Monday, November 17, 2003

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I want to talk to you this morning about a much talked about novel by Ann Patchett entitled Bel Canto. I can’t remember a time in the recent past when so many of my reader friends have recommended a book to me as a must read. Some loved it because they are music lovers, some because they saw it as a beautiful love story, and some recommended it because they saw it as politically significant. I actually read it some weeks ago, but felt that I must let it steep for awhile before I talked about it.

Let me say immediately that I understand why my music loving friends loved this book. For those who already love opera, this book reinforced that love; others vowed to take another and closer look at opera after reading it, supposing that they must really have missed something in not paying closer attention to this music form. And still others simply appreciated the weaving of music into social and political themes.

And the love stories are touching, oddly convincing, and very sweet. But how can a novel about the taking of hostages be also a love story and a tribute to music? In fact, isn’t there something odd about mixing a love of music with such troubling political themes? I have to admit that I am uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of such serious political questions with love and music appreciation, and even after waiting for a few weeks, I still feel a little tricked by this book, feel that the plot is too contrived and the circumstances just too hard to believe (despite the beautiful writing). One could take as the controlling theme of the entire novel the following line:
The world was a dangerous place, notions of personal safety were a fairy story told to children at bedtime. All anyone had to do was turn the wrong corner and everything would be gone.
Indeed, and I think the novel succeeds well in making this point. In some sense any of us could have been at a concert, social-political function, benefit, and one way or another our existences pass from ordinary people to hostages. The life we all take for granted is suddenly very much not granted, not guaranteed, not even likely. Dostoevsky with three minutes to live in the execution yard, about to die as a political prisoner, Victor Frankl in a concentration camp. The miracle of waking up again, alive.

But Patchett wants to do more. She wants to put a human face on the captors; she wants to try to explain in some way that members of powerful and affluent countries like ours might hear or see, that even the question of what ‘terrorism’ means is a loaded, complex, difficult. For the most part, so-called ‘terrorists’ use the weapons and tactics they can muster. It seems the word really connotes little more than disapproval, a kind of pejorative finger-pointing. If I do it, it’s war or defense; if you do it, it’s terrorism. Is dropping two thousand pound bombs terrorist? My friends tell me just the shock-wave from the explosion kills everything within quite an incredible radius. Oh, but we do it, so it’s not terrorist. Surgical strikes that (whether it is hit or miss, a mistake or not) wipe out neighborhoods, not terror because the weapons of terror are ours, the acts have been sanctified by Bush and Co. We kill hundreds, thousands, but these are acts of war, not of terrorism. If you attack me with a jet plane, that’s warfare. If you kill yourself in the detonation of your weapon, it’s terrorism. Actually, if you’re on the ‘wrong’ side, the less powerful side, your war will be called terrorism. Or so it seems.

Patchett sees all of this. She sets us up as the concert goers, suddenly taken and helpless before a band of armed men. The wrinkle is that we come to know the men, and women as it turns out, who are our captors. Not just know them, but depend on them, fall in love with them; the captives finding (for many different existential reasons) themselves while existing in this limbo state, even to the point of deceiving themselves into believing that it can continue. Most of their captors are children, truly armed and dangerous, but also deeply ‘innocent’. And even the generals are jaded but good men, eager to help the even more powerless in the cities and villages they have come from.

Ironically, the intent of the attack, the seizing of the President of this South American country and holding him for political ransom, is thwarted from go; the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. Now the so-called guerrillas have a bevy of hostages, but nothing to do with them. From the first moments, the captors’ fates are sealed, it is only the fate of the hostages that is in question. Days, weeks, even months of negotiations:
Both parties were intractable and what the party inside this wall didn’t understand was that the government was always intractable, no matter what the country, what the circumstances. The government did not give in, and when they said they were giving in they were lying, every time, you could count on it.
This put into the mouth of the Swiss Red Cross mediator who struggles from the beginning to bring about some sort of negotiated end.

The messages are important and true, and yet I find myself bothered by the book. Certainly, it would not have happened. For example, there is a young Japanese man among the captives who is a gifted linguist; he can interpret for this band of diplomats and businessmen and musicians and captors, going from French to German to Russian to Spanish to Japanese. Still, if not believable, it is a clever device. The translator’s relative importance in the community of captives soars, while the man he works for, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, relies on the translator as much, more, than any of the others who hub through him. His wealth matters little, though the cooking prowess of one of the minor French diplomats ‘on board’ becomes pivotal, as well as the general housemaid, housekeeping contributions of the Vice President whose house happens to hold the hostages. We readers get to watch this odd band become a community, seeing what really counts in day to day living, and Patchett provides lots of insights along the way. All the little things perceptive novelists see, Patchett sees: what makes relationships good ones, how even old relationships can be ‘redeemed’, how the glow of sexual love can literally current through our lives, from out of the blue. How it transforms and metamorphoses.

The novel has to be contrived in order to work, and the messages seem to justify the contrivance. Still, there is something too neat about this novel. Maybe simply my jade showing through, my cynicism.

But enough of my petty reservations, let me close by reading a long and lovely passage voicing a young woman’s view of the crisis, a woman who happens to be one of the captors, one of the ‘terrorists’, and also happens to love the Japanese translator, Gen, who very much loves her. Her name is Carmen, whom we now know is as gifted at learning languages as her teacher and lover. Carmen is also a kind of personal captor to the famous opera singer, Roxanne Cross, who is a gigantic presence in the book though I have said little about her here. But to the scene:
Gen lived one life and in that life he was always a prisoner and his friends were the other prisoners, and even though he loved Carmen and got along politely with some of the terrorists, he never got confused and thought he wanted to join LFDMS. But for Carmen it was different. She had clearly two lives. She did her push-ups in the morning and stood for inspection. She carried her rifle on guard. She kept a boning knife in her boot and she knew how to use it. She obeyed orders. She was, as it had been explained to her, part of the forces that would bring about change. But she was also the girl who went to the china closet at night, who was learning to read in Spanish and could already say several things in English. Some mornings, Roxanne Cross let her climb into the impossibly soft sheets on her big bed, let her close her eyes for a few minutes and pretend she belonged there. She would pretend she was one of the prisoners, that she lived in a world with so many privileges that there was nothing to fight for. But no matter how the two sides got along, they were always two sides, and when she went form one to the other it was a matter of crossing over something.
Two sides, powerful and powerless, haves and have-nots. This is a good novel, and perhaps my friends are right, it is a great one.

Monday, November 10, 2003

The Last Resort by Alison Lurie

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Alison Lurie entitled, The Last Resort. As I was reading this book, I thought I would not review it, since the plot is blatantly contrived, and the characters are so obviously doing work for the author. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that the author was not at all trying to hide from the reader her manipulations. Even the title announces that the author is playing with her material, having fun with the reader.

The last resort is, of course, in Florida, and it is the last resort because people go there to finish out their lives and to die. This setting allows Lurie to explore a number of her favorite themes, and to do so in a manner that is both quite funny and quite perceptive. There is no single star in this novel; rather, Lurie brings together a collection of people who would never be together save for this being the last resort.

The plots and subplots are a thick soup. Perhaps the most important character in the book is Jenny, a bright and able woman whose significance in life is in being the wife and helpmate of a famous environmentalist. Her husband, Wilkie Walker (close enough to Willie Wonka to bring an immediate smile) has spent a lifetime as a writer and crusader for the environment, but we readers know that he thinks his star is burning out. Younger, tougher environmentalists are taking over the spotlight, and to make matters far, far worse, he suspects, indeed he claims to know, that he is dying. In fact, he agrees to leave his New England home and study to go to Florida and the last resort only because he knows that his life is over. Going to Florida is to provide him with a convenient way to commit suicide (swimming out to sea), and a way as well to help his much younger wife and assistant to transition to a life without Wilkie.

The wise and strong Wilkie has decided that he must protect his much weaker and more vulnerable wife both by not telling her that he is dying, and by beginning to pave the way for her life after his death. Even the thought of a life without Wilkie brings tears to his eyes.

Lurie's description and setting up of this couple is sad, perceptive and mischievously funny. Jenny knows that she is not simply important but essential to Wilkie's work. Besides maintaining a house for him, cooking all of his meals, acting as his secretary as well as his editor (and truth be told, co-writer), she has raised their two children and tried to shield the children from their father's disappointment with them (since neither, sadly enough, is a little Wilkie in the making). Just to add spice, Lurie paints Wilkie as deeply homophobic who argues in his work that homosexuality is simply an aberration of nature.

Jenny is well aware that some women view her partnership with her husband as a trap, that they see her as subverting her own career in furthering Wilkie's, but they simply don't understand the importance of the work. In Jenny's own words:

Theoretically, as a modern, enlightened person, Jenny supported the women's movement, and occasionally had been persuaded to send a check to NOW. But in fact feminism had done nothing for her except make her chosen life seem peculiar and estrange her from her friends. She could agree with them that there was no reason why most men shouldn't help with household tasks and child care. But Wilkie Walker was not most men: he was unique, irreplaceable. The work they did together might change, had changed, the world. Jenny didn't want to be forced to abandon this work in favor of some theoretical 'career'.

This conviction, unfortunately, had come between Jenny and many women she might have remained or become her close friends. But when they cooled towards her, or failed to warm, Jenny forgave them. They didn't understand; they were married to ordinary replaceable men, men whose jobs could be done by someone else if necessary.

Lurie has set the stage so well. Now add in a woman, Lee, about Jenny's age who runs a women's only resort and who manages to rescue Jenny from drowning and to fall in love with her almost the day that the Walkers arrive in Florida. Wilkie, absorbed by his own impending death and his dwindling stature does not realize all the ways in which refusing to tell his wife of his illness and his death-fears alienates them from each other. Since she has no way of knowing that his silence, his downright coldness around her, his no longer sharing even his work with her is occasioned by his struggles with his own mortality, she quite naturally supposes other explanations for his freezing her out. And then the final straw, he fails with her in bed!!! In his words, “... their final significant encounter had been false and meaningless. Last night, their last night together, he had planned to make love to Jenny. He had tried, strained, willed it with all of his force—but all for nothing; worse than nothing.” When Jenny tries to reassure him, to tell him quite truthfully that it is the closeness that matters, that his failed erection is not the end of the world, he angrily discounts her words. “Of course she would say that, out of politeness, out of love. Silently he had turned away from her and pretended to sleep. That clumsy, humiliating failure would always be her last intimate memory of him.”

Ah, what could be worse for such a vital, such a virile, such an important man than to lose his erection. Nothing left but to swim out into the ocean one last time, to die brave and alone.

Already, I have probably told you too much of the plot, but there are many surprises left to come, and many characters that I have not even mentioned. Lurie obviously has fun with the absurd homophobia of Wilkie as well as other characters whom she contrives to bring on stage. The almost inevitable romance between Lee, the owner of the resort, and Jenny is humorous, but it is also touching and (I think) full of insights about how relationships should really be, about the mutual attention and respect that really good relationships require.

Again, despite the comedic setting, Lurie has important insights about both the importance of environmentalism and about the ways that it can direct political energy as well as the ways in which it can deflect it into a kind of meaningless sentimentalism. In the end, this book is a comedy with more than a few important messages, and it is written by a writer who has mastered her talents. It is at the very least and entertaining novel, and I think quite a bit more than that. I think Lurie deals with sexual and political themes in important ways, and even quite deep existential questions get a good, hard look, though all of this is cloaked in humor. It is an easy book to read, and I think its messages are well worth absorbing.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt

I want to talk to you this morning about a writer who has had to go so far, work so hard, just to begin to have a life of her own, to write, to leave a world she was born to, tied to by children, by a (good) husband, by her own family. From the first pages, the narrator gives the reader a sense that she is drowning, suffering life rather than living it, without quite knowing what is wrong, wanting more, wanting a voice, but having no idea how to say or understand what she needs, and feeling a tremendous guilt simply for wanting more.

I am talking about Judy Blunt and her tough little memoir, Breaking Clean. Just writing this book is a task and a triumph far beyond what most of us will ever achieve. Blunt grew up in the fifties and sixties, but in a place few of us would even recognize. None of the conveniences that we now see simply as necessities were a part of the life she knew in the super-rural ranching and farming community of northern Montana. No television, no inside bathroom or plumbing, no books or music. Her early life sounds a lot more like what we imagine farm life at the turn of the century to be than the world we have known. Certainly, a hard life for anyone trying to live it, but hard for girls and women in ways that it was not for boys and men. At least the boys who remained had the dubious right to inherit the hard scrabble land they ranched and farmed, and escape from the scene during their teens was a distinct possibility. The girls were likely to be claimed, to be married with children of their own when still children themselves, at least in the eyes of most of us city livers. Indeed, one of Blunt’s only ways of rebelling, of insisting on being a person on her own, was to choose a man in his twenties when she was fifteen. The act of rebellion gets her away from her judging mother and stern father, but only to a life even more lonely than what she leaves and locked, for life it seems, in a world where all the rules are made up by men.

It is feminism that saves Blunt, though a feminism that is tempered and formed by the incredibly hard lives of the women around her, but let me have Blunt speak for herself.
I grew up admiring a community of women whose strength and capacity for work I have yet to see equaled, true partners in the labor of farming and ranching. Where the occasional man fell short, whether drunken and reckless or merely selfish and careless, his wife maneuvered carefully to make up the deficit. To be accused of ‘wearing the pants’ remained the worst form of insult. In public she held steadfastly to the role of silent partner. I saw this quiet endurance as a choice women made, one that made them secretly superior. Men did not drop what they were doing to tend to women’s work, nor did anyone imagine they might. Only women did it all.

As a young ranch wife, I wed my sixties style feminism to a system of conflicting expectations and beliefs only slightly altered by a century of mute nobility. My brand of feminism celebrated strength through silence. A woman could do anything, so long as she did it quickly, quietly and efficiently. It never occurred to me then that silence looked passive from the outside, or that the two served the same purpose of not making waves, maintaining the status quo. It would take me ten years of doing it all to finally get it. The work we do isn’t the issue. Work is the tool that wears us down, draws us to and keeps our eyes on the next two steps ahead. The issue is power. And it’s the silence that kills us.
This book would be well worth reading for the politics in it, the clear vision of what powerlessness does, of how whole lives simply are worn down and disappear. And while that certainly is a message Blunt wants to make with her memoir, the beauty of the book is in the incredibly careful and painful description of day to day life on this hard but beautiful land. As I was reading it, I was also reading a good little book by Alison Lurie, The Last Resort, and originally I had thought to compare the two. Lurie’s book is clever, almost staged in order to make some important points about feminism and homophobia, and the writing is accomplished, polished. My first thought was to compare Lurie’s facility with language with the much flatter, bare bones style of Blunt. But the further I got into Breaking Clean, the more I saw the raw beauty of Blunt’s prose, the ways in which the lives she describes mesh so well with the language she uses. Her writing is in no way crude; it is simply the language of a woman born to this landscape and chiseled by the forces of nature. It is, in the end, beautiful writing, though sometimes the events described are difficult even to read about.

Blunt simply wants to understand the world around her and to carve out a place for herself in it. She is not bitter, and if she is angry, it is a righteous anger directed at systems of power, not at the men and women with whom she worked and sweated and grieved. If ultimately she had to escape from her husband and family and even the land she loved and hated, it was out of a need to be, to have a sense of self. Indeed, had she cared less for her husband and family, it would have been easier to leave. His being a good husband simply made the struggle harder. Indeed, in her first move away from her childhood farm, a move required in order to attend school beyond eighth grade, she feels even more displaced, more foreign, than in her own community. With farms too spread out to make busing to school possible, when it came time to go to high school, it meant moving into a small nearby town, and instead of feeling liberated, she felt somehow even odder, more out of place. Again, letting Blunt speak for herself:
I would never be cute or giggly. I also fell short of those pleasant virtues by which plain girls are forgiven, that sweet and gentle interior that redeems beauty. I’d been tailored to fit one particular family in one isolated community. Outside it, my ground-covering stride became ungainly, my brand of strength unnecessary, or even worse, I discovered, inadequate. Outside my community, only one course made allowances for this puzzle of androgynous traits, and that was women’s liberation. In the course of the next four years, I allowed the movement toward feminism to adopt me. But still, like my mother, like the ranchwomen who peopled my childhood, I would not spout ideology or argue theory. Strong women roared in silence. We roared by doing.
Blunt is tough, and the land from which she came is austere, unforgiving, almost uninhabitable. But the prose she wields to describe her life to us and to describe her emancipation, her birth as a writer, is grand and beautiful. This may be her first book, but I’m sure it will not be her last. She has found her voice, and it is a voice well worth hearing.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy

I want to talk to you today about a not so new novel by Barbara Gowdy entitled Mr. Sandman. However, before I do that, let me say a few more words about Carol Shields whose new novel, Unless, I talked to you about last month. I had no idea as I reviewed her book and spoke of her as being at the very height of her wisdom and talent that she had died just a few weeks before, on July 16. She was only sixty-eight, which seems very young to me. All in all, she wrote ten novels, three volumes of poetry, three collections of stories, four plays, a biography of Jane Austin, a book of criticism, and co-authored several anthologies. I have read almost all of her novels, and would recommend to you especially The Stone Diaries, The Republic of Love, Happenstance, Larry's Party, and Unless. I think she was a fine author and an astute feminist and social critic. Do yourselves the favor of honoring her life by reading some of her books.

Turning now to the Barbara Gowdy book, I first discovered her years ago with a book that I have remembered quite well ever since entitled Falling Angels. Everyone who has responded to me after reading that volume has agreed that it is a powerful if somewhat disturbing book about coming of age and about dysfunctional families. I was so impressed with this book that I tried to use it almost immediately in a philosophy in literature course, though it was already out of print. (It has been reissued since, and I recommend it highly.) I picked up Mr. Sandman mostly because of the author, though I have to admit I was struck also by the cover and the title. As I began to read it and laugh, I thought it would be a funny and outrageous read, but I expected little else from it. The bit of cover reviews that I allowed myself to read concentrated on the comedic aspects of the book and praised it as a funny, outrageous book, bordering on lunacy.

I suppose that I read it simply as a lark for the first hundred pages or so. It certainly is outrageous and intentionally unbelievable, but I think Gowdy is doing much more with this book than simply trying to amuse us. For starters, this is one of the only books I can think of that tries to be honest about teenage sexuality. In my experience, the sexuality of teenagers is either denied completely, or exploited in the worst of ways by the sickness of pornography. I remember years ago when I read Jane Lazarre's On Loving Men, a memoir about growing up and growing into sexuality, being struck and humbled by her honesty in describing her own early sexuality as well as her powerful statement as a feminist defending her love of men. I also remember very clearly how in my own early teens my sexuality was ignored or cutified or outright denied by adults, all of which simply reinforced my suspicion about adults and their worldviews. So, in spite of the outrageous and often knee-slapping events described in Mr. Sandman, I found myself impressed by Gowdy's understanding of both the reality and semi-innocence of early sexuality.

Just this aspect of the book would have been enough to keep me reading, but an even more powerful theme began to emerge in the book. the book is ostensibly about a sort of idiot savant miracle child who does not talk at all, is considered mysteriously beautiful but brain-damaged, and yet sits down at a piano at six and begins to play Bach and sophisticated jazz riffs. And this child, Joan, continues to occupy an important role in the book. But I see her role as being primarily a hook to catch and even stun the reader, while the important social/political themes are being played out by other members of the family. Although a bit of a miss-description, I'll call the two main characters the parents of this girl. It takes the reader a bit of time to discover that both parents, Doris and Gordon, are in their deepest natures homosexual, though they have been living the lie that society has demanded of them for many, many years, each doing her/his best to hide this devastating fact from the other.

I remember many, many years ago querying a gay friend about why gay men behaved in what to me were such peculiar ways, and I meant by that sex with strangers, sex in steam rooms, in parks, etc.. He was so much wiser than I and so patient with me as he tried to explain that it was the dominant culture, the heterosexual culture, that determined (at least to a very large extent) the behavior of gays and lesbians. If I were called on to name the main plot in this little book of Gowdy's, I would say that it is an exploration of just this phenomenon. The guilt and the necessary hiding (especially in the past) of homosexuality is a direct consequence not of any perversion among them but, rather, on the sickness of the dominant culture.

In the end, peoples sexuality will out, though if it is repressed enough, hated enough, it may take some pretty bizarre and self-destructive courses. I don't want to give away much more of the book than I already have, but let me have Gowdy speak for herself by quoting a few passages from the book. The longer I think about it, the more clever and revealing I think the book is. If it is a comedy, it is certainly one with socially important punch lines.

Gordon, the homosexual husband worrying as usual about how he is damaging his wife and child muses:

He has been fretting that she is on to him. That everybody is on to him. He hasn't had a lover in over three years but the desire is like a compounding debt. Like owing the Mafia, there's no getting around it, cough up or die. Who can't see the cocks in his eyes is what Gordon would like to know.

Loving his wife and child as he truly does, he cannot let himself enter into a friendly, meaningful relationship with a man, so he tries to bottle the feelings, the drive, only to feel humiliated and shocked when they spill over in quite unfriendly and distorted ways.

In this mood, washrooms are where he lives. He masturbates non-stop, but his erection repels him. It should be shot. He studies his lips in mirrors for syphilis sores, he presses under his ears for swollen glands ... in this mood he believes himself to be a venereal sewer. He weeps for his daughters, because he's already dead—or ruined and behind bars—so that makes them orphans.

And of course as he worries and frets and hates himself both for what he does and what he doesn't do, his wife Doris is also steeped in guilt and regret for the laughably few times when she acts on her desires for women.
Oh who knows? 'You haven't touched me in over ten years" was what she intended to throw at Gordon if he ever found out, and you bet it was a good excuse but it wasn't the reason. Her yearning for Gordon and her yearning for women ran on two separate tracks. That much she had always felt, and occasionally she felt the delicacy and the imperiousness of the division, a bit like the reminder when you choke on food that you breathe from one place and swallow from another. The only thing she was sure of was that loving women was dangerous. Don't think she didn't fight it.
Always the lack, the sense of guilt, the shame, and then the choosing (or being chosen by) the wrong person, the wrong time. Anyone who simply laughs at this book, has, I think, missed the point. It is much more a tragedy than a comedy. Even if her critics don't see this, Gowdy does. She is funny, she is outrageous, and I'm convinced she has important things to tell us, especially those of us who are straight.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Unless by Carol Shields

I want to talk to you this morning about a novel written by an author who is at the very height of her powers. The author is one whom you have probably read before, Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries, The Republic of Love, Happenstance, Larry’s Party) and the book is entitled Unless. Although I never even bother to review novels that I think are mediocre or worse, I have often talked to you about novels that are worthy of mention more for their promise than for immediate content. I say this in order to set this novel apart from any whose authors are still struggling to find their voice or their message. If this is not a great novel, it has more to do with the acuity of the novelist and the ambitiousness of her project than any failure of perception. Indeed, the story-line here is secondary, it is what the author feels she must tell us that is paramount.

In many ways, Shields plays with her readers in this book. The heroine is a novelist who is, surprise surprise, writing a novel as she speaks to us. And she is not only a novelist, she is also a translator, from French to English, of one of the leading feminists of the day in Canada. Thus, she is able to talk about the novel as a political form compared to the much clearer and more direct essay. Shields lets her readers worry along with her about just how difficult it is to write a novel, to create believable characters whom the reader cares about, and to do something more than simply divert readers from the ugliness and complexity of the real world. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, our writer heroine is also struggling to recover a lost daughter and to come to understand just why she is lost. Indeed, if the novel has any weakness, it is that the story-line takes second place to the ‘message’.

So, we have a novel about writing novels that contains as well an aesthetic theory, and to add one more ‘little’ enterprise, a treatise about goodness, what it would mean to be good in this nasty, big world we live in. Our novelist heroine’s name is Reta, her lost daughter’s Norah, and the famous old feminist whom she translates, Danielle Westerman. Via the character of Danielle, Shields is able to ponder what it must feel like to have dedicated a life to political causes, especially feminist issues, and to have seen so little real change as the world spirals to ecological and economic chaos. Through Norah, the lost daughter who sits on a street corner with a one word sign around her neck, “Goodness”, she is able speculate about why a young woman who really cares about good might decide finally that the only course open to her is spiritual and literal resignation.

But if Norah chooses resignation and asceticism, Shields certainly does not. If the ship is sinking, Shields will be one of the last and loudest and most articulate voices to sound alarms and point to causes, and at the very least, to stew and stew and stew about solutions. I find myself simply amazed at how much Shields knows about people and relationships, how artfully and doggedly she struggles against the awful temptation to give up given the apparent impotence of good people to change the course of greed and economic imperialism. In a series of humorous black comedy letters to famous people of the day (and in response to essays she reads in current periodicals), Reta asks these famous and influential men how it can be that no women ever appear on their lists of the noteworthy or in their essays—essays about authors, painters, political writers, simply people of worth. As funny and clever as some of these written but rarely sent letters are, they are also deadly serious and heartbroken, spiritbroken. Lucky for us that Shields is stronger and more resilient than her heroine.

But instead of continuing in this attempt to capture the cleverness and insights of this novel, let me have Shield’s, via Reta, speak for herself.
In her last years Danielle [the feminist essayist] has become cranky, even with me, her translator. She suspects I’ve abandoned the ‘discourse,’ as she always calls it, for the unworthiness of novel writing. She has a way of lowering her jaw when she skirts this topic, and her eyes seem freshened with disappointment. She is such a persuasive force that I often find myself agreeing with her; what really is the point of novel writing when the unjust world howls and writhes?

Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior ‘discourse,’ but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they’re just so much narrative crumble. Unless, unless.

Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence ....

Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.
Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from drowning in the presiding arrangements.
And these are only a few of the unlesses; Sheilds goes on to articulate the many ways that unless you happen to live in the wake of an affluent country (affluent at the expense of the majority, the poor and miserable of the world), you are already in the darkness, already in the despair. Unless you are white, unless you are male, unless you have a job, a house, a doctor ... then you are in the condition of the many and not the few.

Perhaps Kate Chopin’s lead character responds to her impotent despair by walking into the ocean, and perhaps Reta’s daughter Norah will choose, in her search for goodness, infinite resignation, but not Carol Shields. Though she may question the effectiveness of writing novels as the unjust world burns around her, her voice is strident and clear. At the very least, she must sound out a warning. Not a warning, but a siren-song of warnings. “We only appear to be rooted in time. Everywhere, if you listen closely, the spitting fuse of the future is crackling.” Shields listens carefully, and she writes with clarity and thunder.

It may be tempting to withdraw into the self, to search for the causes of world-weariness from within. But the answers are out there, in the arena, in the unjust world. And goodness, if it is to found at all, is only to be found and practiced there. Along with Murdoch who takes Socrates to task for his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, Shields urges her readers to get off their collective asses and enter the struggle. “The examined life has had altogether to much good publicity. Introversion is piercingly dull in its circularity and lack of air.” For the novelist as well as the person in the street, the challenge is to change the nasty world we find ourselves in.

Monday, June 23, 2003

The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker

I want to talk to you this morning about yet another first novel, this one by Lisa Tucker and entitled The Song Reader. While this is her first published novel, she is clearly an experienced writer who knows a good deal about the world. I continue to be amazed by first novels, especially those that can be classed as coming-of-age novels, and while this one may not be among the best or most profound, it is a very clever story and its serious content more-or-less sneaks up on the reader.

The problem will be to tell you a bit about the story without giving away anything important, since the plot has several twists in it. This is really the story of two sisters, the older of whom mothers her younger sister and cares for an adopted boy-child as well. The reader knows from the beginning that there is a father somewhere, though he left when the youngest girl, Leeann, was about to begin school. A couple years after his departure, the mother is killed in a traffic accident, and Mary Beth, twelve years older than Leeann, becomes sole parent and sole provider. Mary Beth has a special talent which she sees as a calling; simply by asking people what songs they listen to, what songs recur in their day and night dreams, she is able to intuit much about them—about their loves, their fears, their problems, even their childhoods. Although working full time as a waitress to support her family, almost immediately upon discovering her talent, Mary Beth has cards made up advertising her calling: Mary Beth Norris, Song Reader/Life Healer, Let me help you make sense of the music in your head, [Family problems a specialty.]

And so this little novel begins, racing along, a kind of lark for the reader. Clever idea, I thought, and not so baseless. Indeed, it seemed I could read quite a lot about my own life simply by paying attention to the songs that have stuck with me, the ones that appear as if by magic upon my waking, and hover like the Norah Jones’ song, “One Flight Down” as I go through my day. The younger girl, Leeann, though never doubting her sister’s talent nor doubting the diagnoses and advice she gives to others, is mired in her own problem, namely, finding her lost father. Add a baby boy whom Mary Beth takes on almost as a kind of payment for one of her successful song readings and the story is ripe for development.

A nice read, I thought, between serious books—a kind of cupcake book to get me rolling again as a reader. But somehow, about half way through this book, it turned quite serious. Some questions I had been asking myself about how wise it would be to offer advice on the basis of song-reading began to emerge in very serious ways for Mary Beth. She runs into a tough case; a troubled woman referred to Mary Beth by a caring but rather desperate husband, but this woman insists that she has no songs, no song-memory. After a series of stunning successes, helping women reveal themselves to themselves via their song obsessions, Mary Beth is faced with a difficult case.
Having no songs is like having no dreams. It only happens when your mind is shutting down. Hiding from something.
And sure enough, here is a woman so intent on repressing what her father did to her long ago that she has become flat, one-dimensional, and depressed almost to the point of motionlessness.

Ah, but the secret is simply to uncover what has been covered up, to remember and confront—tell her husband, her son, and finally with those two men who love her as her shield, to confront her father once and for all.

I have no intention of revealing to you how this treatment turns out, but the book certainly becomes more interesting, deeper, more important from this point on. There are other additions to the mix: a man who comes to Mary Beth for help (although only after being somehow tricked into it by his concerned sister) is welcomed into the family. It turns out that he is a graduate student who is working on depression and brain chemistry, and if he is not overly impressed by Mary Beth’s song-reading methods, he is struck by her incredible sensitivity to others as well as by her beauty and her huge heart. His contention, however, is that Mary Beth concerns herself so often and so totally with others simply because she is unwilling to attend to herself. While she insists that taking over her sister’s care when their mother dies, taking on the unwanted baby of one of her clients, taking on every new person in need who comes to her, is simply a matter of course, he sees it as her frenzied attempt to hide from her own emotional problems.

Mary Beth’s breakdown and self-doubt are inevitable; she is aware of what her gift allows her to see, but not aware enough about the tremendous power and risk that comes with it.

No doubt there are some weaknesses in this plot, some problems too neatly solved, some serious questions that any attentive reader will have to ask themselves about the wisdom of song-reading. Still, there is a real beauty to the book, and even some genuine wisdom. Leeann comes to see how poverty limits possibility; she sees also that simply seeing the truth is not enough, and that confronting others with acts they have hidden is neither easy nor always wise. Men can and will lie even in the face of revelation, and the more awful the secrets, the more horrible the abuse, the more vigorous and bulldozing the defense and covering over. Only on television and in the movies does truth inevitably win out.

So, this is not a great book, but it is a good one. The bond between the sisters is wonderful and convincing, and the song-reading theme much more thought-provoking than you may think initially.

Of course the jacket cover proclaims a stunning debut by a major new voice, while the writing is described as achingly beautiful with every page inspiring courage. We are used to hyperbole on jacket covers. Instead, this is a very good first novel, and I would be surprised if it were not followed up by others at least as good, perhaps better. It’s also short and easy to read, and I recommend it to you.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Local Girls by Alice Hoffman

I want to talk to you this morning about a newish book by Alice Hoffman and also to mention a book of contemporary essays by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

Probably most of you readers of fiction have read some of the little novels by Hoffman. She has a real talent for writing short, easy to read novels that pull the reader along with writing so artful that pages pass by effortlessly. Despite the ease of reading and lengths that invite the busy city reader, there is always substance to her novels as well.

When Clayton asked me what the theme of this novel is, I could find no easy way to describe it, but I suppose one could put it in the coming of age genre. The heroine, Gretel, and her best friend, Jill, find themselves locked in battle with the adults who seem to control them. In Gretel’s words: “It was not simply our neighborhood that we hated, but the entire adult world, which, regretfully, we were soon destined to join.”

In fact, this book is a series of little sketches, more like short stories than chapters in a novel. Hoffman may use this device as a way of covering more years in the lives of Gretel and Jill than would usually work well in a novel. We catch glimpses of the two girls when they are quite young, carrying out middle of the night pranks together and vowing eternal sisterhood. Other quick peaks when they are in the troubling twilight zone between childhood and grown women, Jill succumbing earlier Gretel to the world of boys. And from that point on, only a few sketches of their drifting apart, Jill into much too early motherhood, leaving Gretel lonely, confused, and yet thankful Jill’s life is not her’s.

And beside the story of these two runs a parallel one—two other ‘girls’ who have lived much as Gretel and Jill, but who are already aware of the dangers of men and the perils of being adult women. Indeed, this pair, cousins who are as close as grown-ups as they were as children, provide a depth and substance to the novel that it otherwise would not have had. I won’t be giving away too much of the story by telling you that Gretel’s mother, Francis, is sick with cancer from the time Jill is quite young. Francis’ childhood friend and cousin, Margot, is there for her during the surgeries and treatments, the remissions and recurrences, and she is there for Gretel as well, acting as a second mother, but one far enough removed to be friend and confidant as well. Margot’s skepticism and suspicion of men act as a kind of warning for Gretel, and the depth of commitment between the two older women also provides Gretel with a model of what relationships can be.

As Gretel and Margot learn to deal with the certainty of Francis’ impending death, the reader has a good backseat view, a kind of preparation for dealing with mortality that we must all face. But Hoffman is able to bring all of this off with a kind of humor and grace that adds a generous spoonful of sugar to the medicine. She is also able to describe a lot to us about small town life, about high promise in young people, boys in particular, that gets quickly and quietly snuffed via infatuation with drugs. Gretel’s brother, Jason, is the first in the town to be admitted to a prestigious ivy league school. Unlike most of the other boys in town, he has been serious about school, caring more about science projects and homework than about cars and girls and sports. Everything about his life seems to suggest that he will not be like the other boys and young men, and his sudden love affair with drugs surprises everyone, Gretel more than most. It must be just a phase; certainly he will come to, will realize that college is his way out of this small town, this life.

But enough of the story; the fact that the book is dedicated to Jo Ann Hoffman, 1950–1996, suggests to me that the young mother, Francis, who is dying of cancer is very well known to Alice Hoffman, and all of the sketches have that feel of memoir. The novel is uplifting, quick, and with the same magical quality as Hoffman’s other novels. If you pick it up and read it, you will probably not even notice the message or messages until you put it down.


Let me mention this morning another book that I am currently reading and that I think all of you who love reading about us, here and now, will love. I have talked about the author many times on this program; her name is Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and she has written some of the best novels of the last thirty or forty years, including Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, The Fatigue Artist and my very favorite book about being a reader, Ruined by Reading. I am a reader, primarily, not a writer, but when I read Schwartz writing about what it is to be a reader in the world, I find myself wishing that I were the writer. Her new set of essays is called Face To Face: A Reader in the World. The very first essay is one about the telephone and the place it has come to occupy in our lives. Schwartz has the same fears and suspicions of the phone that I have, but she can write about those fears in ways that are so perceptive and so funny. One quick quote:
I’ve been told my ‘Hello’ sounds a world-weary, ‘What now?’ note—if not expecting the worst, then at least something pretty bad. This doesn’t surprise me. Our every gesture shows how we anticipate that the world will impinge on us--for impinging it must, and more and more often right at home, assaulting the open gate of the ear. The world’s approach, for me at any rate, is an interruption of the inner dialogue, at once fantastical and mundane, in which I’m forever absorbed.
I leave you to imagine for yourself her view of the ubiquitous cell-phone.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a wonderful New York activist, a woman who has had to learn to find a balance between her life as a writer and intellectual and social activist with the demands of being a mother, which she also loves and has freely chosen. She is one of the brightest and most humorous essayists I have encountered. I have always loved her novels, but it takes a very special essayist to lure me away from ficition. She is among the very best.

If you feel forced by your schedule to choose only one of the two books I have talked about, I would recommend the Schartz essays, meatier and more profound, but both are quite worth the read.

Monday, January 06, 2003

The Boy on the Green Bicycle by Margaret Diehl

I want to talk to you this morning about an achingly beautiful little book by Margaret Diehl entitled The Boy on the Green Bicycle. You may have read one of Diehl’s other books, Men or Me And You. I thought both were rather brave explorations of contemporary women questioning and experimenting with female-male relationships, but I can’t really remember much about either of them, and certainly neither prepared me for the soul-searching honesty of this memoir.

I readily admit to being a spoiled reader; even beautiful writing without serious content is insufficient, and I have to confess that serious social and political content is not enough unless written by a genuine word-weaver. Having said that, you may be surprised as you begin to read The Boy on the Green Bicycle, for it is the story of what most of us could only regard as a rich and privileged family, self-exiled from the south to a huge house in New Jersey. Although a large family by today’s standards, four children, three cats and a dog rambling in a huge old home, a devoted stay-home mother with ample funds for food and paid help creates what seem in the early pages of the book to be a culturally rich and stable home. The children range in age from six to fourteen, and the family seems to revolve around the oldest fourteen year old boy. Margaret is the next to youngest at seven as the story begins, and she remembers clearly (and seemingly without resentment) that Jimmy is the favorite not only of the other three children, but of her mother as well. Wise and compassionate beyond his years, he does not bully or dominate his younger siblings, but instead allows them into his world. Popular with other children as well, both boys and girls, the younger children seem quite content to hang suspended in his halo.

As you know, I hate giving away stories, but you would be unable to read any of the little jacket blurbs on this book without gleaning that Jimmy is the boy on the green bicycle, and that it is his death which is the compass point of the story. One reviewer is quoted on the cover as saying that this book is almost dangerously beautiful, and as odd as that comment seems, I soon came to see its accuracy. The events of the book are not happy, nor is the life of either the young Margaret or the shadow of the adult Margaret hinted at but not described in the book. Still, the writing, page by page, is stunning, and one can easily see the budding artistic genius of the author. Even tragedy is transformed into incandescent beauty through the word magic of this writer.

Indeed, in the early chapters of the book, one easily forgets the ominous warnings on the book-jacket and simply enters into the charmed life that Jimmy seems able to provide for himself and his siblings. If there is a shadow lurking over these pages, it is that of the father—a book publisher in New York who brings back from the city a fast-paced and anxious self-absorption that daily interrupts the smooth flow of family life. Around him, Margaret cannot but feel in the way, ungainly, ugly. At best, she is invisible when he is in the house, but even her invisibility is tenuous, and in spite of her fear of displeasing him, without quite knowing why, she desperately wants his attention. She lurks and spies, listening in on the conversations of her parents, afraid of being caught, but coveting the world they have together.

Let me allow Margaret to speak for herself of her father:
When he entered the house he was vibrating. His broad shoulders, big boxy head, the whole square picture of him, enhanced by square black glasses, square briefcase, and coat and hat, was in jerky motion beyond what was necessary to cover ground. He used too much force shutting the door, called out loudly for my mother, set down his briefcase, and let his hands free to shake for awhile.

Those hands! Thrust out in front of him as if he were desperate to get rid of them, two inches of slender wrist exposed. This was not a tremble. This was like something out of the movies, like propeller blades, back and forth, churning the air. I didn’t think of them as signaling an illness. What I thought was that they were bewitched, they had power.

When he could manage it, he lit a cigarette, a Lucky Strike, from the red-and-white package. After a few inhales, he’d look through his mail. Mostly long white envelopes addressed to A.C. Diehl. I had already investigated them. Bills. It surprised me that the world was not afraid of him ... Daddy’s arrival set the house into a glassy panic, which lasted all evening--yet the roar of his car, the shaking of his hands! Of course I can’t speak for the others, but I know they felt it. The engine of his sensual life. The fury and sobbing of a machine that is not being used properly, whose wheels will mount the curb as in all your favorite movies. What if he caught me spying? would he kill me? Sometimes he chased us, enraged, bellowing—took off his belt to whip us.
She speaks of her conviction that her father wants the children to disappear, wants her mother for himself alone, though none of this surprises her five and six and seven year old self; she supposes this is as it must me, simply the way fathers are.
He was there in the doorway, exuding that bewildered fury that was his most characteristic response to us. What was it like to be him, coming blinking into a room where his children saw him as the enemy? In my case, an enemy I secretly loved, felt so tender toward, protecting, yet no less scared or angry. I wanted him, but at a distance, not right next to me. I couldn’t stand it. His force field, the inverted nine-tenths of his rage, melted me inside, my ordered self fusing so I could barely think or know, so that I would be, for the length of the dinner, insane.
But if she fears and loves her father, she loves and trusts and wants to be swallowed up by her beautiful and calm, order-peace-making mother. All of the children vie to sit by the mother at table, where it is safe. If her descriptions of her father are frightening, and made more frightening by her acceptance of his indifference or rage as the norm, her descriptions of her mother are a lovely and soothing counterpoint. Her mother brings books and crystal and beauty into the home, and if she has a husband who frightens her children (and even her), she has a son who loves and adores her and supplies the loving attention lacking from her steam-engine husband. Indeed, Jimmy is the hope, the solace, the salvation for all of them—until he is struck down on his green bicycle, taken from them, leaving them to shatter and scatter into pieces.

And from Jimmy’s death on, this is a sad little book—a meticulous description of the effect of his death on her parents, of her father’s madness, precipitated if not caused by Jimmy’s death. I won’t tell you any more of the story, except to warn you that it is, indeed, sad, though the sheer beauty of the writing and the creative spirit of the little girl growing into the exquisite weaver of words that she becomes makes the reading worthwhile.

This is not, I think, a profound book, nor does it have much to tell us about world politics or important social issues. And yet, it is one that I could not put down once I started it, and I feel oddly enriched for having read it. When I think back over it, I think of precious stones, of words strung together to form gems, and you can be sure that I will read anything else that she writes.