I Heard the Owl…

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, but Margaret Craven

This is a classic which I first read during my bachelor’s program in the spring of 1995.  I have since read it several times with some of my ESL students, and each time we did a very close read, discussing themes and topics along the way. With every new reading, I am reminded of how deeply philosophical it is, how it emphasizes the strength and importance of community, and how a village is really like an extended family.  I am moved every time by the reading. This is really the kind of book that a person might reflect upon from time to time for years to come, and a great book to enjoy at a time like this, so isolated and separated from our own communities.

Photo by Keith Lazarus on Unsplash

Based on a true story, it is the life of a priest, Mark, who unbeknownst to him is dying, of what exactly the reader never knows.  Due to this unfortunate news regarding the young vicar, the bishop decides to send him to his most difficult parish, the remote Native American village of Kingcome, in the Pacific Northwest.  The bishop knows that Mark has a lot yet to learn and wants to help him do so as quickly as possible because he does not have a lot of time left.  The post will be a challenging one for Mark, and even the trip to arrive there is arduous. He will have to go from one boat to an even smaller boat upriver, through mountains, not to mention the harsh climate he will have to endure, the isolation, and the task of understanding or getting to know the villagers.  However, Mark is wise and patient.  He knows the value of waiting and keeping silent, listening.  Over time he learns more about them, while never fully understanding them, as even he admits. He does in the end, however, end up being respected and even loved by the villagers who mourn his passing in the traditional ceremonial way.  

Here is a place of myth, of old legends, where the river is life itself, linking all the other villages, the only way in or out, where the boat he drives becomes an extension of himself.  From chapter one we learn the meaning of the title, which also is a legend in which the owl will call the name of the man about to die.  Here nature is One with man, and they are all connected, and even dependent on each other.  We learn of the slow and steady bond growing between him and another Indian named Jim, of how important that bond becomes, of how much he has influenced the villagers and how much they have influenced him.  In fact, their influence on him was so great, Mark could not imagine returning to his world.  He was a changed man.  He would never again belong to the modern world, and worried a lot about when the time would come that he would have to return there.  

This book reminds me of the importance of stillness, or the simpler way of life, of how isolated we have become, in our own worlds separated from society. In the village they suffered together through the rains and the harsh winters, helping each other, sharing food, but in this modern society we have built for ourselves, we suffer alone.  The villagers seek to preserve their traditions and rites through dances and stories, but we throw away the old and replace it with new and shiny.  The only other man in the village not a Native American was the teacher, who stayed apart from the others. At the death of Mark, he was unable to open the door to join the others, thinking that, “To join the others was to care, and to care was to live and to suffer.”  (158)  We shy away from death, hide it behind closed doors because the reality is scary.  We hide from life too often because being a part of it means risking loss, which is scary.  Yet, death is a part of life in the village, and everyone shares in it, takes part in the responsibility of it.  It is the cycle of life and a part of everyone and everything in the village.  

It is on the short list of books that have made me emotional.  I ended up absolutely loving the characters, especially Jim, Mrs. Hudson, Marta, and Keetah.  They are charming and caring and wise. This book is inspiring and philosophical, a truly memorable book to remind us of the essential things of life.  

***** This book is available for English Book Club**** See Courses for details.

Oh! A mystery of Mono no Aware

Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda

Another of the beautifully created books by Chin Music Press.  

Only very rarely have I ever purchased and read a book more than once. The first time I recall doing just that is with Phantom of the Opera.  The second, when my copy of Oh! was damaged in storage. I felt compelled to buy another because it was simply too beautiful a book to keep a damaged copy.  When my new copy arrived, I decided to read it again. It had been years since I had read it the first time. This is a deeply philosophical book involving the journey of a man seeking emotion in his life.  He feels as if he is simply going through the motions in life, in a boring job, in a loveless relationship, devoid of any meaning.  He feels numb, unable to sense strong emotion or to grasp feeling from the things he sees around him.  He drops everything to move to Japan in search of something but he knows not what.  

The narrator starts teaching in a language school but gets laid off because he did not have the proper visas for work.  It was there that he had met professor Imai, one of his students. He learns from the professor about mono no aware, a very complicated Japanese concept mostly applied to poetry and one that most younger Japanese do not understand anymore, involving an emotional response (usually sadness) to things around us.  A classic example of this is the Japanese cherry blossom, very beautiful flowers that bloom and fall in a very short period of time.  We have very little time to appreciate them before they are gone.  Mono no aware makes us respond with Oh!

Cherry blossoms in Japan

When professor Imai learns of the narrator’s search for feeling, he starts a series of tests for the narrator, sending him on little quests to check his responses to things.  This eventually leads the narrator down a very dangerous path where a curiosity of Aokigahara forest grows inside him, thrusting him deeper and deeper into the dark corners of Japan and leading him straight into the arms of Tokyo’s suicide clubs, wherein lies “the ultimate mono no aware experience at the moment before death”.  Little does the narrator know, the professor has some dark corners in his life too. They are both searching for answers and seeking to understand mono no aware.  I developed a real sympathy for the main character, and when I learned more about him, for the professor too.  They are both tragic characters who found each other at an important stage in their lives to help each other.  There is definitely something of a father-son relationship between them that I found touching.  The final chapters reach such an urgent climax that I found myself holding my breath or gasping in shock.  

It is a captivating book that is terribly hard to put down.  Each chapter flowed so smoothly into the next, or left me at such a cliffhanger that I never could quite find a place to put it down, leaving me reading late into the night.  Between chapters are “exhibits”, or explanations of complicated Japanese concepts on poetry and art and culture, mostly dealing with and expanding upon various definitions of mono no aware.  The ten or so pages in front and back have beautiful paper and art from the writer’s wife.  The book is art itself.  It is literature; it is a travel journal; it is philosophy.   It is a thought-provoking and emotional read that reminds us to stop and smell flowers, stop and look at the way the sun filters through the trees, stop to listen to the birds.  

Fabulous the first time, maybe better the second.  5 stars!!

**** Book available as an ESL Book Club course*** See my Services page for details !

Vocabulary for Discussing Literature in French

Voici des mots clefs pour parler de la littérature.

Here are some key words for talking about literature.

During my thirty years of speaking French, any time that I had to speak about a topic or subject that was new to me, I would be frustrated to discover all the holes in my vocabulary.  For example, if you have ever had the experience of needing to talk about literature in French, you may have come to realize that you lacked a certain specific vocabulary.

For students wanting to participate in a book club or to study literature to improve their language skills, this list might be of interest to you.  I put together a list of words and expressions that were needed for the conversations I would have during courses in which we discussed books and short stories.  Below are some expressions that you may find handy or essential in order to more easily discuss what you read (or even films you see) in French.

If you are interested in a Book Club course, please see my page on courses offered for details.

Expressions:

Il s’agit de…  = It’s about…

Traiter de = Concerns, deal with, to be about

L’histoire a eu lieu… = The story took place…

Cela m’a fait penser à… = It made me think about..

Ce livre parle de…  = This book talks about..

Tu as raison/ tort… = You are right/ wrong..

Je ne m’y attendais pas… = I did not expect that…

Je me rends compte que… = I realize that…

À mon avis – In my opinion..

Je suis en train de lire… = I am in the middle of reading, I am reading…

Ce livre m’intéresse parce que… = This book interests me because…

Je suis intéressé(e) par ce livre parce que… = I am interested in this book because…

La langue de l’écrivain est (élégante, riche, poétique, …) = The language of the writer is (elegant, rich, poetic…)

Langage haut en couleur, langage imagé = Colorful language

Vocabulary:

Genre = The style, type (of literature)

Roman historique, roman noir, roman d’aventure, une autobiographie = Historical novel, mystery novel, adventure novel, autobiography

Un récit, une histoire = A story

Le personnage principale, le/la protagoniste, le héros du livre = The main character, the protagonist, the hero of the book

Le lecteur = The reader

La lecture = Reading

L’auteur(e), l’écrivain(e) = The author, writer

Le dénouement, la résolution, la révélation ou catastrophe, la conclusion = Falling action

Le conflit, l’apogée, le moment décisif = Climax

La présentation, l’introduction, l’entrée en jeux = Exposition, introduction

Le déroulement, l’enchaînement, la progression de l’action, le développement de l’action, l’évolution du conflit, le point culminant = Rising action

le noeud, la péripétie = The entanglement, twists and turns

Le narrateur, la narratrice (omniscient)= The narrator (omniscient)

L’antagoniste, l’adversaire = The antagonist, the adversary, the enemy

Les personnages secondaires = Supporting characters

Le décor, la scène = The setting, scenery, the scene

L’intrigue = The plot

Le complot = The conspiracy

Une oeuvre = One or several works by an author

Un oeuvre = Describing the ensemble of works for a writer

Un recueil (de nouvelles, de poésie) = A collection (of stories, of poetry)

Le thème =The theme

The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

This is a book that has been recommended to me on multiple occasions by several good friends.  Flying home to visit my family a few years ago, I stopped in a magazine shop at the airport.  They had a really nice looking anniversary edition of this book for sale.  I picked it up and started to read the first pages and the inside cover with the synopsis.  I was absolutely intrigued; it did in fact sound like something that would have interested me.  It would take me a few more months to catch up on the other books that I was simultaneously reading, so that I could eventually get to this one.  Finally I could not resist any longer.  I read this book in record time!  I was completely absorbed in it, and was reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen.  

It is hard to categorize this book.  It is at the same time a travel book, a philosophy book, a self-help book and a novel all in one.  It is inspiring, thought provoking, and full of wisdom.  The language over-all is simple, but it speaks to me because I feel as if I did a lot of what the boy did and had some of the same experiences. The boy dreams of travel, of visiting places other than the small farming town he knows.  He becomes a shepherd, so that he can travel around and see more of the world.  One day he has a dream of hidden treasure to be found near the Egyptian Pyramids.  He visits a gypsy to find out the meaning of the dream because, as we learn from her, dreams are the language of God.  She tells him that he must go there to find his treasure.  

Then he meets a man who calls himself a king.  He tells the boy to give him 1/10th of his herd of sheep, and he will in exchange tell him how to find the treasure.  The boy thinks about it for a while and then decides to trust the king and gets very important advice about his Personal Legend, what he has always wanted to accomplish, about the Soul of the World, and he also learns that if he wants something badly enough, all the universe conspires in helping him achieve it.  The king told him all he had to do was follow the omens.  The king also advised against giving up on his dream. He will hear this advice on other occasions when he is at risk of giving it all up, and it is powerful advice which I think everyone needs to hear.  

To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation,” the king said.  And so the boy is off on his adventure.  It was not an easy journey to the Pyramids, and it takes an exceptionally long time, and there is a lot of adventure along the way.  On several occasions he finds himself ready to give it all up, but something always pulls him back.  He goes through many trials and successes and finally ends up exactly where he is supposed to be. Along the way he meets a crystal merchant, whose life he changed forever, an Englishman, a beautiful woman with whom he falls immediately in love and for whom he once again wants to give it all up, and finally the Alchemist.  It is the Alchemist who will finally set him on the path to being able to find his treasure, convinces him that he cannot give up for risk of resentment and losing his treasure forever, and he repeatedly tests him to see if he’s ready.  

 

Some of the most important messages in this book which I could certainly apply to my life are, “People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want”, “when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward,”  and “people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them.”  This of course is but a small sample of the wisdom in this book.  So much of it was noteworthy!  

What I realized is that despite the popular saying, you really can go home again!  He had to travel all the way to the Pyramids of Egypt only to find out that what he had been looking for all his life was right where he had started.  However, along the way he had had amazing experiences that he would never have known if he had not gone in search of something.  It is a lot like what I have done in my life, and now I know that I had been following the omens, and fulfilling my Personal Legend.  When I allowed myself to believe that sometimes taking the long way home is the only way home, I set off on an adventure to Japan to finally find my way home to New Orleans.  I had no idea what I was seeking there, or what I would find.  What I would in fact find was what I was really meant to do with my life.  Along the way, I saw and did amazing things that I would never have had the opportunity to do before, and may never again.

This is a book I could read over and over again.

**** This is an English Book Club selection. See Courses page for details.****

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I recently discovered the book Looking for the Stranger by Alice Kaplan and started reading it at the same time as rereading The Stranger in preparation for a discussion with a student. It was through this combination of books that I was really able to look more deeply at the themes of the book and the personality of the main character. The Stranger, read by so many students in school, has as Kaplan says become a sort of “rite of passage” (Kaplan, 2). It sparks debate on all sides and leaves us wondering why we sympathize with the main character, wondering why he does not fight for his life, or for that matter even defend himself?

The Stranger is a classic and in my opinion a novel that everyone must read. You can read it simply for face-value, as a book about a man who seems disconnected from his world, and as events unfold he is lead closer and closer to the murder of a man on the beach. However, I think questions will come up that will cause the reader to delve more deeply into why. Why do the events unfold in a way that lead him to kill a man on the beach, why in this moment is he prompted to do something so extreme, and yet with such coldness? Why is he so disconnected from everyone and everything, his mother, his job, his friends, even his girlfriend? Why does he not respond to the violence he sees around him, only to then shoot a man completely unprovoked?

Kaplan says something that I have often heard said by another favorite writer of mine, Dany Laferrière,  in a similar way. She says that “books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’ve turned the last page.” Oh, how I know that is true! The Stranger will do just that to you. In fact, the more I read this book, the more I feel it with me every day. Camus’ philosophy, often mislabeled as Existentialist, is in fact Absurdist. He sees men as all being condemned to death, all in their own time, of course. He says that as humans we are somewhat meaningless in the world. Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, says that we cannot change our lives. That basically describes our main character’s attitude before his own life. He is indifferent to his own life, saying, for example, to his girlfriend that he supposes that he does not love her, and that it does not make any difference, that it is all the same to him, but that if she wanted him to marry her, he would. He refuses to give way to the expectations of society, has no ambition to better his job at work, basically refusing a promotion and never justifying himself.

Camus uses the first person singular to tell his story, thus putting the words and thoughts directly into the mouth of his narrator. This gives us a strange feeling of distance between us and the writer, all while creating a strange relationship between us and the character. In my opinion it might be why by the end, we have a kind of sympathy for him, even while we basically know exactly what happened on that beach. By the end of the book, I wanted him to fight for himself, to let his lawyer try to save him. But eventually Meursault more or less condemned himself by saying “the sun made me do it.”

The question remains, of what exactly was Meursault convicted, putting his mother in a nursing home, or killing a man on the beach? At the trial, the victim was never mentioned, and the majority of the questions to him were related to his mother’s placement in a home, his lack of showing sadness, his behavior before the casket (drinking coffee, smoking and sleeping) and the relationship he began with Marie soon after his mother’s burial. Additionally, throughout the days following the death of his mother, he repeats phrases like “it’s not my fault” or that he felt guilty. Guilt over what? Did he feel guilty for abandoning his mother, or did he feel as if her placement in a home was what prompted her death, which of course we know is not true since we know she had a fiancé while there.

If anyone here is dying, it is Meursault, whose life seems empty. We see his slow Sundays where he sits on his balcony watching Life roll by. We know he has no passion about his job, or even for his girlfriend. He has no pets, no hobbies except bathing either at a pool or a beach. He eats at the same restaurant, and when not there will cook something simple like boiled potatoes. There is no spice or joy in his life from what we can see. He is a stranger to his life. Interestingly enough, talking about strangers, most of Camus’ characters are strangers to us, too. We never know Meursault’s first name, nor the name of the Arab that he shoots, nor the name of his neighbor’s girlfriend, la Mauresque. We never even know his mother’s name.
By the time we finish the book, maybe we can come to fully understand Camus’ philosophy, just like Meursault does at the end.
A truly stunning read, thought-provoking and moving. It gets better with age, and with every subsequent read! 5 stars indeed.

**** This title also available as a Book Club selection.  See my Services page for details.****