Monday, December 07, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I want to talk to you this morning about an incredibly ambitious book that sets out to tell the reader the history of botany, and especially of pharmaceuticals from the early 1800s to the 1900s. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s, The Signature of All Things. It is also the story of Alma Whittaker and of her father, Henry Whittaker, born in 1760 to a poor orchardist, and who “grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.”

Young Henry is sent to sea at a young age to sail with Captain Cook on a botanical expedition, one that sets the course of his future life and that of his not yet born daughter, Alma. After four months at sea, Henry arrives in Lima, and there he begins to ship the bark from the cinchona tree back to England.

It turned out that cinchona bark did indeed interrupt the path of malaria’s ravages, for reasons nobody could understand. Whatever the cause, the bark appeared to cure malaria entirely, with no side effects except lingering deafness—a small price to pay to live. 
By the early eighteenth century, Peruvian bark, or Jesuits’ bark was the most valuable export from the New World to the Old. A gram of pure Jesuit’s bark was now equal in value to a gram of silver.
Henry gathered hundreds of botanical samples on his years long expedition, and although he did not automatically become a gentleman (which was his aim), via his botanical investigations, he did become a very rich man. Not content with simply shipping the bark, he started his own cinchona plantation in the Dutch colonial outpost of Java. He married a plain but brilliant Dutch woman, and with her moved to America, created a garden modeled after the Kew gardens where his father had been an orchardist, and very soon was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. However, it was their daughter, Alma, who was the truly brilliant botanist, and it is her story and her research into mosses that becomes the central theme of the book. Alma is a rigorous scientist who refuses to yield to anything less than genuine understanding. She comes to understand that it is the quinine in cinchona bark that remedies malaria, and unlike her father who is interested in botanicals only as a way to fortune, Alma desires to understand the natural world as an end in itself.

Like her mother, Alma is a large, plain woman who never finds romantic love, but instead pours all of her substantial energy into botanical investigations. In particular, she becomes fascinated, even obsessed with mosses and with what she calls transmutation. “In essence, she apprehended, mosses did not merely resemble algae that had crawled up on dry land; mosses were algae that had crawled up on dry land.” She also decides that “Whatever is true for mosses must  be true for all living things.”

Of course Alma is not alone in discovering the transmutability of organisms; like Darwin and other scientists of the time Alma witnesses that “The beauty and variety of the natural world are merely the visible legacies of an endless war.”

There is so much of interest in this sprawling novel, not the least of which is the story of Alma’s life and her courage. She, herself, eventually sails to the South Seas, always with the botanist’s eye turned to the life forms about her. She becomes the world’s foremost expert in the life and transformation of mosses.

My first intellectual love was botany, and this book recalled and reinforced that fascination. I think it will also appeal to those who love historical fiction, for this book was meticulously researched, and it is written with clarity and passion.

I recommend the book to all who love science and discovery, and even to those who simply like a good story and who want to see the huge role of women in botanical research.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Kent Haruf

This morning I’m going to depart from my usual practice of reviewing a single book in order to pay tribute to the life-work of Kent Haruf, whom I would characterize as a superb writer of the heart. Again, I am surprised that I only recently heard of this amazing writer who died in 2014. For reasons hard to explain, I feel sad that I didn’t get a chance to read him while he was still alive. In the last two weeks, I have read up almost everything he published, including his posthumously published little novel, Our Souls at Night.

Haruf’s writing is simple and bare-boned, and all of it centers on a single small town, Holt Colorado. There is a generosity of spirit in this man that shines forth from each of his short novels. Our northwest treasure, Ursula Le Guin, describes his lovely writing much better than I ever could.
His courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustrations, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction…Haruf is in fact a stunningly original writer in a great many ways…He talks quietly, intimately, yet with reserve as one adult to another. He’s careful to get the story right. And it is right, it’s just right; it rings true.
Characters recur in each of his novels, and the novels themselves read in many ways like collections of short stories. Harold and Raymond McPherson are two brothers who live together all their lives on a small ranch seventeen miles outside the small town of Holt. Neither ever marries. But a particularly enlightened and wise teacher in the high school decides to try to help a young girl in her class who is pregnant and has been kicked out of her own home. She stumbles on the idea of taking the girl, Victoria Robideaux, out to the McPherson’s ranch. She already knows of the gentle hearts of the two brothers, and she believes that having the girl stay with them while she is waiting for the birth of her daughter will assuage their loneliness while providing the girl safe haven. The relationship of the three is developed in three of Haruf’s novels: Plainsong, Benediction, and Eventide. It is a love story at its finest—innocent, enduring, and so simply laid out. When Victoria has her daughter, Katie, the four live together for a time until the brothers arrange for Victoria to go off to college.

In Benediction, Harold dies as a result of a ranching accident, and Raymond is left alone for the first time in his life. Although the pathos is always understated in Haruf’s writing, he manages to display an emotional intelligence that I find to be exceptionally rare in any writer, and especially in male authors. As a friendship begins to develop between Raymond and a woman who was a nurse in the hospital  where he was treated for injuries suffered in the same accident that killed his brother, she questions him about how he can manage without his brother.
How will you manage?

I’ll think of something. Hire somebody I expect.
It must be terribly hard wtihout your brother here anymore.
It’s not the same. I’s not anything like it. Harold and me, we was together all our lives. 
You just have to go on, don’t you.
He looked at her. People always say that, he said. I say as much myself. I don’t know what it means though. He looked out the window behind her where the night had fallen. The yardlight had come on and there were long shadows in the yard.
While Haruf understands all too well the pain and misery in the world, and the casualties of poverty, he also sees a simple goodness in some people—a young boy whose parents die and who then cares for his aging grandfather. The schoolteacher who rescues Victoria and is catalyst for the sweet relationship between her and the tough old brother ranchers.

In his final book, Our Souls at Night, published posthumously in 2015, he explores the relationship between two elderly people who decide to spend their nights together, not for sex, but simply to hold hands and talk in the night. As Le Guin says, Haruf talks quietly, but he evokes so much from his readers. It is the brave 70+ woman who is courageous enough to suggest the nighttime arrangement with her near neighbor. Although initially clandestine, the two soon decide to brave the gossip and narrow-mindedness of their small town and to meet publicly and stop trying to  hide his nightly trips to his neighbor (carrying his pajamas and toothbrush in a paper sack).

As always, the story is told with wonderful simplicity, the language spare and unsentimental.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk…
I’m not talking about sex.
I wondered.
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Yes. I think so.
The beauty and simplicity of this man’s writing cannot, I think, be made manifest by quoting passages. He is so patient in developing his stories, and the tug at the heart builds gradually. While he clearly understands simple kindness and loyalty in characters, he also understands clearly the viciousness and cruelty in others.

His stories are among the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Simplicity and kindness, the magic of a simple gesture, of unexpected words of encouragement.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Stoner by John Williams

I want to talk to you this morning about a novel first published in 1965, and then reissued after the turn of the century. Since its first publication, is has become a classic among critics and academicians. It has been called a ‘perfect novel’ as well as ‘the great American novel.’ In both those cases, it was a male critic who awarded it such a distinction. In the remarks that follow, I think it will become obvious why I think it is no accident that this lavish praise has come from men.

The name of the novel is Stoner, and the author is John Williams. It is an excruciatingly sad little novel, superbly crafted and polished, but written in plain, even flat prose matching the flat grey life of the main character, William Stoner. Almost nothing goes right for Stoner, and yet, he himself on his deathbed pronounces his life a successful one. Although usually written in the third person, it is a tale seen exclusively through the eyes of Stoner. Rarely does the author use the first name of his lead character; he is referred to simply as Stoner, and the tone remains impersonal and emotionless even in the most dramatic sections of the book.

Stoner is a farm boy, the only child of a hardworking couple who eek out an existence from hard scrabble land that yields less and less as the years go by. Stoner’s father encourages Stoner to attend a newly formed agricultural college in the hopes that he may learn new techniques to improve the production of their small farm. However, through happenstance, Stoner takes a survey of literature course in his second year of college, and his life is irrevocably altered. The instructor of the course, Archer Sloane, is not a great teacher, but he is a dedicated one, and he informs Stoner that he is to be a teacher even before Stoner realizes it. 
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked.

“Don’t you understand about yourself  yet? You’re going to be a teacher”  
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?” 
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly. 
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?” 
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
And he is in love, with learning, but even that love is so muted, so understated that it fails to bring with it excitement or significant shifts in his day to day life.  Stoner continues his undistinguished undergraduate studies, and with Sloane’s encouragement begins an equally undistinguished course of graduate studies, and then a far from spectacular teaching career.

Along the way, Stoner falls in love with a pretty but quiet and socially shy, unsophisticated girl, also a single child of a moderately successful banker and his unremarkable wife. Both Stoner and his new wife are sexual innocents, and from their honeymoon forward, theirs is an almost completely non-sexual and non-romantic relationship. 
Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love. If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion. Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed…
They have one child together, Grace, and for a time Stoner finds a closeness with young Grace that he is to find with no one else in his life. His wife changes her appearance after her father’s death, and for a time takes a newfound interest in  Grace, whom Stoner has raised essentially alone up to that point. As Stoner sees it, his wife, Edith, declares war on his relationship with Grace and does all in her power to drive them apart. There are several points in the novel when Grace goes through brief bursts of energy, and in each case, the burst of energy is directed to an undermining of Stoner—undermining his relationship with Grace and attempting to undermine his relationships with his students just as he begins to be a better teacher. Edith seems to be threatened by any signs of happiness in Stoner.

The author’s description of these campaigns by Edith against Stoner’s few periods of happiness are so emotionally violent that I found myself beginning to doubt Stoner’s story. Instead, I began to see a deep vein of passive-aggressiveness in Stoner that he does not see, nor I suspect does the author understand the unbelievable one-sidedness of  his portrayal of their marital warfare. Stoner is drawn as such a pathetic figure, so persecuted by his wife, by a malevolent colleague, by life itself that I found myself ultimately rather disgusted by his weakness and ineptitude. 

I suspect that the meticulous drawing of this misunderstood and unappreciated man has appealed to male readers, drawn on their sympathies precisely because they see themselves in his flat, not sufficiently appreciated life. Eventually, I found myself thinking, “I’d like to hear this story again, but told through the eyes of Edith.”

Despite my suspicions about the lead character and what I see as overblown appraisals of the book, it is superbly told. I would love to read it with others as a psychoanalytic portrayal of a bad marriage.  It is a riveting book despite its overall greyness and flatness, and while not a great or perfect novel, it is one that will stay with me for a long time, and one that I recommend to all serious readers.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Balls by Nancy Kincaid

On the jacket cover of Nancy Kincaid’s 1998 novel, Balls, the reader is told the book “should be required reading for any woman who’s ever been involved with a man who’s involved with sports,” and while that claim may be a bit exaggerated, this is an insightful, humorous and occasionally frightening look at college football. By my count, there are sixteen voices, narrators, in this book, all women. It is primarily the story of one of these woman, Dixie, who, at nineteen, marries an ex-football star who is too small to make it in the pros, but who cannot leave football behind. Instead, he becomes a coach who quite quickly rises to the position of head coach at Ham U. In Alabama, where football is a kind of religion, Coach Gibbs (Mac), begins his coaching career with a team that wins few games, but due to Mac’s ability to recruit players, especially black players, he puts together a solid winning team, and when an old respected coach retires, Mac ascends to the throne with his young wife and two young children in his wake.

Each chapter in the book allows a different woman to describe her relationship with football and either a husband who is obsessed with football, or a son who hopes to come to fame and fortune via ball.
It was not by accident that God created the world in the shape of a ball. I came to understand that early. All the men in my life imitated God in this way by making small worlds of their own out of balls.  
As a girl, when I watched men pass the pigskin, pitch the cuveball, perfect the jump shot, I understood that they were playing war. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just a stupid ball they held in their hands, but the whole world being tossed about from man to man—like a game of keep away. 
From me.
While Kincaid obviously wants to describe the big business corruption in college football, and the toll football takes on the bodies and dreams of the players, she is sympathetic towards not only the mothers of the players and wives of the coaches, but also the players themselves who see football as their passport to the American dream.

Kincaid meticulously chronicles Coach Mac’s meteoric rise and sudden fall from grace and the parallel dissolution of the marriage of Dixie and Mac. I loved the stories of the coaches and players, but even more the subtext of the women and children who are essentially orphaned by their men’s obsession. Rose, Dixie’s mother, is one of the more intriguing voices of the many narrators. She understands long before her daughter does that women and children are secondary to balls, and that women who see or know too much are in peril.
Dixie is a pretty girl. I hope it doesn’t ruin her life. 
There are worse things than not getting chosen, like getting chosen too early. Or getting chosen too often. But you have to live awhile before you can know that. 
Dixie’s smart too, which if she isn’t careful can destroy her about as quick as anything else. I tell her, “Being smart can be a real detriment to a woman unless she knows how to go about it tactfully.
There are two other voices that recur throughout the book, Francis Delmar, the wife of an under-coach who never quite makes it to the big time, and Lilly, the mother of Jett, who played college ball with Mac and goes on to be a great star in the NFL. Lilly has given up on men as husbands or close friends, but is a fiercely protective mother. Both of these woman provide wonderfully wise and humorous commentary on the toll football takes on the lives of women.

Mac is not a bad man, and in fact is honestly dedicated to his players and their welfare. During the football season, he works from early morning till late at night allowing is wife and children to become afterthoughts. And the off-season, that is the recruiting season, is even worse. He travels around the country, wooing players and their parents, his at-home time seeming more like visits than really coming home.

When Mac comes home he seems delighted to have stumbled upon such a happy household where everything’s clean and pretty and he’s treated as if he were one of the family.
We make a home where Mac is a welcome visitor. “Drop by anytime,” we seem to say.

The story, itself, is an interesting and complex one, and I don’t intend to reveal many of the details. Suffice it to say that the storyline is very similar to Kincaid’s own life. Kincaid married at nineteen, raised two daughters, returned to college as her marriage deteriorated, and after her divorce, remarried the head coach at University of Arizona, so she knows intimately the lives she describes.
I first came across Kincaid in a wonderful novel about the south, Crossing Blood, in which she describes the lives of two families living side by side, one black, one white. The novel I’m talking about today shows the same sensitivity towards and understanding of race relations that caught my attention in the earlier novel.

While this is not a great book, it is a very good one, and it is indeed, “the novel every football widow will want to read.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

China Dog and Other Stories from a Chinese Laundry by Judy Fong Bates

Eight years ago, I reviewed a debut novel by a Chinese Canadian author, Judy Fong Bates, who was born in China but came to Canada with her mother when she was twelve years old. The name of that novel was Midnight at the Dragon Café, and I’ve been hungry for more of her writing ever since. Lately, I ran across a book of short stories she published in 2002, China Dog and Other Stories from a Chinese Laundry. With the same direct, and deceptively simple language as in her novel, Bates writes about what it was like to grow up straddling two cultures—what it was like for the children, and also what it was like for the parents.

She tells us that in typical small Canadian towns there was a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese hand laundry, and usually these were the only Chinese families in those small towns. Growing up among the lo fons (white ghost people), the children had to balance the demands of their current lives with expectations of their parents that they stick to old ways. While the Chinese saw Canada as a land of opportunity, referring to it as The Gold Mountain, they feared that their children would abandon traditional values. As the young girl in one of her stories says: “Although both of my parents were proud I had learned English so quickly, I knew they were concerned that I was becoming too Canadian.’”

While Bates pays special attention to the dilemmas faced by the children caught between cultures, she also shows great compassion for the parents of these children who, often enough, see their own lives as essentially over. The mother in her novel exclaims to her daughter,  “I’d be better off in China fighting for my life, here I just die a slow death.” The children can, although at great emotional cost, carve out a new life, but the parents, many of whom never really learn to speak understandable English are caught in a kind of limbo, saying to themselves, “This is not my real life,” but are unable to return to that real life or to adjust to the new one, suffering “…the loneliness in this land of strangers,” nurturing a “silent dream of returning home to rest, to die.”

Like the young girls in her stories, Bates is almost a hoo sung (Canadian-born), able to think in English, and to understand the values and desires of the white ghosts.  While the girls’ parents long for them to be more Chinese, often enough they wish their parents were more Canadian.

Still, while Bates sees and understands “a bottomless depth of sadness,” in so many of the older Chinese Canadians, her stories are filled with humor and insight. She gives us a picture of rural life in Canada in the 50s and 60s. As I read her stories, I often thought of the similar stories written by the Canadian writer Alice Munro.

While Bates paints a vivid picture of the racism directed at the few Chinese families in the small Canadian towns, she also shows in much subtler ways what have to be called the racist attitudes of the Chinese towards the white Canadians. Given the economic and political clout behind the racism of the Canadians, it is easy to sympathize with the Chinese immigrants, but Bates seems intent on pointing out how the suspicions of the Chinese parents towards the majority culture make it so difficult for their children to decide how to act, how to succeed, how to balance the often contradictory expectations of their parents. In one story, “The Ghost Wife,” a young girl is confused by the reactions of her mother to the upcoming marriage of a Chinese cousin. While there is great excitement in the preparations for the upcoming marriage, there is an undercurrent of hostility.
In a way I feel sorry for Gladys. She’s not going to be able to talk to her big shot son-in-law, you know. She can’t speak English and he can’t speak Chinese. And when they have children, the children won’t speak Chinese, you know. They won’t know anything about being Chinese. They’re going to be able to say anything in front of her. They won’t even want Gladys around. 
But Mah, just because Jean’s getting married to a lo fon, doesn’t mean she’s going to forget about her own family. 
Oh, it’s not that Jean doesn’t care about her mother. But once she’s married to a gwei loh, she’ll be spending all her time with lo fons. She’ll forget about being Chinese. I know. Jean will want to spend all of her time with her lo fon family. She’ll forget all about being Chinese. I know.
The mother concludes that her own daughter would never marry a gwei loh, because she has too much respect for her mother. Caught in a new way between the vice of contrary expectations.

This is a wonderful collection of short stories; I predict that once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Although I had previously read two Lily King novels and found them both very well told stories, I was really not prepared for the depth and profundity of her 2014 novel, Euphoria.

Based loosely on incidents in the life of Margaret Mead when she was in the territory of New Guinea in 1933, this short novel has much to say about anthropology and the arrogance of the western world and of power relationships between men and women—both those of the three anthropologists in the story (two men and one woman), and of the so-called primitive cultures that they studied.

Nell Stone is the character King builds from her meticulous research into the lives of Margaret Mead, her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and her second husband, an Australian social scientist. Andrew Bankson, the character King creates in the likeness of Bateson, has been alone in the field for many months, and he is lonely and depressed to the point of being suicidal when he first meets Nell and her husband Fen. Nell and Fen have recently fled from their study of a violent tribe, and with Bankson’s help are relocated with a people called the Tam, much more artistic and peace-loving than the culture they have fled. 

King begins her novel with two short quotes, one from Mead and the other from the wonderful anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Mead: “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.” Benedict: “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.”

As you read this excellent, fast-paced little novel, you will come to understand the relevance of both quotes, Nell and Fen settle into their study of the Tam while Bankson returns to his own tribe several canoe-hours upstream. 
Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.
Certainly, Mead was a central figure in that early progress away from the rigidity of western views. As Nell argues with Bankson in an early chapter of the book, there is no such thing as a purely objective view, subjectivity will enter, but we can at least try to step back, try to get a different, a larger, perspective on what we are viewing. 
She told me I sounded as skeptical as my father. She said no one had more than one perspective, not even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always, in everything we do in this world, she said, limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl.  Look at Malinowski, she said. Look at Boas. They defined their cultures as they saw them, as they understood the natives’ point of view. The key is, she said, to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is “natural.”
While most reviewers understood the historical importance of this novel, they also had much to say about the love-triangle that develops between the three anthropologists. Nell is not allowed into the mens’ lodges, so she cannot observe or question/listen as she can among the women and children. Fen, is more interested in weaponry and machinery than in the social relations of the culture, and is jealous of the success of a book Nell has published to great acclaim. Mead, like Nell, published a book that became very famous, Coming of Age in Samoa. Bankson is more interested in Nell’s daily work with the women and families than is Fen, and adapts more easily to her constantly working lifestyle. While Fen says the constant click-clack from her typewriter is driving him crazy, and actually slams and then tosses the typewriter, Bankson insists that the background typewriting noises make it easier for him to think. Their work-habits are congruous, and from the start, Bankson has had a tremendous sexual attraction for this fiercely active and engaged woman. While I found the blooming love-affair between Nell and Bankson more sweet than steamy, no doubt the ménage a trois aspect of the novel accounts at least partly for its fame.

King takes the love-triangle aspect of her story in quite a different direction than Mead’s and Bateson’s own lives, and unlike the real-life events, perhaps ties her story up a little too neatly, but the tale she tells has a charm to it quite aside from the Mead/Bateson story.

One thing this book did for me is make me more interested in Mead and her views of anthropology, as well as her views on relationships. I will close with a longish quote from Nell reflecting on her ongoing study of male-female relations, and her mounting disagreements with her husband, Fen.
In her grant proposal, she claimed that she would continue her inquiry of child-rearing in primitive cultures, but the Tam were tempting her with something even more enticing. At first she dared not hope, but the data kept coming: taboo reversals, sisters-in-law on friendly terms, emphasis on female sexual gratification. Yesterday Chanta explained to her that he could not go to visit his sick nephew in the far hamlet because his wife’s vulva would go wandering if he did. They were grand on the world ‘vulva’. When Nell asked if an elderly widow would ever marry again, several people said at the same time ‘Has she not a vulva?’ Girls themselves decided whom they would marry and when. Fen disagreed with every conclusion she drew on this topic. He said she was blinded by her desire to see them this way, and when she laid out her evidence he said whatever power the women had was temporary, situational…Whatever she saw was a temporary aberration.

This is a fascinating novel both in the story it tells, and for its many layers of speculation on the nature of anthropology and the possibility of objectivity in and science, especially the social sciences. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Intrusions by Ursula Hegi

Like many writers and authors before her, Ursula Hegi wonders whether a woman can be both a good mother and a good writer. In her 1981 novel, Intrusions, she spends an entire novel examining this question, and though she finds many women who say you must choose between your art and your children, she disagrees. 
You can’t have both. You must make a choice.I don’t want to believe that. It’s too easy a solution, an excuse for anyone who doesn’t want to try. I don’t want to make that choice. I want both. Dammit, I do.
Given that she has published seven novels, to collections of short stories as well as children’s literature and non-fiction books, we must conclude that she has succeeded in doing both. Intrusions (her first published novel) came out in 1981, and there has been a steady steam of work since. 

This novel is about a writer who not only has to live with the intrusions of two small children and her husband, but eventually with the intrusions of the characters in her novel as well. The book skips back and forth between the story of Megan Stone, writing madly whenever she can wrest a few minutes from her busy day, and the author, herself, who like her heroine has a husband and two children. The idea of a novel within a novel is not a new one, but Hegi is so clever in the ways in which she argues with her own lead character, Megan, and with Megan’s husband Nick. Hegi deals with intrusions on so many levels.

Megan says that were she to be asked by a reporter to define what was most important to her, “Megan would quite likely have replied: solitude, to be completely alone without even the slightest possibility of an interruption, without even the slightest possibility of the possibility of an interruption.” 
This was the year when Megan’s children were two and four, when she always felt surrounded by their needs even when she was not with them (which was very seldom), when ninety percent of her conversations hovered on the level of a two-or four-year-old, when she began to doubt if she had ever possessed any intelligence and, if so, worried that it was evaporating like fumes from an open can of cleaning fluid.
And when she does find a few moments to write, she feels guilty over what she perceives as neglect of her children. Having lost both of her parents and her brother at the age of six, killed in a plane crash, and raised by an aunt who is both prudishly strict as well as quite distant and cold, Megan is intent on being really there for her children, and yet she also feels compelled to write. Every stolen moment of writing brings guilt in its wake, and yet she must write.

Megan says she can feel the silent presence of her son just outside her study door, his very silence a weight she can hardly bear. And then even the characters in her novel begin to intrude, questioning her motives, her love of her husband and children. “The characters have moved in. They follow me around, even crowd my family at the dinner table. There isn’t enough room for all of us. I can barely move. Nobody but me is aware of them.”

While the problems raised and faced by both Megan and the author, herself, are serious and heart-wrenching, Hegi displays the dilemmas with a humor and lightness of hand that makes the novel easy and fun to read. 

I started this novel many years ago, right after reading Hegi’s most famous novel, Stones from the River. But, adhering to my own conviction that readers ought not stick with books that do not thoroughly engage them, I let Intrusions  fall to the side. I was surprised when I recently picked up the novel again (searching my ‘started but not finished bookshelf’) and found that I had read two hundred pages of this 270 page novel before moving on to other things. This time, I breezed through the novel in just a day or two, and was so intrigued that  it was hard to understand why I had given up on it earlier. No matter; such things have happened to me before, but I remain committed to finishing only books that hold my attention throughout. Too many good books to do otherwise.

What I think Hegi shows her readers in this novel is that one can be both a good, committed artist and a good parent, and that relationships between men and women can be good despite sometimes requiring balancing acts. Speaking of her book club, Megan says:
But the fiction we discuss tells us that to be a woman is to be a victim, that all men are villains. Why? It doesn’t have to be that way. There are good relationships between men and women, between men and their children. Aren’t there? I won’t let you be victimized by your husband, your children, your house, Megan, and I won’t let you keep a card file of rooms to be cleaned and silver to be polished. 
I found  this book to be wonderfully insightful and humorous, and Hegi has in her own life shown clearly that women need not decide between their art and their families; they can have both.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

I imagine that most compulsive readers worry from time to time that they are going to run out of books to read, or worse, suddenly lose their enchantment with the written word. How wonderful when one discovers a new author, even if she has been around for most of the reader’s life. Through a reader friend who slipped me a piece of paper in a grocery line with a name written on it, I became aware of a marvelous British author by the name of Jane Gardam. Maureen Corrigan of NPR describes Gardam as “the best British writer you’ve never heard of,” so I guess I am not alone in having previously missed out on her long career of writing. As soon as I discovered her, I quickly, and with passionate interest, began to read her. I’ve already read seven of her books, beginning with her Collected Stories, five hundred pages of stories she, herself, selected from the volumes of short fiction she has written over a lifetime. But today I want to focus on her exquisite trilogy, Old Filth, which consists of the title volume, Old Filth, followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. All three are about British law practitioners who spend most of their lives in what was then called The British Empire. Indeed, filth is an acronym for Failed in London? Try Hong Kong.

Eddie Feathers, affectionately named Old Filth by his fellow barristers and judges, is a Raj orphan—one of many British children sent home from India (or Hong Kong, or some other country in the Empire) to be fostered by family or strangers until they are old enough to enter boarding school. The children are allegedly sent to England in order to prevent them from getting tropical diseases, but often enough the children are miserable in their foster homes, although in some cases, the children come to prefer their foster parents and simply forget their earlier lives with their biological parents. Gardam is a master of the language, and obviously knows a lot about the Raj orphans. Indeed, she dedicates Old Filth to Raj Orphans and their parents.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the trilogy is that all three volumes include not only the same characters, but the same historical period, roughly from WW I to the end of the 20th century. The first volume is mainly about Eddie Feathers, a.k.a. Filth, and his wife, Betty, and a lifelong enemy of Feathers, Ed Veneering. Both Feathers and Veneering make reputations and fortunes as land attorneys and later judges. There were fortunes to be made in the distributing and redistributing of land and land-rights, mining rights, especially after WW II. The characters of Feathers and Veneering are as different as their histories are similar. Gardam gets at the complexity of her characters in ways few authors can match, and once a character is mentioned by Gardam, the reader can be sure that his or her life will be picked up again as a story in its own right at some point in the trilogy. In the final volume of the trilogy, Last Friends, a rather minor legal figure, Fiscal-Jones, who appears briefly in many of the stories/scenes in the earlier volumes, emerges as the last living member of a group of Raj orphans, and his life story is then meticulously stitched into narrative of the lives of the ‘main’ characters described previously. “Don’t introduce a pistol in a short-story or play unless you intend to bring it into the action later,” is an adage told to writers; for Gardam, it seems to be, “Don’t introduce a character unless you intend to develop him/her at some later point.”

The descriptions of life in Hong kong, and other cities of the Empire are marvelous for someone who knows as little history as I do. And because she takes her characters through their entire lives, the reader gets Gardam’s insights on aging, the end of Empire, parenting (or deciding not do parent), and the incredible changes in daily life over the past half century or so. Gardam is in her 80s, and so lived through the times of her characters, and she continues to enlighten us about those times. She is a master story-teller, on a par I think with the great Alice Munro, and, like Munro, most of her short fiction is dedicated to the apparently ordinary lives of rural North England towns. But, again like Munro, Gardam understands that the inner lives of ‘simple’ folk are anything but ordinary or simple. The complexity of her characters brings them to life in wonderfully rich ways. And while there is much sadness and loss in the lives of her characters, there is also humor and love and loyalty. As Old Filth, Eddie Feathers, lies on his deathbed trying to recall where he is and how he got there, he reflects:
Memory. My memory has always been so reliable. Perhaps too reliable. It has never spared me. Memory and desire, he thought. Who said that: Without memory and desire life is pointless? I long ago lost any sort of desire. Now memory.

Gardam, along with Penelope Lively, Barbara Kingsolver, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (and I’m sure many others), seem intent on reviewing for us the 20th century, looking again at its wars, its poverty and suffering; they give us such complex and insightful perspectives on the politics and events of the last century. They seem to be summing up, and I find their summing-up to be helpful and hopeful. I note that there are still sixteen books of Gardam I have not read, along with some children’s stories (which is how she was first published). I mean to read everything she has written; she is a wise companion to have in life. She tells us what she knows through story-telling, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I am quite certain I would admire her as a person just as I admire her as a writer.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with the line, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so I’ll be giving nothing away by telling you that this is a book about how and why a young Chinese-American girl died. It is a debut novel by Celeste Ng, although few would guess that this is a first novel, since it is a very finished piece of writing. 

The themes of racism and feminism are woven through this lovely but sad novel. Raised by a mother who feels she sacrificed her life and academic talents to marriage and children, and who lays all of her frustrated ambitions onto her daughter, Lydia feels the enormous weight of her mother’s expectations. Her Chinese father senses that he has never fit into American life, and he wants desperately for his daughter to pass, to be normal and popular. Each parent unintentionally puts tremendous, but in some ways opposite, pressure on  Lydia, and she staggers under the weight of trying to do for her parents what each feel they failed to do for themselves.

Lydia has an older brother, Nath, who somehow slips through the net of expectations that entangle Lydia. Only Nath understands what Lydia is going through, and yet he cannot quite rid himself of resentment towards her, since everything, always, seems to be about Lydia. Neither parent seems to notice that it is he who has the true love of science and learning, and so his talents are largely ignored by both parents. More and more, Lydia, who is in fact friendless, but talks to imaginary girlfriends on the phone to convince her dad that she is happy and popular, depends on her older brother for support and friendship. But he is soon to leave for college, and is eager to escape living in the shadow of Lydia, and the disappointments of the parents that both children feel.

At one point, the mother finally (and briefly) wrests herself from the family and takes up the scientific studies abandoned when she married a Chinese grad student and quickly had two children. She seems to have the academic skills her daughter cannot quite muster, and although an older student, is doing very well in her studies until she realizes that she is once again pregnant, and dispiritedly rejoins the family that she has abandoned.

Lydia, confused and frightened by her mother’s disappearance, vows to do everything her mother wants of her when she returns in order to keep her from running away again. So eager to please her mother, she never confesses that she feels overwhelmed by and unable to live up to the high expectations placed on her. Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, gives up her own academic dreams,  but made plans for Lydia,
Books she would buy Lydia. Science fair projects. Summer classes. ‘Only if you’re interested’ She meant it every time, but she did not realize she was holding her breath. Lydia did. Yes, she said, every time. Yes. Yes. And her mother would breathe again…Yale admitted women, then Harvard. The nation learned new words: affirmative action; Equal Rights Amendment. In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.
And meanwhile, her father who feels he has lowered himself by accepting his small college position, and who feels always out of step with his peers,
“… mulling over the slights of the day… Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have friends… She would be poised and confident, she would say ‘Afternoon Vivian,’ and look right at her neighbor with those big blue eyes. Every day, the thought grew more precious.
And every day, Lydia feels more desperate, more unequal to the task before her. And now her only support, Nath, is about to leave home, escape from the frustrated hopes and dreams of their parents into a life of his own. He alone realizes the desperate situation of his sister. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.”  Finally, looking forward to what he sees as the start of his own life, “Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say…He had been the only one listening for so long. Since their mother’s disappearance and return, Lydia had been friendless.”

All in all, this is a sad little book, but so beautifully written, and by an author who understands so intimately what she is writing about. She understands the father who never fits in and so wants his daughter to do what he cannot, understands the mother who puts all of her frustrated hopes onto her daughter. 
And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.
There is also an element of mystery in the novel as the story of Lydia’s disappearance unfolds. But I’m not about to reveal the mystery; you will have to read the novel to see how the mystery unravels.