Monday, December 08, 2014

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing fiction, so that I can talk to you about the incredible naturalist writer Ellen Meloy. I’ll be paying special attention to her last book, published shortly after she died in 2004, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, but each of her four nature-study books deserves to be read and praised. 

Meloy loved the desert, and especially the band of wild bighorn sheep thought for many years to be extinct. A sub-species of mountain sheep found only in the Four Corners area, Meloy named the little band she followed and watched for many years, the Blue Door band. Even in the time she was studying them, she remarks on their elusiveness, noting that on one particular sighting, the band disappeared into a crevice of rock, not to be seen again for many months. At the time, she thought they may have vanished forever.
For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the lands every contour—when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have to do: make the perfect match of flesh to earth.
Meloy has the eye of an artist, and a facility with language that lets her word-paint for her readers  what she sees and understands about nature. Her first  college degree was in art, and upon graduation she became a wildlife illustrator until returning to school to get a Master’s degree in environmental science. There she met the love of her life and her eventual husband, Mark Meloy, a river ranger; their marriage and their love affair with nature continued until she died suddenly at fifty-eight in their home in Bluff, Utah.

Although Eating Stone is ostensibly about the Southern Utah big horn sheep, it is also simply  about beings of the desert, plants and animals. Her understanding of geologic history and biology shines forth on every page, and I found myself as astounded by her lyrical use of language as by her profound understanding of nature.
Home sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth  of them.
Meloy talks a lot about arctic big horns and the vanishing herds of desert big horns in Arizona and California. She even takes the reader on a side trip along the Baja peninsula with lively descriptions of its history and of the steady and rapid encroachment of modern living on that so recently wild land.

Although a passionate advocate of wilderness preservation and critic of environmental degradation caused by corporate greed, more and more golf courses, and expansion of dwellings onto wildlife habitat, it is more her love and understanding of wild things that comes out in her work. Given her travels and her tireless exploration of nature, she cannot but see and warn us of the perils of the future, and yet her voice is hopeful. As one critic notes, she  seems hopeful that the power of words (and of really looking) may change things one reader at a time.
…in the desert there is everything and there is nothing. Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors, plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.
She certainly took her own advice. Midway through this lovely book, I decided I would read everything she has written; let me mention the titles of her three other works. Raven’s Exile. A Season on the Green River; The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, art and spirit.

Meloy is warm, witty, deeply insightful and extraordinarily patient, as anyone must be who decides to see and understand the quiet life of these ruminant creatures who return year after year, decade after decade, eon after eon to the same lambing grounds, the same rutting grounds, who depend on expansive vision and quick vertical escape. As faithful as they are to place, they are also so careful that they may abandon a favorite feeding or sleeping ground forever because of one encounter with a helicopter or some other feared predator.
There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar. There is in me, as in all human beings a glimpse of  the interior, from which everything about our minds has come.
Meloy has an acute eye for where we have come from and, I think, for where we are going.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

I want to talk to you today about an ambitious novel by a local writer and political activist, Benjamin Parzybok. The name of the novel is Sherwood Nation. A problem for all fiction writers is that of inducing the reader to suspend disbelief, and for dystopian or utopian novels, the suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult to achieve. The setting for this book is a possible future for Portland after a profound drought has set in and water rationing is mandatory. As the drought progressed, the Deschutes dried up in a single summer, and,
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its death-song through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
I have to admit upfront that I found this novel tough sledding, and not only because I had trouble suspending disbelief. Since I am fortunate in that I can read whatever I want, and reading is my main work, I am spoiled and used to fine writing. In the end, I think this novel is much more interesting and important for the political questions it raises than for the story itself. For the most part, I’ll leave the political questions up to Norm Diamond in his interview with Benjamin also included in this show. Unlike many futuristic books including those that attempt to raise political consciousness, this is a serious and mostly successful attempt to create real characters, and to let much of the action be determined by the characters portrayed. By the end of the book (though not during much of the long middle sections), I found myself really wanting to know the outcome—concerned for the fate of the main characters and for the city-state they had created. 

The plot of the book is long and rather complicated, and I have no intention of giving way the story, but I will say that it begins with a brave act carried off by a few people who decide to call attention to illegal water deliveries being made to rich folks in the West Hills. This small group decides to waylay one of these unmarked water trucks as a way to call attention to the illegal distribution. Renee is one member of this small band; she is injured in the attempt to commandeer the truck, and the local media get plenty of footage of her bleeding and wounded but handing out water to the group of onlookers who surround the truck. She is dubbed by the media as Maid Marian of Robyn Hood fame—one who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Renee (a.k.a. Maid Marian) has a boyfriend named Zach who is one of few who still has a job; he works for an advertising agency that works for the Mayor. Although sympathetic to Renee’s anger and frustration about city management and water distribution, he is unable to act with her, because he sees no fruitful outcome from her activities. Like many activists, Zach is paralyzed by uncertainty and the need to make sure causes he fights for are pure and have some real chance of succeeding. His need for purity and certainty frustrate Renee,
Zach—you’re always planning. And organizing and cataloging and recording and doing every preliminary step so as to avoid acting. I think what you do—writing ads, trying to make what the city needs palatable—is great. I mean it’s a mixed bag, you know that, and you’re doing what you can in there. But somebody has got to be out here on the front line.
I have heard complaints like this one from many activists, and I certainly see myself as one of those who stalls and waits for the right cause, the right moment, and it seems often simply to be an excuse for not acting. And yet, what to do? How do we bring about real change?

Because Renee’s water action is caught by the media, she quickly becomes a popular celebrity, and heads up a plan for a NE neighborhood to secede from the city, take up the task of water distribution as well as the safety and security of the neighborhood. Before long, she heads up what gets called Sherwood Nation, a kind of city-state that cuts itself off from city services and governance. 

Soon Maid Marian forms an alliance with a person who has been a powerful drug-lord in the neighborhood, and he becomes her general while his son Jamal becomes Captain and leader of the Green Rangers.

The credibility of the storyline is shored up by Parzybok’s intimate knowledge of Portland neighborhoods and of local governance. The Mayor and city council are other players in the action that ensues, as is the National Guard which is in charge of water distribution. 

While the storyline is very difficult to believe, I applaud the author’s effort to address questions of political action and expedience in the times we face now and the even harder times it appears are coming. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s 1975 novel Memoirs of a Survivor in which she scolds both the left and the right for acting as if the end of times is near—that all will end in a grand apocalypse.  There will be neither complete salvation nor destruction. Instead, contends Lessing,  there will be survivors, and life will continue one way or another. The questions will always be how we will act from where we are then, and how we should act now in order to prepare for a better future. Lessing’s novel predicted much that would come to pass in London as homeless kids grew in number, unemployment skyrocketed and social services broke down. Renee, Maid Marian, comes to similar conclusions about end-times.
“There are no end times,” she whispered into the room. It was a mantra she’d taken up since her first night in Sherwood. A poem of sorts that had taken shape in her head, the words reeling out of her. “There are no end-times. This time is simply a tunnel, from one time to the next.  I work here to see us through. The darkness is a passage.
The reader is told that crime-rates plummet, schools and clinics reopen and run better in Sherwood Nation than in the rest of the city, and yet we are also told that Sherwood Nation only lasts for nine weeks. Even with the combined efforts of a multitude of volunteers, it is hard to see how all of this could take place in a mere nine weeks, a blink in history. 

Whatever the plausibility of the events described in this book, the stories of the individual characters are well told and interesting. including the intense soul-searching each does as events come to pass. 

I would say that the political aims of the novel are noble, and the questions raised about how and when to act crucial not simply for Sherwood Nation, but for us-here-now. Whether this is enough to make it a good book, I will leave up to you readers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautifully written book by Anthony Doerr that came out in May of this year; the title of the book is All The Light We Cannot See. It is a book about World War II as seen through the eyes of a French girl and a German boy. The story begins in 1939, skips to Aug. 1944, and then moves forward from ’39, backwards from ’44, interweaving the lives of the two children and how the war affects them. The French girl, Marie-Laure is blind from an early age and raised by a devoted and loving father who is the keeper of keys and locksmith for a museum in Paris. The boy, Werner Pfennig, is an orphan, who, along with his little sister Jutta, lives in a small orphanage in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris. 

Marie’s father carves a wooden model of the neighborhood in Paris where they live and gets his daughter to learn the streets and buildings by carefully feeling the intricate model he has created for her. When they are forced to leave Paris and flee to Brittany as the Germans advance into France, they settle in with a relative in Saint-Malo. There the father again carves an intricate model of the town, including every structure and street so that his daughter will be able to navigate the streets on her own in case she is left on her own.

Werner is a bright young boy fascinated by all things mechanical and especially by radios. 

Doerr quotes Joseph Goebbels in a beginning note, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” And it is radio that eventually connects the two children in complicated and interesting ways. From a very early age, Werner and his sister listen to radio broadcasts from Paris that enchant them. Clever Werner finds a discarded, inoperable shortwave radio, fixes it and begins to pick up whatever signals he can from Germany and cities in Europe. Soon, he is repairing radios and other mechanical devices for everyone in his neighborhood. Eventually, we readers learn that Marie’s eccentric uncle Etienne, a recluse who is a lover of science and classical music, broadcasts science programs from a powerful transmitter he has built in his home, and the programs are picked up by Werner. Both Werner and Jutta are fascinated by the science in the programs, the readings from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the lovely sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  It seems simply magical to them that they can hear this voice from a city so far away which brings them both music and science.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Musings about light and color, both philosophical and scientific,  pepper this book, and are deeply interesting and beautifully expressed. 

When Marie and her father are forced to leave Paris, due to his locksmith position in the museum he is entrusted with an incredibly beautiful diamond called The Sea of Flames. A German officer and gemologist who begins to collect antiques and treasures ransacked from Paris for the Reich,  lusts after this gem he has read about but never seen.  His relentless search, and the myths surrounding the gem provide yet another strand that brings together the lives of the two children.

Werner’s skills with radios lead to his being drafted into an elite military school for German boys, which is part of the Wehrmacht, and eventually he is assigned  the task of tracking down radio transmissions in occupied France. The mathematical method of triangulation Werner develops to track down the origin of radio transmissions is carefully described in the book, along with other scientific developments of the day—all of which add to the story-line. 

Marie-Laure miraculously survives the shelling of Saint Malo, though most of the inhabitants do not. Doerr  quotes Philip Beck in a beginning note: 
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire…Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.
Besides the main stories of Marie and Werner, there are also side-stories about other children, Marie’s great-uncle Etienne and her grandfather. But rather than telling you more of the touching story about the lives and intersection of these children—a story that needs to be read rather than glossed, let me simply say that Doerr does an outstanding job of portraying in sympathetic ways how the war impacted the lives of ordinary people in both France and Germany. 

I will not tell you the fate of Werner and Jutta, nor of the gem, The Sea of Flames, but I’m sure you will find those stories as intriguing  as I did. Although this is the story of a horrible war, it is in many ways a really lovely book, and one that you will be glad to have read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that describes a friendship between two women: a ninety-one year old woman whose life is mostly in the past, and a seventeen year old girl who is waiting for her ‘real’ life to begin. Their names are Vivian and Molly, and it takes Molly (and the reader) about half of the book to discover just how much they have in common.

This carefully researched novel is Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, and it is based on stories about abandoned children who were literally shipped on trains from the east coast to Midwestern farm states, and at each stop the children were herded into town halls or churches to be cursorily examined by local farmers—the ‘lucky’ ones adopted on the spot, the not so lucky herded back onto the train and sent to the next stop. The orphan trains ran for decades (from 1859 to 1929). 

But while this historical phenomenon is the backdrop and inspiration for the novel, the story itself is about the budding friendship between the girl, Molly, and the old woman, Vivian. Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has bounced from foster home to foster home for almost all of her young life. Now, only months from reaching an age that will release her from the jurisdiction of the state, she has been busted for stealing a book, and the only thing that saves her from Juvie (juvenile detention) is an agreement to enter into a community-service position with Vivienne, who needs help cleaning out her attic. 
Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.  
As the cleaning and organizing proceeds, Vivian’s own past as an orphan unfolds; Molly changes her tone of exasperation over the fact that  it seems that nothing is getting accomplished, and begins to see herself as an ally in retracing the history of the woman next to her.
In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots. 
This little novel skillfully swings back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine in the second decade of the 21st century and New York City 1929 as well as hardscrabble Midwestern towns that are stopping points for the Orphan train. Besides the tense and troubled present for Molly who has about exhausted her options in the foster program, there is a mystery that unfolds as Vivian attempts to discover elements  of her own orphaned childhood. I’m not about to reveal the mystery or it’s outcome, but the emotional similarity in the lives of the two lead characters and their eventual bonding is beautifully wrought. 

The babies and the cute, very young children are the first to be adopted as the orphan train heads west. Boys who are old enough and strong enough for hard farmwork are also often chosen along with girls who can help around the house and farm. The not so attractive and the frail are paraded out at each stop, and then put back on the train. As their adult attendant informs them before their first stop. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.”

Other than signing some papers that promise food, shelter, and education for those old enough, there is no oversight over the lives of the children who are adopted. Vivian learns quickly that the agreement to send the children to school is observed only if it is convenient for the adoptive parents, while beatings and deprivation are far more likely than educational opportunity. For Molly in the foster program and Vivian on the orphan train, hard labor and sexual exploitation are the norm. 

While not being adopted is Vivian’s fear as her train goes from stop to stop, she soon discovers that adoption may be far worse. Molly, too, understands that foster homes may be more dangerous than state care. As she listens to her foster-care worker:
I listen … and nod politely as she talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
As Molly listens to descriptions Vivian gives of her early life in Ireland, and then of her life in New York before the death of her parents, and finally her many stops in Midwestern towns and life with different families, she comes to see how very similar their lives are. Both learn to pass; both feel broken inside.

Despite the sadness of this novel, it is a lovely story. The unlikely friendship that springs up between Molly and Vivian constitutes a sort of salvation for each of them. As the author says in the Prologue, 
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

I want to talk to you today about a book I should have reviewed several years ago when I first heard of it. The book is Now is the Hour,  written by a local author, Tom Spanbauer. Walking with one of my oldest friends and walking partner, I was introduced to Tom and immediately asked him if the name of his novel had anything to do with the song of the same name; it was the very first song I ever learned by heart from listening the radio. As you will see if you read the book, it has a lot to do with the song of the same name. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it reads very much like memoir, and I would be very surprised if it were not quite closely autobiographical. The lead character, Rigby John Klausener, like Spanbauer himself, grew up in Pocatello Idaho. His mother is a staunch Catholic who holds a tight rein on Rigby John, and his farmer father is a stern and tough man whom Rigby John describes as one ornery bastard. “Cold, irritable, impatient. One ornery bastard.” Spanbauer dedicates the book to his mother, and the deep love Rigby John has for his mother is apparent from the first page, and that he almost always disappoints her causes him to suffer greatly. A younger brother, Russell, is born with severe birth defects and lives for only a short time, and when he dies, a light goes out of his mother’s eyes. 
Russell came home screaming, and he screamed for a hundred days, and no one could sleep, and then he died. Mom was never the same. The music stopped, and she locked herself inside her room with Dad, and me and Sis were outside her room, and her eyes were never the same. I couldn’t find her anywhere in them, couldn’t find me, she was so far away. 
The highlights of his young life are the times when his mother, sister and he dress up in fancy clothes and jewelry from a large trunk in the attic, and as Rigby John tells the reader over and over, all three when dressed up were “scintillatingly gorgeous.” But, of course, they couldn’t let his father find out about the dress-up game. 

When the reader first meets Rigby John, he is seventeen and hitchhiking to San Francisco, hopelessly alienated from his family because “My family and the sex-shame-guilt thing. Sex and my family just don’t mix, like Mormons and Coca-Cola.” Bad enough that his mother has caught him literally with his pants down, masturbating, leading to a frenzy of confession and Hail Marys. His love affair with his own penis is enough to condemn him in his mother’s eyes, but that he is also gay is so over the top that he has no choice but to run away.  

I happen to have also read a short time ago Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical coming of age novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. Both books are wonderfully honest accounts of growing up, and I would have to say that I think Spanbauer’s is the better book, partly because it is such a subtle and insightful exploration of homosexuality and of prejudice against native American people. I also preferred it because I think Spanbauer is so much more understanding of his parents, even his stern onery father than Stegner, whose hatred of and vitriolic rants against his father taint the last sections of an otherwise lucid and interesting story. Spanbauer seems to understand and forgive his parents, despite the grief they cause him as he struggles to discover himself and his sexuality. Even on the road to San Francisco, intensely sad and having to flee, he is able to at least partially understand their reasons for treating him as they have. 

Like so many young people who find themselves in tight, repressive communities with condemnation seeming to come from all sides, often enough leading not only to confusion but self-hatred, Rigby John finds solace in reading—his path into a larger and more open world. 
Mom and Dad wanted me reading only good Catholic stuff. The only good Catholic stuff to read are your daily missal and the Bible and The Lives of the Saints, so anything that was good I had to hide. I had to smuggle Steinbeck and Willa Cather and Hemingway inside my pants. Reading made everything different. I was no longer stuck in a world with my mom and my dad and my sis and Catholics and Mormons on a goddamn farm out on the Tyhee Flats. Before books, my secret places were just places I could hide. Now my places were where I could go to read and find out about people who were like me. Of Mice and Men, My Antonia, Winesburg Ohio, A Moveable Feast.
Like Rigby John (and Spanbauer), I grew up with a self-righteously religious mother (Mormon in my case). As I came to learn, she knew very little about Mormonism or even Mormon texts; she simply knew that it was THE TRUTH, and that any who doubted it was  lost. Spanbauer’s Pocotello was probably even more politically conservative than the Salt Lake I grew up in in the 40s.

Spanbauer captures the diction and customs of the country people he grew up around. He tells us over and over that they are differnt (not different, but differnt). He tells such a good and convincing story, capturing both the humor and the heartache of trying to grow into one’s sexuality, especially when faced with criticism on almost all fronts. The friendship of one girl (as differnt as he is from those around her), and then of two Hispanic farmworkers and later one very colorful gay Native American man saves him from his isolation and encourages him to find a world not so hostile to his beliefs and his body.

I read Spanbauer’s wonderful book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, many years ago and loved it for many of the same reasons that I love Now is the Hour. He is a truly gifted writer, and one who helps us to see that it is not bad to be differnt. I recommend him to you, especially those of you who found yourselves in a strange and foreign and cramped space as you grew up. His liberation is one that we can all learn from.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine

I want to talk to you today about a wild and wonderful little book by a writer whom I had never read, but who is already much loved by a group of writers and readers of his essays, impressed by his scorching honesty and his loving humor. The book is written in the style of a memoir, and is billed as memoir, but the over-story (the impetus for the book) is the disappearance of a small college math instructor, lending the book the flavor of a mystery. The title of the book like the chapter titles is indicative of the free-flowing narrative within, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. The story takes place on those howling plains, specifically in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska. Like many of his characters, Poe has drifted to this small town for no particular reason; he has drifted from town to town, job to job, all of his life. One of his themes seems to be, “Why do drifters drift?” and “What makes them catch and take hold if and when they do?”

 On one of Poe’s drifts he finds himself in Mexico, where he falls for Cristina, who for two years has  slowly been recovering from being run over by a drunk driver. He describes Cristina as  “…a quiet, serious young dentist who lived with her parents.” Despite their age disparity and cultural differences, they are simpatico; they marry and have a son, Thomas, who  they soon discover displays many of the symptoms of autism, prompting much discussion in the book about this name given to a complex overlapping set of behaviors. Poe’s rambles with Thomas provide some of the most touching moments in this book.

I actually see the book not so much as a personal memoir but as a freewheeling discussion of so many topics:  the meaning of “history,” the function of literature (or art in general), the meaning of autism, what it means to be faithful to a partner. 

Once Poe and Cristina settle in Nebraska, and he scratches out a living for them by cooking in restaurants (one of his most reliable odd jobs), Cristina begins to question him about why he wastes his time writing when he could be working more and bringing in more money. It’s a struggle for her to understand what writing means for him, and a struggle for him to understand why only money-making activities count. “Literature was a waste of time, and though I made a few thousand a year at it, she thought I should get a full time job with the Department of Transportation.”

To Ballantine’s credit, he owns up that he knew what he was signing up for when he partnered with Cristina; he understands her values, her history, and has plenty of his own doubts about why he feels compelled to write. He also understands her resentment about not being able to practice dentistry in this country, and at not being able to adequately express herself in this cumbersome second language.

Cheryl Strayed, a great admirer of Ballantine’s essays, consented to write an introduction the book. She says, “You know who Ballantine is in every sentence he writes because in his mastery he makes himself known. He’s bold and perceptive and utterly transparent. He writes like every word is his last. Like the whole place is about to burn up. He’s like a bird that’s not quite but almost extinct: when you see him, you can’t help but look.”

I think this is a wonderful description of the helter-skelter style of the many segments (chapters?) of the book, some only a page or two. His understanding of small town life, of loneliness and transience, of marital struggles all come out in the journal/diary quality of the book. 

The style and course of the book is announced in its first words:
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
How do we remake ourselves, and how was the west made? Two questions chasing each other throughout this book. In my intentionally unstructured approach to reading, there nevertheless  arise patterns, perhaps due to a kind of synchronicity. In the past few weeks, I have read a half dozen or so books all having to do with the exploitation of the west and with debunking romantic myths about how the west was settled. First I stumbled onto Annie Proulx’s recent set of stories, Bad Dirt, all set in Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. I had loved her novel The Shipping News, but had been unable to get into later novels. This time, I read all three of her collections of short stories under the title Wyoming Stories, and also her novel dealing with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, That Old Ace in the Hole. My partner’s response to my raves about Proulx and my rethinking of western myths was to give me the Ballantine memoir, yet another story about how the west was lost, and I topped all of this off with Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which  Stegner’s dad, another drifter in search of his fortune, led his family through a succession of towns and homes and wild, often illegal ventures—always looking for the big kill, the final deal.

What I have carried away from all of this is a new look at rural life and of how conventional morality so often teams up with economic exploitation to subjugate people and strip the land. The horror stories Proulx tells about the Texas and Oklahoma pan handles [simply by researching and understanding and reciting to us the history of how the rush for oil, and now the rush for water, along with  the pollution of corporate farming (gargantuan hog-farms), pesticide poisoned fields and waterways, has altered the land]. And while creating real, believable characters, she tells compelling stories  about so-called ‘simple’ people, she shows the settling of the west for what it was, debunking the noble cowboy and heroic, civic-minded rail-line constructions versions, and replacing them with a much more rapacious and money-hungry account. 

It’s been a wonderful romp through western literature, though it has certainly not inclined me towards life in a small western town, living with the twin threats of self-righteous, conventional morality (really conventional immorality) and economic domination/obliteration.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

Today I want to talk to you about an amazing writer who has been as important to me as any I can think of. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I’m going to be talking about her brand new book, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which she says “is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” Lively is now eighty years old, and judging from this not quite memoir, she is still going very strong indeed. Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, published in 1997, and she has written many other novels, collections of short stories, children’s books and scholarly essays. Her latest book, like all or almost all of her earlier work, is focused on memory and time.

Lively’s first intellectual interest was in archaeology, an interest she never lost. She read history at Oxford, married an academic, and has continued to read history, fiction, science, and pretty much whatever she could lay her hands on. She was born in Cairo in 1933 and remained there until she went to England on a troop ship in 1945. Perhaps because I, too, am at what Lively would call the portal of old age, I find her essays on aging and memory fascinating. A lot of the reading I have done lately by or about growing old has been quite depressing, focusing primarily on what is lost as we age. Lively is well aware of the diminishment that aging can (and inevitably will) bring, but she manages to focus on what is left rather than what is lost. She has certainly had her share of the infirmities that come with age.
[I] avoid, occasionally, I fear: that hazard light worn by the old—slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I am nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it. And report. 
We are many today, in the Western world: the new demographic. I want to look at the implications of that, at the condition, at how it has been perceived. And then at the compelling matter of memory—the vapor trail without which we are undone.
Lively sees herself primarily as a reader. Although she realizes that not all readers are, or become, writers. For her, reading became writing. This almost memoir would be worth reading to a devoted reader simply for the long list of books she mentions while describing her own journey as a reader. 

I decided long ago, near the beginning of my teaching career, that what I needed most (both for myself and for my students) was to read, and to do so in what Lively calls a “mostly undirected, unstructured reading.” Reading only philosophy and directing all my writing energy to writing esoteric journal articles seemed to me to short change both myself and my students. 
[I]…must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history, and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too—try her, try him, try that. 
Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind … The one entirely benign mind-altering drug … My point here is to do with the needs of old age; there is what you can’t do, there is what you no longer want to do, and there is what has become of central importance … I have reading.
In this little collection of essays on memory, gardening, writing, and history Lively takes her readers on a historical journey of the past eighty or so years: the Suez canal crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new wave of feminism.
For me, interest in the past segued into an interest in the operation of memory, which turned into subject matter for fiction. I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people….
And she certainly does just this. From the aging scholar heroine, Claudia, living out her last days in a nursing home in Moon Tiger, to a landscape archaeologist and a gardener in The Photograph to the World War II veteran who becomes an architect in City of the Mind and her earlier memoir of her own childhood in Cairo Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, Lively pursues her interest in the operations of memory. Her own scholarly research into psychological tracts on memory shows up in so much of her writing. As she has her characters say again and again in her stories, “it’s all happening at once,” as past, present and projected future fuse into one for the lived life of each person.

Many years ago, Moon Tiger was the first of her novels that I picked up. A brother and a sister at the sea shore fighting over an ammonite that both claim to have discovered launched me into her world of ruminating about time and memory. 
That is why history should be taught in school, to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time. 
It would be easy to write pages and pages simply of quotes from this remarkable little book. It is a testament to a reader’s life well lived. Hopefully, those who read it will be driven to read some of her novels, or simply to copy out the long list of books she mentions as part of her own vast reading past.
What we have read makes us what we are—quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience. 
I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts… 
My old-age fear is not being able to read—the worst deprivation. Or no longer having my books around me: the familiar, eclectic, explanatory assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think and to write.
Bravo and carry on.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Tribute to Anita Brookner

Instead of my usual practice of reviewing a particular book, this morning I want to talk about and pay tribute to an incredible and prolific author, Anita Brookner. I will mention a number of her novels, and will end by focusing briefly on her twenty-second book, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003. 

One of the first things that drew me to Brookner’s writing is her total command of the language; she is not embarrassed by her huge vocabulary. And though a meticulous user of the language, her prose is liquid and flowing. Quite by accident, the first novel I read of hers was Hotel du Lac, for which she won the Booker prize in 1984. The lead character in that book is ironically named Edith Hope. Brookner says that we are deceived by literature (and especially Victorian novels) into the belief that virtue is rewarded. In fact, she decides, good fortune is a gift from the gods, and the favor of the gods is granted not to the good but to the bold. In fact, very sympathetic to the French existentialists, she cannot bring herself to believe in any god, although in one of her very rare interviews, she said she wishes she could. Or, more accurately, she would like to believe in hope. Like William James, for whom god is really simply a name for the belief that the future can be better than the past, it is hope of deliverance from loneliness and death that she would like to believe in.

Like Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac, almost all of Brookner’s characters are intellectual middle class women who are (or become) isolated due to disappointments in love. But while her characters long for mates, for men who will take care of them, they relate mostly to other women and are dismissive of men who, other than providing respectability, are seen as immature, requiring constant physical as well as emotional care, and who are ultimately more-or-less in the way. Unmarried and childless herself, Brookner has said that she had no desire to be taken over by a man, and yet many of her heroines appear to be looking precisely for that. Edith, in Hotel du Lac, actually has two proposals of marriage, one from a good but hopelessly dull man, and the other from a selfish adventurer whom she just manages to turn away from at the end of the book. 

I find Brookner to be exceptional in her descriptions of the inner life. One commentator lauds her as a “brilliant forensic examiner of the inner life” an apt description of her powers of observation. Although she says of herself that she is not a feminist, and insists that she prefers the company of men, she seems to me to be a feminist in the deepest sense of the word. Her characters are usually career women, bright and independent even when they see themselves as seeking “normalcy”—a lasting marriage and children. Long before becoming a novelist, in 1967 Brookner became the first woman to hold the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge, a position she held until her retirement in 1988. She insists that teaching and scholarship were the really important activities in her life, and that writing novels was a simply a kind of dabbling, a “displacement activity.” In one of her last novels, Strangers, published in 2009, the protagonist is a seventy-three year old man who has unhappily retired from his banking job and is isolated and lonely, left finally to seek comfort from strangers. Brookner, herself, was eighty-one when she wrote Strangers, and says that like her protagonist she feared loneliness and, eventually, death among strangers. 

Not surprisingly, two of the authors Brookner most admires are Edith Wharton and Henry James, both masters at describing the interior life of the mind. Her female characters remind me of the strong but doomed characters in Wharton’s novels, women who at least think they want love, want a man, but who find themselves unable to shape themselves, truncate themselves, in the ways that seem necessary. But while Wharton’s characters seem heroic in their rejection of societal pressures, Brookner’s seem simply unhappy. 

Brookner was the only child of Polish Jews who emigrated to England. She says that she was brought up to take care of her parents who were transplanted and fragile people, unhappy and in need of protection. In an article in Paris Review, the interviewer, Susha Guppy, notes that all of Brookner’s heroines have a “displaced person” quality, and she asks if Brookner, herself, feels like that. Brookner answers that people see her as serious and depressed, and admits that she has never felt completely at home in England. Indeed, after quite rapidly reading up a half dozen of her novels, intoxicated by her insights and her superb writing, I began to notice how uniformly unhappy most of her characters are. Since I have noted Brookner’s allegiance to existentialism, I'd like to point out that I see existentialism as a cautiously optimistic philosophy, stressing rebellion and change, but I admit that some of the early works tend towards a kind of nihilism, and Brookner seems more influenced by that darker, pessimistic side than by the stress on human freedom and extreme voluntarism of Jean Paul Sartre.  In her novel Brief Lives, she paints a picture of human lives as indeed short and unhappy, and quite obviously situated towards death. She is not a happy read, and yet her insights about relationships more than make up for the bleakness of her stories. 

I’m not surprised that one of Brookner’s best writer friends is Julian Barnes. Both are what I have called ‘quiet’ writers. There is not much dramatic action in their novels, no famous people or sensational sex as in many pop novels. I am reminded also of other quiet writers like Alice Munro and Alice McDermott who show just how interesting and illuminating the inner lives of so-called ordinary people are. 

Let me turn briefly to one of Brookner’s latest novels, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003. Although she rarely mentions historical dates in her novels, in this novel she tells us immediately that her lead character, Elizabeth, was born in 1948, “well behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest.”  Born to unhappy parents, Elizabeth nevertheless conforms herself to the expectations of her mother. “She envisaged a life for me exactly like her own, marriage to a professional man, a comfortable establishment, licensed idleness, licensed amusements.” The other major figure in the novel, also an Elizabeth, but choosing early to rechristen herself Betsy, has neither parents nor background to insure such a safe future, and embarks on a much more adventurous life—one where career and real loves will be the goals. Married in her twenties to a much older man, Elizabeth both worries about her cousin Betsy and admires her for her freedom and courage. 
Reading the papers I could not help but be aware of the enormous strides women were making; they were vocal and radical in a way I knew I could never be, but there was a discontent, even among the most liberated, that I felt summoned to share. I was still young, young enough to wish for something fiercer than the life for which I had settled, or to which I had succumbed.
And so both Elizabeth and Betsy situate themselves in this new world, and more than in any of Brookner’s novels that I have read, the call to liberation is heard even by these relatively conventional girls. 
We had both been born too soon for the freedoms currently claimed by women; we had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that safety lay in stability, that love and desire could have only one true end: marriage, and no doubt children. That this certainty was being attacked from all sides had not yet taken us over, changing us from what we had been and were still destined to be. We were innocent, like girls at school, waiting patiently for fulfillment, which would come to us in the guise of another person, and not a series of more or less random persons  who might or might not have our well-being at heart.
Elizabeth, unlike most of Brookner’s female characters, does decide to have a lover, to escape the tedium of her married life; she also throws over her mother’s belief that “a woman’s principal need was to be looked after by a man.” 

Brookner is accused by critics of writing the same novel over and over with the same cast of colorless, unhappy people. She responds that of course she is writing the same novel, trying finally to get it right. Her writing is an attempt to be lucid, to get behind the facades of everyday life. I believe she succeeds and that her lucidity is far more important than writing happy books. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Divergent by Veroinca Roth

In this age of electronic games and devices, I’m always glad to see or hear that young people are reading. I have a niece, Kate, who, like I, is an avid reader. Knowing that I love books, she gave me for Christmas a favorite book of hers, and I read it in a couple of days over the holidays. Since I have almost never reviewed what might be called teen fiction, I decided to talk about this book today. I am so proud of her as a studious reader, and expect her to be a good member of the world she finds herself in. 

The book is titled Divergent and was a first novel for Veronica Roth. From what I hear, it will soon be made into a movie, and is the first of a trilogy that will have a very large following among young people. Besides being quite an interesting adventure/mystery, I think the moral questions and dilemmas presented in the book make it much more important than simply an interesting page-turner.

The plot is a fairly complicated one, and there are many surprises in the end, none of which I have any intention of divulging, but I will lay out the general theme of the book and say why I think it is a good read for serious-minded young people (and quite entertaining for us older folk as well).

The novel is a futuristic (dystopian) description of a rigorously stratified society divided into five factions: Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless. Reminiscent of  Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, at the age of sixteen all children go through a choosing ceremony, at which time they may either remain in the group they have been raised in, or leave their families and choose a new group.  In Pierce’s overtly political and feminist novel, adolescents choose a new name for themselves and leave their families in a kind of coming-of-age ceremony. After that time, they may choose to continue to relate with their families, but no longer as parents or sons and daughters, but simply as equal members of society.

The sixteen year olds in Divergent take an aptitude test shortly before the choosing ceremony, and are told then which group  they have an aptitude for. However, they are not bound by the results of the aptitude test, and may freely choose a group other than the one they have been born to or the one the aptitude test suggests. The names of the groups describe roughly their roles. The lead character, Beatrice (who changes her name to Trice) comes from an Abnegation family. Abnegation folks are selfless and do service work for the community. They wear gray clothing, do not call attention to themselves in either dress or action. Candor are straight-forward and apt to say whatever is on their minds, quite willing to debate with any who hold opposing views, and quite willing to give critical appraisals. "Their faction values honesty and sees the truth as black and white, so that is what they wear." The Erudite class are the intellectuals who study hard and are supposed to serve the community in planning decisions. The Dauntless are the warriors who protect the fences that border the cities and are known for their bravery. They are tattooed and have body piercings; they jump onto and off of moving trains and perform other acts of rather reckless bravery. The Amity are less clearly defined, but are often described as laughing and singing and wearing colorful clothes (red and yellows). There are also some who are factionless, either because they have been kicked out of their chosen faction or have failed to choose. The factionless are left to fend for themselves, and it is clearly dangerous and daunting to be without a faction.

As Beatrice tells us early in the book, the Choosing Ceremony is an important and sometimes frightful time for the young. "I will decide on a faction: I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them." Although it is possible to have a bit of time with family on Visitor’s Day even if one chooses a different faction, there is tremendous pressure to treat faction over family, and the chances for any meaningful connections with family if one chooses a different faction are minimal.

Much to the surprise of their Abnegation parents, Both Beatrice and her brother Caleb choose to leave their family and faction. Trice chooses the Dauntless faction, and Caleb the Erudite. Although Caleb re-enters the action late in the book, it is Trice’s initiation into the Dauntless faction and the daily life that it involves that is described. The reader also realizes early in the book that Trice's aptitude test has indicated quite divergent results, although a kind tester saves her from actually being labeled Divergent, since Divergents are seen as threats to the existing order, and if discovered, punished by becoming factionless.

What I find uplifting about the book are the moral dilemmas Trice is faced with because of her divergent aptitudes and her love for her family. Eventually, she comes to believe that "Selflessness and bravery aren’t that different," and instead of shunning her divergent tendencies, she embraces them. Along with a brave boyfriend (who is a trainer for the Dauntless initiates, and also shows divergent aptitudes), they uncover a sinister plot hatched by a power-hungry Erudite who has found a way to electronically brainwash the Dauntless and use their fearlessness to her own ends. 

I also found the portrayal of the relationship between Tobias and Trice to be a good and wholesome one. While there are mild sexual overtones to the book, rather than appealing to a teenage audience by sensationalizing the sexual element, Roth accentuates fidelity and genuine caring for the other rather than focusing on sex. 

I was often reminded of Plato’s distinction between genuine courage and foolhardiness as I read this book. There is a plea for tolerance to be found in its pages, and a clear warning against allowing peer pressure to get in the way of morality and truth. All and all, were I a parent of a teenager, I would recommend this book to them, as I recommend it you. Indeed, I have to admit I will probably see the movie when it comes out, although I rather doubt I will read the other books in the promised trilogy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

I want to talk to you this morning about a sensational book by a local author; the book will be published in March of this year. The author is Rene Denfeld; she calls the book a novel, and it is a novel, but one that she could only have written because of her work in prisons and for men on death row. Besides being an internationally known author and journalist, she has worked as a Mitigation Specialist and fact investigator in death penalty cases. 

The title of the novel is The Enchanted, and it begins with a narration by one of the death row inmates who tells us, “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do. “
The most enchanted things happen here—the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.
To say that it is a sad book would be an incredible understatement, but given the insights and compassion of its author, the sadness is dwarfed by the importance of the content. The lead character, who is always referred to simply as “the lady", works for attorneys who represent men on death row. Her task is not to get these men out of prison, but simply to get them off of death row and back into the general prison population. The other central characters are the men themselves, a defrocked priest, and a warden whose wife is dying of cancer.

The descriptions of the inside of the prison, and especially of the dark, windowless hall of death row are detailed and horrific. 
Back so long ago, when they built this enchanted place, they killed men in three ways: they waited for them to die, worked them to death, and they hanged them. 
Not much has changed. Instead of working men to death, there is a slow starvation of the body and soul. And instead of rope they use a machine.
But while the lady works with and for a single death row inmate at a time, she is not at all blinded to the atrocities some of them have committed and for which they are on the row. Over and over she tells the reader that she has more sympathy for the victims of these men than for the men, but still she in some sense understands them and advocates for them. 
Her clients rarely walk to freedom—that is a myth. She can count the truly innocent clients she has had on one finger. Most of the men she works with are guilty. They may not be guilty of all they were charged, but they are guilty of more than enough. Many are guilty of even worse, the crimes that were suspected and never proven.
No, the dream of the death row client is to escape execution for a life behind bars. They want to escape the dungeon into the rest of the prison. They want a visit from their mom that involves a touch. They want to stand in the sun, to play a game of ball, to eat at a table with other men, to see the sky and feel the wind. Those are their dreams, maybe small to others, but huge to them. It is a modest dream, in a sense, and yet one that is amazingly hard to achieve for a man on death row.
The lady digs into the pasts of these men. If they give her permission to do so (and often they refuse) she interviews family members and past acquaintances hoping to turn up facts that will lead not to their freedom, but simply get them off of death row. The lady’s own very difficult past helps her to realize what may be relevant for the attorneys working for these men. She also knows about the guards who profit by helping selected inmates to smuggle drugs into the prison, or by providing frightened boy prisoners for them to do with as they will in the rape shed. 

She knows of the corpse valets, prisoners selected by a corrupt guard named Conroy. He selects men who know how to be quiet—how to keep secrets.
And the secrets are so many. How bodies end up dead in cells with signs of strangulation or broken necks and the guards clear their throats and say natural causes. How others are shot and others die in heaps of blood all erased by the dawn. How no one ever dies here of abuse, of rape, of being killed by the guards. How the records—what record? A prison is a place without a history.
But while the book talks extensively of corrupt guards and privileged prisoners, the portrait of the warden is all in all a sympathetic one. True, he thinks of the lady as an enemy, but he also really tries to expose corrupt guards and to treat inmates fairly. 

But after seeing the lady he can’t help getting angry. He takes his job seriously. Every day he protects inmates from each other and society from inmates. He wants to tell the politicians to try policing three thousand men who spend their lives trying to disembowel each other with shanks made out of sharpened table knives. Get back to me on how it goes.
And then the lady comes in and pulls a few tearjerkers for judges who have never stepped foot inside a prison, who have never even met the victims or their families. And the next thing he knows, she is walking another man away from his deserved death. 

He knows there are too many black men on the row. He knows there are too many men who had Grim and Reaper for their defense attorneys. He tells his new guards there are more than enough guilty men to go around, we don’t need to invent more. He is the first to admit the system needs fixing.  

When he thinks about what men like York and Striker and Aden have done, he is firm in his truth. Enough years of being the jailer—of seeing men kill each other in prison riots, of holding the hands of rape victims as they testify in front of parole boards—he knows that some men deserve to die. He can chat with a man like York, and he can even show kindness to a man like Arden, but he knows in his heart they deserve to die. Such men are like diseased dogs, or demented animals. You can bemoan what made them killers, but once they are, the best thing is to put them down with mercy. 

He stops himself. No, he thinks again, the lady does know those things. She talks to the men’s families, she plumbs their lives—she has to know the pain they have caused. Yet she still tries to get them off and this he cannot figure. This is the part that makes him mad.
What is she to do if she runs into a prisoner who doesn’t want to be saved from execution? Suppose what she has in a file is enough to save a man from death row, but he insists that she not show the file to the attorneys? Should her loyalty be to her employers or to the man she is allegedly trying to help? And can she go on doing the work if she refuses in this case to reveal what she has uncovered?

If there is an answer to her question, perhaps it will come from one of the death row inmates. 
I sit under the cover for an eternity before I decide the lady is strong enough to have seen me. Someday she will see the monsters for what they are, and stop questioning herself about why she seeks them. She will stop feeling bad about wanting to make castles for them. Even monsters need peace. Even monsters need a person who truly wants to listen—to hear—so that someday we might find the words that are more than boxes. Then maybe we can stop men like me from happening.

The lady has a gift, and I hope she keeps using it. It is the gift of understanding men like me.
This is a courageous book. Ms. Denfeld, especially given her continuing work, was so brave to have written it and to have lived the life that allowed her to write it. I commend her for her superb writing and for her courage and her gift.