The Queen of Peace Room by Magie Dominic

“In the immense court of my memory…I come to meet myself.”    Augustine of Hippo

“Things come apart easily when they have been held together with lies.”  Dorothy Allison

“A change in the state of the psyche produces a change in the structure of the body.” Aristotle

“Nature is like parting a curtain; you go inside it.”   Agnes Martin

From the introduction:  “Just as a country can be the site of a battle, so too can the body be the scene of a crime.”

Closing scenes of a live performance at the Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday afternoon: The blood I am walking through is splattered over a black wooden floor…I watch as my feet move through rivulets of blood and grab clothing with both hands…not a second to waste…I leave the sounds of thousands of people applauding on the other side of the giant, gold curtain, and hang my dresser bag from a high rack in the wardrobe room…and return home to think. To the quiet.
Anything can trigger memories, a voice, a story, a smell, the sight of dripping blood….I leave the apartment and its electrical outlets and travel to an isolated retreat house at the suggestion of a friend. I’m told along the way that there’s something unique about the place, something positive, but not explainable.”

This is a very personal story by Newfoundland writer and artist Magie Dominic who has had essays and poetry published in anthologies and journals in several countries. She has exhibited artwork in Toronto and New York. Her book asks a question that is becoming more and more common today as individuals seek to heal from legacies of the past: “What is memory, and where is it stored in the body?”

Dominic’s arrival at the retreat is juxtaposed with her childhood memories of church at Saint Henry’s and attendance at the school associated with that church and the nuns who taught there but also inhabited the church on Sundays. Dominic’s father was Lebanese and Catholic; her mother was Scottish. She says it was her father’s “unshakeable belief, his rosary appearing for an hour every week, that led me on my search for churches in every city I ever lived in, ever spent more than a weekend in for the rest of my life.” She recalls her childhood in Newfoundland, rabbit carcasses in the kitchen on newsprint and thinks: ” pieces of those rabbits are inside me to this day. Wanting to escape. Wanting a chance to move away from a trap on a cold Newfoundland floor.”

The retreat house she has come to “is thought to hold special powers of energy. No one knows how to describe it, or what in fact it is. People think it might have something to do with ley lines, invisible lines of power, connecting holy areas around the world. That it may be aligned with a sacred place somewhere, but no one knows anything for certain.”

“My room is called The Queen of Peace Room. It’s written on a narrow wooden plaque on theQueen of the Peace Room wall above the dresser. Below it a small mirror, just big enough so I can see myself from the neck up. The rest of me, apparently, doesn’t exist here.”

“I light a candle in The Queen of Peace Room and make my usual altar on the bureau top – a thin blue scarf, pictures of angels, Gandhi, and Saint Dymphna, patron saint to keep one from going completely mad; a cardboard picture of Jiminy Cricket (a believer in faith and hope), and a Heikimer crystal.”

“I listen to the sounds of a bird, wind shifting leaves, the zing of crickets, and silence. Blue light spills across the bureau. This is the original magic.
Magic can’t be destroyed. That’s why it’s called magic. The soft tick of the travel clock blends with the sounds of the night.
I look through The Queen of Peace window until I fall asleep.”

This book is a journey and no words of mine can add to those of the author. So I will add a few more of those and close with them. You will know if this is something that speaks to you.

“The woman I am becoming at this complex of buildings has the complexities of at least four different voices thinking simultaneously. One of them, maybe all of them, wants to smile again. To walk to no place in particular and be home at no time especially. Wants to learn to speak without crying. A new voice is emerging. Inside me. And it’s moving with a speed torn from the wings of angels who’ve been standing around doing nothing. The body heals more rapidly than the mind. But with the right environment, they can heal together. A group of nuns in the woods have noticed me, and are responding.
All of the women  had heard stories of abuse and violence. Nothing is unmentionable with them. They are like wings for one another and now they have included me. They speak about people they know, people who are trapped, and those who’ve moved away from terror.”

“Where have I been? Who have I been for half a century?”

“I feel like a snake removing its skin. Layer by layer by layer. Like an awkward package at a lost and found, waiting to be claimed. Wanting to be calm. The electronic bulletin board in my head wants to be turned off. No more images flashing. …
Thoughts and memories are lodged inside my cells. Some have been living there for almost half a century. I have to split myself in half…and allow all the poison to drain. In order to remove the pain, I have to first remove the memory. ”

“Trees are constantly bending towards the light. We can learn a lot from trees.”

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Cimorene was a princess in the large kingdom of Linderwall which is “just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show…periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers…could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child…”  Cimorene was the youngest daughter of the King and she hated it in Linderwall.

When she was twelve, her father found out she was bullying the armsmaster to give her fencing lessons. She argued but her mother put her foot down, saying it simply wasn’t proper.

At age fourteen, her father discovered that she had been making the court magician teach her magic ever since her fencing lessons had been forbidden.

She came up against similar resistance when she tried Latin lessons, cooking lessons, economics and juggling lessons and so, when she was sixteen, she summoned her fairy godmother. The fairy godmother explained that she should only be called in the case of  matters of utmost importance to Cimorene’s life and future happiness. It turned out that the fairy godmother was in league with her parents and so she bade same fairy godmother a polite good-bye.

Quite suddenly her parents arranged an engagement without informing her and informed them that she didn’t want to marry Prince Therandil nomatter how good looking he was. Her parents refused to change the plans and Prince Therandil could not be enlisted to help. While bemoaning her status in the castle garden she uttered the thought that she “would rather be eaten by a dragon” and a small green frog replied “That can be arranged.” The frog just happens to dislike Therandil for sinking rocks on the pond in the garden and letting them fall into the frog’s living room. After a discussion of Cimorene’s qualifications the frog decides that there is no other option than to run away. He offers her full instructions and later that night Cimorene sets out with five clean handkerchiefs and her best crown. She followed the frog’s Dealing with Dragonsinstructions very carefully and arrived at a “tiny, wretched-looking hovel made of cracked and weathered gray boards. The door hung slant-wise on a broken hinge, and the whole building looked like it were going to topple over at any moment.” She knocked three times, snapped her fingers, pushed the door open and walked inside.

It was very dark inside the hovel but when Cimoriene informs whomever is speaking to her that “I can’t see who you are in this dark, you know” “a small ball of light appeared in the air above Cimorene’s head. Cimorene stepped backward very quickly and ran into the wall.

The voices belonged to dragons.”

And so begins a wonderful adventure in which Cimorene becomes a dragon’s princess. A dragon named Kazul. A female dragon who becomes the King of Dragons. Yes!

Recommended for teens and about-to-be-teens and grandmothers who are attracted to dragon stories and anyone else who is so inclined!

 

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The first book in a trilogy, published in 1960 and banned by the Irish censorship board on publication, it was followed by The Girl with Green Eyes also entitled The Lonely Girl in 1962 and by Girls in their Married Bliss in 1964. According to Wikipedia, the O’Brien family priest burned copies of the novel and the parents were  shamed by their daughter’s words.

The burning by the parish priest is referred to on the blurb of O’Brien’s recent memoir Country Girl Memoirentitled, very appropriately,  Country Girl. Also from the jacket of that same publication: “Married with two sons, O’Brien was undeterred (by the scandal surrounding publication of The Country Girls) and has since created a body of work that stands among the best writing of the twentieth century. Country Girl brings us face-to-face with a life of high drama and contemplation. It is a rich and heady account of the events, people, emotion and landscape that imprint on and enhance one lifetime.” The same might be said of the first book in the trilogy.

The Country Girls is the story of two Irish girls living in a small village in early 1960s Ireland. The book was dedicated, incidentally, “To my mother”. The narrator is Caithleen Brady and her friend is Baba Brennan. It may be hard to imagine a “best friend” such as Baba but she remains Caithleen’s friend throughout the story. When the two girls meet in the cloak room on the last day of school, Baba wore “a white cardigan like a cloak over her shoulders so that the sleeves dangled down idly. She was full of herself.
“‘And what in the hell do you want a bloody coat and hat and scarf for? It’s the month of May. You’re like a bloody Eskimo.’
‘What’s a bloody Eskimo?’
‘Mind your own business.’ She didn’t know.
She stood in front of me, peering at my skin as if it were full of blackheads or spots. I could smell her soap. It was a wonderful smell, half perfume, half disinfectant.
‘What soap is that you’re using?’ I asked.
‘Mind your own bloody business and use carbolic. Anyhow, you’re a country mope and you don’t even wash in the bathroom, for God’s sake. Bowls of water in the scullery and a face-cloth your mother made out of an old rag. What do you use the bathroom for anyhow?’ she said.
‘We have a guest room,’ I said, getting hysterical with temper.
‘Jesus, ye have, and there’s oats in it. The place is like a bloody barn with chickens in a box in the window; did you fix the lavatory chain yet?’
It was surprising that she could talk so fast and yet she wasn’t able to write a composition, but bullied me to do it for her.”

There is much anxiety in the first chapter of The Country Girls and it centers around Caithleen’s father. Both her mother and herself are afflicted by this anxiety. When the hired man, Hickey, suggests Caithleen’s mother go to see a play at the town hall, she spoke to him sacastically saying “I ought.” “She was thinking. Thinking where was he? Would he come home in an ambulance, or a hackney car, hired in Belfast three days ago and not paid for? Would he stumble up the stone steps at the back door waving a bottle of whiskey? Would he shout, struggle, kill her, or apologize? Would he fall in the hall door with some drunken fool…He had gone, three days before, with sixty pounds in his pocket to pay the rates.”

And for Caithleen, it was similar: “In fear and trembling I set off for school. I might meet him on the way or else he might come home and kill Mama.
‘Will you come to meet me?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, darling; soon as I tidy up after Hickey’s dinner, I”ll go over the road to meet you.’
‘For sure?’ I said. There were tears in my eyes. I was always afraid that my mother would die while I was at school.”

In Chapter 2 we are introduced to Mr. Gentleman. In Caithleen’s words, he “was a The Country Girlsbeautiful man who lived in the white house on the hill.It had turret windows and an oak door that was like a church door and Mr. Gentleman played chess in the evenings. He worked as a solicitor in Dublin, but he came home at the week-ends and in summer-time he sailed a boat on the Shannon. Mr. Gentleman was not his real name, of course, but everyone called him that. He was French, and his real name was Mr de Maurier, but no one could pronounce it properly…J.W. were the initials of his Christian names and they stood for Jacques and something else.”  Caithleen was sent by her Dada to his house one day with a note to ask to borrow money. We also learn more about Baba in Chapter 2: she was “the veterinary surgeon’s daughter” and, to use Caithleen’s words, “the person whom I feared most after my father.” We also meet Jack Holland in Chapter 2 and learn that he was ordered out of their house because he was caught with his hand on Mama’s knee under the card table one night. Caithleen is wary of Jack but gets plenty of good information from him. He warns her in this chapter that ‘There’s trouble brewing” but their chatting is interrupted by Baba on her bicycle who grabs the lilacs that Caithleen has brought for Miss Moriarity and claims them as her own gift for the teacher. At school, Caithleen learns that she has won a scholarship to the convent school. She gets a note from Baba saying she will be going to the same school.

In the next chapter, Jack Holland informs Caithleen that her mother has gone on a little journey. When Caithleen panics and cries, Baba encourages her to cry more: “She knew we’d get something.” Sure enough Jack came back with glasses of cider. Caithleen is afraid that her mother has gone to ask the O’Briens if she and her mother could go and live with them. She asks Hickey if her father came home and whether he hit her mother: “Hasn’t he always hit someone when he’s drunk?  If it’s not her ’tis me; and ’tis the dog if it’s neither of us.’ Arrangements have been made for Caithleen to stay with Baba but before she leaves the house she has an unexpected run in with her father.

Anyway, it’s a compelling coming-of-age story and, set in the 60s or not, it is timeless. How they manage to get themselves expelled from the convent school and then, how they manage in Dublin “as the giddy country girls brazening the big city” will entertain and also make you recall your own adventures from that phase of your life. I am looking forward to the second and third books in the trilogy.

On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier

Originally published in Quebec in 2008, I read the 2010 edition translated into English by Sheila Fischman.

There are three noteworthy epigraphs:On the Proer Use of Stars

“Sail, sail adventurous Barks! Go fearless forth,
Storm on his glacier-seat the misty North,
Give to mankind the inhospitable zone,
And Britain’s trident plant in seas unknown. ”
– Eleanor Porden

“The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have, in every
respect, provided most liberally for the comforts of the
officers and men of an expedition which may, with the
facilities of the screw-propeller, and other advantages of
modern science, be attended with great results.”

– The Times, May 12th, 1845

“You are mad and I am blind;
Tell me, who will take us home?”    – Jalal Ud Din Rumi

“The sun was shining on that 19th day of May in 1845, when the Erebus and the Terror were preparing to cast off at Greenhithe, their reflections shivering in the greenish water of the port where floated garlands, handfuls of rice, and small dead fish.A crowd of a John Franklingood ten thousand was assembled on the docks to witness the departure of Sir John Franklin, hero of the Arctic, who was setting off once again to conquer the mythic Northwest Passage, as always for the greater glory of the Empire. On the deck of the Erebus, in full regalia, the explorer was holding aloft a coloured handkerchief so that his wife Jane, Lady Franklin, could easily make him out in the midst of his inferiors, who were waving handkerchiefs of black silk.”

The story is told using journal entries made by John Franklin and Francis Crozier, second-in-command of the expedition juxtaposed with accounts of what Jane Franklin was doing either on her own travels or at home and also the details of some of the activities of her niece Sophia, her sister Fanny and her step-daughter Eleanor. There are also letters that provide considerable background information such as the “Instructions from Sir John Barrow (second secretary to the Admiralty) to Sir John Franklin complete with latitude and longitude readings.

 

ErebusAn early log entry by Sir John reads: “Terror and Erebus weighed anchor in the Port of Greenhithe on 20 May for a Journey undertaken by order of the Admiralty with the objective of discovering and navigating a Passage leading from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.  129 men on board 2 Ships. The pages that follow are the Ship’s Log of Captain John Franklin, Commander in Chief of the Expedition.”

Sir John “had discussed at length with his wife the contents of this logbook, which would in all likelihood become a valuable document for geographers, seamen, merchants, servicemen, and scientists of the day, as well as for posterity. He had agreed with Lady Jane that he would use a concise style and content himself with delivering factual information as precisely as possible. …Lady Jane would take what he had written and polish it sentence by sentence, as she was accustomed to doing for all the documents her husband composed, and, with his consent, she would breathe new life into them and give them the scope by which one can recognize the accounts by the great discoverers.”

Fortier further humanizes the story for us with details about various crew members: Crozier gave classes in the common room  and one fellow “asked to be taught to read”…”others were curious to learn the principles of physics, optics, the laws of astronomy and magnetism _ subjects on which Crozier enjoyed holing forth. Others still spent those few hours consulting the technical and scientific works that had been brought on board in their hundreds. But oddly enough, it was the novels and books of poems that enjoyed the greatest success.”  The Vicar of Wakefield and the poems of Lord Tennyson (a nephew of Sir John Franklin) were among the most popular books. “One seaman showed an unexpected talent for caligraphy; another was able to solve equations with a number of unknowns without the help of pen and paper; a cook’s helper discovered a passion for magnetism, a science for which he had something of a gift, as Crozier discovered when he was setting out the basic principles to a small group.” The latter young man turned out to be Adam Tuesday (he was found on a Tuesday on the steps of the orphanage where he had been abandoned). Crozier learned from Adam that he had read all the books on board on magnetism and also the Sonnets of William Shakespeare which he “particularly liked.” Details such as this made the characters come alive.

Also included is a description of John Franklin’s first marriage to Eleanor Anne Porden whom Jane met when Eleanor was twenty-three. Eleanor was a poet and Jane found her choice of Franklin as a husband disappointing but changed her mind about this later when she discovered that “John Franklin was prepared to learn, to change, to improve himself. All that was needed was a firm hand to guide him.” Jane married John Franklin after “Eleanor died following a lingering consumption.”

And what of “the proper use of stars”?

Stars receive at least two major mentions in the book: in Tasmania where Sophia first meets Francis Crozier and John Ross who were on an expedition to Antarctica, she has a discussion about stars with each of the two captains. After dancing with John Ross she asks him if he knows all the stars and he replies that he knows “the sailors’ stars” and that he “know[s] the stories less than their usefulness for navigators when it is time to take one’s bearings”.  “Sophia sighed in the face of such dull pragmatism. They were alone beneath a sky that could have been studded with diamonds…and here she was with this deuced Captain who could only talk about navigation.” Shortly afterwards, Crozier comes upon her at the ship’s rail and when he comments on the fact that she might prefer to be alone she replies: “No, no, stay, it’s fine. You can no doubt teach me a great many fascinating things about the proper use of stars in navigation.” Crozier thinks and says that he has been too “blunt” and apologizes and tries again. They have a very different conversation in which he discovers for her a new constellation by pointing to eight stars and then”by drawing an S in the middle of the sky that appeared, after being designated, to shine with a more brilliant light.” Pragmatism vs. romanticism?

A second mention of stars comes a few pages later when a crewman named Thomas observes that there are more stars to be seen from the deck of the expedition’s ships than he had ever seen at home. He believes this to be because there are no other lights to outshine the stars and dim their brilliance. One can’t help but think about how that applies to our modern urban skies. Then he sees the Aurora borealis which “seems to confirm for him that the place where he is, is at once at the end and the dawn of the world.”

The fate of the Franklin expedition of 1845 may or may not be known to you. I would highly recommend that you not do any research in advance as it will all become quite clear quickly in this relatively short novel. I find that it has inspired me to do more research and I am particularly looking forward to some additional reading on Lady Jane Franklin. I have had a book on my shelf for a few years now by Canadian writer Ken McGoogan: Lady Franklin’s Revenge. This book is sub-titled A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. With the reading of On the Proper Use of Stars it has made a quantum leap to the top of my To Be Read list thus illustrating one of the greatest rewards of reading : it leads to more reading. Enjoy!

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

“My sister Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of mistake.”

I”m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, Tell the Wolveslate Decmber, and we’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it.”

“Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.”

“On the way home I asked Greta if she thought you could catch AIDS from hair. She shrugged, then turned and stared out the window for the rest of the ride. I shampooed my hair three times that night (June’s Uncle Finn has kissed the top of her hair when Greta had pulled out some mistletoe). I thought about how just for a second, just as he’d leaned into me, AIDS and Greta and my mother had disappeared from the room. It was only Finn and me in that tiniest of moments, and before I could stop myself I wondered what it might be like if he really did kiss my lips.”

June’s relationship with her uncle made Greta jealous and caused a rupture in the girls’ formerly loving companionship. “Greta knew the kind of friend Finn was to me. She knew that he took me to art galleries, that he taught me how to soften my drawings of faces just by rubbing a finger along the pencil lines. She knew that she wasn’t part of any of that.” “It’s hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got …weirder.” Greta accused June of being in love with Uncle Finn.

Uncle Finn took June to the Cloisters and it became their favorite place. They were “like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhatten. …made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together. ” June imagined being with Finn there and “illuminating manuscripts with the thinnest flakes of gold leaf” and not saying a word but gazing at one another across the room. “That’s the kind of love I imagined with Finn. That’s what I told myself.” Finn took her to movies like Amadeus and Room with a View and he talked to her about the characters.

June knew Uncle Finn was dying but the news was still a great shock. A man’s voice left a message: “I’m ringing about your uncle. Uncle Finn in the city. I”ll try back later.”

June had not picked up the phone. “Finn was gone. I knew Finn was gone. …I picked up the phone and dialed his number, which I knew by heart.”

The person who had called was seen at the funeral home and June begins to wonder who he is and what he was doing in her Uncle Finn’s apartment when he called. What a shock for June: Uncle Finn had a friend who might have even lived in his apartment where June and Greta went to have their  portrait painted every Sunday. How could that be?

Here’s the first reference to the wolves (June has gone for a walk in the woods after a snowstorm and is lying flat out in the snow, looking up at the twisted patterns of the bare tree branches against the gray sky):

“Then, into the silence, over the top of everything, came a long, sad howl. For a second it felt like the sound had come from inside me. Like the world had taken everything I was feeling and turned it into sound….By  the time I sat up, there were two howls. … The howls weren’t steady. Both of them had a kind of cracked-voice sound to them, and they were staggered. …The howls grew louder, and a picture of a big lunging gray wolf with tons of matted fur popped into my mind. For a single dumb moment it really did feel like I was in the woods in the Middle Ages, when wolves could take away babies or eat a person whole.
“I’m not afraid,” I called out across the hills. Then I ran, stumbling and tripping…out of the woods, into the school parking lot…doubled over, catching my breath.”

Then an article appears in The New York Times about the portrait of the two girls. In the article it is revealed that the portrait is entitled ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’. None of the family had known this was the title of the painting. June is convinced that only Toby, Finn’s friend, could have known this. She has learned his friend’s name from a letter he sent asking to meet her.

Ah…but that’s a good place to stop. An extremely good coming-of-age story full of relational wisdom for all ages.  Fun literary references, movie titles, television shows. Also a rather unique adventure surrounding the portrait. Enjoy!