Daniel Mason, Lucia Berlin & Madeline Miller

I lost track of Daniel Mason after The Piano Tuner, his first novel published in 2003. As you probably know, Mason is one of those extraordinary doctor/writers (think Ethan Canin, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini, and, to go back a bit further, Anton Chekov). When I’m feeling especially unimpressed with what I’ve accomplished in my life, these guys make me a little bit cranky. It’s not enough to get through medical school and save lives … no, they have to go on to write beautiful prose.

But I digress. Daniel Mason is today a professor of psychiatry at Stanford. And that makes sense because his gorgeous new novel The Winter Soldier makes clear he’s very interested in seeing inside the brain.

Mason_soldierThe novel, set during World War I, is the story of Lucius, the son of a prominent Viennese-Polish family who disappoints his parents by choosing the medical profession. Hoping he can distinguish himself in battle (his father is lost in memories of his own war days), his mother helps arrange for him to be sent deep into the Carpathian Mountains to serve in a freezing, remote, makeshift field hospital. 

It’s there he meets and ultimately falls in love with Sister Margarete, a marvelous, strong character who essentially teaches him how to be a doctor. Before arriving at the hospital, his medical training had been largely academic and theoretical: “He has touched four patients in addition to the old man he has liberated from ear wax.” He not only learns how to treat the men’s physical wounds, but yearns to understand how to tend to the mental injuries that go much deeper.

I listened to The Winter Soldier on audible, then was compelled to buy the book as I wanted to be able to linger over Mason’s language, the way he marries the deprivation and horror of war with the beauty of the natural world:

It was Margarete who taught them how to gather, who showed the city men from Budapest and Krakow and Vienna how to identify goosefoot and club-rush, to select saddle fungus and pig’s ear mushrooms from the tree trunks, horsetail cones from the river, sweet calamus shoots, and tender bracken stems to roast. On the green open slopes, they picked potherbs: sorrel and saltbrush, dandelion, lungwort, goosefoot, swine thistle…. To make soups of birch buds. Butter out of bitch sap. Bread from the toots of quack grass, sweet snacks from the mallow seed and roots of cocksfoot and polypody.

At the heart of this novel is a love story, told with tenderness and compassion. Lucius and Margarete are separated after the war and Mason is masterful at creating anticipation and suspense over when and how they will be reunited. The Winter Soldier will hold you in its thrall.

Lucia Berlin, Lucia Berlin. Even her name has a rough, sexy musicality. It’s hard to talk about her without being an accomplished writer oneself because only the lushest, descriptive prose can do justice to her stories

In 2015, 11 years after Berlin’s death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published A Manual for Cleaning Women, a story collection, which became a literary sensation.

The stories reflected Berlin’s big, messy, unconventional life: she was married three times—to a work-obsessed sculptor, an uncommunicative jazz pianist and a charming drug addict—and had four sons before the age of 30. She lived for periods of time in Texas, Chile, New Mexico and New York, and did every kind of job from house cleaner to university professor. She had periods of extreme wealth and times of harsh poverty. And always, always rivers of alcohol.

Berlin_eveningHer new collection Evening in Paradise is another wonder. These stories are filled with drunkenness and debauchery and moments of transcendental beauty. There’s jazz and poetry and painting and abuse and incest and betrayal and murder and somehow it all works together to make a kind of crazy art.

In the opening story, two young girls in a border town get drawn into shilling for a con game:

We took a bus to the Plaza, transferred to a Mesa bus to Kern place. Rich people … landscaping, chimes on the doors.… Texan Junior League, tanned, Bermuda shorts, lipstick and June Allyson pageboys. I don’t think they’d ever seen children like us, children dressed in their mothers’ old crepe blouses.

Another takes place in Puerto Vallarta in the sixties during the filming of The Night of the Iguana. Liz and Dick and Sue Lyons and Ava Gardner and John Huston mix with the local gigolos and hustlers. Most of the story takes place in Hernan’s bar:

Mexican lawyers and bankers were trying out their English on the the blond ingenue, Sue Lyons. Ruby and Alma, two American divorcees, were flirting with cameramen. Both women were very wealthy, owned houses on cliffs above the water. They kept on thinking they’d find romance at the Oceano bar. Usually they met married men on fishing trips or, now, newsmen or cameramen. No man that would ever want to stay around.

And here’s the opening of “Daughters,” a story about a woman who works in a dialysis center on the bus on her way to work:

The courage of my own convictions? I can’t even hold a perception for longer than five minutes. Just like the radio in a pickup truck I’ll be barreling along … Waylon Jennings, Stevie Wonder … hit a cattle guard and bang it’s a preacher from Clint, Texas. Your laff is trash. Laugh? Life? From one day to the next the 40 bus alters. Some days there will be people on it from Chaucer, Damon Runyon. A Brueghel feast. I feel close to them all, at one with them. We are a vivid tapestry of riders, then there is an epidemic of Gilles de la Tourette syndrome and we’re all victims trapped in a steamy capsule forever.

Damn! That woman can write!

My vague memories of The Odyssey bring forth Scylla and Charybdis and Penelope and the suitors. I have much less recollection of Circe, the goddess sorceress who turns rapacious sailors into pigs, waylays Odysseus on her island for a year, has a steamy love affair with him, and bears him a son.

Miller_circeMadeline Miller brings Circe to life in her new novel. She emerges as a complex character. Unloved by her parents, shunned by her siblings, she is banished to a solitary life on an island where she hones her witchcraft, using herbs and spells for protection for herself and her son.

Through the pages of this tale march the A-list of Greek mythology: Helios, Prometheus, Daedalus and Icarus, Medea and Jason, the Minotaur, and Circe’s nemesis Athena. Using Circe as the narrator, Miller brings them all to life and even stories we know or half-remember are revitalized.

This is a feminist Circe who in the course of the novel emerges as a fully-realized, powerful goddess, freed from the expectations of her family and the male-dominated world around her. At the same time she is a mother consumed by love for her son; some of the most poignant passages in the book describe the shattering strength of that love.

Madeline Miller’s Circe is something of a reflection on immortality as well as an examination of what it means to be mortal. It’s a welcome take on one of Greek mythology’s most reviled women.