Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Ellstrom Award for Literature—2008

Dear World of Literature,

I have been thinking about the 2008 non-cash, no notoriety award that is the Ellstrom Award for Literature. Named after JJ Ellstrom, see picture below, I feel compelled to make the right decision, if for no other reason than that I named the thing for my grandfather.



As I pointed out several days ago, I am considering a stiff field of books. I was quite impressed by them all. Think about Percy's Last Gentleman. It contains, to my way of thinking one of the greatest scenes in literature. The last 5th of the book is pretty spectacular. However, it also contains some skewed thinking, including subtle views of women and blacks that are hurdles I can't get over when naming my winner. Sorry Walker. (I'll write.)

Then, how about that book, Sand Child, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. It stuck in my mind for weeks. I still haven't figured it out. And that is the problem. A little too obscure. Great, but obscure. Perhaps I will read this book again and then I can consider it again next year.

Then there is that great book by Richard Wright, Black Boy and American Hunger. I think Wright painted an amazing self portrait on top of a canvas filled with revelations of culture and politics. I am not sure why this book didn't rise to the top of my list. It just didn't, perhaps writing style.

The last two books are about equal in my esteem. Vladimir Nabakov created two amazing characters in his book, Lolita. This work was not an easy one for me to even want to read. The subject matter seemed too much for me--a man molesting a child over and over again. Yet, Nabakov handled the subject matter so sensitively, delicately, completely, yet not more than necessary, that it is hard to say the book was anything but masterful. One would expect to come out on the other side of such a book either desensitized or perhaps hating Humbert Humbert, the man who stole Lolita's childhood. Yet the reader is not forced to become hardened, nor are they left without empathy for Humbert. And because of that we are able to see ourselves better, understand our own obsessions, and perhaps be more compassionate toward those who we normally would neither see nor value. This book is truly one of the classics of twentieth century writing.

But it is The Plague by Albert Camus that wins the 2008 Ellstrom Award for Literature.

JJ Ellstrom and Albert Camus, whose book The Plague won the 2008 Ellstrom Award


Why, this book, you ask? I think it is that it faces death and suffering with grace, courage, and compassion, and hope. It is not an easy book, but it is a good one. And it is the one I chose.


Congratulations Albert and The Plague. Congratulations World.

brd

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Ellstrom Award for Literature—2007

Dear JJ aka PapPap,

I have named an award after you. The Jan Josef (Joseph) Ellstrom Award for Literature. I guess we could less formally call it Joe's Award. I remember Nana calling you Joe, but your friends from the Swedish Lodge called you JJ, didn't they.

In my adulthood I have learned that life with you was not all peaceful. So, I will not call this a peace prize; I shall save that for the prize I name for Nana. However, my remembrance of you is very good. I remember the sizzling smell of your blacksmith shop and the sweet smell of your pipe from which you let us take clandestine puffs when sitting at your feet on the front porch of the green house on 27th Street. I remember your gruff reprimands when we escaped that porch, not via the steps, but over the front banister, climbing like spiderpeople onto window ledges and down to the front sidewalk.

I remember you in your "easy chair" near the highback piano, calling for each of us to bring to you our report cards, signs of the work we had accomplished during school semesters. At the time, little Pennsylvania girl that I was, I did not sense your vision of the significance of those cards. I saw them with the eyes of a child playing bingo at the lodge, here a winning, there a losing. You saw them as a passport like the one you had earned with hard labor at eighteen in Varmland and that could take us as far from a smithy shop as yours had taken you from Ternskog.

So, I named my literature award after you, for you valued learning and education. I have come to value them, too.

I have decided to award a 2007 prize before I move on to 2008. I got thinking about the things I read in 2006 and decided that this had to be done. Plus I still can't decide about 2008 yet. I'm stymied on 2008, but not on 2007.

The 2007 Ellstrom Award for Literature goes, hands down, to Beloved by Toni Morrison.

2006 was the year that I immersed myself in the books of Toni Morrison. I still have a few to read, but I've read enough to know that I consider her the premiere living American author. So, I think it appropriate that the first Ellstrom award goes to her. Her passport has been stamped by much hard work, and shows the signs of overcoming the kind of obstacles that you, my immigrant ancestor faced and overcame.

And the story of Beloved and her family has all the marks of migration and the high price of that flight. You paid that price too, arriving by boat at Ellis Island with $11.00 and and an address of a relative in Altoona, Pennsylvania. So, I believe, you might agree with my first choice.


Betsy

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Ellstrom Award for Literature

Dear Alfred Nobel,

I recently ran across this quote:

My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world
conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies
can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.
~Alfred Nobel

Didn't they say that later about the atomic bomb, too? I think your later endeavor, the one that kind of got kicked off after you did, has done more than dynamite to foster the peace process. At least once a year it gets us to think about peace again and who is contributing to it.

Sometimes I wonder about how the folks who snag the Nobel Prize for Literature are contributing to peace. Excellent writing does not necessarily encourage peace. Some writers seem determined to just write, and they, embracing Heidegger's thinking "language speaks man," perhaps don't vie for the peacemaking consequences of their words. But some authors do embrace the connection I think. Are those the ones who get the prize?

Anyhow, thinking about all this has led me to set up my own award for literature, The Ellstrom Award. There is no cash prize for this. It is just my own little tip of a hat to what I think is fine. I named it the Ellstrom Award because my grandfather Ellstrom came from Sweden and your nordic influence played into my decision. I am making this award to the book not the author. I am choosing from a slim field, just the books I read this year, a list of which you will find at:
Books I Read This Year—2007.

I'm wondering if this should be the 2007 award or the 2008 award?

Here are the books that are in contention:

The Last Gentleman—Walker Percy
The Plague—Albert Camus
The Sand Child—Tahar Ben Jelloun
Black Boy—Richard Wright
Lolita—by Vladimir Nabokov

As you can see, this isn't an obscure list. Who could say I'm not making a good choice, whichever one I choose? They all are really fine works. In fact, I'm going to have to think some more about this. If you have an opinion to express on this, I'll take it into consideration.

Betsy

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Books and Music in 2008

Dear Me,

This is the spot where I'm keeping a list of reading and watching and listening. Mostly it will be books and CDs. I could include movies, but only if they are really important.

Books
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov
The Black Monk and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
Run by Ann Patchett
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Burning Plain: and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Leguin
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery by David G. Benner
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
20th Century American Fiction (Course Part I) taught by Arnold Weinstein
The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Tamborines to Glory by Langston Hughes
Curses by Kevin Huizenga
The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan
Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
George Eliot: A Light and Enlightening Look by Elliot Engel
Jazz by Toni Morrison
Flight by Sherman Alexie
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Dubliners by James Joyce
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Music
Faure's Requiem performed by the Monteverdi Choir with other compositions by Saint-Saens, Ravel, Debussy, etc.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem
Distant Future by Flight of the Conchords
Howells Requiem with Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor
Requiem for Adam by Terry Riley
Takemitsu: Visions November Steps By Toru Takemitsu
Selected Works by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Including Cantus Arcticus and A Requiem in Our Time
Requiem in C Minor by Luigi Cherubini
Requiem by Frei Manuel Cardoso
Messa Da Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi
The Russian Album with soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev
Forgotten Songs: Dawn Upshaw Sings Debussy
Passion sung by Jose Carreras
Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti
Faure: Cello Sonata No. 2 by Gabriel Faure with Steven Isserlis
The Faure Album with Gil Shaham, violin
Elgar from EMI Classics with Sir Adrian Boult
Wings in the Night: Swedish Songs sung by Anna Sofie von Otter
Sadko an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass with Godfrey Reggio
Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai
Polyphony: Requiem and Other Sacred Music by John Rutter
Powaqqatsi by Philip Glass with Godfrey Reggio
Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninov Piano Concertos 1-4 by Sergei Rachmaninov with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn
The Magic of Satie by Erik Satie with Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Rachmaninov I with Andrew Litton

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Beheading—Nabokov; The Requiem—Andrew Lloyd Webber

Dear Vladimir and Andrew,

In 1794, a group of sixteen nuns were convicted and found, on the lists of Robespierre, guilty of crimes against the. . . but it doesn't matter against who, does it?. . . and taken to the guillotine of Paris, the Barriere de Vincennes. They are the subject of this prayer, spoken first by St. Terese of Lisieux:
How beautiful the [beatification] ceremony of our Blesseds [of Compi├Ęgne] must have been, and how you must have given thanks to God, who has led me onto this mountain of Carmel, in this Order made famous by so many saints and martyrs. Oh! how happy I would be if my Master also wanted me to pour out my blood for Him! But what I ask of Him especially is that martyrdom of love which consumed my holy Mother Teresa, whom the Church proclaims a victim of charity.

My husband, who has been teaching a class on the writings and thoughts of the early church mystics read me a story from one woman, Ste. Teresa of Avila, who like, Sister Helen Prejean of Susan Sarandon fame, walked with the dead to the scaffold. The story is of the beatific vision experienced by the dear saint who would not leave the head of her condemned and whose labor would not suffer the final humiliation of a decapitated bounce in a basket but whose arms became a bloody cradle and whose spirit joined his for some moments in beatified ascent to the arms of Jesus.

As I stroked the blade of the final page of Invitation to a Beheading, I was prepared for the end, for I had read Azar Nafisi's analysis of the work and knew, if not the book, the conclusion of the book. I had been waiting for this, anticipating this Nabokovian beatification.

But after I closed the book, I popped into my car, and flipped on the cheap little mp3 player that I got for Christmas. It's no iPOD. Every time I turn it on is a surprise, no screen, no log, just random musics. But I had loaded, on the third day of Christmas, the Requiem mass that Andrew composed and produced in 1985 with Lorin Maazel and starring (there is no other way to say it) Placido Domingo, with notable performances by Sarah Brightman and Paul Miles-Kingston, the young treble soprano, and backed by the Winchester Cathedral Choir. The Requiem can also be found on Gold: The Definitive Hits Collection.

In my continuing search for the perfect requiem mass, I found yours, Andrew. Unfortunately, it is not perfect, except for the Pie Jesu which is, as sung by then little Paul, as sweet a musical rendering of these words as has ever been composed. (Check out the one minute sample on the above link.)
Pie, Jesu, qui tollis peccata mundi dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi dona eis requiem sempiternam.
This is the music I would like to accompany my ascent with the Blessed Martyrs of Compi├Ęgne (who were, I believe, singing Salve Regina), and Cincinnatus, and Robespierre, when I too have been beheaded.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Blessings,

BRD

PS: A note to Andrew

Mostly, Webber, I think you had best stick with song and dance, but you, like George Gershwin before you, have reached into your soul and found something more for us here. The initial requiem theme is wonderful, though you rush (as I guess we are all wont to do) to the statement of the Kyrie eleison. Then quick as a bunny we are into the Dies Irae. There are wonderful moments throughout and I wouldn't want to discourage you. The Hosanna could stand some work—at the benedictus I'm picturing a high school musical dance troop. And please, please get rid of the Phantom's organ solo during the final Libera Me. Otherwise, thanks for a beautiful rendition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Invitation to an End—Letter two to Vladimir Nabokov

Dear Vladimir,

My index rolling along the edge of Invitation to a Beheading finds now just a slim margin of pages left for me to read. It is like facing a death and my reading self is softening, getting ready for the final crunch of the executioners blade, that last sharp leaf, punctuated with "Fin."

And as Cincinnatus wrote in his letter to Marthe, I want someone to embrace the gravity of that, to "just grow afraid like a child that they are going to do something terrible to me, a vile thing that makes you sick, and you scream so in the middle of the night that even when you already hear nurse approaching with her 'hush, hush,' you still keep on screaming, that is how you must be afraid. . ."

Well, ok. I'm being dramatic. It is after all just the beheading of a book, not really a "Fin" of a life.

But facing ends is like that. Last week I sat face to face with my 86 something parents and talked about ends. I fear I did not express enough of my realization that this is, to me, a vile and terrible thing. Should I say it to them? They are such good and faithful people. Yet even father, whose normal patina is fairly flat, was enlivened by the discussion. He insisted on a new battery for his hearing aid. He would not miss a word of this conversation. What was he listening for? Perhaps, for my Munchian scream.

We folk, believing ourselves to be on the outside, play odd games, (Shall we play at anchors?) trying to beat the odds, but no. We walk polyhedron passageways, find microphones and speak, "Testing, 1, 2, 3," and end up back where we began. But we don't scream enough, I think.

Not that the scream is the fear. No, it is something else, for, as Dickenson says,
Forever-is composed of Nows-
'Tis not a different time-
Except for Infiniteness-
And Latitude of Home-From this-experienced Here

And that is good. And death is not so much an extraction from life as a movement to a fourth dimensional latitude of existence, perhaps, so we believe, and so my parents believe quite well—So much so that we would do well to imitate their style and grace.

But perhaps I should scream. Too.

Betsy

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Invitation to a Beheading

Dear Vladimir Nabokov,

I have had some trouble finding your classic novel. Finally, the University of Kentucky library systems provided a lovely pencil-annotated version of Invitation to a Beheading, copyright 1959, (Presented, a book nameplate explains, by J. Wesley Littlefield of the Class of 1933).

I haven't finished the book yet. As I read, my right index finger strokes the pages that remain, relieved to find, still, a good two-thirds of the whole waiting.

This is my first letter to you, and I feel a little shy. I feel, perhaps, like Cincinnatus, a lone dark obstacle (pg. 24) who will be unable to maintain control of cunningly established illusion. Perhaps you will wrinkle your eyes—you might remove your spectacles and with a tissue from a rectangular cardboard box, huff and swipe at a singular fingerprint, replace them—and confirm my opacity. Your Cincinnatus could at such moments take hold and remove himself to a psychologically safe place. I think that I did not learn, early enough, the trick of such mental transportation.

Self is such an odd containment. We hover about the stark cell that is the heart of ourselves. It is a tiny habitat, really, with just a few rules, a nearly unreachable glint of sunlight, and, if we are fortunate, a writing desk.

I wonder whether all of us, early or late, come to recognize the imprisonment we enjoy. And, if we are fortunate enough . . . believe me, I do not for a minute disrespect the miraculous in this . . . if we are fortunate enough to be loved by some—mother? father? sister? brother? friend? dog?—we will without doubt be the victim of some—mother? father? son? aunt? butcher? baker? Someone complains about "our basic illegality" and we are undone.

Such is life and it is, often, to the pain if not to the guillotine. So we begin to look to the end with an odd fixation, either in fear and trembling or with mild obsessions, or with resolute faith in something higher, better, bigger, other than our little cell selves.

"The compensation for a death sentence is knowledge of the exact hour when one is to die," believes Cincinnatus? But how senseless a belief is that, for we have all heard the whispered sentence, "Prisoner, in this solemn hour. . . " with soft breath tickling our ears.

"So we are nearing the end. The right hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager."

I am anxious to discover what else your have to say in your book before my index digit plucks and turns the final leaf.

Betsy

P.S. I found this butterfly you drew for Vera. How nice.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Socrates to Caesar, Then Your Light Came

Note to readers: The following is a thought poem that my sister wrote during this holiday season. I was fascinated by how her thoughts dovetailed so closely with my own, published here, during the advent season.

Dear Deb,

Thanks for sharing these thoughts with me. It is interesting that there continues such a synchronicity in our thinking over the miles, the years, and the experience. Having friends is most wonderful; we are agreed on that I know. Having a sister is amazing!

With my love,

Betsy

Thoughts arising from thinking about the darkness during the intertestamental period and awaiting the Light.

How long ago it was said that the "sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings", yet it is still dark.(Malachi 4:2) And so we continue to light our candles behind dark veils not knowing where the Light will come from. One to six we light and chant brave words of freedom, freedom from our captors. And yet one we light and secretly breath words of hope. Hope in the truth of what the ancient prophet Isaiah spoke. Hope of one who would come, and in His very person offer freedom of soul, freedom from the darkness that has invaded our souls and sickened us. The One through Whose wounds we can be healed, the One who would take our infirmities, carry our sorrows and deal with our transgressions. (Isaiah 53:4,5)

And yet we have waited so long, and the poor light of our candle flickers. Long ages ago the prophets voices were stilled by those who preferred their darkness. We seem to wander alone in the dim light of our candles waiting, hoping and fighting our battles against those stronger than we. And always comes the temptation to wonder, do we wait in vain, will the light always be dim, will our sight always be veiled and our way be confused by the darkness.

"Therefore the night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them. The seers will be ashamed and the diviners disgraced. They will cover their faces because there is no answer from God." (Micah 3:6,7)

One night on a hillside all was dark. The shadows were deep and through the increasing darkness the sheep could barely be seen. Then suddenly, without warning, without thoughts or actions being prepared, came The Light shining with greater intensity than could be imagined. Prophet Isaiah's "Light" had come, the glory of the Lord rose upon us. (Isaiah 60:1) The curtain of darkness was torn and we were invited to that Light, that Light that is the Light of men, the One that would shine in the darkness and but the darkness would not understand it. (John 1:4,5)

And so the Light shone with an intensity that certainly was not understood. Once again men tried to put the light out, but they could not. From the darkness on another hill the Light shone cutting through that darkness, ripping it apart. Three days later its kingdom was broken apart and its power to hold us was destroyed. Then something happened that had never happened before, something that the prophets spoke of , but we little understood, and still we little understand. Yet we have partaken of it, that Light, which freed us from the power of the darkness, entered us. The Light took up residence within our spirits. Everything was different , no longer were we alone.

Marching down long ages that Light shines. Through our frail frames the Light shines on, continuing to bring freedom from the darkness that tries, without hope, to quench Him. And we still wait, and sometimes the Light seems dim, and sometimes bright. But now our waiting has a sense of expectancy, because the promises that once were kept continue to ring in our hearts, He came and is coming again! One day we shall look up and the Light will blind our eyes, but our hearts will cry "Come Lord Jesus." We shall see His face, the shining light of the Son.

--Debby Rupe