Book and a Movie - Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

My life was yours from when I first saw you and I take some pleasure in sacrificing it to you. A thousand times a day I send my every sigh to find you.  

I stumbled upon this treasure at a used book sale where the teaser, “a historical mystery” caused it to be misfiled with fiction, yet the whole point, as author Myriam Cyr posits, is that nothing could be further from the truth. The five sensational letters it examines, written in 1667-68 and long thought by male scholars to be the work of a man, she argues were indeed penned by a young nun heartbroken over her affair with a French officer. It sounds too juicy to be true and inspired Samuel Richardson’s classic 1748 epistolary novel, Clarissa. Yet Cyr proves through historical scholarship the societal and political conditions that likely enabled a cloistered and cultured woman, learned in languages and employed as a scribe, to pen some of the world’s greatest love letters.

Published in the original French as a diminutive volume easily hidden within a fan, they were a phenomenon among ladies and gentlemen alike. Their power hinges on their ineffable truth, merely hinting at a physical intimacy eclipsed by emotions recognizable by any who have experienced an all-consuming passion—and perhaps been abandoned. I am so angry at myself when I think of all I sacrificed for you, she writes, And yet, I can see that my remorse is not real, that in earnest, I would have liked, for love of you, to have encountered greater dangers, and that I take a morbid pleasure in having risked my life and honor for you.

Such expression, Rousseau said, “. . . that celestial fire that warms and brazens the soul, that genius that consumes and devours, that burning eloquence, those sublime emotions that carry their marvels to the bottom of our hearts, leave always to be desired in women’s writings. They cannot describe or feel love.” Such was the sexist party line for 340 years before Cyr, an actress who became obsessed with the letters onstage, was driven to further the research behind them.

Among the many clips you will find on Youtube related to this work are numerous red herrings: a similarly titled but misleading 1977 sexploitation flick and a 2014 French film that appears to more closely honor the intent. But for a true understanding of the book, watch the author explain her work in this teaser https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uhtWg5Klco and full lecture  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nUB06BEgaE&t=11s.

Her case, I believe, is convincing. But more important than the question of authorship is the moral that the Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, uncovers: It may be that you will find greater beauty, but never will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing.

Book and a Movie – Olive Again

You go through life and you think you’re something . . . and then you see . . . that you no longer are anything.

Elizabeth Strout’s genius is her ability to take a meandering tale and pin it to the map of relevance with the skill of an acupuncturist. In Olive Again, the just-released sequel to her 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, Strout delves once again into the realm of human tragedy with unexpected humor and pathos, but she takes her time getting there. After an engrossing start, the story loses traction meandering through the lives of Crosby, Maine’s many other retirees. They go about their insular lives with righteous certainty, raging against their treacherous bodies and children and technology until, with the gradual realization of age itself, they sense their own short-comings with an embarrassment to rival that of incontinence.

Olive, who was always obstinately honest, finds love again with the cynical professor Jack Kennison. It is a love foreshadowed in the first novel and beautifully portrayed in this clip from the HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LZ9EXgyKsU. She also finds new friends, delivers a baby, and does the world a few other favors before reaching a grudging acceptance of her son who, though a confounding disappointment, turned out all right by comparison.

Two themes resonate throughout this Sunday drive of a tale, how to live an honest life and the essential loneliness of people, and it appears that the latter is a result of the first.

Book and a Movie—The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

. . . ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger, something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious.

What would you do if you had an empty calendar, an empty heart, and a letter from an old friend who is dying 600 miles away? Probably not walk the length of England in boat shoes in order to give her a reason to live. But with spontaneity that redefines the word, Harold Fry, the retired Everyman, leaves his carping wife behind and does just that. Along the way, he discovers nature, pain, and the kindness of strangers. He reflects on the many disappointments and few joys of his life. And Forrest Gump-like, he amasses an outrageous troupe of followers.

Rachel Joyce’s 2012 debut novel, long-listed for the Mann Booker Prize, was hailed as charming, funny, and insightful. Oprah called it “(a) gorgeously poignant novel of hope and transformation.” I wish I’d heeded the rare Everyreader reviews instead which cited a slow start, a disappointing finish, and miles of prolonged suffering in between. Trigger warnings to anyone dealing with aging, depression, cancer, addiction, death, or loveless relationships in their life or that of someone they love—which is pretty much all of us, right? To say that this book delivers on its promise, i.e. the power of faith in the face of reality, is a half-truth.

For a complete plot summary with spoilers, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5YriiHYQ0E.

To hear the author’s summary and intent about empathy . . . and doing something against the odds, watch this interview. shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9geEc_t0_s

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take this journey, but I am saying you should pack a compass and Band-Aids for the emotional wounds it will rub raw.

Book and a Movie-The Testaments

You could believe in Gilead or you could believe in God, but not both.

It’s been a long wait, but with The Testaments master of suspense Margaret Atwood finally lays to rest the FAQ’s raised by her 1985 phenomenon The Handmaid’s Tale about the shocking dystopian patriarchy of Gilead. The character of Offred (breeding-slave to clergy elite) is now a mere footnote, yet her silent battle continues across generations and international boundaries with the implication that you can’t keep a good woman down without repercussions. That woman is Aunt Lydia, a former judge at the top of the power pyramid allotted the powerless sex, as she draws three teens into her protective orbit: two reluctant brides whose charming innocence filters the prevailing evil, and a covert-convert from the free zone of Canada.

The Testaments elaborates on the futuristic, ultra-conservative America that Atwood painted a generation ago—with its many strictures on clothing, comportment, work, and travel—to reveal the full history and structure of a society where women are chattel and pubescent girls are schooled in needlepoint rather than literacy, where they are forced into arranged marriages, where connubial success is measured in Marthas (maids), and where men commit pedophilia and uxoricide with relative immunity—save for the unlucky few who are sentenced to particicution, the blood-sport of the downtrodden.

At first chilling and too-far-fetched, the plot taps so deeply and deftly into human frailties that by the end, it seems almost possible, especially as the geographic boundaries of this authoritarian world are realized. For those who think it can’t happen here, watch this brief CBS interview with Canada’s best-selling author as she explains the story’s inception and how she employed only known atrocities throughout history in order to retain plausibility. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rDoROcHbpI

Book and a Movie—Alas Babylon

Nations are like people; when they grow old and rich and fat, they get conservative.

Yes, this book review blog has a new title because a little film clip enhances every story. Here’s a pairing you might not expect though, as the movie hasn’t been made.

Ever realize fifteen minutes into a great story that you’ve seen or heard or read it before? A set looks familiar or a line rings true, yet chunks of the plot are lost because you weren’t sharp enough or ripe enough the first time around? It happened to me twice this week: with the Alan Glynn sci-fi thriller Limitless (starring Bradley Cooper), which I now recognize as brilliant, and with Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic classic Alas Babylon, which is darn good. I’d read it in high school but my strongest memory was of a housekeeper dancing in her socks to polish the floors, which just shows how immature I was at fourteen when it was assigned reading—I presume because it was written the year my class was born, in 1959.

As a prototype of the genre this patriotic survival story isn’t as brutal or sweet as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; and it’s nowhere near as imaginative as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; but does illustrate the optimistic resourcefulness of its time and feature characters whose mettle emerges amid the unthinkable. The smart band together. The fools die alone. The outlaws turn assassin. And through it all, love and community grow amid grief. Frank is also to be lauded for taking on the racism and sexism of his times, though with cringe-worthy results.

All things considered, I was surprised this book wasn’t made into a blockbuster. There was a 1960 version for produced for the television show Playhouse 90, but nothing else. Apparently English teachers agree because Youtube is overrun with student-produced faux trailers. Here’s one that captures the story’s essence nicely. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTsW3FIAtp4 .

As a fan of survival shows and lit, I’d be curious to know your favorites. Please leave a comment if you have one.

 

Book Notes—The Book of Ebenezer LePage

It’s funny how when you remember, you can’t choose what to remember.

I knew nothing about Guernsey a week ago, and now I’m itching to go. If I had to guess, I’d have said it was in Great Britain and been only kinda-sorta right. Although a British Dependency, Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands off Normandy, France, a charming and historic rock that is a little larger than Bermuda. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNQFbVIzs9s Guernsey from Above.

Whether you speak English or French (the official language until 1948), you can get along there. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a bilingual old-timer in a talkative mood, someone like the Ebenezer Lepage, whose strength is surpassed only by his opinions. Clever, cantankerous, and caring, this fictional octogenarian is a one-man tour-de-force of culture and history, including the German occupation, as he narrates a three-volume memoir of progress and the lack thereof throughout the Twentieth Century.

That’s 394 pages of personal vignettes told in a halting patois that, although plodding at times, is  punctuated with tragedy and comedy. I recommend the 21 ½ hour Audible recording narrated by Roy Dotrice as being as authentic-sounding and sincere as author G.B. Edwards might have wished.  

Old Ebenezer has a lot to say about money (he buries his), the young these days (born old), marriage (a lonely affair), God (He has no will), and the sea—never far from his thoughts or table. Despite his many relations and friends, he leads a solitary existence and, this frustrated love story reaches an amusing denouement as the geezer searches for a worthy heir to his birthright.

One final aspect of this book which I appreciate as a handwriting analyst is Ebenezer’s appreciation for letters. I have for two years been keeping a log of books whose characters take note of others’ script, and he is such a one. Though not educated, he cherishes such handwritten notes and can identify pretty near any of his kith and kin by a glance at their penmanship. How charming is that?!

 

Book Notes – Meet Me at the Museum

What lasts? What is it that determines what lasts?

That is the ontological question buried within this epistolary fiction by septuagenarian debut novelist Anne Youngson, a book I chose specifically because of her age. You gotta love underdogs like Frank McCourt, Harriet Doerr, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who all began their publishing careers after the age of sixty—a benchmark I’m fast approaching.

When academic curiosity leads to a correspondence between an English housewife and Danish archaeologist, both seniors, quotidian cares are aired and friendship ripens into love. Their mutual interest in The Tollund Man, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CQE4c8UJkM, Denmark’s remarkable bog mummy, is the catalyst that brings them together, but the ephemeral nature of life in modern times is what draws them closer. If friendship, marriage, parenthood, work, and dreams are ours for but a wink of time, how do we make that time count?

The audio version of this book, narrated by Helen Lloyd and Lars Knudsen, was at times mildly frustrating for the British and Danish accents that sent Googling with ill-conceived spellings place names and even the mummy himself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book. I’m disappointed when I leave a fiction without having learned something new about the world. Now I know that if I’m ever in Denmark, the Silkeborg Museum must be on my itinerary.

For a more introspective look at The Tolland Man, read Seamus Heaney’s poem referenced in the novel. https://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/heaney/the_tollund_man.php

Book Notes – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

We are all a lot more capable of overcoming obstacles and fears than we think we are.

I’m writing this is the midst of a windshield tour of Oregon with my husband, and the author’s recording of this book makes for a pretty perfect soundtrack. Beyond the obvious connection, it’s literary enough to satisfy my passion for memoirs while historical enough to interest us both, not to mention testosterone-laden for him. After all, you can’t much more macho than a cowboy adventure.

Here is a travelogue for the nostalgic reader, the dreamer brave or crazy enough to embrace the unattainable by following half-a-continent of wagon ruts, both defended and lost to development, in a journey of mythic proportion. Journalist Rinker Buck, a self-confessed dandy and control freak, and his mule-skinning free-wheeling brother Nick, a couple of baby boomers from New Jersey, are two such intrepid men.   

Here is the story of three Americas. First is the Pioneer America of heroes and misbegotten failures, litterbugs Buck calls them, who followed their predecessor’s trash across the continent. Second is the wide-eyed America of the Wagon Train TV series at a time when the Buck boys toured the mid-Atlantic in the family’s home-made prairie schooner. Finally is modern America, a country of pampered people who profess peace-loving values but who fight about everything. The beauty of it all is the brothers’ synthesis of all three Americas as their mules walk 2000 miles in the other guys’ horseshoes. Learning anew the hard lessons of the pioneers, they rediscover their filial connection while putting to rest old patriarchal resentments and taking stock of their late mid-life lives. It’s a beautiful journey recounted with warmth and self-deprecatory humor. For as Buck says, crazy-ass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force.

Watch the book trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbRkB5bnG8c

Book Notes—Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems

Perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart.  (The Black Cat)

Just in time for the Halloween onslaught, Spotify Free has released Caedmon Audio’s Basil Rathbone & Vincent Price Read Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems, five hours of the Master-of-Macabre’s greatest hits performed by two Shakespeareans titans. Poe’s work, noted for its exacting logic, comes to life with Rathbone’s narration as it summons his eminent Sherlock Holmes. And Price’s gently horrific quirkiness, last showcased in Edward Scissorhands, is ideal for Poe’s perverse imagination. Beware though; archaic speech coupled with many rushed and whispered passages make this recording a better accompaniment than a main course. I recommend following along in print as the voices wash you. There are countless free PDFs of each title available for download.

Scholars take note, however; some of the longer stories, including the hugely popular The Fall of the House of Usher (23 minutes) and The Pit and the Pendulum (over 30 minutes), have been heavily abridged, lending them a modern terseness that I find refreshing. Poe does have a tendency to go on at length when he might well trust the reader. But other stories are read in their entirety: The Black Cat, for example, is 36 minutes well-spent. Her is a tale any felinophobe will appreciate for its spot-on descriptions of the animal’s seeming malevolence in overstepping its welcome.

You can listen at https://open.spotify.com/album/6xDmRcD6sgsGbDvBRpyH5H but be aware some of the audio levels are so unnaturally low as to be little more than a ghostly whisper. The works I found to be inaudible on my laptop, however, were fine on my Spotify phone app. Happy listening!

Book Notes – Their Eyes Were Watching God

You got to go there to know there.

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel of a young woman’s self-discovery paints “there” as not only different locales but different lives. From rural Eatonville, Florida (one of the nation’s first all-black communities) to the Everglades, Janie Crawford is transformed through three tragic marriages.

Raised by a watchful grandma, she morphs from dreamy teen to miserable child-bride in an arranged marriage with a landed geezer who sees her as chattel. She then she elopes with a sweet-talking social-climber, only to feel their love sour as he too grows old and jealous. Finally, as a widowed storekeeper wallowing in boredom, she finds happiness with a younger man, an itinerant laborer and gambler who keeps her teetering on the edge of faith. Yet she overlooks his many faults for the sake of passion. Then Mother Nature finds a bizarre and tragic way to separate them.

Though not a long read, the dialogue is dialect-heavy, which makes for slow-going if one is to digest its nuances. Hurston’s signature word-painting makes for vivid scenes and memorable one-liners, but the story doesn’t hit its stride until our heroine meets her match half-way into the 184 pages, at which point it’s hard to put down. With so many realistic yet stunning twists of fate, it’s easy to see why this story is a modern classic and equally baffling why it was so neglected until over a decade after Hurston was buried in a pauper’s grave. Sadly, racism is the likely cause, as white critics trashed it early-on.

For glimpses of Eatonville and a frank look at Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown Legacy, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_M-PfhgMsg.