Monday, December 27, 2004

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Sue Miller entitled While I Was Gone. I happened on to Miller quite a few years ago when she wrote her first novel, The Good Mother. Although very impressed at the time, a not very good movie version of that book had the effect, I think, of causing to me to rethink how good the book had been. I wonder how often bad movies affect us in this way? My recollection is that the movie version distorted or made ambiguous a moral message in Miller's book, a message involved in worrying over a very delicate and complex issue.

At any rate, I think While I Was Gone is such a good and wise book that I mean to go back to the first novel again. I won't be telling you much about the plot in saying that a major existential theme arises in a number of ways in this book. Suppose you wake up one morning (or more realistically, morning after morning) feeling that you are the person you set out to be, the person others expect you to be, but that this 'success' is not only unsatisfying, but feels false. You know in some deep sense that you don't want to be that person. Perhaps it is only a person you thought you wanted to be. Perhaps even one that the they-self said you should be. No matter, however it has come to pass, there is this sense both of falseness and of wanting to be someone else. Not at all an easy matter when those around you admire you, and expect you to be the person they have come to admire. Change is always difficult, but so much more difficult when surrounded by people who think they know just who you are, and in many ways refuse to allow you to be the new self you feel emerging. Add a good but not very interesting marriage, which only compounds the feeling of falseness-not knowing who you want to be, but quite sure it is not the person you have become.

What Jo, the woman lead-character in this book does is run. The escape takes a few steps; first, she quits her hard-won teaching job. Step two is taking the first part-time, meaningless job she can find as a waitress in a seedy bar, surprised to find how attracted she is to the life that she finds there. “The attraction was that none of the rules from my old world applied. With everything I saw, everything I did, I felt that doors were opening. My life had been so orderly, such a careful, responsible progression, one polite step leading logically to the next. In this crummy, second-rate world, I had a sense of liberation, of possibility, and I embraced even its most tawdry aspects.” And if just that much change makes her feel so much better, so much more on the right track, the next step is obvious. Telling one lie to her husband and another to her mother, she simply disappears. And when she reappears in Cambridge, Mass. she changes her name (ironically to Felicia), and moves into a kind of city commune. The year is 1968, and what awaits her is, indeed, a new life, a new identity. In the frenetic freedom of those times, she is reborn.

Of course many of us were 'finding' ourselves in the sixties and seventies, and usually without quite the great escape performed by Jo. What impresses me is how Miller gets at so much of what was good about that time, the ways in which people were, in fact, allowed to cast of convention, cast off they-self images, and fashion new selves. Or so it seemed, so it felt.

But this is not simply a novel about the seventies. Indeed, it is only in a rather lengthy retrospective that we are treated to her insights on those times at all. The novel begins with Jo at about mid-life, three daughters grown and gone, a neat and successful life. She is a veterinarian, married to a liberal New England preacher, and again behaving as she is expected to, and as she expects herself to. A chance encounter reminds her of that earlier life and of how it ended, and a new kind of existential itch launches her into another period of wondering and worrying. When she tries to tell her husband how this accidental reunion with her past has disturbed her equilibrium, he is so busy with his own life, with the 'real' problems of his parishioners, that he simply cannot hear her. Instead, he passes of her angst as simply a fleeting crush on this man, Eli, who has reappeared from her past, and while he is not all wrong, he certainly misses the deeper issues.
But here's what I thought: that if I had a crush, it was on an earlier Eli, one who didn't exist anymore, and the real Eli was just a vehicle for it. Or, perhaps even more complicated, that the crush-if you could call something so psychologically distorted by such a playful name-was on myself. The middle-aged Eli contained for me, of course, his youthful self, yes. But he contained me also. The self that had known him then. Myself-when-young. And that was what made him attractive to me. You read or hear every now and then of a romance starting up between middle-aged or even elderly people who knew each other years earlier. People who throw over long-established marriages or sensible lives for the chance to love again in a particular way-a way that connects them with who they used to be, with how it felt to be that person. And now, with Eli's arrival in my life, I could understand the potency of that connection. The self-intoxication you pass of to yourself as intoxication with someone else.
And it is this theme that controls the rest of the novel, although there are plenty of insights about being a parent, about how sex ebbs and flows in long-term relationships, about the constant struggle that occurs even in successful marriages. In search of some lost self, or some new self that very much needs to emerge, Jo begins to drift from her husband, begins to entertain other possibilities, to think of herself as someone capable of infidelity, of intrigue. And this leads to other questions, both abstract and personal. What constitutes fidelity? What does it really mean to break faith? Is wanting but not doing already a kind of disloyalty? Is telling on yourself at the stage of imagination a kind of loyalty? Suppose you try to act on an impulse, but fail-is this, itself, an act of infidelity? These are the sorts of questions that Jo asks herself, and ones that Sue Miller asks her reader. I think she does an excellent job of probing a kind of innocent existential restlessness that is not confined to the middle aged (or any age), but that certainly arises often enough when lives seem for the most part settled. One of the wonderful aspects of this novel is that Miller does not presume to answer her own questions; she is perplexed by them, and I think wants her readers to be perplexed, to be shocked out of any easy and offhand answers.

There is also a mystery that plays behind the scenes in this book-one that I have no intention at all of giving away. But while the jacket cover makes much of the mystery, and while it does play a pivotal role in the novel, I'm certain that for Miller it is simply a vehicle for raising larger and more important questions. I loved this book from the very moment I picked it up; the writing is superb, the psychological insights plentiful. And she leaves us with intricate, wonderful questions. Her summation:
But perhaps this is all to the good. Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be-even about yourself-may not be.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I want to depart a bit from my usual course this morning and talk to you about a book on writing written by the writer Anne Lamott. The book is entitled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I always assume as I give these little pieces that they are addressed to readers, passionate readers, and I find myself personally offended when friends assume that because I’m such a reader, I must also want to write. Indeed, some even imply that my being so addicted to reading must entail that what I really want to do is write, reading being a sort of pale counterfeit. Those who can do, and those who can’t read, or some such mantra. In fact, I am primarily a reader; if I believed in teleology, I’d even say that I was meant to read. Still, even I have to admit that there are those moments when I want to write, not simply that I want to have written something (a very different desire), but that I want to write. Anne Lamott speaks to those of us who have some such deep desire, urges us to come out of the closet, and to write. She is quick to insist that her book is not a book on the technical aspects of writing, nor on the whys and hows of getting published. If it is that sort of book one is looking for, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers is a much better source. No, Lamott wants simply to talk to us about writing, and she does it with the humor and compassion that we have come to expect from her fiction. This is not a great book, but it is a lot of fun to read, and I think it just might liberate some of you enough to get you to put pen to paper, or, more likely, fingers to keyboard.

What I like most about this book (besides the warm, good humor) is Lamott’s insistence that wanting to write and wanting to get published are two very different things, and also that getting published is not the kind of salvation that many aspiring writers take it to be. In her words, “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.” The other point that she returns to over and over is that, as Doris Lessing has said (though much more acerbically than Lamott), the difference between writers and those who want to be writers is that writers write. Having grown up with a writer father, she had someone around to advise her in what I think are just the right ways. Take on little projects; don’t worry about where the piece is going or who will read it, or whether it will get published.
Do it every day for a while,’ my father kept saying. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.
Those of you who write know that this is good advice, and just the sort of advice to give someone who is wondering how to start. I remind my students all the time that writers simply are not born, that wanting to be a writer will not, as if by magic, allow one to sit down one day and write a great novel. Writing takes practice, just as any skill or craft takes practice. And if you don’t like the practice, then you don’t really like writing. The secret, in the end, is to fall in love with writing in much the same way that you fell in love with reading. The more writing becomes something that you want to do, even that you have to do, the more likely it is that you will write and keep writing.

I like also that Lamott keeps these two passions, these two skills of reading and writing, closely linked. Indeed, she insists, “… becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” Ah, how nice. That is just the way in which I generally try to turn things around when I talk to readers and writers. Don’t think of reading as a means to some greater end (writing or teaching or being an expert) but as a kind of end in itself. And the same for writing,
The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them.
You will have to read Lamott to understand just how thoroughly she distinguishes these two urges, and how much she wants to warn writers not to expect too much from getting published. If one writes only or primarily to get published, then once the goal is reached, you may very well expect a kind of deliverance that is just not there, and you might also, having not been saved or delivered as you had hoped, stop writing, and that will be the failure—a kind of failure that not getting published will never be.

Along with urging us to take on small projects, one bird at a time, Lamott also warns us against the ever-lurking danger of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
Ah, and that first draft, no matter how bad, that is the key—the key to the second draft, the key (in case there is one) to the finished piece, and most importantly, the key to unblocking, to moving from wanting to be a writer to wanting to write.

And what, in the end, is the task of the writer? What is it that s/he is supposed to be doing. About this question, Lamott does not dance around, does not evade; she is unafraid. The goal, the end, is to tell the truth. Heidegger may take more time to say it, and may say it in more tortured and obscure language (as he tells us that the artist makes truth happen, that s/he brings being out of concealment, discloses being), but he is no more passionate nor certain than Lamott that the obligation of the writer is to tell the truth. Bravo! It is not very fashionable these days to talk of truth at all, not unless you are willing to talk only of ‘my truth,’ or ‘your truth,’ of something’s being true-for-me. I applaud Lamott for not simply trying to sidestep this issue or to qualify it in every way possible; instead, she announces it as intuitively obvious—the end is to tell the truth. Now, of course, the writer’s way of telling the truth, especially if that writer writes fiction, is roundabout. Just as Lily Tomlin, masquerading as the little girl in the rocking-chair, talks with disgust about her parents who accuse her of making things up, which she doesn’t do, since making things up is lying, and she doesn’t lie. Still, Tomlin adds, “But you can make up the truth, if you know how.” Lamott gives us much the same message,
This brings us to the matter of how we, as writers, tell the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. I suppose the basic moral reason for doing this is the Golden Rule. I don’t want to be lied to; I want you to tell me the truth, and I will try to tell it to you.
This is a good little book, and fun to read. I think she just may succeed in showing you that it is also (at least sometimes) fun to write. Write for your children or your family or your friends. Take on small projects (without thought of publication) and finish them. And then read some more.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. It is quite fitting that this excellent novel begins with a quote from Jane Austin's Northanger Abby, since McEwan comes about as close as anyone I can think of to the emotionally and psychologically rich prose of Austin. I can't tell you how much it surprises me to say that, since one of the main reasons I so seldom read male authors is that I see a kind of emotional paucity in their writing. Not only does McEwan capture the rich emotional life of a family, he writes very convincingly through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl, Briony, and of her twenty year old sister Cecilia. Indeed, the novel opens with Briony's view of her extended family and her worries about the production of her just finished play, and I found myself immediately hoping that the entire novel would be written through her eyes. A wonderfully clever and perceptive child, but for this reader at least, an utterly convincing voice; I could hear her and picture her from the very first pages.

In the early pages it seemed this would simply be a story about family life, the intellectual and philosophical awakenings of a young intellectual, and her struggle both to remain a child and to be accepted into the adult world. And certainly that is a strand in the novel, but it turns out to be about so much more. We readers are introduced next to Cecila, the older sister, having just returned from a comparatively new women's version of Cambridge, still more finishing school than the more intellectually rich and profession-directed men's schools, but nevertheless a new-age woman-one who reads and thinks and wonders and smokes in public. Again, the moment I saw the world through Ceclia's eyes, I hoped that she would remain a pivotal character. The introduction to the mother, Emily, is also complex and seductive, and it is not until Robbie Turner is introduced that we get a male's-eye view of the household. Robbie is the son of a servant, but one who has been given special status from childhood, his education paid for by the family, and who is situated between two worlds, neither of which he can quite claim as his own.

The novel begins in England in 1935, and though in many ways it remains simply a kind of morality tale about the complex relations within this one family, it is also a story about the horrors of war. The lovely, sweet, innocent beginning of this book does not at all prepare the reader for either the horrible mistake that catapults the family into inflexible divisions nor for the intensely descriptive and awful scenes of a Europe at war. Book two opens with Robbie in the French countryside, both British and French troops on full and desperate retreat from the advancing German armies. The war scenes, so unlike the glorified and utterly fictionalized Hollywood versions of World War II, are as wrenching and difficult to plow through as any descriptions of war I can remember. McEwan captures the chaos and absurdity of war, the stench and filth, blood and guts of it in a way that I think we very much need to see right now as so many suffer from an even more absurd war waged for so much less good cause. It was as hard to turn the pages, to keep reading this part of the novel, as it was delightful to read Book I, and if McEwan succeeds in giving a women's eye view of the world in his introduction, he certainly succeeds in giving a man's-eye view in Book II.

What I have not even mentioned yet is the incident that weaves this tale together, connecting the thirteen year old Briony at its beginning with the seventy-something successful author at its end. And I'm not going to say much about it; you will have to discover the mystery for yourselves. Suffice it to say that McEwan understands very well how so much of what we call perception of the world is really simply seeing what we are prepared to see, what in some sense we want to see. And how one fairly simple miss-perception, one mostly unintentional falsehood, can alter the lives of so many so irrevocably. Existentialist writers are quick to remind us how our acts transcend us and that we are (in some deep sense) responsible for the unforeseen consequences as for the foreseen. Good intentions are not the same as good acts, and apparently simply mistakes, simple misrepresentations, can have horrific consequences. Briony spends a lifetime living with the consequences of one well-intentioned miss-seeing, one that breaks apart a family and sets in motion a series of events all of which so completely transcend the moment.

But instead of revealing anymore to you potential readers, let me quote just one passage from early in the book, one that captures so much about the awakening of self, about the power of imagination, and about transitioning from child to adult, indeed, one that describes in such a lovely way the birth of a philosopher. Briony has just abandoned her role as playwright, given up on the her hopeless cousins as actors and taken out her frustrations by beating down nettles with a stick-the nettles representing all those around her who have frustrated her ambitions, her grand plans, each nettle representing some flesh-and-blood figure, and only slowly does she return to the real world.
She was becoming a solitary girl swiping nettles with a stick, and at last she stopped and tossed it toward the trees and looked around her.

The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse. Her reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual. It was difficult to come back. Come back, her sister used to whisper when she woke her from a bad dream. Briony had lost her godly power of creation, but it was only at this moment of return that the loss became evident; part off a daydream's enticement was the illusion that she was helpless before its logic: forced by international rivalry to compete at the highest level among the world's finest and to accept the challenges that came with preeminence in her field-her field of nettle slashing-driven to push beyond her limits to assuage the roaring crowd, and to be the best, and, most importantly, unique. But of course, it had all been her-by her and about her-and now she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself shrinking under the early evening sky ... In a spirit of mutinous resistance, ... she decided she would stay there and wait until something significant happened to her. This was the challenge she was putting to existence-she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance.
I remember such heroic moments, such not so childish frustrations. I think McEwan will return you to your childhood, and he will also teach you the meaning of atonement.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Passing On by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about another book by Penelope Lively, this one entitled Passing On. My tendency when I discover a really good writer is to keep reading them, book after book, until I think I have gotten from them what I can. In Lively's case, I think I will simply read all that she has written, including even her fairly long list of children's stories and her non-fiction. Incidentally, one of those non-fiction books is titled The Presence of the Past, and certainly if there is a single theme that runs through all of her work, it is that of temporality—of how we carry the past with us, how our memories distort and refashion the past, and of how we live simultaneously in the past, the fleeting present, and anticipations of the future. Her understanding of lived time is, I think, unparalleled.

This novel, as the title suggests, is about a death and how that death affects the lives of the living. The lead character, Helen, is in her fifties and has lived almost her entire life at home with her mother, as has her younger brother Edward who is in his forties. I suppose one could say that the main theme of this novel is the influence that Dorothy, the mother, has had on these two now grown children and on how they cope with her death. One other child, Louise, more rebellious and more social than her older siblings, has escaped the home and small English village, but, of course, has not escaped either her genes or her upbringing.

Helen watches her mother being put into a hole in the ground, and then begins the long process of experiencing the hole, the vacuity in her life. All who have experienced the death of a really significant person know that the relationship between them, the conversation, does not end with death. It is Helen's relationship with her mother that the reader gets most fully and clearly, both in memories of the past and in the daily struggle after her mother's death.
During the ensuing days Helen felt as though her mother were continuously present in the house as a large black hole. There was a hole in Dorothy's bedroom, in the bed where she was not, on which, now, the blankets were neatly folded and the cover spread. There were various other holes, where she stood at the kitchen table preparing one of those unappetizing stews, or shouting instructions from the landing or inspecting a caller at the front door. There were perambulant holes in which she creaked down the stairs or came in through the front door. Almost, Helen stood aside to let her pass or maneuvered around her large black airy bulk as she occupied the scullery or the narrow passage by the back stairs. It was weeks before Helen could walk straight through her, or open her bedroom door without bracing herself for the confrontation.
Quite obviously, this was not a mother who was sweet and attentive and missed now because of her kindness. The question Lively poses for the reader is why this aging man and women have stayed with a mother whom they saw as oppressive and selfish and whose bleak presence in their lives continues even after her death. It is not a simple story, nor does the blame rest simply on the dominating mother. Both 'children' are, in complicated and interconnected ways, complicit in their imprisonment; both in some sense or other give Dorothy her power over them. Indeed, she seems (at least in the memories of her children) to have been quite indifferent about whether they stayed or left—as indifferent to them as to most of the world around her.
.... she had no interest whatsoever in people as such. She was expert and scholarly in disposing of extraneous material; there was the world which related to her, to which she had been or to whom she had spoken, and there was the rest, which was irrelevant. Needless to say, she could not see the point of history and ignored politics. As Helen, Edward and Louise grew up they had come to recognize their mother's outlook for what it was. They realized with discomfort that she was not so much egotistical as fettered-trapped within a perpetual adolescence. She moved for ever within a landscape whose only point of reference was herself.
As always with Lively, there are a number of important, overlaying themes in this novel with the main story-line in many ways simply a convenient hook for everything else she wants to address. There are questions of wealth, of the great divide between haves and have-nots, and the ways in which media culture keeps the desire for material possessions sharp and keen whether or not one has the money to buy them. Dorothy, as shallow and selfish as she is many ways, is simply not acquisitive, does not care much for what she does not have, and (in the eyes of the villagers) stubbornly and foolishly holds onto a piece of land that could be subdivided and sold for a small fortune, could render her one of those who is able to buy and buy, and thus become important, adored, respected. The oddly reclusive Edward lives much of his life in this small patch of 'wild' land (named, for reasons no one knows, The Britches), and he seems to care for nothing but the wild life that he encounters and cultivates there. Through Edward, Lively is able to raise a host of environmental questions without seeming to preach and quite within the development of his character.

Even as these two odd characters begin to struggle away from the influence of their now dead mother, she remains behind, scolding and berating. Helen, at fifty-two, begins to develop a relationship with a widowed attorney, and finds herself in constant conversation with Dorothy about her silliness, her gullibility, her plainness. Helen is stunned by the intensity of sexual feelings she has imagined to be long since dead and by what she sees as an adolescent obsession with questions of when he might call, what he thinks of her, when he might touch or caress her, and she imagines her mother's smug responses to her teenaged reactions.

And one other theme that Lively raises, flirts with, causes her reader to worry over is that of how the intense homophobia of the dominant culture shapes and constricts the lives of homosexuals. Students and friends of mine have sometimes expressed surprise, puzzlement, even shock over what they consider to be inappropriate and surprising choices gay people have made in acting on sexual impulses. Lively so skillfully and subtly points out in this novel that it is the dominant, heterosexual culture that determines the parameters of choice for homosexuals-shows us how homophobia creates guilt in young gay people, causes them to repress their quite natural inclinations, to struggle with themselves in ways that can lead to humiliation and disaster when the fiercely repressed urges manifest themselves at the wrong time or towards the wrong person. I don't want to give away much of the plot-line here, but I think Lively presents some of these issues in wonderfully lucid ways.

I have talked to you about a number of Lively's excellent novels, and although I intend to read all that I have not, I probably won't review her other works for you. Let me say once more that I think Lively is one of the finest writers I have ever read; I always seem to learn from her—about politics, archeology, biology, relationships, temporality. I think she is a brilliant person, and what luck for us that she is still living and still writing. You won't find much action in her novels, no sex or noisy adventure, but you will find a lot to think about and to worry over. I know that I have.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about the author Ian McEwan, and in particular about his Booker prize winning novel Amsterdam. I have to admit that I don't read a lot of books by white, male authors, maybe because I read too many of them in my early years, especially early college days, and too few women and minority writers, and now I'm simply making up for the omission. But actually I think I read mainly women authors because they are better writers and because they have much more emotional intelligence than most male authors. At any rate, Ian McEwan is an exception to the rule; he writes beautiful prose, and he manifests a deep understanding of humans and of their complex relationships.

As usual, I am many years late in coming to read and appreciate McEwan. Were it not for a wonderful niece of mine who reads at a pace at which I can only marvel and Robert Mercer with whom I have shared books and authors for many years, I would not have read McEwan at all. The book everyone recommended to me was his 2001 novel, Atonement, and that is indeed a wonderful book. Unfortunately, about half way through that book, the rains returned to Portland and my copy, left on an outside table, was so thoroughly soaked that I had to give it many days to dry out. By then I was so impressed with his writing that I immediately picked up another of his books I had on hand, and I read it through in the way that great books deserve to be read.

Penelope Lively, whom I have talked about several times in the last year or so, is keenly interested in the many ways that memory deceives us-how we create what we call memory, bending and distorting according to the veil of our own cares and concerns. McEwan, too, is interested in the ways that our self-absorption affects what we see or think that we see, the manner in which even that which we immediately perceive is filtered through the lenses of our predispositions, our wants and needs and fears, resulting in our 'seeing' simply what we are prepared to see, what we want to see. Furthermore, the moment that we report those perceptions to others, our own accounts transcend us, taking on a life of their own; those accounts, whether true or false, are loosed into the world, and all too often wreak havoc on those around us.

There is enough mystery and plot complexity in Amsterdam to make me even more cautious than usual about giving away too much in my attempt to entice you into reading it. But I can tell you a bit about how the story begins without giving away much.

In many ways this is a simple story: Two life-long friends begin to reflect together about the life and tragic death of a woman with whom both had been lovers; indeed, it is via their relationships with this woman that they had become best friends. The men, Vernon and Clive, go together to the funeral of their ex-lover, Molly. As others gather in a group to mourn the departed, Vernon and Clive remain apart to share fond memories of Molly and to renew and feed their hatred of George, the husband of Molly, and her caregiver through the course of a horrible disease which deprived her first of her memory, her self, and then of her life. They hate him because they see him not as a loving caregiver to Molly, but as her captor, controller; never able to control her (or her affairs) when she was her brilliant and beautiful and powerful self, once she is helplessly ill and in his clutches, he does not help her to die easily and with dignity, but instead holds onto what remains until she withers away. “He got her finally, when she couldn't recognize her own face in the mirror. He could do nothing about her affairs, but in the end she was entirely his.”

Clive, a famous composer, and Vernon, editor of a slowly fading but still well known newspaper, make a compact never to allow the other to suffer such a demeaning death, and the plot is set. Now McEwan skillfully, almost playfully, allows us to see the world through the eyes of each of these relatively powerful and totally self-absorbed men. Of course, neither sees himself as self-absorbed or even as selfish. Instead, each sees himself as a kind of public servant, using his gifts to better the world in whatever small ways he can. And while Clive secretly thinks of himself as a genius, perhaps worthy of comparison even to the greats, he would never think to make such claims public. Let others judge when his lifelong opus is complete. George, too, sees himself as a kind of modern day Socrates who, instead of acting so as to augment his image, his power, his fame, pares away his own needs, his own thirst for recognition, becoming almost a non-entity as he struggles to reveal to the world the truth. If he is important at all, if he has any role to play in the shaping of history, it is simply through his selfless devotion to the truth, to journalism as it ought to be.

In the course of revealing to the reader the world as seen through the eyes of these eminent personalities, McEwan asks a number of interesting questions. Is it right to betray the trust of a friend, the now dead Molly, in order to publicly humiliate a political figure who is about to assume a role of great power, and who will use that power to aid the wealthy and harm the poor? Is it right to bring such a person down by playing on the homophobic fears and prejudices of the they-self, the mob?

How much luxury and ease of living are warranted by one's talents, by the gifts that the artist can bestow on the world via his skills? Is the composing of a piece of music, perhaps even a great piece of music, worth turning a blind eye to the pain of others? Suppose at just the crucial moment of composition, that magic moment when the muse is moving inside one, releasing the key to an entire symphony, perhaps the crowning achievement of an entire life, an act of violence is occurring before one's eyes, perhaps even an act of rape, ought one to sacrifice that moment, that achievement in order to attempt to help the victim, perhaps ineffectually?

McEwan teases the reader with such questions, teases himself as a novelist with questions about the importance of doing art as the world burns. And while his themes are serious and his insights important, there is a levity about his work that I find refreshing. Somehow, he manages to mix tragedy and comedy in ways that are not offensive or jarring. His ability to write in different voices is impressive. He convinces me totally when he writes through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl in Atonement, and is equally convincing in the same book seeing through the eyes of a British soldier suffering the incredible ugliness and brutality of war. The voices in Amsterdam are distinct and real, and the distortions of memory, of what gets called perception, stunningly revealed by McEwan's wonderful skill with words.

Somehow (though I can't say just how) I am reminded of Jane Austin when I read him, and I see that as high praise indeed. I think I have learned from him; I think you will too.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about the latest book of an author who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living novelists, as well as one of the very best of the last hundred years. Her name is Penelope Lively, and the book is The Photograph, published in 2003. It seems incredible to me that I did not even discover Lively until a few years ago when I stumbled across her Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger (published in 1987), but since then I have read so many of her intricate novels. Martin Heidegger insists that we are beings in time, indeed that this is one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. But while philosophers from Hegel onward have insisted on the paramount (and generally neglected) importance of temporality, it is novelists who have spelled out just what it means to live in time, to be that strange combination of animal who simultaneously lives in the past, hurls towards a future, and takes too little note of the always vanishing present. Lively understands not only how we are caught and suspended in time, but also has an astute sense of time on a non-human scale-of paleontology, geology, archaeology. I think of her as primarily a philosopher, an intellectual who is intent on doing a kind of phenomenology of time, especially lived time—her stories meant more as a way of telling us about the human condition than to catch her readers in merely clever plots.

In The Photograph she takes up (as she so often does) the whole idea of history. Is there such a thing as objective history? Is memory a reproductive faculty, like a camera, or is it, instead, more a creative faculty, fashioning out of the helter-skelter of sensory input a story that it tells and retells to itself until it finally seems more real than the hodge-podge of daily experience? The story begins innocently enough with a landscape archaeologist/anthropologist rummaging through his old files in search of a particular piece of data needed for some current project. That he is looking through this particular pile of the past is happenstance; he may well have lived out his life without ever sorting through this stuff again. And again, that out of some forgotten folder a packet should fall and catch his attention is pure chance. What catches his attention is the hurried scrawl on the outside of the packet written in his dead wife's handwriting, and even that would not have diverted his usually well focused scholar's attention had it not carried the inscription “Don't Open-Destroy!” That is simply too tempting. Not one to have listened very carefully to his wife's injunctions even when she was living, he quickly, if distractedly, opens the packet and discovers among a collection of personal detritus a single photograph, and in that moment's discovery alters not only his own life, but the lives of many others in his circle of family and friends.

Iris Murdoch and Penelope Lively love to display for their readers just how simply one's supposed past can, in an instant, be overturned, scrambled, destroyed. The photograph is innocent enough, simply a gathering of friends on a weekend outing, two of the gathering with their backs to the camera. Only a second and longer look shows that these two are holding hands behind their backs, and hence begins an earth-shattering, a past-shattering, a life-shattering tale. The woman is his wife, Kath, the man his brother-in-law, Nick. And now the reader is treated to the experience of how this bit of data disrupts the lives of the husband, Glyn, Kath's sister, Elaine, Elaine's husband, Nick, and a host of friends. I could open to dozens of passages in which Lively skillfully, mischievously displays for her readers the tricks of memory, the mysteries of time. I will consult just one in which the sister, Elaine, ruminates on the photograph.
Elaine looks back at the photograph. Something strange is happening-to her, to the figures that she sees. She sees people who are familiar, but now all of a sudden quite unfamiliar. It is as though both Kath and Nick have undergone some hideous metamorphosis. A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different. The reflections are quite other, everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery. What was, is now something else.
And hence begins an analysis of just what history is, what memory can and cannot do, and how lies and deceit can reach suddenly into the past to restructure, rearrange, destroy. The woman in the picture, Kath, is dead, but not in the hearts and minds of those with whom she lived. A kind of hero to her sister's daughter, Polly, a kind of frustrating enigma to her hardworking older sister, Elaine, and a thoroughly kind and benign presence to almost everyone else that she has lived around, all of whom have some sort of investment in keeping intact their private pictures of the past.

As usual, I intend to reveal nothing more of the story than this skeleton, which the reader would discover in reading just the first few pages of this short but wonderfully complex novel. Let me introduce just one other theme that Lively takes up and worries in this book (such an excellent one for the busy city-reader, easily read in a weekend or a few evenings of concentrated attention). How much difference does it make if a woman is really, really pretty, and are the consequences of such arresting good looks the same for a man as for a woman? In the passage I will read, it is the niece, Polly, who is worrying the question, but the reader discovers as the book unwinds that Lively has had this question in mind all along, and that she wants us to think hard about it. In this scene, Polly has just reported to a friend that Kath had always been told that with her good looks she just must go in for acting.
I mean, that's so stupid. The idea that what a person looks like decides what they ought to do. You might as well say that red-haired people should drive London buses. And it happens to women more than men. Above all it happens to ultradecorative women. A good-looking guy can ride it out. He can end up as prime minister, or governor of the Bank of England, or whatever you like. I'm not saying that they do, but you get the point. If a girl is very, very pretty, then that's going to put a particular spin on everything that happens to her. She's privileged, but there's a sense in which it's a curse as well. She's directed by her looks. In Kath's case the actress stint meant that there was no college, no learning how to do anything, just muddling along until that becomes a way of life.
And how much do her good looks have to do with her marrying the distinguished scholar, Glyn? How much to do with the photograph itself? How much to do with an entire life and all its existential questions?

Certainly, I'm not going to tell you, but Lively tells you lots and leaves lots for you to ponder and worry over. This is a treat of a book; the reader learns from it in spite of herself.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger

I want to depart a bit from my usual habit this morning in that I will briefly mention to you two excellent books, either or both of which I might review at a later time, and then talk to you about a third book that troubles me some. As I have said before, there are so many wonderful books out there that I would find it odd to discuss bad or even mediocre books. While it might give some reviewers pleasure to criticize and dissect books, especially popular ones that they find lacking, I prefer simply to recommend some of the many really good ones. Another more personal explanation for my departure from habit is my tendency at present to start too many books and then read them sequentially and sporadically in a kind of balancing act that I think does not really do justice to the books nor make for the best reading experience. The last that I picked up and have not quite finished is a recent book by Penelope Lively, who in my opinion is one of the very best living novelists, and one of a handful of greats from the last hundred years. The title of the book is The Photograph, and it is perfect for the busy city reader since it can be read in just a few sittings. Lively understands time in a scientific and philosophical sense as well as in terms of lived time. She plays with and wonders about time in all of her many, excellent novels, including her Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, published in 1987. The Photograph, published just last year, seems to me to crystallize all of her many insights about the oddities and trickeries of lived time. A single photograph, discovered quite by accident as a professional landscape archeologist searches through some of his old documents, throws his entire history into disarray, and as his past is suddenly deconstructed, leaving him to reconstruct it, he manages to shake up the lives of many with whom he has shared history. What Lively calls into question is the very idea of an objective history, and certainly of memory as a reproductive faculty. Instead, as the philosopher Kant insisted and as Lively vividly demonstrates, memory is a creative, synthetic faculty only partially informed by what we think of as 'real' events. In a moment, perhaps from a single photograph, what seems to be indelible becomes plastic, kaleidoscopic. But this is enough of a hint for now. For those of you who are already Lively fans, this is a must read, and for those of you who have yet to discover her, this is a delicious and rather mischievous place to start.

The second book I want to mention and then hold in reserve for a future time is entitled Mating, and the author is Norman Rush. Unlike the short and quick to read Lively novel, this one is a major undertaking. The language is rich and almost laughable erudite; read it with a dictionary close to hand. Another wrinkle is that the lead character and narrator is a woman although the author is a man. Several of my friends suggested this novel as an excellent example of a successful attempt by a man to write from a woman's perspective. That contention I will leave to you readers to decide, although I may have something to say about it when I give a more detailed account. However, what I can say now is that the political content of this novel is complex and first-rate. Like several other books I have reviewed in the last year, this one is set in Africa and deals with questions of economic imperialism and the dire economic straits of third world countries. How could countries, long dominated and exploited by foreign market economies, wrest control from those who suck their lifeblood, consume their natural resources, and yet remain somehow viable economic entities in a world controlled by market forces? And furthermore, how could such a process even begin without centralized control and loss of individual liberties? This book is the best I have read since Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger on these incredibly complex economic and social questions, and it is quite a good love story as well. While it is a long and rather difficult read, it is well worth the effort, and deserves to be read in a sustained way rather than in snippets over months.

Finally I come to the subject of this month's review, Nina: Adolescence, a first novel by Amy Hassinger. I often choose first novels because they tend to be the best or among the best of any author's work, and they tend even more than most novels to be autobiographical. As I have said many times, I like to read novels about us-here-now. However, I hope this novel is not autobiographical. While it is very well written and quickly captivating, the content is, at the very best, disturbing. Of course, important books about real life are often, even usually, disturbing. But if I am going to be disturbed, I want to be disturbed for a reason. I want to be enlightened or warned or, at least, presented with important moral questions and dilemmas. Perhaps this is the author's intent with this novel, but I can't be sure.

I won't give away too much of the plot here, although what is disturbing about the novel is intimately tied with complexities of the plot. Enough for now to tell you that Nina, the adolescent who is at the center of the novel, is the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old daughter of a woman painter. Because of a tragedy that has occurred, the mother, Marian, has retreated to her bedroom and given up painting. Slowly, painstakingly, Nina lures her mother out of her bedroom and back to the studio, and in that process becomes her model for a series of nude paintings. As Nina had hoped, the work brings her mother back to life, both as artist and as a person in the world, and when the series of paintings is exhibited in a show dedicated to her work, Marian's career is resurrected. As one might guess, the father, Henry, is less than pleased that his teenaged daughter is the nude center of attention in these paintings. Even if the paintings are fine art, they can become pornography in the hands and eyes of a pedophile. And, sure enough, one of her mother's ex-lovers, Leo, does make a move on Nina. Under the pretense of simply befriending her, and then of taking photographs of her, he first kisses and pets her, and eventually lures her to his apartment. Nina is in that crease between girlhood and womanhood, but decidedly on the side of girlhood. Inexperienced with boys her own age and with dating of any kind, she is both flattered and repelled by the attentions of this handsome man in his thirties, and to complicate matters even further, Leo is in a position to help along the career of Marian by publishing a piece on her as an artist.

Why is this man so fascinated by this obviously young and inexperienced girl? And given his past experiences with Marian, the mother, what sort of twist is added to the mix? And even further, why is this story of seduction and use an important one to tell? In some ways, that the story is told so well simply compounds the questions. Elizabeth McCracken, an excellent novelist and one who seems to understand exploitation and abuse, says that this novel is “elegant, sad, often funny.....excellent.” Certainly it is convincingly told, and elegant in its simplicity and sparse language, but I as a reader waited for the moral message. While I do not expect justice and think of myself as a reader who understands the cruelty of the real world, I expect writers who dare to take as subject matter the horrible fascination (at least in this culture) of grown men for little girls to make it clear just how awful this fascination is and how devastating it can be for the victims. Perhaps the message is really there, and just too subtle for me to have picked up. Perhaps this is really autobiographical, and the voice of Nina is the voice of the artist who is struggling with her own past in writing this account, needing finally to voice her anguish and to sound a warning. If you happen to read this book and discover that it is I as reader who has failed to understand, I hope you will let me know. Or maybe, just maybe, like a piece of fine erotic art, this book is just so superbly fashioned that the disturbing elements are mitigated, even exculpated by the art itself. I can imagine that some of the paintings described are truly beautiful, and perhaps the beauty of the book comes first, the clear and articulate voice of Nina. For me, I simply became more and more disturbed, feeling not quite right even when I found the book interesting and beautiful.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Casa Rossa by Francesca Marciano

I want to talk to you this morning about what was for me a chilling little book by Francesca Marciano entitled Casa Rossa. If you are a frequent listener to the Old Mole, you may recall that I talked not so long ago about Marciano's first novel, Call Of The Wild. That book was about a band of journalists, film-makers, wildlife lovers and travelers living in Nairobi, and until the very end of that book, I thought Marciano might be simply one of the rather spoiled white American and European voyeurs who seemed unable to extricate themselves from the beauty of Africa and the comparatively luxurious life-style they were able to live there. In fact, towards the end of the book, I realized that Marciano was clearly critical of those whom she was describing and critical of the horrendous economic colonization of Africa.

This book too begins as a rather simple tale of an eccentric painter who stumbles onto a run-down villa in a tiny Italian village in Puglia which is located in the heel of Italy. Enchanted by the both the beauty and the isolation, he buys and restores the villa and surrounding land, and decides to escape the big cities of Europe once and for all so that he can live a hermit's life as a painter.

As usual, I don't intend to give you much of the story line, hopefully even less than you could get from reading the jacket cover (and I hope you are not in the habit of ruining the experience of books by reading the jacket covers). Suffice it to say that the painter marries a woman who quite soon escapes from him, but not before bearing a daughter whom she has to leave in order to find her own freedom. The daughter, Alba, in turn finally escapes from her father and the rural life by marrying a film producer who lives in Rome. Quite quickly, they have two daughters, and the novel is primarily about these two girls growing up in Rome with extended stays at the little village where there grandfather still lives and paints.

Again, I will not be telling you much that you would not discover in the first few pages if I tell you that the film-producer father commits suicide, setting up what seems in many ways to be a simple little mystery as the two daughters, grieving the loss of their wonderful father, try to decide why he died, suspecting from the first that their mother killed him, if not literally, then by causing him to despair to the point of suicide.

In fact, this book is about a lot more than these two lonely, seeking girls, though their loneliness and their journey make up the backdrop for a much bigger, heart-rending story of political struggle and the wild and often futile forms it takes when the enemy is huge and amorphous and armed with both lethal weapons and the vast legal machinery of the state. It came as a surprise to me how quickly and insightfully this novel turned political (just as it surprised me to when I began to get the picture Marciano was painting for the reader in Call of the Wild). The younger daughter, Alina, begins to flirt with Marxism and leftist politics, though in quite and innocent and diletantish manner, and then the older daughter, Isabella, partly in order to flee from what she sees as her sister's attempt to barge into her life and the troupe of dancers she is hanging with, enters into a much more serious and clandestine life of political activity.

Quite quickly, I realized as a reader that I was being afforded a window into the the political life in Italy in the late 70's and early 80's, a window that few Americans ever get from the standard press. All of us probably remember some of the sensational news about the Red Brigade and the series of political assassinations that occurred in Italy, but we probably know much less about the group trials that followed those acts or of the treatment of the prisoners who were detained, often enough, simply as material witnesses. Techniques that we have come to be all too familiar with, to some extent during the war in Viet Nam, and more recently in vivid form in Iraq. All who were arrested were held in strict isolation, questioned and grilled and at least psychologically tortured in various ways in the attempt to get or manufacture evidence against the rest. Often enough, those who actually perpetrated the crimes, the kidnappings and assassinations, buckled and made deals with the state, naming names and helping in the prosecution of others, receiving in return either light sentences or no sentences at all, while those who refused to betray their mates were convicted and given ridiculously long sentences as punishment for their silence. The standard ploy was to charge all arrested with all of the acts that had been done, using the threat of conviction on all charges as leverage to force information, to force each to betray all. So that if one was even loosely associated with a group, but refused to list all others whom they knew (or thought) to be in the group, he or she was tried on all charges leveled at the group.

Isabella belongs to one such group, and because of her integrity, her refusal to name names, she and others of her group who refuse to cooperate are tried on a host of charges. All who were arrested and charged were held in isolation and questioned relentlessly until the trials begin, and then housed in bullet-proof glass cages in the court rooms as the state presented its case, using the silence of those accused as proof of guilt. I suppose not so ironically, it is often those who are most directly responsible for the acts who cooperate with the prosecution, and those who are at most indirectly connected who band together, holding fast to their moral stance and to the guilt of the state, who refuse to break and betray. Their reward is, of course, outrageous blanket sentences.

I have to tell you readers that this is not a happy book, neither in the rather lonely and agonized lives of the two girls described, nor in the political scenes overviewed. In her book on Africa, Marciano noted how impotent the little band of white Europeans and Americans felt about making any real change in Africa, about doing anything to make things better. “We're like ghosts here; we can't contribute to anything, we don't really serve any purpose.” I suggested that Marciano may be talking not only of how powerless they felt, but also how easy it is to feel powerless and unable to effect real change anywhere in the world against the gigantic and ruthless and apparently nationless economic forces that seem to govern events. Marciano makes it clear where her heart is, but the reader feels her frustration as well. Quoting from the book as Alina thinks of her sister in jail, “I couldn't stop thinking about Isabella, how she had lost her faith, her identity, her lover, and now was losing her youth, all because of remaining faithful to her idea of integrity. And how she hadn't managed to change anything, to make the world remotely a better place.”

As I have done before, I want to warn readers that this is book that they should read when they are feeling strong. I think it has important things to tell us about the world, about political struggle, as well as about relationships and guilt and fidelity. There were times when I wished I had not begun it, just as there are times when I wish that I could turn away from newspapers and from the world out there. In the end, I think this is a book worth reading, written by an author who will continue to see things as they are and to struggle.

Monday, April 19, 2004

The Territory of Men by Joelle Fraser

I want to talk to you this morning about a searingly honest little memoir entitled The Territory of Men, by Joelle Fraser. Before I begin, let me say that given the events in Spain and the mounting worldwide protests against George Bush's war in Iraq, I might have chosen to talk instead to day about an excellent and powerful novel by an Italian writer, Francesca Marciano, called Casa Rosa. Marciano describes events in Italy during the sixties, seventies and beyond only hinted at by the American press that parallel and portend the events in Spain a few weeks ago. But rather than talking too quickly about two books, I'll put off the discussion of the Marciano book until another time and give Fraser's book its due.

Because I was so much a part of the sixties and seventies in this country, close to a number of loosely knit city communes as well as a few small groups who escaped from the city back to nature, I have often wondered about the children who grew up in those communes. Although I think the emphasis on free love and drugs has been overdone in recent descriptions of those times, nevertheless, I often wondered how children who are a product of this era have fared and how they believe themselves to have been molded by the times. Fraser offers us a very intimate and incredibly honest look at one child of the sixties.

Born in San Francisco in 1966 after an all night party, “... one that began in the morning and lasted all night and hasn't stopped for years,” Fraser's childhood not only bounces from apartment to apartment and city to city, but from father to father to father—her early introduction to the territory of men. There is something so matter of fact in her descriptions of her moves from Sausalito to inland California, and then to Hawaii, San Francisco, the Oregon coast, Portland that the reader can see clearly that she found this way of life to be simply the way things were, the way things are. She does not whine, does not tell us how much she resents her mother or the array of new men in her life; she simply describes. For a reader like I am, raised in the security of two parents, only one home I remember, and a community of familiar people, Fraser's early life seems almost unreal. I can only speculate about what sort of effect such a nomadic and unpredictable childhood would have had on me. Certainly my family, so many families, had very little more money than Fraser's, but I at least (and I think many of us who think primarily in economic terms) tend to forget the incredible importance (and dumb luck) of constancy and predictability in family life.

What Fraser learned at a very early age (when for many of us the biggest fear was the approach of kindergarten and a separation from the hovering constancy of a mother) was to appear as grown-up and self-sufficient as possible. This is what her mother needed from her, and this is what she gave. “In my experience, people had taken me for a small adult, much more capable than I was, and I felt the confusing pressure of that assumption like a constant wind.” By the age of seven, as the period of time with her second father was coming to an end, she had come to realize that when her parents were fighting the quiet of a strange motel room was preferable to noisy fights when her mother remained at home. And although this second man in her life had given her a kind of attention she had not experienced before, his leaving seemed inevitable, her move to yet another home a matter of course.

Instead of angry bitterness towards her mother, Fraser seems to have realized early (and still to believe) that her mother was doing what she had to do, and that there was much to be learned even in these circumstances.

Living with different fathers became its own kind of school, the trick being to figure out which lesson to go with. My mother did the leaving most often, and I learned from her how to tend to my happiness: I began to understand that the best way out of a bad choice is the door. Only now do I realize that at seventeen I had become like my mother—I had started my own pattern of leaving and starting over. She had taught me how to leave. What I never learned, and maybe never will, is how to stay.

A writer friend of mine who read an early draft of this review commented that there must have been some constancy, some dependable source of love for this woman to have emerged as whole and strong as she has and with such a clear voice. Upon looking over the novel again, I realized she was right—her biological father, though a lifetime alcoholic, was also a writer and a good, kind man. From him, she learned gentleness, learned to distrust the smug judgments of richer kids; she also learned that writing could be its own form of salvation.

I won't tell you too much about the string of homes and schools and men, the momentary alliances created with new friends only to be lost in a month or a year when circumstances dictated a new move—perhaps back to her biological father who, despite his alcoholism and usual pennilessness, was also warm and intellectually energizing. Instead, let me say that what impressed me most about this book, in spite of the very sad events, the chaotic hippy lifestyle of parties and drugs and constant, frenetic movement, is the wisdom and justice of Fraser in looking back over these times. I tend to be a bit suspicious of memoirs; as Fraser, herself, admits there is something self-indulgent about memoir writing. Still, if it is done well, it can tell the reader so much without being didactic or contrived. In Fraser's words:
With memoir writing, if you do it right, by telling the truth and doing it with a full heart, you'll feel naked, because a memoir requires you to be brutally honest. Otherwise it's like wearing sunglasses over a bruise: everyone knows you're hiding something and feels uncomfortable because of it.
Joelle Fraser has done it right, risking her family and her friends to do so. I'm not at all sure I would have the courage to write as honestly as she has. Besides her personal story, there is much in this little book about politics, about the brutal greed that has transformed Hawaii into a paved-over tourist attraction, about the grinding, pulverizing effects of poverty on children and adults, about the smug arrogance of economically fortunate children and families in their interactions with the poor, and the impossibility of the really poor to fit in or be accepted (no matter how hard they try or how bright and able they are). This is, in a sense, a political book, a social commentary, but with no pretenses, no grand claims. Rather, it is the eloquently told story of one girl, one woman in the territory of men.

Monday, January 05, 2004

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart

I usually talk to you about a book or two I have read recently, and I am going to mention one book later on. But I would like to talk to you a little bit first about reading. I'm almost certain many of you have, among your new year's resolutions, resolved to read more—a little twinge of guilt running through you as well as regret. City readers, folks who spend a great part of their waking life working a job, raising a family, making a life, sometimes feel a personal failing in not reading more. Something akin to scolding oneself for not practicing piano, or finishing a project. My advice to readers is to be gentle with yourselves. And not simply because you deserve it, but because you will end up reading more. I'm going to suggest quickly a few ways I think readers need to give themselves some slack, some permission. First, foremost, never stick with a book out of duty; never insist to yourself that you finish one book before you are 'permitted' to start another. At least in my own past, when I insisted on reading first what I in some sense 'had' to read, I simply quit reading--or at any rate slowed down, lost the love of reading. I've had the same experience with writing. Doris Lessing says that the moment a book does not hold your interest, you should drop it to the side and find another (there are so many!) You may pick up one of those dropped books years later when it will speak to you instantly. That has happened to me lots of times. Secondly, abandon forever the habit of insisting on finishing a book you've started at all. Walk out of a 'bad' book at least as quickly as you would out of a bad movie or a boring conversation.

While it's true that having four or five books going at a time is a sign that no one of them is quite pulling you into thoroughly experiencing it, better four or five, any one of which might 'catch fire' on the next page, than to risk your love of reading by sticking to a bad book.

If you haven't been reading for awhile, instead of challenging yourself with Moby Dick, start with a short book, so that you can give it a lot of attention for the few hours it will take to read it, increase the possibility of really getting inside the book (and outside yourself). Finishing books makes readers feel good, and also makes them much more likely to pick up another.

Don't put off novels until your 'really important reading' is done. Start reading what you most want to read with your best energy of the day, whether that's morning or night. Pick up your novel when you would usually pick up the paper. Part way through graduate school, bogged down by reading analytic and traditional philosophy, and literally on the edge of dropping out, wondering if I would ever recover my love of reading, I suddenly rediscovered novels. I began to carry a novel with me always, and I considered myself to be legitimately 'working' when I was reading it. I read a lot of novels in graduate school, but I swear I also picked up momentum and sustained concentration for the more demanding reading and writing I was doing. In a very real sense, it all became more interesting because of the commanding interest of the novels. Reading novels made me a better reader, period.

I could sum this all up by saying that when/if you love reading, you are bound to read more, so do what you have to do to keep that spark alive. Following these bits of internal advice has helped me; it might help you as well.

And now, having said all of this, I have to admit that I am in one of those periods where I have five books going simultaneously, several of which I think are quite good (and also very long). Still, I picked up another book yesterday, and I may well finish that one before I get back to the others, and with any luck I'll return to the others with new interest and vigor.

While I usually recommend novels to you, and try at least to choose books that have obvious moral and political significance, today I want to mention a delightful little memoir that may have the effect of sending you back to music, may even send you back to Paris. The name of the book is The Piano Shop On The Left Bank, and the author is Thad Carhart. Mr. Carhart is an American living in Paris, and shortly before he wrote this book, he dared to become a freelance writer, although I think most of his writing has been non-fiction more or less technical writing. He tells us in this book that he found himself more and more interested by a little shop he passed on his daily walk from taking his children to school. While the shop seemed to have equipment in the window having to do with pianos and piano-tuning, his brief visits inside discovered no pianos and rather obvious attempts to get him quickly out of the shop. Finally, because of his persistence and because the shop was about to change hands, he was invited to the back rooms, absolutely filled up with pianos of all sorts and all ages. Thus begins for Carhart a renewed passion for music, for piano, and for the close intimacy of French neighborhoods.

If you have ever played an instrument or been at all serious about vocal music, I think you would very much appreciate this book, and it may very well rekindle for you a passion to make music of your own. I have had a thirty year love affair with pianos, so I was bound to find this book very interesting. Quite honestly, I learned more about pianos from this little memoir than I had ever learned from my reading or my passionate journeys into piano stores. Carhart not only returns to piano, but also learns about music theory and about what goes wrong with most music lessons and most music teachers. I said above that habits we pick up regarding reading, habits we think are rooted in discipline and healthy senses of duty, often have the effect of destroying our love of reading. I think this is even truer of the study of music. Carhart points out that in his early music training, everything was geared towards recitals, and all students treated as if they were aspiring to be professional musicians. Carhart (like so many of us) feared and hated recitals, though from the first he loved the experience of sitting down at the piano to make sounds for himself. As he returns to the piano and also has the opportunity to select how his own children will be introduced to music, he discovers (at least in France) that there are teachers whose goal is not to produce professional musicians, but to launch children into a life of making music for themselves, training their ears and their hands not so they can perform for others, but so they sustain and cultivate their own love of music. I found myself excited by his discoveries, and I am already finding that several internal blocks I had to making progress with music-making are eroding. I think I know now what to look for in a piano teacher, and that it is not so much their excellence as musicians that counts, but their attention to teaching and to their students. I also have a new sense of what it means to train one's ear, as well as all the wrong things to say to children as they begin to make sounds.

While there is nothing profound of a political nature in this book, there is more about human psychology than one might expect, and a love of Paris and of a different way of living day to day than most of us have ever experienced. I loved this book, and I think the writing is smooth and clear and presented with an intellectual and musical humility that is refreshing. Oh, and it's also short, perfect for a long weekend or a few passionate evenings of reading.