Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tell her the truth -- a family story of immigration -- legal or otherwise?

“Tell her the truth, Carl,” Great Uncle Leo urged his older brother, my grandfather.
 “Tell her the truth.”
I leaned in, listening heartily. Something juicy, details of a family story I had not heard before were hovering to be revealed. A romantic tale of strife and adventure?
 I would not be disappointed. 
Sometime in my mid to late 20s, perhaps around the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in the mid 1970s, I started to question mine. Which waves of migration were my ancestors part of? Grandpa and Uncle Leo were visiting my parents, and I was there to quiz them. When did the first member of the Bartels’ clan arrive. Where did he come from, how did he come,  and more curiously why?  Grandpa did not have to go back far. Carl Bartels, his father, was a farmer who emigrated from Prussia, from what was referred to as the Polish Corridor.
  “The truth,” Leo insisted. 
And so it came out. Part reluctant spurts. Part quick gush. Not too much. Just enough.
The  first Carl Bartels was not Carl Bartels. Cornelius Janzen was  a Mennonite who refused to fight in the Prussian Army. He was conscripted anyway and given kitchen duty. He didn’t like the Army, nor the kitchen duty and fled to Holland where he hopped a boat. A stowaway, he was discovered at sea and so worked his way over — again with kitchen work — to New York Harbor.  A family, named Bartels, befriended him and by the time he reached Ellis Island in 1888, Cornelius had a new name.  He entered as a fake member of the family of his new acquaintances.
“He worked hard to make the Bartels name proud,” my grandfather insisted. He continued the story. 
(Cornelius) Carl sold apples on the streets of New York, made his was to West Virginia, worked in a mine until the mine blew up. He moved again and settled in southern Ohio, where he worked — the rest I knew and can complete— as did three of his four sons for the same manufacturing company. My grandfather Carl, his oldest son, began working at age 15 and rose to serve as vice president.
 That was it —  the short version — though another relative, working off my discovery,  would  later interview family members and fill in details: my favorite from his army days— Cornelius did not like peeling potatoes. He did not like the army custom of carrying fully charged hand grenades, one in either hand, to demonstrate discipline.
I  asked my dad, also Carl, why I had never heard this history of our name. 
His reply: he didn’t know it. 
Even though (Cornelius) Carl had lived with him for a time while he was growing up. Even though (Cornelius) Carl’s brother Franz had also come from Prussia and had lived with them for a time and worked at the same factory before returning to his homeland. My father said he didn’t know Franz was a “real” uncle. News to him. 
Buoyed by new truths and enhanced by studies in American literature — courses like “The Myth of America,”   I wound this story into my own heroic one. I was the descendant of a young man who had arrived in this great country with almost nothing to his (phony) name and created wealth and a family of respectable citizens — doctors, lawyers, businessmen among them. My grandfather was rich enough to own a Baby Blue Cadillac.  Rags to riches. That story. 
 I was the descendant of a man who stood true to his principles at personal risk, who made his way despite obstacles to this land of religious freedom and opportunity.  Like young conscientious objectors I knew (and admired) who sought alternative service in the Vietnam War, my great-grandfather was a pacifist.  He was also a deserter, but to me, for good cause.  Principles over submission. Religous freedom. That story. 
Now at an age closer to what my grandfather was when he gave me this story, I know one’s life is more complex (and less romantic) than its stories. What I saw as  principled behavior may have been nuanced and included fear, even shame for my great-grandfather and his children.  
There had to be a  reason to keep this secret so secret. Lately when I read haughty comments on Facebook such as  — Immigrants, are fine, but they should  come here legally, and follow the rules just like everybody else, I wonder how many other “everybody elses" have stories like mine.  It's then I defiantly fancy myself as the great-granddaughter of an “Illegal immigrant.”  That’s not really true— what would “illegal” even look like in 1888? The cousin who filled in details speculated that being a  deserter from the German army may have been the secret Carl didn’t want discovered, but I think it is possible that sneaking into the country under somebody else’s name was at least the secretive equivalent to illegal immigration. 
Carl Bartels became a naturalized citizen.
According to that cousin’s research he arrived in 1888 and was naturalized  in 1894. From what I can tell at that time one didn’t have to do too much.  Registered residence, work  and staying here and out of trouble led to naturalization? Likely many had no proof of identification or birth.  
A decade ago I clipped a story from the New York Times bylined by Benedict Carey and titled “This is Your Life (and How you tell it). The article chronicled research done on personal narrative and the psychological effects. One of the studies — and a subsequent book called The Redemptive Self, a title at once endearing to my heart — by   Dan P. McAdams suggested that  so-called generative adults tend to see the events of their lives in the reverse order — as linked by themes of redemption. An example: They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh.  Negative experiences were superseded by positive ones. I had done that to Great-grandpa Carl’s story — and my own. Another personal narrative researcher cited in the article, Jonathan Adler, suggested that those in therapy who successfully healed from problems such as depression or eating disorders  “characterized their difficulties as if it were an outside enemy (the black dog, the wall of shame). And eventually they conquered it. The way the story is told influences the shape of one's life. 
 Sadly, subsequent events of that first Carl’s life reveal a mixed narrative rather than a heroic one. How would he have told his story? Who controls the narrative?
I do here.  As I seek my personal story, I choose the mythic one  even as I seek to tell  the "Truth."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Slump, grumps....... Solution: Grace

 One of the reasons I quit blogging last April was because I slid into a reading slump. (If my reading were a posture, it would be permanently couched, with a book half closed on my blanketed lap).
 I got grumpy towards the books I read. Some  were okay — others I merely enjoyed — but didn’t want to think about any further. 
I certainly didn’t  want to write about them. 
My thoughts bored me.   Blogs caused ennui.
 So I will summarize:
Currently reading:  Gilead.
Listening to: The Paris Wife.
Gilead may just be the book that makes me want to write about books again. As for the The Paris Wife -- don't like the reader and find I am not drawn to the vapid lifestyle of the Lost Generation. My slump  continued for more than 6 months.  Nothing has swept me off my feet, made me fall in love. I tried the usual panaceas — returning to mysteries, going to award lists— National Book Award,  the Booker.  But alas, nothing seemed to push me out of my book funk/ blog funk.
So I gave it a rest.
And some  of my life — the personal side seemed well,  too personal. 
 I haven’t been depressed exactly, but I have been distracted. Doing lots of yoga.Lots of napping. 
But I just read Bryan’s one word, and decided to throw my hat back in the game. 
My word: Grace. It is the word I choose almost every time I am directed to choose an intention for yoga practice. It is the  word I wore on my favorite t-shirt years ago in my darkest hours. 
It is a word that links the physical and the spiritual, that comes down to me and lifts up out of me.

 I don’t know if grace will help me with reading or blogging. I don’t know if I will blog again. 
But for today….. my one word -- GRACE--  is enough.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Salon: Reading mess: too many directions at once

Dropping in.
 I have ailing parents (97, and 92) that I've been visiting and was focused on them. I took the long drive again from Virginia to Massachusetts and listened to Stephen King's Revival. In a previous post -- The Writer and the Governor, I began thinking about King, how I admired him and ought to read him again. It has been many (too many to count) years since I have picked up one of his books. So I picked Revival. Appropriate. (Though now I read that the LePage-King tiff continues and King says he's written at least 2 characters who have LePage like characteristics so maybe I should have chosen one of  those).
Revival is told by Jamie Morton, who grows up in a Maine town similar to Durham where King grew up about a decade later.  As a child of 6 Jamie is befriended by a new young minister, the Rev. Charles Daniels, who comes to town with his beautiful wife and young son. The minister is fascinated with electricity and performs what could be a miracle on Jamie's brother who has lost his voice. Then  life-changing, faith challenging tragedy occurs and the minister leaves town only to pop up again at various times in various incarnations -- increasingly more sinister over the course of Jamie's life. King says he was inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the writing and themes of  a fall from innocence, and seeking forbidden knowledge dominate the tale.
Reading Revival reminded me why I am -- and am not drawn --to such books --  even as I admire the remarkable story telling ability and character of the author.  Horror doesn't interest me so much.
Nostalgia does.

 What I love is the portrait of a bygone time in an area of Maine I know well. Though I didn't inhabit the Durham, Lisbon Falls  area in the '60s and '70s as the writer and his hero did, I came to know the area a few decades later-- and can see the roads, almost recognize the landmarks-- I've traveled along Route 9, and passed that little Methodist Church. When King mentions Shiloh, I remember visiting that  other Durham church (and reading about its own dark history and maniacal minister.)  Is Sky-Top, where lightning strikes,  very very loosely based on a defunct local ski area called Sky-Hy? King blends fictive locations with real ones in his recreation of Castle County. For those who have lived nearby, there's the fun of speculating on those blends.

And then on returning to Virginia I listened to the first few chapters of  Station Eleven, then switched to listening to Cloud Atlas, as I tried to catch up on the ReadAlong. When I returned home to my messy house and untended garden,  I discovered an Amazon Thrift book I had  given up on arriving in time for reading before book club  had finally arrived. So I chucked Station Eleven and Cloud Atlas and picked up Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Pressured, I started flying through that book, skimming the pages.
I don't like reading this way. I intensely dislike reading this way.
I quit. I skip book club.
I clean house. My tend the garden. I let myself be sad. I return to part-time job. I also plan/teach yoga classes. I watch tv.
I seek my rhythms.
My reading life is such a mess, I let it go.
 I need to reset before starting again.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Salon post: The Girl on The Train becomes Train Wreck Girl for this reader

I finished The Girl on the Train Friday. Plot focuses on Rachel who travels by train, looks into yards and windows,  and vicariously imagines others' lives until one day she sees a scene that disturbs her fantasy. A woman then goes missing. Subsequently Rachel insinuates herself into the investigation while simultaneously harassing her ex-husband and his new wife.  I listened to Girl on Audible every chance I had, often in the car, right to the last word.  I was obsessively into it -- even as I had guessed some of the outcome earlier.
 Much has been made of the "unreliable narrator" device. Rachel, the main voice, is a drunkard who experiences blackouts.  Worked for me.
And whether or not one liked the narrator, Rachel, and thus liked or didn't like the book. Not a concern for me. Before I knew this was even an issue the book provoked for some, a friend at work said she loved Rachel. I was taken aback. I didn't love her -- hadn't even thought of liking/disliking , let alone loving/hating her -- and had to think about what I felt. Kind of indifferent although I would not want her as a roommate, friend, ex or ex of current partner. Sure of that.
What struck me was how boozy the book is. Rachel cannot not buy those two bottles of wine, not covet her tins of gin or hide alcohol from her roommate. The descriptions of her drunkeness, the messes she makes, the blackouts she endures, and the shame she feels  and the very, very bad decisions she makes over and over again transform her for me from the girl on the train, to the train wreck herself. She may be rubbernecking (as the police describe her actions), but so am I.  I'm vicariously witnessing a disaster  in the making with each section listen to. And like an observer who has stumbled on the scene, I'm a bit numbed, but also fascinated.
That said, the book this most strongly evokes for me is not Gone Girl, (as it has been compared to) but rather a much older book, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton is better known as the author of Gaslight, another book this loosely calls up.  Hangover Square was also booze-filled and full of poor decisions of a different kind.  It takes place in London on the cusp of World War II and the characters reflect the unsettled politics of its time.  When I finished that book, I thought of it for days -- haunted. Not so with Train Wreck Girl.
 The later thriller is but filler. Great for passing time. While you're going someplace else.

Other notes: Rereading Cloud Atlas;  Loaded Stephen King's Revival  from Audible on to listen to on Kindle.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cloud Atlas Read-Along: 1 and 2

Read-along readers: Long ago, I started a review of this book -- and never finished . I was so awed and intimidated by this book, I stopped  blogging for months. I am resurrecting the notes to that review but will fill them in chapters at a time as I reread. I will try not to spoil your reading -- adding spoilers only after we have competed sections -- and filling in the structure section as it becomes obvious. So much of this book is like a very ambitious puzzle where the pieces come together to slowly reveal interlinking images. I don't want to ruin the piecing together for anyone.
Also note, you have completed the toughest and least accessible parts of the book --- it gets much better from here. 

Cloud Atlas. The Geography of clouds?
Read a section  – and move on.  Follow it as in meditation: acknowledge each passing story  --- then let it go.    While in each story’s grip, be intensely present. It will come round again. The six stories that make up David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas map the territory of evanescent lives, past and future eras, evolving souls. The stories span 1800s to well into the future. 

Structure:   To be revealed.
Motifs, themes: Literary forms, Predators, cannibalism, slavery, Edens, Travel focus on exotic places' predatory thievery.

Section 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
Diarist Adam Ewing, a San Francisco lawyer,  has gone to the Chatham Isle to deliver legal documents, sailing aboard The Prophetess. back to San Francisco.
Time: 1850s
Tone: Earnestness, naivete.
Summary: Ewing begins stalled and waiting in the Chatham Islands and then travels by sea, accompanied by surgeon Henry Goose aboard the ship, The Prophetess. Opens on a beach where Goose is picking up teeth that have been spit out by cannibals. Tells Ewing he is planning to refashion them into dental fixtures to for a woman who has blackballed him from London society. 
Other scenes: Ewing and Goose pass a slave being whipped. Ewing and slave make eye contact. Sabbath celebrations at the inn  become drunken sailors  in a whorehouse. Ewing and Goose go to a chapel and Sunday dinner at farmhouse with preacher. Hear horrific island history. Goose consults with the captain of the Prophetess on a medical matter, and later agrees to voyage on the ship and care for the captain. Ewing walks into the forest and falls into a Tor. Journey resumes. Stowaway Autua (the beaten slave) reveals himself to Adam,  tells him  personals history. Adam in turn reveals him to captain. He is an experienced seaman and is allowed to work his way on voyage. Rafael, a young lad serving as cabin boy,  has turned sullen since journey began.  Why??? Adam, is ill and is being treated by Goose. 
Motifs/ themes introduced:  Predators, cannibalism, slavery, religion.
Literary genre: Journal
Embedded literary form: an oral tale (that Ewing calls worthy of Defore or Melville thus invoking the section’s form) about the brutal subjugation of the aboriginal, peaceful Moriori by a neighboring tribe, the  Maroi. A kind of Paradise Lost, Eden undone story.
Occupation/Purpose of voyage:  delivery of legal papers
Writers mentioned: Defoe, Melville
Sample language: "The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye & shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box, and undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition. a tattooed 'blackfella' approached us & flicked his nephrite dagger to indicate that we were unwelcome.  I inquired after the nature of the prisoner's crime. Henry put his arm around me. 'Come Adam, a wise man does not step betwixt the beast & his meat.'"
 Noted oddities: Footnote on page 21 to indicate the journal has been edited by a son.  Journal breaks off mid-sentence.
Section Reappears in the forms of:   Journal in section two and ........ (to be completed later)

Section 2: Letters from Zedelghem 
Time 1931
Letter writer Robert Frobisher writes to Sixsmith (who's he? and why)
Literary genre: Epistolary novel (sexual romp/farce) can't quite place, need help here..... part  Fielding; part D.H. Lawrence; also reference to “if we were in one  of Emily's breathy novels, the seductress's hands would have encircled the innocent's torso.  ( Emily Bronte?) P 67
Other writers mentioned/referenced; Verlaine, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey
Means of support: rip-off, leeching, rare book pilferer; Amanuensis 
Tone: Condescension. Sophistication.
Themes/motifs: Predation; thievery,  sex, religion, poison.
Language (language of music) and language of indulgence -- food, sex etc.
Summary: A knave and musician, Robert Frobisher skips out on debts and flees London to go to Zedelgem, outside of Bruges, Belgium, where he  wants to become the amanuensis for Englishman Vyvyan Ayrs, an ailing celebrated composer who has not composed in  a decade. Frobisher auditions -- and passes.  He meets Jocasta, the wife, and the ice-cold French-speaking sulking, pouting, horse-back riding daughter, Eva. The large estate has been the site of selling off and pilfering one way or another  for centuries. Frobisher begins to co-compose and explores all the rare volumes in the library.  Gets in touch with book sellers. The composition work meets some success and he is moved to more sumptuous quarters. The wife begins to flirt and then seduce him.  A nearby estate is burgled. Ayrs reveals he has a gun that he keeps in the bedroom. Frobisher goes to city and sells pilfered illuminated manuscripts to  Jansch. Then makes extra money as Jansch's prostitute. Spys Eva who seems to be up to same in with much older man.  Later, Frobisher confronts her, but she has an answer that changes the appearance of  what he saw.  Ayrs bangs on Frobisher's door while Jocasta is there. He wants to compose. inches away from his hidden wife.   Sexual Farce. 
Reemergence of : Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and  interesting commentary on said journal:
"Now pay attention while I talk books and lucre. Poking through an alcove of books in my room, I came across a curious dismembered volume, andI want you to track down a complete copy for e. It begins on the ninety-ninth page, it's covers are gone, its binding unstitched. From what little I can glean, it the edited journal a voyage from Sydney to California by a notary of San Franciso named Adam Ewing. Mention of made of the gold rush, so I suppose we are in 1849 or 1850. The journal seems to be published posthumously by Ewing's son (?). Ewing puts me in mind of Melville bumbler Cpt. Delano in "Benito Cereno," blind to all conspirators-- he hasn't spotted trusty Dr. Henry Goose {sic} is a vampire, fueling his hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money.
Something shifty about the journal's authenticity -- seems to structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn't ring quite true -- but who would bother forging such a journal and why?"

Other interesting word play: When Frobisher meets book dealer Otto Jansch -- Jansch says:
"So suspicous, Roberto?  I'm hardly going to make trouble for a naughty goose who lays such illuminated eggs, am I? Come now" -- he indicated the bar -- "what's your poison?" (underhanded reference to Henry Goose perhaps?)
Note: Reference to birthmark p 85 on Frobisher's shoulder the one Sixsmith says resembles a comet.

Monday, March 30, 2015

It's Monday... I'm reading....

It’s Monday.
I’m listening to: The Girl on the Train. Finished Anansi Boys last night.
Still listening to, may always be listening to, joint project with hubby – Rebel Call. I think we need to schedule listen-together-dates or something. This isn’t working so well.

I’m rereading: Cloud Atlas for the CloudAtlasAlong.  Note to others: the first section was definitely my least favorite, but essential for setting up the rest of the book – which gets truly amazing the deeper you get.
Ordered book for book club: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Sunday, March 29, 2015

High -- and young -- on a Gaiman binge

        This is why I blog. (Or one of the reasons)
         I had never heard of Neil Gaiman until a few years ago when I read about him in your blogs. It must have been about the time that The Ocean at the End of the Road came out that I read reviews those reviews that enthusiastically embraced him. Then I participated in a nearby city book club meet-up and they (mostly young working people) were discussing American Gods. I was entranced but also a little estranged. I felt —serious reader that I often am (crime novels aside) dated. I thought of Gaiman as someone I would have fallen for as a younger reader—in my 20s or 30s.  Someone I could I could still get away with in my 40s, but was beginning to feel distanced from in my 50s.
          I tried him on the way I might try fake nose piercings, tattoos, mini-skirts and halter tops. Cute, but not for me – anymore.  Like too vibrant accessories, the stories clashed with my silver gray hair, my demure mature present presence. I was charmed by the playfulness and the fantasy in the way I was once taken by quirkiness of Kurt Vonnegut.
        He wrote, I thought, to a younger me.
       Ageism (self-imposed and otherwise) be damned. 
        I love this stuff. 
         I keep coming back for more. 
       Since American Gods, I have made my way through The Ocean at the End of the Road (a different kind of novel – using fantasy to create something more mainstream), Good Omens, (with the recently deceased Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere (a wonderful audiobook—full cast), The Graveyard Book (just last week) and now The Anansi Boys (one hour plus to go on audiobook and I can’t wait to finish this blog entry so I can get back to listening.)
         I have listened to more of these than I have read, using my Audible subscription, on audiobooks. Because Gaiman is first an extraordinary storyteller (and then a very good writer), listening to his works is a good choice for me. In addition I listened to Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book in full-cast productions, a treat I recommend.
          I think I am most enchanted by The Graveyard Book, though I am not quite sure why, maybe only because, fickle me,  it's the most recent one I've completed.) It’s such a classic coming-of-age story, complete with stock challenges— saying one’s true name, battling the demon and discovering the treasure—all helped out by the dead and the near-dead in a graveyard.  Brilliant. Endearing. Enchanting.
         I’m feeling like a kid again.
         No time to waste. I have reading to do. Back to the romantic comedy (all this substituting of one sibling for another reminds me of Shakespeare’s comedy tricks) The Anansi Boys.