Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Road of Lost Innocence

“My name is Somaly. At least that’s the name I have now. Like everyone in Cambodia, I’ve had several. Names are the result of temporary choices.”

Somaly Mam was orphaned at a young age in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia. Her memories of her parents are indistinct. She’s not even sure of her exact birth date or year. But at the age of sixteen, her life would change forever. She was sold into prostitution. She has endured countless abuses at the hands of other humans—slavery, rape, beatings, torture, isolation, and shame. Now she is a survivor, mother, and crusader, not only raising awareness of forced prostitution in Southeast Asia, especially of children, but fighting daily in the very streets where she once lived. Her story was remarkable, and yet not so remarkable as she relates the names and stories of other women—and girls—who have the same horrible tale to tell.

Her book was riveting—not so much from the way it was told as I think translated works can sometimes lose their emotional coloring—but from the details of her life, one that you don’t want to have to look at or think about but that you must. I knew that this would be a difficult book to read but I also knew that I needed to read her story and look at her life to understand to some degree that this does happen, is happening.

I encourage you all to read The Road of Lost Innocence and to read not only for her tale but also for the work she is doing to rescue women and help them to heal, regain life, regain dignity.

“Trying to explain it is not what I do. I keep my head down and try to help one girl about another. That is a big enough task.”

Monday, September 15, 2008

Non-Linear 2 with Plots

The last two novels I've read have both had non-traditional, non-linear plot structures. I actually really enjoy a tale that is told in a way that loops or jumps around--as long as it is done well. Maybe this comes from loving Faulkner so much or just enjoying a writer's inventiveness.

In Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo, the plot builds to a climactic event--an argument, a fight really, between the young narrator's parents. Then, abruptly in the next chapter, the plot jumps back almost a hundred years to the "Awful Grandmother's" childhood. The action moves forward from there through the years of the Mexican Revolution, hints of Spanish-American War, the World Wars, and immigration from Mexico City to Chicago. Throughout the tale, someone interrupts the narrator, who now seems older than when the novel first began, and complains she isn't telling it right. Eventually, the novel reaches where it had left off and continues on. It isn't until the end that all this is sorted out. I loved though the multi-generational tale that tries to explain why some is the way she is. Why is Awful Grandmother so awful? What was the fight between Mama and Papa about? What is the role of storytelling? What purpose can it serve?

I enjoy Sandra Cisneros' work, especially House on Mango Street, one of my all-time favorites. She can tell so much in so few words and she plays with narrative structure, layers of narrators, and authorial voice like toys--effortlessly and with humor and lightness, even when the themes are deep and emotional. A beautiful novel--so much in it, I can't fit it all in here.

Our last book club read, The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve, also attempts to explain why someone at age 50 is who he is. The novel is told mostly backwards beginning when the main characters, Thomas and Linda, old lovers, meet at about age 50. Shreve was intrigued by the thought of seeing someone later in life and working backwards to figure out what shaped that person into what you see before you. The novel is told in three sections--52, 27, and 17--the age of Linda each time they meet. Shreve lacks the depth and weight of Cisneros (maybe made more difficult by the fact that I read them back to back). You find yourself not caring as much about the characters partly because you aren't given enough "fleshing out" to care and partly because they are really likeable characters. This was the first Shreve novel I've read and I'm interested enough to go back and read others, especially Sea Glass which was recommended by my fellow book clubians.

In other readings, I'm taking The Right Attitude to Rain and Blue Shoes and Happiness (both Alexander McCall Smith novels from the two "detective" series) to the beach with me this week. R and I are joining the rest of the "girls" on D's side of the family--sisters, mom, sister-in-law, and our only niece--at Ormond Beach for a long weekend. Which means D and B. Diddy will be home alone. PLUS, Rock Band 2 came out this week. I'm not even going to think about it.....

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

3 by Kate DiCamillo

Last Christmas, my bookworm sister-in-law (and I mean that as a compliment) gave R a beautiful hardcover book titled Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo. I didn't know the book but recognized DiCamillo as the author of Because of Winn-Dixie, which I hadn't read but knew about (set in Florida, made into a movie with A-list actors and Dave Matthews). Then, a few weeks ago, I saw that The Tale of Despereaux was also going to be coming to theaters so I decided I really must read these books. And fortunately, as I was perusing the shelves of Brightlight Books looking for books for R's birthday, both books were there and in excellent condition (though I only noticed later at home that a second grader named Christina had written her name and school on the inside front cover of Winn Dixie and she apparently has "blonde hair, blue eyes and bangs on forehead").

Great Joy, a picture book, is a Christmas story set in WWII in New York City from the rich visual clues in the period clothing and hairstyles, a portrait of a solider on the mother's desk, and street signs. Frances watches the man with the organ grinder and his monkey play every day on the street corner. Her curiosity about their situation compels her to stay awake one night and see where they go. When she realizes they sleep on the street and have nowhere to go at night, she implores her mother to let them come for dinner. Her mother, in practical, cautious reasoning, refuses because they are strangers. However, Frances invites them to the church Christmas play where she is an angel and has one line. During the play, Frances freezes on stage and cannot get her line out, until the old, sad organ grinder appears in the doorway of the church. Then, Frances announces to the audience and to us: "Behold, I bring you tidings of Great Joy!"

Bagram Ibatoulline's illustrations are luminous, glowing, and detailed. The narrative is short but much is said in the last lines and on Frances's face as she triumphantly declares the joy of Christmas.

Because of Winn-Dixie was DiCamillo's first published work. Set in fictional Naomi, Florida, the young heroine India Opal finds the ugliest, smelliest, biggest dog she's ever seen--in the produce section of the Winn-Dixie. And it's because of Winn-Dixie, the name she bestows on the dog, that Opal is able to make her way in the new town where her father is the pastor and through a life where her mother is absent. The characters, even minor ones and even Winn-Dixie, are so fully developed that you know exactly who they are, even though DiCamillo is stingy with her words. This is a fairly short novel and while each chapter reads almost like a short story, the overarching plot is compact. There is nothing needless or unnecessary in her writing. You get just enough and often phrases and descriptions, like poetry, are concentrated and say more and do more. One of my favorite descriptions is of Sweetie Pie Thomas, whom Opal almost runs into as she's leaving a pet store:

"She was standing there, sucking on the knuckle of her third finger, staring in the window of Gertrude's Pets. She took her finger out of her mouth and looked at me. Her eyes were all big and round. "Was that bird sitting on that dog's head?" she asked. She had her hair tied up on a ponytail with a pink ribbon. But it wasn't much of a ponytail, it was mostly ribbon and a few strands of hair....'I'm going to be six years old in September. I got to stop sucking on my knuckle once I'm six, said Sweetie Pie. 'I'm having a party. Do you want to come to my part? The theme is pink.'"

The story of family, friendship, and acceptance is beautiful without being saccharine. Some of that comes from slightly lunatic characters and mostly from DiCamillo's even-handed and tongue-in-cheek style as she writes through Opal. There is also much beauty in her writing though which you will enjoy discovering like the sweet but melancholy Littmus Lozenges.

Finally, there's The Tale of Despereaux, which DiCamillo wrote for a friend's son when he asked for a story with an unlikely hero "with exceptionally large ears." Despereaux is a mouse and this is a fairy tale with kings, princesses, villains, and dungeons. Again, DiCamillo's narrative voice changes as she writes in an oral storytelling style with as much humor as pathos. The narrator even encourages the reader to look up words so that he or she will not miss out on any of the meaning: "At least Lester had the decency to weep at his act of perfidy. Reader, do you know what "perfidy" means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure." The story of soup, honor, revenge, and rescue is a true fairy tale in the best sense of the word--a tale that uses the other-worldly or the absurd to communicate great truths.

All of these works revolve around life, light, beauty, and connection. In Despereaux especially, the desire for light over dark and the battle between the two is played out most explicitly (a chapter entitled Recalled to the Light, a reference to A Tale of Two Cities.) To inflict suffering or to relieve. To exact revenge or to forgive. To torture or to heal. To capture or to rescue. In Despereaux's tale I found all the elements of the Gospel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First First Day of School

No tears, no long good-bye. She marched right in, found her "bee" on the wall and put it on the hive, and sat at the table ready to paint. Granted, this is all pretty easy when 1) school is at your church you've been at your whole life, 2) your teacher is your best friend's mom and you've known her your whole life, 3) you already know three or four of your classmates, and 4) you've been waiting for this for about 2 years.

When I picked her up, she wanted to know if we had been anywhere (we hadn't) and what we had done (played and ate lunch). "Me, too!" she said. She was proud of carrying her bag herself and panicked for moment when she thought she had left her lunch box (it was in the bag). She showed off her cutting skills on the bee picture which had no wings but plenty of glue. They sang a "Good Morning" song and had a story about creation ("But we didn't get to Adam and Eve yet.") She ate her lunch, remembered to bring home her spoon, and didn't throw away the note I had written her. She mentioned that Miss Sarah Jane and Miss B.A. had stopped by her class and she smiled and waved to them (which is pretty big for her since she tends to be inexplicably shy at times.)
For B, he looked around the house, trying to find R. He walked down the hallway towards their rooms, came back, and put his arms out in a "There's no R anywhere!" look. (Seriously, that's exactly what he was thinking despite not uttering a single word.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Word of the Day

My·o·pia : noun : 1) a condition in which the visual images come to a focus in front of the retina of the eye resulting especially in defective vision of distant objects 2) a lack of foresight or discernment : a narrow view of something

Myopic, the adjectival derivative, is one of my favorite words. Maybe, partially, because I am literally myopic and must wear corrective lenses of some kind or another. And as the theme of revelation and sight have been on my mind lately, this word and its implication figuratively and spiritually.

I struggle with myopia in my lack of contentment. I can see only that which is right in front of me so that the larger picture is distored, blurry. I lose sight of the future--the distance--thinking this is all I have. Sippy cups and temper tantrums, weeds and dust bunnies, sin and sadness. I choose to have a "narrow view" instead of seeing the glorious goal I'm working towards. I focus instead on the disappointments and the failures instead of growth and potential.
But I can also tend to look past the here-and-now and be discouraged about my present situation that I don't see clearly what is before me: opportunity, blessings, needs, love.

On Sunday, Orangewood's founding pastor, Chuck Green, preached on being afflicted, using Paul's "thorn" as his text. He theorizes that Paul's ailment was likely physical and perhaps involved his eyes, a remnant from the "something like scales" that covered his eyes after his roadside encounter with Jesus. (Paul writes about using large letters so that his original readers would know that he was the one writing.) Paul says in 1st Corinthians that his thorn was given to him to humble him so that in his weaknesses, Christ would be exalted. What if Paul was afflicted with a bit of a scale to remind him of how much he used to cling to his own accomplishments and heritage but how misguided he had been before God changed his heart?

Sally Lloyd-Jones, the author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, titled Paul's conversion story, "A New Way to See." She writes: "Saul was blind for three whole days--and yet it was as if he was seeing for the very first time." When Saul's sight is restored, he sees everything differently.

Scripture if full of metaphors of sight and eyes. Paul defines faith as being certain of what we do not see. R and I had this conversation yesterday regarding Noah. She asked why the other people were laughing at Noah in the illustration of the book we were reading. Without having seen rain, a storm, or an ocean, Noah obeyed God, regardless of how others saw him. He focused on the task before him, fixed his eyes on his God.

My eyes need to be focused on Him alone. I may not see far. Somethings may still be fuzzy or unclear, but He is to be my vision.

And for anyone who's curious, the opposite of myopia (shortsightedness) is hyperopia (farsightedness). See ya!