Monday, November 28, 2005

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson

Isn’t it funny how little accidental meetings turn out to be main features in one’s life.
So muses Joan Anderson as she reflects back on her accidental but momentous meeting with Joan Erickson who, quite literally, steps out of a fog at the Cap Cod shoreline and begins immediately to bring Anderson out of a midlife fog that had seemed impenetrable.

As you may recall, Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst who studied briefly with Freud in Vienna, and then went on to develop a theory about stages of development in life, and, more importantly, about how identity is formed in these stages. His wife, Joan, was much more than a supportive companion and source of inspiration; she co-authored much of what he wrote, and was especially influential in what they took to be an eighth stage, expanded into a ninth by Joan after Erik died.

But Joan Anderson’s little memoir, A Walk on the Beach, is primarily about the relationship that sprung up between the two women when Anderson literally runs off to the seashore to try to reassemble her life. She is in her early fifties, Joan Erickson in her very vital early nineties. Erickson is there to look after and ease into death her lifetime love and partner Erik, which she does with a devotion and grace that is inspiring to read about.

I should say at once that this is a book about existential discovery, and like many such books, it needs to be understood in context. There is a very real sense in which many, even most, of the world’s inhabitants don’t have time for existential crisis or existential enlightenment. They are simply too busy eking out an existence in this economically cruel and unjust world. Self-help manuals invoking us to take charge of our lives, to become authors of our own destinies, can be downright insulting to people who are quite literally chained by daily necessity. Still, there are plenty of us who live well in the sense that we have enough: enough money and food, adequate shelter, even occasionally enough time. Indeed, we may even have time on our hands and wonder why we do so little with it. This memoir is about two such women; both are privileged in the sense that they do not have to worry about their next meal or their next paycheck. Erickson certainly could retire were she of mind to do so, and Anderson, too, appears to be seeking some sort of internal fulfillment rather than a career.

With that preface in mind, I think the advice that Joan Erikson offers Anderson, and all of us who are troubled by a particular internal angst, is right on the mark, and Erickson lives her advice rather than merely giving it.

Let me back up enough to fill in the setting: Anderson has raised her children, nurtured a long and apparently successful marriage, and even managed a moderately successful career as a writer of children’s books. But somehow in the process, she has lost herself and her vitality for life. She is adrift. Her marriage she sees as stale; her children are successful and into their own lives, and she realizes that she has somehow confused serving with living. Says Erickson, “Having a husband can be such an alibi for a women; in the end she never lives her own life. I believe that a full life needs to be about self-cultivation.” Anderson realizes as she looks back at her own mother, grandmother, aunts, that they “allowed themselves few personal dreams and acted on even fewer.” She realizes that she has learned (from in most ways very good women) this gospel of living through serving. One of Erikson’s first lessons to Anderson is to play more. She applauds Anderson for having already broken one of the rules by taking herself away to the sea, but that is only the beginning. Erickson stresses “The importance of play all the way through life and how we all need to unlearn the rules that are set up for us by others.” Couples, too, she insists forget to play, and forget the necessity of solitude.

So many couples cling to what they have instead of moving on to what could be. You know the poet Rilke had it right when he suggested that the highest task for two people in a relationship is to stand guard over the solitude of the other ... I think our devotion to our routines causes us to lose sight of each other as separate individuals.
Besides (intentionally or otherwise) losing our sense of play, we also forget to sense the world.

We are taught early on to stop sensing the world. Parents say no to their toddlers all the time, when all their child wants to do is sense the world around him. Pity, isn’t it! Overdose on the senses is what I say, all the way through life.
Erickson is especially interested at this time of her life to talk to older people, those who have entered the eighth stage. She is convinced that people give into old age too easily, that they stop really caring for their bodies, stop playing, stop taking risks (both physical and emotional). Though she is certainly not the first to point this out, she insists that older people live too much in the past, too much through others (especially their children). “….we owe it to ourselves to create something out of nothing. It’s a weakness to just sit around and wait for a life to come to you.”

Erickson tells Anderson a little story about having bought a manual typewriter at some point in her life because she was writing a lot of poetry and prose. Erick caught on quickly that Joan and her typewriter could be of service to him; he gave her a letter to type, which she did gladly. But the next day there were three or four letters. This went on for a week, and then Joan simply gave away the typewriter. It was not long, she insists, before “he came to respect my role in my own life as much I respected his.” The little story helps Anderson to realize that she has always confused serving with loving. No wonder, Erickson continues, that so many women look around after their children have gone and wonder who they are and what they want to do.

There is so much practical wisdom in this little book, and she has a special message for us city-dwellers. Erickson is convinced that we have lost touch with nature, and lost touch so thoroughly that we have forgotten what we have lost, forgotten even to seek it out (and to keep our bodies in the shape they need to be in order to really be in nature). She insists that there is no substitute for nature, “without it you are doomed to a dull, lifeless existence.” I read this little book at the ocean, and in that setting, she seemed to be talking directly to me. Both Anderson and Erickson see themselves as giving a kind of summons, “to guide people back to themselves—get them out of the mold. The great loneliness is that most people don’t know who they are.”

Anderson looks in wonder at Erickson as she is celebrating her ninety-fifth birthday, her body finally failing her some, but still vibrant and joyful. “Joan looks around like an expectant child, living in the openness to the wonder of being alive, no matter how much longer.” She is asked by some in the throng who are there to wish her well what she would have to say were this her last day.

Make time for play each day,’ she answered without giving the question a moment’s thought. ‘We’re asses if we don’t. Nobody is going to force you to—no one says go out and play. It’s a shame there is no philosophy of life anywhere that insists on play.’
And what about the ninth stage that Erickson discovers only in her nineties?

I really thought that when you got old you stopped learning: I thought it was a plateau. The fact that each day you learn something new never crossed my mind and that’s fun. So, I advise you to take care of yourself and let yourself grow old.
No doubt, good fortune had a lot to do with Erickson’s vital and joyous life into her nineties, but I have no doubt that her wisdom played a generous role. I have been talking about Joan Anderson’s tribute to Joan Erickson, A Walk on the Beach.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry

I want to talk to you this morning about two wonderful authors, and about how the books came into my hands, how most books come into my hands. Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry are two of the most inspirational authors and social critics around these days, and I think we are all lucky to inhabit the planet with them. Wendell Berry has been writing environmental/political essays, poems, and short stories for over fifty years now, and while I am not usually a reader of short stories (finding them tantalizing but somehow too quick), this set of five stories gathered together under the title of Fidelity is a wonderfully satisfying read. His writing is in so many ways simple and straightforward and yet so revealing of the human condition; his honesty and integrity show through as much in these stories as they do in his environmental essays. I’ll get back to the stories in a moment.

imageTerry Tempest Williams grew up in Mormon dominated southern Utah and is one of the first writers I know of who began to expose the horrible health problems brought about by the nuclear testing sites in Nevada (and, of course, denied by the government for many, many years). The book I want to talk about today is entitled The Open Space of Democracy, and includes among other things her Commencement speech at the University of Utah in 2003. I marvel at her bravery, reading a speech that was highly critical of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq in front of a crowd that contained many super conservative Mormons, including the Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett, who had been both a neighbor of hers and her Mormon Bishop. I, too, am a graduate of the University of Utah, and a refugee from Mormonism, but one who escaped Zion long ago and am thankful simply for the escape. I admire Williams for remaining in Salt Lake, for staying in the fray, for teaching at the University of Utah, and even (as far as I can tell) remaining a Mormon in what I have to suppose is an attempt to do her best to reform from within.

The Terry Tempest Williams book came to me from an old friend from Utah (one of my oldest male friends), himself raised in a Mormon household even more devout than mine. I glanced at it, put it in my hundred or so to-read stack where it may have languished for months or even years. Fortunately, my partner spied it, read it up in a day or two, and insisted that I put it back on top of my pile. She has ‘resurrected’ a half dozen or so of the books I have reviewed in the last few years. So often books come to me via friends and colleagues, and that is one of the reasons I continue to do these reviews—to act as a resource, a list.

Let me read you a few paragraphs from the Terry Tempest Williams volume, hoping to whet your appetite for more.

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech. Rhetoric masquerading as thought. Dogma is dressed up like an idea. And we are told what to do, not asked what we think. Security is guaranteed. The lie begins to carry more power than the truth until the words of our own founding fathers are forgotten and the images of television replace history .... We are no longer citizens. We are media-engineered clones wondering who we are and why we feel alone. Lethargy trumps participation. We fall prey to the cynicism of our own resignation.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.
Patriots act—they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply.
Williams reminds us that Thomas Jefferson believed in perilous liberty over quiet servitude, and she sees so clearly that those now in power would have us bound in quiet servitude.

She continues:

Since George W. Bush took the office of President of the United States I have been sick at heart, unable to stomach or abide by this administration’s aggressive policies directed against the environment, education, social services, healthcare, and our civil liberties—basically, the wholesale destruction of seemingly everything that contributes to a free society, except the special interests of big business.
What I admire about Williams even more than her heart and her vision is her willingness to act, to engage. After receiving a letter from Senator Bennett expressing his extreme disappointment with her commencement speech, she sent him a wonderful reply, agreeing to visit Baghdad with him if he would visit what had been wilderness areas in Utah opened by Bush and his business buddies for oil and gas exploration. He agreed to the bargain, and surprisingly, she seems to have won him over regarding the Utah wilderness. Williams worries that the Left too often is content to speak to the converted and simply to share with one another its anger and chagrin. In her words,

We are nothing but whiners if we are not willing to put our concerns and convictions on the line with a willingness to honestly listen and learn something beyond our assumptions. Something new might emerge through shared creativity. If we cannot do this, I fear that we will be left talking with only like-minded people, spending our days mumbling in the circles of the mad. I recall the words of William Faulkner, ‘What to we stand to lose? Everything.’ ... Politics may be a game of power and money to those who have it, but for those of us who don’t, politics is the public vehicle by which we exercise our voices within a democratic society.

Williams is more hopeful, more optimistic than I. Still, I think she is right to demand action and voices. She insists that,

We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist .... It is the passivity of cynicism that has broken the back of our collective outrage. We succumb to our own depression believing there is nothing we can do.
Turning now to the Walter Berry book, were Berry beginning his central story, “Fidelity”, as a philosopher, he might have begun with the question, “What is fidelity? What is it to be faithful to someone?” Instead, because he is a storyteller, we are told a story of a man, Burley, “a man who was freely in love with freedom and with pleasures,” now so ill that his kinfolk feel they must put him in hospital. The gravity of his condition soon leads to his being connected to machines that keep him living, more or less a captive of the hospital. And then what does fidelity demand? That they get him out, of course.

The story is about how they get him out, and then how they, as a community, stand behind the rescue, presenting a usually cordial but very stony and unified wall to the official investigators. Some of the passages involving the good-meaning detective, who comes questioning the townspeople about just how Burley was rescued from the hospital, show so clearly Berry’s understanding of how the power of, and impersonality of, business (using law as its accomplice) simply bowl over individuals, towns, communities. But not this community, these people stand and fight together. In each of the stories in this volume, Berry’s love for what get called simple country folk, his compassion for all people, glows out. I suppose in some way each of the five stories elucidates a different aspect of fidelity.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I would imagine that most of us have had the experience of waking rather suddenly to find ourselves enthralled with the quiet lightness of early morning, an unexplained thrill of anticipation and significance of the moment. Lying still for a moment, and then somehow almost called from our beds to wander in the house, careful not to awaken any of the sleeping—as much to protect our solitude as their sleep. And with just such an awakening, Henry Perowne, the hero of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, finds himself standing before a large window, a wide expanse of sky, as close to mystical experience as most of us will come, “exulting in the emptiness and clarity of the scene.”

But McEwan, like most good writers/thinkers that I know, wants to remind us at once about the fragility of happiness, of peace, of good fortune. From mystical rapture, Henry is jolted into the realization that the point of light in the sky his eyes are drawn to is that of a jet in flames, descending towards Heathrow. And so begins his Saturday, recalled to the present, to war and greed and terrorism.

McEwan is one of the buzz writers of our times, and in that sense I approach him rather suspiciously. But besides being an incredible word-weaver , and (I think) one who really understands the inner life, the lived life of the mind , McEwan also wants to talk to us, right now, right where we are in history. Specifically, he wants to discuss the post 911 world, through the eyes of a Londonite, but one who very much has his gaze on the larger world. The spokesperson for McEwan is a well-off neurosurgeon, married to a successful attorney, parents of two beautiful and successful children. Still, the outlook presented is thoughtfully liberal, due, no doubt, in no small part to McEwan as the eye behind the eye.

The internal dialogue that McEwan spins out, minutely, agonizingly, traveling through this long Saturday is simply stunning, at least to this reader who reads Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Henry James for just this internal-mind richness. What I appreciate most is the attempt in this book to come to grips with the world we now live in. Was 9/11 the beginning of a hundred years war? At least in a symbolic sense (the war having started long before 9/11) there seems to be such good reason for thinking so. And what are we to do, those in whose name war is waged? Those in whose name the third world is plundered and kept in economic slavery . How do we go about making some real changes , how do we slow the machines of greed, protected by government? What would real political action look like in the world as we know it?

I happened to be reading Terry Tempest Williams’ The Open Space of Democracy in the same time period as McEwan’s Saturday; while Williams book is clearer in its political wonderings, I was impressed by how both writers insist that somehow we cannot effect change without engaging in real dialogue with at least some of the ‘enemy’. There are good minded and good hearted people (with considerably more power than most of us) who (perhaps for confused and misguided) reasons identify with market interests. How do we reach those people, get them to use their energy and power for change rather than for shoring up the cruel and unjust status quo?

Henry is no friend of either Blair or Bush, and his children are firmly opposed to the war in Iraq, but because his medical practice has brought him into close proximity with some casualties of Saddam’s regime, he finds himself torn. A professor from Iraq whom Perowne has treated for an aneurysm on his middle cerebral artery has caused Perowne to reflect, even reconsider.

In the months after those conversations, Perowne drifted into some compulsive reading on the regime. He read about the inspirational example of Stalin, and the network of family and tribal loyalties that sustained Saddam, and the palaces handed out as rewards. Henry became acquainted with the sickly details of genocides in the north and south of the country, the ethnic cleansing, the vast system of informers, the bizarre tortures, and Saddam’s taste for getting personally involved, and the strange punishments passed into law—the brandings and amputations. Naturally, Henry followed closely the accounts of measures taken against surgeons who refused to carry out these mutilations. He concluded that viciousness had rarely been more inventive or systematic or widespread. It really was a republic of fear. It seemed to be clear, Saddam’s organizing principle was terror....
Much like Carol Shields’ final novel, Unless, in which she tried one last time to cope with the complexities and horrors of the modern world, McEwan seems to be thoughtfully engaged in questioning how we got to this world we now live in, and to lay out what hope there is to change things for the better. If there is not much in the way of solution in this novel, there is at least a sincere and interesting investigation.

Quite apart from the political questions that dominate this novel, there are also a lot of suggestions regarding philosophy of mind. Henry, neurosurgeon that he is, has no doubt that minds just are brains, that there is no ghost self apart from bio-neurological functions, and yet he understands the difficulties of explaining consciousness using a physical model.

For all the recent advances, it’s still not known how this well-protected kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn’t doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, thought it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes consciousness? He can’t begin to imagine a satisfactory account, but he know it will come.

For a novel that covers just a single day in the life of its narrator, this is a surprisingly rich read. The passages on religion (and Henry’s skepticism towards it), by themselves, make this novel worth reading. And I have not yet mentioned the ongoing conversation that occurs on the significance of poetry, the ‘war’ between the life of science and the life of imagination/fiction. McEwan seems to have researched his various topics thoroughly, and the writing is smooth and convincing. I have already read his other most recent novels, Amsterdam and Attonement, and after reading this one, I am tempted to go back to all or most of his early novels. He is a great writer with a very fine mind.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Illusionist by Dinitia Smith

Some of the ethicists (or moral philosophers) whom I admire most claim that being and doing good is more a matter of imagination than of deduction or analytic skills. Certainly, a kind of stubborn obtuseness, an inability or refusal to put oneself in the circumstances of another, is responsible for a lot of the immorality in the world.

In her powerful, short novel The Illusionist, Dinitia Smith describes in chilling detail what can happen to people simply because they are different and can be seen as Other—difference of color, of sex, of economic class, of ethnicity. Dean Lily, the lead character in Smith’s novel, is not only different; he also dares to conceal the difference. Suppose you were to awaken one morning to discover that you were somehow in the wrong body, and that those around you seem not to notice. Dean finds himself in just that condition every morning, a boy, a young man, who has always known himself to be a boy, but who happens to have the genitals of a girl, and who (much to his embarrassment) begins to sprout breasts in his teens. From the first, he understands and tries his best to get others to understand that there has simply been a mistake, a confusion. And as soon as he is able, he wanders away from his small, upstate New York town in order to be the person he feels himself to be.

Ah, but if being different is a sin in the eyes of the many, the they-self, how much worse to be different and to pretend to ascend to the throne of power, to pretend to be a man. Mere difference is one thing, and bad enough, but pretending to be one of the chosen, one of the elect, that cannot be forgiven.

Dean not only looks and acts like a gentle, attractive male, he also does magic tricks, and attracts attention with his smooth sleights of hand. Even the jaded, usually bored patrons of the local bar in Sparta, The Wooden Nickel, stop watching the football on TV, interrupt their desultory half-conversations with their neighbors to watch as the new guy in town performs feats of magic. If the men are as suspicious as they are interested, the women are simply interested. Chrissie loves Dean simply because he attends to her, notices her, with no sexual overtones at all. He moves in with her and immediately shares in household chores, and not on command, but simply seeing what needs to be done. Terry, older and tougher than Chrissie, already abandoned by one man and now raising an infant boy on her own, falls for Dean because of the attention he pays to her body, because he seems to be able to make love to all of her, and demands nothing in return. And if his careful attention to her and her needs were not enough, he also really attends to her son, plays with him, cares for him.

While Dean is not voracious, while he does not behave as most of the myopic men in town , counting each sexual encounter as a conquest, nevertheless, he does seem to need to have women fall for him. Melanie, the pretty and much sought after girl who already (at about the age of twenty) lives in reclusion with her mother, usually on the run from what she sees as the misguided interests of the men around her, falls for Dean because he does not have to touch her. Indeed, he refuses to touch her, worshipping her at arm’s length, loving her with a pure love that does not burn.

Smith gives us the story of each of these women, changing voices as she moves from character to character, and (in my estimation) makes each love believable. The reader can understand quite well just why each of these women finds Dean so attractive. And while there seems to be a kind of cruelty in Dean in his moving from woman to woman, from love to love, he seems not simply to be using them. When Melanie confronts him about his relationship with Terry, Dean does not deny his love for Terry; it is simply different from the love he has for Melanie. And he comes across with the same sort of innocence in a confrontation with Terry, neither denying Melanie nor seeing his love for Terry as inconsistent with other loves. If Dean is driven, it is not a drive for conquest, for collecting notches; rather, it is a drive to be a man, to be seen as a man. If women love him, then he must be a real man.

While the love stories in this little book are each convincing and somehow affirming, the reactions of the men are both ugly and predictable. Bad enough that this stranger shows up on the scene wooing with his acts of illusion, now the women are falling for him, and the men sniff a difference. This man does not fight when insulted; he hangs out with women instead of men. An outsider who is after their women, but worse than that, he is an illusionist who dares to pretend, who dares to ascendancy. Of course, he must be brought down, must be exposed in front of the women. And exposing is not enough; he must be raped, violated, beaten. Certain that when he is seen for what he is, exposed for what he is not, the women will come back to the real men.

I have to admit that as I was reading this book, the writing was so beautiful, the little love relationships so convincing and pretty, that I hoped for a happy ending. I would have preferred happiness to truth, though I could not shake a sense of foreboding. At least in this culture, difference is not rewarded, and the less power men have, the more jealous they are of that scant power. Dean is doomed from the beginning. Although he knows himself to be Dean Lilly, the men will allow him to be only Lilly Dean. He must be made to pay for his arrogant attempt to ascend.

I have some small reservations about this book; I was bothered by it, made anxious by it. But I think most of the anxiety has to do with the world I find myself in rather than with the story Smith has to tell us. Somehow, I wanted the author to tell us more, to make us understand more thoroughly. Who was this man? What did he need? What did he want? What are we to learn from his life? Quoting from the text:
So what did people know about Dean? Did they guess? One moment, you were looking at a boy. The next, you shifted the angle of your sight just a little and—and lo and behold—he was a girl! And you were left squinting and wondering. But maybe people just didn’t want to know the actual truth. It was more fun that way anyhow. Dean was like going to the movies. He was entertainment. Watching him was something to do, he was someone to look at and smile about if you saw him on the street, or at night when you were drinking at the Wooden Nickel. If you were an old person, and sitting there in the window of your house day after day looking out onto the street, you’d see Dean strutting down the sidewalk, handsome and cocky, in his cowboy hat and boots with their thick heels. He’d catch you staring at him and he’d grin and he wouldn’t let go of your eyes, he’d force you to look at him, and you’d just keep staring and staring in spite of yourself.
But is there an actual truth? Certainly the actual truth cannot be that he was really a girl; he would know that better than we, wouldn’t he? Instead, I think he was right; there had been a mistake, a confusion, and only he understood the actual truth.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I would like to do something a bit out of the ordinary this morning. My tendency is to review quite recent works, since I like to read people who are writing about the world that we are working in and worrying about right now. I don’t know about you, but I find the world to be not only huge and complex, but also dangerous and worrisome. I read novels as a way of trying to discover how to behave in this chancy and huge world. Certainly, Virginia Woolf is not talking about the modern world, nor does the pace of her novels have much to do with the break-neck speed of today’s world, but I hardly every read more than a page or two of her work without finding something that applies to my life here and now. Today I want to talk about one of her less well known works entitled Night and Day.

I often remind readers about how much more rewarding it is to read novels in a concentrated manner, preferably over a day or two, rather than a month or two in bedside bits. But I suppose I think Woolf is an exception to this rule. I quite intentionally chose this novel as a car-book, something that would always be with me just in case I found myself stranded in a doctor’s office or some such waiting area without my current book at hand. Unlike any other author I can think of, it amazes me how easy it is to pick up something Woolf has written and to re-enter the conversation almost as if one has just left it, although, in fact, it may have been a week or a month since the last session. I even found myself restricting this to car-book status, both because it lends itself to such piecemeal reading, and because I wanted to intentionally savor it. Indeed, it was with some reluctance that I forced myself to finish the last couple hundred pages of this book fairly quickly, so that I could talk about it today. This is not one of the books I refer to as quick-hitters, short books for busy city-folks; it needs and deserves a languorous reading.

A lot of my friends who are devoted, even compulsive, readers tell me that they cannot read Woolf, that her novels are too slow, with too little action, and too much psychologizing. Interestingly, they often lump together three of my favorite writers in this group of too-much-effort-for-the-reward: Henry James, Iris Murdoch, and Virginia Woolf. Ah, what wonderful company to be in! I am puzzled by the fact that some of these same readers will tell me how much they like (and are amused by) Woody Allen films in which he allows the viewer to hear both the actual conversations between people, and then the much richer, funnier, and fuller inner dialogue that accompanies the sparse public dialogue. But if they like this about Woody Allen, then how can they not love it about Woolf? The incredibly rich and absolutely convincing description of the inner dialogue of Woolf’s characters I find mesmerizing.

I don’t intend to tell you much about the plot of this novel, nor do I think the plot is very important to Woolf. While there are always plenty of side characters in any Woolf novel (and each described fully enough to become quite real and interesting in her/his own right), this is a story about a young woman, Katherine, her suitor William, and two mutual friends, Denham and Mary. Katherine is from a well to do and prestigious family, which includes a famous, though now deceased, poet in its ranks. Besides considerable wealth, we discover quite soon that Katherine is bright, beautiful, and much admired by almost all who know her. Her suitor, William, also of good family, is described as a serious young intellectual who, while not nearly as socially skilled as Katherine nor nearly as physically appealing, has the advantage of being, well, male, and thus as a person who can decide just how he wants to spend his life. Denham is a hardworking law clerk, whose family depends on his income, though he would much prefer to be a simple scholar. And Mary is a hardworking young woman, a village girl, who is now on her own in London working in a salaried position with a group of suffragettes. Again, I will not be giving way much of the plot if I tell you that both of the young men are in love with Katherine (or, at least, their own inner versions of who Katherine is), while Mary is in love with Denham (knowing it to be hopeless and unrequited), and Katherine in love with no one at all. For very good reason, Katherine admires Mary, who has serious work and a room of her own, and she envies the lives of both Denham and William, since both are allowed to take their own lives and their own intellectual pursuits seriously. Katherine is much admired by the other three because of her good sense and down-to-earth coping skills, as well as for her wealth and good looks. All three imagine that Katherine must be happy, self-possessed, and in confident control of her life and surroundings.

In my estimation, the novel is primarily about Katherine, and about the ways in which she is utterly bound by cultural and family traditions and the expectations of those around her. Although still quite young, she is in many ways in charge of the social life of her family, especially that of her mother. And her only escape from being the hub of that family will be to marry and become the hub of another. In secret, she harbors the desire to work with numbers, to do astronomy, to deal with abstract problems that can be ordered and that ultimately have answers, problems not nearly as complex as the problems of the social lives of humans.

Circumstances had long forced her, as they forced most women in the flower of youth, to consider, painfully and minutely, all that part of life which is conspicuously without order; she had had to consider moods and wishes, degrees of liking or disliking, and their effect upon the destiny of people dear to her; she had been forced to deny herself any contemplation of that other part of life where thought constructs a destiny which is independent of human beings.
The particular genius of Woolf is to show us just how different peoples’ inner lives are from what can be observed from the outside, so that one simple conversation can, if fully analyzed, speak volumes about the people involved and the society from which they spring. It is this phenomenological detail that, I think, puts off many of my reader friends, and that I (on the contrary) find so wonderful and insightful. Perhaps I should give you just one quick example (though most examples take at least a few pages of intricate Woolf prose), and if you find the passage tedious, ah, then you might be one of those who will find Woolf tedious. If, instead, this one passage leaves you wanting more, then pick up a volume of Woolf, either this book or some other, and luxuriate in the richness of her understanding of all that it is to be human. Let me add a final comment, like Iris Murdoch, Woolf realizes that most of what we call communication is really miscommunication, that we so rarely say what we mean or what needs to be said. So much can be clarified in a simple few moments of honesty, and yet those moments happen so infrequently. In what follows, Katherine is trying to think of how to answer (or to avoid answering) William Rodney’s proposal of marriage.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could she avoid it? How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts.
I invite you to plunge into the word-rich world of Virginia Woolf; I always find it a rewarding and enlightening swim.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Hurricane Season by Rosemary Daniell

Good morning, I want to talk to you this morning about one of the most surprising, even shocking, books that I have ever read. The author’s name is Rosemary Daniell, and the very appropriate title is The Hurricane Season. Rita Mae Brown, herself a far from conventional writer, says of another of Daniell’s books, Fatal Flowers, that it “will induce cardiac arrest among proper Southern ladies ... Naturally, I relish the scandal.” Certainly, the same and more can be said of this storm of sex and drugs, abuse and addiction. But it is not the shock value that leads me to recommend it to you; indeed, there were many times as I was reading this book that I decided not to review it, not to recommend it, or, at the very least, to put a “Handle with caution!” label on it. I recommend it to you now because of its incredible honesty. Pat Conroy says “There has not been a more honest writer in America,” and I would certainly agree, but honesty is important only if the reader learns something important from the honesty, and in my estimation that is precisely what redeems this book.

The lead character’s name is Easter, and she begins to tell us about her life when she is thirty-nine, in 1977; thus, this is a novel about us-here-now. We know immediately that she is an artist of moderate fame, that she is the mother of three children, twice divorced, that she became pregnant with her first child when she was fourteen, the result of a not-quite-rape at the hands of man as brutal as her father. All of this she tells an interviewer (and us) in such matter of fact tones that we are to understand that she saw none of it as out of the ordinary. Easter sees the world in terms of color, especially the reds and pinks and magentas of blood and sex: the chicken running around the yard with its head chopped of, her mother crying and bloodied on the kitchen floor after a routine beating from her drunken husband. And were it not for her exceptional visual and artistic talents, we would never have heard from her at all. She would probably never have escaped the rural southern home and dirt poverty from which she came. But while it was her art that eventually led to her being important enough to interview, important enough to have us listen to her story, it was her prettiness and her girlish slim figure that got away from the farm and into the big city. Noticed at church by a visitor from the city who simply could not pass up such a pretty young thing, despite the baby on her hip, he claimed her as his own, a move her mother and sister saw as incredible good luck, to be saved by such a comparatively wealthy man.

But what her mother sees as salvation, her clean little house in the suburbs, a husband who is a college man, his daddy owning a car dealership, for some reason seems not quite enough to Easter, though she feels a deep sense of shame even to admit it to herself. And a new layer of guilt, this thinking that what she has is somehow not enough, is added to the layer of guilt towards her now disabled mother whom she has abandoned. Easter does her best simply to be the wonderful little housewife she thinks she should be, copying the menus out of the magazines, cooking something new every meal, and letting her always hungry man crawl over her at night.
So I tried to remember to smile even when I didn’t feel like it. I knew that while it was okay for Bobby to dump his bad feelings on me, it was not okay for me to tell him mine—as the magazines instructed me that it was my duty to protect his fragile male ego, and any indication that I was less than happy would make him feel like less of a man. Even though Bobby seemed interested—obsessively interested—in my body, my appearance, he didn’t listen for very long if I talked. And when he did listen—impatiently, for just a minute or two—he would quickly come up with a solution to what he considered my small problems; after all, he provided everything I really needed, didn’t he?
This story of a young woman, ashamed by her own desires to become herself, to act on the kernel of unease inside her, would be an interesting one even had Easter simply moved away, gotten a job and a life of her own. But this is a woman who was, in her words, “intrigued by people who transformed themselves,” and it is her incredible transformation that fascinated (and frightened) me as a reader. Although it takes two more children and several more years of sexual servitude for Easter to make her break and begin her transformation, she lives just across the river from the French Quarter, and she knows almost from the moment her husband takes her there to view the wild, strange people that that is home.

It seems during much of the middle sections of this book that the author is trying to remind her readers that while both sex and drugs can become addictions, they can also be liberatory, and to some extent, both are liberatory for Easter. As I read these sections, I was reminded of Jane Lazarre’s wonderful and brave book, On Loving Men. Lazarre, although a staunch feminist and political leftist, dared to talk about her early introductions to men and to sex, and dared to speak of the liberatory aspects of sex, dared to talk of her love of men. Her honesty and bravery enthralled me, and I was similarly impressed (at least at first) with Daniell’s honesty. In fact, much of the middle and end of this longish book is a wrenching tale of the horrors of addiction, the travesty of the methadone addiction that has been visited upon so many people struggling to get off of heroine. Easter has to watch her much loved son become as mean and cold as her father had been, coming to fear him even more than she had her abusive father. She watches a beautiful and talented daughter go through a long series of men, spiraling deeper and deeper into drug addiction, depression, and suicide attempts.

What I admire about Daniell is that she does not let herself rest with any of the easy answers. Escaping the sexual tyranny of Bobby and acting on her own deep sexual desires with men and women in the French Quarter is both liberating and addicting, both a movement towards self-actualization and a descent into a kind of perverse hell. And if the conflicted sense of liberation and damnation of self is not enough, she also watches as her daughter plays with sexual power only to become a slave to a lifestyle of men and drugs.

I have said nothing so far about the incredible insights Easter has about politics and poverty, about all the (I think) insightful comments she makes about the famous artists and people in power whom she encounters in New York City as well as the French Quarter. Nor have I talked about what she has to say about art, about color, about the way in which at least some artists are compelled to do art as expression of their inner anguish is fascinating to me, as are her asides about the ways in which male artists are pampered and protected by their women, while women artists are vilified for the same inner compulsion that is praised in men. Picasso and Rodin and Pollack go through women like water, are not even expected to pay attention to their children, but a women artist must be a wife and mother first or they will be seen as selfish, unnatural, unwomanly.

Finally, I must say that it would be hard to believe that his novel is not in a deep sense autobiographical. Daniell says in the forward, “Though addiction and madness saturate my family history—my father was an alcoholic, my mother died a suicide—what follows is a work of fiction.” Yes, and perhaps it is mostly that, but it is fiction that carries with it the authority of one who knows the lives she describes, has lived the horrors and the ecstasies and has emerged to tell of the cave.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I have to confess that I am one of those people who depend way too much on fiction for my understanding of both history and other countries. Certainly, it is not the best way to approach either, but good fiction can at least chip away at one’s ignorance. In that regard, Kahled Hosseini’s 2003 novel, The Kite Runner is a great resource. The author was born and raised in Afghanistan, and he has quite a lot to tell us about how Afghanistan was before the Russian occupation, and after the ouster of the Russians, about the subsequent rule of the Taliban. The reader can literally feel Hosseini’s love for the beauty of the country and people of Afghanistan. And besides the geographical and political insights, this is also a very well written novel with a story that is engaging in its own right.

Isabel Allende calls it an unforgettable story with all the great themes of literature and life: love, honor, guilt, fear, and redemption. Certainly, it is a powerful and moving story, and the honesty of the privileged young lead character, Amir, saves the book from being overly sentimental. It is almost a very good book, and while I will say a bit about why I think it does not quite achieve greatness, I want to concentrate mainly on how I think the novel works.

As I have said many times, there are simply too many great books in the world to spend much time either reading or commenting on the not so good ones. My primary goal is to recommend to you the very good or great reads I come across rather than to attempt to exhibit cleverness by putting books and authors down. Still, there is something troubling about this book; it is too neat, too predictable, and somehow too politically neutral. Jean Paul Sartre says that from the moment an author begins a story with “Once upon a time,” we know that we are being lied to. Life as lived, he insists, does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it does not have a point; we simply live day to day, and while the events of a life are concatenated, they do not really form a whole or have a direction. When reading this book, I felt from the beginning (and almost constantly) that I was being led to a grand finale—probably to heroic moments and resolutions. Perhaps I would have been disappointed had there not been what Allende calls redemption, had there not been a final reckoning, but I could not help feeling manipulated and taken in by the neatness and predictability of the story line. And while I appreciated the coming to class consciousness of the lead character, his realization of his own privileged status as a boy and of the intense class structure of the society in which he lived, still I was not quite convinced. I could see his fear and hatred of the brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by Russia, and his outrage at the subsequent, perhaps even more brutal control by the Taliban. But he seemed not to understand in a deeper sense how economic colonization and oppression occur. He was critical of the poverty he, himself, felt in America after he and his aristocratic father escaped Afghanistan, but it seemed more the indignation of an aristocrat forced into undeserved menial labor than a genuine coming to class consciousness. I may be mistaken about this, and I leave it to other readers to determine if and how my reading went wrong. Perhaps I am suspicious simply because of the rave receptions this book received in this country from both conservative and liberal commentators. Perhaps I simply doubt the heroic aspects of the book, the seemingly inevitable triumph of good over evil.

But enough of my reservations. How exciting it was simply to hear from this boy about the joys of kite-flying, the incredible kite battles that were a part of the annual festivals as he grew up. He tells of the complex and elaborate labors taken to construct the kites, the kite strings dipped in glue and ground glass, prepared to battle and cut loose the kites of other boys and young men. Amir grows up with and is constantly attended to by Hassan, a servant boy who happens to be almost exactly Amir’s age, and both become adept at kite-running, chasing after and capturing the kites that have been cut loose in the fierce battles overhead. Indeed, most of this book centers on the story of these two boys, and of the intense jealousy Amir feels towards Hassan because of the affection and attention Amir’s powerful, rich and aristocratic father showers on the mere servant. The more Hassan does for Amir, the more selfless his devotion is, the more resentful Amir becomes.

Without telling you about the events that lead to more and more sacrifice from Hassan, resulting in more and more shame, guilt, and resentment in Amir, it will suffice to mention the tragic and inevitable split between the boys. What Amir wants most in the world is the affection and respect of his powerful father, but he seems unable to get it, unable to earn it, and feels instead a shameful comparison between his weakness and Hassan’s strength. Amir both idolizes and fears his father. In his words,
With me as the glaring exception, my father molded the world around him to his liking. The problem, of course, was that Baba saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little.
Most of this book has to do with this love-hate relationship, Amir always trying to prove himself to his father and always, at least in his own eyes, falling short. Even when they are forced out of Afghanistan (to escape occupation by the U.S.S.R) and eventually immigrate to the U.S. where the power his father has via wealth is stripped from him, still the father remains strong and noble, working to provide for his family and to send his weakling son to school.

Eventually, first through the love of a woman, and later through other not quite believable redemptive acts, Amir comes into his own, develops some sort of worldview which is not simply a reaction to his father’s. The reader comes to understand more the strictness and lack of tenderness that Amir’s father shows him, comes to understand that the tremendous guilt Amir feels towards the servant-boy Hassan is shared by his father as well. But whatever you conclude about how genuine Amir’s own redemption is, how much or little he has really come to understand about oppression and power, I think you will find the story of the two boys a lovely and captivating one. You might even be tempted to go buy and fly a kite.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram

Love dead. Hate living,” says the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and now these words are echoed by James Whale, the creator of the film version of Frankenstein. Having suffered a stroke that has short-circuited his brain, both his days and his nights are filled with scenes and smells from his past, but they come unbidden and in a tumble of time that leaves him constantly dazed and confused. His frenzied half-sleep at night leaves him shattered and exhausted in the mornings, and the Phenobarbital that allows him a thick, black sleep at night, leaves him so foggy and fuzzed in the mornings that he can barely sit up in bed and is unable to direct his limbs enough to walk himself to bathroom, unbutton his fly, begin his day without the aid of his old Mexican maid.

This is the setting for Christopher Bram’s superb novel, Father of Frankenstein, a novel that is rich and insightful on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. For those of you have seen “Gods and Monsters,” the film adaptation of this novel, I should probably begin by pointing out what an excellent critique of American homophobia this novel provides. The movie is quite a good one and does a fair job of getting inside the head of the aging director, James Whale, and of describing Hollywood of the thirties and forties, a kind of zoo of odd characters that both attracts and repels the movie-going American public, who are fascinated by the social and sexual behavior of the ‘animals,’ though they would be only horrified by the same behavior in their neighbors. But the novel does so much more than the movie, since it allows the reader to also get inside the head of the ‘monster,’ Clayton Boone, whom we first see simply as the paradigm of shallow American maleness—angry, often violent, fiercely homophobic, and almost entirely homocentric. As Whale first describes him: “Yes, he does have that stony, sullen masculinity that Americans found dangerous in juvenile delinquents but becoming in their soldiery.”

In fact, it would not be much of a stretch in the end to call this a love story, a story about a friendship that evolves over a two week period between Whale and his yardman, Clayton Boone. Whale, frightened by the daily disintegration of his mental life and wanting to be shut of it before he forgets completely who he is or why he wants to die, sees in his yardman, Boone, not only a big lug of a man whom it might be fun to tease and prod a little, cause him to twist and turn with disgust as he acts out his homophobia, but that he may even be able, without much effort, to get Boone to kill him—to end this wretched half-life he is living.

While thoughtful readers will initially find themselves simply disgusted by Boone, contemptuous of his ignorance and his shallowness, the genius of Bram is that in the end he shows Boone to be a sympathetic character who is simply mired in his own socially constructed maleness and heterosexuality. Whale is unhappy not with his life or his sexuality, but with the disintegration caused by his illness; it is Boone who, although physically healthy, is deeply depressed, unhappy with the shallow relationships he has with women and by what he sees as the failure of his own life. Although he wears the Marine tattoo that announces “Death before Dishonor!”, he sees himself as utterly dishonored, a bully around even his closest friends, a man who lies about his military service, grovels before the rich clients whom he both envies and hates and who he knows see him simply as a faceless lunk who maintains their yards.

For the most part, this is the story of James Whale, a portrait that is carefully and sympathetically drawn by Bram and taken from the real circumstances of Whale’s life. But it is so much more than biography. By introducing Boone as a character (and according to Bram a wholly fictionalized one), the author provides an audience for Whale. Most of his so-called American friends know only the made-up past that Whale wants to show them, a story of private schools and privilege. But as Boone sits for him, a flattered but somewhat reluctant model for this mad old painter and famous director, Whale begins to spill out the real story of his impoverished past, of his early, awkward attempts to act on his sexuality, even of the grisly details of mud and blood and trenches of World War 1. Boone is repelled, even frightened by stories about male love affairs, and yet finds himself flattered by the fact that he has been chosen to hear Whale’s real story. Nothing this important has ever happened to him before, and even if it is only an old fruit who has chosen to befriend him, still this seems to give him a status that he has lacked, and despite himself and his manliness, he cannot help but like this old man, even feel sympathetic towards him. In Boone’s words:
It should be pathetic, disgusting, but Clay can’t help being moved. So many things that should be opposite, manliness and mush, war and perversion, barbed wire and tenderness, run together here. Clay almost envies the two men’s moment of closeness.
The war stories are not ones that Whale relates with pride, nothing like the stories Clay has heard from his American friends about killing gooks and Japs and commies. Indeed, Whale has, if anything, repressed all of these memories of bodies and barbed wire, of weeks living in knee-deep mud and the over-ripe smell of men both living and dead. It is the stroke that has interfered with his wired-in repression, and now his life tumbles out, exhausting and frightening him even more than it does Boone. War becomes something different for Boone, nothing like American war movies full of glory and heroism. Boone finds himself thinking about Whale even when he is not with him, thinking about him despite how disgusting his life is:
It’s strange and unhealthy to think too much about anything, but, driving to his next job on the other side of the canyon, Clay finds himself trying to get a grip on what Whale means to him now. Clay knows more about him than is safe to know about any man. He is a fruit, and foreign, and unpredictable, and he keeps spilling secrets Clay would rather not hear. But the old fellow had done and seen more than anyone else Clay’s ever met. His war was too long ago to count for much, but it does count, doesn’t it? It’s a privilege to listen to him, a privilege and a challenge. Maybe he has dirty thoughts about Clay, but he’s too old to do anything about them, too old to even have a body somewhere beneath his clothes. Clay would never admit it, but with a younger, more physically real homosexual, he would’ve fled long ago.
Of course, as Clay listens to Whale’s stories, as he sits with him, poses for him, eats meals with him, he begins to see him not as a dangerous and disgusting fruit, but as a human being—a man of sadness and joy, with a past full of relationships both successful and failed. And just as Whale becomes human for Boone, so Boone becomes human for Whale and for the reader. Fortunately, Boone’s dawning affection and sympathy for Whale, and Whale’s reluctant but unavoidable seeing of Boone not as the monster who will help him to die, but as a person in his own right, changes the course of their relationship. “… his beast was human. He was irritable, polite, and human. And when an awful memory from the past slipped out, the beast became concerned.”

Ah, so both men have confronted their beasts and seen them transmogrified into humans, soft and sad and lonely. What better love story than that?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Imagine that whenever you begin a sentence--jackaphone, dirtyworker, dirketyname—you are suddenly compelled—luddenly compulsed—to throw in strings of nonsense—nun of strings--and unable to do resist the temptation, no matter the effect on those around you. That is, try to imagine the world of person who has Tourette’s syndrome. Imagine further trying to write a novel through the eyes of a character whose Torettic impulses vibrate and pulse through every page. Among other things, this is the accomplishment of Jonathan Lethem in his wonderfully twisted little mystery novel entitled, Motherless Brooklyn.

This is a book I probably would have missed save for the keen eyes of a reader friend of mine, Robert Mercer, who is also the head of advising for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University. Although I tend to avoid both mysteries and best-sellers, I’m so glad that I, once again, took Robert’s advice and read this book. I suppose it is a mystery, and that at least a part of its popularity has to do with unraveling the plot, but I see this much more as a book about what it means to be poor and abandoned in the big cities of the world, made worse, of course, if one is viewed as a freak.

This is really a book about four boys, all orphans, thrown together in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn. Their savior, or at any rate the person who finds some use for them, is a small-time hood and hustler who realizes the value of cheap labor that can be manipulated, trained to take orders, and not to ask questions. Frank Minna makes some sort of bargain with the priest who heads up the orphanage and takes four young teenage boys out of captivity for a day; they shuffle boxes from one truck to another, or from truck to warehouse, happy to be outside and at work. At the end of the day, each boy gets a $20 dollar bill and a few beers, probably their first beers and their first earned cash, and a quick-talking lesson from Frank Minna about the streets, about New York, about life. And this begins a series of such days, of unexplained errands, always ending with the beers and the cash and punctuated by the cynical teaching from the boss. Over the years, the jobs change some, the pay increases some, until all ‘graduate’ from the orphanage and become full-fledged Minna-men. The moving company has evolved into a private car-service, which is itself a front for a sleazy detective agency, and that again a front for something darker and more dangerous, though the Minna-men know next to nothing about who hires them or what they really are about.

There must be millions of stories not unlike this one—children of big cities, discarded, abandoned, and ‘saved’ by some false god who manages to fashion them in his image, to use them, sell them, put them in harm’s way. In this case, the boys repay their savior, their only father-figure, with loyalty and clumsy, sweetly pathetic attempts to emulate their surrogate-father.

I was not surprised to see in the acknowledgements a thanks to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who talks with such wonderfully sympathetic understanding of Tourette’s in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. Nor was I surprised to read the long list of names either of people who have Tourette’s or their families or others who have studied the effects of this strange disease. Jonathan Lethem obviously knows Tourettes from up close, so close that I found myself convinced the he must be Tourettic himself. He also understands poverty and the vulnerability of the poor. And yet this is not a depressing book. Indeed, it is often funny and heartwarming, and even the mystery component of it is quite good, pulling the reader along, entertaining while edifying.

The reader discovers not many pages into this book that the Father, the Boss, the Savior, Frank Minna, has been murdered, and now the Minna Men are on their own, left not only to fend for themselves (as they never have since their orphanage days), but to try to find the killer, unravel the mystery of his death. And although they worked for him, Frank has kept them wrapped in ignorance, unaware of the significance of their own actions, and consequently unaware of the dangers that now shadow them as they play detective. Let the main character, Lionel Essrog, speak for himself for a moment in the clever, cubistic style Lethem adopts for this book.
See me now, at one in the morning, stepping out of another cab in front of the Zendo, checking the street for cars that might have followed, for giveaway cigarette-tip glows through the windows of the cars parked on the deadened street, moving with my hands in my jacket pockets clutching might-be-guns-for-all-they-know, collar up against the cold like Minna, unshaven like Minna now, too, shoes clacking on sidewalk: think of a coloring-book image of the Green Hornet, say. That’s who I was supposed to be, that black outline of a man in a coat, ready suspicious eyes above his collar, shoulders hunched, moving toward conflict.

Here’s who I was instead: that same coloring-book outline of a man, but crayoned by the hand of a mad or carefree or retarded child, wild slashes of idiot color, a blizzard of marks violating the boundaries that made man distinct from street, from world. Some of those colors were my fresh images of Kimmery, flashing me back to the West Side an hour before, crayon stripes and arrows like flares over Central Park in the night sky. Others weren’t so pretty, roaring scrawls of mania,
find-a-man-kill-a-phone-fuck-a-plan in sloppy ten-foot-high letters drawn like lightning bolts or Hot Wheels race-car flames through the space of my head. And the blackened steel-wool scribble of my guilt-deranged investigation: I pictured the voices of the two Minna brothers and Tony Vermonte and The Clients as gnarled above and around me, in a web of betrayal I had to penetrate and dissolve, an ostensible world I’d just discovered was really only a private cloud I carried everywhere, had never seen the outside of. So, crossing the street to the door of Zendo, I might have appeared less a single Green Hornet than a whole inflamed nest of them.
This is not a book I expected to enjoy, although in the first twenty pages of frenetic, Tourettic speech, I was hooked. I thought I was hooked simply by the irony of a Tourettic detective, by the cleverness of the author creating his lead character, but the deeper into the book I got, the more a world was being disclosed to me, a world of orphan loyalty, of street goodness, of corporate greed and ruthlessness. It turned out to be a book well worth reading, its lessons delivered in a mellifluous, Tourettic cadence by a character as wise as Philip Marlowe and certainly more loveable.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

I’m certain all of us have heard much about the therapeutic and cleansing powers of confession. This morning I want to make my confession to you and to pass along as well Anne Fadiman’s, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Ms. Fadiman and I share what she calls a carnal love of books, as opposed to the courtly love so often prescribed by librarians and anxious bibliophiles. To the courtly lover,
A book's physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was a Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us a books words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.
Ah, what music to this reader who only knows if a book has been read by checking for underlining and marginalia; if there are no marks, I can be sure I haven’t read the book. I have always hidden behind the excuse of being a teacher, an unmarked book is useless when attempting to teach the content of a book to others. Anne Fadiman encourages me to leave the closet, to admit that I mark up mysteries and first editions, children’s books and, dare I say it, even the occasional library book (though restraining myself to the faintest marks in #2 pencil, meaning always to erase at journey’s end). I loved hearing Sylvia Ashton Warner’s description of the word cards she made up for her Maori children, the cards dirty and worn from passionate use. She knew that the word-cards that were not mangled were not being used, and she quickly withdrew those cards from circulation. So too with my books and Fadiaman’s; she quotes a friend who confesses to her that when he found Boswell’s journals, he “sucked them like a giant mongoose. I didn’t give a damn about the condition of those volumes. In order to get where I had to go, I underlined them, wrote in them, shredded them, dropped them, tore them to pieces, and did things to them that we can’t discuss in public.” My students laugh and offer to pony up the money for a new copy when I bring my old tattered copy of Nietzsche’s Will To Power to class, remove the rubber bands that keep it together, and sort through the pieces searching for important passages. Little do they know how valueless a new copy would be, naked and innocent and needing to be marked all over again. In even worse shape is my Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and so many other volumes that have been literally loved to pieces.

The essays in this little volume of Fadiman’s could each be read on its own, just a chapter a night for the busy city-reader. And each chapter is bound to stir the passions of reading addicts who will know that they have found a kindred spirit. She confesses that she and her husband had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, and been married for five before they could finally bring themselves to merge their libraries. “We were both writers, and we both invested in our books the kind of emotion most people reserve for their old love letters. Sharing a bed and a future was a child’s play compared to sharing my copy of The Complete Poems of W.B. Yeats.” Finally, when his books became her books, she knew they were really married.

I have confessed before that when I am asked by others what I DO, my response, almost invariably is to say, “I read.” The conversation that follows is almost always worth the confusion and/or disbelief that my response initially engenders. The only time that I really envy a writer, really wish I had written the words, is when those words are about reading. Lynne Sharon SchwartzRuined By Reading, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, these are books I wish I could have written. Fadiman tells us that her parents had a library of 7,000 books, and I feel less guilty about my inability to get rid of books. I remember the near incredulity of my partner when I announced at retirement that I intended to bring home my entire office library, crowding them somehow into the downsized house we had moved into, one wall of which had already been knocked out to increase the size of my study and, more importantly, to provide more wall space for bookshelves. Now that my teaching career was winding down, she pleaded, did I really think I would need all these books? Would I really be teaching Kant or Sartre again, would I need to research Homer or Heraclitus? And how about all those science fiction books, not to mention the mysteries ignominiously housed in the garage. But who knows when my nephews and nieces might need these books? Who knows when I will need to finger them, read over forgotten titles once more, take down a Jane Austin or Thomas Hardy? Fadiman tells us that parents of her daughter’s second grade classmates sometimes complain to her that their children don’t read for pleasure.
When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents’ rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE—GROWNUPS KEEP OUT; a child sprawled on the bed, reading.
Fadiman insists that she and her brother, also an avid reader, an addict for those who insist on naming the condition, discovered the unknown selves of their parents by perusing the shelves of books in their house. “Their selves were on their shelves.” And not only their present being-parents selves, but the selves they had occupied long before they had married or had children. While her father seemed not to have changed that much from when he first began collecting books in the ‘20s (a person who boasted that he had never done anything except think), she discovered an exotic and unknown mother who had once lived a life of action and travel. “And why had she stopped? Because she had had children. Her books, which seemed the property of a woman I had never met, defined the size of the sacrifice my brother and I had exacted.”

I remember the shock I felt some years ago when a loved colleague died and some few weeks after his death I found many of his books scattered through the vast piles at Powell’s Books. It seemed somehow so sad, so out of context, to scan his marginalia, knowing that never again would his terse comments on Heidegger occupy the same shelf as his wise overviews on Wittgenstein. Fadiman quotes a student who works in a bookstore and has the task of packing up the library of a deceased historian whom he had heard lecture.
Dispersing his library was like cremating a body and scattering it to the winds. I felt very sad. And I realized that books get their value from the way they coexist with the other books a person owns, and that when they lose their context, they lose their meaning.
Okay, so I confess, I mean to keep my hodge-podge library together, to dump it finally on a niece who is a fellow reader, a fellow addict. I love books; sometimes I feel that, like Fadiman’s young son, I could eat them. And if you are the sort who likes to devour books and who is willing to confess to book worship, you will love Anne Fadiman.