Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Bilingual Book Club: El lápiz del carpintero/The Carpenter's Pencil

Salomé and a furry friend, photo by Elena
To research a novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been learning Spanish. Unable to travel, I connected with a conversational partner in Spain through the language exchange website Mixxer. Salomé lives in Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain. Like my rural state of Maine, Galicia's geographic isolation protected the large elderly population from the higher Covid infection rates of more urban areas. Our pandemic stats have been remarkably similar, even though I was fully vaccinated by May 1st, and Salomé was only able to receive her first dose today. Another key difference: 87% of Spaniards want to be vaccinated and only 4% are anti-vax

Americans should learn about the benefits of universal health insurance from our European allies, who view health as a right of citizenship, not as a divisive political issue. Still, the pandemic dealt a hard blow to Spain too, especially at the start, and vaccine scarcity has created additional challenges. During these stressful times, Salomé and I have found that learning another language has been an excellent diversion. 

We also share a passion for books. I recommended that Salomé read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a Pulitzer prize winning novel set in a fictional version of my coastal town. For our bilingual book club, I've been reading The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas, a Galician classic about the Spanish Civil War. This short (166 pages) historical novel was written in Galician/gallego, a regional language which is more similar to Portuguese than to Spanish. Galician was banned under Franco and become the language of the resistance but returned to the school curriculum after the dictator's death. 

Nearly trilingual Salomé read the book in Galician, but I needed the English and Spanish translations. Both were excellent, but the Spanish version was closer to the original and had interesting footnotes to explain the history. Salomé gave me more context and found photos to illustrate the narrative. I'm learning as much history and culture as grammar and vocabulary from our two hour weekly video chats. Our international friendship has been the silver lining of the pandemic.

The old prison island in Ría de Vigo, Galicia reminds us of Alcatraz in San Francisco.

The Carpenter's Pencil shows the brutality of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of prison guard Herbal and his political prisoner, Doctor Daniel de Barca, whom he is ordered to kill. Fortunately, the spirit of a murdered painter gets inside Herbal's head, educating and manipulating the guard. Herbal represents the harsh sensibility of the Franco regime while Dr. Barca is nearly a saint in his selfless efforts to minister to the physical and emotional health of his fellow prisoners. From inside prison walls, we can best understand the horrors of the Franco regime of 1936-1975. To balance the darkness, there is a lovely romance between Barca and Marisa, a rebel with a cause, whom Herbal secretly adores. 

This most original novella has more depth than books twice its length. It took me 6 weeks to finish only because I read very slowly in my third language. Although I can now understand Spanish newspapers and podcasts, the more literary language of novels is still beyond my intermediate level of instruction. Every night, I read a few pages in English and then again in Spanish. Now that I've finished, I'm listening to the Spanish audiobook to cement my comprehension and to appreciate the beauty of the language. I now understand why young children often want the same bedtime story over and over again! I'd recommend The Carpenter's Pencil to everyone in any language since its empowering message transcends translation. Me encantó esta novela histórica, y recomiendo que todos la lean. 

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Although Small Island is now one of my favorite historical novels, I was so disappointed by how one character treated other people that I quit reading for several years. Abandoned by her white father and Black mother, Hortense was raised in Jamaica by relatives who nourish and educate her but skimp on love. Seeking a better life, Hortense steals her best friend's boyfriend, a dashing Royal Air Force veteran, to immigrate to London. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph is hardworking and ambitious too, but his patient kindness and good humor stands in sharp contrast to her judgemental pride. Their struggle against racism is a fresh spin on the classic British World War II novel.

In 1948 Hortense sails into London and discovers a dirty, bombed out city and a shabby husband that fail to match her dreams. The narrative then rewinds to the backstories of the four central characters. The Josephs' white landlady, Queenie, is a delightfully irascible character who dares to rent rooms to people of color when her racist husband, Bernard, fails to return home from war. In many ways Bernard's miserable story is the most poignant of all, surprising me. A masterful storyteller can make you feel empathy in unexpected places.

Author Photo by Angus Muir
The child of Jamaican immigrants in England, author Andrea Levy has so much compassion for all of her characters. Their personal histories help the reader understand how childhoods circumscribed by misfortune, poverty, racism, and/or lost love have shaped these flawed characters. They frequently misunderstand each other, but the reader can piece together their true intentions by knowing the full story. 

The titular "small island" is Jamaica or Great Britain, but it is also a metaphor for how people can isolate themselves by their own prejudices. This realistic novel shows how systemic racism corrupts and hurts everyone in its path. The heavy theme is lightened by a full cast of quirky Dickensian characters. If you can get past the abrasive opening chapters, this brilliant book builds momentum as the characters make mistakes but slowly learn to be a bit more tolerant and forgiving. By the end, we are left with hope.

As a writer, I received a second gift: inspiration. When crafting an historical novel it's hard to decide when to start the novel. The contemporary reader may need more background to situate themselves in an unfamiliar time period, but starting with backstory and historical context can bog down the narrative. Although two of the main characters of Small Island are from Jamaica, it made more sense to open in London because the book is about immigration. The best known example of this narrative structure, in medias res, would be the Odyssey. If starting in the middle of a journey worked for Homer and Levy, maybe it could work for me! 

There's also a BBC adaptation with an all star cast: Naomie Harris (mom from Moonlight) as Hortense, Ruth Wilson (Rose from Downton Abbey) as Queenie, David Oyelowo (MLK from Selma) as Gilbert, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Bernard. 

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@Barrie Summy

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Covid Vaccination: our ticket out

Can you believe that today is the one-year anniversary of the global pandemic? 
So much has changed in a year, thanks to vaccines! 

On this day last year, my family was in Costa Rica celebrating my husband’s recovery from a health crisis. Although the hole in his heart was repaired as a child, Henry has remained immune compromised, and in 2019, he needed two more heart surgeries. In early March of 2020, his cardiologists declared the surgeries a success so our family foolishly flew abroad. 

When we left for vacation, there was no COVID in Maine and only one case in Costa Rica. In our isolated cabin with more birds than people on the mountain trails, we felt safe enough until WHO declared a global pandemic. Our March 18th flight home was a terrifying chorus of coughing passengers on packed planes. I have not traveled farther than 30 minutes from home since then. 

To protect Henry and other vulnerable people in our community, we have been living under strict quarantine for nearly a year. We get all our groceries curbside and restaurant food takeout. We only enter buildings for medical appointments, although my husband has a lot of those. I learned how to cut hair. 

Our singer-songwriter daughter had to cancel her live concerts and move back home, but we haven’t seen our son since last summer nor our octogenarian parents in over a year. 

Selfie from a solo walk last summer at the Eastern Prom in Portland, Maine.

Congratulations in Japanese to Henry's remote Bowdoin students.
We’re fortunate to have work we can do remotely. Henry exercises alone at dawn on remote trails, and I meet a masked friend for a walk once a month. Since high risk people aren’t prioritized in Maine, Henry won’t be eligible for the vaccine until April. Our extreme social isolation has a high psychological cost paid in tears and sleepless nights. Too many people have died. 

Only vaccination will save our family and yours from this pandemic nightmare. We are so lucky that our country will have enough vaccine by May for every American. I have been following the medical research closely, and scientists agree that the vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccines have already defeated polio and small pox. For herd immunity, at least 70% of us need to be vaccinated to protect the community and to return to life as we remember it. 

Celebrating Passover, Easter, and Hanami with my family in New York in 2019.

When I heard that my age group would be eligible next month, I scheduled my first dental cleaning in a year, and then I called my recently vaccinated parents. My writers’ group is planning an outdoor masked gathering for two weeks after vaccinations. I’m counting the months until I can safely fly to the Dominican Republic to research my novel about Jewish refugees during World War II. 

While I wait, I’ve been learning Spanish remotely. I can’t wait for the day when we will only talk about la pandemia in the past tense and the COVID vaccine will be as routine as the flu shot. After vaccination, where do you want to travel?

This post was sponsored by Do Our Part in support of vaccinations in Maine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

This historical novel by Nobel Prize author Mario Vargas Llosa is absolutely brilliant in content, craft, and (dare I say) execution. The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo en español, 2000) recounts the events leading to the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one brutal years. This political thriller not only describes what happened, but by getting inside the head of Trujillo and his assassins, we start to understand his motives and how an authoritarian leader can maintain control by psychological manipulation as much as by force.

Not only did Trujillo imprison, torture, and frequently murder any Dominican who opposed him, he was also responsible for the Parsley Massacre of 1937 that killed around 20,000 Haitian residents, including women and children. Trujillo escaped global condemnation by being the leader of the only country to welcome extra Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany (the subject of my work-in-progress). 

It's one thing to abuse your enemies, but Trujillo was also cruel to his most loyal supporters, the Trujillistas. In return for prestige and wealth, he destroyed their integrity and dignity. He even slept with their wives and daughters. People tolerated his abuse in return for the economic prosperity and political autonomy that brought their country out of a near colonial relationship with the USA. All this is true.

Vargas Llosa's novel is told in three alternating points of view; only the first one is fictional. Urania, the daughter of a loyal minister, has returned to the island 35 years after Trujillo's death to confront the ghosts of her traumatic past. She's a 49-year-old successful lawyer who lives alone by choice in New York City. Vargas Llosa occasionally interrupts her third person limited point-of-view narration with a second person voice (you/tú) to balances her accusatory perspective, like a conflicted conscience. This shift in voice and sophisticated vocabulary made the book too difficult for me to read in the original Spanish so I switched to the excellent translation by Edith Grossman. 

The second point-of-view is Trujillo on the final day of his life, reflecting back on his past glories and challenges. Vargas Llosa is at his best getting inside this Machiavellian mind. Trujillo is not interested in acquiring wealth beyond using it to maintain power to achieve his goals. He has a love-hate relationship with the USA: he credits being the strong leader he is to his training as a US Marine but would fight to the death should the Americans try to re-occupy his country. He wants to purge Haitians from the Dominican gene pool, and yet his grandmother was part Haitian, and he is attracted to mulata women. As an antagonist, Trujillo is multidimensional and well-developed, a most intriguing villain.

The final point of view is a chorus of assassins, all of them real people with mostly true backstories. These loyal supporters one-by-one turned on Trujillo. They are willing to sacrifice everything to regain their freedom. As they wait in a car to ambush Trujillo, they recall their past trajectories. Every assassin has a uniquely horrific story, and by sharing it, we learn about the history of the regime and the personal nature of Trujillo's control. El chivo/the goat was the popular nickname for their evil leader.

"Trujillo had also killed with a method that was slower and more perverse than when he had his prey shot, beaten to death, or fed to the sharks. He had killed him in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years." (p90)

"...Trujillo había matado también, de manera más demorada y perversa que a los que liquidó a tiros, golpes o echándolos a los tiburones. A él lo mató por partes, quitándole la decencia, el honor, el respeto por sí mismo, la alegría de vivir, las esperanzas, los deseos, dejándolo convertido en un pellejo y unos huesos atormentados por esa mala conciencia que lo destruía a poquitos desde hacía tantos años." (p124, es más lírico en español.) 

Read The Feast of the Goat to understand the danger of authoritarianism, a lesson all Americans need to learn right now. We cannot take democracy for granted. Also, this historical novel is fun to read, more like a political thriller than a textbook, but as full of facts. The author brings Trujillo back to life before killing him and destroying his legacy. I'd strongly recommend this book to everyone. I really want to see the film adaptation with Isabella Rossellini playing Urania!

Bruny Rivera, gracias por recomendarme leer esta novela maravillosa.

Greetings from snowy Maine!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

To get inspiration for my work-in-progress about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been binge-reading historical novels. Last year, I was blissfully browsing in a New York bookstore, when I got in a conversation with a woman whose favorite genre was historical fiction. She recommended We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, a novel based on a true story about a Jewish family's escape from Nazi occupied Poland. The author's grandfather was the luckiest one. His harrowing journey to Brazil and the opportunities he found there reminded me of my great grandfather's mission to help bring Jewish refugees to the Dominican Republic. 

The scope of We Were the Lucky Ones was surprisingly broad given the focus on one family. The five siblings and their parents in Poland scattered to Vichy France, Siberia, West Africa, Italy and Brazil. A family tree and chapters labeled by character, date, and location helps the reader keep track of the sprawling narrative. The Kurk family experienced a wide range of possible outcomes and witnessed a multitude of atrocities. 

As a Jew, I would have found We Were the Lucky Ones hard to read without the promise that at least this family would survive. Even so, the mostly true story is an emotionally charged page-turner. My only criticism is that I wish there had been more chapters about Addy in Brazil since his story provides much needed light. However, debut author Georgia Hunter does a great job of humanizing history without minimizing tragedy and still manages to leave the reader with hope. 

A long year ago, I wondered if I'd be up to the task of portraying a world-wide tragedy that would change the course of history, and now at the end of 2020, I can imagine that darkness. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were far worse than our pandemic, but I can relate to the constant stress of a global catastrophe coupled to shocking attacks on democracy and scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Worse than any virus is the epidemic of fear, prejudice, and xenophobia. 

There is no vaccine for hate, but we can learn how to avoid the mistakes of our past by studying history. Also a scientific study has shown that reading literary fiction increases empathy. On top of that, novels allow us to escape the confinement of our homes and to meet new people without any risk. This year my family won't be gathering in person, and we will be giving books as gifts.

My to-be-read stack of historical fiction: The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo) by Mario Vargas Llosa, Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky, Small Island by Andrea Levy, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

Do you have any other mid 20th century historical novels to recommend to me?

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@Barrie Summy