Jacqueline Masumian's Blog

October 17, 2017

Miss Portland - A Fine Novel

Miss Portland Miss Portland by David Ebenbach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomenal is one way to describe this novel. Extraordinary is another. In Miss Portland David Ebenbach reaches so deeply into the heart and mind of a young woman struggling with mental illness, the reader becomes enthralled.

Zoe Tussler has come to Portland, Maine, with high hopes for a relationship with yoga instructor Gordy, for setting up a mindfulness center, and for finding the quiet and peace she had experienced as a child. It is one of many ventures she has taken up over the years, but, eager to be free of her parents, her brother, and her psychotherapist, she is confident that this venture will be the one to bring her emotional calm. However, she soon learns that Gordy is not as warm and supportive as she’d thought, and while she is somewhat successful in setting up her mindfulness center, various discouragements litter her path to attaining that goal. And, unfortunately, quiet and peace are still well out of reach.

The narration of this novel is entirely in Zoe’s head, and the reader is with her every step of the way, rooting for her as she courses through spells of too much light, too much noise, and stinging memories of past losses. The fact that she has moments of total clarity juxtaposed with occurrences of unrestrained mania or fury, points up the fine line that exists between “sane” and “crazy.” In her life Zoe has suffered unkindness, abuse, and rejection on many levels, but she has managed to keep the window open to hope⎯searching, searching, searching for her perfect place on this planet. The reader, too, remains hopeful, against all odds.

David Ebenbach’s writing is beautiful: “Sleep for Zoe was a timid woodland creature, easily scared off.” And, “She couldn’t think of anyone else she could count on. Just herself. And maybe that was better, anyway. She was down to the one person who definitely understood her.” Also, the final sentences of the book, which I will not share here, are simply gorgeous.

In this novel Zoe’s thoughts carry us along and bring us to a new understanding of what courses through the mind of someone dealing with mental illness. It is quite a revelation. The author’s empathy shines through.

Miss Portland: highly recommended.

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Published on October 17, 2017 08:44 Tags: david-ebenbach, miss-portland, portland

December 28, 2016

2016 - The Good, the Great, and the Ugly

Well, it’s been quite a year. Some goals met, a number of accomplishments under my belt, and some severe disappointments, as well.

On the positive side, I’ve met my goal of reading fifty books this year, and many of them were superb, giving me hours of relaxing pleasure. A few books were clunkers, but the rest made up for those.

On the writing side, I’ve written three short stories this year and had great fun doing it. I made 75 submissions to literary journals, an accomplishment in itself, and I had four stories accepted for publication. It’s so gratifying to know someone is actually reading my words and finding them worthy of passing on to others. I’ve also written seven blog posts. Now, that’s puny compared to some blog writers, but there’s this little thing called time that often seems in short supply. Maybe that’s because of the 42 mini book reviews I’ve written on Goodreads this year. All this sounds like a lot of writing but surely a good deal less than some of my writer friends. My friend Alison McBain entered NaNoWriMo and wrote 50,000 words—an entire novel—in a month!

One major accomplishment for my 2016 was getting my website, jacquelinemasumian.com, up and running. It’s a simple one, but I was thrilled that I managed to create it all by myself (with the help of Weebly support, of course).

So lots of great things happened this year in my reading and writing life and the rest of my life, too—plenty of travel and fun times with my husband and with friends. However, in early November my momentum took a hit, and I was plunged into a funk from which I’m still not fully recovered. The unthinkable happened, and soon a man with the demeanor and intellect of a fifth-grader will be taking the reins to lead our country. It’s an ugly and frightening prospect; a very rocky road lies ahead. As a recent acquaintance quipped, “Is it four years yet?”

So, we will simply have to press on, speaking out loudly against injustice and incompetence and standing up for values we know to be best: unity, brotherly love, acceptance, and equality. Hopefully we’ll be able to somehow make things right.

My best wishes go to all my readers for a new year full of energy and resolve!
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Published on December 28, 2016 08:47

September 22, 2016

Eventide by Kent Haruf

Eventide (Plainsong, #2) Eventide by Kent Haruf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kent Haruf is* a phenomenal writer. In a few simple sentences and minimal pitch-perfect dialogue unencumbered by quotation marks, he can describe a whole scene, define a set of characters and their relationships, and move his readers to tears (I was choked up by page 8). His characters, for whom he has great compassion, are country folk from the high plains of Colorado, tough but true. These people are for the most part kind and helpful to one another, sensitive to the needs of their neighbors. But they are never sentimental; they're just real.

Many times when reading a good book - one that I own- I dog-ear pages and underline sentences that are especially noteworthy. But with Eventide, I didn't follow that practice, because every word on the page was noteworthy, crucial in telling a powerful story. In this little novel we encounter a deep friendship between two children, the unforgivable evil of a predatory uncle, the gentle loneliness of an aging farmer, the quiet goodness of a middle-aged social worker, and more. The utter simplicity of these characters makes their stories compelling as they encounter the forces of good and evil that drive their lives.

I highly recommend reading Haruf's Plainsong before starting Eventide, as several of the characters are introduced in that earlier book. Approaching the end of Eventide, I did not want this remarkable writing and these beautiful characters to end. However, I was comforted by the fact that there are still two more books in the series to enjoy.

*Kent Haruf died recently, but through his books he is still very much alive.

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Published on September 22, 2016 11:23 Tags: colorado, haruf, plainsong

August 11, 2016

On Doing Nothing

I think I’ve come up with a brand new twenty-first century concept: the Art of Doing Nothing.

Two weeks ago I was rehearsing in the chorus of the Dvorak Requiem at Berkshire Choral International in Sheffield, Mass. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains, the organization is fondly referred to as “summer camp for choristers.” The week was packed with rehearsals, classes, recitals, meals, and other fun activities, and though I had promised myself some time off for pure relaxation, it wasn’t happening. Just like home, there was too much to do; every hour seemed consumed by some activity. My afternoons were “free” time, but I managed to fill them anyway by going to the gym or finishing a book I’d brought. Read more at http://www.jacquelinemasumian.com/blog
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Published on August 11, 2016 07:22 Tags: reading, relaxation

April 16, 2016

Examining Crucial Connections

Families fascinate me—how they evolve and what ignites the personalities that develop as a result of a particular family dynamic. As I began writing scenes and chapters of my book Nobody Home: A Memoir, I had no idea where they would lead me. I only knew that, as I delved into memories of my mother, recollections I had thought long-buried flooded through me and onto the page. It was a profoundly pleasant experience re-connecting with all those mental images, grappling with the less pleasant ones, shaping them into chapters, and forming them finally into a book. I was compelled to keep writing—shared experiences with my siblings, my mother’s baffling words and actions, my own life challenges—there seemed always more and more to write about. And perhaps with my mother, long-gone from this world but always in my head, guiding the pen. As I wrote, not only did I remember so much more about my childhood and early adulthood, I came to understand so much more, about my mother and myself.

I’ve read quite a few memoirs, both before and after I wrote Nobody Home, and I can’t help comparing them to my own. Written by authors with many more literary credentials than I, many of these books have one thing in common—finding a way to make sense of connections to parents. The drama of the memoir expresses itself in many ways—each author has his or her own take on it—but since our parents are the source of all that we are, going on a journey of parent- and self-discovery has great value.

On my bookshelf I see Wild (Strayed), A Good Enough Daughter (Shulman), Elsewhere (Russo), Dreams from my Father (Obama), Bettyville (Hodgman), Jesusland (Scheeres), Lit and The Liar’s Club (Karr), The Glass Castle (Walls), Angela’s Ashes (McCourt), and Growing Up (Baker), among others. All are stories of adults trying to capture on paper what it was like to be raised in a certain type of household with a parent who had a particular way of making life difficult. The author’s reflections on that relationship take readers to an amazing place. What a charming set of talented authors, what fascinating parents! And yet these writers all survived their ordeals, gained perspective on their lives, and came to be successful despite their haphazard upbringings.

When I present my author talk, I speak not only about Nobody Home. I also encourage my audiences to write their own memoirs. I believe everyone should examine their life stories, whether they are accomplished writers or not. Everyone, I think, should try to set something down on paper to memorialize the bond between themselves and their parents. There are many benefits to examination of this crucial connection, not the least of which is passing down family history to the next generation. And the task need not be done alone; there are lots of writing classes out there, some addressing memoir specifically, that can help one shape his or her story.

So, have you ever tried it? Writing a true story about your relationships with the people who raised you? If not, I highly recommend it.
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Published on April 16, 2016 07:16 Tags: families, family-histories, memoir, nobody-home-a-memoir, parents

February 3, 2016

Female Role Models in Fiction

An amazing confluence of events occurred for me last week. At the same time I was re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I happened to attend a superb HDLive broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was remarkable that I should encounter two of my favorite childhood books at the same time, and it got me thinking about the early influences in my life that made me who I am.

Jo March, the second eldest sister in Little Women (1869), is an indomitable non-conformist who resists the restraints placed on her by 19th century society. Coming from a poor family, she spurns a woman’s traditional role and is determined to make a living for herself as an authoress. My memory of Katharine Hepburn as Jo March is so vivid.

Likewise, the heroine of Jane Eyre (1847) overcomes formidable obstacles of inequality and severe hardship in order to become the person she needs to be--one who is true to herself. Surprisingly, the National Theatre production gives substantial weight to Jane’s struggles for autonomy rather than focusing solely on the love story of Jane and her employer Mr. Rochester. The company did this no doubt to point up the dire situation of a poor, unwed young woman in the 1840’s.

Both these characters, Jo March and Jane Eyre, brim with strength and willfulness and an intense desire for the freedom to express themselves and develop their lives according to their own rules, not those of family or society; their resilience is inspiring. These were the early role models my generation grew up with, a generation of women who fought fiercely for women’s rights in the 1960s and beyond. These characters embedded themselves in our hearts and minds. What a pleasure to meet up with them again.

But I ask myself, who do young girls today—the beneficiaries of the struggle for women’s rights—have as fictional role models? Do girls still read Little Women and Jane Eyre? Bombarded as they are with media and pop culture, what characters do they look to for guidance in maintaining principles of equality and finding emotional and intellectual fulfillment?
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Published on February 03, 2016 07:50 Tags: female-role-models, jane-eyre, jo-march, little-women

December 30, 2015

A Surfeit of Books

One reason I love my siblings and my husband is that they always give me books for my birthday and for Christmas. It’s the gift they know I will truly take pleasure in. However, the result of their generosity is that, in addition to the books I already have on my physical To-Read shelf (where I strictly adhere to my rigid One-Shelf-Only Rule), I now have EIGHT new books and no shelf to put them on. Untidy, to say the least.

As anyone who’s read my memoir Nobody Home knows, my sibs and I acquired our love of reading from our mother who seemed to always have a book in her hand or by her side. Her reading was most likely an escape from the rigors of raising six children by herself, but it presented us with a valuable role model. From her example and from the excellent schools we attended, we learned the lesson: always have a good book close at hand.

Which I do. But unfortunately I am unable to read fast enough to keep up with the constant influx of good literature that beckons to me. In addition to the books I’m given, I keep buying books, books I feel I want to own. Any time I’m in the neighborhood of an independent bookstore, I must buy a book, usually one recommended by a friend. On top of that, I just finished Sally Allen’s book, Unlocking Worlds, in which she has given me dozens more suggestions of excellent books I must devour.

My tendency, then, is to want to fly through as many books as I can, as quickly as I can, and, recognizing my not-super reading speed, this produces some real anxiety. Fortunately, from Chapter 17 of Unlocking Worlds I can take comfort in Allen’s suggestion—rather than rushing through books, “inhaling them one after the other like a bookish Pacman,” I may be better off focusing on the best books, “the books that help move us toward some sort of personal enlightenment that…moves us toward greater understanding of ourselves and greater empathy for the…human struggle.” I might also benefit by taking time out to savor what I’ve read, learn more about the author’s creative process, and become part of readers’ discussions. Which is one reason I write reviews and blogs about books.

But to get back to the matter at hand, I still have this messy To-Read shelf of mine to contend with. Any suggestions on how to get it under control are most welcome!
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Published on December 30, 2015 06:59 Tags: book-shelves, books, nobody-home, sally-allen, unlocking-worlds

November 4, 2015

On Kindness

My recent reading of Plainsong by Kent Haruf got me thinking about kindness. In that novel, which takes place in rural America, the goodness and kindness of certain characters is stunning: a teacher takes in a pregnant teenager who has been thrown out of her mother’s house, a pair of elderly bachelor brothers take the girl into their home and do everything in their power to make her feel safe and happy, a train conductor intercedes when the girl is being threatened by her possessive boyfriend, and the bachelor brothers harbor two young boys who have been abandoned by their mother and have stumbled into a traumatic scene.

There are deeper layers to Plainsong, but in a sense, it is a book about kindness. It takes place in some unspecified time period, perhaps the 1950’s, and a reader cannot help but wonder how we have come so far from that time, when people were simply good to one another, to our current era that seems to be filled with dishonesty, narcissism, and suspicion.

I ponder on my own reluctance to be kinder than I am. I do perform solitary kind-hearted acts from time to time but wonder why I can’t be consistently generous, every time I encounter another person, especially one in need. There is some type of fear at work in me, a lack of trust, and I am curious to know what that might be.

Is it fear that by being kind I will be taken advantage of? That someone would come to lean on me more than I’d like? Is it a dread that my good intentions will be misinterpreted as an unnecessary extension of help where none is wanted or needed? Is it a fear that when I’ve performed an act of kindness, I will not be appreciated or be thanked? Or, worse yet, that the action will not be recognized at all? People can be self-absorbed and rude at times, and such rudeness would certainly be hurtful.

These ponderings always draw me to thoughts of my mother whose persona I explored in my memoir Nobody Home. Did she give me messages that people were not to be trusted? Did her actions lead me to believe she was not to be trusted? My attempts to be kind to her were certainly rebuffed, rudely at times. Does that account for my inconsistent kindness to others now? It’s so easy to blame these things on one’s mother, and yet such lessons do get passed along.

But what about the rest of society? How did people come to be so distrustful and self-centered that they cannot extend themselves to others? How did some individuals come to be actually unkind to those less fortunate? It’s something worth thinking about, because as the gaps between rich and poor and young and old become wider—as they seem to be doing—kindness could be an important adhesive to bring us all closer together.

And so, I’m going to begin right now to pay attention to my own acts of kindness, to increase them. Trusting that I will not be rebuffed or under-appreciated, I will consciously perform at least one act of kindness per day and see where it gets me. And I will pay attention to acts of goodness in others, to acknowledge and reward them when I can. Reducing distance to other human beings can’t be a bad strategy. And perhaps I’ll come to see that there is more kindness out there than I think.
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Published on November 04, 2015 07:10 Tags: generosity, kent-haruf, kindness, nobody-home-a-memoir, plainsong

August 5, 2015

Books Addressing End of Life Issues

I read two books recently that are as different as they can possibly be, and yet they deal with the same crucial issue that families face every day—end of life decision-making. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is an earnest non-fiction book about choices to be made as we age and approach death. What can we do to ensure a satisfactory ending to our lives or those of our loved ones? At the other extreme is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a novel that might be described as a romance or a good beach read. In this book the protagonist is a young woman, Louisa, who has been hired as caretaker for a thirty-year old quadriplegic man determined to end his life on a certain date. Louisa does everything in her power to keep him from his plan of assisted suicide, but ultimately realizes the choice must be his own.

It was by chance I pulled these two books off my to-read shelf in close proximity to one another. I had no idea what Me Before You was about, thinking only that it would be some light reading to balance the gravity of Being Mortal. But perhaps this coincidence was not so surprising; end of life decision-making has become a hot topic in our society, one we will be thinking and talking about for many years to come.

As Baby Boomers—all 76 million of us—mature, we and our medical establishment are going to have to come to grips with this issue. Why? So that unnecessary pain and suffering of critically ill people can be allayed. As new medical technologies develop, decisions need to be made how best to utilize them, particularly in regard to the elderly and terminally ill. The realities of mortality have to be confronted and a patient’s wishes carried out according to his own stipulated desires, which may not always be in harmony with a doctor’s advice or wishes of family members.

Writing as a practicing surgeon, Atul Gawande says medicine is in a transition state and that palliative care—providing relief from pain associated with life-threatening illness rather than curing it—is making advances, even as medical technology forges ahead with the sole purpose of prolonging life. “But whatever we can offer,” writes Dr. Gawande, “our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the aims of a person’s life.”

But what are those aims? They can be determined only by the patient himself. And that requires some thinking and clarification of intent. Just as we create financial plans for the time of our death, so must we make plans for how we want to spend the final weeks or days or hours of our lives. It goes beyond having a Living Will on hand. It involves difficult conversations with family and making concrete decisions. Do we want to take advantage of all medical science has to offer to prolong life as long as possible? Or will we choose to forgo complex interventions in favor of a peaceful, painless release when the time is right? In his book Gawande outlines a series of questions we must ask ourselves. How, exactly, do we wish our final days to play out? What is important to us? How can we write the most perfect ending to our own life story? Any way you look at it, he says, there are sacrifices to be made by the patient and the family.

The novel Me Before You poses a slightly different question. A young quadriplegic, in agonizing discomfort and trapped in his bed and wheelchair, has pondered his probable future of increasing pain and decreasing function, and he has made a decision: he will give his parents six months, and then he will end his suffering at a facility in Switzerland that legally performs assisted suicide. His caretaker Louisa (who has fallen in love with him) and his family try desperately to change his mind, though there is no chance of his health’s improvement. The question the book poses is this: who is taking the right path? The man in agony who wants to quit this life? Or the girlfriend and mother who want to hold on to him?

That these two extremely dissimilar books share one theme speaks to the importance of this issue in today’s society. Questions about end of life decisions will be swirling around us for decades. We should all be part of the conversation. One or both of these books can be valuable in getting us started.

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Published on August 05, 2015 08:29 Tags: atul-gawande, being-mortal, end-of-llife-issues, jojo-moyes, me-before-you

May 13, 2015

Garden Gifts

Spring is my wandering-around time in the garden. In April and early May there are so many joyful discoveries to be made, and I meander at a leisurely pace to be sure I grasp them all. Two or three times a day I pause in whatever I’m doing indoors and walk around the property to investigate what’s sprouting, what’s leafing out, what needs pruning or spraying or transplanting, but mostly I want to explore what’s coming into bloom.

My garden is not an imposing one. An acre of flat, often wet, property, it is dominated by a large lawn and perennial gardens in front of the house and is surrounded on three sides by a tamed woodland with two brooks running through. Naturalistic, loosely fashioned, with paths leading from place to place, it reveals no artifice of design; there are no exotic trees, no arbors or waterfalls. One might expect something more contrived from a former landscape designer such as myself, but this is not a display garden. It is my garden, my own little private treasure that I alone have molded over thirty years and will continue to for as long as I have the strength.

In the first days of April, after weeks of winter waiting, wondering if spring will ever show itself, I am always eager to greet the daffodils, their gold and white flowers nodding in the breeze. I pick one, then a handful, and bury my nose in their trumpets to inhale the luscious fragrance. In the woodland garden I savor the pink hellebores whose blossoms dip their faces toward the leafy ground at my feet. Their foliage has turned brown and tattered over the winter, and I make a mental note to cut it away, making space for clean new growth.

In early May, as I amble about listening to the fluty song of the wood thrush, I seek out the tiny blue and pink pulmonaria that have seeded themselves the previous year, sprouting here and there wherever the soil is right. And near the pantry door the flowers of the spice viburnum spray their scent throughout the garden, the delicious perfume accompanying me as I do my chores.

Gradually the elegant ostrich ferns unfurl to decorate the moist woodland, the sweet woodruff spreads its delicate carpet, and deep magenta primroses emerge to grace the banks of the brook. In my little wildflower meadow just now beginning to show signs of life. I spot miniature white cuckoo flowers, blue forget-me-nots, and star clusters of yellow winter cress.

I feel I must savor and appreciate these glorious gifts now—in this very moment—and drink in their beauty and fragrance, because I know in a matter of days the flowers will have vanished, utterly lost until another long year has passed. The daffodils will shrivel and collapse, the lusty flowers of the hellebores will fade, the pulmonaria blossoms will disappear altogether. True, they will be replaced with the blooms of later-season plants, but I feel I need to treasure each moment that I hold these particular ones in my gaze. What if, for some reason, this was the last time I was able to enjoy their magic? I feel I must focus on them intently right now and absorb them into my very being.

And so I amble around and around along the edge of the lawn and tramp on the chipped paths in the woodland, taking in all that is my garden, the landscape I’ve created out of next to nothing over the years. I pause to greet a stand of newly opened azalea blooms, pink with white centers, “Hello, pretties!” They seem to bask in my praise, and I move on.

As I investigate my own garden, I ponder the landscapes I created for my clients over the years. I’ve lost count, but over the course of twenty-five years, there must have been hundreds of properties I analyzed, designed and planted in an attempt to add beauty to, and make a small mark on, the world. But what has become of these creations, I wonder. I fashioned them to give pleasure to their owners’ families and friends. Did they succeed? Did they enhance anyone’s life? For an hour, a month, a few years perhaps? Have the children in those families taken anything away from those gardens? Adults now, do they have any memories of the stands of trees, the paths and flowerbeds I put in place for them?

Many of the garden plantings I’ve implemented have surely vanished, destroyed by deer or drought or lack of care; some have likely been removed and replaced according to new property owners’ tastes. I can only hope at least a few elements of my vision remain—a stone wall, a fragrant shrub, a shade tree that staves off the glare of the summer sun. But beyond that, as ephemeral as the plants that filled them, my creations are destined to fade and eventually die away.

And so I stroll through my garden, drinking in the fleeting little pleasures that change from day to day, week to week. The tiny yellow blossoms of the epimedium, the ragged foliage of the plumed astilbe, the tight clusters of the emerging hosta leaves—so tender, so clean—and the shoots of peonies and baptisia aspiring to greatness for Memorial Day. I marvel at the delicate blooms of the bleeding hearts. In one of the streams that run through the woodland, I tinker with the meanderings of the water, clearing sodden leaves and displacing rocks to direct the flow. Smiling, I realize I am back in the leafy sanctuary of my childhood where I used to perform the exact same task. I have come full circle.

I pause to study the crabapple tree planted in front of the house. As short-lived as all nature’s creations, its creamy blossoms are now fluttering to the ground, though it seems just yesterday they made their first show. The tree was a skinny sapling when my mother gave it to me as a gift. After having provided much pleasure over the years, always blooming profusely, its crown a cloud of white, in recent years it has been plagued with fire blight, an incurable infection that disfigures, causing select branches to defoliate and blacken. The poor tree’s beauty is diminished, not unlike my own. The crabapple won’t last forever; nor will I.

But the tree has life in it and still has a great deal to offer. So I’ll persevere in pruning out the dead wood and hope to enjoy the plant’s fleeting display of bloom each May. For, while the flowers of the tree are lovely, its structure and desire for life are its true strength. It has weathered its disease for several seasons now, so I have to trust that it will survive many more and continue to return its blossoms to me year after year.
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Published on May 13, 2015 07:46 Tags: ephemera, fleeting-pleasures, gardens, gratitudes, landscape-design, perennials, spring