Monday, January 29, 2018

The Power of One by Bryce Courteney

I want to talk to you today about a wonderful and inspiring book by Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One. I was moved by this book in a profound and lasting way. I am so thankful to my reader friends who continue to alert me to wonderful books that have somehow passed me by.

The book is set in South Africa, and its hero (or I should say one of its heroes) is a five year old boy who names himself Peekay. He is the youngest boy in a primarily Afrikaner boarding school, and he is persecuted and terrified by the Afrikaner/Boer students who call him a Rooinek (that is English), and hate him for it. His main persecutor is a big, older bully, Mevrou. “Ahead of me lay the dreaded Mevrou, the Judge and the jury, and the beginning of the power of one—how I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed.”

The first fifty pages or so of this book were so sad, the bullying so oppressive, that I considered giving up on it, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Mevrou is a huge fan of Hitler, and he taunts Peekay constantly with the threat that when Hitler comes to South Africa, he will march all the Rooineks into the sea. Although incredibly precocious in some ways, Peekay is almost totally naïve in others. He has no map of the world in his mind, and is so naïve regarding the larger world that under the assault from Mevrou, he actually thinks that South Africa is on the side of the Germans in World War II. His only companion and defender in the early part of the book is a wise and gnarly old chicken, Grampa Chook, whom his nanny has helped him smuggle into the boarding school. Eventually, Mevrou and his gang of bullies declare both Peekay and Grampa Chook prisoners of war, and regularly haze them in horrible ways  behind the outhouses. 

Finally, Peekay gets some respite from Mevrou when a semester ends and he is sent to his grandfather in a small town. The grandfather, who had a small farm until a chicken disease wiped out all of his prize chickens, is one of the few bright lights in Peekay’s early life. On the train journey, Peekay runs into the first of a string of saviors, a railroad worker who cares for him on his long train trip and who insists that someday Peekay will be the welterweight champion of the world. 
I didn’t know then that what seemed like the end was only the beginning. All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives. Unbeknown to me, the tide had turned and I was being swept out to sea.
It is the railroad worker, Hoppie, himself a locally famous boxer, who teaches Peekay “First with the head and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start.” “He gave me a defense system, and with it he gave me hope.”

After meeting and being cared for by Hoppie, the next savoir for Peekay is a professor of music who has exiled himself to South Africa and spends most of his waking hours gathering succulents and cactus for his superb succulent garden. Doc (as Peekay comes to call him) contrives for Peekay to take piano lessons from him, in spite of the objections of Peekay’s born-again Christian mother, who is suspicious of all who do not share her born again faith. Doc is drawn to Peekay not so much because of his musical promise, but because he has such an inquisitive mind and is so eager to learn. 

In my 50 plus years of teaching, I came to believe strongly (as Doc does) that openness and curiosity are the most important aspects of a good learner and of brilliance. Doc takes Peekay into the hills every day to catalogue and gather specimens, and he teaches him to look carefully at everything and so see everything as interconnected. But while Doc has a wonderful and orderly mind, he also instills in Peekay a deep reverence for nature and for the mystery that lies therein.
The vines are people you encounter who are afraid of originality; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous…Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you will grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life.
Doc teaches him to really look, and to think clearly. But, he continues,
…in this world there are very few things made from logic alone. It is illogical for a man to be too logical. Some things we must just let stand. The mystery is more important than any possible explanation. The searcher after truth must search with humanity. Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life. When a truth is not so important, it is better left as a mystery.
When world War II expands to South Africa, Doc is arrested and imprisoned, essentially simply for being a German. Fortunately, the Commandant of the prison is a lover of music, and feels privileged to have Doc in his prison, even arranging for him to have his Steniway transported to the prison in exchange for a concert to impress his superiors and the townspeople. Peekay is allowed access to the prison on a daily basis and continues to learn from Doc. Also, despite his youth and his small size he is allowed into the boxing program at the prison where yet another of his heroes, a black man, Geel Piet, comes into play. Geel Piet teaches him how to box and how to use his feet to stay out of the way of the much bigger sluggers/fighters who can hit hard but can’t really box. “The boxer who takes chances gets hit and gets hurt. Box, never fight, fighting is for heavyweights and domkops.” Geel Piet and the way he is treated by Afrikaners also brings Peekay to understand that “racism is a primary force of evil designed to destroy good men.”

I think there will be some readers who will simply not be able to accept the precocity of this young boy, will not be able to achieve that suspension of disbelief that is required to lose oneself in a well told story. Courtenay, himself, seems to anticipate this when he has Peekay say, “You may ask how a six-year-old could think like this. I can only answer that one did.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

My Favorite Books of the Past Year

I’ve decided to depart from my usual routine of reviewing a single book and instead talk about my favorite books over the past year. I make almost no attempt in my reading to stay current with what is being published. Thus, in 2016, I discovered Kent Haruf who had died just before I began reading him. I quickly read up everything he had written. My discoveries this year were Mary Lawson and William Boyd (though Boyd has been writing for decades and I had not read him at all until a friend from Austrailia recommended him to me. 

Mary Lawson
I will begin my list with all three of Mary Lawson’s wonderful books: Crow Lake, Over the Bridge,  and Road Ends. The reader who loaned me Crow Lake is still a bit miffed at me, because I loaned it out before getting around to returning it, and then forgot to whom I had loaned it. Lawson is a quiet writer, who makes manifest the extraordinary in ordinary lives. One reviewer gets directly to the heart of the matter. “Like her fellow Canadians Alice Munro and the late Carol Shields, Lawson is a master of the quiet moment made significant.” Just so and she belongs in that select company of Munro and Shields. Like Kent Haruf, she writes about a single small town and her characters overlap from one book to the next. I suggest you begin with Crow Lake and read all of her novels, though one can start with any one of them.

Eowyn IveyNext I will mention again a book I reviewed a short time ago, and one that charmed me so that I have already given away or loaned a half dozen copies, The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. Based on a Russian fairy-tale, this is a book you will want to share with or read to your children. I should mention however that the content is complex and sometimes troubling. I was reminded of this when one of my reader friends read it to her six-year-old, and while she is glad she did, and the young boy loved the book, it did provoke very serious discussions about death, our relationship with the animal kingdom and the nature of human love. I rarely read fantasy fiction, but this is a book I am so glad I happened on to.

Next, let me talk briefly about William Boyd whose imagination continues to astound me. I just yesterday finished the last of his books that I had not already read, Armadillo, and like The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach and others, I was swept into the complicated  life of his main character. Many of his novels are either mysteries or war stories, and each is carefully researched, and yet one never knows what to expect when moving from one novel to the next. I would suggest starting with Any Human Heart since I believe it is the most autobiographical of his many novels written over the past two or three decades. Again, one can start anywhere in his twenty some novels.

Although I am not attempting to rank these in any particular order, the next on my list is Amor Towel’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, a thoroughly researched book about the early days in Russia after the revolution. I would also recommend Towel’s The Rules of Civility, about as different from Gentleman in Moscow as could be. Incidentally, this latter book has a woman as its main narrator, and several of my reader friends (including myself) thought as we were reading that certainly the author must be a woman.

Next on my list is yet another male author which surprises me some, since I have been reading and reviewing mostly women writers for the last ten or twenty years. The book is Brooklyn, and the author is Colm Toibin. This is the story of an Irish girl who comes to this country with little money and very little training. It is in many ways a simple story of a very courageous young woman. You may already know Toibin as the the author of The Master, a book based on the life of Henry James. 

jennifer egan
Next on my list, and perhaps the best book of 2017, is Manhattan Beach, by the superb author Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit From the Goon Squad). This is an historical novel that focuses on the role women played in shipyards and factories during World War II. It shows again that Egan is in the very front ranks of living authors.

Although I don’t read (or review) many mysteries or thrillers, I was very impressed with Tara French’s The Trespasser. This is again about thee Murder Squad in Dublin, and Detective Antoinette Conway is as tough as they come. While it is a serious mystery, it is also often very funny, and describes well the difficulties of being a woman cop surrounded by men who want to see women fail. 

Just two more, and I will stop for now, although I have read so many excellent books in the last year. Alice McDermott published another fine novel (all of her work is extraordinary); this last one is titled The Ninth Hour and I reviewed it just last month. I see her as an extremely perceptive feminist author, and enjoy reading of her tempestuous relationship with Catholicism.

Finally, if you have not read Alice Munro, whom I consider the finest fiction writer alive today, I would recommend to you a new collection of stories she, herself, put together selected from her many previously published short-story collections. Its title is Lying Under the Apple Tree, and although it contains no new stories, it was a pleasure to revisit some of her tales and especially ones that she selected, and would serve as a fine introduction to her work. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I want to talk to you this morning about a startlingly good book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jennifer Egan. The Pultizer winning book, A Visit From the Good Squad, was a daringly different, even shocking book, but what is surprising about her newest novel, Manhattan Beach,  is that it is a straight-forward historical novel. As one commentator says, 
After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways…Egan does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying; apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do. 
The novel begins as Anna who is 11 accompanies her father, Eddie, to the home of a rich man, Mr. Styles. Turns out that Eddie takes his young daughter with him often on his rather mysterious business calls. As we come to learn as the novel progresses, Dexter Styles is a gangster, and Eddie Kerrigan works as a messenger for a powerful longshoreman union boss. Anna is a clever girl who could “feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips; this came so natural that she could only think that other people didn’t really try. They always looked, which was as useless when assembling things as studying a picture by touching it.” 

Anna finds herself torn between the life of her mother, sister Lydia, and her Aunt Brianne and the bigger world life of her father. Lydia has a severely crippling disease which renders her unable to care for herself or even to walk and talk, and her mother devotes most of her life to caring for this strangely beautiful but crippled daughter. When Eddie hears the festive gaiety of his wife, sister-in-law and daughters, and notices how things abruptly change at his entrance, he finds himself wondering if the girls and women were easier and happier without him. 

Soon enough, and for reasons that emerge slowly in the novel, Eddie is suddenly gone from the scene and his family has to fend for themselves. This is all occurring in the 30s, and as World War II increasingly consumes the world, Anna seeks employment in the naval shipyards. Eventually she becomes intrigued by the divers who work on the damaged ships, and given the shortage of men, women are hired in many of the traditionally male jobs in the shipyards. Although faced with the sexist behavior of both officers and enlisted, she preservers in her attempts to be certified as a diver. Armed with a letter of recommendation from her supervisor, she is granted an interview with the officer in charge of the divers, although he assumes from the beginning that the supervisor only recommended her in exchange for sexual favors. He accepts her into the program only because he is convinced she will fail. “Ah, your supervisor. Mr…Voss. He drew out the name as though its syllables were the last bits of meat he was sucking from a bone. Then he grinned. ‘I imagine he’s just as eager to please you as you are to please him.’”

Despite being set up to fail, Anna manages to move in the diving dress that weighs several hundred pounds, and she also passes the underwater test that she is meant to fail. Egan manages to portray the sexist attitudes of the time in very clever and understated ways, and the feminism she illumines is a high point of the novel.

Although Eddie Kerrigan is gone from his family, he remains an important part of the novel. After living as essentially a bagman for gangster Dexter Styles, his disappearance seems to be at the hands of the New York mob, and much of the later parts of the novel are taken up with Anna’s attempts to discover how and why he disappeared. While Anna is the primary narrator of the book’s action, Eddie, who somehow escapes his fate at the hands of gangsters, resurfaces as a sailor in the merchant marines and subsequently survives the torpedo sinking of his ship and a harrowing lifeboat adventure. 

I feel I am already revealing a bit too much of the interwoven stories. Besides telling an utterly fascinating story in this novel, Egan also displays the very substantial research she did in order to produce such a riveting account. Her portrayals of life on the docks, women workers in the naval shipyards and even of mob activity in New Jersey and New York all ring with an authenticity due to her very considerable talents as a researcher. She says in her acknowledgments, “I was heartened, during the years I spent circling Manhattan Beach, to know that if nothing more came of the endeavor than the pleasure of having researched it, I would count myself lucky. And we readers are lucky as well that her research ended with this excellent novel. One commentator is moved to exclaim that she may well be the best living American novelist, and another that the book shows she is dizzyingly inventive. Inventive indeed, and also wise and insightful. She has produced a first-rate historical novel that I think will be remembered as much for it historical account as for its fast-paced mesmerizing plot.