Monday, December 25, 2000

By The Shore by Galaxy Craze

I hope during these holidays that your loved ones remember to get you books to read, and that you remember to do the same for those whom you love. As I heard in a movie lately about the writer C.S. Lewis, we read in order to know that we are not alone, and as leftists in a country that is an enemy to leftist causes throughout the world, it is important to remember that we are not alone—that we live in a much larger world.

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that I see as a kind of stocking stuffer—perhaps not a great book, not a must-read, and yet a book that I think will reward most who take the time to attend to it. The book is entitled By The Shore, and the author is Galaxy Craze. This is, like so many of the books I discuss, a first novel, and a coming of age story written through the eyes of a girl. The prose is sparse to the point of seeming overly simple, but I think the attentive reader will see that the leanness of the prose is just right for the story.

Almost certainly, this story is autobiographical. Craze moved from London to America when she was ten years old, just as the little girl in the story moves from London to the English country-side. I found myself put off by the simplicity of the writing at first, and then even as I began to warm to the style of writing, to see how well it served as a vehicle for the story, I doubted whether the author was wise enough to inform me of much other than the simple beauty and simple sadness of her tale. I changed my mind slowly, though I think had I given this little book the attention it deserves, meaning had I read it in a day or two rather than a week or two, I would have entered into her world sooner, as I ought. Good novels, read by good readers, are so much more than stories; they invite us into lived-lives, invite us to enter and experience (at least for a time) a different world than the one we inhabit every day. That is why I so often plug short books for the busy city reader; they can be read essentially of a piece. Nothing worse than cutting up a good novel into fifteen minute before-bed-segments over months.

But enough preaching about how to read. Because this book is simple and short, it won’t do for me to try to overview it, or to extrapolate from it underlying political or psychological messages. The importance of the book (aside from its pared down, even elegant style) is the wonderful little insights the girl has, most of them one-liners. I won’t give away too much of the story, but I must say that much of the book has to do with this young girl’s longing for her absent father, and her struggle with herself and her mother over that very longing. We are told that the father shows up only very occasionally in her life, and never for long. Still, she cannot help but imagine a time when he will return for good, drawn to the the magnet of love she feels for him and that she hopes her mother still feels, even if only secretly. No surprise, given her longing, that she sometimes tends to sabotage any interest her mother shows in new men, as well as to deny the overly obvious signs from her father that he cares very little for either her or his family.

In an early scene, the little girl, May, finds herself somehow waiting for her father to turn up, to display some sign of affection or loyalty, and she is reminded of another forlorn being.
I thought about the polar bear in the zoo, the way he walks back and forth against the bars of his cage, back and forth, up and down. Every day he must wonder, How did this happen, and when will it end?
May’s mother runs a small boarding house, and a writer seeking quiet and solitude turns up in the off season, a god-send for this almost empty enterprise. May, in many ways more perceptive than either her mother or the lodger, sees the spark of affection between the two, and feels the writer’s kind attention to May as well as her half brother. She sees also how good and flattering it is for her mother to feel this man’s interest, how much she needs at least a friend. But in spite of her own liking for the writer, she cannot give in, cannot help either him or her mother as they step awkwardly towards each other. Instead, she finds herself plotting against their union. When the writer’s secretary (and would-be lover) appears on the scene, May senses her mother’s anxiety, and feeds it. When her mother hears the car start, she wonders aloud where the writer and his secretary are going.
“They’re probably going out for a romantic dinner,” I said, throwing it at her back.”
When she walked over to the bath, she moved slowly, as though she were walking through water.
“Why do you think that?” my mother asked.
“That they’re going out for a romantic dinner? They’re probably talking about his work.” Sometimes it was like this with us: darts.
“Why do you care anyway?” I asked, standing at the door.
“I don’t care,” she said. Everything that was curious, everything that was like a girl, like a butterfly in her, fell out. “I wasn’t even talking to you,” she said. “I was just talking to myself.”
May sees what would be good for her mother, sees how isolated she is with only the two children to talk to, but cannot quite bring herself to be happy with it, to confirm her mother’s hopes, though she has very good reason to see that there really is a spark between her and the writer. Why should she, “Everything was always about men.”

Still, neither does she, when the secretary bribes her, join in an open conspiracy to keep her mother and the man apart. Wiser than she should have to be at ten, she knows that she could with a word make the writer braver in his declarations, and even easier it would be to convince her timid, burned-too-many-times mother, that this man’s attentions are for real. But to do that would be to betray her father, to betray her hopes and dreams. Returning from a long walk with the writer, and really liking him, trusting him, in spite of feeling it as disloyalty, she finds herself again thinking of the absent father.
On the way home I would imagine that my father had made a surprise visit from London to see me and that he would be walking from the house, through the woods towards me. But he never was. Then it turned into a phone call, and I imagined that there would be a note on the table in my mother’s handwriting that he had phoned. That’s what happens to hope: it gets smaller and smaller.
Finally, her father does show up, though probably only to boast of his new business venture and to borrow money. May so much wants him to stay, wants him to need and love her. Again, she half gives in to the temptation to send the writer away with lies, and to lie to her own mother so that her mother will put up barriers between her and this new man.

Still, she is too wise to deceive herself for long, and finally too aware of her mother’s own needs to persist in her deceptions. May knows she could use her mother’s caring for her, her mother’s guilt about somehow denying her a father, to manipulate and control, but in the end she cannot do it.
‘May’ I heard my mother walk towards me. ‘I can ask him to stay if you want. He’ll stay if you want, darling.’ Her voice was soft, but I couldn’t answer. I held my breath and it stung in the middle of my throat.

‘No’ I shook my head, and my hair fell over the side of my face. My wool coat felt like a shell on my back. There was a feeling in my stomach as tough I had swallowed three small stones.

I heard my mother pull her chair close to mine. The table blurred in front of me, and she wrapped her arms around my shoulders. That’s what made me fall. My head fell onto her chest and my shoulders rose and fell, rose and fell. My breath sounded loud to me like gasps and there was a pain in my chest, a choking feeling. I wanted him to leave, and knowing this is what pulled inside of me. It was letting the brightest purple kite fall down from the sky.
Well, enough said; perhaps too much. This is a wonderful little book; it deserves to be read instead of talked about.

Monday, October 02, 2000

Just As I Thought by Grace Paley

I want to talk to you this morning about a truly great writer, social critic, and thinker—Grace Paley. Although she has been publishing since the 50’s, not many people (not even many leftists) know of her, and that is too bad. However, ask any lit prof about her, and you almost certainly will get a glowing report along with heartfelt regret that she has not published more. Indeed, though she is nearly eighty years old and has spent her entire life as a social activist, writer, and teacher, she published only three volumes of short stories and now, finally, this collection of articles and essays that span a lifetime. It is especially appropriate to talk about her now, at the beginning of the Jewish holidays, for she is very much a Jewish activist, and, incidentally, one of the funniest writers I have ever read.

I chose to talk about her today because of her relatively new collection of essays entitled Just As I Thought, but I have to add that I think it would be a real mistake to begin your reading of her by reading these essays. In my opinion, she is one the best, if not the best, short story writers of all times. When I mention that she is a short story writer, I get blank looks from people, plus the almost universal response that they don’t read short stories—that they want books with character development and they feel short-changed by short stories. I understand that response; indeed, I have often said roughly this about collections of short stories. However, you should make an exception in this case, and not only because she is among the very best writers of short story, but also because there is a voice that emerges from her writing that remains consistent, and it is a voice that you will want more and more of. I would recommend that you begin with her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, first published as a collection in 1956, though all or nearly all of the stories had already appeared in magazines (e.g., The New American Review, Esquire, The Atlantic, and more recently, Ms). The little disturbances she has in mind are the disturbances of love, especially the disturbances that accompany the loves that women have for men. This less than two hundred page volume will, I promise, leave you wanting more, and it may also remind you rather forcefully that feminist voices were there to be heard in the fifties, well before the new wave of the late sixties and early seventies.

I think it would be best to go directly from this collection to another, also too short, called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and then to Later the Same Day (published in 1985). If you are anything like the other readers of her works that I know, you will wait as anxiously as they for anything else that she writes—for the novel promised but as yet undelivered, and for any bit she does for the feminist and leftist press.

From what I can gather, she was reluctant to gather together the articles that make up this collection. Partly because she is a humble person, partly because she felt that many of the pieces were outdated, or needed a historical context to make sense. There are pieces about writing, about her own parents, about Jewish activism, about the Viet Nam War, El Salvador, The Gulf War—pieces about being in jail, about abortion (both illegal and legal), about the civil rights movement, about nonviolence as a tactic “and a way to live in the dangerous world.” None of the pieces seem outdated to me; perhaps because we are close enough together in age, because we saw the struggle for civil rights flow into the struggle against the Viet Nam War and the second wave of feminism, saw the connections between eco-disasters and unrestrained global capitalism. But I’m confident that younger readers will also find a right-now relevance to her pieces.

I don’t think I will try to entice you into reading her by taking out juicy tidbits from her stories or even by reading off a list of titles of collected articles, though I considered doing both and think both methods should work. Somehow, extracting even very funny or very insightful passages from her stories seems wrong; you need to hear her voice, get a feeling for who she is as a person, see how wonderfully well humor can be used to bring out of concealment even the starkest and most horrible of truths. You need to hear and feel her cadences, sense that these stories that seem simply to trip off the tongue are, in fact, tightly woven and meticulously constructed. After all, along with being a mother and an activist, it has taken her a lifetime to write these stories; they only appear to be light and quickly drawn, only appear to be simply conversations overheard.

Paley dedicates this volume of essays and articles to men and woman, black and white, who have preceded her in the fight for social justice. In particular, to “... the women who preceded me in the last-half-of-the-century women’s movement. They were early in understanding and action, so that it was easier for me and others to cross the slippery streets of indifference, exclusion, and condescension.” On the cover of this book (still out, I think, only in hardback, but you can find it remaindered in bookstores, and therefore reasonably priced—often enough, hardbacks are remaindered just before a paperback edition comes out, so we can hope this will happen soon); at any rate, on the cover, Paley is called a wonderful writer and troublemaker. And that she is; she writes in order to stir things up, in order to incite, in order to trouble us right into action. She, herself, is one of the little disturbances of man.

Let me end by quoting just a bit of her own introduction to this volume. Perhaps that will be enough to make you want to hear more of this splendid voice.

Most of the pieces in this book were written because I was a member of an American movement, a tide really, that rose out of the civil-rights struggles of the fifties, rolling methods and energy into the antiwar, direct-action movements in the sixties, cresting, ebbing as tides do, returning bold again in the seventies and eighties in the second wave of the women’s movement—and from quite early on splashed and salted by ecological education, connection, and at last action.

Probably by the late seventies, movement people, that is folks from leftish to left, began to understand the connection between and among these essential struggles for justice, for peace, and for a living planet.
Better than most, Grace Paley understands the connections between the personal and the political, between socialism and a true commitment to social justice, between capitalism and the rape of the earth and destruction of its people. She is a great person, a great writer, and a great activist. And on top of all of this, you will love reading her.

Monday, July 24, 2000

What Girls Learn by Karin Cook

I want to talk to you this morning about a recent book by a new author, Karin Cook’s What Girls Learn, and then I want to mention briefly another (and very different book) by Ralph Ellison.

What Girls Learn is a coming of age novel made especially serious and reflective because of the grave illness of the mother. Despite this being a first novel, this author seems a wise and seasoned writer in the way that she carefully narrows her field of vision. Two girls, aged eleven and twelve, live out one year in a life that has been filled with moves and new starts. The older daughter, Tilden, finds each move frightening: “I was tired of starting over. Trying to fit our entire lives into one car made it seem more like we were skipping town than actually moving.” This move is especially frightening, because the two girls are leaving the snug security of a relationship with their mother that has been three against the world, and a strange man is being allowed in. And to compound the shattering of the sanctity of their threesome, they are moving from the deep south to Long Island. Elizabeth, the younger of the two girls, embraces both the move and the new man in their lives. Tilden sees it as one of many betrayals on her sister’s part:
I hated that she was so easily convinced, so quickly won over. Even the idea of moving didn’t seem to scare her. Elizabeth used every move as an opportunity to become someone else. She liked to imagine herself exotic, changing her hair ... She could reinvent herself.
Tilden, on the other hand, is suspicious of change, always more apprehensive about what might be lost than about possible gains. Her attitude towards the new man, the intruder in their lives, is simple and straightforward.
He squeezed Elizabeth’s hand tight with both of his and held on for a long time. I gave him one of my dead fish handshakes, letting my fingers lie limp in his palm. I had already decided not to like him.
And with this simply announcement, the dramatic tension of the novel is set. What follows is a wonderfully detailed account of this young girl’s uneasy move into womanhood and her attempts to understand and deal with the intimations of sexuality that come with it.

All in all, this is a heartwarming little novel. The stepfather in this case is a man who exhibits great patience and tolerance. His intense love for the mother transfers easily and immediately to the two girls. Instead of the jealousy and resentment that so many men feel for the children who demand time and love from their mother, this man seems able to understand and to simply wait for the two girls to adjust to him. Indeed, his role in the story recedes almost before it has begun.

The reader is allowed to witness how these two very different girls adjust to a new man, a new life, and the new pressures of dawning sexuality. Tilden, who has received new clothes for her thirteenth birthday, awakens with a sense of expectancy and slips into her new clothes.
I didn’t look thirteen. Even Elizabeth, who would be twelve two weeks later, had bigger boobs than I did. I tightened the straps on my overalls, hoping that the bib would help hide my flat chest. I styled my hair under with a round brush and flipped my bangs back with a curling iron. I had expected to wake up with a new body. A grown-up, teenage body with curves and hair. I looked exactly the same as I always had: skinny and disappointed.
Most of this quick little novel is understated, the tone almost light, though the reader discovers (as the two girls do) that their mother is gravely ill with cancer. The mother’s brother, Uncle Rand, appears on the scene, ostensibly because he is (again) down and out and needs a place to stay. In fact, he is there at the request of his sister, and he has come to help with the household and the children. Again, we see how this man’s deep love for his sister transfers easily to the two daughters, although this time there is that confusion of child-love and sexuality that is so devastating for children. Rand is in almost all ways a decent man; still, he cannot quite channel his feelings, cannot quite keep his confused attraction for Tilden from spilling over.
It may have been that I was his favorite, but he never said so outright. I figured it was because Elizabeth wasn’t much of a talker; she’d go and go, fast and furious all day, until she collapsed in the evening and fell right to sleep. It was the ease that came of activity, the comfort she felt in her very bones. Uncle Rand always saw to her first, tucking her in with a playful romp, tickling her until she pleaded with him to stop. Then he’d make his way down the hall and turn his attention toward me.
And with this awesome line, we see again the incredible confusion and havoc that can be unleashed on children when adults allow affection to spill into sexual attraction. In fact, Rand does want mainly to talk to Tilden; he is able to see her, see her needs and fears, see how much like her mother she is. And Tilden needs him; needs his attention, needs to learn more about her mother, about the father she can’t remember. He does love her, is genuinely interested in her, and he almost succeeds in not acting on the sexual attraction that is there. Only once, in a kind of alcohol fog, does he allow his touches to become something other than reassurance. And even the brief sexually tainted touching, itself devastating and inexcusable, is less devastating than the aftermath, and his own way of dealing with the confusion.
Mostly, I avoided looking him in the eye, afraid to see in his face an acknowledgement, not so much of what had happened that night but of what had been lost since.

I couldn’t stop remembering the way he’d touched me, his thick fingers, his hot mouth on my skin. Those words and letters mixing with the slightly stale smell of him. But what lingered most was where the touching had taken us. At first, Uncle Rand had seemed needy, his whole body trembling and open. Something in all that urgency made me feel that I mattered, even if it was in the wrong way. Then, when it was over, a wall came down between us. Night after night he continued on, alone in his own room, where I could hear him. I couldn’t help but imagine myself there even though I knew it was wrong. I wanted to be more important to someone than I was.
To his credit, Rand remains to help throughout the illness of his sister, and he does the things that are needed in the house. Though it is unfortunate that the only way he can deal with his sexual attraction is to turn away from Tilden, to end the long conversations that had been so important to her, still, better this than compounding his early fumbling sexual advance. As Tilden says later in trying to sort out her own feelings (with no one to talk to, no one to confide in). “This mix of feelings confused me; I had never before felt so many things about one person.”

Though this part of the book is disturbing, it is revealing as well, and much less horrible than it might have been (and has been for so many women). Alreeady I have perhaps revealed more of the plot of this fine, first novel than I should have. Though it may not be a great book, it is a very good one, and while it is sad, it is also wonderfully warm and uplifting in many way. I recommend it to you. I should add that it is short and very easy to read.

And now let me just mention a book of a very different kind—a book that is almost certainly a great one and not easy to read. The book is the long awaited second novel of Ralph Ellison. There is no doubt that his first novel, Invisible Man, is one of the most important American novels of the century. Ellison shows in that book not only his capacity for doing social and political commentary, but also his profound understanding of European philosophy. His second book, juneteenth, was forty years in the writing, and, in fact, was extracted from two thousand pages of manuscript after his death by a local intellectual, John Callahan. I don’t even want to try to review this book. I couldn’t possibly do it justice, nor do I think it is the sort of book that can be overviewed. What I want to do instead is simply tell you that you ought to read it, and that you need to do so when you have the time to focus on it rather completely. The novel and its excellence will simply pass you by if you try to read it in fifteen minute snippets before bed. Even with your best concentration and focus, this book will at times appear disjointed and confusing. But give it concentrated time and attention and I think you will feel, as I do, that this is a book we all need to read, and one that will not be easily forgotten.

Monday, June 26, 2000

At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley

I want to talk to you this morning about one of the most important American novelists of the last two decades and probably of the century. Her name is Jane Smiley, and I want to talk in particular today about her novel At Paradise Gate. But what strikes me most about Smiley is her incredible range. Any writer sufficiently serious and talented to write A Thousand Acres would, it seems, have to have worked and worked and polished and refined a style of writing suited to such weighty material as that covered in that ambitious book. And yet, any of you have read her uproariously funny book, Moo, know that both the style and the content of that book are almost entirely different than A Thousand Acres. The only thing those two books have in common is the author’s intimate knowledge of farming, of agribusiness and the way that corporations have taken over and depersonalized farming. But Moo is certainly more than a book about the dangers of mixing money and agriculture; it is also a perceptive book about the sixties, about university life during the Viet Nam war, about university politics, and about the all encompassing influence of corporations on all of life. Marx tells us a lot about how modes of production affect everything else about how we live—tells us that in order to understand a culture, we have to study carefully the ways in which the wherewithal of life is gotten from the earth and the complex of relations that arise directly from that mode of expropriation. In Moo Smiley gives us a wonderful microcosm of just how such modes of expropriation shape and determine life itself. Though I would be willing to bet that most people who read the book will say that it is simply a comedy about the relationships of men and women and about a typical agricultural college.

No one would expect a serious novelist like Iris Murdoch to turn out a first rate comedy or to adopt a style of writing so unlike her other books that one would be hard-pressed to identify the author. But compare one of Smiley’s early, short masterpieces like Barn Blind with her mystery novel Duplicate Keys. Barn Blind is a deadly serious book about the perils of parents trying to live through their children—about the particular form of inauthenticity which leads some people who have failed to live their own dreams into ruthless attempts to bend and shape their children’s lives without ever seeing the children at all, seeing who they are or what they need. In comparison, Duplicate Keys is mere play—set in the city instead of Smiley’s usual rural setting, and containing most of the ingredients of a really good mystery. Though even in this book, very serious themes about the difficulties of women living their own lives while coupled are woven in with and inseparable from the mystery.

And perhaps after reading a couple of Smiley’s wonderful studies of farm life, her lively romp through academia and her fling into mystery novels, you might turn to her incredibly ambitious (and sometimes almost impenetrable) novel, The Greenlanders. Almost the only thing I find in common among these diverse works is the meticulous care in describing day to day living and the indubitable understanding of human psychology displayed by this wonderful author.

It should be obvious that I want to recommend to you Jane Smiley, all of the wonderful diversity of her works. If you are anything like I am, you may have avoided her masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, because of its immense popularity. I am so in the habit of bypassing the best sellers that I read almost all of Smiley’s short, early novels before reluctantly picking up A Thousand Acres. My mistake. But now to the book of the day, At Paradise Gate. So out of the mainstream of American action novels, this book covers exactly two days in the life of one family, a family who from the outside would be entirely unnoticed, unremarkable. And yet under the eye of Smiley, this family comes alive, their perhaps mundane concerns become symbolic of the huge and constant existential questions that face all of us (and that most of us manage most of the time to keep concealed).

This is a book that requires the reader to slow down, to adjust to Smiley’s sense of time, and to her understanding of how past, present, and future are there for us always—dancing, fusing, confusing. It is the story of one old woman in her seventies, caring for her even older husband who is, as the title suggests, at paradise gate, and of the couples three daughters and one granddaughter who congregate in crisis. Each of the women characters has a story to tell, about men, about the possibility of women living out who they really are while coupled to men. But mostly, it is the story of this one old women, ashamed of how bothered she is by her sick and demanding husband. It is a book about his illness and her sleeplessness and how that lack of sleep can confuse past and present. The granddaughter wants to leave her man, her husband, because she wants to live—because she cannot stand the order and predictability of life with this man, or maybe just of married life. Her mother and her aunts, all of whom have lost their men, counsel against this separation. After all, he is a good man, a good provider, and he is there! The grandmother, too, wants security for her granddaughter, wants more children to carry on the family. But unlike her own daughters, she finds it possible to listen to the granddaughter and to remember what it was like for her as she felt her life, her real self, dissipate and disappear over the many years of doing for, worrying over. How long has it been she locked the doors between their bedrooms? What would it have been like had she been able to remain in the mountains of her youth, to follow her own dreams? What would it have been like to have lived without the temper of her husband and his brother, without the verbal beatings and physical threats, without having to internalize his failures?

Her daughters are there, counseling, hovering, sometimes berating. Oughtn’t she to hire a nurse? Is she really looking after Daddy as she ought? Can she really look after him as he deserves? At times, she wants them all gone, all her children ... and him? Does she want him gone to?
It occurred to Anna {the grandmother} that now was the very moment she had been dreading for years, the moment when the voicing of a single word, although she did not know which word, would work like magic to open up everything.... All the compromises they had forged for the sake of companionship and daily friendship would shatter. Such passion would be expressed as could never be recanted ... the family would end, scatter, disappear as if none of them had ever tried as hard as possible to get along, stay in love, do the right thing, remember what it was that held them together. The unknown word could have come to anyone, and now it had come to Helen. Anna held her breath.
This is not an easy book to talk about; it is a finely woven tapestry, and the reader must slow down and help with the weaving. I think you will come away from reading it with a sense that you have learned and that the slowing down was worth it

Monday, May 15, 2000

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about a truly extraordinary intellectual and writer. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I want to talk especially about her 1987 novel, Moon Tiger, for which she won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize.

I think there is a fear in most (if not all) readers that they may someday simply run out of new authors and great books. Given the incredible outpouring of novels from all over the world, and the relatively recent phenomenon of books by authors from third world countries being not only written but published, the fear is probably an idle one. Still, I can’t tell you how thrilling it was for me to discover Penelope Lively. Somehow, in spite of winning the Booker, I simply had not heard of her. And then one day, having made the mistake of going for a doctor’s appointment without a book, I was scrounging through a box of rejects in my trunk and discovered a collection of short stories by Lively entitled Deck of Cards. The incredible thing is that two or three pages into the first short story, I knew that I wanted to read everything this author had written. I quickly scanned the frontispiece page to discover that she had, indeed, written many books.

Great novelists do lots more than tell us intriguing stories. Lively is a first rate historian who obviously is also deeply interested in archeology and paleontology. But to say simply that she is a historian is not enough. Like Tolstoy and a handful of other great writers, Lively has a distinct and intricate philosophy of history; she is an historiographer. As you probably know, philosophers are addicted to what are called ontological questions—questions like, ‘What is it to be human?’ or ‘What is it to be true?’. Usually, such questions are expressed in a slightly simpler fashion, ‘What is the meaning of truth?’, ‘What is the meaning of knowledge?’, ‘What is the meaning of good?’, or ‘What is history? What is the meaning of history?’ This is the question that Lively returns to in everything she writes. Again, like Tolstoy, Lively reminds her readers that history is not the history of great persons, nor the history of wars, nor the history of empires. Indeed, the history lessons that we get in history books are not, she would insist, the essence of history. But then, what is history?

Lively is not naive enough to suppose that there is a simple answer to this question, but her novels and stories are constantly shifting and complex attempts to give some sort of answer to this perhaps hopelessly complicated question. Like Marx, Lively is convinced that those of us who don’t learn from history are bound to perish from it, to relive mistakes, to continually reforge the chains that bind us. And, of course, there is no finally objective view of history. After all, it is subjects who ask the question; it is (in Heidegger’s language) we who question the being of history, and our comportment will inevitably affect the answers we give.

Many nineteenth and twentieth century historians and philosophers were deeply struck by the fact that we are beings in time; we are historical beings who cannot (no matter how hard we try) escape our histories, our temporal nature. And yet, Nietzsche and Marx and Heidegger and many others were convinced that most intellectuals have simply ignored our temporal, historical condition. They have treated intellectual issues and phenomena as if they transcended history, as if they were timeless. But, in fact, we are beings who live simultaneously in a past we cannot transcend, and who hurl ourselves towards a future that is uncertain and has not yet happened, while also slip-sliding in a present that is gone almost before we can experience and comprehend it. This tripartite way in which we are literally caught by history, past, present and future, is a constantly recurring theme in Lively’s books. Here I am now, caught in a traffic jam in a buzzing, racing, noisy city while a piece of seventeenth century music plays serenely on my CD player; I look out the window and what I see takes me back to my childhood or to times long before I was born, perhaps (depending on who I am and how much I know) to times before any being of our sort roamed the earth. And before I can finish my thought or react to the car honking behind me, I am transported again to a possible future, a meeting I am late for, a child who is in hospital, a spouse from whom I am estranged.

Lively captures the ways in which we belong to time as well or better than any author I have ever read. She was born in Cairo in 1933, and belongs as much to Cairo as to London, to the desert as much as to the city, to the past as much as to the present or future. Moon Tiger is, in many ways, a book about the second world war, and specifically about the war fought in and for stretches of barren desert. And yet the book begins in a hospital room in London, an old woman, writer and intellectual, dying rather slowly as, in her head, she writes a history of the world. Her past is much clearer to her, much more important to her, than is the present. She is less convinced by the odd and wrinkled visage that occasionally looks back at her from a mirror than by the much more vivid mind-pictures of a much younger and more vibrant woman, a war correspondent who later becomes what one might call an historical novelist. And in these last few days of breathing, questions about who she is, about the meaning of her own history as well as of the times in which she lives swirl around her. Past, present, and future merge, as they always do—all constantly there in the moment, all happening at once, together. Magnified, no doubt, by the drugs she is taking, by the slow slip into death, still her condition is the condition she has lived always, and that she must remind us that we all live.

Had Lively written only this one book, I think she would (or should) be remembered as a great writer, and profound thinker. But she has, of course, continued to live and think and write. In a more recent book, City of the Mind, she demonstrates clearly her understanding of how greed and overproduction are quickly changing the face of the world, how growth economies are spiraling us towards global disaster, how the hunger for power and money burn and kill and mutilate and are considered, if at all, only as necessary side consequences of growth and progress.

And while she does all of this clearly, convincingly, never does it seem that we, the readers, are being preached to. While she cannot help, given what she knows and how well she writes, being didactic, it seems as if she is simply telling us a story, and a fascinating story at that. A couple who has separated, a child who is caught between, a city of glass that is being constantly torn down and reconstructed, built with blood.

Penelope Lively is a great writer. While her novels are dense and complex (and certainly not happy little stories), they are relatively short—usually about two hundred pages and readable in a day or two. Though I dare you to try reading one that quickly. Personally, I am so captivated by the questions she poses, the conundrums of history she describes, that I cannot read for many minutes without going off on my own—thinking of my own past, my own history, my own relationships—thinking of how I might help in the struggle to change how things are, to bring about a less brutal and fairer future. She makes me want to write, makes me want to make amends for past lapses, makes me want to become a better person and struggle for a better world. What more can a writer do?

Monday, March 27, 2000

World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book by E.L. Doctorow, entitled, World’s Fair. I can’t confess to being a Doctorow fan, though I read and liked some of his earlier works such as The Book of Daniel and Ragtime. My problem with him (a problem I have with many male authors) is that I don’t really believe in his characters; they are larger than life, too heroic or too cynical or too much absorbed by their own existential dramas.

Having said that, I think it is not true of this little novel. I am next to certain that this book is much closer to memoir than it is to pure fiction. For the most part, it is written through the eyes of a young boy growing up in The Bronx in the thirties and culminating with the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Even when the narrator changes to that of Rose, the mother of the young boy, or his older brother, Donald, it is told as if they are narrating their stories to and for the sake of the young boy, Edgar. The great strength of this book is its intimate believability. Father, mother, and brother are described in ways that are so real—warm but not sentimental. Even the grandparents, especially the smart and tough Jewish socialist parents of the father, are quite certainly recalled rather than invented.

The jacket cover of the book suggests that it is one that social historians will be grateful for because it is a wonderful time-machine, capturing the years of the Depression and the creeping shadow of anti-semitism and the coming world war. What I find important about the book is that while it is convincing and warmly wonderful as memoir, it is also a morality tale. There is real social commentary provided by the socialist grandparents and Edgar’s father, and there is also sensitive and insightful portrayal of the tensions within the family—the mother’s dissatisfaction with her own relative powerlessness as well as with the father’s absence, his gambling, his failure to stand up for her against the possessive criticisms of his own mother.

Although I see a good deal of subtle social commentary in this book and considerable understanding of relationships, it is a markedly non-didactic book. It is in the description of the power of the mother within the household, her power over Edgar and his brother, that one comes to see also how her strength and intellectual capacities are confined to the home, how they are denied an outlet into the wider world. Edgar sees also that a great deal of his mother’s anger and worry are directed at his father, sometimes unfairly, but he understands (at least as the man looking backward at his childhood) the disappointment of his mother while still feeling sympathy and love for the very traits in his father that trouble his mother.

Let me read you just a couple of passages that begin to get at the level of understanding young Edgar exhibits:
My mother ran our home and our lives with a kind of tactless administration that often left a child with bruised feelings, though an indelible understanding of right and wrong ... A strong will beamed in her clear blue eyes. There was no mistaking her meaning--she was forthright and direct. She construed the world in vivid judgments. She felt strongly that even little boys bore responsibility for their actions. For example, they could be lazy, selfish, up to no good. Or they could be decent, truthful, honest. However they were, so would their fate be decided ... Her stories dazzled me. Their purpose was instruction. Their theme was vigilance.
And continuing with a bit of description of his father:
My father was not a reliable associate, I was to gather. Too many things he said would come to pass did not. He was always late, somehow he would suppose he could get somewhere or accomplish something in less time than it actually took him. He created suspense. He was full of errant enthusiasms and was easily diverted by them. He had, besides, various schemes for making money that he did not readily confide to my mother. She seemed most of the time to be aroused to a state of worry regarding his activities.

When he was late my father was evasive, which seemed to justify her anger....

I understood that my farther seemed to elude my mother’s ideas for him. He did not comport himself appropriately, given the hard times we were living in. I knew he was unreliable, but he was fun to be with. He was a child’s ideal companion, full of surprises and happy animal energy ... He always counseled daring, in whatever situation, the courage to test the unknown, an instruction that was thematically in opposition to my mother’s.
One never doubts the love this boy has for his parents, nor their intense caring for and protection of him, but he is not blinded by that love. Without quite choosing sides, he sees and senses the strengths of both and feels within himself their combination.

Most of the asides about the coming war and the anti-semitism that is most certainly there in New York City and in all of America is subtle. This boy is, for the most part, protected, his existence insular. But he is aware of the dangers of straying even one street too far from home. After one scene in which he does, out of a sense of daring and rebellion, risk an unknown route, he is attacked by two older boys who taunt him as a Jewboy, demand his money, and at knife point, insist that he cross himself. As it turns out, he is not badly beaten, the boys running off on impulse just as they had attacked him on impulse. But the experience leaves an undeniable impression.
For weeks afterward, whenever I went out, I looked for those two boys, and the fact that I never saw them again did not remove them as a threat from my mind. I could go about my business only by the accident of their not being there, a matter certainly of their choice, and so even when absent they had me. But at the same time I knew it wasn’t even these two in particular, because Christian boys were like this all over, and you were free only at their collective whim, only if they happened not to walk down you street or lope through your backyard or otherwise see you. I struggled to understand Christianity as something that would shove a knife into my body.
This may not be a great book, but it is a good one, and just right for the busy city reader—a rather quick two hundred and fifty page romp through a boy’s life. I think you will find it a pleasure to read and that you will learn more than you might expect.

Monday, February 28, 2000

Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about a wonderful little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled, Talk Before Sleep. I think that Berg and another woman novelist, Joanna Trollope, are the current masters of the short novel. This one is perfect for an end of winter weekend read, and the impact of the novel will be far greater if you can read it in a sitting or two.

This is a novel about a woman who is dying of cancer and about the incredible group of women who gather around her to care for her and to celebrate their unity, their family. Of course, it is not a happy novel, but it is incredibly uplifting and optimistic. We are, after all, all of us situated towards death; this is, indeed, one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. How we deal with our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones, and how our loved ones are able to deal with our deaths, these are the crucial issues. This group of women friends, this family, is just the sort that all of us would love to have, and I at least, would like to think that I could conduct myself with the attention and compassion towards my loved ones that these women display to each other. Though I have to admit straight out that I don’t think I could do it. Either because of weakness or self absorption or both, I think I could not be present in the ways that these women are for one another.

This is not a male bashing book, but it is very much a book about relationships between women and about suspicions that I think many (even most?) women have about the ability of men to remain present and open in situations that necessarily involve a lot of pain.

Ruth, the women who is dying of cancer, often represents the most extremely skeptical view of male-female relationships (though she, like the other women, also talks openly and honestly about her need of men, her love of men, even her mistakes in having separated from men). In one of her earliest conversations with Ann, the narrator and one of three or four main characters, the following exchange occurs. Ann has told her husband that she is going off with Ruth, first to the fabric store, but then elsewhere. His response, though good natured, is that she should stay gone a long time. Ann remarks to Ruth that he was both kidding and not, “... assuming a man’s usual position of benign inscrutability.” Ann goes on to say that they have been having minor tiffs almost every weekend because she wants to go places, and he wants to stay home and relax. A common enough domestic problem, insists Ann, but also troubling and seeming symptomatic of something deeper, something more indelible—that it seemed almost as if they did not like one another on some fundamental level. Ruth’s reply is slightly flippant, but serious nonetheless:
“It’s not just husbands and wives,” she said. “Men just can’t like women. Even if they wanted to like us—which they don’t—they’re too jealous. They want to be like us, and they can’t be. And they know they need us more than we need them, and it drives them crazy. Much of this, of course, is subconscious.” Then, looking at me, “It’s true!”
I quote this exchange not because it is typical of the book. The hyperbole is intentional, and yet it does express what amounts more to a fear the women share than a conviction. Indeed, this same women, Ruth, when she later gets the chance to reunite with a childhood sweetheart, grasps at the chance. And even when she sees how it troubles her faithful women caregivers, how her very intimacy with this man seems to distance her from her true family, she persists. “I can’t help it,” she exclaims, “I like men to like me.” Indeed, she complains with some bitterness to Ann that the admiration (even envy) she has gotten from all of the women is this circle of friends for having left her financially secure home, her dependable and faithful husband, has sometimes been a burden. That she is tired of being the model of the independent woman, of acting out the fantasy that all of the women in the group have.

Ann, like the other women, admires her beautiful and independent friend Ruth, and understands that Ruth is the catalyst for all sorts of fundamental existential questions. Reflecting on a particularly wonderful and troubling meeting with Ruth in which the two women flirt with sexual longing that lies mostly unacknowledged between them:
“I saw that every person is a multifaceted and complex being, worthy of respectful exploration and discovery; that this longing we can’t name and try to cure with relationships might only be us, wanting to know all of our own selves. I felt like I was starting to learn, and I sort of whooped a little in happiness ...”
From what I have said so far, you may take this to be a somber and serious and sad book. In fact, in spite of dealing with dying and inevitable death, it is a humorous and even playful book most of the time. The scenes of the women friends gathered together as they care for their friend are funny and insightful, even frolicking. They recall for each other first dates and early, fumbling gropings—exchange stories about men’s almost unbelievable fascination with breasts. They make food for each other, eat piles of take-out, drink and laugh and cry.

I don’t want to overburden this fine little book with commentary. Let me end with one more quote that I think gets to at least one of the major themes. Ann and Ruth are about to go out looking at cemeteries, sharing even this final bit of preparation for Ruth’s immanent death. Ann is wondering how Ruth’s mother, already dead, would handle this scene, watching her daughter with her best friend, choosing a burial sight. Ann reflects:
“I know if Ruth’s mother were alive, she would handle this, draw from the reservoir of sacred strength that women are born with. She would wear clothes whose very smell comforted Ruth, she would put on an apron and make her soup and butter her toast and help her to walk to the bathroom when she needed it; and when things turned the worst, she would not leave. Women do not leave situations like this: we push up our sleeves, lean in closer, and say, ‘What do you need? Tell me what you need and by God I will do it.’ I believe that the souls of women flatten and anchor themselves in times of adversity, lay in for the stay. I’ve heard that when elephants are attacked they often run, not away, but toward each other. Perhaps it is because they are a matriarchal society.”
This is a wonderful novel about the friendship and camaraderie of women. You will see women from your own lives as you read it.

Monday, January 17, 2000

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Wally Lamb entitled I Know This Much Is True. Published in 1998, this book is now available in a paperback edition.

I often begin these little reviews by remarking that the book reviewed is one that is short enough to be read by busy city readers in a sitting or two. This is not one of those books; instead, it is a nine hundred page monster, and I think it is important to take this book on when you have the time to read it in at most weeks, at best in a few days. Few of us would think of going to a movie or renting one and then watching it in five minute installments over a period of weeks or months, and yet we often do that with books, wondering why we are unable to really get into the book. Were we to watch a movie in this way, we would blame ourselves rather than the movie if it failed to hang together for us; I suggest that we give books (especially this one) the same break.

This is a book about twins, one of whom happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic, but because of the perceptiveness of the author and the meticulous care in development of characters, it is much more than that. I doubt any of us who have siblings could read this book without being launched into memory after memory of our own growing up, of sibling rivalry and love, care and jealousy. I found myself almost constantly remembering how I was looked after and cared for by a brother two years older than I, about his nearly obsessive sense of responsibility for me. I was so close to this brother that I can remember distinctly supposing that we were somehow one person, that he knew everything that I thought, could anticipate my fears, understand my dreams. There was a price for this closeness later in our lives when his care turned to a kind of envy and anger about what he saw as special attention I received from parents and older siblings. I understood only too well how loving attention can have a flipside of envy and anger and jealousy.

I’m sure such memories will be triggered for most readers of this book, and we readers will be invited to imagine what it would have been like had this so-close other been a twin, and more, a twin who progressively loses what has always been a tenuous grip on reality. Imagine the sense of care and responsibility for this so familiar other; imagine the fear that we might soon be as adrift as he; imagine the shame we might feel if and when we dream of being released of the burden of care and fear for this ghost self.

There are so many parallel themes running through this excellent and emotionally rich book. Lamb seems to have an understanding of male anger that I have seldom seen, especially in a male author. Oddly enough, though I could see clearly that Lamb was pointing out the dangers of male anger, pointing out the tremendous damage inflicted on his mother by a tyrannical father, the awful fear and emotional badgering inflicted on him and his brother by a jealous and hard step-father, I would find myself putting the book down feeling anger smoldering in me, as if Lamb’s plumbing the depths of male anger (in warning) somehow unearthed not sufficiently repressed pools of anger in myself. I was often confused by my own reactions to this book, but I did not doubt for a second the lucidity of the author or the importance of his investigation of men's’ emotional responses.

In my judgment, this is one of the truly great books dealing with the phenomenon of male anger and emptiness that has been written in the past fifty years. My experience has been that emotional intelligence has been expressed almost entirely and only by women authors; male authors display destructive anger and emotional atrophy, but they seem seldom to understand or intelligently analyze that anger or the apparent lack of depth in their own male heroes. Lamb seems painfully aware of how often men run from grief, turn away from almost all emotional expression, or, at best, cover all responses with silence and/or anger.

Not surprisingly, it is the schizophrenic brother who is the target for most of the anger of the stepfather. Thomas, the quiet and shy twin who clutches onto his mother, who refuses to act like a little man, is emotionally battered by his stepfather who is convinced Thomas needs to be toughened in order to survive. Dominick, who attempts to protect both his mother and his brother from the battering nevertheless feels always guilty that he is able to sidestep the worst of the battering, to hide the fear and tears that invite only more and harsher attacks. By acting tough, he deflects the worst of the attacks, and, at times he is almost as disgusted by the weakness he sees in his mother and brother as his terrible stepfather is. At other times, he identifies with the weak ones, hates the stepfather, but always he keeps hidden the jealousy he feels for the attention the weak brother receives from his mother.

Often after reading a book of this size, I wish that I could have been given the chance to do a final edit, to cut out a third or a half of the book and make it better, leaner, more elegant. But throughout this painful monologue of one man trying to discover himself, trying to save his brother, find his father and somehow get back at, even destroy his stepfather, I remained convinced that he needed every page, every new detour, every painful discovery. As sad and full of anger as this book is, it is also one that convinces the reader of the liberatory and saving power of self analysis. It is a hopeful book, even a story of triumphant redemption.

So far I have talked only of the relationship of the two brothers and of their parents, but Lamb also manages to tell us a lot about why men often fare so badly in marriage, so often turn to drugs or silence or anger instead of allowing themselves to feel, to grieve, to admit their own fears and weakness. He shows us the worst in men, but always one feels that his intent is to make men better. Even the tyrannical stepfather is portrayed in a way that allows us to understand how he can act as he does though at the same time condemning his brutal acts.

This is a book that richly deserves the time commitment to read it, to enter into its world as completely as one can (in spite of the pain both from empathy and from memory). I am willing to say that it is one of best books written by a man in the last century. I am certainly going to read his other book, She’s Come Undone.

Let me give you just one little quote from the book, a quote that I thinks gets at much that is of importance in it. Thomas, the schizophrenic brother, turns to his brother, the healthy one:
“That’s the trouble with the survival of the fittest, isn’t it Dominick? The corpse at your feet. That little inconvenience.”