However. An abrupt cancellation of one writing project on railroad expansion in Philadelphia in 1839, followed by a short bout with the stomach flu, gave me the opportunity to lie in bed and read for a day and a half. Luckily I had a wonderfully engrossing novel to distract myself from nausea and stomach cramps: The Bowl is Already Broken, by Mary Kay Zuravleff.
I had already read a couple of great reviews praising it (and describing the plot in some detail) by two bloggers whose work I admire, flea (note that her copy has a more elegant cover design - but since my library copy had the cover shown here, I felt I had to use it), and the mama from mamarant.
At the beginning, I was a bit suspicious of the novel and its characters, probably because I spent ten years on and off working in a museum, and another nearly ten years as a mother - and these are the two inextricably bound themes that wind through Zuravleff's book. The more I read, though, the more I enjoyed the characters' complexities, their devotion to their work, and Zuravleff's descriptions of the Asian art and poetry at the center of the story. My museum experiences were different from those at Zuravleff's "Institution" in many ways -- for one thing, most archaeological artifacts are not nearly as awe-inspiring as porcelain bowls and illuminated manuscripts. Much of the rest of it, though -- the group lunches (unfortunately not the gourmet meals described at her museum!), the politics, the dance between administration and research, the incredible range of research and experience, and the gossip and the sexual drama - oh, she got that, she really got it down, and so very well.
And I have to say that Zuravleff really captures the essence of family life -- the worries, the kids' quirks, the unending domestic work, the day to day chaos -- very well also. In fact, her entertaining descriptions remind me of Anne Lamott, who captures motherhood in a way few other writers do...except there's not much Jesus in The Bowl Is Already Broken. But there's plenty of Rumi (whom I keep running up against in books, I think most recently in The Bookseller of Kabul and The Kite Runner). One featured poem, written in Persian by the Afghan poet and mystic more than seven hundred years ago:
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, "The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding."
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no "other world."
I only know what I've experienced.
You must be hallucinating.
So - go and read this book. It's the perfect summer read, engrossing yet light, but not so fluffy that you feel unfulfilled afterwards. My only quibble with it? The archaeological project that Zuravleff describes is a little sketchy...it doesn't really give you a good idea of how that kind of fieldwork feels or actually works, which is in marked contrast to the other parts of the book. But this is basically criticizing the background scenery from a couple passages. The descriptions of the other parts of the Middle Eastern landscape are wonderful, as are those of the different parts of the Washington DC setting. Just go and read it and enjoy it, really.
*Recent topics include Ida B. Wells and lynching, Frederick Douglass and Jim Crow railroad cars in 1840's Massachusetts (and you thought Jim Crow was just in the South after Reconstruction!), and the feminist protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant (no bras were ever burned, contrary to popular belief).