It’s raining (rare in California in May). I’m in Coronavirus quarantine, bleary-eyed in front of my computer. If I could just get away! I click on a Nextdoor post about a little, free library. I’ve enjoyed looking into these tiny libraries on corners in Palo Alto and Berkeley, in front yards in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, but never saw one in my neighborhood.
The Nextdoor post is an invitation by Sarah and her daughter to come by Lily’s Little Free Library, leave a book and take a book. Take a tiny succulent plant too. How generous, how inviting.
I consider all those boxes of books I have stacked in my office closet. I could easily gift one of those novels. But which? I begin to talk myself out of it. Would Jane Austen have left Pride and Prejudice at a little, free library? Would Charles Dickens leave Oliver Twist? Stephen King Shawshank Redemption? Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Besides all my books can be purchased at any bookstore and on Smashwords, Bookshop and my Writewords Press website.
Nevertheless, it’s an adventure into the unknown and an opportunity to take my dog, Laurel, for a walk. I’ll take a drive to this little, free library on Hilltop Green. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a good book to read. I’m feeling better.
I’ve stuffed Spiral, An Epic Adventure in the Ancient Southwest in my purse and Laurel is looking at me eagerly from the back seat of my Honda Civic as I drive off in the rain to 1203 Greenway Drive, Richmond, CA. The GPS says it’s 8 minutes by car.
Despite the GPS, I get lost in this housing development in the Richmond hills, quarantine-quiet this afternoon. Okay, just one more turn, one more dip in the road. There it is, perched on its pedestal across a manicured green park.
Holding Laurel on her leash, I open the little library doors and look through the books. A inconspicuous, grey-toned paperback catches my eye, a coming of age memoir, Ticket to Exile. The title is intriguing, ironic, unforgiving. I see the publisher is Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books whom I greatly admire for his histories of Native Californians. The author, Adam David Miller seems familiar to me.
“Murray Library” is stamped on the cover and spine. That’s my last name! Inside I discover “Murray Library, 166 East 5300, South Murray, Utah 84107”. Is this an omen? A message? Serendipity?
The cover shows a man’s silhouette in front of a dark house shaded by looming trees; across the bottom is an image of a torn page from a notebook. I’m getting the feeling I know this writer.
Then I remember Adam David Miller, the African-American poet I met at the National Writers’ Union we both attended during the 1990s. I recognize his photo in the frontispiece and am impressed with his bio. I remember Adam as a friendly face at numerous NWU writing events. Paging through his non-fiction story of growing up in the South during the Depression era, I note the quality of the careful prose, the formatting where each chapter is prefaced by a singular poem.
Suddenly the day turns brighter, the grass greener in the rain and I no longer am alone.
I squeeze Spiral between the other books on the top shelf of Lily’s Little Free Library. Adam David Miller’s Ticket to Exile is in my purse now and a tiny succulent in my hand.
Laurel wags her tail, sniffing each tuft of grass as we go through the park. I wonder how a little, free library might work out in my own front yard.
It’s beyond imagining. You would never believe it. I just received an email from my favorite high school teacher praising my novel, Dreamers.
Sister Mary ___ (Alas, she hasn’t yet given me permission to use her actual name) is a nun in the Sisters of Charity religious order. She was only twenty five or so when she became my English teacher. She was funny, smart, and even prettier than the character Amy Adams played in that telling movie, Doubt.
Sister Mary loved literature like I did. Once I found her after school sitting at her desk next to the window looking out on Sacred Heart Church. She was reading Shakespeare’s MacBeth, in another world, transfixed. I hated to interrupt her but of course I did. I remember she used to pound the floor with her little black shoe as she recited the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yes, Sr. Mary was both wonderful and frightening.
Her email of a week ago flows over me like honey. How thankful am I that she has had the persistence to stay in touch. What a different young woman I would have become back in 1962 if I had carried Sr. Mary’s words in my pocket. At seventeen I would have done anything for her approval. That small Irish-faced nun with twinkly eyes framed by her black Sisters of Charity bonnet held the keys to my fragile self-worth.
Stitched Mouth by Charr Crail
No, you won’t find anything about Sr. Mary in this diary. By the time I left high school, I had relegated her to the dustbin with all my other memories like old dolls turned ragged, ignored. I desperately wanted to leave everything connected with childhood behind.
Entering college, I put on a dark mask of disillusioned doom, the pose I thought I needed to become a serious author. I spent entire days attending classes without saying a word, my mouth stitched tight with fear and resistance. I remember the sensation of walking from class to the streetcar stop on a cold November day and not being able to breathe. By my sophomore year, I was literally dying for approval.
But things change. In my junior year, I signed up for Creative Writing, Playwriting, Poetry, English History and China & the Far East, classes that I found I loved. Even better, I started to write. A September 1964 entry describes my first attempt at writing a novel.
“The excitement of writing is nerveless; my words are suspended. I have never felt so peace-like. Everything is warm and deeply comfortable to me.”
Hobbyhorse was the title of my first “book”, a florid stream-of-consciousness describing the up and downs of two young lovers told from alternating points of view, a style I just realize I duplicated in Dreamers. In Hobbyhorse, each chapter seesawed back and forth, the characters sifted like fool’s gold from the sluice box of my first experience falling in love.
Suddenly I felt joyful, happy to be alive. My diary for November 12, 1963 reads, “I don’t even try to deaden my joy. It is slow-moving, calm.”
Pondering by Charr Crail
And then another miracle! I found a teacher willing and eager to read my work. Dr. John Hart, English professor from Yale, was a small, thin man with a pronounced limp. Walking across the Tech campus, I’d stop to greet him, He’d be dragging his leg, his jacket blowing in the wind. He had a pale Irish face with a big squashy red nose. A few strands of light hair fell across his brow as he answered my questions in a quiet dreamy way. Each week I’d give him my chapters, typed double-spaced and folded lengthwise. He’d put them in his coat pocket. Oh! how eagerly I pondered his response.
Excerpt from Sr. Mary’s email:
Congratulations on your beautiful novel, Dreamers! I love it! You’ve caught so well the mood of the Sixties—the glories as well as the mistakes, the feelings, the actions, the many causes, and, yes, the dreams. Your work is excellent, as you must know from the many descriptions on the book cover. I especially like that by Vicki Weiland. Your writing is indeed “taut, nuanced, sophisticated, and multi-layered.” I’m sending your novel to my oldest niece, a psychologist who will understand well the beauty and the anguish of the sixties. I’ll let you know how she reacts. Meanwhile, I just want you to know how proud I am of you and your work. You’re in my prayers, now and always. God bless you—and all those dear to you.
Feeling both envy and admiration, I picked up the novel, The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard.
Annie Dillard and I have some things in common. Both she and I grew up in Pittsburgh on the East Side. As a teenager, I tutored a 7th grader in the exclusive girls’ school she attended several blocks away from mine. I probably passed her in the halls on my way to the library. I never knew about her until I read her memoir, American Childhood, A Writing Life, twenty years later. Needless to say I was subsumed with envy at her publishing success. I also admired her insights about being a writer-girl in Pittsburgh during the ’50s. There’s at least one more connection we have. The main character in my second novel, Dreamers, A Love Story of the ’60s, is called Annie too.
A story of marriage on Cape Cod after WWII, The Maytrees is also a diorama of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the iconic artist’s colony where Lou and Toby Maytree’s marriage takes place and where the land itself splashes over the pages like surf crashing on the shores of Race Point.
Marriage is not exactly in one’s mind when thinking of Provincetown, the ultimate Rave party of artist colonies by the sea. I came to P-town on the Greyhound Bus at nineteen, my first summer away from Pittsburgh, and got a job as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. The second time I came was five years later when I became a writing fellow in the acclaimed Fine Arts Work Center. There were seven of us in 1969, two women and five men, the most famous of who won a Pulitzer Prize and became US Poet Laureate. It was in P-town that I began writing the novel that turn out to be Dreamers.
Sunrise over the ice blue ocean, snow covering the dunes, the curled hooked spit of Cape Cod; it’s all there in The Maytrees. The writing itself is luminous. Dillard’s style simple, yet exotic, as befits a naturalist. Each sentence seems unique and cultured, pristine and studied. The lack of quotation marks, just dashes instead, a convention popular abroad, adds to the foreign flavor.
That winter I spent in P-town I might have met Dillard’s characters, the reclusive sometime artist, Lou, and Toby Maytree, poet and house mover. Many couples befriended me and the other young artists. Eccentric, alluring, stylish, cultured writers and painters with their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives and husbands greeted me at those parties they held, full of drugs and alcohol, patched with celebrities. I attended many on those sea-blown nights. How I envied those couples arm in arm and yearned to get close to them. I envied the literary celebrities too. If Annie Dillard had been there, she and I could have been friends.
For sure I met Deary, Lou’s best friend in The Maytrees, who slept among the beach peas and had a degree from MIT. Deary who makes random pronouncements like, “Every place you injure on your body grows more alive,” which Lou takes seriously.
Then there’s the marriage itself, pure and simple like the acclaimed white dunes around P-town, like those welcoming couples inviting me into their well-lit, warm, houses so close to the beach.
What Toby loves most about Lou is her laugh (as she rarely talked or shared her thoughts). What Lou loved were Toby’s hands, his simple directness and their sex together–Lou describes herself as “shipwrecked on the sheets”. Much to envy and admire in that!
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, catastrophe happens–the usual adultery, abandonment, and betrayal, with no going back. The wild, blue blood, gregarious Deary goes off with Toby, breaking up the marriage. But there’s no fighting or discussion, no tears or rancor. Just plain old numbing pain for Lou and benign dismay for Toby.
Avoiding the comfortable, the Wi-Fi tech-driven twenty-first century life, the fabled bars of Provincetown and old friends is what Lou aspires to after the marriage dissolves. As for Toby and Deary, they’re driven to build a successful home contracting business in Maine. But it’s not over, not yet.
If marriage is the message for the couple, it’s rolled up in a bottle you have to search for.
All in all Annie Dillard, a naturalist as well as writer, has spawned a rare, gentle deviant to the marriage of two minds, embracing an often hidden truth that any good marriage ends in old age and death. I admire her for that and for telling the story in such a rare way.
I left Provincetown the end of that winter back in 1970, though I was invited to return to the Fine Arts Work Center for a second year. Now I can see how good that might have been for me and my writing life. But then I was running too fast, frightened of being exposed as unfit to be a writer, and trembling for success in spite of it. In Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, I get to go back again and enjoy it all.
Remember the comforting lulling adult voice reading, leading you into the magical world of beasts, princesses, orphans, witches, godmothers, beanstalks, dwarves, pumpkins, mice and giants?
As I read my dairy of fifty years ago, I’m imagining a fairytale that begins the same way.
“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a great writer and to do this she knew she had to go to the Underground. Nobody told her how. Nobody wanted to talk about becoming a great writer so she figured it was a secret and she had to find the keys to Queendom of Writerly Greatness for herself. Arming herself with a bunch of famous books, she set out right after high school when she thought she had grown up.
It proved easy for her to get Underground. The authors in the books she had read left clues. She had her diary to write in. She didn’t even have to leave home. It wasn’t hard to find the keys. She took one key from her father who read Shakespeare each night in his pajamas, the second from her high school boyfriend who abandoned her with no explanation, the third from the girlfriend who shared her dreams of literary greatness while betraying her, and the last from her college English teacher who critiqued her first novel without reading it.
But once Underground, she didn’t know where to go or how to achieve her dream. Though the keys opened the door, she found no use for them thereafter. Carrying them weighed heavy on her. They dragged her down as she crossed the murky, foul-smelling wasteland of the underworld, the heavy metal keys clanking, mocking her feelings of shock, fear, disappointment and loss. There had to be something else she thought. So she threw the keys away. Now all she had were those old books and her diary. She was simply and utterly lost.”
This is all the further I’ve been able to get, Dear Diary. Maybe you hold the rest of the story, maybe not. It’s just that it’s the beginning of May and I’ve been distracted by springtime here in the Bay Area. All the roses in my front yard are blooming. Plus I just bought a second-hand stove after being without one since Christmas. Then there’s my dog who always wants to take a walk. There’s more reasons. I like to talk to the moon and stars at night.
I’ve been reading some good books though. One I recommend is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey, an author who pulls you into a fairytale like no other. The story takes place on the barren lonely, raw and austere wilds of Alaska where Mabel’s just come with her husband Jack.They want to leave their old lives in Pennsylvania behind and start over, have a new life. But Mabel is haunted by the cries of the stillborn child she and Jack had lost many years before.
During the first snowfall, in a rare spirit of playfulness, Mabel suggests they make a snow child, a girl. She’s remembering a fairy tale in a book her father read to her as a child, a fairytale that haunted her.And so the story unfolds.
I had to stop reading The Snow Child for awhile. I think it was the thin red fox “with narrow golden eyes like a cat” on the book’s cover, a fox who is the snow girl’s familiar, her spirit animal. I felt like the fox sometimes. And sometimes I felt like the snow child. Of the two, it was the fox I couldn’t bear to see in so much danger.
I couldn’t take up the novel again until I was ready to face losing the fox. But, as with any good fairytale, I had to find out the ending. I did finish the book. You can find my review on Goodreads.
I learned that the author Eowyn Ivey, a young woman from Alaska, modeled her story after an old Russian fairytale she found in the bookstore where she works. Could I conjure up a haunting fairytale from my old diary the way Ivey did with that children’s book?
Dear Diary, you are my familiar, my fox. It doesn’t matter to me if I finish this fairytale or not. I swear I’m ready to face you. Just let you go. Read to the end.
You’re a work of my teenage literary angst, a time where I was in free fall, a teenager with a bad case of sour grapes who rejected love the more she wanted it, who wouldn’t be caught dead writing the commonplace salutation, ‘Dear Diary’. You’re the Phantom of the Opera without the magnificent and haunting music, an angry, lonely rant born of frustration, like the ferocious hip-hop booming from car loudspeakers.
There’s a reason you’ve been buried for fifty years in assorted cardboard boxes stacked in dark closets and damp garages, moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to the places I’ve lived–Cape May, New York, Honolulu, Provincetown, San Francisco, Concord, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Cruz, Clear Lake, Sebastopol, and now Pinole.
And yet I’ve kept you. There were other diaries that I didn’t keep. The first ones would have been gifts–small blue or black stitched books with gold painted clasps that you could lock with a tiny key. The lock and key signified secrets no one else could know unless I shared them. At eight or nine I loved secrets and I still do when they are mine.
When I was about ten I had a black and white composition book like you can find today at Safeway or Walgreens. This diary had a name–Fiona. I remember I spent a long time thinking it up. Fiona was a Celtic name, rare and mysterious like I imagined Ireland to be and where all my relatives came from. Fiona would be that perfect, secret friend within the covers of a book I could talk to whenever I wanted.
I remember working hard for short spurts at Fiona, failing to fill more than a few of the blue-lined blank sheets. Each word I wrote shut me up further. I just couldn’t think of anything important enough to matter to the big world outside. My desire to write died in the act of trying. I threw that diary away like my mother threw away those novels she disapproved of.
When I thought of being a great writer, I thought of male writers, not women. Back then I hadn’t even heard the word ‘feminist’, nor yet reached the point of claiming God as “She” or perhaps even Me. I took for granted that ‘man’ referred to humanity in general, as if the generic ‘man’ could ever include the woman I would become.
Everything I wanted felt impossible to attain. I was a young woman doomed in Catholicism I decided, struggling with “a strange knotted mixture of love and sex”. Yet how I want to talk to God, spelled with a capital ‘G’. I wrote prayers while declaiming how I hated to read them. Once I lapsed into bad French as if to make my prayer more exotic and interesting. “I shall reverse the incarnation,” I wrote. What did I mean by that?
In truth, I was heartbroken to leave childhood behind. The summer I began to write in you, dear diary, I read many books I decide are “unsatisfying and hopeless” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for one). I’m afraid “I shall never get out of myself.” Maybe that’s why I wanted to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Along with Holden Caulfield, I felt despair at the idea that my childhood was gone–forever.
But things were changing. Something happened in the middle of winter during semester break. I was having all my wisdom teeth out (the irony didn’t escape me then or now) and had to spend the night in the hospital. I remember lying in the hospital bed. The day was overcast, the room dark and poorly lit. It must have been the next morning after my teeth were pulled. I had been drugged and didn’t remember a thing, feeling relieved that the whole experience was over.
My cousin came to visit me. I felt embarrassed to have my mouth all swollen. It was hard to talk. Intermittent noises, loud and soft voices, bangs, the clank of medical equipment, sounded from outside in the hall. There was a knock on the door. In came a Catholic priest on his usual morning rounds. He was a short, compact man of middle age with a receding hairline, wearing a long black cassock. Carrying a chalice in his hand, he asked if I wanted to have Extreme Unction, the last sacrament given to Catholics who are near death. “No!”, I answered, shocked at the offer. He left quickly. I was worried. Had I offended him? My cousin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. How hilarious! How funny to imagine I would die having my wisdom teeth removed!
Kathy left and I was all alone with only the hospital noise outside for comfort. These unknown sounds made by strangers, people I would never know, reverberated in my mind. I realized I could write stories for these people and for everyone. I imagined my writer’s journey ahead as full of discovery and play. I didn’t find this idea impossible, not at all.
Now my diary bursts into an awkward joy. “I believe I am beginning to hope,” I write, while in the next sentence complaining that “working at the Sun Drug store does nothing for my self-possession”. Kathy found me that job the summer after my first year at Carnegie-Tech. She worked at the cash register, the better position, while I ‘manned’ the counter, serving up Cherry Cokes and a 29-cent breakfast (one piece of toast, one egg, one piece of bacon and one cup of coffee.) As usual these juicy details were not recorded.
“I shall never destroy innocence,” I wrote on the Fourth of July, 1963. Where was I that holiday? At a family picnic? Did I go to the fireworks at the Point? What did I experience that prompted me to take such a stand for innocence?
“This happy day–September 21st, 1963,” begins another entry. It’s the start of my sophomore year and I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s early comedy, Two Gentlemen from Verona, which I find “so entertaining and sweet.” I want to record how happy I am before the happiness disappears, describing how I prance about my bedroom eating grapes and listening to Johnny Mathis sing of true love. I write at length about the grape stems, marveling with awe and wonder at the purple-sweet fruit in my mouth.
Even now, every day when I start to write, it’s like I hold those grapes in my hand. I begin from that same unknowing, that blind innocence and hope. With the unknown yearning part of myself, I call up the story I want to tell. I might even dance around my room or listen to music about love.
Reading my very old diary seems like a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a time for nostalgia and love. Diaries go along with flowers, candy, lace-trimmed red heart-shaped cards, romance, passion, flirting, secrets and wide-eyed innocence. And diaries are where we reveal our true love. But so far, reading you, dear diary, leads me to just the opposite–shame, embarrassment, and sadness.
It was June 9th, 1962 when I began this diary. I had a new bright yellow Easyrite notebook, all the pages blank. However, I wrote my first entry on the last page, following my penchant for doing the opposite, the unusual, a habit I had perfected.
“BITCH BITCH BITCH,” are the first three words I wrote and now read. The words are in capital letters, underlined three times. I’m sorry to admit that my mother is the object of my fury. Why am I so angry with her? Putting it simply, we had a love-hate relationship.
That June day I was furious because my mother had “banned” yet another of my precious books, yet again torn it up and thrown it in the garbage. The book my mother threw out three days after my high school graduation was Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself”. In the first paragraph I made a list of the other books she’d thrown in the garbage can. They included Andre Gide’s “Point Counter Point”, Aldous Huxley’s “Barren Leaves”, Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and something by Kahil Gibran which might have been saved because his name is crossed it out.
When I realized what she had done, I rushed down the driveway to retrieve the book. I remember those garbage cans standing in the alley at the foot of the driveway behind our newly built two-story red brick house on Fairlawn St. All along the alley were backyards like ours with only a few lawns, mostly coppery, yellow dirt left from the tractors of the construction crews bulldozing this new small subdivision in the East Hills. The street dead-ended at an open woodsy area where I walked my dog and seven years before read the complete Sherlock Holmes in a tree by a stream where violets grew.
Oh, I was seventeen and unsatisfied, lovelorn and resentful, rebelling against my parents and their expectations, contemptuous of the status quo. My only recourse was books, their wonderful stories, and from them I fashioned the story I desperately imagined for myself. Obviously, my mother suspected that these books were corrupting me and would not fit me for success. Maybe she blamed the books for my lousy, jaded, faux-superior attitude? Maybe she wanted her first daughter to be as sweet as those pink, lacy, Valentine cutout cards?
But I had decided I was beyond romance. I had read “Gone With the Wind” too long ago. Now I was desperately yearning for significance, wanting to be grown-up and a real writer too. I think I was hoping that if I were angry or bitter or isolated enough I’d feel as important as the characters Dostoevsky, Hemingway or Charlotte Bronte wrote about. In the poetry of Keats and Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, I took “love” to mean “loss” and “desire” to mean “despair”.
Everyone knew those Valentine cards were corny, didn’t they?
After I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, I felt like I lost my school friends. My boyfriend, with whom I was desperately in love just like those Valentine cards promised, disappeared from my life. I thought I should leave everything I loved behind. Angry and bitter, hard and brutal were the desirable characteristics of the new adult world I saw I must enter.
Hell. Death. Suffering. These were the important words. On the back of my diary I had printed in a quivery hand three quotes from some famous philosopher that I don’t recognize: “Hell is the inability to love. Death is the inability to hope. Suffering is the inability to believe.” I thought if I could embrace hell, death and suffering, I’d be important too!
But the irony did not escape me. I was nothing if not ironical. I confess, dear diary, all I glean from reading you now is the contempt I felt for myself then. Who dared to care about that bookish seventeen year old girl from the comfortable suburbs of Pittsburgh in no apparent danger or distress?
I admit I’d love now to read more scenes like my first angry one. But “BITCH BITCH BITCH” may be the only really compelling line in the whole diary. I don’t know because the truth is I can only bear to read a little at a time. Dear diary, I confess you are boring and repetitive, empty of any meaningful characters or memorable details. Each sentence requires that I step back and forgive myself for my unpleasantness and the insufferable righteousness I claimed for myself while blaming my mother. Such tortured, melodrama! I guess I thought I was a true romantic.
Now I promise to read you. Taking my cue from the Buddhist practice of meditation, I will become aware of all that isn’t said, all that is bungled or disguised. Reading you will be my challenge–my practice, like the practice of zazen. Think of me sitting on a pillow, naming my thoughts and letting them go while I read on. You, dear diary, hold all I have left of that lonely teenager who was myself. I want to embrace that girl.
Just in time for my son’s birthday on May 17th, my novel, Dreamers, is coming out as an ebook. And for a short time I’m offering it for free in honor of Jonas Goslow, my youngest son.
A book is like a child. After I had Jonas, I said, “My next child will be a book.” I knew which book too, because I’d already been working on Dreamers for years (It had another title back then.)
Dreamers is an interracial “romance” that took me over forty years to turn into a book. Why the quotes? Honestly, I hate romance novels but now I’ve written one, well, sort of. How amazing to publish it at all! And now it’s an ebook! Who could have imagined ebooks in 1969?
Who could have imagined such a son like Jonas? Okay, I confess. This post is just one big birthday card. And the present is Dreamers, just published as an ebook. In honor of Jonas’ birthday, May 17th! For you.
Free. For 3 days only. And it’s easy on Smashwords!
I’m searching for Africa still and I have been ever since I returned from my three week trip in December 2011. Where before my trip I had no desire to learn about this dark continent, not to mention actually visit it, now I am fascinated with all things African, especially the unknown, deep well of African history in all its diversity, the culture and the stories of Africans past and present, ignored or long buried in those extreme, rich, beautiful and striking landscapes.
With that in mind, I picked up The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs off the Sonoma County library shelf not because of Barack Sr.’s famous son, President Barack Obama Jr., and not because my novel, Dreamers, ends with Barack Obama receiving the Democratic Nomination for President, but because I hoped this book would speak to me of the mystery that is Africa.
Jacob’s biography is subtitled, “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. That does truly describe the “other”, senior Barack Obama. You can see it from his picture on the hardback cover: wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish ’50s haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating his well-modeled face with high cheekbones, the glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself.
“Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic. Barack Obama’s ecstatic photo embodies the openhearted exuberance of the people I met while in South Africa last December in the mall at Midland, the market in Roosboom, the bar in Ladysmith, and the caves at the Cradle of Humankind. I will not forget how their faces lit up when I mentioned I was from the United States, how they hugged me and how I loved it. I felt blessed like that photo of Barack on the book cover.
For a native boy from Africa growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. achieved the nearly impossible and he knew it better than anyone else. Shakespeare’s Othello had his jealousy, Sophocles’ Oedipus his blindness. The other Obama had great flaws too. He couldn’t get past his potential and actualize it. But still, what a powerful, inspiring struggle he experienced growing up in Kenya, leaving for America and then returning unwillingly to Kenya as the country finally achieved its independence from British colonial rule. So much was happening to Africa then.
In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy. In a tragedy, a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person him or herself. Witnessing this, the audience experiences a catharsis, a kind of freedom and satisfaction.
I did experienced a kind of catharsis after reading this book. And I’m further along in my search for Africa. One thing I learned is that being fascinated with another culture doesn’t mean you could live in it.
You can find out more about The Other Barack in my book review.
Here I am at my son’s wedding, sitting at a table, listening to a friend across a centerpiece of lovely flowers review my book. “I don’t understand why Annie keeps coming back!” my friend says, gesturing for emphasis across the round table set with white china and brilliant bouquets–my favorite flowers, I muse. She’s an inveterate reader and we haven’t seen each other in months.
“Why does Annie keep coming back?” my friend keeps asking. She’s referring to the main character in my newly published novel, Dreamers, a coming of age love story of the ’60s. Annie’s a white girl who falls in love with Thomas, a black actor. It’s the height of the Civil Rights movement and they’re both in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I can think of many reasons of why Annie keeps coming back, but what does it matter if my friend doesn’t see them? The truth is I’m thrilled Dreamers is having such a powerful effect on her.
How wonderful that I get to acknowledge my characters at my son’s wedding! What an opportunity to hear her feedback. I gaze at the scarlet flowers in front of me thinking how fortunate I am to have such a discriminating, exceptional friend who loves to read. How real the story is for her! How deep her involvement is with the character of Annie! She understands how attractive Thomas must appear to Annie she says, but still–here’s the reality test–she herself would never stick around like that. I gaze at a single perfect petal before me and nod, recalling how my book begins with Annie reflecting, “I was in love with trouble.”
“I would love it if you’d write a review of Dreamers on Amazon or Goodreads or on my website,” I say. “Would you be willing to do that?” She agrees.
Later I think about our conversation. I ask myself if I really want her to write a review. After all, what she’s saying about Annie isn’t that positive. It’s not that good in fact. It could be a big flaw in the book. I might end up with a bad review.
Then I think of another book I have at home on my table. Last fall the author asked me to write a review of it and I readily agreed. For one thing, he had just bought my first novel, Sundagger.net, at a booksellers’ show we were both attending. I was very grateful. Plus I wanted to help out another small publisher and novelist like myself. But most of all I was excited at the thought of reading his coming of age story of the ’50s.
But I haven’t written the review. I wish he had given me his second to the last draft. As it stands, in my view, his published story cries out for attention, his dialog for editing, his characters for focus and direction. I’m not the person to criticize that publicly.
Every author knows what I’m talking about. Take the novel draft I am working on now, Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net. In Spiral, the characters from Sundagger.net live out their karma of years before. Daily I struggle with my many dubious, rock-hard sentences. Like weeds, I keep pulling them out and digging deeper for new ideas, scenes, and characters–in short, story-building words. How slowly they emerge from the grit and grind of my mind. But sooner or later the book begins to grow and bloom.
I glance across the room at tables covered with all those fragrant bouquets. Yes, I do hope my friend reviews Dreamers. Be rigorous I want to say. True, writing is a delicate matter, like flowers. So are writers. But still, the only review any author wants and needs is a good one, the one that makes the next book better.