authentic self, he expresses the hateful, uncompromising coldness of his ego-self:

“. . I’ve been trying to reach you all evening,” Cassie said.

“I really can’t talk now. . . .”

“Rob . . . this is important—”

“I’m sorry . . . I’ll be in work at some point tomorrow, or you can leave me a note.” I heard the quick, painful catch of breath, but I put the phone down anyway. [p. 355] 

Even a sociopath, whom French draws expertly in this book, seems to offer greater human connection for Rob than anyone he cares for or respects—especially his beloved Cassie. And even she becomes acquainted with duplicity, both in her professional life and in her deeply personal world. But sometimes, from the morally bereft, clear and calm mind of a criminal who is permanently dislodged from honesty, our own struggles with the truth are mirrored back to us:

“. . . if hearing the truth puts you in an uncomfortable position, that’s really your own fault, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have got yourself into this situation. I don’t think I should be expected to make allowances for your dishonesty.” [p. 398]

By the end of the tale, Rob appears to be a lost soul damned to keep running within his own mind, endlessly evading the awful memories buried deep within it that want to chase him to the death. We both ache for and hate him for his inability to come to terms with the reality of who he is—and was. But cleverly, French employs the sociopath as a neat device for pulling the other characters—and us—into his world, perhaps evoking empathy:

I am intensely aware . . . that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light. . . . But before you decide to despise me too thoroughly, consider this: [the sociopath] fooled you, too.  . . . I told you everything I saw, as I saw it at the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie. [p. 409]

All of the characters, Rob especially, evoked strong feelings in our book group and left us wanting more from the troika of Rob, Cassie, and their other partner, Sam. Beyond even that, though, like almost all other readers (see the various forums on the Internet), most of us had a powerful reaction to how it ended. Some felt frustrated; others, perhaps fewer, were intrigued. Both groups, take heart: in Tana French’s interview with Goodreads, she said she may be bringing back some of her characters, including Rob and Cassie.**

This is a story of loss of one kind or another, which I will leave readers to explore for themselves. But perhaps I can say that while we might not get to puncture the veil that surrounds every straggling mystery, we retain a hope that somehow, someday we will get not only resolution, but redemption.


**French’s interview with Goodreads also discusses her other books and aspects of her writing.