What’s in the Cards?
Books fall into my life in pairs. First, my book club chose The Grift, a novel by Debra Ginsberg. The cover is compelling—the “r” in Grift is out of line, so this clever cover design makes it obvious that “grift” is just one letter away from being ”gift”. Then there’s the black crow above the title, holding something colorful in its beak. It’s a tarot card, on closer inspection the Death card. Judging the book by its cover, this promised to be an intriguing, if chilling, read.
Shortly after The Grift dropped into my life, a friend at work brought me a signed copy of a new nonfiction book, from an imprint of our local Globe Pequot Press, Confessions of a Tarot Reader: Practical Advice from This Realm and Beyond. Suddenly my new pair of books had me exploring an unexpected, mystical arena. While I’m not a believer in soothsaying, I could see a new adventure was in the cards for me, just in time for Halloween.
In The Grift, it’s immediately clear that Marina Marks’ life has a hard edge to it. She got into “intuitive counseling” when her junkie mom realized she could market her daughter as a seer for quick income. Yes, Marina reads people, but it has nothing to do with the tarot cards she spreads on the table. Vulnerable souls are her bread and butter, and she watches each client with a practiced and hungry eye. Ginsberg sketches Marina well—while she’s a grifter, you can see it’s an effort to keep her more compassionate self in check. Marina’s convinced herself that the cards are just a device, a handy prop for her ongoing, lucrative livelihood. But she’s got these nagging thoughts and emotions that build, becoming more and more difficult to ignore. This encroaching of the genuine is at first inconvenient, then downright scary to Marina.
I’m not sure the word karma is ever used in the novel, but something sure comes back to bite Marina. She finds herself entangled with some unsavory, troubled souls, but what throws her even more is the shock of falling in love. The elements of this whirlwind are all mixed up with her past, and in an ironic scene she goes, feeling desperate, to be read by an authentic psychic, Ciel. Ciel sums it up for her over the Queen of Cups card: “You have to absorb so much energy from everyone else all the time. Everyone’s loves and losses and desires coming at you. How can you tell what’s what? How do you sort it all? How do you keep it straight?” This, in fact, is the crux of the book. Marina’s a “fake” psychic but over time she seems to be picking up on some very real vibes, and the battle between her very controlled psychic persona and the often messy scenarios made apparent by her actual intuition make her feel like she’s losing her mind. However, as the cover hints, there is a gift somewhere in all this grift. It’s not a gift that a logical, linear mind would predict, but it makes sense in a more mystical, and yes, quite spooky way.
Jane Stern, the author of Confessions of a Tarot Reader, is the antidote to Marina’s chaotic and often creepy experience. Here we have a bona fide tarot reader, one of a long line of women who have inherited the art. She’s a practical sort, actually. I know her from her NPR show, The Splendid Table, and remembering her non-scary demeanor on the show reassured me that this book would not take me down any weird paths of no return. Unlike the fictional Marina, Stern’s the first to say she doesn’t really know exactly how the cards work. But she does believe they hold some truth and power and sets out to explain the insights they can offer.
Confessions approaches the discussion of the tarot cards in what might be seen as a self-help tone. This is good for those who may feel cynical, frightened, or both about the prospect of the cards, for they can be viewed on one level as a simple tool for self exploration. Stern explains that psychoanalyst Carl Jung recognized the cards as symbolic of the archetypes we all share in our experience of being human. She injects her own humanity into the discussion, with wisdom gleaned not only from the cards but from day-to-day life as well. Take her personal tangent in her explanation of the Hierophant card, a card that calls attention to those with whom you ally yourself. Jane writes, “My mother often said to me, ‘If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas’, meaning that if I continued to hang around with the bad crowd or the outcasts I adored, I too would bear that label. Of course I thought my mother was an idiot. At fifteen, is there any other way to see your mother? It took me many years and much maturity to understand what she meant.” No hocus pocus here, but the history and sometime mystery of the cards combined with Stern’s real-world advice make for a thought-provoking combination.
Of course, true believers in tarot readings will view the cards as much more than just a self-help device. Stern calls the deck “a magical entity that somehow does tap into the subconscious and give us answers.” While she believes in being “human and subject to being humbled by life”, she also believes there are forces at work that go way beyond simple psychology, including forces of evil. She cautions against Ouija boards, and also has identified some objects that, at least for her, harbor a tangible negative energy. These include opals, English Ivy, and peacock feathers. She softens this superstitious-sounding suggestion by admitting this all sounds “a bit nutty” and positing that eliminating potential sources of bad energy might be worth a try should you find yourself in a truly desperate situation. Ultimately, she also warns against fortune tellers who are grifters like Marina Marks. Her last word on the Devil card is, “be careful about whom you let peer into your soul,” good advice even if you don’t believe in a Devil entity.
Reading The Grift and Confessions made me feel like I’d had my own tarot card reading by proxy. I was struck with the insight that every situation has several layers of meaning, and we are often faced with the choice of how deep we want to delve. Stern discovered early that reading the cards was not just an amusing party game; she found herself burdened with insights that would prove painful for the person being read. Marina tried to stay on the surface but found that deeper layers, hailing from both dark and light realms, were calling her to forego her heretofore superficial existence. Delving deeper is an experience that can be rewarding or troubling, and perhaps quite often both at once. I’m still not sure if I’ll ever choose to be read, but both of these books seemed to choose me. They made me think, which is almost never a bad thing. I am glad they pulled my card.
Books mentioned in this column: