The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

There are a handful of authors for which I will immediately seek out their newly published books.  Pulitzer-Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is one of them. When I got my notification from Goodreads that her new novel The Secret Chord would be released in October, I put it on reserve at my library and it was available for me the day it was released.

While I didn’t plan it this way, her novel happens to be the second novel that I’ve read in a row that could be classified as Biblical fiction. The Secret Chord covers the life of David from the Old Testament – from his time as a young boy to his ascension to the throne of Israel and on into his old age.

The Secret Chord

Anyone who has ever read much of the Old Testament knows that it contains all kinds of blood and guts, murder, sex, betrayal, spying, intrigue and other things that are not always for the faint of heart – and Brooks has definitely done her Old Testament research. She manages to paint David in a light that perfectly blends his greatness and his flaws-his achievements as a poet, musician, king, warrior, shepherd boy and his exploits on the battlefield and in the bedroom are all combined into a spellbinding story.

She takes artistic license only enough to further develop characters that are not fully developed in the Biblical account; however, Brooks still makes it her own story.  I enjoyed the way it is told from the perspective of Nathan the Prophet – the only person who could get away with telling the King when he was wrong. Nathan’s prophecies come across a little like Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter books but Brooks manages to make them work without making them campy.

Instead of including a passage from the more gory sections of the book, I’ll include one that covers the artistic and musical impact that David has on his kingdom:

This is what he heard: All the musicians he had brought to the city. All the singing men and women. All the children who had grown up with instruments in their hands and songs on their lips. His own music. His gift to the people now returned to him in magnificent abundance. He had made of his city an accidental choir, an unintended orchestra. The surge of sound rose and swelled. Then, for a long moment, all the notes came together, all the music of the heavens and the earth, combining at last into one sustained, sublime, entirely glorious chord.

Here are my posts about Brooks’ other novels:

Year of Wonders

People of the Book

March

Caleb’s Crossing

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Read During The Lifespan of My Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  So far it’s been a fun way to find out what others are reading and get some good ideas on books to read in the future.  This week the topic is Top Ten Books Read During the Lifespan of Your Blog.   Even though my blog is less than a year old and I haven’t read as many books compared to some blogs I’ve visited, it was still difficult to determine exactly which books I would include in my list.  Here’s what I came up with (not in any particular order):

1.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

2.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

3.  Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

4.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

5.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

6.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

7.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

9.  White Fang by Jack London

10.  11-22-63 by Stephen King

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

How a novel can be gut-wrenching and called Year of Wonders at the same time and somehow have that make sense is truly remarkable.

The tag line of Geraldine Brooks’ novel is A Novel of the Plague: so I wasn’t expecting it to be a barrel of laughs.  The story is set in 1665 in the small village of Eyam, Derbyshire in England while it is hit with the plague for the better part of a year.  Voluntarily quarantining itself at the advice of the kind, but occasionally misguided, rector, Michael Pompellion, the novel tells the story of two women, Anna Frith and the rector’s wife, Elinor, as the three of them take care of the villagers both physically and spiritually.

While Anna’s faith waivers, she increases her own determination and willingness to research (along with Elinor) various herbs and medical practices that could help the plague victims and prevent it’s spread.

I think the brilliance of the novel comes in allowing the reader to take this journey with these characters and become just as weary, frustrated, confused and determined as they are.  I think the word “wonder” in the title might actually mean “to question” as opposed to something inspiring awe.  All the people affected by the plague ask age-old questions: How can God do this?  Does God even exist?

The closest Brooks gets to giving an answer comes at the end when the plague is finally gone and Anna describes her faith:

…that flimsy, tattered thing that is the remnant of my own belief.  I see it like the faded threads of a banner on a battlement, shot-shredded, and if it once bore a device, none could now say what it might have been…I cannot say that I have faith anymore.  Hope, perhaps…it will do, for now.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on my Summer Reading List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  It’s a fun an interesting way to get to know other book bloggers and what they are reading.

This week the topic is “books on my summer reading list”.  Here it is and its subject to change without notice.

1.  Calico Joe by John Grisham: I’m not a huge Grisham fan and I think I’ve only read one of his books, The Innocent Man.  As this one is about baseball and it seems baseball stories are difficult to come by, I thought I’d give it a try.  Besides, it’s short.

2.  The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour:  As I’ve been reading Kipling as a part of my 2012 reading project, I wanted to read a biography.  I’m in the middle of this one right now and so far he strikes me as a complicated person.

3.  City of Bones by Cassandra Clare:  Not my usual genre but Daughter, The Eldest highly recommends it so I thought I would see what its all about.

4.  Hard Times by Charles Dickens:  The second part of the year will include works by Charles Dickens.  I’m starting with this one.

5.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  This one has been on my shelf for a while.  I’ve read the more “popular” works by Dickens so I’ll read some of his lesser known works this year.

6.  Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein:  Last year I read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress  and enjoyed it.  I’ve gotten several high recommendations for this novel.

7.  I, Robot by Isaac Asimov:  Isaac Asimov is another one of my reading project authors for 2012.  I’ve read absolutely nothing by him, so this will be the first unless I read one of his short stories before this one.

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway:  This will be a re-read, but it’s been a long time.  I re-read The Sun Also Rises last year and it was as great as it was when I was in high school – which was a little while ago.  Looking forward to this one.

9. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: This will round out Brooks’ novels for me.

10.  Sign Talker by James Alexander Thom:  As I’ve come to appreciate the effort that goes into good historical fiction with the works of Geraldine Brooks, I thought I’d give Thom a try as he comes highly recommended.

“…in the great human quest to figure it all out.”

Geraldine Brooks has been one of my favorite new (to me) authors that I’ve discovered in 2012.  People of the Book is the third novel of hers that I’ve read (I’ve previously read Caleb’s Crossing and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March).  I think this novel made the book club rounds a few years ago.

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In this novel, Dr. Hannah Heath, an Australian rare book conservationist, is commissioned by the United Nations to travel to war-torn Sarajevo in the mid-90’s to examine a 500 year-old haggadah, a book used by Jewish families during their Passover seder.  The book had been saved by a Muslim museum curator when fighting in the city threatened to destroy many of the museum’s exhibits.

I have an admiration for people who follow their dream even if it’s to an obscure career that nobody understands.  In Hannah’s words, Brooks describes her:

I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense.  I don’t want a big house or a big bank account…I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself.  But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know.  I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.

As Hannah examines the centuries-old book, she discovers small items embedded in the parchment or the paint of the “illuminations” (illustrations) such as a butterfly wing and a cat hair.  With each of these minute items, the novel has a flashback to a time when the book was saved during the continuous battles between Muslims, Jews and Christians.  The book’s preservation is credited to members of all three religions.  These flashbacks go backwards in time with interludes in the present in between each.  The flashbacks end with as many questions as answers, none of them include complete stories, allowing the reader to wonder and imagine what might have happened, and in addition, brilliantly illustrating the concept that not every detail of history is saved or is available to those of us in the present.

During the present day sections, Hannah explains her tense relationship with her mother and ultimately discovers the identity of her father.  This is the only aspect of the novel that doesn’t quite ring true.  It turns it into a soap opera.  I think the novel would have been just as thrilling without this story line.

As with her other novels, Brooks’ attention to historical detail must have been the result of hours upon hours of research.  Something that’s difficult to get my mind around.  In an afterword, she cites and explains her sources, both people and books.  She’s also careful to point out that, though she based some of her characters on some historical figures she encountered, the people in the novel are fictional.

“I never promised I would write the truth.”

I’ve never read the novel, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  I’ve seen the movie version from the 90’s.  The story always seemed to be more for children with a maybe overly optimistic view of life.  When I realized that Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-prize winning novel, March, was the story of the father of the March family, who was absent from Alcott’s novel because he was fighting for the Union cause in the Civil War, I became intrigued.  The novel is written from March’s point of view both in a narrative format and in the form of letters to his wife, Marmee (whom I couldn’t picture as anyone other than Susan Sarandon – see above mentioned movie from the 90’s).  The difference between his letters and the reality of the war was powerfully striking.  Early on, March refers to the letters to his wife and reveals to the reader that “I never promised I would write the truth.”

Captain March serves as a chaplain in the Union army and staunchly promotes the abolitionist movement.  Through his friendships with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, March assumes the role of educated idealist as he declares his intention to fight with the Union at the age of thirty-nine.  His fellow comrades, however, view his ideals with disdain and eventually he is “asked” to take a position teaching slaves considered “contraband” on a southern plantation, Oak Landing, captured by the northern army.

The comparison of ideals to the real world of war emerges as the central theme to the novel.  March’s gradual understanding that not everyone involved in the war looks at the world with the moral certitude that he does develops him into a remarkable character.  He doesn’t always act with the courage that comes out of his mouth when confronted with life and death situations.  In spite of his fear, he continues to be, in the words of one of his pupils, “a good, kind man”.   The change that takes place within him after teaching and working at Oak Landing and attempting to keep it from being recaptured is hauntingly sad:

And now a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the seed store at Oak Landing, to a condition of uncertainty.  More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree stump pulpit.  One day, I hope to go back.  To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.

Eventually, March becomes gravely ill and Marmee is summoned to Washington, D.C. Her arrival at his bedside to see a an educated slave woman, Grace Clement, nursing March with an emotional attachment that goes beyond duty and March’s reciprocation of that emotion is one of the more heartbreaking moments in the novel.  While it is never quite clear that March’s feelings for Grace ever went beyond an emotion, it was, nevertheless, something that could stand in the way of his relationship with his wife.

The reader gets a brief glimpse into Marmee’s mind during her visit to Washington.  She is portrayed by Brooks as an outspoken, easy-to-anger woman, a person ahead of her time in fighting for women’s rights to do more and be more than the confines of her society would allow.  At the same time, much of her outspokenness and anger gets funneled into a passionate love for her husband and daughters and an ability to teach her daughters to think and act for themselves.  Just as her husband’s ideals go through rigorous changes, Marmee must come to terms with the war and its effects on her marriage:

It was folly to let him go.  Unfair of him to ask it of me.  And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say.  A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world.  But the world will not help me put back together what war has broken apart.

I knew that if I stood again…and heard him promise to go to war, I would hold my piece, again, even knowing what terrible days were to follow.  For to have asked him to do otherwise would have been to wish him a different man.  And I knew then that I loved this man.  This inconstant, ruined dreamer.

“…the wild, fierce prayers rising into a flame-lapped sky.”

When two worlds collide into respect, friendship and love, it can make for a great story.  When two worlds are torn apart by prejudice and fear, it can make for a tragic story (but still a great one).  Geraldine Brooks’ novel, Caleb’s Crossing, becomes both of these by the end.

Set in Great Harbor on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1660’s, the story is told by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a missionary intent on “civilizing” the Native Americans of the area.  While she is young, she befriends a boy of the Wopanaak tribe living on the same island.  She ultimately names him Caleb while he calls her Storm Eyes.  Going against her father’s wishes, she is fascinated by secretly watching the religious rites of Caleb’s tribe which she describes as “the wild, fierce prayers rising into the flame-lapped sky.”  She finds these celebrations in great contrast to the seemingly dour version of Christianity with which she is being raised.

Bethia’s independence and intelligence is both a curse and a blessing to her well-meaning father for the time period in which they live.  He fears letting her learn too much even though he knows how bright she is.  Bethia is left to learn on her own however she can manage.  Usually her education takes place by overhearing lessons being taught to the boys of her village.   Ultimately, circumstances allow for her father to teach several of the Native American boys including Caleb.  Caleb becomes an excellent student and the Missionary Society that supports Bethia’s father pays for him to attend Harvard University on the mainland.  Bethia accompanies Caleb to Harvard as an indentured servant.

Some interesting aspects of the novel come in the character of Bethia’s father.  While by today’s standards he might be considered mis-guided in some of his actions, he truly is wanting to help the island tribe and acknowledges that he and his people can learn from the Wopanaaks.  He sees the possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship and casts out any idea of  conquering the tribe for monetary benefit (a thought others on the island frequently consider).

Bethia’s intrigue in the ways of the Wopanaaks open up to her questions about the ways of her religion; however, she never really abandons the faith with which she was raised.  Although in the final pages of the novel, at risk of heresy and blasphemy, she resorts to the Wopanaak’s spiritual ways in order to assist Caleb.

The relationship between Caleb and Bethia never becomes romantic in nature. They remain fast friends.  Bethia is fortunate enough to marry a man who respects her independence and intelligence.

Much of the novel is uplifting, particularly many of the relationships between the English and the Wopanaaks; however, the fear, prejudice and greed eventually take over making the story a “dissonant and tragical lament” as Bethia states in the final words of the novel.

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, a story of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  After reading Caleb’s Crossing, I think March will rise to the top of my reading list.