Personal heroes

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Are you my hero?

I planned to write a full post about all my heroes, expecting a long list to jump to mind immediately.

The obvious names came first (obvious, at least, for a person who went through the American school system): Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Tubman. Elie Weisel. Anne Frank. But as I thought about these and other historio-mythical figures, they didn’t seem specific enough to my life for me to consider them personal heroes.

So I moved on to geniuses in the fields of my own creative pursuits, i.e. music and literature: Mozart, Handel, Shakespeare, Rushdie. But while I’ve deeply appreciated the works these people have brought into the world, I’m not sure if I would call any writer or musician my hero. They have influenced my life, but none has saved it.

It’s a strange question, that: if anyone has saved my life. Certainly there have been incredibly powerful positive forces. I’ve had wonderful teachers, great friends, and am blessed with the most amazing, supportive family a person could ask for. Have any of them saved my life?

Perhaps. Perhaps my life is the sum of their gifts, and for this I am grateful and awed. But my original prompt was to find a singular, personal hero. I don’t believe I have one. Is this strange? Am I alone in being hero-less?

Do you have a personal hero? What reason is this person(s) your hero?

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10 favorite novels

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I kind of hate being asked who my favorite authors are. There are very few authors of whom I’ve read the entire oeuvre. In fact, sometimes I avoid reading more of an author’s work when I’m completely enamored of one of their novels, because inevitably I’ll feel disappointed (or so I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Picking out favorite novels, though, is a piece of cake. If I thought a little harder, this list could easily expand to 25 or 50. In the interest of time, I’ll stick to my top 10:

Cover art from One Hundred Years of Solitude

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: I read this book for a world literature class in high school. When the town of Macondo suffered a plague of insomnia and lost their past, when a Buendía daughter ascended into the sky with the laundry, when it rained yellow butterflies I would think You can do that?!? I’d never read anything like magical realism before, and it flipped my world upside down.

2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: This is the kind of book I wish I’d written first. I mean, one of the characters is an opera singer, another is a translator, and it’s all set in an unidentified South American country. And it’s so freakin’ flawless. One of our assignments for my novel class was to bring in a paragraph we love from a published work. The only difficulty was choosing which one of Patchett’s incredible paragraphs to bring.

3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This was the only novel I brought with me to Spain. And, even though reading it was pretty much all I did with my free time, it took me three months to finish it–it’s that dense. Reading it was realizing that magical realism can exist outside of South America. Reading it somehow was both wading through Rushdie’s thick sentences while also being buoyed by his exuberant energy. I don’t think any other novel could have sustained me for so long.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: One of the two best novels of last year. For a book about an Irish boys’ prep school, it’s surprisingly long. And it’s surprisingly wise. I’ve bought it for all the boys in my life thus far.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: The other best novel of the past year. And also, technically, the only book on this list that’s not a novel. Instead, the book is made of interconnected stories that grow out from each other, wind back on themselves, delve into the characters’ pasts and launch into their futures. I got to see Egan at a St. Paul event called Talking Volumes at which she spoke of how her writing process for this book was just to follow her curiosity. It all began with a tiny moment in her own life, from which she wrote a story and then she wrote a story about one of the ancillary characters from the first story. I like this as a description of the creative process–follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Egan also has a very cool website which you can read about all her moments of inspiration and how they led to different stories.

6. Saturday by Ian McEwan: Set all on one day in London, Saturday is a deep study of one character’s psychology. McEwan loves detailing how tiny decisions and collisions set a course that affect an entire life. When he did this in very popular Atonement I was so angry I threw the book across the room at the end of the first chapter and never picked it up again. When he does it in Saturday, it’s extremely effective.

7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Atwood is the queen of creepy science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale being perhaps her most famous twisted novel. It’s best, though, in the Blind Assassin because the novel is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. The innermost story is a gorgeous piece science fiction that is told by one unnamed character to another (which happens to be a novel written by another character). In the science fiction section, orphans are made to create fine carpets for the ruling class; a carpet’s quality is determined by how many children were blinded in its making. The orphans, once blind, have no place to go except an elite assassins’ club where they use their other senses to get close to their victims. The other surrounding stories are just as incredible.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex is full of transformations: we’ve got the Greeks who become Americans, cousins who becomes spouses and, of course, the main character who is raised as a girl before going through puberty and finding out she’s biologically male. Given that I sold more of this novel than any other when I worked in a gay and lesbian bookstore in Provincetown, MA, I’d say this is a favorite in that crowd, but the questions of identity are relevant to everyone.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Another novel I wish I’d written. In fact, there are some similarities between this novel and the one I’m currently trying to write. I love reading novels like this where, when you get to the end of it, you share the characters’ nostalgia for their pasts. And who can beat a novel where Hitler’s getting punched on the cover?

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather: I read this when I was perhaps 12 or 13, and it taught me what nostalgia tastes like. I think the books I read at that age had a deeper emotional impact on me, and this one in particular seemed to settle into my bones. My favorite line from all of literature is when Jim tells Ántonia, “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’ve have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” Forever after, that’s how I’ve understood love.

What are some of YOUR favorites?

 

Everest silences you

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One of the most beautiful accounts I have read of climbing Everest comes from a man who has certainly never climbed it.  In his book “The Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie describes the experience from the perspective of Alleluia Cone, a flat-footed woman who dreams of making a solo ascent after a successful climb with a group of sherpas.  In this first excerpt, she’s telling a classroom full of girls about her first ascent.

Do you know how it feels, she wanted to ask them, to have the whole of your life concentrated into one moment, a few hours long?  Do you know what it’s like when the only direction is down?

‘I was in the second pair with Sherpa Pemba,’ she said.   ‘The weather was perfect, perfect.  So clear you felt you could look right through the sky into whatever lay beyond.  The first pair must have reached the summit by now, I said to Pemba.  Conditions are holding and we can go. Pemba grew very serious, quite a change, because he was one of the expedition clowns.  He had never been to the summit before, either.  At that stage I had no plans to go without oxygen, but when I saw that Pemba intended it, I thought, okay, me too.  It was a stupid whim, unprofessional, really, but I suddenly wanted to be a woman sitting on top of that bastard mountain, a human being, not a breathing machine.  Pemba said, Allie Bibi, don’t do, but I just started up.

In a while we passed the others coming down and I could see the wonderful thing in their eyes.  They were so high, possessed of such an exaltation, that they didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing the oxygen equipment.  Be careful, they shouted over to us, Look out for the angels.  Pemba had fallen into a good breathing pattern and I fell into step with it, breathing in with his in, out with his out.  I could feel something lifting off the top of my head and I was grinning, just grinning from ear to ear, and when Pemba looked my way I could see he was doing the same.  It looked like a grimace, like pain, but it was just foolish joy.

‘At that moment,’ she told the girls, who were climbing beside her every step of the way, ‘I believed it all: that the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of God, everything.  I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was God’s face, too.  Pemba must have seen something in my expression that bothered him because he called across, Look out, Allie Bibi, the height.  I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and then we were there, with the ground falling away on every side.  Such light; the universe purified into light.  I wanted to tear off my clothes and let it soak into my skin.’ (204)

Back home in London, Allie shows her boyfriend Gibreel a wooden sculpture of Mount Everest that Sherpa Pemba gave her.

‘Look,’ she said, stretching out a hand without leaving the bed and picking up, from her bedside table, her newest acquisition, a simple Everest in weathered pine.   ‘A gift from the sherpas of Namche Bazar.’ Gibreel took it, turned it in his hands.  Pemba had offered it to her shyly when they said goodbye, insisting it was from all the sherpas as a group, although it was evident that he’d whittled it himself.  It was a detailed model, complete with the ice fall and the Hillary Step that is the last great obstacle on the way to the top, and the route they had taken to the summit was scored deeply into the wood.  When Gibreel turned it upside down he found a message, scratched into the base in painstaking English.   “To Ali Bibi.  We were luck.  Not to try again.”

What Allie did not tell Gibreel was that the sherpa’s prohibition had scared her, convincing her that if she ever set her foot again upon the goddess-mountain, she would surely die, because it is not permitted to mortals to look more than once upon the face of the divine… ‘The Himalayas,’ she told Gibreel so as not to say what was really on her mind, ‘are emotional peaks as well as physical ones: like opera.  That’s what makes them so awesome.  Nothing but the giddiest heights.’ (313)

Allie describes the difficulty of living post-Everest, knowing that nothing in daily life will compete with the grandeur of such an experience.

‘Everest silences you,’ she confessed to Gibreel Farishta in a bed above which parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas.   ‘When you come down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all.  You find the nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound.  Non-being.  You can’t keep it up, of course.  The world rushes in soon enough.  What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences?  it feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through.  But it fades; you accept that certain compromises, closures, are required if you’re to continue.’  (306)

There are a few times in my life when I’ve had a similar feeling: something I’ve experienced is so magnificent, so beautiful, it’s difficult afterward to reconcile such an experience with the mundaneness of “normal” life.  No doubt Everest would have such an effect.