During my entire time in the Land of Shum, I was a frequent contributor to local newspapers and journals, sending in letters, opinion pieces and news articles for which I was not being paid. Then I was an off and on stringer for the Life and Times and Redwood Record. Then I was a paid “front desk” worker at Redwood Record, which entailed some writing, after which I was a fulltime stringer, meaning I was given enough freelance work to equal a fulltime reporter job. During that period, I wrote news stories, an opinion column and occasional movie and book reviews. The book reviews were my idea, principally because I got to keep the books sent to me by the publishers, a little perk I felt I more than deserved, given that I earned so little money freelancing. Some reviews, however, were not really books, but scientific reports or other items I felt I could best elucidate in book review form. You’ll have to live with the erratic vertical spacing, each one has been through several computer steps and there are hard returns I just couldn’t get rid of.
‘Paula’ a tale for a dying daughter told through a mother’s pain
By Isabel Allende, New York:
Harper Collins, 1995.
By Jentri Anders
There are reasons for anyone literate to read an autobiography, but there are categories of readers who will identify especially with Isabel Allende’s autobiography. The primary one of these categories is mothers of adult daughters, for “Paula” is more than the story of Allende’s life. It is the story of her life, an extraordinary woman’s life, as she tells it to her dying daughter.
The book began when Paula Frias Allende was 28 and in a coma from an illness that came on so suddenly that she only had time to say, “I love you, Mama” before sinking. Her disease is genetic, a blood condition called porphyria, inherited from her father. Allende knew that both her children had the condition, but she did not know that it could “explode like a time bomb” into paralysis, coma and death.
Novelist Allende happened to be lecturing in Spain, the home of Paula and her husband Ernesto, when her daughter became first delirious, then comatose. Allende had been surprised when Paula was not there to greet her at the airport. She had found her at home with what had already been misdiagnosed as the flu.
When Allende asks Paula what is wrong with her, Paula replies firmly, “porphyria,” but Allende, remembering her daughter’s “tendency to exaggerate,” dismisses it. They discuss depression instead. The next day, Allende is forced to cancel her tour and rush to intensive care, to Paula’s side.
It is every good parent’s worst nightmare. There is the inevitable question of whether there was any way you could have changed it, any small neglect or misunderstanding that led to it, any bargain that will allow you to take your child’s place. But, Allende realizes, in that way lies madness.
Allende is a writer. When in doubt, she writes, but here there is no room for the creativity required by fiction. There is only room for Paula, so Allende writes her life, in the same style she wrote her bestselling novels, and she writes it for Paula to read.
It is thus an affirmation that Paula will return to her body and to her loving family, including her husband of one year, Ernesto. It is also, clearly, Allende’s way of giving her mind something else to do but endlessly chew on the situation.
The autobiography is simultaneously a journal of Allende’s last year with Paula, first in the hospital in Madrid, then in her home in San Francisco. The journal sections are shorter than the autobiographical sections, but they are no less important.
Just when Allende’s humor and storytelling virtuosity threaten to make the reader forget Paula, the narrative flashes back to her bedside, her condition, her dream visit to her mother last night.
The two stories are not strictly parallel — they tend to converge as Paula’s condition worsens, and Allende’s life comes closer to the present. In the end, the reader finds, it is the same story.
The first two-thirds of the book are “long letter” to Paula, in the same way Allende says her “The House of the Spirits” began–a long letter to her grandfather. In Part II, Allende has become more open to the idea that Paula will never wake up, and the reader is then addressed directly.
What Allende tells her daughter tells us everything about her relationship with her daughter, and more. For women of Allende’s generation to have achieved such rapport, such honesty, such camaraderie with an adult daughter is an achievement often omitted from feminist retrospectives. When a feminist succeeds in throwing off the chains of oppression, she does not pass them on to her daughter. She gives her every scrap of experience she has to help her avoid them.
There are cynics who might see the format as a trick, an exploitation of the daughter’s illness in order to sell books. In these days of rampant tackiness in publishing, that is a legitimate concern. There is, however, no question of that here, for Allende is an established and superior novelist with no need whatsoever to trick her audience.
The spiritual evolution is authentic, as is the desire to share it with others in memory of a daughter whose own life was a monument to concern for others.
Although Allende’s story and Paula’s story are generally chronological, there is another subtle pattern at work, one that also reminds us that we are witnessing a real human drama from close up.
Allende creeps up on some subjects, the ones it would be hardest for a woman to tell her daughter. She makes allusions to certain situations, like her rape at the age of 8 and a love affair her children questioned, but only tells the whole story later. The reader suspects that these are the things she thought she would have a lifetime to work out with her daughter.
Again, the great tragedies of Allende’s life, such as the coup that overthrew her uncle and sent her into long years of exile, come out when Paula’s condition worsens, as if the present tragedy pulled an emotional cork and let out the past ones.
One senses that perhaps the courage Allende knows she must muster to face the truth about Paula is the same courage she mustered to bring her children through the coup and the exile. At some level she knows this, and we see her searching within herself to find it again.
Paula does not make it, and nothing is given away by that information. The stories of the two women do not lie in the historic details but in their inspiring relationship and their inspiring personalities.
As in “The House of the Spirits,” the family’s traditional ability to converse with the spirit world comes to Allende’s aid. The ancestral spirits hover, but Allende is finally convinced to let go by the spirit of Paula herself.
The book is art in the truest sense, a piece of the soul of the artist, offered to the world with only one string attached. Allende has given us her courage, her foibles, her unshakable mother-love and asks us only to remember her daughter in return. It’s a deal you can’t refuse.
From Redwood Record, November 16, 1995
‘Aama’ an American odyssey through a visitor’s eyes
Book Review by Jentri Anders
By Broughton Coburn, New York: Anchor Books 1995.
Sometime in the 1960s, Americans starved for some real food for the sou1 faced East and began chanting “OM.” The inundation of Eastern gurus and pseudo-gurus that resulted has continued unabated ever since.
The backlash came after the fall of Rajneeshpurim in Oregon, when the kingdom of the Mercedes-driving Rajneesh fell, amid accusations of everything from embezzlement to kidnapping to mass poisoning, and the bearded soothsayer was deported summarily back to India.
Many are those who lost all interest in purported spiritual superiority emanating from the East after the Rajneeshpurim fiasco, as well as many other such fiascos that characterized the ‘70s and ‘80s. It is thus a pleasant surprise to read a down-homey and honest account of a spiritual quest taken to the West by a spiritual seeker from the East, a seeker with both charisma and human failings, wisdom and prejudice.
Author Broughton Coburn went to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher. Later, he was involved in rural development and wildlife conservation for the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund. Perhaps it is these highly rational and on-the-ground pursuits that saved his readers from having to wade through the obligatory religious morass before getting to what his Nepalese mentor actually has to say.
Vishnu Maya Gurung, an 84-year-old subsistence farmer, went from being Coburn’s landlady in the village where he first worked to being “Aama,” his surrogate mother. Since Aama was one of those unfortunate Asian women who never produced a son, she had much to gain from adopting Coburn as her “Dharma son.” For Coburn, who lost his mother at 19, it was a welcome deal.
Coburn’s first book about Aama, “Nepali Aama: Life Lessons of a Himalayan Woman,” documented their unique relationship and how their two very different cultures met through them in the tiny house where he slept over the bullock stall.
In the second, “Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart,” Coburn recounts Aama’s two-month odyssey in America, where Coburn brought her to visit “spiritual places.” That spiritual places exist in America is the first premise one must accept in getting into Coburn’s groove and Aama’s experiences go a long way toward establishing that premise.
The first part of the journey is down Highway 101 from Seattle, with stops at the “Trees of Mystery” tourist attraction. There Aama communes wryly with the gigantic statues of Paul Bunyan and his ox. We Humboldt County residents who love our chosen home have no problem empathizing with Aama’s conversations with the ancient redwoods and the “Great Ganges Ocean” as she dubs the Pacific.
As the three of them travel down the Pacific Coast, visiting friends and relatives on the way, then make a major zig back up through the southwest to Yellowstone and thence east to Maine, the strange triangle becomes ever stranger. It is possible to become frustrated with Coburn’s density, however, as he wallows in self-absorption while his girlfriend, Didi, copes with the everyday problems of caring for an 84-year-old woman who just dropped into her life from out of the Nepalese sky.
The well-read reader begins to wonder if Coburn is deliberately presenting himself as stupider than he is, as Carlos Casteneda did before him, to make a point. If the point was to emphasize Aama’s wisdom, however, he failed to make it. Aama cycles from high consciousness to low, as children and tourists flock to her at every stop.
But the irreverence of Americans, even Coburn and Didi, show her how hopelessly alienated Americans are from the many sources of spiritual goodies around them. Coburn is to be greatly congratulated for his candor, about himself, about Aama and about the personal revelations that come to him from his impulsive invitation to her.
Had he yielded to the temptation to present Aama as something other than the Will Rogers-like crackerbarrel philospher she is, albeit one who walks with spirits every day, and to present himself as the head honcho devotee, the book would have taken its place as just another quasi-religious tract. As it is, it is a delightful and insightful look at America that leaves us room to think for ourselves. Aama’s journey is not our journey, but looking at ourselves through her eyes is one way to begin it.