Walk in a Relaxed Manner, by Joyce Rupp

I know Joyce Rupp a little because we’re both part of casual, ever-changing local writers’ group. She is a keen world traveler; I’m a stubbornly reluctant traveler. Once at a writer’s gathering, she took me aside to give me quiet advice about packing for a trip to Italy. I would describe her as elegant, yet sturdy. Reserved, yet kind and willing to share.

The fact that she did not plan to share her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but meant it to be a very private pilgrimage for her own spiritual growth, is perhaps what makes the book feel so authentic and accessible. If she had walked all of September and most of October over five hundred miles of northern Spain knowing she was going to write a book at the end, surely she would have been shaping and filtering as she went. She would have been taking photos and making notes. Documenting. Planning. Instead, she kept a small, private, journal.

In her introduction she shares how her determination to keep her Camino experience private changed. In a moment of synchronicity after her return, right after she had expressed once again her determination not to write about it, she was confronted with Joseph Campbell’s—whom she admires—conviction that the returning pilgrim (hero) has an obligation to gift the community with an account of the journey.

And so she did.

In the Contents, she lists 25 life lessons she learned from the Camino: Go Prepared, Live in the Now, Experience Homelessness, etc. These lessons are learned from the cacophony of snores of fellow pilgrims, the beauty of the Pyrenees, and vineyards heavy with purple and green grapes. From blisters wrapped in duct tape, bathroom noises, poetry, and puddles of vomit. From a fox running through the chestnut trees and a cockroach swimming in the hot chocolate. From sharing scarce food, taking the time to watch ants, and finding fellow pilgrims who also love Barbara Kingsolver books.

From her privations and blessings, she feels what it means to be food insecure, to be suspected of being a shoplifter, to live without being clean as the homeless sometimes must do. From her exhaustion comes clarity. From a September 15 journal entry: Today I realized it has taken me many days of walking to finally reach a clearness inside that is allowing me to contemplate all I see. It was gradual—beginning with the magnificent grapes in the vineyards. Now I can look at this old bench I sit on, rusted green, bird poop, highway noise nearby, and I can be still inside. I can look at the shape of the bench, the holes, the patches of corrosion and “see” it with my “special eyes.” I need to “see” people’s faces more, to read the sacredness there, too.

Over the years, I’ve recommended and/or loaned this book to several people who are neither particularly spiritual nor adventurous, and it has been valued by all as a good and important read. As a reluctant traveler, I will never walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. But echoing Thoreau 😄 : I have travelled much in West Des Moines because of wonderful books like this. I’ve come to know we are all pilgrims, every day. And it is good to Embrace Beauty, Live in the Now, and Walk in a Relaxed Manner.

— Sharelle Moranville

The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett

In The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett tells a wonderful story of real life. She shows us love, cruelty, joy, grief, reinvention, and revelation. The narrative is a delightful mashup of the dead and the living; the past and the present; Los Angeles and a tiny Nebraska town where the Walmart is a wonderland. As always, Patchett’s characters are notable in their particularity, and her settings (especially that rice paddy in Vietnam ☺) feel viscerally real. 

The book was published in 1997 and takes place in the nineties—a time when aids was a deadly scourge, homosexuals were often hated and feared, and the country was still dealing with fallout from the Vietnam war. Sabine, the main character, is paralyzed with grief because her beloved Parsifal (who married her only so she could be his widow) has died of an aneurysm in the footsteps of his Vietnamese lover, Phan, who died of AIDS. The Magician’s Assistant is a novel about grief. It also takes on homicide, domestic abuse, and family dysfunction. And by allusion, the holocaust and the Vietnam war. 

And yet. And yet, it is a remarkably loving story told with lots of glam, glitter, and hyperbole. 

The characters are kind to each other, with the notable exceptions of Guy’s father and Kitty’s husband, who become catalysts for transformation. The horrors of domestic violence motivate Guy to transform himself into Parsifal the magician. Howard’s meanness drive Kitty into Sabine’s bed. And Sabine and Kitty (we assume) will eventually find true love with one another. 

The story is realistically told, but with just enough razzle dazzle to make it feel like it’s about . . . well . . . magic. The opulence of Sabine’s house in Los Angeles; the incredibly fine detail of her architectural models, the huge, beautiful, pricey rugs. All those teeny beads Phan sews on Sabine’s wedding gown. The unsettling similarity in appearance of Parsifal and Kitty. The gorgeous androgyny of tall, thin Sabine wandering around in Phan’s silk pajamas. Plump, placid, omnipresent Rabbit. All a bit over the top, but so compelling—especially the dreams that feel more like travel in the afterlife. 

And then there’s Sabine’s card trick at the wedding. The morning before the wedding, “she found she could give the deck four extremely careless taps under any circumstance of noise with an utter lack of concentration and the aces still raced to the top of the deck like horses to the barn. That very morning, she had leaned out of the shower and tapped the deck four times with a soapy hand. Bingo. 

When she, in an act of faith that a magic trick with no trickery will actually work, performs this at Bertie and Haas’s wedding reception, the guests are underwhelmed. They would have preferred something flashier with baby chicks instead of a quiet card trick. But the bride intuits something special has happened. Perhaps the “trick” that is not a trick is a quiet but profound sign to Sabine. The Parsifal she adored for so many years—never suspecting how little she knew him, what a total trickster he was—has led her to his sister. He has made a miracle for her and Kitty. 

The Magician’s Assistant is the human condition revealed with pizzazz and affection. 

— Sharelle Moranville

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s novels often take place during a time of war and its aftermath when characters are forced to tap unknown reservoirs of strength and find creative, unorthodox ways of forming families to protect the vulnerable.  

Her novels are invariably well plotted and often include a thread of magical realism. And they tend to be beautifully written—though in The Japanese Lover, likely the translation does not do justice to the original manuscript.

The time of war in this novel is World War II, with the concentration camps in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in America. And the long tail on the war likely made places like Moldova (where Irina’s story begins) a place to leave. 

Early in the war, young Alma, with her Jewish parentage, is sent from Poland to live with the wealthy Belasco family in San Francisco. In her loneliness, she is befriended and comforted by her older cousin, Nathaniel Belasco. And she is utterly captivated by young Ichimei Fukuda, the Japanese gardener’s son, whose family is one of many sent to an internment camp.  

As the years pass after the war, Ichimei’s life takes its own path, and Alma grows up and marries her cousin Nathaniel and has a son with him. And the son grows up and has a son, Seth, who grows up to be one of the main chroniclers of his grandmother’s life—including the undying love story between her and gentle Ichimei. 

In the time present of the story, Alma is elderly and Seth is trying to complete a history of the wealthy and well-known Belasco family before his grandmother dies. Of great puzzlement to Seth is why, “early in 2010 his grandmother’s personality underwent a complete change in the space of two hours. Although she had been a successful artist and someone who always fulfilled her obligations, she suddenly cut herself off from the world, family, and friends, shutting herself away in an old people’s home that was beneath her and deciding, in her daughter-on-law Doris’s opinion, to dress like a Tibetan refugee.” 

The overall movement of the novel is to discover why. Why does she do his sudden, outrageous, and inexplicable thing? What happened to cause such a dramatic turn? 

Seth and Irina (a young woman who works at the old people’s home and hides a huge secret of her own) come together to love and support Alma, and to find out why she made such a dramatic change.  

To tell the story, the narration begins with a few steps forward in the characters’ lives, reaches back in time to reveal something important, takes a few more steps forward, reaches back in time to reveal something else important. Over and over again—until the reader finally and satisfyingly understands why Alma’s whole life changed in the space of two hours.   

Allende, through Alma, as seen by Irina—who is a kind of acolyte in the complicated ritual of dying—presents an evocative, compelling picture of aging unto death. Yes, aging is troublesome. It involves unrelenting loss. And it is inevitable. But Alma moves toward it with passion, discipline, imagination, and a touch of whimsey. Her soothing ritual of long weekends away with Ichimei help her linger on the bridge between life and death with her true love. 

The Japanese Lover feels singular in the way it depicts growing old and dying as a heady distillation of life. — Sharelle Moranville