Reviews of SRS Books
Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sunday, 19 February 2006
Author offers inspiration to tune into life
Sanders inspired me to listen a little closer to the cat's guttural
purr, to peer deeper into the pink opalescence of his dirty ears, to
appreciate his uninvited affection. It is high praise indeed that Sanders'
book gave me a fresh new perspective on the pleasant feline nuisance
in my lap.
In this memoir, Sanders traces moments of transcendence from his earliest
memories through his mid-20s when his first child was born.
The entire work is a rich, poetic reflection on the moments when we
tap into "the force that animates nature and mind." In his
prologue, Sanders writes, "The enlightenment I wish to describe
is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention."
He called it A Private History of Awe, but Sanders welcomes
in everyone and everything. His sensibility encourages spirituality
to exist in harmony with advanced science. His vision includes attention
for all of the world's living things from "dark-eyed pansies"
to "chorusing" cicadas to the pets on our laps.
Most of all, though, Sanders looks at the people: his father and mother,
his wife and his friends and his own growing self.
The book is split into four sections - Fire, Air, Water, Earth - but
Sanders doesn't limit himself to our idyllic connotations of the elements.
Instead, he creates unexpected metaphors and connections. The Air section,
for instance, ends as a teenage Sanders wakes up in a blustery convertible;
his rascally father is driving along in excess of 120 mph.
The first section, Fire, is the strongest and richest, and it includes
accounts of Sanders' boyhood living in and around the Ravenna Arsenal
about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland. In the 21,000 acres of the arsenal,
Sanders watches the family dog succumb to a divine and deadly wildness
by running off with a pack of his feral brethren, and Sanders learns
about the power of the U.S. military machine, which he later will protest
against during the Vietnam War.
Sanders writes, "I soon learned the sound of bombs from explosions
at the ammunition dump, which rattled the china in Mama's corner cupboard
and, at suppertime, rattled the fork against my teeth."
Throughout the book, Sanders steps away from the tale of his own life
to compare and contrast the newest and oldest members of his present-day
family: his baby granddaughter and his failing, senile mother. The writer,
now 60, watches and celebrates as the baby opens up to the world and
discovers her own moments of meaning and awe.
"At seven months," Sanders writes, "Elizabeth gazes
boldly at everyone she meets, without caring if they gaze back. She
reaches for everything within the span of her arms, feeling it, gumming
and licking it."
But Sanders also watches and mourns as his mother loses more and more
of herself, her memories, her faculties. A few of these paired moments
truly deepen the book. But when Sanders breaks away from his own narrative
too frequently, as he does in the third section, Water, it starts to
feel contrived. The digressions disrupt the overall narrative momentum.
Thankfully Sanders, who has written nearly 20 books, including highly
praised nonfiction, regains his balance in the final section. In Earth,
Sanders becomes a father and embarks on his teaching career at Indiana
University, where he strives to inculcate his students with the possibilities
of life and literature:
"Maybe I could put into their hands a story or a poem or a play
that would lift their hearts, open their minds to the world's wonders
. . ."
In A Private History of Awe, Sanders himself has written just
such a story.
Hoyt is an assistant professor at Baldwin-Wallace College
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