Monday, December 20, 2010

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Unlike Pat Barker’s horrible/wonderful depiction of war up close in her now famous Regeneration trilogy, her 2003 novel, Double Vision, has its setting far from actual theaters of war, but war and its effects on everyday people are still dominant themes. This novel is set in the English countryside and begins with the story of a sculptor, Kate, who has been commissioned to do a sculpture of Christ, though she is not herself a believer. Kate’s husband, Ben, has recently been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan where he was on assignment as war reporter. In just the first few pages of the novel, Kate, herself, is badly injured in a road accident. Behind schedule and with a rapidly approaching deadline for completion of the sculpture, she is forced to hire an assistant, and thus begins one of the threads of this rather complex novel. We soon discover that Peter, the newly hired assistant, is more than fascinated with Kate’s work. In fact, he begins to display behavior much like that of a stalker, and this relationship between sculptor and assistant adds an aura of suspense to the entire novel.

Without giving away much of the novel, let me say that there are two other characters central to the story: Stephen Sharkey, a photographer who, like Ben, has covered 9/11 as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Justine, the daughter of the local vicar. Stephen is living in a cabin on land owned by his brother while he attempts to write a book on the role of war reporter and photographer, and Justine is hired by the doctor-brother and his busy career-oriented wife to help with the young children and maintenance of the main house.

Having been a rather close friend to Ben, it is not surprising that Stephen looks up Ben’s widow, Kate, when he finds himself in quite close proximity to her, and they begin a series of discussions on war reporting as well as their relationships with Ben.

Stephen is clearly in limbo, not sure that he wants to continue in his life as photographer of grisly war scenes, but unable to see beyond it. My hunch is that the character of Stephen allows Barker to address what is the central theme for her in this novel: namely, the motivations of war reporters and the role they play. Certainly, being around Kate and talking about her recent loss of Ben stirs up these questions in him, but it is the much younger Justine who asks him the tough questions.
‘You don’t give anybody the benefit of the doubt, do you?’
‘Not often.’
‘The truth is, you’ve been digging around in violence so long you can’t see anything else.’
‘I see you.’
‘Do you?’
Stephen sighed. This was a surprisingly married conversation to be having with a girlfriend. It had the intense acrimonious pointlessness that only comes from long years of cohabitation.
‘Why do you do it?’
She jerked her head at the girl who was talking to camera. ‘That. Be a war correspondent.’
‘Foreign.’ The distinction mattered. He was damned if he was going to call himself after an activity he despised.
‘You covered a helluva lot of wars.’
‘They were there to be covered. I didn’t start them.’
‘You know there’s a Barbara Vine book called A Dark-Adapted Eye? That’s what you’ve got.’
‘Now you’re being silly.’
‘No, I’m not. People get into darkness, to the point where it’s the light that hurts.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Why did I do it? Adventure, proving myself, proving I could take it—and once that wore of, which it does, very quickly, being in the know. That sort of thing.’
She was looking at him scornfully.
‘Yeah, OK. I know—pathetic. But why do you think people become doctors? Pure altruism? I don’t think so.’
‘Why then?’
‘Knowledge. Access to secrets. Power.’
‘Not the only reasons.’
‘There are plenty of good reasons for being a war correspondent. Witnessing. Giving people the raw material to make moral judgments.’
‘But you said yourself, the witness turns into an audience, and then you’re not witnessing any more, you’re disseminating.’
While there are many twists and turns to this novel, including a simple and convincing love story, I think Barker mainly wants to talk about wars and about the way they are presented to the so-called folks-back-home. The ways in which television homogenizes and sanctifies war, both by what it shows and what it omits.

I haven’t mentioned just how this novel evolves into a kind of mystery thriller, and I don’t intend to give anything away. But while the plot is interesting and the suspense palpable, it is really war and countries that wage war that is at the heart of Barker’s interest. Let me close with one other quote from the book on a day when Stephen is trying, not very successfully, to get on with his book.
On Friday he’d broken off in the middle of a discussion about the bombardment of Baghdad in 1991—the first war to appear on TV screens as a kind of son et lumiere  display {sound and light show}, the first where the bombardment of enemy forces acquired the bloodless precision of a video game. He’d found it disconcerting at the time, and still did. What happens to public opinion in democracies—traditionally reluctant to wage war—when the human cost of battle is invisible: Of course there was nothing new in strict wartime censorship: it had been imposed in both world wars. But, in the first, nothing could hide the arrival of the telegrams nor, in the second, the explosion of bombs. What had been new about Baghdad and later Belgrade was the combination of censorship with massive, one-sided aerial bombardment so that allied casualties were minimal or non-existent, and ‘collateral damage’ couldn’t be shown. These wars designed to ensure that fear and pain never came home.
I haven’t even mentioned Barker’s analysis of two-career with children families, nor her  beautiful take on why and how good relationships require faith and risks. There is so much in this novel. I’m glad I read it; I hope you will.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis

Once in awhile a writer comes along who is so good that it’s almost startling. Deborah Willis is one such writer, and I would be very surprised if she does not become a very well known and well respected author. Vanishing and Other Stories is her debut book; I would not have guessed this had I not read it on the cover.

All of the stories in this little book are quirky, edgy, sometimes even bordering on sinister, but all are convincing. Sometimes the lead character in a story is a girl or young woman, in others, it is a mature man, but no matter the gender or the age, one instantly believes in the legitimacy of the voice. Alice Munro (whom I consider the greatest living author) says of this fellow Canadian writer: “The emotional range and depth of these stories, the clarity and deftness, is astonishing.” Just so, and the astonishment continues through each story.

It’s always impossible to capture a book by reading a few key passages, but even more difficult (I think) when talking about short fiction. Nevertheless, let me try to describe a couple of the stories and to at least hint at their profundity. In one story, “Escape,” we are introduced to a middle-aged male research doctor whose wife has recently died after a four year struggle with illness. He has no real idea how to live, how to be. The lingering illness and eventual death of his wife has left him rudderless, almost faceless. He has no interest in old friends or his home, and very little even in his work; he spends a lot of his time simply driving in unfamiliar towns looking in on the lives of others. He has the sense that he is slowly disappearing, and is as unconcerned about this as about the rest of his life. Like so many characters in these stories, he is simply, almost painlessly, vanishing.

On one such outing, he drives into the parking lot of a casino in a small town that has very little other than the casino, decides to enter in order to use the urinal, and then drifts to a blackjack table and listlessly gambles for three hours. Though he is not really a gambler and has as little interest in winning as concern at losing, he becomes a regular customer—always seeking out the same table and the same blackjack dealer. “This is how he lived his life now; everything was accidental. Everything was inevitable.” He appreciates that no one there knows him, no one talks to him. “The staff deal with people the way they deal with money: with immunity, without judgment.”

Eventually, he becomes interested in a woman dealer, although interested is too strong a word. He finds her blandness, her indifference, oddly comforting, and in a sense he begins to stalk her. He follows her out into the parking lot when she goes for cigarette breaks, even follows her home one night, though with no real intentions of getting to know her. She refuses to give him her real name, although eventually she begins to talk with him on her breaks, tells him about a past life as a stage magician. She languidly performs card tricks for him, lets him find cards that she has secreted into his wallet or pockets. As he pressures her for her name, she asks his, and when he tells her it is Tom, she replies:
“I feel I’ve known you for my whole life Tom…It’s like we’ve been married for decades.”
“That’s probably not a good thing.”
“You must not be married…Or you’d know that marriage isn’t good or bad. You just fall into it, like any habit.”
Like all the stories in this collection, this one does not build up to some dramatic conclusion, some final exchange between the two that finally allows the man to escape his doldrums. And yet there is a kind of progress. She finally reveals her name, Mabel, and he goes back to his condo, cleans out his neglected fish tank, and seems about to emerge from his faceless state, to reenter life—a modest salvation perhaps, but a salvation of sorts.

My reader friends who claim to hate short stories because they feel somehow shortchanged or cheated, and the better the story, the greater the sense of fraud, will not, I fear, be cured by reading this book. As with Alice Munro, it seems that each story could as well have been a novel, and one that would have been wonderful to read. Fortunately, though I was once one of those who avoided short fiction, I now find myself tantalized by the very things that used to irritate or disappoint me. Turning a page to see how the story will continue, how the lives will sort themselves out, instead there is only a last page, a suggestive final line. And yet the story is better for that, better because there is no resolution. Like real life, there is no neat beginning, no resolution, no end. There is only life as it is lived. And sometimes, there is only sadness that one knows will continue. In the story “Sky Theatre,” a beautiful young girl, envied by her girl peers and sought after by the boys, is suddenly, unexpectedly, injured, paralyzed from the neck down. The lead character in this story, a not so pretty and not so popular girl is left to ponder permanence and change.
But suddenly we saw that life was not the still water we’d believed it to be. Mary Louise had been going about the same middle-class, suburban, privileged existence that we led—except that hers was even more privileged than ours. She must have had our same unthinking confidence in the future, until her destiny swerved like a canoe caught in a current. She’d once possessed something elusive and unmistakable, something beyond even beauty—maybe charisma, maybe grace—and that something had been wrenched from her. Fortune’s wheel had turned. I found this terrifying. I found it comforting.
And perhaps that’s where I should end; I found these stories to be terrifying; I found them to be comforting. I intend to read whatever this person writes.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

There is no doubt that Ian McEwan is a great storyteller who won’t hesitate to tell rather bleak and creepy stories in order to make points about the human condition in general and contemporary life in particular. At least for this reader, there are times when the creepiness of the story trumps the profundity of his psychological analysis (The Comfort of Strangers jumps to mind), but in the rather foreboding tale, Black Dogs, the reverse is true. While on the surface the story is one of the long unraveling of a genuine love relationship between two people of different temperaments, I think McEwan is really trying to raise and discuss intelligently a split within the human psyche.

The surface story is one of two young lovers who, shortly after the end of World War II, quit their government jobs in England, declare their allegiance to the Communist Party (which they could not have done while still employed by the state), and set off to discover for themselves post-war Italy and France. Bernard and June Tremaine, convinced that the end of the war will also signal the end of capitalism and the beginning of a mass movement towards socialism, decide to hike and walk the towns and countryside of France and Italy as a honeymoon present to each other before returning home to help in building the new world.

Their tale is told by their son-in-law, Jeremy, who is living in the Europe of the 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having lost his own parents in a road accident when he is only eight, he has an eye on the parents of his friends, fascinated by intact families and by what makes some marriages click while others fray and unravel. Jeremy finds himself deeply attracted to both Bernard and June, though they have long lived apart.
Rationalist and mystic, commissar and yogi, joiner and abstainer, scientist and intuitionist, Bernard and June are the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest. In Bernard’s company, I always sensed there was an element missing from his account of the world, and that it was June who held the key. The assurance of his skepticism, his invincible atheism, made me wary; it was too arrogant, too much was closed off, too much denied. In conversations with June, I found myself thinking like Bernard; I felt stifled by her expressions of faith, and bothered by the unstated assumption of all believers that they are good because they believe what they believe, that faith is virtue and, by extension, unbelief is unworthy, or at best pitiable.
The deep division between June and Bernard, as well as their abiding love for each other, fascinates Jeremy, and he sets out to write the memoirs of June via interviews conducted on her deathbed.

It is important to remember that McEwan, himself, is no friend of the great religions of the world. A defender of his compatriot Christopher Hitchens, and at least somewhat sympathetic to a group of intellectuals sometimes dubbed The Evangelical Atheists (e.g., biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and philosopher Daniel Dennett), McEwan understands clearly the dangers of religious fundamentalism. However, he is suspicious of the wholesale dismissal of all that gets called spiritual and of exaggerated claims by some scientists that the lens of science has already (or will very soon) see things as they are in themselves and forever render as both absurd and unnecessary talk of a spiritual realm.

The black dogs of the title are no doubt metaphors for wild, irrational evil in the world, but June faces them also as living, breathing, attacking beasts that she encounters on a hiking trail in Italy. She has been momentarily separated from Bernard, who is straggling behind, literally on his knees in the dirt studying some biological life-form that is new to him. And while, once the two are reunited, he is all sympathetic concern towards his young bride and the frightful experience she has just had, this event and their reactions to it set the stage for their inevitable turning away from one another. June, having survived this ordeal without the help of her husband, learns from it that she has courage, that she can if necessary stand alone, “That’s a significant discovery for a woman, or it was in my day.” Over the course of years as they return to London and begin a family, Bernard devotes himself to parliamentary politics and to what June sees as “faith in abstract principals according to which committed intellectuals think to engineer social change.” June turns inward and to the practical and immediate. They buy a small, unimproved vacation property in France to which she retreats. She studies the mystics, studies wild flowers, returns to London less and less often.

Jeremy serves as a kind of mediator between these two loving and yet incompatible people, able to listen to both, partly because he finds parts of himself in both of their worldviews, and yet is himself unable to synthesize and make compatible the disparate sides.
As the family outsider, I was both beguiled and skeptical. Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning point—surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory. June’s ‘black dogs.’ Sitting here at the bedside notebook in my lap, privileged with a glimpse of her void, sharing in the vertigo, I found these almost nonexistent animals too comforting.
No doubt Jeremy serves a special purpose in this little novel; his is the voice that allows McEwan to continue the inward struggle between cool (even cold) rationality and a sense of something different, something more, something not to be named or neatly cordoned off. Gifted writer and intellectual that he is, McEwan does not in the end attempt a reconciliation, a convenient blending of the alleged contradictories. He is willing simply to present them, describe them, and leave them in suspension—not to be homogenized.
Bernard and June often talked to me about ideas that could never sit side by side. Bernard for example, was certain that there was no direction, no patterning in human affairs or fates other than that which was imposed by human minds. June could not accept this; life had a purpose and it was in our interests to open ourselves to it. Nor will it do to suggest that both these views are correct. To believe everything, to make no choices, amounts to much the same thing, to my mind, as believing in nothing at all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Next Of Kin by Johanna Trollope

There are some writers who provide readers a kind of oasis of hope and solace even when writing about an unpredictable and in many ways menacing world. Johanna Trollope is one such writer, and her novel Next of Kin leaves the reader with a kind of guarded optimism in facing an uncertain future. At least on the surface, this is a story about how families adapt to grief and loss, and even if that were all there is to the novel, it would be well worth reading. Trollope creates characters who seem real, situations that seem in some way or other universal, and moral dilemmas that retain their complexity even as she points the way towards a resolution.

I don’t know about other readers, but I like reading authors who describe our current historical situation and who are willing to reveal the many casualties of contemporary life, in short, writers who choose to tell the truth rather than simply entertaining us or allowing us to escape real life. That said, I have to admit that many writers brave enough to describe the world as they see it also sometimes leave the reader with a sense of despair and hopelessness, since the authors are unable to mask their own cynicism as they describe the world around them. After reading a series of such books describing city life and some of the horrors it contains, I find myself yearning for something that is more positive, something that leaves room for hope and encourages actions that might create a future better than the past. So I turn to writers like Trollope as much for relief as for enlightenment, and she seldom disappoints me.

Next of Kin is about an extended family of British farmers, two brothers, one of whom continues with his parents to produce crops, and the other who chooses instead to begin a stock farm for both dairy and meat production. Both brothers find themselves competing with agribusiness and thus borrow over and over to purchase machinery and equipment that allows a kind of marginal competition in the new world they find themselves in, but in fact brings them ever closer to financial ruin and loss of their farms.

The novel really begins with the death of the wife of one of the brothers. Carolyn, or Caro as she is called, is an American who wanders to England in her early twenties in an existential search for some sort of meaningful life and a kind of permanence that she has never achieved with her own alternative culture parents and their nomadic existence. There she meets and marries her dairy farmer husband, Robyn; they adopt a daughter and then slowly but inexorably drift into separate lives lived under the same roof. The other brother, Joe, marries even later than Robyn, quickly has two children with his very non-farmer young wife, and builds what his parents and others see as a successful and thriving farm; his parents live their lives through him. He is their hero and their hope.

What neither Joe’s parents nor his wife understand is that he has been secretly borrowing for years, attempting to keep up with the demands of contemporary farming, and all the while barely keeping in check a dark, brooding anxiety and sense of hopelessness. For reasons never made clear the death of his sister-in-law Caro destroys a desperate hope he has been able to maintain, and shortly after her death, he shoots himself in a shed at his parent’s home.

Trollope’s deep understanding of human nature and of familial relations comes out in her descriptions of how the other characters in the novel react to Joe’s death. That the parents have lived for and through their son Joe is apparent in their devastation at his death. And his young wife, Lindsay, who has been trying for all of her years with Joe to reach him emotionally, eventually in desperation trying to warn her in-laws about his underlying psychological turmoil, is both devastated and bitter when her warnings go unheeded and her husband flees in the only way he can.

In this story of loss and change, there is one character who plays the role of catalyst for getting the family to move from petrified grief to a kind of healing and carrying on. She is an unlikely candidate for heroine—a punked up city-girl who knows nothing of farms or farm life and who does not even cook or clean for herself. Zoe, the city girl, enters the action via becoming the London roommate of Judy, the adopted daughter of Robyn and Caro, and inviting herself along on a visit to the country.

No doubt, some readers will see Zoe as bit too idealized, a too convenient free spirit brought in from the wings to get the family members to admit feelings and to begin to really talk to one another. But I found her to be almost believable, and a rather ingenious way for Trollope to bring in her own views on grief and change, on parenting, on what gets called conventional morality, even on the whole issue of biological, so-called  ‘real’, as opposed to adoptive (unreal?) parents.

I find the end of the novel to be optimistic and uplifting, although the best Robyn can do in order to actually stay on his farm and continue being a farmer requires him to sell his land and lease it back (just as his parents have always leased the land they farm). Each of the characters in the novel is brought to some sort of realization, one could even call it enlightenment. As Robyn tells his daughter Judy that she can come back from London, can stay on the farm if she chooses, though he must sell the land and hope to lease it back, she remarks, “Even though it’s so hard. Even though it’s always been so hard?”
Yes….I  wouldn’t want to live any other way now. I suppose I may have to, one day, but I’ll only give in at the last ditch.
While I must admit that as a reader I run to Trollope in order to relieve momentarily the gloom and doom of so much excellent contemporary fiction, I get more than the relief I had hoped for. I learn about people, about families, about relationships, and even when what I learn is sad and sobering, it is also tinged with hope.

In the end, even Dilys, the mother of Robyn and Joe, the person who is perhaps the most devastated by his suicide, the most hopeless, comes to some sort of resolution.
Change and loss, she said to herself, change and loss, like a chant, over and over, life carrying you away, carrying things away from you, then bringing them back, some little thing you didn’t look for, didn’t know you needed until you saw it washed up there, waiting at your feet. Change and loss. And growth. Growth where you had never looked for it before, never thought to look.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ghost Road, by Pat Barker

Murder was only killing in the wrong place.” So reflects Rivers, the therapist who is a central character in all three of the novels in Pat Barker’s incredible World War I trilogy. Ghost Road is the third of the trilogy, and the one for which she received The Booker Prize, though Regeneration, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the prize and any one of the three would have deserved the prestigious award.

This is not a glorification of war book. Instead, it talks of the war and the battlefield in graphic and horrible detail that shows the bravery of the men who fought, but also the corruption of the British class system and the money interests of big business, especially as the war drags on long after if should have with men dying not to secure the victory, but to line the pockets of business men who are more interested in profits than the lives of soldiers.

Many of the characters in the novel, including the therapist Rivers, are drawn from actual historical figures. In fact, this novel actually moves back and forth between the battlefront, the hospital where Rivers treats both the physically and psychologically wounded, and cultures in the south seas where Rivers spent time as researcher and doctor before the war started. The so-called tribes he dealt with were descendants of head-hunting people and both the heads brought home from raids and the captives brought back from those same raids played pivotal roles in their cultural lives.
Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all zest.
It is no accident that Barker compares the head-hunters with atrocities of the war. While we may excuse the actions of the warriors in World War I while condemning as barbaric the head-hunters, Barker is less quick to judge.

As you might guess, this is not a happy book, but then none of Barker’s books is happy. Just as her earlier novels focused in on blue-collar workers and their struggles for a decent life given the brutality of market economies, so too in this one she focuses not on officers but on enlisted men who have everything to lose in fighting the war, and yet very little to gain by its so-called successful conclusion.

Besides the sadness of the events, the grimness of the novel is accentuated by Barker’s  simple and often harsh prose. Billy Prior, who is another genuine historical character who appears in all three of the novels, is unashamedly bisexual. Many of the sex scenes she describes are cold and repelling, and yet there is honesty in her prose that shines forth. Like the prostitutes who are the focus of her second novel, Blow Your House Down, there is nothing sentimental about Prior’s descriptions of his sexual relationships with either men or women; sex is simply a part of life, sometimes bartered, sometimes given as a gift, sometimes taken on the fly.

For this reader, both this novel and Regeneration were most interesting because of the accounts of the varied and horrific sorts of physic conditions suffered in the trench warfare of World War I, and the surprisingly compassionate care William Rivers gives to the men whom he encounters at Craiglockhart’s, the British hospital where the wounded are sent to be ‘fixed’ and sent back to the front. Of course, when Rivers succeeds, his charges are sent back to the French front, not because they are truly healed, but because they can, at least, talk again, or walk, or sleep without impossibly horrible dreams.
We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think—at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.

…the bayonet work. Which I will not remember. Rivers would say, remember now—any suppressed memory stores up trouble for the future. Well, too bad. Refusing to think’s the only way I can survive and anyway what future?
Perhaps I have described this book too bleakly; there is warmth and even humor in it along with the chilling battle scenes. While I have to admit that I am ready to move onto something less intense, less troubling, this is a book all of us should read. Indeed, every book of Barker’s I have read has been well worth the time and effort. She is one of the finest writers alive.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Love and Summer by William Trevor

I want to talk to you about an author who is new to me, though he may not be to you or to most avid readers. His name is William Trevor, and I want to talk about his 2009 novel Love and Summer. Trevor’s novel The Story of Lucy Gault was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002; I intend to read that novel soon.

Everything about this little novel is understated. It is set in a small Irish town and the surrounding countryside, and is about as simple a story as one could imagine. It is as if the writer never raises his voice, never indulges in pathos, simply tells the story of a young orphan girl, Ellie, raised by nuns and, as was common practice, sent out as a servant to a small farm after a tragic accident left the owner of the farm both widowed and childless. Eventually, as the girl settles into the routines of the farm, Dillahan, the farmer whom she serves, asks her to marry him, and she does. “It was kindness—so it had seemed to her, and still did—when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.

Quite by accident, Ellie runs into a stranger to the small town, a photographer, Florian Kilderry, who is himself an orphan, though his artist parents died when he was already grown. For a married woman even to be seen in the presence of an unmarried man, and a stranger no less, is quite out of the ordinary. But Ellie cannot help the rush of infatuation she feels for this man so much closer to her age than the older farmer whom she has married. Florian is in the process of selling the house and land he has inherited from his parents (and cannot really afford to maintain), and intends then simply to leave Ireland and strike out on his own.

And thus begins a summer of love for the two young people, a love as simple and innocent as can be imagined. What Ellie does not know, cannot know, is that she is a kind of stand-in for a girl Florian knew in his youth, Isabella.

The reader is also introduced to other characters in the small town, one of who is the daughter of a relatively wealthy family, known in the town simply as Miss Connulty. Miss Connulty also fell in love as a young woman, but the relationship ended in a pregnancy and secret abortion, at which time her Catholic mother spiritually and emotionally ostracized her daughter and distanced herself from the husband who aided the girl in obtaining an abortion. It is no wonder that Miss Connulty takes great interest in Ellie and what she sees as the perilous circumstances she is falling into.

Williams is exceptionally gifted in his ability to draw believable characters with whom the reader identifies and to describe what are really tragic events in their lives but with calm and apparently emotionless prose. He also creates an aura of suspense, of foreboding, such that the reader is on tenterhooks, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. And still, despite the mystery and the tension, the writing is so low key, so quiet.

At first Ellie is shocked that she has allowed herself to be seen talking to this strange man, ashamed at what the nuns who raised her would think of such conduct. But soon, though she realizes that others might see her, might jump to conclusions, she puts such concerns aside.  “Anyone could have seen them and she hadn’t cared.” For a time, she decides that should she run into him again, she will simply cross the street to avoid him, will not allow such foolishness to cause distress to her husband or bring shame on her. But when their paths cross again and Florian suggests that she does not remember him, all thoughts of avoidance are instantly dashed.
She felt the colour mounting in her face, as it had before. Her thoughts became disordered, as they had become then too, perverse and separated from her, as if they were not hers. She wanted to say that of course she remembered him. She wanted to say that she wondered about him, that she had tried not to, that she had known she should not. She wanted to say she had known immediately who it was when he’d said hullo.
Compared to the flame of most modern day romance novels, this little book is so tame, its characters on the whole so decent and considerate of others. There are no real villains, no heroes either, simply people trying to make the best of their lives. And yet Trevor is incredibly astute and meticulous in describing the inner lives of his characters, and so aware of the enormous changes in Ellie’s emotional life after she meets Florian, changes in her attitudes towards the more or less arranged marriage she is in , and towards the future she can anticipate.

Of course, I will not give way the ending of the book, nor will I tell you much more of the story. In the end it is the emotional intelligence of the writer that is most important, the actual course of events much less so. Suffice it to say that it is a beautiful little story of loneliness and isolation, but also of hope and loyalty. My suspicion is that once you have read this book of Trevor’s, you will want to read lots more. I know that I do.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Union Street & Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker

Those of you who know of the author Pat Barker probably know her through her Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. As I have done with so many novelists, I came to read Pat Barker long after she had become famous, but once I began to read her, I realized I just had to read everything she ever wrote. When I picked up the two books I’m talking to you about today, Union Street & Blow Your House Down, reprinted as one volume after she became famous, I had no idea that they were the first of her published works. How wonderful to stumble on these books and to see that long before she became famous, the articulate voice and the depth of insight were already in place.

Reviewers praise Barker for the meticulous research that preceded her trilogy about the trench warfare of World War I. She obviously researched the two books I’m discussing today as well, but the research was way more up close and personal. All the stories in these two volumes are about poor, working-class Northern England women and girls and the incredible lives they endured. Barker, too, is from a working class town in Northern England, raised by a single mother who had to struggle to keep food on the table. These are not happy books; even the language is harsh and spare, because she speaks in the dialects of the women about whom she is writing and whom it is obvious she knows very well. None of her characters are typical heroines, and yet it could not be more obvious that Barker sympathizes with and admires her characters. She writes of young girls who are raped or molested, forced into a kind of adult life when they are still only children, of women who marry too young to men who haven’t the slightest idea of who the women are or what they dream. Like their fathers before them, these boys-pretending-to-be-men take out their frustrations on their young wives, first with words, and then fists, and finally simply with their absence.  The women are left to fend not only for themselves, but for the too many children whom they cannot bring themselves to abandon. She writes of an old woman battered by life and left to die in an unheated flat, preferring cold and near starvation to the horrors of the health-care facilities that would be her next, and final, destination.
Her home. They were taking it away from her. The dirt and disorder, the signs of malnutrition and neglect which to them were reasons for putting her away were, to her, independence. She had fought to keep for herself the conditions of a human life. 
She was calm again. What she wanted was simple. She wanted to die with dignity. She wanted to die in her own home. And if that was no longer possible, she would go away. She would not be here waiting for them when they came.
Union Street, her first novel, published in 1982, is really a series of stories about these women and their interconnected lives, all of who live within a short distance of each other on Union Street. And while the women, unlike many of the men, remain with the children and do their best to provide for them, they cannot hide the resentment they feel not only towards the men who have left or who drink themselves into stupors every night at the local pubs, but towards the very children they want to nurture and protect. Barker describes in horrific detail the work lives of some of these women—some who work on an assembly line cake factory, others who spend every day in blood and feathers working in a chicken processing plant. No wonder that many finally turn to a better life, that of prostitution, which has its own horrors and dangers, but affords them an almost livable wage and a chance to spend more of their time with their children. In fact, Blow Your House Down, the second of the two novels, is all written through the eyes of working class women who have turned to prostitution as a better alternative to the nasty, low paying jobs they leave behind. Each story is riveting and utterly convincing; Barker knew these women (or women much like them), and her accounts are sympathetic rather than condemning. In the voice and language of the characters, she reveals so much about the inner lives of these women. Hard, struggling lives in many ways, but one cannot help but admire the strength, insight, even the humor of these women. One of the young women, Jo, describes the cake-making assembly line she works on.
The noise was horrific as usual. There was no possibility of conversation. Even the supervisor’s orders had to be yelled at the top of her voice and repeated many times before anybody heard. At intervals, there were snatches of music. It was being played continuously but only odd phrases triumphed over the roar of the machines. Some of the women moved their mouths silently, singing or talking to themselves:  it was hard to tell. Others merely looked blank. After a while not only speech but thought became impossible.
Descriptions of work in the chicken-processing plant are even more horrible—the  smells, the blood underfoot, the chickens swinging overhead on conveyer belts. And Barker does not spare the reader; she describes what she sees, what she has seen, with almost brutal accuracy.

While I think it is important to read these books when you are feeling strong, and to give up all hope of happy endings and cozy resolutions, this is social-political writing at its very best. She does not have to be didactic; she simply describes what she has lived and seen. I will leave you with a final quote from the story of Muriel, a woman in her early twenties who already has three children and a husband who is sick unto death.
She had never been able to take happiness for granted, perhaps because she had lost her father while she was still a child. She must always be aware of time passing, of the worm that hides in darkness and feeds upon innocence, beauty and grace. John’s hands on her breasts, the children asleep upstairs:  nothing was to be taken for granted. Love, security, order:  these were achievements painfully wrested from a chaos that was always threatening to take them back. She remembered the children playing in the lamp-light. Life was like that. Her life was like that. A moment in the light. Then the lamp goes out, the circle is broken, the chanting voices are silenced forever.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

It’s not that I didn’t remember what I saw. It’s that I didn’t know what I was seeing.” It’s 1963 in Mississippi, and Florence is ten years old, almost eleven. Although the above quote refers to a particularly horrible and devastating event that Florence witnessed, it could be used as a description of almost everything that happened to her in that summer of her life. Florence is the eyes and ears of Minrose Gwin in her novel, The Queen of Palmyra; it is a wrenchingly sad novel, but then it is about events that are, indeed, wrenchingly sad.

A few months ago I reviewed another novel about this same time period in Mississippi, and I felt a great deal of ambivalence about that novel; it was Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help. In that novel, a well-off young woman who aspires to being a writer decides to write a book about African American servants as seen through the eyes of those women in order to expose what they really thought about their white employers. What bothered me about that novel was that the heroine, the woman writer,  gets those servants to take grave risks by telling their stories, while she, herself, incurs very little risk, but stands to profit by the risks of others. And while Stockett is once removed from the writer heroine of her story, she, too, it seemed to me, stood to profit from the pain and struggles of others while incurring little risk on her own. I would have felt much more comfortable had the author been African American—more comfortable with the heavy dialects she uses for the voices of some of her characters, more comfortable with her (perhaps audacious and presumptuous) descriptions of their inner lives.

I have none of those reservations about Gwin’s novel, because this book is so clearly the world as seen through the eyes of the little girl. Yes, like Stockett’s character, Florence is mostly raised by and cared for by an African American family, one of who happens to be the woman servant (cook, housekeeper, babysitter) of Florence’s grandparents. But the relationship between Florence and the black people in her life seems so much more honest and conflicted than those described by Stockett.

Quite understandably, this novel has been compared to Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is like that novel in how consistently and convincingly the voice remains that of a young white girl looking out at a confusing racist world. But unlike Scout, the heroine of Lee’s novel, Florence’s father is not an attorney who defends the civil rights of a falsely accused black man, but instead a well known member of the local clan, and only slowly does Florence come to understand that the little club her father belongs to (and the play costumes he dresses up in when he goes to meetings) is feared and hated by those in the world she most loves.

One more quick point before telling you just a bit about this novel, on the jacket cover one author and critic says of this book that “it is the most powerful and lyrical novel about race, racism, and denial in the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird.”  My first reaction to that excessive praise was to wonder if the critic had somehow forgotten to read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara. Yes, this little novel is a wonderful if frightening look at a racist world through the eyes of a sad and abused little girl, but simply does not, and cannot, compare to the accounts written by the authors mentioned above. Nor, I think, would Gwin welcome such a comparison.

Florence’s mother is much more aware of the nighttime activities of her husband than is Florence.  And although she is in many ways (and for good reason) afraid of her own husband, she does what she can to warn the African American community when she knows the local clan is gathering. Those affected admire her bravery in passing along the warnings, though they wonder about how she can remain with her husband, and cannot quite fathom or totally trust her. Florence’s grandparents are also decent folk who treat their black employees well, even to some extent stand up to the local clan, but they are themselves locked into a world that sees separation of the races as inevitable.

Although I don’t want to give away too much of the story, it is not surprising that Florence’s mother eventually has to escape from her husband, first with alcohol, then via an attempted suicide, and finally by other means. Unfortunately, she leaves poor Florence behind to deal with a father who continues his late-night meetings, and who visits her in the night, placing a heavy hand on her stomach. Florence is as unaware of the meaning of her father’s visits to her bedroom as she is of his club meetings. Finally, he takes her to one of the meetings, even has her own little outfit sewn for her, proud of his own role as a leader of the local clan and wanting his daughter to share his pride. Passed around, tickled and teased by the smelly, scary old men, she slowly begins to realize that there is something sinister in these meetings and in the “play-clothes” the men wear.
I didn’t know what miscegenation and some of the other words meant until I had looked them up in the dictionary later that night, but the whole letter and pictures made me feel scared about Daddy in a way I hadn’t before. Yes he could be mean and ill tempered and hurtful when you aggravated him, and yes I was sick of him coming into my room at night, and yes I knew it was him that Mama was running away from. But this was somehow different.
As the opening quote implies, all of the ugliness is out there to be seen from the beginning, but it is only through her dealings with her real family, the African American family that raises and protects her, that she is finally able to interpret what she has seen all along.

In the end, I thought this was a superb little book. While the reader does realize once in awhile that there is, after all, a grown woman looking back to tell the story of Florence, in the telling the voice is consistently, unwaveringly, that of a young lonely and confused little girl. The novel shines with authenticity.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Solar, has already generated a lot of commentary, much of which is critical. Some accuse him of a kind of flippancy for combining the grave topic of global warming with the absurd and ribald sexual affairs of his lead character, an aging and cynical Nobel prize-winning physicist. On the contrary, I think his switching back and forth between environmental issues that he obviously takes very seriously and the ugly and yet comedic life of his main character shows a deep understanding of human nature as well as of the ways in which greed and ignorance drive world markets and scientific research and threaten the lives of humans and other species on the planet.

Michael Beard is McEwan’s fictional physicist, and the reader is introduced to him as a scheming husband, seething with jealousy as his fifth marriage is crumbling. Throughout all five marriages Beard has cheated on his wives, but now he is outraged that his fifth very attractive wife has decided to turn the tables on him. He wants her back, wants her to love him again, though he knows even through his pain that were he to get his wish, his old ways would quickly return. Beard is seriously overweight, drinks far too much alcohol, is engaged in no new or productive work, and lives primarily on the laurels of his now distant accomplishments.  One of the things I admire about McEwan is his ability to display clearly how brilliant accomplishment in one area of a life can be, and very often is, combined with absurd ineptness or worse in other areas. Like his British predecessor, Iris Murdoch, McEwan understands all too well how brilliance and folly often combine in the same person. Murdoch’s famous and accomplished philosopher in The Philosopher’s Pupil is so good at what he does that he is able to provide rather profound insights even in ethical theory, an area of philosophy that he remains skeptical about, and yet in his personal life, he is a scoundrel who attempts to seduce his own granddaughter.

At least for this reader, while there are sections of the novel that are, indeed, darkly humorous, even uproarious, the book is not a comedy. Yes, even great people are flawed and often enough lead personal lives that are ugly and immoral. In many ways, Beard’s habits mirror the habits of greed-driven markets. He is a metaphor for the world we find ourselves in. He is smart enough to know that he is eating and drinking his way into an early death, but his understanding does nothing to dissuade him from his disastrous course. So, too, it takes very little smarts to understand that economies dependent on fossil fuels and on constant growth are rapidly producing and consuming us into oblivion, but that understanding seems to have little effect on the course that history is taking. Michael Beard is unable to wake up and do something to change his life; McEwan hopes that his readers are not.

Only slowly and due both to historical accidents and his own crumbling finances does Beard take up environmental issues. He is much more concerned with his own life than with the future of the planet, “But…was always on the lookout for an official role with a stipend attached.” Happenstance delivers into his possession the research notes of a colleague and catapults him into researching new sources of energy.
Deploying techniques and materials still only talked of in nanotechnology, the idea was to exploit direct energy from sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using special light-sensitive dyes in place of chlorophyll and catalysts containing manganese and calcium. The stored gases would be taken up by a fuel cell to generate electricity. Another idea, also taken from the lives of plants, was to combine carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with sunlight and water to make an all-purpose liquid fuel.
I found the sections of the book on global warming and photovoltaic energy to be fascinating, and I also loved McEwan’s humorous but perceptive asides on deconstructionism and how it has entered the academic world of science as well as the arts. As Beard and a group of physicists listen to a woman professor of science studies explain how genes are really socially constructed and do not exist outside the domain created by geneticists and their technical language, they politely avoid exchanging glances:
They tended to take the conventional view, that the world existed independently, in all its mystery, awaiting description and explanation, though that did not prevent the observer from leaving his thumbprints all over the field of observation.
It is pretty clear that in this case, McEwan’s sympathies lie with the physicists who believe that there is a real world out there that we are trying to understand and describe.

I think McEwan is one of the really great writers of our era. He is what I call a maximal user of the language; he supposes that his readers will be able to understand big words and difficult concepts. While he laughs at his lead character and pokes fun at the absurdities of human lives, he certainly sees himself as a being who is chock full of contradictions and driven by competing forces.

I will leave you with a quote from the book where Beard is trying to convince a group of investors that they should be investing in solar-energy research rather than in finding the last drops of oil on the planet:
An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in radiant energy would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever should have thought of poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or creating plutonium.
Imagine we came across a man at the edge of a forest in a heavy rainfall. This man is dying of thirst. He has an ax in his hand and he is felling the trees in order to suck sap from the trunks. There are a few mouthfuls in each tree. All around him is devastation, dead trees, no birdsong, and he knows the forest is vanishing. So why doesn’t he tip back his head and drink the rain? Because he cuts trees expertly, because he has always done it this way, because the kind of people who advocate rain-drinking he considers suspicious types.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls tells us that she had intended to write about her mother’s childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, but the more she talked to her mom about those years the more her mother insisted that it was not she but her own mother, Lily, who had lived the truly interesting life and the one that deserved to be described. Jeannette resisted at first, since she had been only eight when her grandmother died, but she had been hearing stories about her grandmother all of her life, over and over. Finally, Jeannette gave in and decided to write what she calls a true-life novel about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.

In many ways this book is even more captivating than Walls now famous memoir, The Glass Castle, and I think it also provides a perspective on her own mother, Rose Mary Smith  Walls, that is in some ways lacking in the memoir. Lily Casey Smith was born in 1901 in west Texas, and spent most of her life in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Her father was an intelligent man who understood horses even better than he understood people. He had been kicked in the head by a horse at the age of three, and from that incidence had a life-long speech impediment and a gimpy leg. The speech impediment and the limp led to his being not only misunderstood by others, but often being seen as mentally impaired. He would return from town enraged by his inability to make himself understood by men much less mentally agile than he. Since Lily was around him from birth, she could understand everything he said, and very quickly she became his right-hand ‘man,’ both in helping him to train sets of carriage horses and in speaking for him to the outside world. When she turned five, she began to help him train the carriage horses, and soon she was in charge of breaking the horses.
I was in charge of breaking the horses. It wasn’t like breaking wild mustangs, because our horses had been around us since they were foals. Most times I simply climbed on bareback—if the horse was too skinny, its spine sometimes rubbed a raw spot on my behind—grabbed a handful of mane, gave them nudge with my heels, and off we went, at first in awkward fits and starts, with a little crow hopping and swerving while the horse wondered what in tarnation a girl was doing on his back, but pretty soon the horse usually accepted his fate and we’d move along right nicely. After that, it was a matter of saddling him up and finding the best bit. Then you could set about training him.
It was during those years that she learned from her father, “Most important thing in life is learning how to fall.” She learned her lessons well. Her father also told her that what she had to figure out first was what her purpose was, and then set about fulfilling it. Always an avid reader, Lily became passionate about education, although the bit of formal education she got at thirteen at Sisters of Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light in Santa Fe was interrupted when her father failed to pay her tuition. When she asked if her younger brother, Buster, was also taken out of school, her father replied simply that a boy needs a diploma, “And anyway, we need you on the ranch.”

Still, Lily was convinced that her calling, her purpose, was to be a teacher. When she was fifteen, without even having an eighth grade education, she passed a government test that had been set up to find teachers due to a severe shortage caused by World War I. She traveled five hundred miles alone, on horseback, in order to get to Red Lake Arizona where she taught fifteen students of all ages and abilities. Since there was no teacherage attached to the one-room school (as there would be in other schools she taught in), she slept on the floor of the school in her bedroll. “Still, I loved my job. Superintendent MacIntosh hardly ever came around, and I got to teach exactly what I wanted to teach, in the way I wanted.”

The end of the war meant the return of young men both to fill teaching posts and to return to the factories where women had been holding down jobs that paid higher than teachers’ salaries. This combination meant that there were more qualified teachers available (at least in terms of education), and Lily was fired. Still, she had discovered her purpose, and from then on she taught at a number of tiny schools in isolated towns of Arizona and New Mexico. When she could scrape together the funds, she would attend university for awhile, loving every minute of it and finding it to be like a vacation compared to the hard life of helping her father run a ranch. She also traveled alone to Chicago, conned into a marriage there to an already married man, escaping from him and the big city after a year and returning to the southwest. As soon as she could, she learned to drive a car, and not long after that, how to fly a plane. Unlike her father, she realized that the future prospects of carriages, and carriage horses, was dim. “What Dad didn’t understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”

And Lily climbed aboard. She taught in a tiny Mormon community until she was fired for teaching the girls that there was more to life than arranged marriages at thirteen. “You were free to choose enslavement, but the choice was a free one only if you knew what your alternatives were. I began to think of it as my job to make sure the girls I was teaching learned that it was a big world out there and there were other things they could do besides being broodmares dressed in feed sacks.” And although she married a lapsed Mormon, a so-called Jack-Mormon, the closest she ever came to Mormonism was her married name, Smith. She and her considerably older husband ran auto repair shops, managed large ranches, and she taught here and there, off and on, both to help support the family and to fulfill her purpose.

The charm of this book rests in the way Walls captures the spirit and voice of her grandmother. The prose is sparse and unpretentious. It describes the landscape and the hardships of life in language that is at once brittle and beautiful. As one of the commentators on the book says, Lily Casey Smith “is one astonishing woman…a half-broke horse herself who’s clearly passed on her best traits to her granddaughter.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

THROW like A GIRL by Jean Thompson

Until the last few years I had what was very nearly an aversion to short stories. As one reader friend of mine says, they are tempting, but just as you get sucked in, the story is over. So if the stories are good, they leave you wanting more, and if they are not so good, seem simply a waste of time. Passing time instead of really reading.

Had it not been for incredible writers like Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, and Carol Shields, I may still have shunned short fiction, and thereby missed out on reading Jean Thomson. Like the above writers, Thompson writes about us, ordinary people neither rich nor famous. But unlike Munro and Strout, Thompson’s characters are mostly city folk very much caught up in the now of frenzied city-life, economic insecurity, bleak predictions, abandoned hopes.

Almost all the stories are in a very intimate first person, inside the mind and body of the narrator immediately. I could easily review the book simply by giving first lines of stories. Each announcing a character and set of circumstances all of us readers recognize, sometimes with a sigh or in-taking of breath, sometimes with the nod of the head. “Jack Pardee signed his enlistment papers in May, right after graduation. The Army recruiter had been working on him for most of a year.” Her story “Lost” begins:
I was twenty years old and about as pretty as I was ever going to be, although I didn’t know that yet. I had long long hair, all the girls did. Mine was nearly down to my waist. It swung across my back like a bell. I had nice legs. There was always some boy I was crazy for, always trouble with some boy. There was never any useful purpose to it. I could never figure out what to do with them, besides wanting them to distraction.
Always her characters are ordinary folk, but her skill at description is anything but ordinary, her never heavy-handed political asides always on the mark. Thompson understands at a deep level the despair that grips more and more people and at younger and younger ages. In her story “Pie of the Month,” one of only a few where there is an author behind the scene commenting on the characters, Mrs. Colley is a woman who has been widowed for many years, and has grown into her solitary life. As the title of the story suggests, she bakes pies, tries to understand the world that keeps changing around her, avoids listening to news: “It was all so worrisome, and all so completely beyond your control.” Mostly the news was about wars, and about things blowing up “in a place you’d never been, or sometimes never even heard of, you first thought what a terrible thing it was, followed by relief that it had nothing to do with you, really, followed by a vague guilt at feeling relieved.” The final lines of the story sum up the views of Mrs. Colley:
You wanted so badly to believe that life was basically good, that people were basically good. And Mrs. Colley did believe it. She might not go around announcing that she was wonderful and blessed, but she reminded herself often that there were many terrible places she could have been born into but had not. Nothing abnormally bad had ever happened to her personally or was likely to happen except for, eventually, dying, oh well. But nowadays there was so little you could trust to stay good, as if there was a pinhole at the bottom of the world and all the best things were leaking out of it.
While this set of stories makes it obvious that we are a global village, and that corporations are bigger than countries, “…it isn’t really countries that fight Wars now. It’s corporations,” Thompson is at her very best when she is describing the inner lives of women relating to other women, and trying, trying, trying to understand their relationships with men.  In the title story, “Throw like a Girl,” the narrator, Gail, has just heard about the cancer death of her girlfriend from youth—her first love in all the most important senses of that word. “Janey was the wild child, the one who couldn’t wait to do too much of absolutely everything. It wasn’t appetite or depravity, just the fear that she might be missing out on something.”

At one point in the story Janey, who has been newly initiated to sex, asks Gail if sex is supposed to hurt. And after a few stumbling attempts to get at what is behind the question, Janey blurts out, “I think he was trying to make it hurt.
That made me queasy, I guess it shocked me. We didn’t like thinking of ourselves as vulnerable, breakable, controllable objects, even if that was exactly the way some people saw us. I said that it wasn’t right, what he’d done, and she said, Yeah, she knew. But she was still mulling it over, keeping something back. “What?” I said. 
“I let him think  I kind of liked it.” 
I didn’t want to hear that either. Because I understood why girls did such things, even a bold, harum-scarum girl like Janey, understood why we went along with so much, were anxious to please, laughed when nothing was funny, kept silent when we should have spoken, bent ourselves into obliging shapes, did the things that shamed us, even as Janey was ashamed. There was some desperate and unlovable creature that lived inside us, and we had to keep it fed.
Thompsen understands relationships, understands the inebriation of new loves, understands the peculiar flatness that often infects old ones. Her story “The Woman Taken in Adultry,” begins,
I had two daughters and a husband who didn’t notice things. I was lonesome. Sex isn’t always about sex.
My husband was no trouble. Never had been. I’d grown used to stepping over and around him the way you might a large dog sound asleep in the doorway. You start out being married together and you end up being married apart. I’m convinced that’s the truth for most people, if they were honest about it.
As I went back over these stories tagging pages with lines or paragraphs I wanted to share, I soon had dozens of book-marks inserted. I even thought of simply naming the book and author and then stringing together quotes, quite sure that would be a sufficient lure for serious readers. In any case, talking about her as a writer will never be anything like as scintillating as reading her. I leave you with the opening lines of “The Brat.”
She hated her mother and she hated her father to, at least when he was around to be hated. She hated school and all the snotty girls who put their heads together giggling and talking big and showing off their nail polish and their new shoes and new cell phones and whatever else they bought bought bought.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

I have said before that I think Alice Munro is the best living writer anywhere. She continues to worry her many devoted readers by telling us that she is through writing, but up to now, she has continued to write and to publish. Somehow, I can’t imagine her living and not writing. Her latest collection of short fiction is entitled Too Much Happiness, and it was published in hardback in late 2009. I would be willing to bet that not many of her fans could hold off for the paperback copy; she is just too good.

From the beginning of her career, many of her stories have been quirky, describing circumstances that one would not usually dream up, let alone witness. In this latest collection, some of the stories are so odd that I, at least, found myself disturbed by them, wondering why she chose to write them. Perhaps an article in the newspaper caught her attention, and she felt the need to flesh out the short article, give it a context. At any rate, each story, even the oddest ones, has the ring of truth to it. Despite the title, there is not much happiness in most of these stories, but they grab and hold the reader.

As usual, she writes about what would be called ordinary people and usually of small towns. And although each of the stories is quite short, each gives the impression of being a sketch of what could have been a much longer piece, could have been a novel. Although Munro often begins with a single incidence, she then has an almost uncanny ability to describe or spin out threads reaching back to the past and hurtling towards a future. One story, “Child’s Play,” begins with a summons to a quite old woman, Marlene, from a friend of the same age, Charlene, who is gravely ill. But why is she reaching out now after so many years without any contact? Only gradually do we learn why Marlene feels obliged to respond to the summons despite the long hiatus in their friendship, why she still feels an odd intimacy with her. “This intimacy I’m talking about—with women—is not erotic, or pre-erotic. I’ve experienced that as well, before puberty. Then too there would be confidences, probably lies, maybe leading to games. A certain hot temporary excitement, with or without genital teasing. Followed by ill feeling, denial, disgust.”  But this is an intimacy of a different sort, one that requires a response.

I found myself both interested in and troubled by the stories long after I put the book down, driven to return to some of them in order to look for early clues to the bizarre track the story would take, and often enough finding that clue in the first pages, sometimes the first lines, of the story.

I absolutely refuse to give away any of the twists and turns of these marvelously written stories, but I do want to comment on the last of the stories and the one for which the whole collection is named, “Too Much Happiness.” Munro, herself, must have become intrigued by what she had discovered about a real-life woman, a late 19th century Russian mathematician by the name of Sophia Kovalevsky. There is no doubt that she was a marvelous mathematician, famous even in her own day and at a time when few women were encouraged or even allowed to study and teach high-level mathematics. The story begins with a quote by Kovalevsky: “Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.”

Kovalevsky is so talented, so ingenious, that she wins a prestigious award, The Bordin Prize. All papers for the award had to be submitted anonymously, and had this not been the case, it is more than highly unlikely that she would have won it, unlikely that any woman would even have been considered for such an award in a science dominated by men.
The compliments quite dizzying, the marveling and the hand kissing spread thick on top of certain inconvenient but immutable facts. The fact that they would never grant her a job worthy of her gift, that she would be lucky indeed to find herself teaching in a provincial girls’ high school.
What becomes obvious in this story is not only Munro’s fascination with this woman mathematician, but her fascination with mathematics itself, and the ways in which it resembles, or can resemble, great works of art. "Rigorous, meticulous, one must be, but so must the great poet.” And how remarkable that Kovalevsky was ever able to study and do the scholarly work that she did, having to lie and cheat even in order to get out of Russia and to the teachers and universities that would facilitate her discoveries “because no Russian woman who was unmarried could leave the country without her parents’ consent."

No doubt Munro did loads of historical research preparing to write this rather long short story, but no amount of research could account for the details in her story, the descriptions of the interior life of Kovalevsky. Instead, it is Munro’s splendid imagination, her ability to spin out lovely quilts from mere threads of historical information that accounts for the richness and completeness of the story. As one of Kovalevsky’s friends remarks to her in an attempt to comfort her regarding a relationship with a man, “Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind….When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.” Just so, and Munro carries with her not only the sparse details that can be gathered from newspaper articles or historical accounts but all the rich life that her imagination furnishes to flesh her stories out. She is simply unparalleled as a writer of fiction.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow

Today I want to talk to you about an exciting local writer whose book, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is due out next month. I was fortunate enough to receive a press copy, and once I got it, I dropped everything else I was reading and focused in on this little book. In her acknowledgments, the author, Heidi Durrow, gives thanks to Barbara Kingsolver, who apparently was instrumental in helping her win the 2008 Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. Like Kingsolver, this is a writer who insists on social, political content to her writing, and while she also weaves a very good story, it is obvious throughout that the story is secondary to the message, and that the message is something this woman has lived as well as observed.

The story is about Rachel, a teenaged biracial girl who is trying to deal with the racist society in which she lives, and at the same time with the death of her mother and siblings. Born in Europe, with a Danish mother and an African-American father, she understands little of how Americans (as well as much of the world) act towards racial and ethnic minorities until she moves to Chicago, and then, after the death of most of her family, to Portland to be raised by her dad’s mother.    

While the story is primarily about Rachel, the writer does quite a credible job of telling the story through the eyes of several characters, even managing to write through Rachel’s deceased mother’s eyes via journal entries found and narrated by Laronne, a sympathetic Chicago neighbor. Another young character, roughly Rachel’s age, is a third or fourth voice in the story. Known by the name Jamie as a youngster, and later choosing the name Brick for himself as he enters the world on his own, he is a witness to tragic events in Rachel’s young life in Chicago, and then re-enters and even in some sense saves her years later in Portland.

Reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, here is a young girl with bright blue eyes and pale brown skin who encounters racism in so many of its various forms. It is obvious that Durrow, herself, is maddened and frustrated by the confusion of color, eye color, skin color, hair color with the stereotyping of huge groups of people. And while she realizes how derogatory so many of the words are that refer to color, she also finds terms like African-American odd and inaccurate. Most of the so-called black people she knows have never been to Africa. She lives in Chicago with a Danish mother, but it would seem odd to call herself Danish-American; she knows a bit of Danish picked up from her mother, and certainly she treasures so much of what she remembers of her mother and her mother’s attempts to protect her and her biracial siblings from racism, but she isn’t Danish. And when she looks down at her own skin, it is not black, nor is it white. Indeed, in what sense is she even American? Certainly America is a country that has not been kind to her mother, nor to her siblings, nor to her.

I don’t intend to give away much of the plot of this book, though it not really the plot that drives the book. Instead, what Durrow manages to do is show how individual people can make a huge difference in the lives of children—can quite literally save them simply by compassion and really paying attention. And it is not only people of color who can and do make a difference, it is instead those who understand the absurdity of basing anything on skin color or economic condition, who try to understand the world they find themselves in, and to act.  Brick is a character who makes a difference, and it is never quite clear just what the whole story is about his ethnicity. We know he loves his heroin addicted mother, though he finally has to leave her to save himself, and that he knows next to nothing of his absent father—Indian, Hispanic, brown, black, white? We know Brick is saved from alcohol and drug addiction by a man of color, Drew, who has found his own life by acting on behalf of people whom the dominant society would prefer simply to throw away. And we see the domino effect of such individual salvations as Brick keeps a focused eye on Rachel, catches her as she begins to fall, shores her up, sees her for the wonderful and bright and worthwhile person she is.

It is a sad story, and Rachel’s life is a sad life, but she learns from her choices and the choices of those around her. She discovers that her beauty is dangerous, met with envy and resentment by girls her own age, both black and white, and interest of the wrong sort from boys and men of all colors. Even the rich young white man who works on the streets and at a shelter, seeming genuinely to care for others and really not to judge by color or wealth, cannot stifle the urge to make sexual advances to Rachel, to use alcohol and charm in order to be with, really to take, what he calls his little Mocha girl. He, too, another man who sees her color and her beauty first; she must wash him out her skin and out of her life.

Brick, certainly much more loving towards Rachel than Jesse, the rich boy, is careful not to confuse lust and love—careful to distinguish his own wants and needs from hers. Yes, he loves her, maybe is even in love with her, but his concern is for her and who she is.  In Rachel’s words:
Brick puts his arm around me. When he looks at me, it feels like no one has really seen me since the accident. In his eyes, I’m not the new girl. I’m not the color of my skin. I’m a story. One with a past and a future unwritten.
I think I won’t say more of this book except to say that I hope you will pick it up and read it. The writing is good and straightforward, though I think we can expect even better writing from her in the future. Perhaps some of the plot seems at least a bit strained, the story a bit too much in the service of the message. But given the thousands of books that are written and consumed simply in order to entertain a more-or-less unthinking audience, it is a pleasure to read such a serious book by such an obviously bright and compassionate young woman.