Hope: On The Gathering, Blue/Orange, and The Guardian Angel’s Journal

Despite my last post, I’ve been doing more reading than writing recently.  It began with The Gathering by Anne Enright.

(Jonathan Cape, 2007)

I’ve never been very good at getting reading done for class in a timely manner, so I decided to read it before my graduate program started.  While it did have a lot of small bits that seemed to ring with truth in a deep part of me, it was with a sigh of relief that I finished reading and set the book aside.  It is a book about loss, but it is not the kind of book that made me feel the sadness you would expect to be provoked by a story focusing on the death of the protagonist’s brother.  The loss in The Gathering seems so much more than that, and the experience of reading it was a kind of slow, grating frustration mixed with a loss of hope.

Maybe I read too much into that, but the second book I picked up for class was only a little better.

(Methuen, 2000)

Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall, focuses on mental healthcare and racism in a London psychiatric hospital.  I appreciated the way Penhall flipped ethnocentrism, a concept considered in various anthropological studies in order to rectify early assumptions about the “evolution” of cultures.  In the play, instead of using this concept to prevent delusions of cultural superiority, one character suggests that the existing mental healthcare system is ethnocentric, and therefore proposes a change of view that is essentially racist.  Parts of this play did make me laugh, but again the overall feeling prompted by reading was not entirely positive.

Not all stories have happy endings, and often happiness is hard to “sell” to the reader.  But can’t we, as writers, inspire a little hope?

This has been drilled into me:  One of the most essential characteristics of a story is that it contains a dynamic element—something, often in the main character, changes or progresses.

At the end of Blue/Orange, the young, earnest psychiatrist has been made nearly powerless by the actions of his superior, and the patient he has been trying to help will likely not get the aid he needs.  He has discovered the racist and skewed ideas of his superior, and while he is prepared to react, bureaucratic elements weigh against his ability to effect real change.  While change has occurred, in his occupational situation and judgement of his superior, it seems like Blue/Orange merely brings the reader to the instigation of the real action of the story.

In the conclusion of The Gathering, the protagonist does not seem to have reached any sort of resolution following the death of her brother or in response to the events that occurred during their childhood.  Woven throughout the entire novel, between her odd imaginings of the past and real memories, are (1) her conviction that her husband hates her, and (2) the sense that she is entirely unhappy with her life.  Imagination and reality can be almost impossible to divide at times in this book, but the protagonist’s perception of her life as frustrating and smothering is tangible.  In the closing chapters, by deciding to simply return home after “running away” to the airport, the protagonist seems to have given up and condemned herself to an unhappy existence.  She has returned to where she started, one brother short, (spoiler) one nephew more, and no less confused or unhappy.

Now I have moved on to The Guardian Angel’s Journal, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  Remember my summer reading list?  Well, I’m finally getting to this one.  (And yes, I realize I talk a lot about CJC, but I enjoy her blog and she was a good creative writing professor.)

(Piatkus, 2011)

What is pulling me quickly through this novel is hope.  Although dealing with the supernatural, the characters in CJC’s book feel much more real than the distant ones of Blue/Orange or the grieving, sometimes-insane protagonist of The Gathering.  I am encouraged to become invested in the characters, and to hope with the guardian angel protagonist that she can effect a change in the life of her “Protected Being.”  Despite all the sadness and obstacles life throws in, there is an ever-coursing stream of hope beneath it all; and even if change cannot be instigated, there is a hope that a deeper understanding of it all will be uncovered.

Perhaps it is just something I need to feel right now with all the depressing reminders I’ve been encountering recently of how difficult writing as a career can be, but I think everyone needs these encounters with hope.  Reading is such an immersive experience; anyone who loves to read knows how close you feel to a character after joining them for the journey through a novel.

So even if hope is hard to write, like comedy or happiness, I’d like to try.


“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


If any readers live in the northeast of England, take note that the Durham Book Festival is coming up!  I know I’m going to try to make it to a few events.

See a schedule of this year’s events here:


Summer reading

I’m currently reading Azadeh Moaveni’s Honeymoon in Tehran.  I would have read it a lot sooner, but I was just too cheap to buy the hardback copy when it was first released.  Sometime around then, or perhaps a year earlier, I had read Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni’s first memoir, and loved it.

(PublicAffairs, 2005; Random House, 2009)

I’m nearing the end of Moaveni’s second memoir, and to me it feels noticeably different from her first.  Where Lipstick Jihad focused on misconceptions of Iran (the country, people, and culture), the changes that had occurred in recent years, and her own personal experience as an Iranian-American moving to Iran, Honeymoon in Tehran progressively grows more focused on the politics of the country and the development of the public opinion of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his first election as president.

Since I followed closely online the protests of the Iranian presidential elections in 2009, it has been really interesting to perceive the beginning of Iranian concern about Ahmadinejad through Moaveni’s writing.  With the recent reduction of his power in Parliament, and the upcoming end to his presidency in August 2013, it feels appropriate to now read an insider’s view of the beginning of his time in office.

My only complaint would be that this increased focus on politics can make the book a little dry at certain points.  Moaveni is again successful in that she offers just enough historical background to clarify events and views, but I am increasingly craving more description and culture and less political analysis.

As I near the end of Moaveni’s book, I am looking forward to the massive amounts of reading I will (probably) be able to do in the commute I will have between my parents’ house and my job downtown this summer.
Here are some ideas for my reading list this summer:

  1. The Hunger Games– Suzanne Collins
    If you haven’t heard about this book, I’d be very surprised.  Originally I said I wouldn’t, but I ended up seeing the movie before reading the book.  With its futuristic/post-apocalyptic setting and readability, I’m expecting it to feel a little like the types of books I adored in one of my pre-teen phases of reading. (See:  Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, Neal Shusterman’s Downsiders, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, among others)That being said, I hope to be surprised in some ways.  I’ve heard good and bad things about the book, and am looking forward to reading it for myself.

    (Scholastic, 2008)

  2. Ceremony– Leslie Marmon Silko
    During my final English class for undergrad, we read Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby.”  I was struck by Silko’s presentation of current issues faced by Native Americans in the United States.  Where other classes I had taken, English and otherwise, focused on the mistreatment of Native Americans during the colonization and the later removal of them to reservations, I was drawn by the fact that Silko focused on current issues faced by many Native Americans—in this particular story, that of poverty related to age and work-related injury.Ceremony was published in 1977, and according to Wikipediait “remains the Native American novel which most often appears on college and university syllabi, and one of the few individual works by any Native author to have received book-length critical assessments.”Wikipedia further describes the novel as such:
    “The story documents the troubles of Tayo, a half-white, half-Laguna Indian, as he struggles to cope with returning to traditional Native American society after surviving the Bataan Death March of World War II.  As mental instability engulfs him, he turns to traditional spirituality and ceremony as a source of healing.”

    Being partially Cherokee myself, I am interested in the (nearly) contemporary presentation in fiction of Native Americans, especially from the imagination of a writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.  I am additionally interested in the elements of mental health Silko will confront, as I have done research on PTSD at different points in time.

    “In an America full of damaged Vietnam veterans, the book’s message of healing and reconciliation between races and people made it both an immediate and a long-term success.”

    (Penguin Books, 1977)

  3. Everything is Illuminated– Jonathan Safran Foer
    I first saw the film version of this in high school.  As with The Hunger Games, I had hoped to read the book first, but various factors that I can no longer remember led to me seeing the movie and, even now, at least six years later, having not read the book.  I recently saw the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” again before reading the book. (I’m sensing a pattern here…)Foer, to my understanding through the filter of the filmic rendering of his novels and the response some of my friends have had to these novels, has a specific gift.  He can take an enormous tragedy which affected millions and make it personal.  It is his precise ability to balance the broad and the specific of such tragedies that makes these works so realistic and profound.I know the film version of Everything is Illuminated is supposed to be quite different from the novel, including less of the humor that defines the beginning of the film.  Nevertheless I know it is a recommended and well-loved novel.  If I want to read Foer’s work, I want to start from the beginning—of both his novels and my interest in them.

    (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

  4. The Guardian Angel’s Journal– Carolyn Jess-Cooke
    I have a confession to make.  Carolyn Jess-Cooke was the professor of the first creative writing class I took, a year-long course in which I enrolled during my study abroad.  Although I truly admire her and her work, I have thus far only read her poetry.In a few days, Jess-Cooke’s second novel, The Boy Who Could See Demons, is being published in the U.K.  (Follow the link for an extract!)  The descriptions of the book have me itching to read it, as it combines the voice of a child, the Troubles, mental health, and belief.  As yet I don’t know when it will be released in the U.S.  Luckily Jess-Cooke’s first novel also bears an intriguing description:“When Margot Delacroix dies at forty-two years old, she is sent back to earth as a guardian angel—to herself. Renamed Ruth, she is forced by divine mandate to re-experience and record her biggest mistakes and fiercest regrets from the beginning of her life to her untimely death.

    Forced from the moment of her birth to witness the cogs of fate and the stuttering engine of free will, Ruth sets out to change the course of her life, and, ultimately, to prevent her premature death. When she realises that the reasons behind her teenage son’s descent into drugs and murder lay within her own actions as Margot, she makes a pact with a demon—she will give up her place in Heaven in exchange for the opportunity to save her son from his fate. But the changes she makes result in consequences no one could expect…”

    Check out Jess-Cooke’s blog for the recent posts she made about writing the setting and two of the characters from The Boy Who Could See Demons.

    (Little, Brown/Piatkus, 2012)

  5. Norwegian Wood– Haruki Murakami
    When I saw the brick of a book my friend was carrying around most days during the fall semester, I knew it had to be a worthy read.  However, even she admitted that 1Q84may be a little hefty to start off with for someone who’s never read anything by Haruki Murakami.I’ll admit, I’m a little drawn to this novel because of the relation of the title to the Beatles’ song.  However, Slate’s November 2011 articlelists the novel among two others recommended for readers just starting on the Murakami reading list.  Just as added recommendation, another of my friends said he was starting off with this one.Slate says:
    “This 1987 novel is the book that made Murakami famous—and he’s been running from it ever since. Unlike his previous four novels, which incorporated the surreal elements that have since become his hallmark, Norwegian Wood marked his efforts to write in a “realistic” mode. The book is pop not just in style and allusions but in mood: In it, a thirty-something narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his heady college days in Tokyo in the late ’60s through a wistful gauze. After Watanabe’s best friend kills himself, he falls in love with that friend’s former girlfriend, a laconic, troubled echt-Murakami inamorata who accompanies him on long walks through the city. …the novel’s late-adolescent sentimentalism holds up: This is Murakami doing one of the things he does best.”

    (Kodansha, 1987)

Have you read any of these books or others by these authors?  What did you think?  What would you recommend that I read?