Monday, February 19, 2018

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Garth Stein begins his intriguing novel, A Sudden Light, with a quote from Anais Nin, “We do not see things the way  they are, we see them as we are”, and with this Kantian insight he begins to tell a long story that calls into question the reliability of memory, the responsibilities of wealth, and the destruction of the forests of this country by the lumber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Most of you readers will know Stein by his famous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and while that was a fine book, I think this one is better and more important. Trevor Holloway, who is fourteen years old, goes on a trip to Seattle with his father in order to discover about his past and about the vast estate once owned by his great, great grandfather Elijah Riddell. Trevor’s parents, Jones and Rachel, have recently separated after Jones’ business has collapsed and his mother has ‘escaped’ to England to be with her family. While he is not sure why his father has insisted that he accompany him on the trip, he is sure of what his personal mission is. 
…I understood two things:  first, somewhere along the way, my father had gone wrong and my mother stopped loving him; second, I could fix him. I could pull him together. And I believed that, by the end of the summer, if I did my job right, I could deliver my father to my mother as if he were a regular, loving person, like when she first met him…And then? Well, then it would be up to her to decide where her heart lay. A kid can only do so much.
During the course of his summer, he meets his 73 year old grandfather, Grandpa Samuel (who is said to be suffering from dementia), and his beautiful aunt, Serena, who feels that her brother Jones simply abandoned her when she was eleven, but has now come back to save her by getting their father to sell the huge old wooden mansion they still live in and the extensive grounds that are worth a fortune given the proximity to the city of Seattle. 

He also learns how Elijah was one of the major timber barons who, according to his dead son Ben, destroyed nature for profit. Ben is the conservationist son who bends all of his efforts to saving ‘The North Estate, and returning at least that small part of the forest back to nature.  

The story is a long and intricate one, and you will have to discover its many turns by reading the book yourself, but I can say you will be reminded of another forester Pinchot, and of the great conservationist John Muir. The book reminded me in a powerful way of my fascination with Muir in the 70s, and sent me back to some of his work. 

Trevor comes to know Ben through his dreams, and comes to believe that he is a somehow channeling Ben, and joining him in the struggle to preserve a bit of the land Ben’s father acquired. Trevor slowly explores many of the hidden rooms and chambers in the huge mansion and pieces together a story of the house’s past and of sins of his forefathers.

Grandpa Samuel provides the first clues about the past and the struggle he is having with his daughter, Serena, over selling the house and land. Serena has essentially surrendered her own life in the service of her aging father, and she wants finally to reap some benefit from the caretaking of the house and Samuel. We come to learn that her love for her brother, Jones, is not simply sisterly love, but has a romantic and carnal aspect as well. Indeed, her long-term plan is to get power of attorney so she and Jones can sell the land off (to be parceled into plots for McMansions), and then to tour the world with Jones as her brother/lover. Serena even tries to seduce young Trevor as an aid to completing her plans.

While the story totally caught my interest, I was even more interested in the history provided of the  rape of the land by the timber barons and the collusion between the timber men and mighty new railroads in exploiting the land for profit. While that history is certainly a sad and disturbing one, there is light in this story and some lovely excursions into nature mysticism as well. While some readers may be put off by the aura of magic in the novel, I read it more like a struggle between head and heart, between hard logic and a relationship with nature that transcends the need to codify and understand. Much like McEwan’s, Black Dogs, in which I believe McEwan presents his own struggles to rectify the division between rationality and spirit, I believe this is Stein’s attempt to take on this same struggle. There is in the incomprehensible complexity of the universe mystery that is not to be solved but simply to be embraced, and Stein does a fine job of standing before and embracing the mystery. 

I came away from the book feeling more optimistic about the world even in this dark and chaotic time. And I carried from it a quote from John Muir that has become a sort of mantra for me, “My peace I give unto you”. When you read the book, you will understand the importance of the mantra.

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.