Blue Nights

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion

Published 2011

Read June 2019

A wonderful aspect of being in a book discussion group is reading things you might not otherwise read.  One discussion group to which this reader belongs occasionally has its monthly meeting discussion books chosen by the reader based on some sort of assignment.  The assignment that brought me to this book was “A book with either “blue” or “blew” in the title.”  So this reader put “blue*” into the search engine for the library consortium, to which the sponsoring library is a member, to see what the search would reveal.  As expected—A LOT  of potential possibilities books.  As this reader worked through the descriptions of a variety of books, the title of this book first provided a source of pause.  Blue is this reader’s favorite color and is a delightful favorite as the sky provides a whole palette of blues to enjoy.  The period of twilight dissolving completely into night provides a specific blue palette that is especially remarkable.  The author’s name for this book was Joan Didion, an author this reader read years ago and enjoyed much for her remarkable language although not a single specific book title read could be recalled.  No worries.  The book was requested and delivered.

Upon opening the book, the first paragraph totally engaged this reader with her description of blue nights—apparent in New York (City) (where she now lives) but not in subtropical California (where she lived for much of the time described in the book).  “You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.”  Although this reader has not been to Chartres nor seen radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors, this reader knows that blue.  She continues “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice:  the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.”

Thus Didion sets the stage for this book.  Although some references and critics describe the book as an account of the death of her daughter, at age 39 and only twenty months after the abrupt death of her husband of a heart attack, there frankly isn’t really an account of her daughter’s death.  Rather there are short descriptions of aspects of her life with her daughter—getting a call for her adoption, the party celebrating her official adoption, taking her on various work trips, and others. She recounts several times hearing a group of doctors on rounds indicate the vent her daughter is on  is no longer able to provide the patient sufficient oxygen There are descriptions of fears she experienced during her daughter’s life (generally the ones all parents fear regarding injuries, losing them in a crowd, etc), fears she now experiences that are much more difficult (why didn’t she understand what her daughter might had been saying at various times, why didn’t she realize that her daughter would have the abandonment fears that adopted children often experience, etc), and the fear that she will lose her memories of her.   .  As well Didion discusses her concerns about aging which she now realizes is now occurring: the loss of physical capabilities, the increasing neuropathies that hamper her senses and impair her mobility, and especially her cognitive capabilities that are apparent in the act of writing: “What if the absence of style that I welcomed at one point—the directness that I encouraged, even cultivated—what if this absence of style has now taken on a pernicious life of its own? What if my new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself— What if this new inability is systemic? What if I can never again locate the words that work?”  “I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page.  I saw it as evidence of a new directness.  I see it differently now.  I see it now as frailty.  I see it now as the very frailty Quintana feared.”

The book describes Didion’s raw thoughts and fears, some which are newly understood but had always there, some newly exposed and only evident when one reaches that certain point of the blue night.  Don’t read this book to learn about Quintana’s death.  Read this book to hear a wonderfully articulate author describe what she is experiencing as both a result of losing a daughter and as a result of realizing her summer is ending. 

Anna K, Audiobooks, and Discussion

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1873-1877

Published in book form 1878

Read 2014

This reader is publishing this essay on a book read several years ago because it was a great example for this reader about the experience of listening to the book vs reading “with your eyes”.  Tolstoy’s “first novel” and very great work is a large one—850+ pages or so.  Dispersed within the story of two marriages—the crumbling of Anna/Alexey Karenin’s marriage and creation and maturation of Kostya Levin/Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage—Tolstoy has long extensive sections on hunting, harvesting grain, serfdom, political discussions at a dinner party, sending soldiers to a war of unclear purpose, and several others.  This reader may have struggled through these sections if reading the hardcopy (or Kindle!) version of the novel, but was enriched by them when they were being read by a good reader and the reader was walking, exercising, driving, gardening, cleaning, or many other types of activities that allowed concentration on both the book and the task.  I heartily recommend this form of reading to enable immersion in books. 

Tolstoy provides an interesting look at Russian society shortly before the freeing of the serfs, with particular emphasis on the arrangement and state of marriage in upper society with respect to the public and personal expectations of marriage.  Anna is in an arranged marriage that “saves” her from a situation of no wealth and no obvious family with which to live.  However the marriage is not personally fulfilling to her, and perhaps not to her husband.  While perfectly acceptable to have discreet affairs to “fill the gap” of an unsatisfying marriage, Anna chooses a different path with her Vronsky.  Tolstoy uses this story to develop his thesis that an eternal error men makes is in “imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”.  However, the maturation of Kostya Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage may contradict this thesis.  However they chose their marriage following a courtship focused on love (as possible within the constraints of society) and live in the country, generally unblemished by the trends and pressures of society.

Obviously there is much Tolstoy covers in 850+ pages which is not discussed here.  Listen to the book to find out the rest.  One last remark, however, regards the volume of books published while Anna and Vronsky are exiled to his country estate and the volume of books published now.  Anna and Vronsky read essentially everything that was being published at the time in French or Russian—history, science, fiction, poetry, etc.  It would be impossible to read even a small percentage of everything published now even when a person’s life is devoted to nothing but reading.  This reader benefits from book clubs which provide a great selection of books for the discussion season—either by the learned facilitator compiling the list for the season (and one providing “off-season suggestions) or through suggestions from well-read members which is winnowed down to a list for the season.  Usually the lists contain books this reader would never otherwise read but are enriching in usually many ways. 

Bottom lines:  1) Engage with audiobooks to expand your reading experience (and probably your reading volume) and 2) Seek out and join book discussion groups that can help find books worth your limited time to read and that can provide a great experience in digesting these books in ways you can’t by yourself alone.

David: Warrior and Musician

The Secret Chord

By Geraldine Brooks

Published 2015

Read April 2019

Depending on your religious upbringing, your current spiritual practice, the movies you’ve seen, and the books you’ve read, your awareness of the story of the biblical David may be limited to the story of the young shepherd David slaying the giant Goliath or may be more expansive with various levels of detail about his rise to become the King of Israel, his musical abilities, the poetry ascribed to him, and his relationship with Bathsheba who becomes the mother of David’s successor, Solomon.  Geraldine Brooks gives us a fictionalized version of the biblical David story.  The term “biblical David”  being used as very limited evidence outside of the bible gives details of his life.  However, David is a figure discussed extensively in the Old Testament so there are many stories about him available there.

Brooks pulls no punches with the picture she paints of David.  He is shown as a man driven to create a united kingdom of Israel, willing to kill and conquer “as much as needed” to accomplish this goal.   While out of the favor of King Saul, who he succeeds, he was a maundering bandit who killed to get supplies when needed. She presents the interaction with Bathesba as a rape by David because he could, not a seduction by Bathesba of David. David has her husband killed when he finds out she carries his child and he fails at tricking the husband into sleeping with his wife while on active duty thus preventing a means to cover his “tracks”.   He had multiple wives, common at the time, some for political reasons, others to generate heirs, and his treatment of them was sometimes very far from kind.  His relationship with Jonathan, son of Saul, is not one that may be expected and one that impacts his marriage with Sauls daughter.  Brooks moderates the picture somewhat.  David asks Nathan, his sayer/prophet, to write his history, warts and all, and Nathan certainly finds and tells us the warts indicated above.  This sets up the structure of Nathan as narrator as scribe of the story.  In the last section of the book, after the kingdom is considered “whole”, other aspects of David are told. David writes much music and poetry to the near exclusion of managing the political wrangling between his various sons and lieutenants.   During this time Nathan is allowed by David to be a very close mentor to his son and ultimate heir, Solomon, who Nathan prophesizes will build the temple that David won’t be allowed given his past sins. 

Brooks’ story of David may or may not align with readers’ views or understanding of David. This reader anticipate it’s not her goal to provide the “truth” about David but rather to present a fictionalized possible picture of him and his time. This reader appreciate that while Brooks does use dialog to present the story at times, she relies on Nathan to be the narrator and doesn’t tell us what David is thinking. We see David through Brooks’ Nathan’s intepretation of David.

Much of the book deals with persistent warring between various tribes and between David’s army and all who stand in his way of creating a unified kingdom.  It was interesting that David apparently presumes his reason for conquering the city that will become the City of David justifies his action—it will provide a capital city which was not originally part of either of the two lands he is uniting.  The unification is good; a “neutral” capital will seal the unification. Death, destruction, subjugation are all justified for the good of creating this united kingdom which will worship the true single Word.  War pursued for religious purposes is clearly nothing new (David’s story occurred ~1000BC) and, unfortunately, humans have continued to battle for religious reasons to this day…..

A Discussable Book

Arabian Nights and Days

By Naguib Mahfouz

Published (in Arabic) 1979

Published (in Engligh) 1995

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was a prolific Egyptian author who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, after which his work began appearing in English.  This book is a sort of sequel to the famous 1001 Arabian Nights as it starts with Shahriryar, the sultan, the day after his virgin wife, Shahrzad, has told her 1001th story and Shahriryar tells Dandan, his vizier and Shahrzad’s father, that he has decided to stay married to Shahrzad (not kill her as he has done with his previous virgin wives).  Thus commences a series of 17 loosely connected stories including some of the characters from the 1001 Arabian Nights (notably Aladdin and Sindbad).  The book is bookended by stories involving Shahriryar in which he is reflecting on his past and how he will proceed into the future.  There is a myriad of characters so a summary of characters compiled by Arizona State University English 202 (World Literature from the Renaissance to the present day) is an invaluable resource for the reader:  

The character guide was identified by a member of the book discussion group of which this reader is a member.  This group is the reason this reader engaged with the book at all.  It’s not one that this reader would have found or, frankly, read otherwise.  But reading with the character guide enabled this reader to enjoy the book and prepare for an engaging discussion with the book group.  This book is an example of what a book discussion group can do.  The book is quite ambiguous often about motivations for the actions of some of the characters. For example—yes a genie was involved to provide the tool or suggestion (or requirement) for some action, but the character had to make a choice to take that action and why did they?

Themes the author explored, without clearly providing a statement about any theme, include:  what makes a good man corrupt; are all government officials corrupt; what characters were true to their religion; what role do women play in this society; are women corrupt or corrupting; can a murder be justified; and more. Other questions explored include:  Genies play a significant role in the various tales, sometimes prompting actions that could damage or destroy a person’s standing in the community or worse, seemingly for the sport of it.  Do such forces actually exist?  In what form?  Is this type of entity/force common to other religions beyond Islam? The book offers much opportunity for consideration and as an important identity this reader has embraced is of a shared learner, this was a delightful book to read and explore with others.  I heartily thank the club member responsible for suggesting the book, the discussion facilitators and discussion participants.   

Angels Unbreaking

House of Broken Angels

by Luis Alberto Urrea

Published 2018

Read Feb 2019

This book tells a family saga through the eyes of two Angels in the family — Big Angel and his half-brother Little Angel—over the course of two days.  The first day the family has gathered for Big Angel’s mother’s (unexpected) funeral and the second the very next day, a planned celebration of Big Angel’s 70th birthday, which all know will be his last birthday.    Little Angel has returned for the funeral and birthday party from northern California where he now lives.  

Big Angel is dying, presumably of cancer, and is primarily bed-ridden needing help to dress and toilet.  His daughter and wife tend to him. In the opening section, Big Angel is struggling to get himself and his family to his mother’s funeral on time.  He prides himself on not running on “Mexican time”, although his family is less reliable in that regard.  Big Angel was born in Mexico as were his brothers and sisters, wife, and her children from a previous marriage.  All migrate across the border when that wasn’t terribly difficult and in fact they move across the border fairly frequently while Big Angel is younger.  Big Angel has been in love with his wife since he first saw her when a teenager but they were separated for a variety of reasons and only married after he returned home and she has two sons.  Big Angel treats her children as his own although they don’t always appreciate him while growing up.   Big Angel is proud that he moved from a laborer as a young man to an IT specialist for a local company. 

Big Angel is also proud that he was able to buy his family a nice house.  His thoughts about it provide a taste of the wonderful language of the book:  “All the houses had bars on the windows, which scared outsiders but which nobody from there even saw.  None of the grannies on the streets wanted some imagined panuco to break in and steal their Franklin Mint collector plates.  John Wayne and angels defining little blond kids with flaming swords hung on kitchen walls all down the street……All the houses had four bedrooms and a living room, two bathrooms and a nice kitchen/dining area by the sliding door to the quarter-acre backyard.  And myriad garage kingdoms developed as unemployed children came home to Mama’. “ 

As Big Angel lies in his bed and recalls his past for us, he is writing a gratitude book filled with sentences, phrases, and single words describing how he is feeling and what he is remembering:

“Changing the world

Poco a poco

A little better

Right here, right now”

Little Angel is Big Angel’s half-brother.  Big Angel’s Mexican father left his Mexican mother and large family to be with a white woman in the US.  They had a single child, known to the family as Little Angel.  Little Angel was raised apart from the rest of the family and outside the Latino culture, although Big Angel would visit occasionally after he had his own family.  Little Angel has returned for the family events from his current home in northern California where he teaches.  His sections express his feelings of awkwardness being with this family who he doesn’t really know or understand and who he thinks feel he’s not really part of the family.  The sections describing his interactions with some of the family members are quite a hoot. 

Eventually Big Angel’s bed becomes a place where various family members hang out with him and share in ways we wish we could share with our own family.  The big sprawling party going on outside the room contrasts with the intimacy of lying on Big Angel’s bed.  Talking with him both parties knowing he is dying provides them a unique environment for sharing.  Little Angel tells Big Angel “To be here now, to see what you have made, humbles me.  The good parts and the bad.  It doesn’t matter. I thought I was going to save the world, and here you were all along, changing things day by day, minute by minute.”

The title includes the term “Broken Angels”.  While I am not sure the author had anything to do with the title, it does prompt one to think about the definition of a  “broken person”, what a “well-lived life” is, and whether any of the Angels or other characters in the book (or are they all angels?) are broken.  This reader concluded that neither Angel was broken although they had suffered disappointments and had at time doubted themselves.  A book discussion facilitator suggested we consider whether “their cracks had been filled with gold”.  This reader can support that concept.  

The story at times feels a little unorganized leading the reader to wonder where things are going.  But the narrative does always go somewhere, sometimes in surprising ways.  It generates the feel of the big day and its long party for Big Angel very well.    The book has much to absorb on every page.  While many of the interactions between family members, their hopes, dreams, and disappointments are quite universal, the reader is hearing a Mexican voice speaking about a particular Mexican’s family’s life and we are expanded as a result of listening to it.