Monday, October 30, 2006

Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott

I know that most of you passionate readers will understand when I say there some books that are just too lovely to talk about, just no way of getting at what they have to offer short of plunging into them, or in this case, licking them, savoring them. Alice McDermott’s new novel Child of My Heart is just such a book, and I’m hoping to get you to pick it up by saying very little. If I could I would dangle it like a sweet, red lollipop in front of you, just as on the paperback version there is a tree strung with orange and red and yellow lollipops, the rare fruits of imagination. And who says you can’t judge a book by its cover anyway? Certainly, it was the cover of this little book that grabbed me, although it was the name of the author that cemented the purchase.

I have been one of those readers fortunate enough to have large swatches of time laid out before me to read—sometimes whole summers full of nothing but sun and books. That means that when I find an author whom I really like, one that seems to be teaching me as well as enchanting me, I have often been able to read up their life’s work in a few days, a few weeks at most. I still find it a wonderful way to read. Not surprising then that just a few weeks ago I talked to you about one of McDermott’s earlier novels, Charming Billy, and today I feel that I must tell you about this newer one.

The setting is Long Island, sometime in the 90s, and the heroine is a fifteen year old girl who is the only child of aging American-Irish parents who did not have her until they were in their forties. They move to Long Island to, in their minds, assure her future.
Being who they were—children of immigrants, well-read but undereducated—my parents saw my future only in terms of how I would marry, and they saw my opportunities narrowed by Jewish/Irish/Polish/Italian kids who swarmed the city and the close-in neighborhoods where they could afford to buy a home. They moved way out on Long Island because they knew rich people lived way out on Long Island, even if only for the summer months, and putting me in a place where I might be spotted by some of them was their equivalent of offering me every opportunity.
This urge to put their daughter, Theresa, in the paths of the rich also accounts at least partly for their not only allowing her to baby-sit for families from the time she is only ten years old, but actively encouraging her to take on more and more charges as the summers roll by, to visit more and more of the big summer homes that her parents can only admire from afar. And Theresa is from the beginning a star at what she does. A beautiful, dark girl who is wise far beyond her years, but who also strangely innocent and unworldly.
I must have fit right into the pretty summer dreams those pretty young mothers had back on Fifth Avenue in March….Pretty, intelligent, mature in speech although undeveloped physically (another plus), well immersed in my parents’ old-fashioned Irish Catholic manners (inherited from their parents, who had spent their careers in service to this very breed of American rich), and, best of all, beloved by children and pets.

I don’t know how to account for it, my way with small creatures. Nor did it ever occur to me to try. Because I was a child myself when I began to take care of other children, I saw them from the start as only a part of my realm, and saw my ascendance as a simple matter of hierarchy—I was the oldest (if only by a year or two) among them, and as such, I would naturally be worshipped and glorified. I really thought nor more of it than that. And when they clung to me and petted me, when the boys, lovesick, put their heads into my lap and the girls begged to wear my rings or comb my hair, I simply took it as my due. I was Titania among her fairies…..and the dogs and cats and bunnies and gerbils that seemed to follow their young owners in their affection were only doing what nature, in our little realm, prescribed. ……If there was any trick, any knack, to my success as a minder of children, it was, I suppose, the fact that I was as delighted with my charges as they were with me.
This entire little book is simply the unfolding of a few days in Theresa’s life. For one family she merely walks their dog, Red Rover, and occasionally tends their children on a weekend. For another, she comes by every morning to walk two Scotty dogs. Yet another family has her tending three cats while they are in the city, babysitting both their children and their cats on the weekends. And finally, she cares daily for a young girl, Flora, whose father is a famous old painter and whose mother, decades younger, feels imprisoned on Long Island and escapes often to the city. The insights Theresa has as she goes from house to house, child to child, animal to animal, are charming and yet somehow alarming in their profundity. Added to her paid duties, she also supplies daily care and attention for a handful of dirty kids who live next door and who love her, adore her, hang on her at every chance. The pied-piper of Long Island who finds it quite natural to be followed and adored. And finally, for the few days that this novel covers, a young girl cousin, Daisy Mae, joins Theresa on her daily rounds, invited by Theresa so that the shy and frail Daisy can escape for a time from the city, her seven siblings and her overworked, cranky parents.

I simply cannot describe how lovely the relationship is between Daisy and Theresa—two minds who can together spin magic out of the air. Slowly, the reader discovers (along with Theresa), that Daisy is quite ill—bruises on her body that do not heal, a tiredness that will not go away even in the sun and sea-breezes. I cannot but think that this novel is deeply autobiographical. The precociousness of Theresa, her deep understanding of her own parents and of all the adults around her seems more remembered than made up. And despite her girlish thinness, she is well aware of the new looks she gets from older men, their unapologetic appraisal of her pretty face, her budding body. If anything, she is even calmer than they in her appraisal of their appraisal, already wiser than they. Interested in their attention, but not really alarmed, she realizes a power she has with them, understands more about them than they about her. She also understands on a deep level that she is already wiser than her parents, has already stepped away from their world, careful not to tell them more than they need to know, protecting them even as they see themselves as protecting her. As she listens through the thin walls of their little cottage to the calm, constant river of their voices, she understands that she is as much caregiver now as cared for.

Whenever reviewers strive to find authors with whom to compare McDermott the name Jane Austin invariably arises, and it easy to see why. Her novels begin in very small worlds, usually in a family or two, more novels of families and customs than of worlds and wars. One reviewer talks of how beautifully written her novels are and how quietly unsettling. Yes indeed. Wrenchingly beautiful and unsettling due to their wisdom, the acuteness of the observing eye. I was in the middle of two other novels when I started this one; those two remain unfinished. McDermott must be read.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin

Suppose that you believe “our world is an ungodly mess. That we live in a society overwhelmed by its own poisonous excesses. That people who don’t see the truth of this are blind or stupid or both.” What do you do? How do you act? Camus says that simply comprehending the world we live in entails action, but unfortunately does not tell us which action. As a reader, I am intrigued by authors who are committed to wondering and worrying about how to act in the world we find ourselves in, and Alix Ohlin is certainly such a writer. In her debut novel, The Missing Person, she takes us to the Southwest and to a group of modern-day activists who resemble in so many ways the monkey-wrench gang of Edward Albee. She lets us plan and work with them, wonder and worry with them, and manages while doing so to tell quite an interesting story with almost believable characters.

During the 60s and 70s there was a lot of heated debate over the question of revolution by example. A lot of young people left the big cities to return to the countryside, form communes, and live simpler and intensely cooperative lives. An even greater number who couldn’t literally leave formed inner city communes and tried to show others a different and better way to live. All well and good, the question being, “Does such action have any large-scale effect? Does it bring us closer to a better, more egalitarian world? Can you have revolution by example?” I suppose that Alix Ohlin is asking a similar question in this book, “Can you create revolution by symbolic gesture?”

To set the scene for you a bit without giving away too much of the plot, Lynn Fleming, the lead character, is a graduate student in art history in New York City. But other than carrying on a typical and not very interesting affair with her dissertation advisor, she is not doing much towards getting her degree. She is in New York because she has escaped from Albuquerque and a domineering mother, both the mother and the landscape arid and irritating to her. But the mother who simply will not go away, will not be neatly shelved into a past well left behind, continues to call and alternately plead and demand that Lynn return ‘home’ to find and re-civilize her younger brother, Wylie, who is hanging out with a bunch of unwashed radicals who, insists his mother, do nothing at all or worse.

Never mind that it is a bit hard for the reader to believe that Lynn would succumb to her mother’s demands. Her choice seems to be between meeting her married Professor in Paris for a bit of extra work, screwing her way closer to her degree, or going to hated, summer-scorched Albuquerque to find her little brother. She soon discovers that the band of environmentalists her brother has taken up with are not dummies; they understand a lot of the harsh realities of market economies, the worldwide disparity between rich and poor, and especially the increasing demand for water around the world. Because she is Wylie’s brother, she is allowed to sit in on the planning and discussions of the group as they talk
about water: the dearth of if around the globe, our reckless overindulgence in it as consumers, its diversion by financial interests. The government encouraged individual citizens to reduce their residential water use while giving tax breaks to corporations whose water use was massive in comparison. We were groundwater overdrafting, taking more out of our water account than we had. In China the water table was dropping by a meter a year. The Nile Valley was drying up. The Athabasca Glacier was receding. The Aral Sea was gone. The Ogallala Aquifer that extended through the West had been overpumped for decades. Half the world’s wetlands had been destroyed in the last century. The Yangtze, Ganges, and Colorado rivers rarely flowed all the way to the sea because of upstream withdrawals. Pollution was decimating freshwater fish species, twenty percent of which were endangered or extinct, and causing at least five million human deaths a year from disease. The world was rife with appalling scarcity, and people unwilling to face it.
Lynn, along with the readers of the book, gets a quick education about the water problems of the world, and the desert they live in gives them an ideal microcosm of just how the scarcity of water is addressed. Rich neighborhoods with gigantic swimming pools in each yard. New and ever bigger, water-sucking golf courses springing up everywhere as the sprawl of Albuquerque spreads its tentacles into the desert. What to do, what to do? Well, you could siphon the water out of the pools, spill the chemically treated, chlorinated water onto the manicured lawns, and in one fell-swoop empty the pools and kill the lawns. That should show them. Oh, and go to the new golf courses, cut the sprinkler-heads off of the pipes feeding the huge courses, that will surely give a day or two pause in the construction and call attention to the travesty of wasted water.

I don’t intend to give away all of the more-or-less carefully planned pranks of this new brand of monkey-wrench gang. Instead, I want to question the efficacy of such actions in bringing about significant change. We live in desperate times. Certainly we must do something; comprehension does entail action. Perhaps Wylie, the lost brother, the missing person, sums up best what Ohlin wants the reader to ask:
We cannot return to the elemental things. There is no way to go back. But how to move forward when so much has been lost? How can we even think about the future when we are burdened by such an oppressive past and pessimistic present?
I have to admit that I’m not sure what conclusions Ohlin wants us to draw from this little book. Certainly she wants us to think again and to think hard about how our culture wastes, about how the have-nots of the world are affected by the gluttonous behavior of the haves. She seems sometimes to laugh at the pranks of her unwashed brother and his friends, at other times to be drawn not only to their perceptive analyses of market economies, but to their solutions. Unfortunately, the book is not believable. Lynn, this usually careful and thoughtful graduate student goes along with this band of pranksters without being told what they are about to do or what the risks are. Arrest and jail-time are only the most obvious of the risks, since we know very well that the guards and security personnel rich people hire for their golf courses and homes are quite willing to shoot those who trespass and destroy. The author needs Lynn to go along, to be at the scene, in order to tell us, her readers, the story, but she does not create for us a character who we believe would actually be there, especially without being told even in broad outline what is up. Indeed, in the final gesture of the book, there are two women along for the ride. Both are kept in the dark about where they are going or what they are going to do. Women can act as drivers, as lookouts, as hangers-on, but certainly cannot be counted on for action, and cannot really be trusted with plans the guys have made. Certainly, none of the women I know on the Left would be content to go along with whatever the boys say, would not risk their freedom and perhaps their lives without understanding and being committed to the actions and goals of the group. While I’m not naïve enough to think that sexism is forever gone from the Left, Ohlin paints a picture of naïve women and blind, sexist men that I hope is hyperbolic.

In short, I loved the questions posed by this book. As Wylie says, “what does it mean to have beliefs if you don’t act on them? Doesn’t every single moment of our lives come with a choice attached?” But while I may not know what to do, I know that just doing something, anything, is not very helpful. Perhaps a bit more comprehension would also somewhat clarify what actions are to be done.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

There are some novels that are so self-contained, so organically whole, that it seems not only pointless but somehow rude to talk about them, to attempt an overview or summation. As you might have guessed, I’m going to try to talk about just such a novel today. Its title is Charming Billy, and the author is Alice McDermott. I suppose if I say that it is a novel about Irish-Americans living in the Bronx, about families and religion, faith and love, I will have offered some sort of informative overview, but I will not have even begun to get at the charm and profundity of Charming Billy.

On the face of it, this is about as simple a story as one could imagine. It begins with a gathering of Irish-Americans come together to eulogize one of their own, the charming and romantic Billy. And in many ways, it not only begins there, but ends there as well. Some writers have such incredible talent and facility with language that they can, while apparently telling us about a single event, capture a lifetime, and in McDermott’s novel, not only the lifetime of one character, but of a whole family, a whole community. Like casting a stone into a still pond and watching the ripples move outward in all directions, so the single stone of this story, Billy’s death and the wake that follows, allows the author to travel backwards in time and out into the lives of many others. I will be giving away nothing that the reader is not told in the first few pages if I tell you that charming Billy is a man who has loved and lost, the loss becoming the pivot point for the rest of his life. So loyal is Billy to his lost Eva that his friends, especially his men friends, suppose that he will never find another woman again, indeed, that he will never allow himself to look. Instead, he will try to replace with alcohol what has been lost to him, and though never losing his charm, his wit, his easy smile and engaging stories, will fall slowly but inevitably into alcoholism and death. And each of the men will live vicariously through Billy an undying love, an unshakable faith, a pure romance.

McDermott gets to be a kind of fly on the wall, listening to the men who love Billy and who love Billy’s love, talk about what might have been, about the great, profound lost love. She accomplishes this by making her narrator a kind of incidental figure in the grouping, the young daughter of Dennis, who is Billy’s cousin and best friend. The daughter is home briefly from college to attend Billy’s funeral. The men can (and do) pretty much ignore her; they have known her since she was a child, indeed still view her as a child, insider by birth and blood, but outsider both because she is merely a woman and because she did not know Eva, did not know Billy when he was still whole and vibrant. She can eavesdrop on their conversations, their versions of Billy’s story, and they will only barely notice that she is there.

While the men take center stage in this novel, and while it is ostensibly about them—their lives, their love of Billy, their connections to one another and to alcohol, my view is that McDermott is more interested in the lives of the women who shadow these great drinkers and talkers. The men dream and drink and talk, the women live and provide, give birth and carry on. Even as Billy and Dennis, just home from World War II, begin to woo two sisters, Eva and Mary, and thus launch the love story that is apparently at the center of this novel, Dennis’ mother has remarried a moderately wealthy German shoe salesman, moved into his house, and set up an ironing board that will never be taken down again.

There was a laundry list of reasons why she had married again and not one of them had anything to do with love, but with enough space (when you came right down to it), enough baseboard and yard and empty room, enough heat in the winter and sufficient windows to open for a cross breeze in summer, love was an easy thing to do without.
Another shadow figure in the novel is Maeve, the woman whom Billy eventually meets and marries (much to the chagrin of all of his men friends who remain loyal to the lost Eva). Maeve is plain and colorless, nothing like the beautiful lost Eva; she is a woman who presided over the death of her mother, and then became the cook and housecleaner and caretaker for her sick, alcoholic father. Billy’s friends are less than surprised when she becomes the caretaker for Billy as well; they see it as magnanimous on his part that he rescues plain Maeve from spinsterhood and allows her to pour him into bed at night, sick-drunk from alcohol, sometimes having to call Dennis to come help her literally carry him upstairs to bed. Poor Billy, they think, his alcoholism not a disease, but a palliative for his great, lost love. Does Maeve know, they wonder, about the Irish woman, the lovely Eva? Does she understand why she can never really replace Eva in Billy’s heart?

Billy is a charming figure, handsome and witty; he always has a story to tell. He works two jobs to save up the money that he needs to bring Eva back from Ireland, determined to bring her and her sisters too if she cannot leave them behind. Indeed, he will bring over the whole family if that is what is required. So great is his love. No sacrifice is too great for such a love.

But even as he sweats and slaves, working for Con Ed in the day, working in a shoe-store some nights and every weekend, all in the name of love, his aunt, Dennis’ mother, grieves for both her own son and for Billy. Not because they lose their loves, but because they sacrifice their lives simply to survive.
Although at that time in her life she had held only two jobs herself—one in a bakery in Brooklyn, one in the mailroom of the gas company—she had a considered opinion about what the workaday world could do to you, and it wasn’t a very high opinion, either, despite her Protestant blood.

In part, she objected to the monotony of nine-to-five, the tedium, the hours and days you ended up wishing away, swinging from one Saturday morning to another like a monkey at the zoo. In part, it was the anonymity: Forget what dreams you’d dreamt the night before, forget the adoring eye that beheld you over breakfast, or even the grief that had been wringing out your soul all night long, because the way she saw it, once you boarded the subway or the bus or joined the crawling stream of automobiles or found your space in the revolving door, the elevator, behind the desk or the counter or the machine, you became what you really were—you became, when you got right down to it, what you really were: one of the so many million, just one more.
So, as she watches her boy Dennis, her nephew Billy, go off to work for Con Ed, she grieves for what they might have been, what they might have done had they been able to define themselves through their work rather than sacrificing their lives to work. Let the men drink and lament the loss of the Great Love, the incomparable (because unreachable) Eva; she will grieve instead for what they might have done, what they might have been, what they might have created.

At least as I read it, all the men in the story want to know about Eva, what really happened, why she never came. They want to wonder what might have been had the great romance flowered. And I would not want to suggest that McDermott is an unsympathetic storyteller of their stories, their loves and lives and losses. Still, both the narrator and the author are women who lived with and loved these men, and it is the story of the women, the shadows, that most interested me, and I suspect it is the one that McDermott most wanted to tell. It is a quiet little book, told by a storyteller so gifted that it is easy to miss the social and political significance and simply flow with the story. It is also a book that is easy to put down even after you have begun to read it; I hope you will pick it up again. It deserves to be cradled and savored; let it sink in. Notice the shadows as well as the light.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan

It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.

So begins Maureen Corrigan’s confessional about the perils and delights of being a reader. In Corrigan’s case she is paid to read, but as she hastens to add in her introduction, if that weren’t so, she would have to invent some other excuse. Besides being a professor of literature, Ms. Corrigan also is the book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air, and writes reviews for the Washington Post and other newspapers and journals.

I have to admit that when I started this book, I had my doubts about whether I would finish it. I, too, am a reader by inclination as well as profession, but unlike Corrigan, I no longer feel obliged to read any book that does not capture me quickly and then sweep me along. When Corrigan talks about particular books (as least in this autobiography of a reader), she tells us too much about the plots and reveals too much about the endings, both of which I think a reviewer is morally bound to avoid. But it soon became apparent that she is not really reviewing books in this book about reading and readers; instead, she is talking about kinds of books that have delighted and transformed her, and about why we as readers ought to return again and again to books that change the way we read our own lives.

I recall a time when I would never have considered rereading a book. After all, I thought, and so many of my students have reiterated this thought, there are just so many good books and so little time to read them. Of course, that was before I became a teacher and simply had to keep rereading books as I taught them. No one, I think, can really put down Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason thinking, “Ah, that’s another one done!” Such books yield their nuggets only for those who are willing to dig and dig and dig. But Corrigan convinces me that this is not true only of hard-to-read philosophy and physics texts. After reading her book, I mean really to return to the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontes, and especially Jane Eyre. Austen and the Brontes made a deep and lasting impression on me, but after all, I was still in my teens when I read most of these books, and as Corrigan makes me acutely aware, I simply was not ready, did not know enough, to see the deeper significance in these tales.

There are so many things I could talk about in recommending this book to you. At one point, I considered simply listing her chapter titles and saying a few words about each chapter. Or simply skipping to the end and talking for a few moments about the excellent reading list she provides for serious readers, a service which a few of my reader friends have provided for me in the past, giving me in a moment or two suggestions that took me through a whole summer of reclusive reading. What became increasing clear as I continued reading this book was that I could easily use up all of my allotted space on any one chapter. Corrigan is a leftist, a feminist, and a reader who wants us to love the books that she loves and to see their transformative value. Her feminism and her politics have guided her reading much as I think they have guided mine, so I found it quite natural that she went from women’s extreme adventure stories to women mystery writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Sara Paretsky. The latter genre has provided one outlet for what she calls The Second Wave of feminism, and Corrigan helps me understand why this genre suddenly seemed to me so much more than simply a reader’s way of spending a bit of time.

Given the constraints of time, I think I will concentrate on Corrigan’s first (and in many ways central) chapter: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Women’s Extreme-Adventure Stories,” and her clever and convincing arguments regarding the differences between male and female versions of the adventure genre. But before doing that, let me turn briefly to her epilogue which begins: “I’ve never identified with those up-from-the-working-class stories where the hero (almost always it’s a hero) packs his bags and leaves his humble place of origin never to return.” She points out that while Thomas Wolfe’s pronouncement, ‘“You can’t go home again,’ has achieved the status of woeful fact,” at least for many men, “I know a lot of women in my situation who are always going home again, and again, and again.” They go home or stay at home to care for children and families, return home to nurse and care for aging parents, or simply to try once again to repair and restore communities ravaged by economic plundering and desertion. Corrigan never forgets or denies her working class roots, nor her commitment to social justice. It guides her reading, her reviews, and her life.

Corrigan reminds us that, “For all readers, male and female, there is a discrepancy between the possibilities offered by the world of the imagination and the possibilities offered by real life. But, until the social revolution of the Second Women’s Movement, that discrepancy, generally speaking, had been more gaping for women readers.” And in her first chapter, she tells us in some detail how women’s extreme adventure stories differ from those of men. “The male adventure stories heave with exertion and bleed every few pages or so; women’s feats tend to be less Herculean and more Sisyphean in nature.” But the perils are at least as grave if not graver. Men, she reminds us, tend to seek adventure in packs, while women are isolated by their trials, and it is this very isolation that constitutes the gravest danger, though (for the most part) psychological rather than physical. In what I take to be exceptionally perceptive analyses of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the even more somber and chilling Vilette, Corrigan recounts for us the horrifying solitude and loneliness of the two heroines. “Their first-person narratives are frostbitten to the core. Both heroines recount their individual frantic attempts to escape form subzero existential solitude into the warmth of a sheltering marriage.” Jane, at least to some extent, succeeds, though the path to her eventual marriage is one plagued by solitude, economic hardship, and despair (and the prize of the blinded and in need of nursing care Rochester is questionable at best). Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Vilette, finds no such reward after her long journey through almost unspeakable isolation. Mountains and rivers and artic wastes take their tolls, but so do isolation, poverty, and despair. At least Jane, during her long absence from Thornfield and Mr. Rochester, “…has learned that there is a fate more terrible than solitude: it’s solitude in the company of a husband who essentially misunderstands you.”

Corrigan points out (though I had forgotten or never knew) that Jane Austen is a comic writer, and the desperation of her women characters to find a husband is often at least mitigated by humor not to be found in the dead seriousness of Charlotte Bronte. Still, in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s almost unendurable waiting is meticulously chronicled by Austen, and “The whole fate of her life—indeed, whether she’ll even have what many of her peers would regard as a life—rests on whether this man Darcy looks at her; whether his gaze lingers; and whether he, once again, likes what he sees enough to airlift Elizabeth up and out of the limbo of Longhourn and off to the Cinderella’s castle of Pemberly.”

Corrigan comments so perceptively on Edith Wharton (another of my favorite authors), Sara Paretsky, Dorothy Sayers and a host of other writers; I have only scratched the surface. I invite you to dive into this little book and then into the novels she discusses.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Collected Stories by Carol Shields

I am not, for the most part, a reader of short stories, not because I think they are trifling or unimportant, but simply because they usually tempt me, tease me, but fail to satisfy. I take this to be an idiosyncrasy of mine rather than a defect in the form. However, when I stumbled across the collected stories of Carol Shields, I had to have them. I think Shields is one of the best and most important writers of the last fifty years, and this collection, which spans her entire life as a writer, is a fitting farewell. Shields died in 2003 at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, not long after the publication of her fine novel, Unless. Although born in the U.S., Shields lived most of her life in Canada, and in my view, had a refreshingly foreign and objective view of American politics.

I am not going to say a lot about Shields and her many works, instead, I am simply going to let her own words and the words of some other Canadian writers speak for her. Shields does not write about the rich and famous; her novels and stories are about quite ordinary people, and it seems to have taken most critics many years to understand her significance. Shields understood pain and suffering, but she also understood the little joys of life and of relationships. Quoting the wonderful Margaret Atwood:

She knew about the darkness, but, both as an author and a person, she held onto the light … Earlier in her writing career, some critics mistook this quality of light in her for lightness, light-mindedness, on the general principle that comedy—a form that turns on misunderstanding and confusion, but ends in reconciliation, of however tenuous a kind—is less serious than tragedy, and that the personal life is of lesser importance than the public one. Carol Shields knew better. Human life is a mass of statistics only for statisticians: the rest of us live in a world of individuals, and most of them are not prominent. Their joys however are fully joyful, and their griefs are real. It was the extraordinariness of ordinary people that was Shield’s forte. She gave her material the full benefit of her large intelligence, her powers of observation, her humane wit, and her wide reading. Her books are delightful, in the original sense of the word: they are full of delights.
Certainly, Atwood describes exactly this collection of stories. Sometimes in just a page or two, almost always in less than twenty, Atwood introduces us to a quite ordinary person living through some experience we can all recognize, and usually with a gentle nudge of humor, enables the reader to understand something deeply significant about the particular lived life. The very first story, “Seque,” was written the year she died, and like so many of the stories in the collection, appears to be some final attempt by Shields to speak to us from beyond the grave, urging us not to despair in the face of staggering world events, to look and listen and carry on.

Something is always saying to me: Be plain. Be clear. But then something else interferes and unjoints my good intentions.” And so begins the story of an older woman, a writer of sonnets, living in a rather humdrum relationship with a man who is also a writer, but who “doesn’t believe, I suspect, that the mystery of being is as deeply manifest in women as in men.

Her poor husband, Max, has had the misfortune of having his latest novel published on September 10, 2001.
“Of course, no one had time to read the ensuing reviews of Flat Planet, no one cared about social novels and novelistic dioramas during that pinched, poisoned, vulnerable and shocking time….”
But, of course, we must talk after 9/11; we must talk, and think, and read, and act. We cannot afford to sink into the dismal but handy notion of apocalypse, must not give into cynicism and despair.

This first story is unlike most of Shields’ stories in that it is written in the first person; usually, writing in the third person, the reader is given an outsider’s view of a character, a life. “Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June!” And from this simple introduction of an old woman cutting grass in shockingly short shorts, disgustingly short in the eyes of the high school girls passing by, we are allowed to telescope out and backwards to the sketch of a life—ordinary, but passionate and complex, and looked at closely enough, quite extraordinary. And so Shields invites the reader to imagine, to realize, that there is just such a full and complex life enveloping all of the quite ordinary people we meet.

Shields loves to write about small towns in Canada, places where “the trickle-down despair of the century” has not yet reached. But she is equally at home with big city life of Toronto and Montreal. In one such story, “Chemistry,” Shields describes for us a group of mismatched folks who meet weekly in an advanced class for players of the recorder. Beginning as total strangers to one another, this group forges a rather strange and wonderful bond, meeting after class in a nearby bar, and over the period of a few months, becoming more and more dependent on this weekly fix of comradeship. “We see ourselves as accidental survivors crowed to the shores of a cynical economy.” As they stand on the street outside the bar after one of the first of such meetings, one member of the group, a usually shy and timorous woman, impulsively opens her arms to the group for a hug, and surprising even themselves, they hug and not-quite kiss. “Already, after three weeks, it’s a rite, our end-of-evening embrace, rather solemn but with a suggestion of benediction, each of us taken in turn by the others and held for an instant, a moonlit choreographed spectacle.” The class ends, the group disperses as quickly as they had formed, and yet each is left with something precious, something indelible, something that gives them hope and strength.

I am tempted to describe and quote from a number of the other simple stories in this volume, hoping to entice you into picking up the book and diving in, but instead, let me close with comments by Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, two other Canadian authors who loved and were loved by Carol Shields. Munro says of her: “She was a luminous person, and that would be important and persist even if she hadn’t written anything.” And Atwood tells us of the soul that continues on in Shield’s writing.

“It’s this voice—astute, compassionate, observant, and deeply human—that will continue to speak to her readers everywhere. For who is better at delineating happiness, especially the sudden, unlooked-for, unearned kind of happiness, than Carol Shields? It is easier to kill than to give birth, easier to destroy than to create, and easier for a writer to describe gloom than to evoke joy. Carol Shields can do both supremely well, but it’s her descriptions of joy that leave you open-mouthed. The world may be a soap bubble hovering over a void, but look, what astonishing colours it has, and isn’t it amazing that such a thing exists at all?

Such a world—various, ordinary, shimmering, evanescent but miraculous—is a gift; and it’s the vision of this gift that Carol Shields has presented us with in her extraordinary books. We give thanks for it—and for her.”
Indeed, we do.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Anyone who has thought of writing memoir has to ask themselves what they will include and what they will not, where they will start, and what will be the pivot or organizing principle of their story. The very title of Jeannette Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, serves as just such a pivot. One of four children, three girls and a boy, Jeannette grows up in a series of hard scrabble towns and an assortment of barely habitable houses, but always with the promise that very soon she will be living in the glass castle that her father has designed and will build as soon as he has solved a set of tricky engineering and energy problems. Almost always hungry and dressed in thrift-store clothes, she and her siblings defend each other fiercely—the more rejection they feel from the Others, the more tightly they bind themselves to one another and to the increasingly improbable dreams of their clever but shiftless father. Suspicious of all outsiders, but especially of anyone who has the stamp of government on them, they often skedaddle in the middle of the night, allowed to take only one favorite possession with them. From Nevada to California and back again to Nevada, always ready to move on at the drop of a hat or the appearance of a child welfare worker, still the children continue to believe in their father who can fix anything and their artist mother who, it seems, would rather paint than eat.

On the book cover the author and critic, Francine Prose, says that memoirs are modern fairy tales, and judging from the huge sales of this book, this is a fairy tale that has captured the imagination of lots of folks. There is no doubt that Walls is a very good writer, and she describes the incredibly hard life she and her siblings lived with a kind of detachment and lack of pathos that reminds me of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, but unlike Wright’s autobiography, this book lacks any profound social commentary. Even when the Walls wind up in an almost unbelievably impoverished West Virginia mining town, Walls fails to reflect on the underlying causes of poverty surrounding her, or of the scandalous failure to provide health care, food and clothing to the victims of this economic system. It is almost as if she believes that poverty is a personal sin, and to the very end of her account, it seems that she is more ashamed of her origins than outraged by the conditions of her own family and of countless other families she encounters in her childhood. Indeed, from the very outset of this memoir, the reader discovers an author still on the run.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up.
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.
I grant, of course, that anyone who has lived as Jeannette lived in her childhood would be eager to escape that condition, even to try to forget it, bury it. But Walls seems to be still in the grips of a kind of class shame, and I found myself in the final pages of the memoir more on the side of her reckless but rebellious parents than on hers. As it turns out, both of her parents were very bright but self-absorbed; they probably could have done much better as providers than they did (unlike some of the other families they encounter on their cross-country travels). Walls probably has the right to be angry with them; neither should have been a parent. Her father, besides being an alcoholic who seems more unwilling than unable to hold down a job, is more dedicated to his schemes and his own inflated view of himself than he is to his wife or family. And her mother is so addicted to pursuing her art that her children are bound to finish a distant second to her artistic endeavors. Thus, while poverty and hardship are prominent in this memoir, in the end it is more about four children escaping their parents than of their remarkable escape from poverty. Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote an excellent autobiographical novel about her escape from a traditionally Jewish family entitled Leaving Brooklyn. She describes how, in order to become the person she wants and needs to be, she must leave home and family and begin anew, and this is much more a reflection of her own needs than a condemnation of her family or past. I have worked on and off for years on an account of my Mormon childhood in Salt Lake City that I call Escape From Zion, realizing that I had to run away in order not to spend the rest of my life fighting Mormonism. I suppose in the end I simply find it hard to pinpoint what Walls is running from or even where she is running to. I very much admire the way she and her older sister escaped West Virginia, and then rather than simply turning their backs on their younger siblings bring of their miraculous escape as well, even rescuing the youngest girl when she is still in her early teens. The bond between the children is admirable, as are their sacrifices for one another.

I found myself more and more caught up in the story as the children, one by one, manage their move to New York, and horrified when even after their escape, both parents show up in New York City to “re-unite” the family. But as captivating as the story is, it leaves me wanting more—more reflection, more understanding, more analysis. If this is a modern day fairy tale, what is its point, its moral? Towards the very end, after the death of her father and the continued homelessness of her mother, Walls says, “It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn’t enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.” Yes, and perhaps writing this memoir is the beginning of that reconsideration, and the epiphany of understanding will follow in some future work.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

I have talked to you about the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch before, but I want to do so once again, not only because I think she is an extraordinarily important thinker and writer, but also because I think she demands of us what too few writers do these days, namely, to be and do good. Indeed, the very title of the book I am going to talk about today is The Good Apprentice, and I see it as an invocation for all of us to be apprentices to good. I am completing my fifth or sixth reading of this novel because I am teaching it in a class, but instead of boredom, I find myself newly inspired by this reading, and convinced yet again of her importance as an ethicist and novelist. Yes, she writes long and complicated and sometimes apparently bleak novels, but her deeply moral message makes her well worth the effort.

A common theme running through much late 19th and early 20th century philosophy is a kind of call to conscience and a call to action. Certainly, one can see that in Karl Marx who insists that the task is not merely to understand history, but to transform it. But in many ways the attempts to scientize philosophy and the humanities dulled or even made fun of such evangelism. The logical positivists insisted that ethics was not a cognitive discipline at all, that moral judgments had no cognitive content; instead, they are merely emotive outbursts, neither true nor false, but simply expressions of approval or disapproval. There is the suspicion, sometimes stated, sometimes only implied, that moral judgments are merely remnants of outdated religious beliefs, and that both need to be put to rest in the name of science and objectivity.

Certainly, the existentialists are exceptions to this trend. In Sartre and Camus there is clearly a call to action, an insistence that human history is in human hands (not God’s), and an insistence that each person throw herself/himself into life, commit entirely to one’s project, and live authentically. Martin Heidegger claims that the underlying angst that all of us feel (if and when we allow it to surface) is simply the call to act on our ownmost possibilities, to reject the they-self mode (valuing what ‘they’ say to value, doing what they say we should do), and becoming our authentic selves. In all of these thinkers I see an underlying call of conscience not so unlike the religious notion of a mission, a call from some higher power to act for the good.

However, although these thinkers were so opposed to the cold analytic methods of the positivists, their rejection of religion and their suspicions of prevailing systems of value led them either to distance themselves from ethics or to adopt theories of value that inevitably led to conclusions very close to the positivistic one described above. Sartre, in his zeal to emphasize human freedom, insists that there is no such thing as a common human nature (which others had used as a ground for some sort of objective ethic). Instead, says Sartre, we are the authors of our own existence; we create our essence by the choices we make, and all value is created by choice. How different is this from the claim that judgments of value are simply expressions of approval or disapproval?

All of this as a very rough and quick preface to Murdoch. As sympathetic as Murdoch is to the existentialists’ passionate call to action, she is convinced that the rejection of a common human nature is a fatal and false move for ethics. So, too, any value theory that claims that value is literally created by choice. “The ordinary person does not, unless corrupted by philosophy, believe that he creates values by his choices.” Not only is there a common human nature, but ethics is somehow grounded in that commonality, and good, while difficult (in fact impossible) to analyze into simpler component parts, is real and objective.

Morality is objective rather than subjective because it depends on what is the case (with other humans as well as sentient creatures other than humans), not on what we believe to be the case or wish to be true. Thus, in agreement with Plato, Murdoch insists that good and truth are (though not identical) intimately connected. We must see others as they really are in order to act justly towards them. Not such an easy matter; “It is a task to see the world as it is.” We are, continues Murdoch, selfish by nature, and what we call looking at the world is usually simply looking through the veil of our own cares and concerns. Thomas, a psycho-therapist who is one of the good characters in The Good Apprenctice puts it this way, “We are all wrapped in silky layers of illusion, which we instinctively feel to be necessary to our existence.” Murdoch invites us to shed those layers of comfortable illusion.

Although Murdoch rejects the value theory of Sartre (and some other existentialists), she agrees with them that there is no external telos, no human-independent purpose for human existence. “I assume that human beings are naturally selfish and that human life has no external point or telos.” She does not argue for these claims about our selfish natures and the absence of an external telos, but neither, she insists are they merely assumptions, nor products of the despair of our age. Rather, these beliefs are the products of “the advance of science over a long period,” and if they increase our anxiety about death, they also can serve as springboards for morality and active political lives.

So the condition in which we find ourselves can be summed up, “….the world is aimless, chancy, and huge, and we are blinded by self.” One might conclude from the above that Murdoch is hostile towards religion, since religions insist not only that there is an external telos, but that they have in some sense discovered it. However, many of Murdoch’s best characters are religious, e.g., in The Philosopher’s Pupil, a Jewish man who has converted to Christianity, indeed has become a priest, and yet calls himself an atheist who happens to have a personal relationship with Christ. And in the book I am talking about today, the apprentice to good is a young man named Stuart who insists that what is needed is religion without god, and who recommends prayer without god. But isn’t this all just pointless doubletalk? Murdoch thinks not. The key to morality she thinks rests in the struggle to see something greater than the self, but that something greater is not a god or transcendent being, it is simply the world (and others) as they really are. Morality involves the attempt to really attend to others, and attention requires (if only for moments) a transcending of self and of the veil of illusion that concerns for self create. Prayer and meditation are not important as literally ways to converse with some mythical being, but rather as serious and systematic attempts to un-self, as a kind of practice in seeing things as they really are. Prayer as conversation with some father-god is merely a way of soothing the anxiety-ridden self and its anxiety with its own death, but when disconnected from myth and magic, it can be a path to genuine morality. Our natural condition is a condition very like Plato describes us in his allegory of the cave; we think we are seeing the world as it is, but are seeing only shadows of shadows, reflections of what are, themselves, merely cardboard cutouts. Getting out of the cave is no easy task, since the cave of self is “…a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to keep the psyche from pain.,” but nevertheless, we are ‘called’ to leave the cave, and to be good, and “….anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”

I can see that I have bitten off considerably more than I can chew in this attempt to quickly overview Murdoch and also say something concrete and constructive about this particular novel. Let me try to sum up by saying that for Murdoch the call of conscience is the call to be good, to see the world as it really is rather than as we would like it to be. Instead of being embarrassed by this evangelical message, she embraces it, and I see each of her novels (as well as substantial parts of her essays) as invitations to apprehend the world as it is, and then to act on that comprehension. “The only think which is of real importance is the ability to see it all clearly and respond to it justly which is inseparable from virtue.” We must not allow ourselves to be frightened out of talk about and reflection on good, talk about truth and justice. Indeed, we must heed the call to do good.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

Although I try my best to talk to you only about books that I consider to be really good ones, occasionally a book will come along that raises such a furor and gets so much hype that the noise alone seems reason for comment. Such is the case with the incredibly popular book, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. So many of my good reader friends, including my partner, loved the book and urged me to read it, and since it is now about to appear as a motion picture, it seems appropriate to say a few words about it and to comment at least briefly on its popularity. Although the novel hardly fits into the great category, it is bound to have much more content than the movie, and I think readers owe it to themselves to read through the book before (or in place of) seeing the movie.

Having been raised a Mormon, I am not surprised when I hear about vast cover-ups by churches, attempts to distort history in order not to have facts come to light that cast doubt on grand claims or betray shadowy and shabby origins. Not too many years ago a book called The Mormon Murders meticulously laid out some incredible attempts by the Mormon Church to buy allegedly authentic historical documents simply in order to bury them in their vaults and protect the reputation of its original leader, Joseph Smith. Although in the form of a novel, Dan Brown is attempting to do much the same thing with regards to mainstream Christianity.

In fairness to the book, I really should begin by saying that this is a pretty good little mystery, and for readers, it reads as quickly and smoothly as running water. Although I would say that in place of deep and genuine character development, the book creates cardboard cutouts to do work for Brown as he manipulates them from behind the scenes, there is a certain degree of charm to the heroes and heroines, and a chilling nastiness to the villains. And there is plenty of suspense and mystery.

The premise of the book is that there exists secret documentation, hidden and protected for centuries, that will demonstrate a conspiracy by Christianity (and especially the Catholic Church) to suppress some gospels and to elevate others—in short, to present the New Testament as historical fact while hiding and/or denying historical documents that conflict with and even contradict the story as told. Da Vinci is but one of many intellectuals chosen by a secret society, the Priory, to pass along the hidden secrets.

….the Priory’s tradition of perpetuating goddess worship is based on a belief that powerful men in the early Christian church ‘conned’ the world by propagating lies that devalued the female and tipped the scales in favor of the masculine…..The Priory believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever.

The Church relentlessly pursued those whom they thought were in possession of such dangerous documents, murdering some, paying out vast sums of money to others, and burning five million women as witches in the relentless attempt to keep the secrets buried and the patriarchy alive.

I certainly agree with the overall thesis of the book that what gets presented as the one and only truth about Christ and the history of Christianity is, in fact, a particular set of so-called ‘gospels’ that were selected out by men at some particular point in history, and that what got ignored in the process is at least as important as what got selected. Anyone who has done much research into early Christianity knows that a council of men decided on just what would be counted as divine scripture. Certainly the recent hubbub over the Judas gospels and the not so long ago stirring of historical controversy by The Dead Sea Scrolls should convince any even moderately fair researcher that some political agenda has steered Christianity. I think Brown is correct in assuming that most people who call themselves Christians are profoundly naïve about the origins of their own religion and consider it sacrilegious even to consider historical data that might call into question the literal truth of biblical accounts. Mormons could suppress dissent by forbidding their members to read accounts that called into question the truth of Mormonism or the saintly characteristics of its founders, and while moderate Christians laugh at the gullibility and lockstep mentality of Mormonism (which they see as a cult), they seem simply to suppose that the Bible (divinely inspired and all) must capture the truth. If Brown’s book can help shake this hopeless naivete, its popularity must be at least forgiven.

And Brown manages not only to involve his reader in this vast patriarchal cover-up, but also to recall for us the romantic searches for the Holy Grail, and to suggest that Jesus may have married and had offspring (also, of course, relentlessly pursued by the Church and killed if found in order to forestall claims of divine bloodlines). In fact, perhaps the Holy Grail is not a document at all, but a person who constitutes a double threat to Catholicism by showing its divine book to be false and by giving the world even more than a latter-day-saint, namely, a living bloodline-authentic goddess!

Holy grails, Mary Magdalene as Christ’s wife, a living goddess among us—this is heady stuff, no wonder it has caught the eye of Hollywood. And certainly as a reminder that religion is really a matter of metaphor, both our own favorite religion and the religions of others, this book is worth reading. Sally McFague (and other feminists who wish to retain some parts of religion) has argued that what is required by religious apologists is new metaphors—not god-the-father, god the punisher, god the wrathful, god as commander-and-chief. Instead, she suggests, why not consider the earth as god’s body, revert to a more naturalistic and pantheistic metaphor that may help us to treat both the earth and each other in kinder and more loving ways. Although I don’t have the same sort of investment in trying to save religion, I respect McFague’s efforts.

Perhaps Brown puts his own views into the mouths of one of his characters when he says, “Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” There need not be literal virgin births, literal resurrections, literal incarnations of gods or goddesses. Instead, open up to all possibilities, and insist primarily on the morality and tolerance of religious views. To do otherwise, is simply to endorse mass psychosis as literal truth.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Lovely Bones by Ann Seabold

I suppose we often find beauty and hope in places where we would least expect them. Certainly, the rape and murder of a young girl is not a place where we would look for light or wisdom or hope. And yet we know from the first lines of Ann Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones, that the narrator, the voice that will inform and guide us through the rest of the book, is that of a fourteen year old girl who was murdered in 1973.

I, at least, am not a person who would usually even bother to pick up a book narrated by a dead person. Unlike many I know who like to believe that the body is a prison, a limitation, and that our real selves will somehow escape once we are unfettered from the organic material that makes us up, I think that we are incredibly fortunate to be embodied consciousness, to be animals among animals. I believe we can think because we have brains, can talk because we have a tongue and mouth and breathe; in short, I believe our bodies are ourselves, and that even if there were some sort of heaven, we would not be able to be the beings that we really are were we to go there. Indeed, I think those who talk of and yearn for escape from the body into some sort of non-earthly paradise are showing a kind of contempt for the very beings we are, for the very condition we find ourselves in.

And yet, once I began to read this novel (with the narrator situated somewhere between earth and heaven), I could not put it down, and I find that I have to agree with the raves on the jacket cover—that this is a beautiful book, somehow even profound and revelatory.

Let me begin by quoting a kind of prefatory paragraph, and then attempt to explain why this is such a good book.
Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf. When I was little my father would pull me into his lap and reach for the snow globe. He would turn it over, letting all the snow collect on the top, then quickly invert it. The two of us watched the snowfall gently around the penguin. The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.’
And so, I suppose, we are to think of Susie, trapped in a nice ‘heavenly’ life—able to see her family, her friends, even in some very slight and marginal ways to interact with them, and yet isolated from them by her own death. At first this book and Susie’s condition seem to be simply contrivances for a sort of mystery; with her help and her ability to subtly guide her family, the murderer will be found and brought to justice. So, Susie is a sort of heavenly sleuth.

Instead of a mystery and a search for justice, however, I think this book is really about how deaths, especially violent ones, affect the living—how the lives of the living are suddenly and completely transformed by the death. This is not really a book about transcending death or a story about the marvels of heaven; Susie’s death simply allows her to be a fly-on-the-wall narrator of how her death impacts the living.

Susie has a brilliant younger sister and a much younger brother, and these two children are as certainly victims of her murderer as Susie herself. Their father, driven nearly insane by the death of his oldest child, is utterly and completely preoccupied with the task of exposing her murderer—so absorbed by Susie’s death that he unintentionally turns away from his living wife and children. Lindsey, the sister, feeling intense guilt that she is alive while her sister is dead, identifies with her father and his relentless search. Neither Lindsey nor her father seem to have any understanding of the existential turmoil of the mother or of her desperate attempts to move beyond the death and to find meaning for the living.

Quite apart from chronicling the affects of her death on her friends and family, Susie’s narration of the book allows Sebold to talk about how everyday life is a kind of battlefield for girls and women, with neither big cities nor small towns being places that are safe for girls and women to walk. And I have no doubt that this is one of the main reasons that Sebold wrote this book. But beyond that warning and her own consternation about how the world we live in has become such a dangerous one, she seems to want her readers to understand how guilt and grief and even the desire for vindication or retribution can be paths into labyrinths of self-absorption. It may seem that intense love for a lost one is anything but absorption with the self, but it can absent one from the cares and concerns and obligations of this life as certainly as selfishness or ambition.

Eventually, we find that Susie is not quite in heaven, but instead in a kind of limbo between heaven and earth, trying to shepard her family to some new state of being that will allow forgetfulness, even joy and happiness in spite of her tragic death. “…I was beginning to wonder if this had been what I’d been waiting for, for my family to come home, not to me anymore but to one another with me gone.” While loving her father and his ceaseless struggles to expose the man who murdered her, she begins to see how that struggle causes him to abandon his living children and his wife, just as grief and loss cause her mother to more literally abandon Susie’s ghostly father and her living children.

Of course, there are ways in which the book is a mystery, and I’m not about to give away the twists and turns of plot that lead finally to a kind of resolution. Many, even most, of the readers I have talked to about this book have told me that they loved the first half, but were less enthusiastic about the second half. I think that has to do with a basic difficulty in writing, namely the attempt authors make to cover too much time, to tie up all loose ends, to finish the stories of all the main characters. The first half of the book covers quite a short space of time, a few days, a few weeks, at most a very few months; the second half tries to take us quickly forward a decade and more. We feel rushed, sense that the author feels rushed as well. Better to have told us less, to have settled for incompleteness and the uncertainty of life.

Still, flawed or not, this is a very good book, and certainly takes us beyond vindictiveness and loss. In Susie’s words:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life. My father looked at the daughter who was standing there in front of him. The shadow daughter was gone.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelopy Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about two authors and two books. What they have in common is that they are both British, both brilliant, both writing about events during and slightly after World War II, and (perhaps the most relevant commonality) both having written books that I happened to read lately in close succession. The two authors are Penelope Lively and Ian McEwan. Lively’s book is a memoir entitled Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, and McEwan’s an early novel of his, The Innocent. I consider these two writers to be literary giants of the past fifty years; both write about lived time in ways that I find profound and extraordinary.

It may be that only those of you who already have a passion for Lively will really enjoy her autobiographical account of the first twelve years of her life growing up in Cairo. It is not what you would call a page-turner, no twists of plot nor adventure, simply an adult woman trying to put together a few crystalline images from her past. I am a reader who has a deep fascination for Lively’s writing, and I read this little book wanting to know just how she could have become such an incredible writer with such a deep understanding of how we humans live in the past, present, and future all at once.

Lively, like Immanuel Kant and many thinkers since, realizes that memory is a synthetic faculty rather than a strictly reproductive one. She understands that the mind is not so much a recorder and camera as it is a story-teller, a fabricator, and when telling stories about childhood, a story-teller that has to spin her tale from disparate shards of evidence. In her words:

I have tried to recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood—in so far as any of us can do such a thing—and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity.
Lively was born in 1933, and her narrative covers only her first twelve years growing up in Egypt plus a handful of memories from 1945 when she returns finally to England. For someone as ignorant of history and geography as I, Lively’s account of Cairo, Alexandria, and the multifarious life-forms of the Nile is both informative and mind-boggling. She recalls for us a land populated by a rich juxtaposition of Greeks, French, Italians, British, Maltese, Lebanese, Syrian, and Turks, and all seen through the eyes of a child, though informed by the acute mind of an adult looking back.

But while Lively does want to tell her readers something about how the war impacted Cairo and the desert surrounding it, as well as a good bit about the long history of conquest and occupation by so many different powers, her primary concern is to talk about how children perceive, and how the purity of childhood perception is lost to us as adults. Again in her words:

No thought at all here, just observation—the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation. It is also the Wordsworthian vision of the physical world: the splendor in the grass. And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s-eye-view. A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe—but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation.
Just as in her masterpiece, Moon Tiger, when Lively describes so wonderfully and tantalizingly the life of an old woman, near death in a care facility, her mind alive finally only to the past, the present irrelevant, in this kaleidoscopic memoir we experience life through the eyes of a child captured as it were under glass. Her ability to deal with lived time simply stuns me.

... continue to Ian McEwan's The Innocent ...

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan [like Penelope Lively in Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived] also takes us to the past, but in this intricate little novel we see the divided Berlin of the 50’s as seen through the eyes of a young British man caught up in a joint project of England and America to spy on their Russian counterparts. McEwan uses a historical fact for the kernel of his storyline—an audacious and brazen attempt to tunnel under Berlin into the Russian controlled Eastern sector for the purposes of tapping Russian phone lines. And while the spy-story and its convoluted subplots occupy a good bit of the novel, I see it much more as a love story between the innocent Brit and a slightly older and much less innocent German woman. There is no doubt that the novel is at least partly about the arrogance of the American forces in Berlin and the duplicity of their dealings even with their supposed British allies, but it is also the story of a young man coming of age rather late in life and trying to learn how to love and trust.

McEwan is quite obviously interested in the very concept of innocence and its close neighbor, ignorance. His hero, Leonard Marnham, is an innocent in so many ways. An employee of the Post Office, he suddenly finds himself in Berlin, using his knowledge of tape recorders and telephones to help Americans spy on Russians. And he is a virgin not only to spying, but also to sex. Not so surprising, perhaps, for a twenty-five year old man in 1955, but he is profoundly naïve as well as being a virgin. The German woman whom he meets and falls in love with is only slightly older at thirty, but she has already been married and has already learned a lot about the brutality of many men. And although Leonard is instantly alarmed and ashamed when he inadvertently admits his ‘condition’ to Marie, she is heartened by it. Here is a man who can be taught—who will not assume that he already knows all there is to know about women and sex, and who might turn out to be gentle as well as worthy of trust.

And so for quite sometime, this book appears simply to be a sweet and rather lovely love story with the reader pulling for this couple to maintain and nurture their love. Of course, McEwan never lets the reader off easily. There are twists and turns to this plot that I would never give away even if I had the time to do so. Instead, I will simply remind readers unused to McEwan that he can and does often write about events that are alarming, even gruesome. Let me say simply that this is not a Hollywood love story, so readers should beware.

What continues to intrigue me about McEwan is his incredible ability to describe in great detail a moment or a day in a life, and to catch the reader up in the detail. One always knows when reading him that he has done his homework and that his meticulous descriptions are lucid and informed.

I recommend both of these books to you, and more importantly, both of these authors. They create feasts for their readers, and I am so happy to be sitting at their tables. I have been talking about Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacranda: A Childhood Perceived and Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I have often said that there are too many great or very good books to spend much time talking about bad or not very good ones. But today I want to talk about a not especially good book that is currently enjoying its moment of fame. The title of the book is Empire Falls, and its moment of fame is due (I think primarily) to its appearance as an HBO miniseries with an impressive cast including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Aiden Quinn and others. The series and/or its actors have been nominated for a number of Golden Globe awards, and I can understand the appeal of both the book and the series quite apart from the impressive cast. I openly applaud many of the messages in the book. I’ll not say much here about the miniseries except to urge readers to try the book before the film series.

Richard Russo is a fine writer; he is funny and clever, and I think he may understand some of the glaring weaknesses of men as spouses, parents, friends about as well as any male author I can think of. His male lead characters in Straight Man, Nobody’s Fool and The Risk Pool are drawn in clearly sympathetic ways, and yet each of the men seems simply befuddled by his spouse or lover; each is apparently loving but unable really to communicate or even to open up lines of communication with his loved ones, and although in some ways socially or politically astute, each seems unable really to take themselves seriously or to do anything with their awareness. There are (as I recall) also very strong women characters in each of these books, and Russo is able to make it clear that he genuinely admires them—as spouses, as parents, as people who do take themselves seriously in the world, and his male characters always seem to hope (in vain?) to learn something from these exemplary women.

Miles Roby, the lead character in Empire Falls is just such a man, and I suppose that one of the things that almost immediately irritated me about the book was the similarity between Miles and all Russo’s other well-meaning but obtuse male leads. Miles is separated from his wife whom he seems not to understand at all; he is a caring and even diligent father to his teenage daughter, but generally it seems that it is she who must take care of him. His father, a much worse husband, communicator, parent, or serious-person-in-the-world than Miles, seems in most ways simply one of the male characters from an earlier Russo novel grown into the pessimistic and ineffectual old man he was destined all along to become.

Miles’ mother, beautiful, wise, and self-sacrificing seems also to be a reincarnation of one of Russo’s earlier female characters. Whatever his father lacks in seriousness and self-discipline, his mother makes up for by seeming to have no life of her own at all. She is a mother, a wife, a provider, and she dies young—all seemingly ingredients in what Russo sees as the good woman. She has one glorious vacation on Martha’s Vinyard, even a night or two of loving and being loved (with a man whom the reader supposes she simply met there), and for this she pays, and pays, and pays.

So, having said so little good about the novel up to now, why would I review it or recommend it? Well, for one thing it is a typical but important story to tell about how small towns (as well as big cities) often die at the mercy of the rich. A small factory town in Maine, Empire Falls flourishes for a generation or two due to the success of the shirt and textile factories that operate on the river. Almost everything in the town is owned by the same family who owns the factories, and when (through whim, or boredom, or less than expected financial returns) the last factory is closed down, it is the townspeople (and not the owners) who suffer. Many simply leave, forced to pull up stakes and find work somewhere else. Those who remain struggle simply to get by, their homes (just in case they own them) not worth much, but what else are they to do? And there is always the hope that the factory will come alive again.

Miles runs a little restaurant, owned, of course, by Mrs. Whiting, the widow of the last in the line of Whitings who have made their money by buying up whatever they saw and simply holding it as a hedge against the future. A literary type by nature and the hope of his mother who has sacrificed everything so that he could go to college and escape Empire Falls, Miles and his brother make a meager living running the restaurant. Miles left college and returned to Empire Falls due to his mother’s cancer, and although he knows how much she would hate it, inertia and some distorted sort of loyalty keep him there even after she dies. Miles, too dispassionate even to be bitter, simply suffers his existence, buoyed at least slightly by his bright and wonderful daughter (who lives now with his estranged wife).

While I would not call this book a political one, nevertheless it is distinctly blue-collar, and the sympathies of the author are obviously with the townspeople and not the wealthy owners. Indeed, we find eventually that the Whitings have simply been holding onto the land, the factory, the town, because they knew that some parts would eventually be attractive to outside money. And, indeed, the factory is finally purchased by some corporation that specializes in buying and selling companies that have some valuable inventory and can in one way or another either turn a profit or serve as tax-breaks. The hopes of the town are raised to a temporary ecstasy when the factory is purchased by outside money; the few who are employed show how they will work for little, and then for less, in order to help increase profits. But, alas, the comparatively small profits to be had have never been much of an issue with the owners, and when the time comes, the inventory, the equipment, is simply sold off, and the factory sold off because of the soon to be valuable river-front land. The employees are let go without so much as a thought. And this not out of malice or intent, but simply because of the necessary blindness of corporate greed.

There is more to the book than I have mentioned; I find Russo’s fascination with religion interesting. Miles, a Catholic by birth and then by a kind of devotion to his saintly dead mother, can neither embrace Catholicism nor completely abandon it. He paints the church for free while taking a skeptical role in arguments over theology with the new priest, and I am convinced it is Russo who is doing the struggling, the questioning, wanting really to believe what he is quite sure is not true. I like also at least one of the women characters in the book, one whom I would say has occurred in other incarnations in other of his novels. The woman, a few years older than Miles, has been his heart-throb since boyhood, although Miles seems unable to act on his infatuation in any way other than comparing her goodness to his wife’s deficiencies.

Most of all, Russo is a funny man, and he creates male characters that I like to laugh at, and whom I also encounter far too often in the mirror. Indeed, he seems to know quite a lot about these men, and even something about how they might rise up out of their passive existential despair and do something. Maybe in his next novel.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

Just in case a reader is new to Sara Paretsky, or thinks that perhaps her allegiances have somehow changed since her last novel, her heroine, V.I. Warshawski, lets us know in the early pages of her new novel Blacklist just what she thinks of the super wealthy, even when she happens to be in their employ.
I have this idea about people who live with enormous wealth and great position—that because they get exactly what they want when and how they want it, they believe they’re entitled to privilege. And I imagine such people think the rest of us exist only at their pleasure. That means it’s all right to summon us in the middle of the night, or lie to us, or do whatever else takes their fancy at the moment, because to them our lives have no existence away from their orbit.
Tough and gritty as always, this blue collar P.I. finds herself caught up in a case that takes her back to the McCarthy hearings as well as landing her smack in the middle of the consequences of the so-called Patriot Act. No doubt in the opening lines I quoted, Paretsky has a certain president in mind as well as a number of other folks in high places.

Although I like to read the occasional mystery, it is not often that I would take the time to review one for KBOO listeners, but this novel (and Paretsky in general) is an exception to the rule. Although the novel is in many ways depressing in that it points out just how dangerous it is to be or look like an Arab in America, and just how perilous the eroding of our civil rights is at present (without even taking into the account all that we don’t know about who is looking at us, and when, and for what reason), still I find it encouraging that even mystery writers find it imperative to warn Americans of where we stand in history and what we have lost or are losing. Of course, it is no accident that Paretsky is drawing parallels between the atrocities committed by McCarthy and others during the reign of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and the present activities unleashed by the Patriot Act. She knows that we are quite good at spotting the dangers and immorality of the past, but not so good at removing the blinders that keep us from seeing the present. Even popular movies like Good Night and Good Luck now spotlight for us the excesses of HUAC, but what is needed (and far more dangerous) is to shine even a bit of light on the lies and obfuscations of the present.

Interesting too how similar the rhetoric can be: McCarthy and his cohorts bellowing about known communist front organizations when nothing of the sort was known, and present officials (from small town sheriffs to FBI and CIA operatives) yelling about known terrorists when they know little or nothing and tell us even less.

This novel begins innocently enough. V.I. is called to work by a rich employer who pays her a retainer to check on an allegedly abandoned mansion which seems to have suspicious lights and movement in the middle of the night. But before she knows it, she is investigating the apparent murder of a African American writer who was writing a book about a blacklisted dancer from the fifties. That the apparent murder occurred in a very rich neighborhood, and that the local authorities seem anxious to explain it away as a suicide is plenty to get Warshawski’s attention, and when the rich begin to huddle and, with the help of the authorities, to block her investigation, she is fully engaged.

Paretsky sees the near-hysteria in all levels of law enforcement since 911 and how quick officers are from all levels to shoot first and question later, to arrest first and find charges later, and to generally trample a person’s civil rights “if they don’t like his race, creed or place of national origin.”

Perhaps it will seem to some readers just too coincidental that the murder mansion and the life of a frightened, run-away Egyptian boy (a dishwasher in an exclusive Chicago high school) get intertwined, but Paretsky wants to let us know just how much she knows about HUAC, and how much more dangerous the present cessation of rights is. Even the usually fearless Vic Warshawski admits that what she would like to do is lie down and sleep for a hundred years, “Until these times of fear and brutality passed,” but what is required is not sleep but vigilance and protest. She finds out quickly that even to ask “what has happened to the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” is enough to make her a suspected terrorist. Change the color of her skin or her place of birth, and she would not even be able to tell others just how much trouble she is in.

Like all of Paretsky’s novels, this is a long and complex one, and would be worth reading just for the story involved. But as a novel of the times, it is even more important and more deserving of a careful reading. Her heroine sums it up well when she is accused of not taking 911 seriously enough.

“Do you think it’s a joke, what happened in New York, what our troops are doing in Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf?” asks an angry law officer.

I looked up at him. ‘I think this is the most serious thing that has happened in my lifetime. Not just the Trade Center, but the fear we’ve unleashed on ourselves since, so we can say that the Bill of Rights doesn’t matter anymore. ... if the Bill of Rights is dead my life, my faith in America, will break.’
Finding that her files, her computer, even her Rolodex have been tampered with, she barks out, “Where the hell do you get off, harassing a citizen without probable cause?”, she gets an answer from the U.S. Attorney that she both knows and fears, “We don’t need probable cause.” All they have to do is utter the words Terrorist and Patriot in the same breath.

I should mention that besides being a fine writer of mystery novels, Paretski also holds a PhD in history and an MBA in finance. She uses all of her skills in this warning masquerading as a novel.