Veronica Gonzalez Peña talks about her new novel, THE SAD PASSIONS ; it’s about a family of four daughters and a mother dealing with mental illness, set in Mexico in the 1960s. And ecologist Carl Safina talks about the new National Geographic film he narrates: GYRE: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean.
Ruth Ozeki talks about her acclaimed new novel, A Tale For The Time Being. It’s about a Japanese-American teenager, a Canadian-Japanese writer, and the time-twisting connection between them after the Japanese tsunami. And Gretel Ehrlich discusses her riveting new book, Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.
In this fourth episode of our Writers Voice special series, The River Runs Through Us, Brian Kitely talks about THE RIVER GODS, his novel-in-vignettes of Northampton, Massachusetts from its founding to today; Native American scholar Marge Bruchac tells us about the original inhabitants of the Valley, and Pioneer Valley Planning Commission director Tim Brennan discusses the history and future of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts.
Our thanks to Mass Humanities for their support for this series.
Amy Larkin discusses her terrific new book, ENVIRONMENTAL DEBT: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy. And Katharine Applegate talks about her new novel for kids of all ages, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Written in the poignant voice of a gorilla, it’s based on the true story of a gorilla held captive for thirty years in a suburban mall.
Lois Leveen talks about the remarkable true story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who became a Union spy right inside the Confederate White House. Her acclaimed new novel, THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER, is based on it. And Eve LaPlante talks about her terrific new book, MARMEE AND LOUISA. It’s about the powerful relationship between Louisa May Alcott and her mother Abigail. Continue reading
Russ Kick, editor of The Graphic Canon, talks about the two volume set of the western world’s greatest literature, rendered in graphic novel form. And Louise Erdrich talks about her novel The Round House. It’s about the brutal rape and beating of a Native American woman and her struggle for justice against her non-native perpetrator. Continue reading
History is a quirky thing. Understanding history is a lot like the parable of the blind men and the elephant: depending on your vantage point, history can be a victory, a defeat, a holocaust or a glorious defense of the homeland.
And that seems to hold for personal history as well as big picture social, political and national histories. The lover you remember so fondly becomes a bitter pill after they marry your best friend; the heroic war protestor becomes a traitor to the cause when a secret relationship with the FBI is uncovered; the great writer is vilified with the discovery of plagarism.
So how does one go about comprehending a history, both personal and national, that is constantly shifting with the vagaries of time, distance, and circumstance? How can you be certain of what really happened, even in your own life, when how you interpret the past is dependent of where you are standing in the present?
Ismail Kadare examines this question in his novel, The Fall of The Stone City with a biting satirical wit and an aching sadness. Out for the first time in English translation, the novel is an complicated intellectual treat, a bitingly funny satire and a heartbreaking tragedy at all once. Ismail Kadare, an Albanian, is considered one of Europe’s best writers and his work has won the Man Booker prize and he has been a Nobel candidate several times.
The book opens on the small Albanian town of Gjirokaster in 1943 as it prepares for the Nazi invasion from Greece after the capitulation of the occupying Italians. Gjirokaster is a provincial, medieval town closed up against its neighbors and isolated by a sense of nationalistic entitlement. The Germans approach the main gates of the walled city and are fired upon by unknown assaillaints.
In retaliation, the Germans prepare a bombing campaign but just as it begins, a white flag is seen over the town. The Germans stop the bombardment but storm the town and take 100 prisoners, threatening execution if the assailants aren’t identified.
Just as the Germans are rounding up prisoners, a strange scene unfolds in the town square. One of the town’s most prominent citizens, Dr. Gurameto, meets with the German commander and invites him to dinner. It seems as if the German Colonel and Dr. Gurameto were college roommates and long lost friends.
Dr. Gurameto cuts a strange figure. Aloof, rigid and highly accomplished, he is not the only Dr. Gurameto in town. The first is known as big Dr. Gurameto while the another, unrelated Dr. Gurameto, known as the little Dr. Gurameto. Before the Germans invaded, the favorite sport of the town was to compare the two doctors on their perceived merits and. Half of the town favors the Big Dr. Gurameto and half the little Dr. Gurameto; depending on the day’s events one camp triumphs over the other in the war of words.
The dinner with the German colonel seems to seal the town in Big Dr. Gurameto’s favor. Over the course of the dinner, which is shrouded in mystery, the Germans slowly release all 100 prisoners, including the town’s most prominent Jew. Based on an agreement that no party understands or shares, the Germans agree to let Gjirokaster be left unharmed.
And there Kadare sets up his novel. There are three unkowns that the book sets out to solve: who waved the white flag, who fired on the Germans and what really happened at the dinner at Dr. Gurameto’s house?
And the answers change throughout the book depending on how and where one ponders them. The book follows Dr. Gurameto and the town for ten years, into the rot of communist rule to trace the evolving understanding of what happened so many years ago.
During the German occupation, the Albanian nationalists are convinced the communists are the culprits and after the communists take power, the nationalists are to blame. All of the town’s sacred cows fall from grace as Kadare , with keen satire, skewers the blind institutional certainty and petty jealousies that shape history.
Dr. Gurameto is first hailed as a hero but as communist revisionism and paranio slowly take over he is slowly turned into a villain and arrested as part of a plot to kill Stalin. It is in the final third of the book, during his interrogation that Kadare reveals the secrets of the dinner.
Answering the question of what exactly happened at the dinner would ruin the novel, so I will leave it at this: what happens to Dr. Gurameto in his past and in his present are shocking and grievous, both unbelievable and unjust. In an amazing feat of intellectual and narrative dexterity, Kadare takes the ironies of fate, intertwines them with the fickle nature of self-protective narratives and smashes them on the impersonal destructiveness of bureaucratic institituions.
But more than the story of Dr. Gurameto, The Fall of The Stone City, is a parable for the difficulty with reconciling Albania’s complicated political and social history. For those interested in untangling history generally, and Balkan history specifically, there can be no more tragic and insightful place to start than The Fall of the Stone City.
— Drew Adamek
Sunday, February 17, 2008, 12:30 PM
Sweet Kirkendall’s house, Cedar, Oklahoma
“Your grandpa is a felon,” Aunt Sweet said. “A felon and a Christian. He says he’s a felon because he’s a Christian. Now, what kind of baloney is that?” She jerked the bib strings tight around Mr. Bledsoe’s neck. The old man coughed. “Sorry, Dad.” Aunt Sweet loosened the ties, snatched a baby food jar off the table. She pointed the spoon in her left hand at me like I might be fixing to argue. “Tell him I’ll be up there tomorrow. You tell him I said he’s got a serious amount of explaining to do.” She scooped up a dab of prunes. “Open your mouth, Dad. Carl Albert, hurry up.”
My cousin kept licking the Cheese Whiz out the sides of his sandwich like we had all the time in the world, which we didn’t. Visiting hours start at one, the preacher said, and it was already twelve thirty. I heard a car motor outside and I ran to the front room to look, but it was only old Claudie Ott herding her Chrysler home from church. I squinted across the railroad tracks and the highway toward First Baptist at the far end of the street, but I couldn’t see Brother Oren’s car coming.
“Dustin Lee! Get back in here and wash your hands!”
I did like she said. My aunt’s kind of high-strung at all times but for sure I didn’t want to cross her right then because Uncle Terry got called in to work the night before and he hadn’t got home yet. Aunt Sweet wanted to go with us to see Grandpa but she can’t leave Mr. Bledsoe by himself on account of one time he rolled his wheelchair out the door and straight across the highway to the E-Z Mart and everybody’s afraid he’ll get hit by a BP truck or something. I thought to ask her how come she didn’t make Carl Albert stay home so she could go, but I was afraid she might take the notion for me to be the one to babysit the old man instead. He’s all right but I can’t stand to watch him eat, and anyhow I wasn’t about to take a chance on missing out on seeing my grandpa. When I came back in the kitchen, Aunt Sweet was still trying to get Mr. Bledsoe to open his mouth.
“Aw hell,” she said, and jammed the spoon back in the prunes. I don’t know where she got the name Sweet. It don’t exactly fit her. Anyhow, her real name is Georgia. She reached up over the sink and got down a different jar. “Look here, Dad. Peach cobbler, your favorite.” Mr. Bledsoe isn’t her real dad—my grandpa is. Mr. Bledsoe belongs to Uncle Terry, and he’s not even his dad either. He’s his step-grandfather. “Carl Albert,” Aunt Sweet said, “if you don’t hurry up with that mess I’m going to take it away from you.”
My cousin licked faster. I don’t know how come he can’t eat a sandwich like a normal person but he can’t. I popped him in the back of the head on my way to the sink. He swiped at me and missed, but he didn’t say nothing. He didn’t want to get any more of his mom’s attention. He gave me the look, though, like Don’t worry, Dustbucket, I’ll get you back. We been fighting more since Grandpa and Brother Jesus wound up in jail. That’s Brother Jesus Garcia, from over around Heavener. They locked him up with Grandpa but they took all the other Mexicans someplace else. Aunt Sweet don’t like us calling him Brother Jesus. She says it’s a sacrilege to call somebody after Our Lord and Savior. She don’t even like to hear us call him Brother Hey-soos, and that’s his real name. Carl Albert says Grandpa’s going to get sent to the state pen and there won’t be no place for me to live except in town with them and if he’s got to share his bedroom with a dweeb he’s going to make the dweeb pay. He says they aim to throw the book at Grandpa for transporting illegals and our only hope now is the Supreme Court of America on appeal, and that could take years. I said having Mexicans in your barn don’t mean you’re transporting them—this was in the bedroom that first night when we were getting ready for bed—and Carl Albert said, Use your brain, Dustface, they had to get there some way. I punched him then, and he jumped me and got me down with my arm twisted till I hollered, Okay, okay, I give! But really I didn’t. I aimed to get him back. That pop on the head at the table was just a reminder.
In the kitchen I dried my hands on the dishtowel and told Aunt Sweet I was going to go watch for the preacher. “Holler when he gets here,” she said, pressing the spoon against Mr. Bledsoe’s shut mouth. “Come on, Dad,” she said. “Open up.” I hurried to the front room and squinted along Main Street past the closed video store and the boarded-up bank building with its caved in roof from the straight-line winds last April until I seen Brother Oren’s car backing out of his driveway. I yelled toward the kitchen, “He’s here!”
When the preacher’s rattly old Toyota pulled in, Aunt Sweet was waiting with me on the porch in her pink rodeo boots and her bluest jeans, which goes to show how much she still thought she’d be going to the jail with us when she got dressed that morning. She was shivering because she didn’t have on a jacket. I had on my black hoodie with the hood pulled up, not because I was cold. I just like my hood up. Carl Albert came racing out the front door in just a T-shirt and still zipping his britches. He squeezed past the preacher coming up the steps and ran out to the car so he could grab the shotgun seat. I tried to lag back, but Aunt Sweet told me to go on. She had her arms crossed and her mouth set, so I did like she said. I took the long way around, though, by Mr. Bledsoe’s ramp. Carl Albert leaned up for me to flip the seat forward, and when I climbed past him he knuckled me a good one, but I didn’t do nothing, just settled into the backseat. I was still biding my time.
[From KIND OF KIN by Rilla Askew Copyright © 2013 by Rilla Askew. Reprinted courtesy of ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.]
In the second episode in The River Runs Through Us, WV examines the life of Sojourner Truth and what she means to us. We talk with Jacqueline Sheehan about her novel about Sojourner Truth, THE COMET’S TALE; with historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of SOJOURNER TRUTH, A Life, A Symbol; and with Rachel Kuhn and Priscilla Kane Hellweg of the Enchanted Circle Theater about their musical play, SOJOURNER’S TRUTH: I Will Shake Every Place I Go To.
Our thanks to Mass Humanities for their support for this series.
Filmmaker Susan Rockefeller discusses her film, MISSION OF MERMAIDS: A Love Letter To The Ocean. Also, children’s book author, Jason Chin, talks about his acclaimed new book, ISLAND: A Story of the Galapagos. But first, WV encores our 2011 interview with Paolo Bacigalupe about SHIPBREAKER, his dystopian sci fi novel that takes place in a world altered by climate change.
Barbara Kingsolver talks about her new novel, FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. It’s about what happens when a rural community in Tennessee is confronted with a bizarre phenomenon — caused by global warming. And futurist James Howard Kunstler says we’d better dispense with our penchant for magical thinking. His book is TOO MUCH MAGIC: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Continue reading