Word of the Week: Susurration

Last week I read PD James’ autobiography, A Time To Be In Earnest.  I came across a word I have no memory of previously meeting: susurration.

In my response to this book I wrote:

This quote is representative of her prose. I love the sibilance and onomatopoeia of susurration, a word spell-check is unfamiliar with.


I stood for a moment in complete silence broken
only by the note of a song bird and the susurration
[a soft, whispering or rustling sound] of the breeze
in the wayside grasses. It was one of those moments
of happiness and contentment which give reality to death,
since however long we have to live, there are never enough springs.

I carried this delicious word around in the pockets of my mind, taking it out, turning it over and examining it while I drove to the post office or made my bed.

I am finishing up Russell Kirk’s autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, and lo! I found the down-pillow-of-a-word again!  He writes of Clinton Wallace, a hobo whom they took into their home and lives for the last six years of Clinton’s life.

Walking the roads most of his life, Clinton Wallace had picked up in public libraries or in the lonely rooms of old hotels a tremendous fund of miscellaneous knowledge. Once he startled Kirk, in connection with some mention of change of regimes, by remarking “Arnold Toynbee writes of the susurrus of silken slippers descending the stairs, and the tramp of hobnailed boots coming up.”

A Time To Be In Earnest

A perfect day should be recorded.
It can’t be relived except in memory
but it can be celebrated and
remembered with gratitude.

P.D. James fascinates me.  She writes mysteries containing biblical allusions, phrases from the Book of Common Prayer and broad cultural references. Reading one of her novels, I am bound to learn ten new words, several new authors, poets, works of art, music or architecture.  However, life in jolly England is not all tea and scones.  Murder, infidelity and sex are part of her crime stories: disturbing but never salacious.

She calls her memoir a fragment of autobiography.  I was eager to learn more about a lady who, in a catalog of people I admire, reminds me of David McCullough. Decent. Dignified. Distinguished.

Time to Be in Earnest is written in the format of a diary of Baroness James’ seventy-seventh year. The title comes from a description of a minister in Samuel Johnson’s The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland: A man who has settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquility of his convictions disturbed; and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.  Notes of her daily life show her to be full of humor, humility, generosity and humanity. And busy! Her speaking schedule fatigued me. She includes time with her family and friends, memories of her childhood, and a potpourri of opinions.  P.D. James is interested in life; hence a journal of her daily life is interesting. 

I was asked for Dalgliesh’s
[Adam Dalgliesh is the chief detective in her series]
views on structuralism–
or was it post-structuralism. 
I replied that he had
given it careful thought for
a number of evenings and
had come to the conclusion
that it was nonsense.

The young chaplain sitting next to me murmured,
“In vain they lay snares at her feet.”

Because of her use of Cranmer’s magnificent cadences (Book of Common Prayer), I was curious if she wrote about her faith. She was born and bred in the distinctive odour of Anglicanism; her mother gave comforting and lively little homilies on which she could hang her gentle moralizing; when asked point blank if she was a Christian, her reply is affirmative with caveats, which she acknowledges is confusing. 

This quote is representative of her prose. I love the sibilance and onomatopoeia of susurration, a word spell-check is unfamiliar with.

I stood for a moment in complete silence broken
only by the note of a song bird and the susurration
[a soft, whispering or rustling sound] of the breeze
in the wayside grasses. It was one of those moments
of happiness and contentment which give reality to death,
since however long we have to live,
there are never enough springs.

The appendix contains the full talk P.D. James gave to the Jane Austen society on 18 July, 1998. You can read all but a few pages of Emma Considered As a Detective Story here. Austen fans will love it!

P.D. James’ Advice for Book Reviewers

from Time to Be in Earnest

1.  Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.

2. Don’t undertake to review a book
if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.

3. Review the book the author has written,
not the one you think he/she should have written.

4. If you have prejudices…
face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.

5. Be scathingly witty if you must and can,
but never be deliberately cruel […]

6. If you absolutely hate the book
and have nothing either interesting or positive to say, why review it?

7. If you are given a book to review by a close friend
and you strongly dislike it, don’t review it.
We none of us like hurting our friends
and the temptation to be over-kind is too strong.

8. Resist the temptation to use a review to pay back old scores
or to vent your dislike of the author’s sex, class, politics,
religion or lifestyle. Try to believe that it is possible
for people of whom you disapprove to write a good book.

::     ::     ::

What would you add to this list?

I appreciate personal interactions with the book.
I like to get to know reviewers, especially bloggers.

How to Justify a Private Library


I could not resist posting an excerpt from this witty essay by Umberto Eco from How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. (I separated some of the larger paragraphs for easier reading. The color and bold parts are also my doing. Just helping Umberto out.)  I can’t think why this one resonated with me.

…people who possess a fairly sizable library (large enough in my case that someone entering the house can’t help but notice it; actually, it takes up the whole place).

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?”

At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments.  But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion.

It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.  But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted  by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning, and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

[Now] I have fallen back on the riposte: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.    ~ 1990

Finding Friends in Unlikely Places

One of the best stories I heard this year was from my girlfriend reunion in September.  It’s not my story to tell in specifics. The gist of it is that my girlfriend’s mom was talking to a tour guide in England, challenging the English interpretation of events between England and Scotland.  Pleased to engage with someone knowledgeable and articulate in British history, the guide allowed their conversation to develop, extending the time one would usually take with a tourist. At some point my friend’s mom realized she was speaking with a member of the royal family.

A similar frisson of recognition delights me when I come across a literary reference that connects.  I am oblivious to so many references, hopscotching right over them.  But when I am familiar with a work, or writer or quote the author mentions, the thrill of discovery goes right through me. 

Here are two recent catches:

As one who must always be acting a part, he had dressed up very carefully as a river-man; ‘the Jerome K. Jerome touch’, he had explained, ‘is what impresses the lock-keepers.’   ~ the quote is from The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox. The reference is to Jerome K. Jerome’s book Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog…) which is a very funny (in the dry British sense) book

Here was one of Miss Barbara Pym’s excellent women, a dying breed no doubt, even in country parishes, but once as much a part of the Church of England as sung evensong…; Sunday School superintendent, arranger of flowers, polisher of brass, scourge of choirboys and comforter of favorite curates.  ~ the quote is from P.D. James’ A Certain Justice (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series). The reference is to Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, a comic novel about unmarried women that is at times too close to the truth to be funny (says a single friend of mine).  I didn’t know until this minute that it has been issued in a Penguin classics.  I collect Penguins

This happens in minor ways all the time. One learns a new word, a new work, a new author…and suddenly that new thing jumps out from the shadows. In January I wrote about the same thrill

~ happy sigh ~  People imagine that we readers are dull and boring, but really, the reading life is a thrilling life!

Why PD James is my favorite mystery writer


I just finished another Adam Dalgliesh book, A Certain Justice.  Adam Dalgliesh is the main character of fourteen mystery novels. I like mysteries more than science fiction, westerns, horror and thrillers—but less than memoirs, travel, histories and humor.  I prefer spacing mysteries out, inserting them between heavier reading.  And my “go to” mystery writer is P.D. James. 

The mystery part of the book is always secondary for me.  I love the culture, the commentary, the specificity behind James’ writing. One of her characters doesn’t turn on classical music while he drives; he listens to Elgar’s Serenade for Strings

James is conversant in the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.  If you know your Books, you will recognize phrases and allusions.  Adam Dalgliesh is the son of an Anglican rector, who embraces the trappings of his childhood but does not hold to the faith of his father.  Theological and philosophical questions are naturally raised. Death is present in every book (she is, after all, a murder mystery writer); reckoning with mortality tends to get one beyond the mundane.  

And she is British.  (happy sigh)   

Here is a sampler from A Certain Justice.

Do you want a cup of tea?  A cup of tea.  That English remedy for grief, shock and human mortality.

The affair now was beginning to have some of the longueurs of marriage, but with none of marriage’s reassuring safety and comfort.

But there was in his bearing the innate dignity of a man who is at ease with his work, does it well and knows that he is valued.

What I wrote when I first discovered P.D. James

Quotes from Island of the World


I couldn’t put enough quotes in my review of Island of the World.  So here, with space to stretch and relax, are some I marked. I omitted longer sections and any spoilers.  All are from the pen of Michael O’Brien.

~  I’m giving away a copy of this book to one of my readers.  ~
Enter a comment here.

Language should be, he says, as fluid as love and as stable as marriage.

There are times when it is hard to resist the world that is so rapidly changing all around him.  It takes energy to resist, even if only within the privacy of his thoughts.

Life is strange. But God has the final word.

Life itself is the great surprise, and all that is within it is an unpacking of subsidiary wonders.

Europeans understand that flavor is not about sensory stimulation, it is about evocation. It is art and memory. It is reunion with exalted moments, and such moments are never solitary ones. In short, life without coffee is not really life.

The killers murder not only their immediate victims; they spread death into the souls of survivors.

Can you really see the future if you have not seen the past for what it was?

Can a dwelling place without books every truly be a home?

They like a bit of verse as emotional prompts on greeting cards or as page-filler in periodicals, but they do not dive deep. Perhaps they do not know the deep is there. The pace of modern life, television, subways, fast food–these all work against the sublime illuminating moment when the distance between utterance and reception is closed in an embrace.

They are enjoying the rather unusual experience of it all–the sensation of a time-tested and comfortable friendship that is only hours old.

It may be that he cannot always distinguish between his losses and blessings, and the release of tears reduces the pressure.

Truth is always embedded in beauty.

On Christmas morning, they awake to the sound of bells ringing throughout the city. This, doubtless, is illegal, but the government probably does not have the stamina to destroy Christmas utterly.

Is he alone? Yes, he is alone, and yet, not alone. Beyond all sorrows, he has the fire of Holy Communion with Christ, as well as friends and fishing and the central grace in his life–his mission to forgive.

We are born, we eat, and learn, and die.  We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.

The Best Book of 2010

In July I began reading Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World. Thirty pages in I knew this book was extraordinary. At one point in the middle of the night I got up and Googled Josip Lasta, the protagonist’s name, convinced he was a real person.

When I finished reading it, I couldn’t stop discussing it.  I gave copies to friends. But I shrank from writing about Island.  It is a big book in every sense of the word. How can I express its power in a short review? A friend read it and said, “It changed my life.”  Island of the World has 18 reviews on Amazon; all are 5 stars.  Laura, whose review began with these words “Best book ever.”, bought every book written by O’Brien after reading this.

So what is it about?  Light and darkness, loss and blessing, deep interior wounds, survival, sanity after trauma, crucifixion, resurrection.  Grief mingled with inexplicable joy.  All condensed in the life of a single Croatian man named Josip Lasta. 

Yet there is a difference between insightful commentary
about culture and the actual creation of culture.

I am intrigued by the cultures portrayed in O’Brien’s book: the rustic mountain village northwest of Sarajevo with an interdependent community and a faithful priest; the heady high culture of academia discussing philosophy and experiencing art; the tight grip on the edge of sanity, clinging to a vestige of humanity in a labor camp; the incremental rebuilding of a life in an Italian hospital; the life of a solitary janitor in New York City. 

If he had been given a choice, would he have chosen to be
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Never.
It was given. It is gift and cost–and in time the cost may
become entirely gift. It is hard to know if that will be the
end of all this striving, impossible to guess when the next
blessing or blow will fall.

I had read a third of the book when I saw a young man, a friend and former student who shares my love of reading thick, chunky, excellent books.  I stopped him as he walked by my office and told him about Island. Scott listened with interest and thanked me.  I made him wait while I printed out the synopsis from Amazon.  Two days later he was killed in a car accident.  The printout was on his nightstand.  Reading this book in the throes of grief impressed its words on my soul. This book is unforgettable.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect that Michael O’Brien is my new Wendell Berry.  That is the highest compliment I can offer. 

Get this book.  Burrow into it.  It will change you.

Friends’ reviews:  Laura, Janie  Another review: Rabbit Room

I added a post of quotes from this book here.

I love this book so much, I want one of you to win a free copy. 
Enter a comment and I will have a drawing.  Let’s say December 4th. 
Post a link, tweet about it, email a friend (and let me know you did)
and I’ll enter your name twice!
You can have choose between paperback or Kindle version.
International entries are welcome.

Love Continuing in Gratitude


We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. 

For time is told also by life. 
As some depart, others come. 
The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome.

[…] And time that is told by death and birth
 is held and redeemed by love, which is always present.
 Time, then, is told by love’s losses,
and by the coming of love,
and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. 

It is folded
and enfolded
and unfolded
forever and ever,
the love by which the dead are alive
and the unborn welcomed into the womb. 

The great question for the old and the dying,
I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough,
but if they have been grateful enough
for love received and given, however much. 
No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. 
Let us pray to be grateful to the last.

~ Wendell Berry in Andy Catlett