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Bridge of San Luis Rey – Plans in the Universe

 For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?
– Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thorton Wilder (62)

In the Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, American author, Thorton Wilder, explores the circumstances leading up to the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Lima, Peru on July 20, 1714 which hurled five unassuming bridge-crossers to their immediate deaths.

A friar who witnesses the bridge collapse and the last moment of life of the five people crossing sets out to prove through their deaths that life has a greater plan:

If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered, mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident or live by plan and die by plan. (Wilder 9).

I read the entire book in a day.

The simplicity of the story and characters’ lives heightened the significance of deeper more pressing questions about life and its greater meaning.

Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God. (Wilder 12)

Thorton Wilder’s gift for language is still evident, decades after the book was first published in 1927.

It was the hour when the father returns home from the fields and plays for a moment in the yard with the dog that jumps upon him, holding his muzzle closed or throwing him upon his back. The young girls look about for the first star to wish upon it, and the boys grow restless of supper.

With an almost romantic surrender, characters are forced to recognize that perhaps a life plan is nothing more than a hopeful illusion, and in the end, we are not nor ever can be fate’s director – instead we are just actors playing a role on a greater stage with no say in when we enter, when we leave and what will happen once we’re gone.

There would be no one to enlarge her work; it would relapse into the indolence and indifference of her colleagues. (Wilder 118).

But perhaps the most beautiful passage of the entire book is the last sentence, which is poetically true, but is missing the fact, that not only love, but Wilder’s written word, is capable of building bridges of survival between the lands of the living (today’s readers) and the land of the dead (the author, the book’s characters).

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. (Wilder 124)

Annapurna Circuit Album

Annapurna Circuit Album

The book was first published in 1927 and I am thankful I didn’t get my hands on it till years after I had hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.

Hours of hiking in tropical heat and Alpine freezing temperatures, the weight of my pack cutting into the skin of my waist and shoulders, the cold water bucket showers, the blood sucking leeches, the soggy socks and boots that never dried or the back-to-the-basics outhouses – no problem. My problem was something else…

(Entry from my journal) Bamboo contraptions suspending rivers prove slippery and difficult to walk on – especially with a pack. If you manage to get past these without falling through or slipping off then there are still the suspension bridges. These architectural wonders dangle high above torrential rapids. They have been fashioned from rotting wood, skillfully saving the precious resource by only placing every second plank. Handrails, of course, have not made their way to Nepal. Who has the hands to hold on the handrails when you are lugging 5 times your weight across the bridges? Every time I place my first foot on one of these bridges, I say a silent prayer that no porters will get on the bridge from the opposite direction. All along the way we encounter these agile Sherpas practically skipping across the bridges hauling wooden cases loaded with bottles of Coca Cola or whole trees destined for firewood. Their weight invariably sets the bridge, my heart, and my stomach into a swinging pendulum back-and-forth number. So once I convince myself all is safe (relatively) I get up the guts to step on. But then I make the mistake of looking further down the river. Remnants of previous bridges that had probably given up just as a trekker was crossing, taunt me. What really are the chances of this thing caving in at the exact moment I am crossing, I repeat to myself as I go. I unbuckle my backpack. If I go down, I want a fighting chance and not to be swept to the bottom of the river by the weight of my pack. But a second more reassuring voice inside my head robs me of this illusion entirely. If the drop doesn’t kill you, the rocks will. If you manage that, you’ll freeze to death of hypothermia anyway. And if by some freak accident of nature you survive all that, the rapids will pull you under and drown you. So stop sweating it. If you drop, there’s nothing you can do anyway.

“We do what we can. We push on … as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes.” (Wilder 74)

Read the Bride of San Luis Rey.The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Perennial Classics)
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Print This Post


The Spoils go to the Victor – Book Review of A Woman in Berlin

For most of history anonymous was a woman. — Virgina Woolf

Anonymous. A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20 April 1945 to June 1945. London: Virago, 2006. Print.

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary is one of those rare books that you end up reading by chance and think to yourself, “Why hadn’t I ever heard of this book before? Why aren’t people talking about this? Why didn’t Oprah Winfrey get her hands on this?”

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin

The story of war, told from the perspective of one of war’s spoils – a young woman filled with hope and ready to jump back up every time she is kicked and held down. She is funny, insightful and optimistic and for all these reasons, an inspiration to all women and men and a light of hope for humanity in a seemingly inhumane world.

The subtitle of the book is “Diary 20 April 1945 to 22 June 1945” but the book is much richer than a simple play-by-play of a young woman’s experience for two months in her worn torn city. Perhaps because the author was a journalist before the war, the book is a thoughtfully written, at times objective eye-witness account of Berlin as the victorious Russian forces greedily devour the spoils of the vanquished city – women, property and resources.

When the book begins, the narrator is a 34 year old woman living alone in war-torn Berlin hunkering down with her neighbors in the local bomb shelter and scavenging for food.  Rumors abound that the Russians draw ever nearer and women exchange at first in hushed tones, and later in downright vulgar terms what dark fate is marching toward them.  The author is afraid but she writes, “But there comes a time when you’re so mortally tired you stop being afraid. That’s probably how soldiers sleep on the front, amid all the filth.” (Anonymous 49)

Only the resilient survive

The women are repeatedly raped, degraded, worked, and used as the men see fit and still they continue to get up in the morning and live. “What will become of us? I feel so dirty, I don’t want to touch anything, least of all my own skin.” (Anonymous 80) The author’s ability to speak basic Russian is perhaps a blessing and curse. “By the same token it’s also easier for those who don’t understand a word of Russian. For them the Russians are more alien; they can talk themselves into the idea that these men aren’t people but savages, mere animals.” (Anonymous 99) Because of her language skills, she is fetched to prevent a rape. Together with another Russian soldier, she talks the two perpetrators out of raping a neighbor only to have the two wait for the third soldier to leave so they can ambush and rape her instead.

Perhaps one of the great casualties of war – besides the death of innocence — is women’s view of men. “These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men –and the feelings of all the other woman – are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. …Among the many defeats at the end of the war is the defeat of the male sex.” (Anonymous 62)

To the victor go the spoils

She and the other women learn to align themselves with specific men to assert some kind of control over the situation. “I…feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them! I’ve never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.” (Anonymous 87) Later she writes, “…as long as I’m nothing more than a spoil of war I intend to stay dead and numb, without feeling.”

Rape becomes so common that women exchange their stories about it over tea in a manner once reserved for the news of the day. “…here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance, that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help the other, by speaking about it, airing their pain and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered.” (Anonymous 174).

Together they manage, survive and persevere. And as a kind of order is established and life begins to return to a new kind of normal, the survivors of the war – women and men — must acknowledge there is no return to the blissful ignorance of the prewar error.  If the husbands, fiancés and boyfriends return from the front, the women silently wonder what they did to the women in the villages they had conquered. And the men are confronted with a new, stronger, more outspoken woman, a woman not so easily bossed around and impressed with muscle force and one that has most likely survived ordeals he would rather not know.

But return to life also puts an end to the collective sharing of the rape experience of the women, placing an invisible muzzle on the women best evidenced perhaps most sadly and blatantly in the author’s experience with the publication of her diaries. Ten years after the war, the diaries were first published in English-speaking countries and not until five years after that, a German edition followed in Switzerland in 1960. But reaction to the book in the German-speaking world was negative and accusations were hurled that the author was tainting the good name of German women with her tales of rape and survival. The backlash was so tremendous that the author refused to allow publication again in her lifetime. A Woman in Berlin was first republished in 2003 but the identity of the author still remains secret. A woman who managed to survive ongoing rape and humiliation had to publish under Anonymous.

“All I can do is touch my small circle… What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.” (Anonymous 206)

Read this book. Don’t skip the foreword. Then pass it along for someone else to read. The lessons extend beyond Berlin in WWII, way back to Cicero who considered the rape of women in war a mere property crime and the ancient Greeks who considered it socially acceptable behavior to Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the list goes on and on.  The Women under Siege project includes information about how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war. These atrocities must be shared until they are stopped.

Perhaps of interest: Guardian Article by Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolfe on how collective raping is used by some men to fortify a false image of manhood,”Sexual violence against women is the result of the cult of masculinity.”

Also worth checking out: Ms. Lauren Wolfe’s Women’s Media Center project on sexualized violence in conflict, Women under Siege.


The Characters might be the (Un)dead but the Writing is Alive and Kicking

“To what strange talismans we cling during our times of need.” (Brew)

A review of: Braddock, Bill. Brew Permuted Press, 2013. Print

Looking for a good but very gory book to get you in the mood for Halloween?

If you can stomach blood, gore, and profanity, but love phenomenal writing, I highly recommend Bill Braddock’s zombie thriller, Brew. And before you read on, realize I am serious. This is not for the weak hearted. But indeed promises a fun and fast read.

The story? Think of two Pennsylvanian classics, Dawn of the Dead and Penn State University meeting head on. However the setting in Brew is not a shopping mall or University Park but rather a college town called College Heights. Having grown up in my beloved Pennsylvania and witnessed the frenzied excitement on game weekends only to be followed by severe states of zombie-ism the following morning, I had no problem suspending disbelief from page one onward.

But what I particularly enjoyed, was Braddock’s talent as a writer. Brew’s pace, characterization and ability to cliff hang is something writers in any genre can learn from. Throughout the book, characters convey subtle messages. For example, on the hero’s first rendezvous with the heroine, he observes her from a distance: “It was a private face, Steve knew, a pensive, artless default.” (Brew, 22)

Favorite lines:

“This is the way the world ends, Steve thought, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but sitting quietly on the couch together.” (Brew, 131)

“To what strange talismans we cling during our times of need.” (Brew)

“How could someone without herd mentality succeed in a pasture of sheep?” (Brew, 217)

That being said, this is a zombie book and, I confess, my first. Though I have watched my fair share of horror flicks over the years, I find reading more terrifying than watching. At least in the cinema, I can shut my eyes and block out the graphic scenes. No chance here.

But over the years one thing that has bothered me about the horror movies is the often disappointingly flat storylines. It’s like if you show enough blood and guts, the story doesn’t matter. Some lead characters are so unbelievably annoying, that the audience is actually cheering for their demise so that the audience can be put out of its misery. And that’s not the case with Brew. Take out all the blood and guts, and you still have a really great story.

Scare if you dare.

Oh, yeah, and Prost!

Happy Halloween! Print This Post