My Mother's Library

January 23, 2014

Cover image by Chloe Annetts, design by Dale Voelker.


“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin

And to this I would add: your joys, your accomplishments, your expectations, your hopes. And I would change the pronoun to “our,” as Charles Blow did in his very personal New York Times blog post today, a touching account of his first encounter with books. It reminded me of my mother’s stories about her childhood library which was immodest for a struggling Viennese family—middle class in its aspirations, but not in its day to day life. Her mother—my grandmother—worked as a sales “girl” in a glove store, family owned, but not immediate family. And her father—my grandfather—was a traveling salesman, selling the gloves to retail stores. And when he returned from his trips, he always brought my mother a beautiful leather-bound book, which she cherished, and read avidly. In absentia, the books gave her courage and comfort when her father was away. And they became a sizable library, all left behind when my mother escaped the Nazi advance after she graduated from medical school, the first woman in her family to go to university.

And it’s interesting that I haven’t written about this in a long time. Perhaps it was Charles Blow’s blog post that jogged memories of my mother’s re-created, re-invented library, first in New York where I grew up, and later in Westport, Ct. after she and my stepfather—in European fashion—retired “to the country.” The bookshelves had to go up before anything else, and if anyone wanted to borrow a book, the librarian—my mother—had to check it out in her indelible mental ledger. As she aged, she became even stricter about lending books, almost obsessively so; they had become a metaphor of both loss and security.

“And you will return it, soon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And if you do not, I will call you.”
And so on.

The parsimony of lending did not extend to gifts. If she liked a book, she bought copies for her children, grand-children, and friends. And signed them, often with the words: “This is one of my favorite books.”

In her old age, my mother lost most of her sight. She could no longer pull books off the shelf, or read them. But she went to her local Barnes & Noble all the time, and she belonged to a book club. My sister and I tried to shift her to audio books, to no avail. Finally, I found a wonderful man to read to her and talk to her. A book was not a book unless there was a discussion about its characters or the events described.

My mother was bi-lingual, but shifted entirely to English as a reader. Oddly, though, she never liked poetry in English, but when I began to memorize poems, I would practice on her during my visits. These oral/aural experiences echoed the Greeks, who my mother had studied in high school. I was declaiming what was on the page, and this legacy had a mythic feel. She recognized quickly that most poems revise the ancient themes of life and death and love. She was captivated. Soon we were able to touch on her own end of life “issues” and how she wished to depart from this world beyond the documents that had been signed. It was literature that helped us do that.

John Steinbeck

January 17, 2014

Tags: Penguin Books

I don't know why I picked up “East of Eden” the other day, an unconscious motivation perhaps. Consciously, I was weary of reading on my Kindle and longing for the sensory experience of paper, paper page turning, and heft. 601 pages of Penguin’s centennial edition—in celebration of Steinbeck’s birth—is heft. The design of the paperback cover echoes the original hardback edition: It has flaps, there is an evocative etching on the top of the cover, and the edges of the pages are scored. This creates an illusion of freshly cut pages, the obligation of the reader in the past. Once cut and turned, the pages feel “thumbed.”

But what about the story and the writing? Has it held up? Has it stood the test of time? Is it now a classic?

Like most American school children of my generation, I had read “Of Mice and Men” in school at an age when it would have meant absolutely nothing to me. I think this was true of many classics on the curriculum in those days. (The other that comes to mind is Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.”) I have no recollection of how the book was taught, what it was about, or the questions we were supposed to answer for homework. I thought it curious that my parents had “Cannery Row” on their shelves, but was not curious enough myself to pull it down. A yellow cover with blue lettering, I remember, and the fact that my mother had read it in one sitting. Much later, the year I got married, I read “Grapes of Wrath” as we traveled across the country and loved it. But I never returned to Steinbeck after that. So why now? A third into the book, and unable to put it down—the writing and the story both compelling—I went online to the Nobel Prize site to listen to Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Banquet Speech in which he says:

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

Inspiring thoughts for me as I have just published a novel—“What Returns to Us”—set in 1945, the beginning of the Atomic Age. I do feel, too strongly at times I know, that writers and artists have an obligation to tell the truth, to illuminate, and to write from the heart as well as the head.

“East of Eden” was published in 1952, soon after the end of World War II and the unleashing of America’s weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb. Steinbeck traces America’s history in this epic, beautifully written novel from the 19th century onward. It raises many questions about our frontier history, the loss of civility and a higher purpose, the origins of evil, and what it means to be human. The book is loaded with gorgeous descriptions, deep character portraits, humor, and compassion.

We can’t all be working on such a large canvas all the time, or even some of the time; that would be hubris. And we cannot sit down to write with the intention of creating the great American novel—Mailer’s ambition—or the great anything. Our writing lives are a daily practice, keen observation, and the quest for psychological and historical truths.

Writers Talking

January 5, 2014

I spoke to two cousins on the telephone this week. What a treat to have long conversations, to hear their voices, and then to follow-up with a real correspondence using long, descriptive sentences—not just snippet thought- bytes and sentence fragments. I write my letters in Word files with the email off, and then send them as attachments, or paste them into the body of the email. The computer has a pulse and it quickens us. It’s time to slow down.

Both of my cousins live on the west coast, one in Seattle, the other on Gabriola Island off the coast of Vancouver. Apart from family lore and gossip, shared memories and anecdotes, two of us are writers, the third has started writing poetry and is contemplating a memoir workshop. And though there was a lot to discuss, I found myself becoming impatient and wanting to get off the phone. Not good. I had picked up the phone ready to talk, to tell my stories and listen to theirs. If I hadn’t wanted to talk, I should have let the phone go into voice mail. But I didn’t. It is as though I had momentarily lost the habit of conversing.

It’s our mandate as writers to resist the electronic “pidgin” English we’ve developed to communicate quickly and virtually. I believe that it erodes our language and is not good for any of us, writers in particular. I know it’s not good for me. I’m as glued to my iPhone as anyone, addicted to Facebook and text. But I also resist. I resist by writing long texts in full sentences and using the Facebook status as an opportunity to weave a mini-story. When I went off Facebook for a couple of weeks a while back, and announced that I was doing so, my “friends” objected. I was touched that they were enjoying my stories, but I also wanted to talk to all of them and to meet at a cafe for a chat over a coffee, totally impractical in our trans-national lives. And so I am grateful that our timelines bring us closer.

I always suggest to my students to make calls to friends and family on their cells after 9 p.m. when minutes are free and they can spin their stories. Or to have “talking” dinner parties around a table with a few selected friends. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes of oral story-telling and listening every day is gold bullion for the writer. Our minds clarify, the words glisten, and our solitary writing lives return to balance.

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