Debra Darvickenhance your now in word and image
Shortly after their daughter Sophie is born, Jennifer Rosner and her husband are stunned to learn Sophie was born deaf. Rosner’s beautiful memoir, If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, recounts how she and her husband moved beyond grief and disbelief to action and advocacy for Sophie and for her sister Juliet born two years later, also deaf. Rosner, whose mother was hard of hearing, begins researching the family tree and discovers deaf relatives branching back through the generations. Though her mother attributed her hearing loss to the after-effects of a childhood illness, Rosner now knows better. She and her husband (what were the chances?) had each passed on the recessive gene that led to their daughters’ deafness.
Rosner intersperses her family’s story with that of two great aunts, sisters whose lives were also silenced by deafness. Rosner conjures their lives in the shtetl using research and imagination to fill in the gaps. She grew up listening to her father play violin every day of her life. The author studied opera from the time she was a young child. La Traviata was her favorite to sing. Now a mother herself, Rosner begins to re-evaluate, through the lens of her daughters’ deafness, her relationship with her mother. She recalls the feeling of not being heard and begins to question how well and how deeply she learned to listen to others. If her daughters do not learn to speak, how will she ever listen to them?
For a family as language- and music-immersed as Rosner’s, the decision to raise their daughters in the Deaf world or move forward with cochlear implants is fraught with challenges and judgments from both communities. Ultimately Rosner and her husband do what any parents do: they decide based on what they deem best for their family and for their daughters’ futures.
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Jennifer Rosner was a philosophy professor until her daughters’ deafness set her life onto a new trajectory. If a Tree Falls was followed by The Mitten String, a charming picture book based on a family story about one of her aunts. Her just-published debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings, is set during World War II and is inspired by the true stories of Jewish children hidden during the war. She returns to the themes of silence, the power of mother-daughter bonds and the critical choices parents make for their children’s survival. Having now read the author’s first and second books, I look forward to settling in with her third.
Give me a thriller by Daniel Silva and I’m happy. Whether it’s Russian oligarchs, Islamist terrorists or in this most recent case the sudden death of the Pope and a secrety society of Catholic conspiracists, Silva has me for as long as it takes to read his latest.
This time it took six hours or so for his Israeli spy and art restorer Gabriel Allon, to root out the bad guys, save the vote for the new Pope, find the ancient book that could upend New Testament teachings, and still manage a few days of vacay in Florence with his family.
When the real world is still gripped with Covid, vaccine vacillations, political fracas and more, a novel that ties up the loose ends along with the bad guys is just the ticket.
I’ve just begun Mary Purnelll’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. It’s gripping and all the more astonishing because it’s true. Ginger danced with Fred backwards in high heels. Virginia Hall was a real-life Gabriel Allon with a prosthetic leg, no less. Stay tuned.
I tend to want to get out of this century, and the last, when reading novels these days. Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist rowed me into Witless Bay, his fictional coastal village in Newfoundland. (OK it begins in 1911 but that’s at least before World Wars and later horrors.) First paragraph in, narrator Fabian Vas offers up that he is a bird artist and that he murdered Botho August, the village’s lighthouse keeper. The murder, though not incidental in the least, is woven through the plot leaving plenty of room to get to know Witless Bay’s characters, their tragedies and secrets, betrayals and redemptions. The murder becomes part of the greater story, much as the tailfeathers painted by Vas , though not the entire bird, are crucial to its flight. Before picking up Howard Norman’s novel, I knew little of Newfoundland but the huge black dogs and Broadway’s marvelous Come From Away. The villages that inspired Witless Bay have surely changed over the past century. But maybe not as much as other locales have. Perhaps I’ll find out for myself one day.
The poems in Cindy Frenkel’s chapbook The Plague of the Tender-Hearted sear and delight. There are the brave, wrenching poems reanimating her beloved brother who took his own life. There are poems that sing with painful memory and even more painful love. There is the poignant poem spanning three generations of women, a trefoil of “roles reversed, everything askew.” Frenkel’s four-line “Elegy” is as powerful in its brevity as her The Anatomy of Color,” an ode to spring that unfurls over two pages. I cannot decide which I favor more, “This has been” or “Raising her is better than.” The former is a poem to her lover; the latter a love poem to her daughter. Fortunately I don’t have to choose. The Plague of the Tender-Hearted will rest on my nightstand for quite a while.
The Choice, Embrace the Impossible, a memoir by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, kept popping up in Zoom chats. Once I knew it had nothing of William Styron about it, I ordered it from the library. The choice Dr. Eger asks us to make is the difference between life and death, but it’s our life she urges us to consider. What do we do with the devastating events that run like highways across the map of our lives? Do we use them as excuses for dead-end angry living or pathways to purpose? Dr. Eger, still alive and kicking (she was a ballet student before her Nazi imprisonment in a concentration camp) continues to lecture and bring healing to her patients.
Keep paper and pen nearby as you will undoubtedly want to write down certain of her observations. Here are two from my list: Of herself and other survivors she wrote: “We had no control over the most consuming facts of our lives, but we had the power to determine how we experienced life after trauma…We can choose to be our own jailors, or we can choose to be free.” The simplicity and truth of the following quote brought home the absurdity of asking why. “We want so much to understand the truth….We want reasons, explanations. We want our lives to make sense. But to ask why? is to stay in the past, to keep company with our guilt and regret. We can’t control other people and we can’t control the past.” Read the book. It’s well worth it no matter how much you’ve figured out your life’s pain and moved on.
I began The Starless Sea with high hopes. My friend, author and poet Diana Dinverno, had raved about Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus. Nine months into the pandemic, I needed to escape to another world. Remembering Diana’s enthusiasm, I figured The Starless Sea would be a good bet.
Morgenstern’s world of The Starless Sea is indeed luminous, strange, mysterious. A grad student sets out to solve the mystery of how one of his childhood experiences has shown up in a book he was given to read. As sure as the tide, evil forces are at work. Yesterday’s evil force might be today’s benevolent one and then back again.
I was enthralled to be in a world where the protagonist, “Untangled himself from vines blossoming with story-filled flowers [as…] he has walked through puddles of ink and left footprints that formed stories in his wake…” He eats a candy and as it dissolves on his tongue he experiences the words. and only the words .of a story unfolding in his mind. Then it’s gone, dissolving just like the sourball in his mouth. Morgenstern’s imagination churns at white-cap speed.
Have you sensed the “but” has now arrived? All the deep sea phosphorescence, unrequited and abandoned love and hairsbreadth escapes overtook the storyline so much so that I got lost in the book. Lost, not to well-plotted escapism, but simply lost in the tangled thicket of marvelous words strung together to create marvelous head pictures. There is a plot here but I grew tired trying to tease it from the surrounding landscape.
Usually, if I can’t recommend a book, I pass on reviewing it. Why be negative? Why diss a fellow author or darken her day? Give The Starless Sea a chance and see how it hits you. Me? I’m going to pick up The Night Circus. Not necessarily because I trust its author, but because years after Diana told me about it, I still remember how she could barely contain her excitement while describing it to me.
I am so sorry that I never thought to contact Rumer Godden before she died in 1998. She translated into English Prayers from the Ark, by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold. My mother gave me the book when I was a child. I have loved it ever since, reading these gentle words of supplication throughout my entire life. To think that I missed such an opportunity to speak with the woman who not only translated these moving prayer-peoms, but had worked with their author in the Abbye Saint Louis du Temple where she lived.
As a young summer camper, I sang about the animals who came on [the ark] “by twosies, twosies” never reckoning what the experience might actually have been. The gentle soul that was Bernos de Gasztold did. She imagined life on the ark as lived by the mouse, praying to God to be kept safe from “the claws of that deveil with green eyes.” For ten brief and beautiful lines she becamse the audacious rooster, reminding God who actually called forth sunrise. Each animal’s supplication for compassion is our cry, our hope; their songs of gratitude are our songs.
I wish I could thank my mother once again for giving me this beautiful book. But I have the The Prayers of the Ark, and thus, the love within her gift.
If I didn’t know better and time were malleable, I would wager that Marcus Aurelius (121 AD, Rome, Italy. Died March 17, 180 AD) wrote Kohelet, the book we know as Ecclesiastes. His observations about life’s trials, friends and foes, and even our hopes jump off the page fresh as bread, sharp as pain.
Aurelius reminds me there is “nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9). Across the millennia, we humans continue to be vanquished by the same pitfalls, propelled by the same avarice, and soothed by the same comforts. I don’t know whether to be despondent or relieved. Or simply grateful that in this ancient ruler of the Roman Empire, I have a fellow traveler