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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

mothergaveMy timing is all off. After having spent the last two months with my mom, I’m not going to be with her on Mother’s Day. I left her some little presents and sent pretty Jacqui Lawson e-cards, and, of course, I’ll call. But we have long conversations almost daily, going over all kinds of things, from how our knees are feeling in whatever weather, to what we’re reading. (She just finished a library copy of the new David Baldacci thriller, me, John le Carre’s A Delicate Balance. She liked her book ok except for the high body count, I really liked the le Carre, war and spying gone corporate.)

Now I am reading Elizabeth Benedict’s What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most (Algonquin, paperback review copy), and loving the essays. Such a variety of gifts: Cecelia Munoz’s mother gave her a wok, Joyce Carol Oates’ mother gave her a quilt, Rita Dove’s mother gave her longed-for nail polish, Mary Morris’s mother gave her a passport and thus gave her the world.

But whether an expensive blouse or a tarnished piece of silver jewelry, the gifts are not only symbols of love but also the keys that unlock memories, allowing each woman to celebrate her singular relationship with her mother. In “Her Favorite Neutral,”  Charlotte Silver talks about her beautiful mother’s penchant for animal prints and how she has handed on her personal sense of style, along with leopard print Italian ankle boots. She notes that her mother once remarked, “I just wasn’t capable of a small life in a minor key,” and she hopes to one day be able to say the same.

In a recent interview on NPR, Benedict said she asked the contributors to write about an object because she was afraid they’d “freak out” if she said ‘Write me a story about your mother.” By honing in on the specific, the writers avoid generalities, and yet the particular often evokes the universal.

Mmmm. I find myself thinking of the many things my mother has given me over the years. What one item would I choose? The gold locket that her mother gave her? The lime chiffon dress that we shared? The oval-framed antique photograph of her oldest sister as a little girl? The airplane ticket to New York for spring break?

Books, of course. Many, many books, starting with A Child’s Garden of Verses. I learned to read by her reading it to me, and then with me. “How would you like to go up in a swing?” or “Dark brown is the river,” or my favorite “Escape from Bedtime.” “The lights from the kitchen and parlor shone out…”

But there’s another book that came later, when I was 11. We were in our small branch library and I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything new to read in the childrens’ or teen shelves. My mother went to the adult fiction section and came back with a thick blue book. “Here, I think you’ll like this,” and handed me Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Then  she told the head librarian I had her permission to wander freely in the adult stacks and check out whatever books I wanted. And so she gave me the world.

Thanks, Mom. Love you.

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Sometimes it is good to get away from the leaves of a book and take a walk among the real leaves, especially if you are reading John Fowles’ provocative book-length essay, The Tree. In it, he ponders and questions the connection between humans and nature, especially our perception of of the natural world, how we see both the forests and the trees.

 Now re-released in a 30th anniversary edition, this is a true “green” book, but not in the way you might think. Fowles isn’t much on classification and conservation, except in our preservation of wilderness, “the green chaos” that can’t be tamed at the very heart of things.  

Most readers know Fowles, who died in 2005, as a master novelist — The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, Daniel Martin, The Ebony Tower — which are among my favorite books. But he also wrote some wonderful nonfiction, and for a long time, I would read anything he wrote just because he wrote it in such graceful, elegant and discerning prose. I can remember being disappointed by his later fiction — Mantissa and The Maggot — but I was won back by the essay collection Wormholes, especially the pieces on nature and his beloved Lyme Regis. The two-volume The Journals were revelatory as to his times and intense introspection, but I admit to some skimming.

As for The Tree, it has been celebrated and anthologized, and it certainly bears rereading.  As Barry Lopez rightly notes in the introduction, Fowles’ ideas at time might appear too abstract and paradoxical except he’s too good a storyteller.

And so I willingly followed him back to the anecdotes about his childhood, which was divided by the war, between suburbia (his father’s preference) and the Dorset countryside (his own). He discusses the Victorian mania for naming things, and also the Middles Ages’ perception of the forest as “evil” in its wildness, “an immense green cloak for Satan.” Our fears of the wood, he contends, are hardly dead — the private garden detests “wild nature.”

My favorite sections of The Tree deal with the intersection of art and nature, how we struggle with words and pictures to capture its reality. Then there is the metaphorical forest, the preferred setting since Gilgamesh for the literary adventure and quest. Although the city appears to have replaced the forest in the contemporary novel, Fowles makes a good argument that “Sir Galahad and Philip Marlowe are blood brothers.”

In the last section, Fowles sets out to Wistman’s Wood, an almost hidden bit of primeval forest on the Dartmoor Moor, copses of ancient, twisted, dwarfish oaks, its floor like a “tilted emerald sea.” Here, in this isolated, strangely tropical place he contemplates how he came to writing by nature, and the secret being of the woods that can only be entered by the individual consciousness.

And so I take a walk to clear my head, to think and not think. Are the leaves on the dogwood dimpling with yellow because we haven’t had rain in weeks, or is it finally fall in Florida? The oaks are always green, one way or another, but the acorns crackle under foot in the growing dark. I hear an owl, lost to sight in the leaves and limbs of the tree above me.

Open Book: Ecco Press sent me an advance readers’ copy of The Tree by John Fowles as part of an internet promotion. It’s a “real” book, once a tree.

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