Of Crows & Copper Mines

Dithering around today, trying to find the right way to begin this post. Which, not unrelated, is one of my greatest writing challenges. Cutting through the backstory, pruning the exposition, digging through the compost to find the story’s true beginning.

 

The beginning may be May 2002, when I traveled to Ireland for the first time and hiked the Beara Peninsula, losing my heart to boggy mountains and wind-shrieked coastlines. It may be October 2010, when I took my first writing class—a workshop on travel writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle—thinking I should find a way to meld my love for exploration with the growing desire to release words onto a page. It may be June 2011 and the publication of my first short story, when I realized that if I wrote one perhaps I could another, and I owed it to myself to try. Perhaps July 2012, when the ending of life inside my body brought me to create a different kind of life on the page.

 

Or it may be July 2013, when I walked away from paycheck and health insurance, a series of panic attacks in my wake, hope gilding the clouds of uncertainty ahead, into a full-time writing life.

 

But many of these stories I have already shared with you here. That backstory, that exposition, all running counter to the technique of in media res: beginning in the middle of the action.

 

In January 2014, as I set a first novel aside to rest, both of us exhausted by the effort to cull and corral 170,000 words into a 99,000 word manuscript, I created the story of a recovering alcoholic who has a marriage to repair and a career to salvage. And an artist who cannot forgive himself for the tragedy he caused. I brought them together on a lean claw of land on Ireland’s southwest coast: the Beara peninsula, where the endangered Red-billed chough-—a member of the Corvidae family with the scientific name made for a poem: Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax—congregate on land that could yield a fortune in copper.

 

That story became the novel The Crows of Beara. That novel was named a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker prize nominee Karen Joy Fowler.

 

And as of this week, my Crows has found an amazing nest: Ashland Creek Press. Ashland Creek Press, a publisher based in Oregon, is dedicated to publishing literature—fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction—focused on environmental, conservation, ecology, and wildlife themes. My crows and my words could not have found a more welcoming, nurturing home. The Crows of Beara is set to take flight September 2017.

 

There. That’s a beginning.

 

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)
Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

Full Circle

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

1640_1028955160263_9598_nThis photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

 

I’ve returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland’s power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

 

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 

The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 

The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel’s central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 

And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O’Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I’m terrified. I’ve never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I’ll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O’Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 

My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

“The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.”

 

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE’s Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We’re a race of elsewhere people. That’s what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world’s worst bankers. …It’s in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won’t want to return.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld’s extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this. You simply must.” It’s been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops–another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison’s most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy’s wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York’s attorneys, she is delving into the condemned’s life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York’s execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it’s caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society’s nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics’ best of lists. It damn well better be.

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An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light.

It’s early enough in the year—we’re still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I’m ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I’ve got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, “Look outside, look at the light!” But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun’s fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday’s light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It’s like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland’s story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound,
only the sight of you
–the mouthing space
the absence of language;
only to watch you
turn through the shimmering coils of light,
the river siding around me,
describing to me
the dark that would be cast over the body,
violent, liquid, salt and calm —
the darkness that would be cast
between the moment when I could destroy
and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O’Sullivan’s blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest’s moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon
on the oval-line of light, the sun low,
its fire like liquid over the ocean
where the wading gulls hunt.
I toed the foam and smooth sand
as a rattle of salt
rushed against my skin, the pebbles,
the water’s joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play…

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
March Sunrise, Port Townsend ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been under the weather all week, but finally gave up the ghost on Thursday, promising myself a day of Victorian languishment on the sofa, indulging in cold cereal and a book. Thus was I able to finish The Tiger’s Wife, started the night before as I huddled on that same sofa, shivering with fever and chills.

My physical state, which left me feeling hollow, forlorn, a bit weepy and frustrated, was the ideal condition in which to engage fully in Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife. With its feverish mix of war, death, fabulism, violence, disease, bestiality, and the walking dead, I had the perfect companion for my misery. Although my illness outlasted the reading of this novel, I was not less sorry to see the latter end first.

The Tiger’s Wife takes a modern-day tragedy – the early to mid 1990’s war in the former Yugoslavia – and cloaks it in confounding mythology and brutal metaphor. As the novel opens, it is a few years following the end of the conflict. Borders have been drawn, peace accords signed, and where people rightly belong can be determined by their last names and their accents more easily than by their passports. Newly-formed nations are rebuilding on the foundations of ancient grudges.

We are led through the narrative by Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor on a mission of mercy to an orphanage across “the border.” She learns along the way that her beloved grandfather, a celebrated physician afflicted with terminal cancer, has died, ostensibly on his way to find her. In truth, he had inexplicably travelled to a remote village where four teenagers had been killed by a landmine left from the recent war. There he died and though his body was returned to his family, his affects were not, preventing his bereaved wife from mourning him properly and sending his spirit to a restful afterlife. Natalia’s efforts to accept her grandfather’s death and to recover his belongings bring about powerful memories of stories her grandfather told of his childhood and the fables his village kept alive through generations of invasion, war and deprivation.

Obreht employs the classical allegory of beast – an anthropomorphized tiger escaped from a zoo in 1941- vs. beastly man to illustrate the history of the Balkans. The region is a crossroads of war, a fault-line between East and West, a stew of race, language, religion that has rarely known extended peace. That domesticated tiger- the human collective of the former Yugoslavia- is suddenly tossed into the wild and learns to eat before being eaten. Man as enemy is the political machine, feckless and frightened despite weapons and shelter. But not every man is evil; the tiger’s wife and the young boy who loves her – the young boy who would one day become Natalia’s grandfather – represent hope, survival, and compassion.

Much has been made of the promise of this extraordinarily mature writer. Obreht’s gift with language is undeniable. She draws images of amazing depth and color, her imagination reveling in the richness of Balkan lore and the limitlessness offered by magical realism. Yet, the fable of the tiger’s wife would be enough to make this dark and beautiful tale resonate. But all too soon the arc of Obreht’s narrative becomes so entangled in her tapestry of fabulism that sadly, it drones. Her style is so lovely and lyrical, but the substance suffers under the weight of endless metaphor.

We never really get to know Natalia, who holds such promise as an interesting character. She is a grown woman yet her edges are dim, as if Obreht wasn’t yet ready to inhabit the body and mind of a contemporary adult, from whom all magic has been stripped. We are left wanting to know more about the present reality, how the recent past is shaping the region’s future. The tension that reverberates through the villages where Natalia travels signals that although the conflict is over on paper, the suspicions and superstitions run as deep as history is long.

This is not a story as much as it is a patchwork of images. Those images are beautifully rendered but don’t add up to a full narrative. The head recognizes the skill, but the heart is left unsatisfied.

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Book Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I turned the final pages of this rare and magical read, I was filled with melancholy and longing. Ordinary life seems so, well, ordinary. I ached to remain a rêveur – a devotee of Le Cirque des Rêves – lost in the black and white gloaming of this circus of illusion and wonder.

This is a story for romantics. It is about the power of magic over fate, of love over destiny, of community over individual will. It is told in a dream-like narrative that unfolds within the vault of your imagination as it intersects with Morgenstern’s vivid descriptions. The third person omniscient voice and the present-tense setting work in deliberate contretemps, as you move both with the action and yet above it all. Morgenstern also shifts the setting between chapters (the story takes place in lush, late Victorian Gothic between 1873 and 1903, with present-day making a cameo appearance), allowing sleight-of-hand foreshadowing and memories to tilt her parallel worlds even more off-center.

The book jacket description is deceptive and is perhaps partly to blame for the perceived weakness of the story: that this is a book of settings, not plot. The action is muted, the competition between the two skilled “illusionists” slow to unfold and rarely heated. Do not embark upon this journey thinking you will see sparks fly between dueling wizards, or swoop into a tundra with angels and polar bears chasing mad scientists, or follow the quest of elves and hobbits seeking a cursed ring. You will, however, be mesmerized by a world that seems sinister and pure at the same time.

Morgenstern’s allegories do not have the weight of those presented by Lewis, Pullman, or Tolkien, nor does her story have the addictive immediacy of J.K. Rowling’s creations. Too often she lets slip a modern colloquialism that rings trite. But on the whole her writing is enchanting. She pays homage to the greatest literary fairy tales and fantasies in her own fashion, creating heroes out of ordinary folk, making burdens out of gifts, and allowing her characters just enough free will to undo what nature has set in motion. It was a joy to lose myself in her beautiful writing, in her unique and colorful world, and in the souls of her tender characters. This was a reminder of why I love to read: for pleasure, to be delighted, to wander away from reality. Too bad I have to be jolted awake. There are some dreams you wish would never end.
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