Easter is weird*.
We Christians celebrate Easter as the day Jesus Christ raised himself from the dead, tossed off his shroud, rolled back his own tombstone and walked out into the world after three days of, well, death.
He spent the next forty days catching up with his followers, inviting them to touch his still-apparent wounds, and promising eternal life. Promises which came with a little more oomph now because he'd bounced back impressively from that brutal crucifixion.
To atheists, this celebration is ignorant and wrong. To Jews and Muslims, it's not wrong, just misplaced. And to agnostics... well, any excuse for a big lunch and bargain bags of Jelly Beans, am I right?
Which brings us to the other Easter. The one we do for the kids in America. Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums this up in 30 seconds. Obvious choices for a holiday rooted in resurrection: hardboiled eggs dyed bright colors and then hidden around a garden. Easter baskets filled with plastic grass. Chocolate kisses wrapped in pastel-colored foil, Jelly Beans, and Cadbury eggs. And all of it delivered overnight by Santa's bizarre, big-eared counterpart, the Easter Bunny.
But if you'd believe it, Easter in Norway is even weirder!
In the first place, Norway, a famously secular (or, at least, religiously skeptical) nation celebrates the heck out of Påske (Easter). Families fill their homes with the color yellow: yellow candles, yellow table cloths, wooden eggs painted yellow and suspended from doorframes with yellow ribbons. Then begins a season of holidays, the first being a five day weekend, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday. This Påskeferie (Easter holiday) finds every true Norwegian out of town, usually up in the mountains at a family cabin for some last-of-the-season skiing. Oslo and the other big cities empty and shut down. It's possible that some of these people begin their Easter Sunday reading the resurrection story from their KJV Bibles. Some probably gather in country churches to participate in Lutheran liturgies. He is Risen indeed. But mostly they're skiing, eating Kvikk Lunsj bars and oranges, and reading crime novels.
That's right. Crime novels. Påskekrim (Easter Crime) is possibly the weirdest part of Easter season in Norway. Every bookstore puts up huge displays of thrillers and crime stories. Special crime series are produced for TV and radio. And, the weird-beyond-weird part, is the peculiar change made to the dairy section of your local grocer in the interests of Påskekrim.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jhumpa Lahiri has become my favorite author, and I expect the love affair will go on and on.
Reading her prose is like walking an endless strip of hot sand. It burns, but breaks softly beneath each footfall, exposing softer, cooler sand beneath. It is impossible to cross this stretch of sand quickly. This is the rhythm of her work, grand in scope, but possessed of infinite detail.
When a character cooks croquettes for a party, the reader sits in the kitchen and witnesses every move of the cook's hand, every ingredient, every utensil. Bread crumbs shuffled into a pan, oil popping in a pot on the stove, a slotted spoon. Such writing requires patience, but the reading is pure pleasure. It washes over you. Like life.
I do wonder if I am predisposed to enjoy Ms. Lahiri's work because it deals in the cultural discordance of life for immigrants. Her characters often live in a new country for decades over the course of a single book, and she touches on each nuance of their adjustment, but they never assimilate fully.
Best of all is the way she handles the relation of Bengali culture and Hindu ritual--the application of vermilion to the part of a married woman's hair, taking the dust from the feet of one's grandparents--details which seem exotic to me, offered with deftness and clarity, and within a compelling context. Always furthering the story. Always powerful.
Her stories are neither particularly happy, nor sad. In the case of The Namesake, we watch as a young man with a ponderously odd name grows up apart from the culture of his parents. And the events of his life, small and large, pass the way the events of our own lives pass--whether or not we're ready for them. Exquisite. Necessary. Accidental. Mundane until they are remembered years later.
I was recently reminded that the word nostalgia comes from the Greek word meaning pain from an old wound. This quality runs beneath the hot sand of all Lahriri's work. It's what will keep me coming back. Already, I am yearning for more of her signature slow burn.
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One of the perks of writing being a solitary pursuit is the complete lack of accountability which accompanies it. If you're fortunate enough to have another source of income, that is. Which I do. Writing doesn't make me much money, and it likely never will. So, to help support my family, I'm a Web & Social Media Consultant for a handful of clients, and supplement with freelance writing and editing. I do all of my work from home. My office is cluttered with books, magazines (The New Yorker and vintage issues of LIFE), and papers full of red-ink edits. It is dusty, but organized. It's just me. Nobody is looking over my shoulder asking how I do what I do.
My friend Zoë Harris, author of The Eidolon Cycle--a series of four dark fiction novels, the last of which is currently in process--tagged me to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. And as her post was customarily honest, open, pithy, and encouraging, I'm happy to join the fun.
1) What am I working on?
Different things different days. Revisions of nonfiction pieces to submit to literary magazines. New short stories, including some flash fiction. But the big ongoing project is my novel.
Before WWII began, the American military held several bases in the South Pacific. Army and Navy nurses--women who desired lives more exotic than the ones they knew in Depression Era middle America--were stationed on those island bases. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Air Force decimated the American Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, then immediately turned and focused its wrath on the Philippines. My story follows the lives of the first American women in combat. These women have inspired my imagination for years; to be able to name them myself, to breathe new life into the dust of their legacy--courage, ingenuity, perseverance, patriotism--is an honor.
As yet untitled, I flew through the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2013, but it's been difficult to come back to it since then. I've got 100,000 words, and no final chapter(s).
Yesterday, we lost Mickey Rooney, the man a few of us still remember as that sweet-faced ball of energy who danced and sang alongside Judy Garland. He was Andy Hardy and Mi Taylor. (And, unfortunately, Mr. Yunioshi.) Because I was raised on the classics, I hate saying goodbye to these legends of Hollywood's Golden Age, and recently it feels as if that's all I've been doing. Already this year we've bid farewell to Shirley Temple, Russell Johnson, and Sid Caesar. Last year it was Peter O'Toole, Annette Funicello, Joan Fontaine, Esther Williams, and Deanna Durbin, among many more. And it's been years since Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, William Powell, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and so many of the rest took their final bows.
So, who's left? I'm happy to report... many!
Maureen O'Hara (1920)
One of the few who never made a movie I didn't like, here she is with Tyrone Power (1914-1958) in The Black Swan.
Kirk Douglas (1916)
Rocking the chin cleft. I loved his small role as an easy-going English teacher in Letter to Three Wives.
Norway's policies and attitudes about immigration are increasingly complex. There is a deep, dark bias against certain immigrants--mostly Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and North African--and this is one of several reasons that a more conservative political party came to power during the last election. They are expected to crack down on immigration "abuse". But this same political party has also called for another kind of immigration reform, one which would encourage the immigration of skilled workers.
This led an engineer named Julien Bourrelle to put together a short, illustrated Guide til Nordmenn. He wanted to increase the awareness of the Norwegian government and empoyers when it comes to the needs of these foreign workers. Having been one himself (a Canadian in Norway), Bourrelle knows that socialization in Norway is complicated, not least because the emotions of the Nordmenn can't be taken at face value.
I'd say this drawing is fairly accurate, if only for a moment. It's easy to get the thaw started if you're consistently (or, um, persistently) warm and open yourself. (Or if you begin your relationship with a Norwegian when he or she has been drinking. Just don't expect them to remember what close friends you are the next day...)
Let's get one thing straight: I can count on one hand the "bad" experiences I've had with Norwegians in the last three years. My Norwegian friends are warm and funny, hospitable and helpful. That said, it's true that Norwegians tend to put up a stoic front. They come across as dispassionate, aloof, or removed. This fact is most clearly illustrated in the following scenario:
You'll be hard pressed to find a building more beautiful than the Oslo Opera House (Operahuset). It rises from the banks of the Oslo fjord--white and angular, sleek and graceful--reminiscent of an iceberg. On a sunny day, the windows sparkle.
Operahuset is a modern gem in a city full of Victorian buildings. Completed in 2007, the design was chosen in a blind competition of 350 entries. How perfect that the winner turned out to be legendary Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta.
Our first spring in Oslo, we attended the opera Peter Grimes. Here's a peek inside...
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here we have the sins of our forefathers laid bare and tied to the post for our review. Stowe demonstrates the visible gradient of slave owners and slaves alike--a sliding scale from the best to the worst--in 19th century America. But then, with a startling crack, she splits the façade of that gradient apart. It dissolves before the eyes of the reader. There is nothing relative about one man owning another, whether he treats his property with respect or abject cruelty. Nothing matters beyond the value of personal freedom.
There were those at the time who argued otherwise, and Stowe offers these denials and protestations alongside the rest, usually juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching illustration of human bondage. Even now it's tough to say what struck me hardest in the reading. Was it watching a woman's children torn from her grasp to be sold on an auction block? Was it the continuous breaking of promises from master to slave? Was it the cold-hearted trading of men and women done in parlors over coffee? Perhaps it was the subtle sounds of abolitionism and realizing that those on the side of "right" were once nothing but a weak, wavering minority in my home country.
While the prose is consistent, beautiful and compelling, I found the latter half of the book preachy to the extreme, so moralistic that it began to sound like harping. This is unquestionably a Christian tome. But it is a testament to the power of religion, not only because the book swayed hearts and minds, but because of what the author writes in her final chapters about the incredible faithfulness of those slaves who believed in God, as well. Some of the battered, sunken, deprived masses of African slaves in the United States--numbering over the course of history into the millions--found a reason to pray and sing and praise and hope. On top of this, Stowe illustrates the irony of such profound faithfulness in a society where Christianity was used to justify the necessity and even the righteousness of slavery.
Slavery is a blight upon American history, and this book (along with Frederick Douglass's Slave Narratives and Solomon Northrup's 12 Years a Slave) should be required reading for every citizen, precisely because there are still some people who don't want to read it. They are squeamish and indignant. They believe racism no longer exists. They want to forget it all happened.
Which, on second thought, is what was most difficult about this book. The stories of Uncle Tom, Eliza, and George are fictionalized accounts of people who actually existed. Compiled to form a narrative, names and dates adjusted for continuity, but otherwise real. What of those real men, women, and children? What of the millions whose stories were never told? If anything is made brutally clear in this book, it is that the subjugation of a population lays waste to its history. Slave owners in America did worse than own and abuse the living: they rendered their slaves nameless, voiceless, detached from time and place, and buried everything in the backyard. Then left bootprints on the unmarked graves.
It is the overwhelming size of what has been intentionally forgotten that breaks my heart.
Read this fine piece of 19th century literature, and in reading know that racism will never be extinguished in America. The roots of it are far too deep and far too much the fault of the men and women who founded our country. And if you believe you are blameless, having been born almost 150 years after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, think again. Every time you subconsciously take some small credit for the good in our history--the pride you feel in the Declaration of Independence, for example--you must take an equal bit of the blame. Many of the men who signed that illustrious document were at their leisure to pave the way of a young America because they had slaves to work their land and make their money. You may hold your chin high on the Fourth of July, but you can't claim the ink of that revolutionary quill without getting some of the blood on your hands, as well.
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I'm thirty-one. It's not one of those big ticket ages that everyone looks forward to. Thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five... I enjoyed them all. Thirty should have been a big year for celebrations, but as those who are close to me might recall, turning thirty knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't ready to be in my thirties. Not really. I felt like a huge faker. In the same way that it took me a year or two to realize that getting married didn't automatically qualify one for adulthood (that it should be the other way around, if anything), I needed roughly 11 months to adjust to the idea that thirty-year-old me wasn't different from twenty-nine-year-old me, and didn't need to be. Age is just a number. And birthdays are just an excuse to throw a party.
So, this year, we did. Thirty-one-year-old me and thirty-seven-year-old Zoë, my writing buddy and movie soul mate. We had a kostyme fest (costume party) with a Hollywood theme. After all, if there's any activity which disproves the myth of an age/maturity congruence, it's playing dress-up. My costume (and my honey's costume) were inspired by one of my favorite movies of all time.
How to Steal a Million (1966) Nailed it.
Last weekend, the road rose up to meet me! My flash fiction story "Roots" received the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award, and my win was announced at the Irrgrønn Festival of Contemporary Irish Literature.
Even on an ordinary day, there's nothing I like better than hanging around Oslo's Litteraturhuset. In past years, I've watched many wonderful authors read and speak there. From Ali Smith to Anna Funder to Jennifer Egan to John Irving. But I can confirm that it's even cooler to be the person standing on stage reading to the crowd.
Go ahead and call me bossy. I've heard it my whole life.
"Audrey, quit bossing your brothers."
"Audrey is a bright child, but she's bossy in the classroom."
As Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out in the last few months, the word bossy is aimed almost exclusively at girls and women, and it always has a negative connotation. Where a boy shouting orders to a passel of kids on a playground is commended for his leadership skills, a girl is pulled aside and told that what she's doing is wrong.
"Nobody will want to play with you if you're too bossy."
You should have seen me. I owned the playground and everyone in it (who would listen to me, and there were certainly those who didn't). At school or at home, I was the one who invented the games, made the rules, refereed, and facilitated play. Not that any of this lingo was a part of my vocabulary at the time. It all fell under the purview of bossy, which should have been the purview of leadership, but nobody thought to vocalize that difference until more recently.
In my neighborhood, I was the sole girl among about a dozen boys, all my age and younger. And I called the shots.
"Today we're playing cops and robbers. Cops get bikes. Robbers get a ten second head start. The light pole in the little field is home base. Go!"
Bottom line: there was a T-shaped parking lot off of Joaquin Murieta Boulevard in Newark, California where, if you wanted to play a game outside, you had to play my game. So, we played. I bossed the hell out of those boys, and I'm sure it bothered them, but the games never stopped. It was endless hours of Cops-n-Robbers, Cowboys-n-Indians, football, whiffle ball, basketball, swimming, bike riding, kickball, four-square, Hide-n-Seek. We played tackle football, and it took three of them to bring me down and push my face into the turf. Even when they didn't like me, they loved me.
To those who were in a position of oversight, it was plain that, if little Audrey were added to the equation of a classroom exercise, for example, there were few other kids whose personalities would stand a chance against mine. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen, used to ask us to divide into groups of four and dole out responsibilities: Leader, Time Keeper, Scribe, and Presenter. I was born with a hatred of group projects, mostly because I liked doing well in school and didn't trust the other kids to do what needed to be done in order to get an A. Unfortunately for me, fifth grade isn't one giant aptitude test for sixth grade, the way we're led to believe it is at the time. Rather, fifth grade is about preparing all children with the skills they'll need to, for example, cooperate with other people for the rest of their lives. To eleven-year-old me, cooperation only seemed necessary for more subservient types. That's why I was so torn between the roles of Leader and Presenter when these group sessions arose. I wanted to run the show, but I also wanted to be the face of the group when it came time to give the report.
Here I should point out two things: 1) Bossy girls aren't dumb. We know that by snatching the most important roles for ourselves and directing the action thereafter, we're also putting the burden of responsibility for the grade on our own small shoulders, and 2) most other eleven-year-olds are happy to cede that responsibility without a fight.
It took Mrs. Busselen a few weeks of group projects to realize that I was signing up for the position of Presenter, allowing someone else to put his/her name in the Leader spot, and then I was playing the role of de facto Leader anyway. Her answer was to forbid me to do any more presenting.