Monday, March 30, 2015

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

I imagine that most compulsive readers worry from time to time that they are going to run out of books to read, or worse, suddenly lose their enchantment with the written word. How wonderful when one discovers a new author, even if she has been around for most of the reader’s life. Through a reader friend who slipped me a piece of paper in a grocery line with a name written on it, I became aware of a marvelous British author by the name of Jane Gardam. Maureen Corrigan of NPR describes Gardam as “the best British writer you’ve never heard of,” so I guess I am not alone in having previously missed out on her long career of writing. As soon as I discovered her, I quickly, and with passionate interest, began to read her. I’ve already read seven of her books, beginning with her Collected Stories, five hundred pages of stories she, herself, selected from the volumes of short fiction she has written over a lifetime. But today I want to focus on her exquisite trilogy, Old Filth, which consists of the title volume, Old Filth, followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. All three are about British law practitioners who spend most of their lives in what was then called The British Empire. Indeed, filth is an acronym for Failed in London? Try Hong Kong.

Eddie Feathers, affectionately named Old Filth by his fellow barristers and judges, is a Raj orphan—one of many British children sent home from India (or Hong Kong, or some other country in the Empire) to be fostered by family or strangers until they are old enough to enter boarding school. The children are allegedly sent to England in order to prevent them from getting tropical diseases, but often enough the children are miserable in their foster homes, although in some cases, the children come to prefer their foster parents and simply forget their earlier lives with their biological parents. Gardam is a master of the language, and obviously knows a lot about the Raj orphans. Indeed, she dedicates Old Filth to Raj Orphans and their parents.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the trilogy is that all three volumes include not only the same characters, but the same historical period, roughly from WW I to the end of the 20th century. The first volume is mainly about Eddie Feathers, a.k.a. Filth, and his wife, Betty, and a lifelong enemy of Feathers, Ed Veneering. Both Feathers and Veneering make reputations and fortunes as land attorneys and later judges. There were fortunes to be made in the distributing and redistributing of land and land-rights, mining rights, especially after WW II. The characters of Feathers and Veneering are as different as their histories are similar. Gardam gets at the complexity of her characters in ways few authors can match, and once a character is mentioned by Gardam, the reader can be sure that his or her life will be picked up again as a story in its own right at some point in the trilogy. In the final volume of the trilogy, Last Friends, a rather minor legal figure, Fiscal-Jones, who appears briefly in many of the stories/scenes in the earlier volumes, emerges as the last living member of a group of Raj orphans, and his life story is then meticulously stitched into narrative of the lives of the ‘main’ characters described previously. “Don’t introduce a pistol in a short-story or play unless you intend to bring it into the action later,” is an adage told to writers; for Gardam, it seems to be, “Don’t introduce a character unless you intend to develop him/her at some later point.”

The descriptions of life in Hong kong, and other cities of the Empire are marvelous for someone who knows as little history as I do. And because she takes her characters through their entire lives, the reader gets Gardam’s insights on aging, the end of Empire, parenting (or deciding not do parent), and the incredible changes in daily life over the past half century or so. Gardam is in her 80s, and so lived through the times of her characters, and she continues to enlighten us about those times. She is a master story-teller, on a par I think with the great Alice Munro, and, like Munro, most of her short fiction is dedicated to the apparently ordinary lives of rural North England towns. But, again like Munro, Gardam understands that the inner lives of ‘simple’ folk are anything but ordinary or simple. The complexity of her characters brings them to life in wonderfully rich ways. And while there is much sadness and loss in the lives of her characters, there is also humor and love and loyalty. As Old Filth, Eddie Feathers, lies on his deathbed trying to recall where he is and how he got there, he reflects:
Memory. My memory has always been so reliable. Perhaps too reliable. It has never spared me. Memory and desire, he thought. Who said that: Without memory and desire life is pointless? I long ago lost any sort of desire. Now memory.

Gardam, along with Penelope Lively, Barbara Kingsolver, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (and I’m sure many others), seem intent on reviewing for us the 20th century, looking again at its wars, its poverty and suffering; they give us such complex and insightful perspectives on the politics and events of the last century. They seem to be summing up, and I find their summing-up to be helpful and hopeful. I note that there are still sixteen books of Gardam I have not read, along with some children’s stories (which is how she was first published). I mean to read everything she has written; she is a wise companion to have in life. She tells us what she knows through story-telling, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I am quite certain I would admire her as a person just as I admire her as a writer.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with the line, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so I’ll be giving nothing away by telling you that this is a book about how and why a young Chinese-American girl died. It is a debut novel by Celeste Ng, although few would guess that this is a first novel, since it is a very finished piece of writing. 

The themes of racism and feminism are woven through this lovely but sad novel. Raised by a mother who feels she sacrificed her life and academic talents to marriage and children, and who lays all of her frustrated ambitions onto her daughter, Lydia feels the enormous weight of her mother’s expectations. Her Chinese father senses that he has never fit into American life, and he wants desperately for his daughter to pass, to be normal and popular. Each parent unintentionally puts tremendous, but in some ways opposite, pressure on  Lydia, and she staggers under the weight of trying to do for her parents what each feel they failed to do for themselves.

Lydia has an older brother, Nath, who somehow slips through the net of expectations that entangle Lydia. Only Nath understands what Lydia is going through, and yet he cannot quite rid himself of resentment towards her, since everything, always, seems to be about Lydia. Neither parent seems to notice that it is he who has the true love of science and learning, and so his talents are largely ignored by both parents. More and more, Lydia, who is in fact friendless, but talks to imaginary girlfriends on the phone to convince her dad that she is happy and popular, depends on her older brother for support and friendship. But he is soon to leave for college, and is eager to escape living in the shadow of Lydia, and the disappointments of the parents that both children feel.

At one point, the mother finally (and briefly) wrests herself from the family and takes up the scientific studies abandoned when she married a Chinese grad student and quickly had two children. She seems to have the academic skills her daughter cannot quite muster, and although an older student, is doing very well in her studies until she realizes that she is once again pregnant, and dispiritedly rejoins the family that she has abandoned.

Lydia, confused and frightened by her mother’s disappearance, vows to do everything her mother wants of her when she returns in order to keep her from running away again. So eager to please her mother, she never confesses that she feels overwhelmed by and unable to live up to the high expectations placed on her. Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, gives up her own academic dreams,  but made plans for Lydia,
Books she would buy Lydia. Science fair projects. Summer classes. ‘Only if you’re interested’ She meant it every time, but she did not realize she was holding her breath. Lydia did. Yes, she said, every time. Yes. Yes. And her mother would breathe again…Yale admitted women, then Harvard. The nation learned new words: affirmative action; Equal Rights Amendment. In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.
And meanwhile, her father who feels he has lowered himself by accepting his small college position, and who feels always out of step with his peers,
“… mulling over the slights of the day… Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have friends… She would be poised and confident, she would say ‘Afternoon Vivian,’ and look right at her neighbor with those big blue eyes. Every day, the thought grew more precious.
And every day, Lydia feels more desperate, more unequal to the task before her. And now her only support, Nath, is about to leave home, escape from the frustrated hopes and dreams of their parents into a life of his own. He alone realizes the desperate situation of his sister. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.”  Finally, looking forward to what he sees as the start of his own life, “Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say…He had been the only one listening for so long. Since their mother’s disappearance and return, Lydia had been friendless.”

All in all, this is a sad little book, but so beautifully written, and by an author who understands so intimately what she is writing about. She understands the father who never fits in and so wants his daughter to do what he cannot, understands the mother who puts all of her frustrated hopes onto her daughter. 
And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.
There is also an element of mystery in the novel as the story of Lydia’s disappearance unfolds. But I’m not about to reveal the mystery; you will have to read the novel to see how the mystery unravels.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing fiction, so that I can talk to you about the incredible naturalist writer Ellen Meloy. I’ll be paying special attention to her last book, published shortly after she died in 2004, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, but each of her four nature-study books deserves to be read and praised. 

Meloy loved the desert, and especially the band of wild bighorn sheep thought for many years to be extinct. A sub-species of mountain sheep found only in the Four Corners area, Meloy named the little band she followed and watched for many years, the Blue Door band. Even in the time she was studying them, she remarks on their elusiveness, noting that on one particular sighting, the band disappeared into a crevice of rock, not to be seen again for many months. At the time, she thought they may have vanished forever.
For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the lands every contour—when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have to do: make the perfect match of flesh to earth.
Meloy has the eye of an artist, and a facility with language that lets her word-paint for her readers  what she sees and understands about nature. Her first  college degree was in art, and upon graduation she became a wildlife illustrator until returning to school to get a Master’s degree in environmental science. There she met the love of her life and her eventual husband, Mark Meloy, a river ranger; their marriage and their love affair with nature continued until she died suddenly at fifty-eight in their home in Bluff, Utah.

Although Eating Stone is ostensibly about the Southern Utah big horn sheep, it is also simply  about beings of the desert, plants and animals. Her understanding of geologic history and biology shines forth on every page, and I found myself as astounded by her lyrical use of language as by her profound understanding of nature.
Home sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth  of them.
Meloy talks a lot about arctic big horns and the vanishing herds of desert big horns in Arizona and California. She even takes the reader on a side trip along the Baja peninsula with lively descriptions of its history and of the steady and rapid encroachment of modern living on that so recently wild land.

Although a passionate advocate of wilderness preservation and critic of environmental degradation caused by corporate greed, more and more golf courses, and expansion of dwellings onto wildlife habitat, it is more her love and understanding of wild things that comes out in her work. Given her travels and her tireless exploration of nature, she cannot but see and warn us of the perils of the future, and yet her voice is hopeful. As one critic notes, she  seems hopeful that the power of words (and of really looking) may change things one reader at a time.
…in the desert there is everything and there is nothing. Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors, plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.
She certainly took her own advice. Midway through this lovely book, I decided I would read everything she has written; let me mention the titles of her three other works. Raven’s Exile. A Season on the Green River; The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, art and spirit.

Meloy is warm, witty, deeply insightful and extraordinarily patient, as anyone must be who decides to see and understand the quiet life of these ruminant creatures who return year after year, decade after decade, eon after eon to the same lambing grounds, the same rutting grounds, who depend on expansive vision and quick vertical escape. As faithful as they are to place, they are also so careful that they may abandon a favorite feeding or sleeping ground forever because of one encounter with a helicopter or some other feared predator.
There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar. There is in me, as in all human beings a glimpse of  the interior, from which everything about our minds has come.
Meloy has an acute eye for where we have come from and, I think, for where we are going.