'peace, passion and privacy'
Three authors explore facets of the human experience
This month I read a memoir about 'finding home,' a treatise on privacy, and a personal and historical perspective on Cuba. What they have in common is passion, warmth and intelligence.
If you're ready to leave 'summer reading' behind, these books will enrich and enlighten you. If you're not, they'll entertain you as well.
First, from New Hampshire's Bauhan Publishing, Waltzing With Bracey: A Long Reach Home by Brenda Gilchrist. When the book opens, Gilchrist reacts to inheriting a home on Deer Isle, Maine: 'It's always been an anchor of sorts, throughout my rootless life. But it's big, old, and reeks of history, custom, forebears.'
Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry's nephew) designed the house. Gilchrist's great-grandfather counted Charles Darwin, John Stewart Mill and Frederick Law Olmstead among his friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe based characters on Gilchrist's family of reformers, abolitionists, writers, people 'long on summers and pedigree, short on money.' Gilchrist 'can't help being impressed by these people, yet they suffocate me.'
As a child, this diplomat's daughter spent summers in Maine. When her aunt dies, she's 48 and editing a book series for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. She knows nothing about home ownership.
But she learns, renovating both the house and her life, coming to terms with family ghosts and her place among them. Bracey, her corgi, provides the unconditional love only a dog can give. He's instrumental in helping Gilchrist come home in every sense of the word.
Bauhan's hallmark is excellent design, and this beautiful book is filled with photos, paintings, woodcuts and drawings that illustrate Gilchrist's emotional journey. If you've lived in an old house or by the sea, loved a dog or reconciled yourself to your family's legacy, you'll find much to identify with here. Gilchrist's writing is open-hearted, reflective and spirited.
Privacy brings Garret Keizer's spirited, reflective, whip-smart and incisive analysis to this far-ranging yet elusive concept. Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine, lives in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and writes frequently on 'matters of politics, religion and justice,' according to his website. In Privacy, Keizer delivers a sharp, thorough, witty exploration of 'the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don't; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.'
Keizer explains his book is an 'introduction,' not an 'airtight definition' of privacy. He probes the concept in history, law, economics, the media, philosophy and social justice, popular culture and daily life, illuminating privacy's 'basis in the bodily integrity of human beings and in their spiritual needs.' Keizer considers whether privacy is a universal value and investigates the ways it has eroded recently. He combines intellect and clarity to make this complex and somewhat fuzzy topic lucid, skewering sloppy or misleading reasoning no matter the source. Public discourse would benefit if more of it were this thoughtful.
In light of persistent lying/cheating scandals and overheated, often deceptive election rhetoric, Keizer's conclusion - 'Privacy may amount to little more, and rest on no firmer basis, than the promises we make to one another' - is depressing. And yet, Keizer reminds us, 'Privacy being what it is, they are kept more often than we know.' Let's hope.
Hope and distress
Another book that left me torn between hope and distress is New Hampshire author William Craig's Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantanamo. Craig's book is a searing combination of reporting, history and personal reflection that covers U.S. foreign policy in Cuba since 1898, and Cuban history from its first hopes for independence to the present.
Craig visited Cuba for the first time in 2001, reporting on a tour by The Feminine Tone chorus. His return trip in 2005 provides the framework for Yankee Come Home. Craig is anxious to see Guantanamo and also to unpack the history of the Spanish-American-Cuban War. He's motivated by post Sept. 11 angst and family legend regarding his great-grandfather's time with the 'rough riders.' Craig and The Feminine Tone are trying to enter Cuba via a U.S. embargo loophole, 'with a fundamentalist pastor licensed to lead missionaries.'
But the Rev. Esau ditches them in a Jamaican airport, short on cash due to an unexpected 'charter tax' and without the permits Craig will need to continue traveling once the chorus returns to New Hampshire. They go anyway, and we go along, meeting ordinary Cubans (among them many relatives of The Feminine Tones's director Maricel Lucero Keniston) and learning a great deal. Including that Craig's family legend may be just that.
Craig's thorough observations, reflections and sensory details bring his narrative to life. As in other countries where revolutionary promises of freedom, justice and equality devolved into an oppressive regime, Cuba is a place where daily life requires navigating hope and fear, beauty and decay, personal ingenuity and institutional corruption. Craig captures the indomitable spirit, warmth and faith of the Cubans who befriend him, and the ugliness, suspicion and ideological tension in his brushes with Cuban officialdom.
Cuba is a challenging, sometimes dangerous place to travel, and Craig shares the full gamut of his experiences with readers. He concludes that American foreign policy troubles are rooted in our 'wielding money and guns to control what isn't ours' in Cuba over a century ago. And that what Cubans admire about the U.S. (including the Declaration of Independence, which influenced revolutionaries) reflects 'a vision of the peace we could have known if we'd stuck to our founding principles.' Craig, like Gilchrist and Keizer, is an open-minded, smart writer whose book is full of heart.
(Email Deb Baker at email@example.com.)