Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Holy Stuff of Life: Stories, Poems, and Prayers about Human Things.

My good friend, Jennifer Clark, took the time to read and review a book from the church library for us this week. Jennifer is employed by Kalamazoo Community in Schools, is a writer and poet, wife of John, and the mother of "almost" 5 year old, Tom.

By Heather Murray Elkins

The Pilgrim Press, 2006


Stuff. That’s the word that caught my eye when I first spotted the book Holy Stuff of Life: Stories, Poems, and Prayers about Human Things.

A colleague once accused me—and accurately so—of generously infusing the word “stuff” into my conversations. “Stuff” is vague and nebulous. But, at times, isn’t life? Sometimes I do not want to define or label things, to pin down that which should be untethered. Much can be learned by occasionally resisting the temptation to define the indefinable by refusing to give form to the formless with inadequate words, sometimes freedom and a greater sense of truth can be found by forgoing the responsibility of naming something and instead, embracing the ambiguity of a moment, a person, a thing, of, well, stuff.

At other times, most often when I am working on a poem, I obsess on the need to be precise. I must capture the essence of some thing. This thing demands exactitude, a word or words that illuminate its truth. Is it glistening or is it really shimmering? Captive or confined? Friend or comrade? Stuff or objects? What exactly is it? But I digress…

So when I came across Holy Stuff of Life displayed on a shelf in the church library, I felt an immediate affinity with the author and had to take it home.

Holy Stuff of Life is a collection of writings by Heather Murray Elkins, in which extra virgin olive oil, spoons, rocks, tattoos and other sundry items are salvaged from the commonplace and transformed into the extraordinary. Murray Elkins points out within her introduction, “This universe of stuff offers us a process of altar-ing our selves and our world. To altar/alter is to lift up the common place of life for holy use.”

This former “Truck-stop Chaplain” turned professor of worship and preaching at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, Murray Elkins seems ever on the lookout to make connections that others might easily miss. And in this quest, she discovers holy in the mundane. Stuff becomes transformed when a story becomes attached to it; a spoon becomes the weapon for Christians, a dead Christmas tree become a sign of redemption. Each chapter is short and can stand on its own. Her stories are nuggets of wisdom, grounded in her own life as a daughter, mother, a pastor’s wife and as a minister herself.

During a recent stay at our home, my mother-in-law picked up the book and found herself reading aloud passages to her husband, a retired Methodist minister. “It’s not a book to be read fast,” she cautioned me. “You have to read it, put it down and think about it.” She’s right. I found myself, after each piece, setting the book down, staring out a window and wondering things like: What is my relationship to “stuff? What am I holding onto that I should be letting go of? How do I forgive? What am I missing?

Murray Elkins describes the final pieces of her collection as “stories of things that help us hope while waiting to see. And while we’re waiting for the broken circle to be mended, we remember to plant trees, wait on tables, sing songs, and tell stories about those people and things we’ve loved, lost, and hope to find again. Above all we must expect to be surprised.”

It is in this section she reflects on her father at the end of his life:

A man and his tool are not easily parted. It took my father both hands to drive a nail when he was eighty-five, but he was counting on being able to drive a nail when he turned ninety. A bleeding ulcer nearly swept him off the ladder of life, but he held on fiercely. I watch him doing arm lifts with Mother’s five-pound large print Bible so the doctors will let him go home. Pumping the iron of the gospel gets him home for one more year.

While most of her stories flow, her poems which are sprinkled throughout the book are another matter. With the exception of “Stirring Women” and “Father Joseph” the poems leave something to be desired. While she explores interesting ideas within them, the poems amble off and lose their way. Contrast, for example, these simple, lovely lines within a story about how her mother responds to losing the family farmhouse to fire:

She tells us to set the table, which means a lace cloth spread on the grass with mismatched spoons and saucers. Of course there’s no supper, but we set the table anyway.

to the first stanza within her poem “Soul Salsa”:

Now is the winter of our discontent.

An April ice

can frost any fire in the belly.

Global warming remains science fiction

in a season so rough in its going

that even the tough can’t get traction.

we’re all slip/sliding away.

Huh? What? The line breaks are odd and the whole poem lacks rhythm. I wished her publisher, The Pilgrim Press, had said, “Hold the salsa, Heather.”

That said, Heather Murray Elkins offers up a good book to the world/reader. (Just skip the poems.) Read it and you just might look at a spoon in a whole new way. It’s pretty good stuff.

For more on Heather Murray Elkins, check out her website:

(And now I’m off to read: When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That, by Martin Gardner, perhaps best known for his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. This and that. It caught my eye. What can I say?)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Shutter Island

By Dennis LeHane
New York, Harper Collins, 2005

Week 12 Fiction

Well, this was a bad mistake. I saw the movie before I read the book, so a great deal of the suspense was missing from the book. But, it still was compelling enough that I kept reading.

This is the first Dennis LeHane book that I have read, and I read it for my book club in anticipation of a visit by LeHane to the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival in Dowagiac, Michigan, on Friday May 7. ( I think that I am going to have to read another book by LeHane before he comes so that I can get a better feel for his writing without anticipating the next twist and turn.

Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, are US Marshalls. They take a ferry to Shutter Island in Boston Harbor to find a missing patient from the mental hospital on the island. Shortly after they arrive, a hurricane beats down on the island bringing massive amounts of wind and rain. So, their search for the missing woman is hampered by the weather as much as it is by the spooky building, a scary psychiatrist, and criminally insane patients.

We soon discover that Teddy has an agenda for the visit that goes beyond just finding the patient, a woman who murdered her three children. He is there to find the man who set fire to an apartment building, killing Teddy’s wife in the process. But, in ways that I’m assuming are typical of Dennis LeHane, nothing is as it seems. The Marshalls’ visit deteriorates as does the weather, and when the sun finally comes out, we are left with a human tragedy that is beyond our wildest imaginings.

One of the most telling passages of the book is a speech by the psychiatrist toward the end of the book:
“God gives us earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes. He gives us mountains that spew fire onto our heads. Oceans that swallow ships. He gives us nature, and nature is a smiling killer. He gives us disease so that in our death we believe. He gave us orifices only so that we could feel our life bleed out of them. He gave us lust and fury and greed and our filthy hearts. So that we could wage violence in his honor. There is no moral order as pure as this storm we’ve just seen. There is no moral order at all. There is only this—can my violence conquer yours?”

The author has a keen ear for dialogue and a great understanding of plot, which makes it understandable that so many of his books have been turned into movies. This brings me to the movie. The best thing we could say as we left the theatre was, “Well, that was interesting.” And it was interesting, suspenseful, and sometimes compelling. Outlandish, yes, and you had to suspend disbelief as you bought into the plot line. Here is what my favorite reviewer James Berardinelli had to say about it:
“An atmospheric mind-fuck of a thriller, this movie delights in playing games with the audience's perceptions and has been crafted with such competence that it rises above the somewhat generic storyline that forms the basis of Dennis Lehane's novel. The strength of the film, like the book, is that it never allows the viewer to feel comfortable with what he is watching. That's because Shutter Island is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator and, as such, the lines between fantasy and reality sometimes blur so strongly that it's easy to become unanchored in trying to distinguish between what's real and what isn't.”(

The movie is very close to the book, probably because LeHane’s dialogue is already written. I’m going to read something else, perhaps Gone Baby Gone, because I haven’t seen that movie. I’ll let you know!

As a side note, I was watching episodes from season five of The Wire and saw that some of the episodes were written by Dennis LeHane. And I wasn’t surprised.

A not very flattering review of the book in the NY Times.

LeHane’s website is old and not updated. But there are two interviews on the website that are interesting.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hiding in the Spotlight

By Greg Dawson

New York, Pegasus Books, 2009

Week 11 Memoir

Greg Dawson grew up in a musical home: his father and mother were both music professors at Indiana University in Bloomington IN. He knew that his mother was Ukrainian, but he never asked many questions, and she never volunteered any information. So, it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s and writing a newspaper article about the holocaust for the Bloomington newspaper that he asked his mother for some information to bring in some local color. His mother told him an amazing story which he finally put into a memoir, written about the years 1941-1946 when his mother Zhanna and her sister Frina escaped from a Ukrainian death march.

Zhanna and Frina were being raised as piano prodigies when the Jews in their Ukrainian city began to be persecuted. There was also the anticipation that Germany was about to invade the Ukraine. It wasn’t long before their family was rounded up and sent on a death march. The father bribed the guard with his gold watch and the girls escaped. As her father put his warm coat around Zhanna’s shoulders, he whispered into her ear, “I don’t care what you do. Just live!” They found their way to some kind people from their music conservatory who helped them create Russian names and a back story that enabled them to move to an orphanage for displaced children. There they joined a troupe of entertainers. Their music helped them survive; they accompanied the entertainers as well as played on their own, both solos and duets. As they moved from camp to camp, entertaining for the Nazi officers, they were always sure that they were going to be discovered, but the music saved them.

When the war ended, they were at a DP camp in southern Germany. The camp director, Larry Dawson, heard them playing the piano and realized that these teenage girls were the real thing (musical prodigies) even though they had taken no lessons for five years. He and his wife adopted them and took them into their home in Virginia. Larry Dawson helped them win scholarships to Julliard, where they studied which led to careers as piano soloists and piano teachers. Zhanna married Larry’s brother David, and Greg Dawson, the author, is their son.

This is a well-written memoir. Dawson weaves the narrative in three ways: the historical context of their remarkable journey; the details of the ordeal; and Zhanna’s words as they describe the scene. Not only talented, these girls were smart and plucky. They knew how to be charming and gracious to their captors as well as to those who helped them. They also were smart enough to know that their talent was what was going to save them.

Zhanna saved one thing from their Ukrainian home, Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu, which serves as the symbol of the entire story. Music is the great connector. For that reason alone, this book is worth reading.

Much has been written in the last year about this story. Below are a couple of interviews and reviews.

A story on NPR Weekend Edition:

Interview with Greg Dawson:

The book’s website:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dear readers...(I know there is at least one.) I am leaving Thursday for my mother's 90th birthday party which is Saturday. Thus, this week's book, a memoir, Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson, will be reviewed on Monday.

So, here is a tribute to my mother, Evelyn Dack, 90 on March 18.
She is my great reading inspiration. She read to us all of our childhood and let me go to the library every time I wanted. I know that she knew that I read with a flashlight under the blankets, and she never told me to turn out the light. Her favorite childhood book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and it became my favorite as well.

She can no longer read because her memory is failing her. The last book I read to her was Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, and she loved every minute of it.

To Evelyn Dack, a remarkable woman and mother. Happy Birthday, Mom.

I'll return to blogging on Monday.

Friday, March 12, 2010

i sold Andy Warhol. (too soon)

By Richard Polsky

New York, Other Press, 2009

Week 10 Non-Fiction

This week’s blog is going to be short and sweet because the dissertations to edit are backing up. I found it amazing that I actually got this week’s book done, because I have been sitting at my computer night and day. However, willpower and a shorter book won out.

This week’s book is I Sold Andy Warhol. (too soon) by Richard Polsky. I read about this book in The New York Review of Books and found it at the library because I am buying too many books. (It’s just so easy to press “buy” on Amazon.) By the way, if you are looking for liberal reading about non-fiction books, The New York Review of Books is a great resource.

I knew nothing (and I really must emphasize nothing) about the art market before I read this book. I always feel intimidated by art galleries (to be distinguished from art museums), feel like I am an intruder since I’m not going to buy, and don’t know what to look for once I get into one of them.

Polsky’s book doesn’t help with any of those anxieties, but it does help the reader understand what has happened to the art market in the last few years, when the market passed by most collectors, gallery owners, and art dealers--even Polsky, who has been a player for 30 years. His premise is that art became a commodity in the early part of this decade when buyers and sellers acted like works of modern and pop art (Andy Warhol’s as an example) were stocks, futures, or real estate.

He tells the story of one of Andy Warhol’s fright wigs -- one of the green ones -- and the wild ride it took on the market, and he uses that piece of art as the metaphor for the whole business. As he chases the painting around the globe for a client, the reader gets a glimpse of the amazing heights the art market reached. The epilogue tells of the crash and the enormous losses collectors, dealers, and auction houses took in 2008.

He says, “ Since no one in the art business has any traditional job skills, everyone has to create some hustle and bustle to validate their existence…The reality of the art trade is there isn’t a whole lot to do…It’s because everyone is dependent on a few big buyers to keep them in the black. The art business runs counter-intuitive to most businesses, where you are taught not to put all your eggs in one basket.”

Interestingly enough, while Polsky is a dealer in art of the late 1900s and early 2000s and the book is about the art market in those works of art, today’s Wall Street Journal has a major article about the art market in the old masters, and I was able to read it with some understanding about the European Fine Art Fair, the auction houses, and the side deals. “During the book, collectors put a premium on high-profile contemporary art sales. While prices for Rembrandt and Raphael rose slightly, prices for living artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons were skyrocketing to record highs. Now, the Old Masters are staging their comeback.” Here’s a link to the article:

Well, now I know all about Damien Hirst. There is a whole chapter in the book devoted to him. I also know Jeff Koons because my sister and I took our children (one about 5 years old) to a Jeff Koons exhibit at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis in the late-1980s. Bad move!

At any rate, this book is a chatty look at the art business with a lot of name-dropping and a lot of self-deprecating humor. I had fun perusing the web for photos of the art works mentioned. It’s an easy non-fiction read. I promise that next month I will be more serious.

The other book by Richard Polsky is I Bought Andy Warhol. The two titles probably tell it all!

Here is an interesting review in the Huffington Post:

Next week I am reading a memoir about a musician. I’m back on familiar territory.