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.