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.

New Orleans, my love..

New Orleans Carrollton area

Andrei Codrescu is an essayist, novelist, poet and professor at Louisiana State University.  He is also a regular speaker on National Public Radio, and such a brilliant speaker! I first came to know him from an audio selection in the material used where I was teaching ESL in Houston.  I then discovered this book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, a collection of his essays, at the LSU bookstore. I completely fell in love with his style and his writing. His voice, his humor, his way of seeing things are all completely endearing.

He is Romanian by birth, but moved to America and eventually to New Orleans, his adopted city, around 1985, the year the essays in this collection start.  The essays are grouped by periods, chronologically, except for the first which is a kind of preface. In his essays he talks about everything from his being a newcomer and his amazement of the environment, his fascination with the cuisine, his observations of our festivals, the heat, the humidity, the spices.  He talks about his favorite spots, his corner bar, his first Mardi Gras, the first time he had crawfish. Over time he will even talk about the politics of the city and its corruption, elections, and crime. No stone is left unturned. For me, it is interesting to see my city from an newcomer’s point of view on the inside. 

What I love about his writing is his very poetic way of describing things.  He makes even the most mundane occurrence seem significant and often hilarious. When trying to choose a new book to work with one of my students, I picked this from the shelf for consideration.  I flipped open randomly to the page entitled: Alligators. I read a few lines and immediately began to laugh out loud!  He is languishing in the heat, lying in his hammock “with [his] mouth open, waiting for a ripe fig to fall off the tree into it.” All the while he is looking in the direction of a drainage ditch near LSU, when he observed an alligator, that apparently all the students know.   His description of the scene is absolutely perfect, and anyone who has been here can imagine it.  

New Orleans French Quarter
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

I realized very quickly that this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand this city, its citizens, the culture and history of New Orleans and even for locals who want to enjoy an outsider’s view on the city.  It allowed me to observe things with fresh eyes, seeing things that I no longer noticed due to familiarity. It is also a perfect book to work with ESL students because it is divided into short essays making it manageable in an hour-long lesson.  Yet at the same time they are still fun to discuss and eloquently written. An English learner will learn culture and history while developing vocabulary and language skills beyond just academic essay style.

It is a wonderful text for any college-age or adult learner of English wishing to improve her reading and comprehension skills.  Even more than that, it is a brilliant book for the lover or New Orleans, anyone who has traveled here, lived here or who has dreamed of visiting one day.

**** Available as a ESL Book Club course**** See my Services page 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 !

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.****