Monday, December 11, 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a sentimental man - he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them - James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spent in that spot. He never did this with the animals he hunted - they were food, and transient, passing through this world and out again, as people did. But trees felt permanent - until you had to cut them down.
The Goodenough family leaves their home in Connecticut for the promise of land and space in Ohio. Instead, they find swampland-damp, barren, and lonely. The novel follows the parents, James and Sadie to Ohio, then their son, Robert, as he forges farther West. Ohio homesteading is brutal; children are lost (to malaria? I think?) each fall, the winters are long and cold, and the land is unforgiving. Through it all, though, it's hard to feel sympathy for Chevalier's characters. James is obsessed with his apple orchard, Sadie is a cruel drunk. Neither seems particularly preoccupied with the work of raising children or of caring for one another. This may be a fairly accurate portrayal of homesteading in the 1800's, but it made for some rough reading.

Chevalier anchors the text in the flora of the Ohio swamps and Northern California, so much so that the trees feel like primary characters. There are James' apple trees, brought over first by ancestors from England, then by James and Sadie to Ohio, and Robert's giant sequoias, towering over the Sierra foothills. Her best writing is about landscapes and nature and how humans move through and within them. Robert and James, neither of them particularly competent at human relationships, are able to form deep, engaging partnerships with their trees; Chevalier writes those connections almost more compellingly than she does human ones.

There's a lot going on here. Chevalier weaves in a variety of narrators and voices and jumps forwards and backwards in time, but it doesn't always feel as seamless as it could. The second half of the book moves quickly and builds suspense well, but the first half was so rough that I had trouble investing. Robert ends up making it worth your while, and the twists and turns at the end are definitely exciting, but the book felt uneven--the pacing, the characters, the tone.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

'Question they never deal with is, what to remould sick person like.  There is no what, Mister.'

'I don't get you, Helio.'

'Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be his hidden from the eyes of living critters.  Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct?  Mister, they take a brave journey.  They turn away from mere things, which one my handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning.  There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit.  Who can say if they will return?  And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning?  I admire them.'

On the Mars colonies, life forms around water.  Civilization huddles around the great canals, and still water is scarce; the water authority turns a switch that grants water to one homestead this month and another the next.  It is, hilariously, the 1990's.  The man who controls the water, Arnie Kott, is an old-school union gangster in the Jimmy Hoffa mold: unfailingly corrupt and in love with his own power.  He boasts of the steam bath he owns, which lets the excess water seep into the ground, a sign of his own excess.  But as forces on Earth set their eyes on expanding their influence in the colonies, he knows his days are numbered, and turns to an schizophrenic child, Manfred, who might have precognitive abilities--that is, he sees the future--to help him cement his power.  In this task Kott enlists a talented repairman, Jack Bohlen, himself a recovering schizophrenic, to help him create a machine will communicate with Manfred.

I have read what I think are considered Philip K. Dick's most important novels--Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the VALIS trilogy.  But Dick wrote something like fifty novels in his lifetime, and while some are probably in the vein of the pulpy sci-fi of the midcentury, I'm sure there are some hidden gems out there.  But even still, I didn't expect Martian Time-Slip, which I picked up more or less at random, to be so good that it qualifies, for me at least, as one of Dick's very best.

A few things set Martian Time-Slip apart.  I liked the presence of the Bleekmen, native Martians who speak a kind of pidgin English and who have been impressed into the service of the human colonizers.  It's an old story, but that's part of Dick's point: while space exploration promises a new start to the human race, humans are unable to escape their own poisoned qualities.  "Their lives were wasted," a character thinks, "they had simply carried over their old quarrels form Earth--and the purpose of colonisation had been forgotten."

Then there's the visions of Manfred, who really does have precognition.  Manfred is only a child, but he experiences the entire arc of his own life over and over again.  (This is Dick's theory of schizophrenia: it is the result of a mind working on a different time frame that "normal" humans.)  He is tortured because he sees his own future, in which his limbs are amputated and he lives out his last days helplessly in a joyless hospital.  Manfred's visions emphasize the way entropy pervades the universe; an inevitable rot he describes as "gubbish":

Gubbish!  A worm, coiled up, made of wet, bony-white pleats, the inside gubbish worm, from a person's body.  If only the high-flying birds could find it and eat it down, like that.  He ran down the steps, which gave beneath his feet.  Boards missing.  He saw down through the sieve of wood to the soil beneath, the cavity, dark, cold, full of wood so rotten that it lay in damp powder, destroyed by gubbish-rot.

Manfred's visions are terrifying, and they are what Martian Time-Slip does that none of Dick's other books do.  We see the same moments from Manfred's point of view over and over again, each time emphasizing the horrible force of entropy: people dissolve into their own skeletons, buildings rot away.  Kott wants to use Manfred to see the future, but like all good fables about the future, he is unprepared for what he'll see when he does.

And yet, Martian Time-Slip is as action-packed and exciting as any of the novels that have made Dick such a fertile source for movies.  The scene where the plutocrat Kott and the repairman Jack converge at the same point in the desert, obligated by law to help the party of Bleekmen dying of thirst, has a great visual and cinematic sense that helps establish the strangeness of life on Mars.  Ditto for the novel's climax, when Kott takes Manfred on a pilgrimage into the Martian desert to a rock worshiped by the natives, known as "Dirty Knobby."  I love that.  No other science fiction writer has quite that eye for the darkly humorous, or the truly weird.  This really is one of Dick's best books.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall

This review contains spoilers, although the nature of the story gives most of them away early. Let the reader beware.

Walkabout is not a complicated book, on the surface. It is written sparsely, a lean adventure story that a 10-year-old could read and (mostly) love. And even below the surface, the subtext is not especially subtle or hard to tease out--the wilderness, whether the American West or the Outback, as here, has long been peopled in fiction by characters exploring who they really are beneath the facile trappings of civilization. Walkabout makes this explicit early on:
In them, the primative had long ago been swept aside, been submerged by mechanization, been swamped by scientific development, been nullified by the standardized pattern of the white man's way of life. They had climbed a long way up the ladder of progress: they had climbed so far, in fact, they had forgotten where the climb had started... the realities of life were something they'd never have to face.
And this is driven home even more by our protagonists, all children. There are, in fact, no significant adults in the entire book until the tail end. Mary and Peter, 14 and 8, don't even have to become yuppies to lose touch with their primitive/real nature. All it takes is a plane crash in the Australian desert to expose their vulnerability in the "real world". Looking for food and water and only days from death, Mary and Peter meet a young aboriginal, never named, who helps them survive and acts as their guide toward civilization. The boy is on "walkabout", a ceremony--which Vance may have invented--in which a young boy must brave the wilderness alone to become a man in primitive cultures.

This trio's relationships form the core of the book, and bring about the thornier things that come with a book starring an aboriginal written in the 50s. There's plenty of noble savage stuff, of course, lots of casual racism--but there's a core of humanity and simplicity that keeps it from ever tipping over into truly offensive territory. This is largely a function of the story's mode: it reads more like a fable or an extended parable than a realist novel, which the ending makes a little more explicit. It could even be taken a sort of off-kilter utopia, with the boy leading the way.

But of course there is conflict, and much of it comes from Mary and Peter's differing reactions to the boy. Where Peter is immediately onboard with their guide--they bond early, over a sneeze--Mary is offended by the boy's nudity and lack of shame. Prim and civil, she reluctantly follows him, gradually growing more and more apprehensive as Peter starts to shed his apprehensions (and his clothes). But, this story being what it is, there is a crisis moment that pulls Mary out of "civilization"--a common cold, transmitted from Peter to the boy (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW) that eventually kills the boy. Some of the loveliest writing is in this section, as well as some of the heaviest symbolism. Mary, afraid the boy will die and go to Hell, is moved with compassion to baptize him:
She sat down. Stunned. Then very gradually she laid the bush boy's head on to her lap; very softly she began to run her fingers across his forehead.
The bush boy's eves flickered open; for a moment, they were puzzled; then they smiled.
It was his smile that broke Mary's heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face to face. And in that moment of truth all her inbred fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one.
He dies in her lap, described to sound like a pieta, cementing that no, this isn't particularly subtle stuff but yes, it still packs a bit of a punch. The end of the book is a slow comedown and a gentle ambiguity--but this is the heart of the thing.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

She laughed quietly and then she said, "I've had my glory days, Kristin, but I'm not foolish enough to complain because I have to be content with sour, watered-down milk now that I've drunk up all my wine and ale.  Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution; all sensible people know that.  That's why I think that sensible people have to be satisfied with the good days--for the grandest of days are costly indeed.  They call a man a fool who fritters away his father's inheritance in order to enjoy himself in his youth.  Everyone is entitled to his own opinion about that.  But I call him a true idiot and fool only if he regrets his actions afterward, and he is twice the fool and the greatest buffoon of all if he expects to see his drinking companions again once the inheritance is gone."

Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter novel follow the title heroine throughout her life living in medieval Norway.  She is the daughter of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, a couple who have had to bury three sons before Kristin came along.  For that reason her parents are devoted to her, though in different ways--the steady, kind Lavrans and the neurotic, aloof Ragnfrid are not quite perfectly matched--and Kristin tests their love for her when he decides she cannot marry the capable Simon Darre, who her parents have arranged for her to marry, and instead falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a dashing older man with a checkered past.

The Wreath is a story you see again and again, and not just in "bodice-rippers" like this one: a headstrong woman rejects her parent's choice of husband for a man she has chosen herself.  But few novels, or movies or TV shows for that matter, tell that story as well as Undset does.  The story is delicately wrought and genuinely compelling, driven by moments of real tension and drama: the wayward bull that cripples Kristin's sister Ulvhild for life, for instance, or the attempted rape by a local boy that complicates Kristin's reputation among the smallholders in the village when she's only a teenager.  Or when Erlend's former mistress shows up and tries to poison Kristin.

But the thing that makes The Wreath stand out most from those other stories is that it takes all sides of the conflict seriously.  Erlend is not a misunderstood hero; he's a man whose reliability is questionable and whose mistakes have genuinely hurt others, even though Kristin loves him in spite of these things.  Lavrans is not a Capulet who rejects his daughter's autonomy without reason; his fear for his daughter's reputation, honor, and lineage is the surest proof of his love for her.  And yet the power of Kristin and Erlend's love is strong enough to obviate petty things like reason.

Most importantly, Undset takes the ideas of sin and guilt seriously.  If you are unable to accept that Kristin's fornication with Erlend is really a transgression against both her human father and against God, the agony that makes up the central internal conflict of the story probably won't land for you.  Even in the early 20th century when Undset wrote The Wreath, the seriousness of that transgression probably didn't translate easily from the medieval mindset.  But the most powerful parts of The Wreath come when Kristin is forced to confront her sin and make penance for it, and when she tries to both honor the religious commitment she makes to Erlend and the one she owes to Lavrans.  Undset clearly believes that the state of Kristin's soul is something that matters, and that seems utterly foreign to the landscape of modern fiction.

Eventually, Kristin and Erlend marry.  They know that their life may not be an easy one, but they've chosen it, and each other, freely.  Undset ends the novel with a scene not in the bed of the two newlyweds, but of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, the old couple who have tried to do their best for each other and for their daughter.  Kristin's marriage has opened up an old wound in their lives, forcing them to confront their own arranged marriage, the exact sort of union that their daughter has rejected.  It's a tender, sad moment that exposes just how complex the moral choices we are forced to make can be.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A. (firmly) The Empire will vanish and all its good with it.  Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.  Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy.--And so matters will remain.

Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) Forever?

A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages.  The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years.  The dark ages to come will endure not twelve, but thirty thousand years.  A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity.  We must fight that.

It's not a stretch to say I owe a lot of my love for literature to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.  It was a recommendation my Dad made, after I had picked up some of his old sci-fi magazines.  I loved it: the epic sweep of the storyline affected me in the way that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have affected other kids, in other times, and I was hooked.  I read the whole series all the way through.  I don't read much science fiction anymore.  A lot of what I treasured about it--the inventiveness, the feat of imagination, the gripping plot--could be found, I discovered, in other books as well, and in ways that often ran more deep.

Re-reading Foundation for the first time in decades confirmed a lot of what I remembered loving about the series.  Asimov, like Stephen King, is a writer damned with the faint praise of being the best of the genre writers, and with Asimov, that's probably a fair description: though the prose is often utilitarian and sparse, he knows how to propel a story in ways that other, even more "literary" science fiction authors, struggle with.  Foundation is breezy, but it hurtles forward with great urgency for a book that takes place over a couple centuries.  And every now and then an inspired detail emerges, like the young prince on the planet Anacreon who hunts giant Nyakbirds in his jet-cruiser, or the descriptions of the crowded urban planet Trantor, home of 40 billion people.

Re-reading it also revealed some of its flaws.  The Foundation series, in a nutshell, is the story of a thousand years in future history.  At the height of the Galactic Empire, which stretches throughout the known universe, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts a coming "fall" which will plummet the universe into barbarism, and sever communication between planets.  He sets up the Foundation, a society on the far-flung planet of Terminus, which will preserve culture, science, and math in hopes of reestablishing the Empire after a millennium-long Dark Age--as well as a second Foundation, secreted away somewhere on the other side of the universe.  His mathematics allows him to predict the course of history, and over that thousand years a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon on Terminus advises the people of the Foundation on how to approach the problems of spatial geopolitics.

Like all fiction that claims to give a vision of the future, Foundation is most jarring when it betrays a lack of vision beyond its own time period.  At one point, Seldon, on trial before the Empire, balks at their suggestion that he has 100,000 followers at his disposal--they fear an uprising--because they are counting "women and children."  It's striking that even an avowed liberal like Asimov would fail to predict just how antiquated that would sound, even as he was in the midst of the twentieth century's push for women's equality.  Foundation tries to predict thousands of years of history, but it seems passe just seventy years later.

That's a small example that speaks to a larger problem that strikes other science fiction writers: the tendency to extrapolate from contemporary or historical circumstances, which detracts from the sense of prediction or imagination.  Asimov modeled the series after Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and at times it seems like a recapitulation of history than a vision of the future.  In its first century the Foundation moves through a series of recognizable epochs--first, it's a society of scientists, working on an encyclopedia, then, a political entity which cements its power in its region of space by providing atomic power in the guise of a Galactic religion.  From there it moves to a trade-based society whose power is largely economic.  The heroes of the story are always those who see the path of history, and are willing to embrace the new political circumstances rather than clinging to the old ways.

But the truth is that this structure is shallow, like a textbook looking for digestible patterns, and fails to recognize the interplay between science, religion and trade, in the Roman Empire or the Galactic one.  It professes a view of human history that is teleological, and privileges the historical moment in which the book was written--note how the religious society is placed at the beginning of the Foundation's history, at a point which is meant to be the most primeval.  No doubt you can see the movement of history back towards empire, personified not as the Roman Empire but the Atomic Age--it's the use of atomic power that separates the civilized from the barbaric in Foundation, which is strange today, when the technological advances we think of as being most important are largely informational and communicative.

This teleological vision of humanity works for Asimov because he shares Seldon's confidence that large groups of people can be successfully modeled statistically.  That's probably true, to an extent.  But there's little respect for the engines of chance, or chaos, or sheer human individuality.  (Future books, I know, trouble this assumption much more.)  Without taking away from Asimov, whose work has always meant a lot to me, I think it's those who appreciate the strangeness of human beings, their impulsivity and unpredictability, who often do the best job of imagining the future.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

In the S bus, in the rush hour.  A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with it.  People getting off.  The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him.  He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past.  A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive.  When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare.  He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat."  He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style tells a banal story, and tells it 99 times: a young man gets into an argument on a bus before taking an empty seat.  Later on, the narrator sees the same man having a conversation with another who suggests putting a new button on his overcoat.  It couldn't be anything but banal, really, because the plot, such as it is, isn't the point; it's the endless variation of style that Queneau wants to emphasize, the number of methods without limit of telling the same story.  The first version, above, is titled "Notation," but others tell the same tale with primarily auditory language, or use the metaphors of gastronomy, or in the fashion of a telegram or official letter, or in the voice of another kind of person, or without the letter E, or according to any number of mathematical word-games.

Some stand out, like "Philosophical," which begins, "Great cities alone can provide phenomenological spirituality with the essentialities of temporal and improbabilistic coincidences."  Or "Apostrophe," which begins, "O platinum-nibbled stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibulistic cause."  My plan is to use it in my Creative Writing classes to help students look past the particulars of what happens and to think about their own style and tone.  I think a few Queneau-style exercises could go a long way in getting them to reflect on that.

One of the biggest impressions this edition gives is just how difficult this book must have been to translate from Queneau's French.  Translator Barbara Wright has a loose hand--she'd have to--going so far as to change the voice-exercise "Vulgaire" to the English "Cockney," and changing an English-dialect impression chapter to one called " For ze Frrensh."  It also has a number of new homages from writers like Harry Mathews, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Lethem; my favorite is a send-up of Beat novels by the writer Frederic Tuten:

Whee!  Whee!  The bus curled up to the curb with a mad tragic kind of speech and me and jenny Lou get on behind a guy sporting a baggy blue suit and a blue hat with a hemp band and I can see right away he's not hip but a square fidgeting every time someone jostles him and squirming when more people crowd into the bus but me and Jenny Lou dig being packed in with all the maids and busboys and car wash kids all the the holy ones who work in the dark obsidian laundries and then someone steps on this guy's foot and he lets out a howl like a naked coyote who's seen the invisible night and finally I say to him be cool man and dig the scene dig all the angels here dig the holy chicks and dig the whole ride because the ride is life...

Yeesh. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they belong.

My new wife and I recently went on our mini-moon to Portland, Maine, a lovely but cold town set on the rocky New England coast and ringed with islands.  I've been saving this book for the next time I was in Maine, and as far as local color goes, it didn't disappoint: Jewett's account of a small coastal town in Maine certainly feels unmistakably like a product of its own place and time, as closely tied to its setting as Twain's novels are to the Mississippi River.

The unnamed protagonist of The Country of the Pointed Firs is an older woman writer--probably very closely identified with Jewett herself--who summers in the town of Dunnet Landing, where she rents out an abandoned schoolhouse for her writing and becomes fast friends with another woman named Almira Todd, who is an expert in growing medicinal herbs.  The book unfolds over several summers, as the protagonist gets to know the local denizens of Dunnet Landing better little by little, as well as Almira's simple but loyal family, who live out on one of the harbor islands.  Jewett has a sensitive eye for the habits and personalities of the Mainers of the 19th-century people: proud but unpretentious, friendly but insular, with a propensity for sea travel (they rely on a fishing economy, after all) but unfamiliar with places fifteen miles away by land.

This novel was a challenge for me.  It flouts one of the principles of fiction we hold to be most inviolable: it really has nothing resembling a conflict.  The people of Dunnet Landing undergo hardships, of course; they've buried loved ones and endured harsh winters, which they bear with equanimity, but these things are rarely represented in the narrative.  The protagonist and Almira are friendly with just about everyone; you get the sense that small-town people can't afford to be enemies.  In place of conflict is a series of detailed sketches of Maine life that illuminate the richness in everyday life even as they zero in on characters who are, for lack of a better word, "quirky."

My favorite comes late in the book, when Almira and the protagonist visit a reclusive woman known as "The Queen's Twin," because she shares a birthday with Queen Victoria.  There's a tremendous pathos in the image of the woman, living alone in the Maine woods, but imagining a kind of friendship with a powerful woman across the Atlantic:

"Sometimes I think, now she's older, she might like to know about us.  When I think how few old friends anybody has left at our age, I suppose it may be just the same with her as it is with me; perhaps she would like to know how we came into life together.  But I've had a great advantage in seeing her, an' I can always fancy her goin' on, while she don't know nothin' yet about me, except she may feel my love stayin' in her heart sometimes an' not know just where it comes from.  An' I dream about our being together out in some pretty fields, young as ever we was, and holdin' hands as we walk along."

And yet Jewett is as interested in the walk to the Queen's Twin's house as she is what in what happens there, and lingers for pages and pages over the landscape and the untroubled path of the two visiting friends.  Most of the characters in the novel are women, and older women at that, and the uncomfortable dramalessness of it may reflect a particular mode of existence circumscribed for women in 19th century America.  But I admit to being frustrated by it, and being most interested in the novel when it rises above the quotidian, as with a chilling early tale from a Sea Captain who describes, from secondhand accounts, a terrifying Arctic world of strange shadow-creatures.  It sets a strange tone for the novel that it never returns to, or validates.

My copy of the novel is accompanied by several short stories, most of which tell similar stories about older women visiting older women.  Most of them I have forgotten completely, but a couple stand out: "The White Heron," about a young girl's awakening to the natural world around her in contrast to the rapaciousness of a visiting hunter, and "The Hiltons' Holiday," whose story of a pair of young girls visiting the town for the first time just stands out as being unerringly charming (and which reminds me of a similar account, accompanied by more menace, in Independent People).  But by the time I'd put the book down, I'd had enough of charm, and of local color.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.
I decided to read Ward's Men We Reaped before I knew it was a memoir. I loved her novel, Salvage the Bones, her newest book has a long waiting list at the library, and a friend loaned this one to me on vacation, so all the stars aligned. I'm somewhat wary of memoirs written by 35 year-olds; obviously it's possible to be a talented, insightful writer at that age (and much younger), but memoir seems like it should be reserved for a longer angle lens than 35 years allows. The exception, for me at least, is when the author has a compelling story to tell--something different and divergent enough to warrant reflection. Ward manages to do the opposite and succeed wildly; she tells a story that is all too common and normalized, but she does it with grace, wisdom, and the same novelistic style that made Salvage the Bones such a pleasure to read. Ward's memoir centers around the loss of five men in her life--to violence, drugs, and poverty--and the horrifying regularity with which these losses occur.

Ward consciously weaves forward and backwards in time, so the ghosts of her lost loved ones reappear after their deaths have happened in vignettes and snippets and memory. Her writing is beautiful and sweeping, her sentences tumble into each other even when she is describing crippling sorrow. She is a gripping writer, and the heartbreak of her story only makes it that much more compelling.

I read this soon after reading Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's A Kind of Freedom, and I wish I'd read it closer to Salvage the Bones. New Orleans and its surrounding towns are a part of the country I have little context for, especially when it comes to poor, overlooked communities. This helped set some of that context for me and gave depth to both of those novels after the fact.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Fiction seeks out truth.  Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes.  But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm, and, in general, what the moral risks are.  The writer who can't distinguish truth truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.  What he affirms we deny, throwing away his book in indignation; or if he affirms nothing, not even our oneness in sad or comic helplessness, and insists that he's perfectly right to do so, we confute him by closing his book.  Some bad men write good books, admittedly, but the reason is that when they're writing they're better men than when they beat their wives and children.  When he writes, the man of impetuous bad character has time to reconsider.  The fictional process helps him say what he might not have said that same night in the tavern.

I just started teaching Creative Writing this year, and it's been a real mixed bag.  I decided to start with poetry, and for some students, the results were terrific.  Many were already accomplished poets, but the best moments are when mediocre or unpracticed young writers stumble through experiment and practice into arresting lines or stanzas.  Others have such a disinterest in poetry I think I may have lost them, though I hope that our upcoming unit writing short fiction will help them reengage with writing.

To that end, I've been reading some books on writing like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird.  Lamott's book is mostly inspirational, an encouragement to writing in the face of all the things that discourage it.  Gardner's is more of a survey of the nature of fiction, and neither are exactly practical.  These books all struggle, I think, because of how difficult it is to speak to each writer at their particular moment; a lot of Gardner's advice seemed obvious to me, and much of it seemed very strange.

The Art of Fiction has a whiff of mothballs to it: For one, Gardner is pretty devoted to the most traditional notion of fiction as an imitation of life and dismissive, even as he claims he isn't, of the kind of "metafiction" that has preoccupied the postmodernists of the past seventy-odd years.  He claims, perhaps rightly, that only those who have mastered fiction are able to write self-conscious metafiction effectively, but you get the sense that he thinks it's probably a mistake, and has little notion of why those writers find metafiction the only possible mode in their particular historical moment.  Elsewhere, there's the unfortunate patina of chauvinism, as when he throws up his hands at the sad fact that the English language prioritizes male pronouns.  He describes as brilliant a treatment of a student's novel he had heard, in which a Native American scholar unwittingly takes a position in an "Indian Studies" department--as in, East Indian--and has to muddle through pretending to be from Delhi, or something.  In a more general way, his insistence that fiction relies most importantly on the accumulation of details that make you feel as if you were really somewhere else seems shortsighted and of another time.

But it's worth embracing, to an extent, the tradition articulated by Gardner here, and not forgetting why those narratives have been so powerful in the first place.  His chapters on crafting individual sentences are exceedingly useful, and would probably help a lot of today's writers whose popular blandness seems like a flaw on the most fundamental level.  Most useful to me were the series of exercises in the back of the book, many of which I'm definitely going to use: "Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder.  Do not mention the murder."  Now, that's fun, and I have an inkling it will be a satisfying exercise for a bunch of high schoolers whose idea of fiction always operates at the highest pitch of drama.  But we'll see.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner

He should say something like: "Your god, Lueli, was only made of wood, perishable and subject to accidents, like man who is made of flesh.  He is now burnt, and his ashes are lost among the other ashes.  Now will you not see that my God is a better God than yours, and turn to Him?  For my God is from everlasting, even though the earth shake He cannot be moved."

Yes, that was the sort of thing to say, but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it.  It seemed ungentlemanly to have such a superior invulnerable God, part of that European conspiracy which opposes gun-boats to canoes and rifles to bows and arrows, which showers death from the mountains upon Indian villages, which rounds up the negro into an empire and tricks him of his patrimony.

Timothy Fortune is an Anglican missionary who sets out to convert the Polynesian island of Fanua.  The islanders welcome him with open arms; they are charmed by his quirky ways: his apprehension around the scantily-clad women, the strange music he plays on his harmonium.  But even though he stays many years, he gains only one convert, a youth named Lueli, and Lueli's soul is constantly a source of anxiety for Mr. Fortune.  When he discovers Lueli's god--a small wooden idol that is "his" god in the way that all the islanders have their own hand-carved gods--at an altar in the forest, he despairs for his failure to convert Lueli properly.

Mr. Fortune--actually, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the first of two slim novels collected in this edition--begins as a particularly sharp parody of European colonialism.  Mr. Fortune bumbles around the island, as unaware of his own priggishness as only a condescending white missionary can be.  He notes that Polynesians, even Lueli, have trouble conceiving of Jesus because they are "not sorrowful enough," without, of course, thinking through the logic of that statement.  And yet Lueli, his young protege, is attached to Mr. Fortune with great ardor and intimacy and accepts his teaching with great equanimity, even when the subject is a particularly bungled lesson in geometry.  What I expected, having heard a little about this book from Brent, was a barely sublimated gay romance, a love which Mr. Fortune represses through his own staunch religion.  And it's not exactly not that.  But while Mr. Fortune's blindness is played for laughs, the intimacy between him and Lueli never is.

About two-thirds of the way through, the novel changes in a way that is both obvious and subtle.  A volcano tremor destroys Mr. Fortune's house, crushing everything inside, including the idol that he had demanded Lueli burn.  Lueli's spirit dies with his own god, and he becomes despondent.  But remarkably, Mr. Fortune's faith dies also, and in the passing of a heartbeat he gives up his Anglican mission for good.  What follows is a meditation on love that took my breath away, a long-formulating realization that Mr. Fortune must leave the island to preserve Lueli, whom he loves above all things:

"I loved him," he thought.  "From the moment I set eyes on him I loved him.  Not with what is accounted a criminal love, for though I set my desire on him it was a spiritual desire.  I did not even love him as a father loves a son, for that is a familiar love, and at the times when Lueli most entranced me it was as a being remote, intact, and incalculable.  I waited to see what his next movement would be, if he would speak or no--it was the not knowing what he would do that made him dear.  Yes, that was how I loved him best, those were my happiest moments; when I was just aware of him, and sat with my sense awaiting him, not wishing to speak, not wishing to make him notice me until he did so of his own accord because no other way would it be perfect, would it be by him.  And how often, I wonder, have I let it be just like that?  Perhaps a dozen times, perhaps twenty times all told, perhaps, when all is put together, for an hour out of the three years I had with him.  For man's will is a demon that will not let him be.  It leads him to the edge of a clear pool; and while he sits admiring it, with his soul suspended over it like a green branch and dwelling in its own reflection, will stretches out his hand and closes his fingers upon a stone--a stone to throw into it."

Guh. I'd give my hands to have written a paragraph as perfect as that one.  It reveals something shockingly true about love: when it is real it comes out of a recognition of difference, seeing someone as a discrete person outside of yourself, and yet a difference that affirms its essential similarity.  How crazy it is to encounter another being as full of spirit as yourself, yet so alien.  And the same feeling produces a revulsion, a kind of anger.  Like Oscar Wilde says, "Each man kills the thing he loves."  But Wilde's pithiness is no match for Warner's lyrical elaboration, I think.

Warner felt so attached to Mr. Fortune that she revisited him years later in a smaller standalone novella called "The House of the Salutation."  Mr. Fortune, having left Fanua, travels miserably around the world until he comes upon a widow living with a handful of servants in an old rundown mansion in the Argentine Pampas.  The widow seizes upon Mr. Fortune's appearance with a love that is more recognizably romantic than the one he had with Lueli, but no less strange or reverent.  This angers the widow's young heir, who suspects Mr. Fortune as having designs on the estate.  "The heart is like a dog," she says.  "It barks, and lies down again."  The novella is strange and dense, without the touch of irony that lightens Mr. Fortune's Maggot, but touching, because Warner apparently could not forsake her apostate priest and was compelled to provide him, at last, with love.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Solitude, says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day. How revolutionary that sounds and how impossible of attainment. 

My grandmother gave each woman in our family a copy of Gift from the Sea at Christmas two years ago. The front leaf of my copy is inscribed with a message recommending that I read the book every five years. My grandmother has read it in each new stage of her life and claims that it has provided her with new wisdom and comfort with each re-reading. The volume is a series of essays, written on a beach vacation. Each piece centers around a different shell and each is a meditation on a different facet of Lindbergh's life. The wisdom is a little outdated and a little on the nose; this is clearly the philosophical treatise of a wife and mother of the 1950s. Lindbergh entreats women to carve out space, time, and an identity for themselves separate from their roles as wives and mothers. It goes beyond A Room of One's Own to include all women--not just writers and thinkers--in the quest for some small modicum of independence.

I think I learned more about my grandmother by reading this than I did about the world or myself. She married at 21, left college to start a life with my grandfather, had four children before she turned 30, and generally lived a life devoted to her children, husband, and grandchildren. She was an artist who loved the water, and I saw her on every page. I bristled a little at the narrow role Lindbergh saw for women and tininess of the scope of freedom she was advocating for, but I also understand that even this felt like a big ask at the time.

I don't know that I can recommend this to modern readers. It felt stale and obvious and, if I'm being honest, somewhat anti-feminist by today's standards, but I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the inner life of my grandmother, a woman who has been generous with her love and advice over the course of my life but relatively reticent when it came to sharing her own struggles.

As a side note, I didn't realize until I had finished reading that Anne Morrow Lindbergh was Charles Lindbergh's long-suffering wife. I went down an addicting Wikipedia rabbit hole learning about their very complicated marriage, and it cast her reflections in a new light.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotter leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression: in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. Asta became a moth.
La Belle Sauvage is the first in Pullman's newest trilogy, a companion to His Dark Materials. This first installation begins before The Golden Compass when Lyra is a baby, and Pullman introduces us to Malcolm, the son of innkeepers and Lyra's fierce defender. It's been 17 years since the final chapter in His Dark Materials was published, and I was concerned that Pullman, at 71, might have lost his touch. My concerns were utterly unfounded.

Pullman's imagination is as rich and captivating as ever. He transitions effortlessly from cozy fireside pub scenes to heart-pounding quests down flooded rivers, and he can build tension and suspense artfully. Each of his books includes a scene that is so dark that it disqualifies the book as purely YA fiction, and La Belle Sauvage had several, one so creepy, I had to stop reading.

I enjoyed hearing Pullman's take on male pre-adolescence (the earlier trilogy hinges on Lyra's coming of age), and Malcolm makes a great hero: smart, reflective, brave, but also sensitive in that way that boys who have not fully become teenagers still allow themselves to be. His love for Lyra is immediate, deep, and incredibly endearing; he's a kid and knows nothing about babies or how to care for them, but he's sold from the start.

Pullman is never overly preachy but tends to slip in some social critique (usually of religion), and in this volume, it came in the form of the League of St. Alexander--an organization named for a child who turned his parents in for being nonbelievers, sentencing them to death. The League recruits at Malcolm's school, giving children the authority to report not just their parents, but also their teachers and peers for suspicious behavior. It's one of the first hints that things are going to take a turn, and it's perfectly creepy.

Overall, this reminded me how much I enjoyed Pullman's writing. It's definitely geared to a younger audience, but it's serious and dense, and it treats young readers like the full humans they are. The next two volumes pick up where His Dark Materials lets off. I can't wait!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

. . . Don Quixote cannot be considered a distortion of those romance but rather a logical continuation, with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased.

One might be forgiven for reading Mr. Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote and being unclear about what he thought of the novel. On the one hand, he testily chastises Cervantes for horribly bad descriptions of scenery, plot-holes, and poorly thought-out resolutions.

On the other, however, we have this, the closing lines to the lectures:

He had ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought--and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Which is it then? Was Cervantes a genius or a fraud? Both, it seems. While critical of much of Cervantes's novel, Nabokov is quick to recognize the genius and beauty of Don Quixote. Nabokov feels that Quixote is a work of genius that holds up what would otherwise be a mediocre novel. In fact Quixote's character makes this novel not just good, but great.

There are two reasons to read this book. First, much like the characters bemoaning Quixote's death, when I finished the novel, I did not feel ready to say goodbye to the character of Quixote. Inspiring me to go through a not-subtle obsession with Quixote. See Exhibit A (photograph of carved pumpkin). Reading the Lectures gave me a chance to revisit and continue thinking about Quixote and what the novel means, or why it feels so meaningful.

Second, Nabokov's genius is, itself, on display here. So, the Lectures also present an opportunity to see how he tackles literary analysis. We get to see his jokes, his asides (the book is liberally footnoted to call to attention any speaking notes that Nabokov wrote for himself), and what themes or patterns Nabokov saw in the novel. Or, take, this, my favorite passage from the work:
It seems to me that the chance Cervantes missed was to have followed up the hint he had dropped himself and to have Don Quixote meet in battle, in a final scene, not Carrasco but the fake Don Quixote of Avellaneda. All along we have been meeting people who were personally acquainted with the false Don Quixote . We are as ready for the appearance of the fake Don Quixote as we are of Dulcinea. We are eager for Avellanda to produce his man. How splendid it would have been if instead of that hasty and vague last encounter with the disguised Carrasco, who tumbles our knight in a jiffy, the real Don Quixote had fought his crucial battle with the false Don Quixote! In that imagined battle who would have been the victor--the fantastic lovable madman of genius, or the fraud, the symbol of robust mediocrity? My money is on Avellaneda's man, because the beauty of it is that, in life, mediocrity is more fortunate than genius. In life it is the fraud that unhorses true valor.
Exhibit A
Here, Nabokov cannot help being himself--a writer--and improving on Cervantes's text. I have to admit, I prefer Nabokov's version, and there will always be a part of me that pretends his version is canon. (Incidentally: this passage is a good example of Nabokov's criticism of the novel. Nabokov's ending is poignant, parallels themes that run throughout Don Quixote and is itself ripe with meaning. Cervantes's version is...abrupt and almost feels like it was written because it just felt like it was time to wrap things up).

But then, who is Nabokov to criticize? It was Cervantes's genius, and not Nabokov's, who birthed Quixote.
As Cervantes would undoubtedly point out, it is not so easy to blow up a dog.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I thought about the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly.  It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with great O's of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin.  No synthetic yellow bangs suspended over marble-blue eyes, no pinched nose and bowline mouth.  More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live--just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals.

The first time I read The Bluest Eye, I found it to be pretty scattered, if I recall correctly.  It dwells in digressions, piles symbols upon symbols, often in a way that I found distracted from the central images of white baby dolls and blue eyes that give the novel its title.  Among other things, Morrison commits a cardinal literary sin by writing an important character--the mystic fraudster Soaphead Church, who "grants" Pecola her blue eyes--into the very end of the book, where he works the action necessary for the climax.

But Soaphead is such a fascinating character, I quickly brushed that sin aside.  Reading it a second time, those flaws, if that's what they are, failed to appear.  Because I knew the climax and Soaphead were coming, it freed me up to ignore the narrative movement of the book and really appreciate how painstakingly crafted each disparate part of the book is: Soaphead, the interludes that track the life of Pecola's mother and father, all of it.  Each of these stories is so perfectly wrought and self-contained they could exist outside of the novel without losing anything, though they also provide its halting, irregular character.  Morrison risks distracting from the intense, immense tragedy that is the story of Pecola, a young girl haunted in ways she cannot understand by the idea of physical beauty in America, but she does so out of a deep need to give each character their due.  That goes double for the worst ones, like Cholly, Pecola's father, who rapes and impregnates her in a fit of trauma-induced delusion.

Reading it a second time also allowed me to focus on just how tragic Pecola's story is.  She's an easier character to pity than to love, but perhaps that is in keeping with the tragedy: Pecola, unable to love herself, rebuffs the reader's ability to love her as well.  To a child like this, who obsesses with Mary Jane candy because of the Shirley Temple-esque white character on the wrapper, who sees the way her own mother prefers the little white girl whose house she keeps, we might say: you're beautiful the way you are!  But Pecola is not really beautiful, because the social environment represses her so heavily that anything beautiful in her has no chance to grow.  Her obsession with whiteness and with blue eyes becomes so all-consuming that it seems to carve her out from the inside.  This sad narrative gets its fullest expression in the baby that is stillborn, that "everybody wanted dead," because its mere existence would be an embodiment of the social ugliness that engendered it.  Pecola is, in a sense, as stillborn as her baby.

One thing that The Bluest Eye shows perfectly is just how difficult it is to navigate the pressures of beauty because they exist apart from the discrete actions of people.  Morrison is her own best reader and explicator, and she writes in the introduction about a friend who shared Pecola's desire for blue eyes: "Who told her?  Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was?  Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?"  Those are good questions without good answers, which The Bluest Eye is smart enough not to offer.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Coming to my Senses by Alice Waters

 I was very skinny and didn't like to eat much. The sandwiches my mother made me, things like peanut butter and bananas on whole wheat bread, were always dry, so sometimes I traded for my friends' cheese and bologna sandwiches on white bread. 
I really, really wanted to like this book. Coming to my Senses ends on opening night at Chez Panisse, Waters' world-famous restaurant, and it traces her path to that fateful evening starting with her childhood in New Jersey and Michigan. It follows her to L.A., Santa Barabara, Berkeley, and Paris, and gives a glimpse of activist life in the Bay Area in the late sixties. I love food, especially Berkeley food and French food; I find Alice Waters fascinating (if a little self-absorbed), and I was really hoping for a treatise on the slow food movement, or at least some good food writing. Neither came through.

The biggest issue was the writing. Even though I had high hopes, I found myself continually distracted by her awkward, almost childlike syntax, and long, italicized digressions. The quote above was the most interesting one I could find, and I only picked it because the thought of a young Alice Waters eating a bologna sandwich is entertaining. She seems to have used two ghostwriters (they are effusively thanked in the acknowledgments), but I am at a loss as to what they or her editors did to tame her stream of consciousness. Much of the book reads like what my high schoolers produce in their early college essay drafts: choppy statements of fact describing things that happened to them and awkward, superficial reflections on those events. Even though Waters provides anecdotes from decades of her life, she comes off as flat and uninteresting because the writing is so stiff.

I've always struggled with Waters' philosophy on food: that we all should be eating slow, local food; that all it takes is a taste of a "perfect peach" to win someone over to growing their own produce in their backyard. Everything else I'd read of hers wildly oversimplified the underlying issues of poverty and access that affect our national food culture, and I was hoping that this memoir, since its format would allow for more thoughtful reflection, might delve into her philosophy in a more nuanced way. It did not, and I remain frustrated.

Overall, this is not a good use of anyone's time. Fans of food or Chez Panisse will not find much to like, and even ardent Waters fans won't get much more than a few poorly told stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

On balance, most of the time, in the ordinary course of life, it was probably best to say what was in your heart, to share what was on your mind, to tell the people you loved that you loved them, to ask those you had harmed to forgive you and to confront those who had hurt you with the truth about the damage they had done. When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable. 
Michael Chabon spent the last week of his grandfather's life sitting with him and listening to him tell, for the first time, his entire life story. Moonglow is the novelization of that life, but it retains the frame of the deathbed confession. Chabon brings his flair for storytelling but grounds the book in his grandfather's real life and experiences (the first line is: "This is how I heard the story"). We follow Chabon's grandfather through decades of marriage, multiple careers (many of which fail impressively), WWII occupied France, and a crusade to capture the alligator terrorizing the cats in his retirement community.

This felt much like all of Chabon's other novels: it's funny and sarcastic, filled with creative characters who all seem like they're just about to catch their break (but rarely do), and just enough of the touch of the absurd to make you raise an eyebrow. Moonglow has the added layer of strange intimacy that comes with chronicling the life of a loved one who you are getting to know along with your reader. Chabon refers to his grandfather only as "my grandfather," a phrasing that can feel awkward, especially in the chapters that deal with his earlier life, but it also adds to that same sense of intimacy and makes the whole novel feel like you're listening to Chabon speak it aloud.

The most haunting presence in the book is Chabon's grandmother, a French Jewish refugee who arrived in America at the tail end of the war with a daughter in tow. Her troubled but loving marriage to Chabon's grandfather and her slow unraveling are eerily portrayed, and the truth about her identity is artfully unveiled throughout the book.

Chabon does tiny details well, and he uses them throughout to give emotional depth to a man who has come off (at least to his grandchild) as stoic and silent for most of his life. My favorite comes from a model of a moon station he has built from discarded plastic bits and assorted model railroad sets--late in life Chabon's grandfather designed and built scaled models for NASA. A spray-painted coffee lid's hatch lifts to reveal a tiny family hidden below: figures representing Chabon's grandfather, grandmother, and mother. Even long after the death of his wife, he quietly and discreetly weaves her into the fabric of his life.

I often enjoy Chabon's work because it takes place in places I know and love (I especially loved Telegraph Avenue for its portrayal of the massive range of humanity living along a few miles stretched between Berkeley and Oakland). Place played a much smaller role in this novel, but the characters shined through and were more likable than I'm used to from him.

Count Magnus and Other Stories by M. R. James

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and he declares, not the mouth of a human being.

M. R. James was a well-regarded Classical scholar who also happened to dabble in ghost stories. His stories are often described as "antiquarian," and they read exactly like the kind of story you might expect a Classical scholar to write.  The ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are often relics of a past age, accessed through a spooky artifact like an illuminated manuscript.  In one of the best stories, "The Mezzotint," the supernatural object is actually just a lithograph print depicting a country house, but the collector who acquires it notices that every time he looks at it a frightening shrouded figure has moved to a new spot in the picture, until he's made his way into the house and carried out an unsuspecting little boy.  They also take place against the backdrop of the stuffy world of Oxbridge; another story, "Casting the Runes," is all about a devious alchemist who uses his black magic to seek revenge on the scholar who refused to publish his monograph.  In another standout, "A School Story," a murdered man communicates with his murderer through his students' Latin exercises.

The best thing, I think, about James' stories, is how frightening and particular the various monsters are.  There's the mouth under the pillow above, but I also liked the monster from "Canon Alberic's Scrap Book," which has "[p]ale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled."  These disheveled ghouls are a perfect contrast to the gentility and decorum of James' professors and barristers and classicists.

My favorites are: "Number 13," in which the title hotel room appears at night and disappears during the day, housing a man who once made a deal with the devil to escape the hangman's noose, and the title story, "Count Magnus," about a medieval count who continues to hang out with demons long after his death.  Count Magnus is hardly ever seen, but the story is a masterwork of suspense.  Like most of the stories here, it's reported through several layers of hearsay, but that fails to dilute this image: "Also Anders Bjornsen was there, but he was dead.  And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away from his bones."  Nice.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Demian by Herman Hesse

Novelists when they write novels tend to take an almost godlike attitude toward their subject, pretending to a total comprehension of the story, a man's life, which they can therefore recount as God Himself might, nothing standing between them and the naked truth, the entire story meaningful in every detail.  I am as little able to do this as the novelist is, even though my story is more important to me than any novelist's is to him--for this is my story; it is the story of a man, not of an invented, or possible, or idealized, or otherwise absent figure, but of a unique being of flesh and blood.

Brent hates this book so much I just had to read it for myself.  Is it really that bad, or does Brent just have really bad taste?  The answer, as I expected, was a little bit of both.

We agree that Hesse's Demian starts out well: the narrator, Emil Sinclair, recounts a particular story of his childhood.  He makes up a story about stealing apples from an orchard to impress a local bully, Franz Kromer, which Kromer--clearly seeing through the lie--uses to blackmail Sinclair for months on end, pressing him into a kind of servanthood.  It's a great story, written in clever detail, and amplified with the ironic touch of a child's perspective and lack of understanding.  It's all the more interesting because of the inward agony it causes Sinclair, whose Manichaean view of the world is challenged by Kromer's cruelty.  If the world is divided into the good and the bad, has Sinclair's fib aligned him with the bad; with Cain instead of Abel?

But like Brent says, the beginning of the book is the high point.  Sinclair's agony is put to rest by his classmate Max Demian, who not only wards off Kromer but forces Sinclair to see the story of Cain and Abel--which operates as the principal symbol of the novel--in a different way:

"It's quite simple!  The first element of the story, its actual beginning, was the mark.  Here was a man with something in his face that frightened the others.  They didn't dare lay hands on him; he impressed them, he and his children.  We can guess--no, we can be quite certain--that it was not a mark on his forehead like a postmark--life is hardly ever as clear and straightforward as that.  It is much more likely that he struck people as faintly sinister, perhaps a little more intellect and boldness in his look than people were used to.  This man was powerful: you would only approach him with awe.  He had a 'sign.  You could explain this in any way you wished.  And people always want what is agreeable to them and puts them in the right.  They were afraid of Cain's children: they bore a 'sign.'  So they did not interpret the sign for what it was--a mark of distinction--but its opposite.  They said: 'Those fellows with the sign, they're a strange lot'--and indeed they were.  People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.  It was a scandal that a breed of fearless and sinister people ran about freely, so they attached a nickname and myth to these people to get even with them, to make up for the many times they had felt afraid--do you get it?

Cain, in this version, represents not the "dark side," but a rebuke to the Manichaean worldview that separates dark from light, bad from good, and right from wrong.  Demian becomes the story of Sinclair's long, slow education in this worldview, the development of his own "mark of Cain."  The God of the Bible is replaced by Abraxas, a pagan deity who represents a mixture of both God and Satan in one.  In literal terms, this manifests itself in Sinclair's slow disillusion in the structures of pre-war European society and his drift back toward the figures of Demian and his alluring, androgynous mother.  Gender becomes another binary to be deconstructed (which is, admittedly, anticipates a lot of our modern conversations) and Sinclair falls in love with Demian's mother precisely because she looks like Demian with a little bit of the feminine principle superadded.  These two run a cult in the mountains which Sinclair joins with great enthusiasm.

There's a lot of interesting ideas there--okay, one interesting idea--but the story itself becomes dull after Kromer is dispatched.  The conflict is no longer with petty bullies but with the antimetaphysical bourgeois worldview, which isn't exactly a gripping adventure.  I think Demian might be more compelling if it didn't point toward an ultimate conclusion that seems retrograde for us who are able to look back on the bloody twentieth century: Demian's mother insists that the upcoming war--World War I--will offer an opportunity for man to grow and change in the crucible of violence, and for individuals to transform themselves in to enlightened Demianesque supermen.  That kind of searching for meaning in violence may have been possible before, and even after, World War I, but not after World War II and the Holocaust.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The worst one of all said boys thought all girls were ugly except when they were dressed.  She said the Snake had been seeing Eve for several days and never noticed until Adam made her put on a fig leaf.  How do you know? they said, and she said because the Snake was there before Adam, because he was the first one thrown out of heaven; he was there all the time.  But that wasn't what they meant and they said, How do you know, and Temple thought of her kind of backed up against the dressing table and the rest of them in a circle around her with their combed hair and their shoulders smelling of scented soap and the light powder in the air and their eyes like knives until you could almost watch her flesh where the eyes were touching it, and her eyes in her ugly face courageous and frightened and daring, and they all saying, How do you know? until she told them and held up her hand and swore that she had.

Sanctuary is Faulkner's "potboiler," a novel that takes his familiar themes and characters and weird, poor Mississippi setting and uses them to frame a salacious and prurient story.  There's an element of pulpiness in it--check out the trashy cover in the image above--but Faulkner is too idiosyncratic and elliptical for Sanctuary to really be shocking or titillating.

The first of the novel's two main characters is Temple Drake, a Mississippi undergrad who gets mixed up with a jerkoff alcoholic frat boy who takes her against her will to a bootlegger's house where he abandons her.  There she's raped by a petty criminal named Popeye, who whisks her away to a brothel in Memphis where he stashes her away.  The second is Horace Benbow, a conflicted lawyer who has just left his wife (because of his sexual feelings for his stepdaughter--nice one, Faulkner) and who takes up the defense of the bootlegger who has been charged with a murder that Popeye committed.

Horace and Temple's stories only intersect briefly.  Horace's sympathies are oriented toward Ruby, the wife of the bootlegger Lee, and her infant child; in fact, the townspeople begin to assume that he and Ruby are carrying on an affair, explaining his pro-bono work on Lee's case.  Faulkner wants us to see that Temple is pretty much forgotten; the case hinges on a murder that has nothing to do with Temple, and though Horace tracks her down to find out what happened, his priorities are elsewhere.

Temple's character is frustrating.  We're asked to accept that her feelings toward Popeye are conflicted, and that she's not exactly his prisoner, but neither is she exactly free to leave.  A kind of Stockholm syndrome makes sense, but Faulkner wants us to believe that the rape takes away Temple's agency to a degree that makes her passiveness in the face of her imprisonment sensible.  There are hints of a retrograde notion of female hysteria.  I think we're supposed to read Temple as a cautionary tale about the teenage desire to be inducted into the world of adult sexuality, the darker side of which she and her fellow coeds are unprepared for.  But there's something about the way that's coded according to gender that makes Sanctuary seem like it's trafficking in cheap literary archetypes.

Mostly, Faulkner's elliptical style makes it difficult to really figure out what's going on.  We learn that Popeye hasn't been having sex with Temple himself; instead, he's recruited a gangster named Red to do it while he watches.  Temple has fallen for Red, in a way, making Popeye jealous, but Faulkner neglects to include any of this in the narrative.  By the time we learn about Red's existence, Popeye's already shot him, and we're expected to fill in the blanks.  Faulkner keeps the most salacious part of the ordeal close to the chest, choosing to reveal it only in the final courtroom scene: Popeye is impotent, and the initial rape is performed with a corncob.  Okay.  Honestly, the "shocking reveal" is what makes Sanctuary seem more like a pulp novel than anything else.

Still, Sanctuary has all the elements that make Faulkner worth reading: the currents of sex and death, the lack of sentimentality, the tension between the impoverished setting and the flights of decorated prose, the black humor.  The savageness of Faulkner's novels makes us underestimate how funny they can be, I think.  But it's hard not to feel that Faulkner's slumming it a little, searching for a bestseller that his style won't let him fully commit to.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma's little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence.  Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's purple hibisucs: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup.  A freedom to be, to do.

Kambili is the daughter of an eminent businessman in Enugu, Nigeria.  Her father is a rich man and a brave man, who keeps supporting the local newspaper even when its criticisms of the recent military coup have become dangerous.  He is a pious man, as well-respected in his Catholic church as the priests themselves.  He also punishes his children for their perceived sins by breaking their fingers and pouring boiling water over their feet.  In a particularly theme-heavy scene, Kambili's mother gives her a little bit of food to help her stomach absorb the pills she needs to help with her menstrual cramps, but because she is supposed to be fasting before mass, her father punishes her.

Kambili and her brother Jaja are offered a vision of a different kind of life when they visit their aunt, their father's sister, Ifeoma, in the university town of Nsukka.  Ifeoma is poor but her children have a "freedom to be, to do" that Kambili had not known was possible, and sets her on the path of realizing how restrictive her father's regime has been.  In Nsukka, she can see her grandfather, from whom her father has barred her because of his traditional religion.  I really liked this observation by her grandfather about the effect of Christianity in Nigeria, which seemed to me the closest the novel ever gets to the style, namechecked on the jacket, of Adichie's fellow Igbo writer Chinua Achebe:

One day I said to them, Where is this god you worship?  They said he was like Chukwu, that he was in the sky.  I asked then, Who is the person that was killed, the person that hangs on the wood outside the mission?  They said he was the son, but that the son and the father are equal.  It was then that I knew that the white man was mad.  The father and the son are equal?  Tufia!  Do you not see?  That is why Eugene can disregard me, because he thinks we are equal.

Adichie sets the novel at a time of great social and political upheaval in Nigeria.  The student riots threaten Ifeoma's job; the fear of retaliation complicates the violent reaction of Kambili's father, who clings to a sense of supernatural order in the midst of great stress.  Adichie's depiction of Eugene is particularly sharp, as careful to show his generosity and fine principles, which grow from his piety as his abuse does.  But the story is Kambili's, who awakes into not just a realization about her family but about her home in Nigeria as well.

The symbol of the hibiscus--which grows purple only in Ifeoma's garden--is dull and heavy-handed.  I found the plain prose of the novel to be artless sometimes, but I could say the same thing about Achebe.  But I really enjoyed the complexity of the characters and the escalating tension of the novel, which I didn't expect.  Most of all I enjoyed reading a complex portrait of a place that it would be easy to spend most of my life ignoring.

The House GIrl by Tara Conklin

Those nights felt like this now: a creative energy, a limitless enthusiasm, a faith that talent and will and work would ultimately prevail, and a fatalistic wryness about the whole spectacle too-- of course we are all creative and interesting, of course everyone will know our names, but tomorrow and the next day and the next we must go to our low-paying jobs where we sit on stools or take orders for food or clean up messes that no one else wants to clean; at least tonight we can say we are artists.
Tara Conklin gives us twinned heroines in The House Girl: Josephine, the titular character, a Virginian slave in the 1850s, and Lina, a young corporate lawyer in today's New York. The novel is written in flashes-glimpses of Josephine's life the day before she runs away and Lina as she unravels the story of Josephine's life as part of a slavery reparations case. Lina uncovers the mystery of both Josephine's escape and her life as an artist--her mistress, Lu Anne Bell, was a renowned Southern painter whose lauded pieces may have been largely Josephine's.

The back and forth works well here--the interplay between the two storylines as they move closer together is well done. and Conklin builds two interesting, layered female leads. Josephine is revealed through a variety of sources: her own chapters, but also "primary" sources in Lina's portions.

Despite dealing with slavery and all of its implications, this wasn't a particularly philosophical or reflective novel. Conklin weaves an engrossing, gripping story, and I enjoyed getting swept up into the narrative arc and the suspense, but the trade-off of that much action meant not much time or space for reflection. There are moments in sections from each protagonist where the characters pause and reflect, and Conklin doesn't gloss over the cruelties of slavery, but the jumping back in forth through time and the quick pace of the narrative made it hard for the emotional impact of slavery to land.

This wasn't the most thought-provoking novel I've read all year, but it was a quick and engaging read. As long as you don't expect any life-altering revelations about slavery, and are going in looking for some interesting ladies and a good story, it's worth a read!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Image result for february house tippins

February House by Sherill Tippins

It would be the group life that Carson had been dreaming of... a sanctuary for themselves and others who were also, for financial, political, or any other reason, finding it difficult to focus on their work.... Auden was looking for a cheaper place to live.   If such a respected poet moved in, everyone else would follow. It would be an experiment... but surely it was worth trying.

February House  recounts the story of an experiment in communal living taken up by Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee in 1940.  The gathering was the brainchild of George Davis, an influential editor at Harper's Bazaar, a fashion magazine that was attempting to compete with Vogue by expanding its literary and cultural offerings.  Davis seemed to know and be liked by everyone and was the center of an intellectual and social circle in late 30's New York.  He was also a gifted editor whose gifts did not include showing up to work regularly.  When he lost his publishing job, he needed to find cheaper real estate.

He invites his new friend Carson McCullers - in her early twenties and already famous for having published The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - and his old friend, WH Auden to share expenses.  However, all three of them also want to share something more than expenses.  It is 1940 and everyone seems to know that America will eventually enter World War II.  Auden in particular believes that this second twentieth century calamity calls for artists and writers to think of new ways to be productive, to offer a higher consciousness to humanity before it is too late.  An artist's commune seems to offer Auden a chance to think through his evolving ideas about the poet's role in human culture while also allowing him to leave a nosey and judgmental landlord behind.

Gypsy Rose Lee has been an avid and adventurous reader her whole life, and has recently decided that the small press bits and commentary published in her name no longer require a ghost writer.  Davis encourages her to develop her talent as a writer and they come up with the idea for a murder mystery, The G-String Murders.  He suggests she move into one of the apartments at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights so that he can mentor her writing process.  Her presence becomes a bridge between the intelligentsia and the world of entertainment, and soon Middagh Street is place where everyone who is anyone in New York tries to get invited.

Tippins attempts to balance the serious artistic and political issues that imbue the house - centered on Auden's deepening spiritual quest, Britten's desire to find his musical voice and McCullers struggles to write what will eventually become A Member of the Wedding - with the partying hijinks of some very high-strung individuals.  For the most part, she errs on the side of the hijinks.  We learn that McCullers drinks tea spiked with sherry all day long and that Auden regularly uses benzedrine to focus on his writing and seconal to get to sleep.  We are told that after a particularly wild party, McCullers and Lee go running through the streets of Brooklyn Heights in the snow chasing a fire engine and that McCullers, while running and laughing and holding the burlesque star's hand, has an epiphany that what the character she has been struggling with really wants is to be a member of the wedding party.  I sense a bit of a stretch in Tippins' renditions of the residents' accomplishments, but their artistic struggles are carefully analyzed and make fascinating reading.

The one area where I would have liked a more thoughtful approach is sexuality.  All the men associated with 7 Middagh Street in these months are openly gay - at a time when that was illegal in New York (and virtually everywhere else).  Britten and Pears are essentially married, and Auden comes to view his relationship to Chester Kallman as a marriage during his residence in Brooklyn.  It is clear that part of the attraction of the house as a social center is that it offers a safe space to other gay artists - so that Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Mann's son Klaus are regular guests, with Mann living in the attic for a time.  McCullers uses the house to explore her own desires for certain women.  George Davis is also openly gay, but uninterested in long term relationships.  He walks down the hill from the house to the Brooklyn docks and cruises for gay sailors and longshoreman to bring back to the house, giving their parties a working class representation centered on sexuality.  How the community responds to this (apparently quite well - there are no neighborhood complaints until later, when Richard Wright moves in and the white neighbors complain), what, if anything, such a gathering means in the history of gay life in New York, how the tensions around openness and secrecy were handled in a communal setting - all these are questions of interest that go largely unexplored.  Tippins treats questions of sexuality matter-of-factly - as is appropriate in the 21st Century - but has little to say about how such openness operated or what its implications were in the mid-2oth century.

Ultimately, February House is not designed to take on such issues.  While the residents artistic ambitions (and accomplishments) are well represented, and the coming war hangs over every page of the book, this is a fun read about an amazing and entertaining coincidence.  The house itself has been destroyed - torn down to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the two years that it was filled with artists is memorialized only by a small plaque  a block away.  February House gives us a much better way to remember.