Friday, March 17, 2006
Backlog #3: The Salter-palooza
Two more Salters round out my Salter mini-obsession: Dusk and Other Stories and his first novel A Sport and a Pastime. The novel suffered a little from the lens of his autobiography. It ended up feeling like regurgitated bits of experience tied together with some fantasy. The overall structure of an envious writer looking in on the lovers, imagining their happiness and falling away I found more distracting than helpful--the details of Dean and Anne Marie are lovely and delicately drawn--to be reminded that they are imagined diminishes them, and the whole enterprise of telling their story.
The writing is spare and sharp, as ever, though in places it is less assured. Reading him out of order in this way makes his grace feel more like a style, more mannered, as he finds his way to it--close to a parody of his later writing. This is unfair, of course, but such is the experience of it. Still the prose is fine, and makes me wish for France, and for a huge heavy metal car, aristocratically engineered, for those long roads, and for cafes out of the cold, for those doors opening to those hours:
He puts her to bed in warm pajamas. She is innocent, he decides. She smiles softly, the calm of a long convalescence in her face. Finally he turns to go but, at the door her voice stops him. Yes? Turn out the light , she says. He does. like Lucifer, he creates darkness and he descends.
Dusk and Other Stories, on the other hand, is stronger, and in those stories, the intense compression of his prose works to dazzling effect, pulling together the threads of the story into dense passages that are lovely and rich as novels. Some of the stories are sketches, to be sure--little exercises that have taken on some substance, but the best of them (and they are very good, especially the endings) are remarkable. It is as if the strengths of his work is the same in the good stories as in the novels, without all of the intervening prose, which is lovely, but did not add corresponding weight or depth to the emotion of the words. I think of the contrast with something like Edward Jones' The Known World, where there were long, meandering stretches of story that did not seem to be going anywhere in particular, but then, abruptly, took on great force and added great power to a specific scene.
This is not an opening or a closing, not the first line, but just lovely:
That afternoon he had seen a robin picking at something near the edge of the grass, seizing it, throwing it in the air, seizing it again: a toad, its small, stunned legs fanned out. The bird threw it again. In ravenous burrows, the blind shrews hunted ceaselessly, the pointed tongues of reptiles were testing the air, there was the crunch of abdomens, the passivity of the trapped,the soft throes of mating. His daughters were asleep down the hall. Nothing is safe except for an hour.
Will Lawrence finally come? soon, soon, though it is neglect rather than attention that delays him...
Friday, March 10, 2006
Backlog #2: Written Lives by Javier Marias
This is a charming, insubstantial book of literary gossip-- four to five page biographies of writers (and talkers). Marias says he is treating these writers "as if they were fictional characters,which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated." He presents a few facets of each in a spirit of 'affection and humor', making no judgments about the work, and no claims for anything other than pleasure.
The result is very entertaining and slight--like the company of an aging uncle who has known an array of fascinating people, but seems to have forgotten the very best--most salacious, most outrageous--anecdotes. You get some sense of that it might have been like to be in their company (almost all, as he notes, "fairly disastrous individuals"). Marias likes most of the writers; when he does not, he seems to dwell on the author's sexual deviancy as a way of illustrating antipathy(though not the cause). He doesn't like Joyce (obsessed with women's soiled underwear), Mann (obsessed with the bodies of young men), and Mishima ('erotic fascination with manly bodies tortured, dismembered, flayed, butchered, or impaled'). Like Marias, I have dwelt too long already on the minor faults of pleasant book. This is a book of the texture of writer's company, and Marias is an excellent companion for that--he has a good eye for detail, an amused but sympathetic regard for self-destruction, and deft, lyrical prose.
It is a book of an afternoon--similar to Rachel Cohen's A Chance Encounter--what People magazine might be if focused on dead writers and written by our drunken uncles who had spent the meat of their lives at dinner parties with one and then another. 2.5 furry lobsters.
"According to somewhat kitsch literary legend, William Faulkner wrote his novel As I Lay Dying in the space of six weeks and in the most precarious of situations, namely, while he was working on the night shift down a mine, with the pages resting on an upturned wheelbarrow and lit only by the dim rats of a lamp affixed to his own dust-caked helment."
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Backlog #1: The James Salter Reading Festival continues.
I read Salter's autobiography Burning the Days. He says, in his Preface, that he is writing about people and events that were important to him--what he remembers, noting that memory is a measure of the value of things (and forgetting is as well). Beginning with the now-ad-nauseum caveat that he is a beautiful writer, I finished the book very struck by what had been omitted from his narrative. He spends rhapsodic pages talking about coming out to hangars in the morning for flights (he spent 15 years as a fighter pilot), and equally long (lovely, lyrical)pages about his mistresses, but almost none about his wife (selected for him, it seems, by a married woman he loved, because she presented no threat). He does say, twice, that it is impossible to write about the death of a child, but there were two others and they appear almost not at all. And I was struck that there was so little about books--so few that seemed to have landed and shaped his own thinking, his writing and writing life--except in the context of envy. And there was an undercurrent of him actively seeking out celebrity, of a kind of hungry networking that ran against the confidence of his voice, as if he were obscuring some aspect of himself behind his talents for self-expression.
In his defense (if he needs it at all), he writes well about friendship--and indeed this is mostly a chronicle of loves and friends, and his honesty on those fronts can be very moving. But I came out of the book finding him both alien and unsympathetic, and seeing a new coldness in his sharp prose. I am contintuing to read his fiction (Dusk, currently, as well as A Sport and a Pastime), and will be interested to see how altered my opinion of him becomes as result of reading this. (two stars)
The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything. I had never seen him before.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Once more, a flurry of reading--too much business travel provides some small consolation for the airport hours and the stale air. I am still digesting DH Lawrence's Apocalypse (best line:'What the ass wants is carrots...').
In its place, twin James'.
James #1: James Lasdun's The Horned Man was an excellent, meaty thriller--one of those books so fluid you don't really notice you're reading until you are halfway through and then the book already seems far too short. Lasdun does a fine job of building dread--setting traps--masking decisions of consequence in ordindary choices. It's got surprising heft hidden inside its streamlined, precise story--beautiful, smart writing, some great scences and a relentless pace. It reminded a lot of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, though less abstract and absurd--it takes a surreal turn at the end, which is surprising and, with some digesting, quite good. Three stars.
One afternoon earlier this winter, in a moment of idle curiousity, I took a book from the shelf in my office and began reading it where it fell open on a piece of compressed tissue that had evidently been used as a bookmark.
James #2: I've gushed in the past and James Salter, and I'm not stopping now. I blasted through his recent story collection Last Night; his writing is so complex--every sentence like a blow that hits--he hits and hits and hits. (And for someone who professes not much love for the short story, I seem to be finding and liking them of late). Salter's stories are all about marriage, fidelity and its lack, about moments of disintegration and the memories of happiness that lie behind them.
--I'd never steal anyone's man, Adele said then. Never. Her face had a tone of weariness when she drank, a weariness that knew the answer to everything. And I'd never break a vow.
--I don't think you would, Phil said.
--I'd never fall for a twenty-year-old, either.
--No, you wouldn't.
--He left his wife, Adele told them.
There was silence.
Phil's bit of smile had gone but his face was still pleasant.
--I didn't leave my wife, he said quietly. She threw me out.
--He left his wife and children, Adele said.
--I didn't leave them. Anyway it was over between us. It had been for more than a year. He said it evenly, almost as if it had happened to someone else It was my son's tutor, he explained. I fell in love with her.
--And you began something with her? Morrissey suggested.
There is love when you lose the power to speak, when you cannot even breathe.
--Within two or three days, he confessed.
--There in the house?
Phil shook his head. He had a strange, helpless feeling. He was abandoning himself.
--I didn't do anything in the house.
--He left his wife and children, Adele repeated.
--You knew that, Phil said.
--Just walked out on them. They'd been married fifteen years, since he was nineteen.
--We hadn't been married fifteen years.
--They had three children, she said, one of them retarded.
Something had happened--he was becoming speechless, he could feel it in his chest like a kind of nausea. As if he were giving up portions of an intimate past.
--He wasn't retarded, he managed to say. He was....having trouble learning to read, that's all.
At that instant an aching image of himself and his son from years before came to him. They had rowed one afternoon to the middle of a friend's pond and jumped in, just the two of them. It was summer. his son was six or seven. There was a layer of warm water over deeper, cooler water, the faded green of frogs and weeds. They swam to teh far side and then all the way back, the blond head and anxious face of his boy above the surface like a dog's. Year of joy.
--So tell them the rest of it, Adele said.
Painful and lovely. Some of the stories feel (are) slight, but some are so compressed that you can't imagine them being sustained for a novel--they must relent at some point. More Salter is on the docket, once the blizzard here lifts.
One odd outside note: I went yesterday in search of reading down to my local bookstore (Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA) and it was at the center of a maelstrom of ambulances, fire trucks, cops, yellow tape. Someone had driven their huge white SUV over a parking sign and through the front winow of the store, coming to rest in a pile of twisted metal and glass half in and half out of the little cafe. I did not see injured people, but at least one ambulance had left by the time I arrived. The store is in the corner of a cramped parking lot that is invariably crowded--which is to say that there is no way to build up a head of steam and accidentally end up driving through the storefront. It's possible that someone could have had some kind of seizure and jammed their accelerator down. But it seemed more likely that it had been intentional somehow, and I have been puzzling the intent all day. The store is pleasant and unpretentious--the staff genuinely helpful, with none of the condescension that would seem inevitable in the confluence of Cambridge and independent bookstore.
I have been digging around for a news story, but so far there is nothing--the blizzard has knocked everything else off the news. It seems to be an act of outsize violence to pass unnoticed, but so far remains a mystery. If anyone knows, please tell me--it's killing me...
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
I am a terrible procrastinator for Christmas shopping (not so terrible that I haven't finished yet), but always the late, last rushed rollick through the stores to find suitable presents. This year, I resolved to get novels for everyone--all that I had not read, so that I could request book reports from everyone and build out my list. I spent a lunch hour in the bookstore and, in one of those rare confluences of energy and abundance, found so many books that I had enough to give out and a few left over as well.
One I just finished was Albert Camus' Exile and the Kingdom, a set of six short stories, uneven in quality both within and across the stories. But there is something compelling about reading minor works--when you can see the awkward threads, the experiments, the mis-steps that show tendencies not yet matured. Camus is kicking around ideas here, pushing the language around. The stories are not the cold little gems that writing programs seem to be generating. Uneven as they are, there are still striking moments in them, when he rises up past the stories and into something more--vague and hyperbolic and yet still substantial, blooded:
Is there another love than that of darkness, a love that would cry aloud in daylight? She didn't know, but she did know that Marcel needed her and that she needed that need, that she lived on it night and day, at night especially--every night when he didn't want to be alone, or to age and die, with that set expression he assumed which she occasionally recognized on other men's faces, the only common expression of those madmen hiding under an appearance of wisdom, until the madness seizes them and hurls them desperately toward a woman's body to bury in it, without desire, everything terrifying that solitude and night reveals to them.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
I struggled with Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles. He's a beautiful writer and the book is a perplexing, lyrical hallucination that stubbornly refused to take shape for me. He is certainly original--a series of short scenes that veer back and forth between dense realism, and a nightmarish fantasy buoyed up by a dark humor--a kind of relish. His father turns variously into a bird and a cockroach, wastes into nothing, rises up as a kind of terrible prophet, and disappears again. The narrator attempts to act, but mostly watches as the city--the world--wrenches itself into fantastical shapes around him, during which it is difficult to understand what bearing these nightmares have to any sort of particular reality. None is the likely answer, or, rather, who cares? Schultz is hunting other beasts here--a drama of the imagination that is potent and engaging:
"They were the distant, forgotten progeny of that generation of birds which at one time Adela had chased away to the four points of the sky. That brood of freaks, that malformed, wasted tribe of birds, was now returning degenerated or overgrown. Nonsensically large, stupidly developed, the birds were empty and lifeless inside. All of their vitality when into their plumage, into external adornment. They were like exhibits of extinct species in a museum, the lumber room of a birds' paradise....Only now, from nearby by did Father notice the wretchedness of that wasted generation, the nonsense of its second-rate anatomy. They had been nothing but enormous bunches of feathers, stuffed carelessly with old carrion....."
The recommendation for it came from a friend of mine who is a poet and who, I suspect will be delighted by my verdict of its powerful incoherence.
In that vein, I am reading DH Lawrence's Apocalypse, about the astrological symbolism of the Book of Revelations--heady stuff, with steady doses of Lawrentian bile to hold your attention. More on that as it develops.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
A review by John Berger of Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment led me to read it. Only later I realized that Dyer had written a book about Berger and they were linked as writers-polymaths, interested in tracing out ideas of interest to them without real reference to external systems of logic--mixing observation, reflection, philosophy, fact and speculation in idiosyncratic amalgamations that are often beautifully written.
In Dyer's case, this was a book about photography, that is built around looping associations of subjects, rather than chronology, photographer, style, or any other typical referent. Dyer constructs dialogs between photographers based around intent (implied or explicit) and results across common subjects--blind people, men's hats, gas stations, white picket fences, out car windows. Though it can be self-indulgent in places, it mostly delightful and strange and thought provoking--it is one of those books that seems full of novels--seeds that could easily spawn epics. For those of you wrestling with what to write about, here is some starter yeast, courtesy of Dyer. If you can't make a novel out of one of these (or at least a good short story), you might want to think about another vocation.
From Diane Arbus: "...people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do, beckoned,not driven, invented by belief, each the author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are testing and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be." Ok, so The Great Gatsby has already been written, but it could easily be another, or another dozen.
From a description of Paris, from Colin Westerbeck: "More than a time, night is a place here."
Dyer himself: "The value of a life cannot be assessed chronologically, sequentially. If that were the case then the only bit that matters--like the closing instants of a race--would be how you felt in the seconds before your death....the acts that redeem a life can come in advance of everything requiring redemption. Chronology can, sometimes, obscure this." That should be sending novels screaming from your fingertips--the idea not of sinning and working to redemption, but of being redeemed and then falling into a state requiring the redemption already achieved/won....
From Cheever's Journals: "The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction. We may desire it, it may be what we dream of, but we are dissuaded by a beam of light, a change in the wind." As suits Cheever, maybe better for a story in itself, but a long and dense and a rich one--digging into our thwarted dreams of self-destruction.
Dyer: "The fact that someone is passing through makes those who are staying put conscious of their fate so that their resignation becomes disturbed and unsettled by the possibility--even if it is never acted upon--of moving on. In turn moving on acquires a taint of desperation: the fear of being one of the abandoned, one of those doomed to stay put." Both sides contaminated by the idea of movement becoming a permanent disconnection from pleasure--the doom of staying put that eradicates the possibility of now--sort of the dark underside of Black Elk's idea that anywhere can be the center of the world.
Dyer again: "These were colors that emptied the world, made it seem like a dream--not a human dream, but the dream a room or road might have of itself." The dreams of roads and rooms--not just a seed, but nearly an excellent title for your fine short story collection.
You are welcome. I will await the fruits of your labors.
Saturday, December 03, 2005
The reading has been slow and scattered of late--some stories (Tim Winton, Anders Monson)--one of those times when keeping up with the magazines feels like a chore. But I did sneak a short one between the powerpoints and the emails. Canongate has commissioned writers to re-tell the ancient myths, and a number of them look very promising (Atwood's The Penelopiad, The Helmet of Horror by some young Russian--for Theseus). I started with Jeanette Winterston's The Weight. I think Winterson is a dazzlingly talented writer--one of the few who can write with a steady, searing clarity--like Annie Dillard in this respect. She can hook you into a prose that is so compelling as to seem inevitable, yet still fresh and unexpected. Her attentions and ambitions are broad, however, and I don't always care for where she goes--some of her highly intellectual flights of fancy have no blood in them for me. I've been waiting for a return to the substance of books like Written on the Body (one of the finest openings of a book ever. Ever.)
So I'm always hopeful when she has something new come out. In Weight, she is retelling Atlas and Hercules, and it opens well: "The free man never dreams of escape." There are actually three openings, but that is the story itself. She mixes the myth with astronomy and autobiography to talk about the self-created burdens of the past and how they shape the present, about creation and casting off. After a promising start it mired for a while, feeling like she had to get the story out of the way in order to get to what she was interested in--and some sloppy modern language decisions--odd slang that deflected from the thrust of the narrative and diffused her focus. For a time, you feel the commissioned nature of the book--a sense of obligation that taints the tone And a chunk about the Russian space dog, Laika that was tritely cute. .
But she mounts back up as she nears the end and gets to the heart of the ideas that interest her. The last two sections (Boundaries and Desire), bristle with ideas and emotion and erase the clunky text that precedes. I'm always a fan of unevenly dazzling work as opposed to competent balance (Blake more than Updike), and on this measure, Winterson is excellent--her great is very great and, for the rest, well, it's a short book. (3.5 stars).
Sunday, November 06, 2005
I picked up Mari Sandoz's biography Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas thanks to a review in the excellent The Morning News. Sandoz is not Indian but, like Kurban Said/Lev Nussimbaum, an immensely sympathetic outsider who manages to articulate the animating spirit of a culture and way of being from the inside out. Her bio is written from the perspective of the Sioux as the whites arrive, settle, and overrun the Plains Indians in the latter half of the 19th century. Though the text has many locutions that sound, to my cliche-addled ears, like bad Hollywood (I think Peter Pan has ruined the image of an Indian saying 'How!', or as Sandoz has it, 'Hou'), there is much in it that has an authentic oddness.
The story itself is remarkable, complex, and powerful. Crazy Horse is a figure easy to mythologize as there is very little direct information about him, just a competing set of recollections drawn from audiences with competing and shifting agendas. Sandoz does an excellent job of pointing to some of the untranslatable gaps between the cultures and not trying to tie them up neatly. The Sioux are noble, but also treacherous, petty, greedy. When they feel bad, they go killing and stealing horses. Crazy Horse himself is insanely brave, and compassionate, but also nearly launches a destructive war because of his awkward love for Black Buffalo Woman (who is, at the margin, someone worth a novel or several).
One of the most compelling parts of the book for me is reading about the rituals of the Sioux designed to foster clarity of purpose--dances, sweat lodges, isolation, visions. I was struck by the contrast with our own--how much of the Sioux process of coming to meaning is structured around these rituals--drawing medicine into oneself, or accessing the latent medicine of your being or character. This has particular poignancy for Crazy Horse as the arc of his life moves towards its inevitable defeat, his surrender, betrayal and death. He emerges from this as an odd sort of saint, with his greatness thrust upon him. He reminded this image of Merton's:
...when the solidtary finds that his solitude has taken on the character of a mission, he discovers that he has become a force that reacts on the very heart of the society in which he lives, a power that disturbs and impedes and accuses the forces of selfishness and pride, reminding others of their own need for solitude and for charity and for peace with God.
To see Crazy Horse gradually take on this role, this mission, to see him try to adapt as the world he knew disappears, raises all of the fascinating and tragic questions of how to be in the world as it changes--what adaptation is necessary and what destroys us--what is inevitable, what change is possible--what may be essential to our nature in our way of being and what we may be able to accomodate or deny or reject. These are vital questions for any moment in time, but especially now, in the midst of turbulent change, some aspects of which are surely inevitable, and others which we are being vigorously harangued to believe are inevitable (and not just inevitable, but good, positive). (4 stars)
In order to sate some of my Crazy Horse jones, I read the Larry McMurtry bio of him that is a part of the Penguin Lives series. The bio itself is good--more of a commentary on other bios and their authors than a stand-alone bio. I enjoyed it, and it was a quick read (141 roomy pages), but I'm not sold on the short-form bio--it provokes mroe questions than it answers, and I can't imagine being interested enough to read a book on someone and being satisfied by the pith of a bio like this one. McMurtry is far more skeptical than Sandoz (and he is quite skeptical of her, and does a little damning with faint praise). It opened up some other lines of inquiry for me, in particular a desire to read more about the Sioux language, and to take another look at Brian Hall's dense, rich I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company. As for the Penguin lives, I was given a set of four, and will give them another try (maybe Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc? Garry Willis on Saint Augustine?). Perhaps something in the interplay of writer and subject will bring more than thougthful competence. (2 stars) And, by the way, who thought Patricia Bosworth on Marlon Brando was a worthy subject for the series? Is that one sponsored by OK magazine?
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
And here I was thinking I was keeping up as a stealthy month glides past. Too much work, and the start of school, a lovely fall, the days both full and empty. I have two, so i'll be brief, but both are excellent.
James Salter's Light Days is a novel of the sort that I have been, in the past, reductively lukewarm towards--closely observed shifts of relationship in otherwise unexceptional lives. And yet it is dazzling. The writing has an almost-ponderous fullness, as if he paused at the end of each sentence and said to himself "what is everything this next sentence could possibly say?" It is rich, and beautiful, like this:
You are not obscure, they told him. You have friends. people admire your work. He was, after all, a good father--that is, an ineffective man. Real goodness was different, it was irresistible, murderous, it had victims like any other aggressions, in short, it conquered. We must be vague, we must be gentle, we are killing people otherwise, whatever our intentions, we are crushing them beneath a vision of light. It is the idiot, the weakling, he thought, the son who has failed; once beyond that there is no virtue possible.
Night falls. The cold lies in the fields. The grass turns to stone. In bed, he lay like a man in prison, dreaming of life.
Salter gets 4 stars--and I have just had his book Dusk recommended also, so stay tuned for more Salter (though I didn't think much of his book Solo Faces).
Here is the opening of Light Days:
We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone.
The second book is Jim Crace's Being Dead. If there is another love story half as beautiful that opens with the lovers brutally murdered, I have never read it. Being Dead is a tricky book, because it starts out on the high wire and shouts "Look! Look!" The book opens with the savage beating to death of an old couple, and its action takes place over the 6 or so days until their bodies are discovered--during which time they decompose. And yet, and yet, without calling us to look away, or to imagine other worlds, but just by looking at this one in exquisite, precise language and with great generosity of spirit, Crace writes a rich and lovely book--pulls off his highwire act (3.5 stars--might deserve 4, but for my poor attention in the reading...)
Here is Crace's opening:
For old times' sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay.
Saturday, September 10, 2005
August Reading #3 and #4
I picked up Gustaf Sobin's The Fly-Truffler after reading his obit in the Times. Judging by the fact that my order was delayed by several weeks, I was not the only one; perhaps there is someone toiling in the bowels of the obit section whose skills would be better suited to book publicity. This book was, once again, a book that seemed like I should love it--the center of the book is a professor of the rapidly waning Provencal language (dying languages! score 1); he discovers that eating truffles causes him to dream of his beloved, now dead wife, in a sequence that leads toward the birth of their child. He loses sense of the boundaries between the real world (his crumbling ancestral estate, job, life) and this truffle-driven world of his dreams. He wanders the remains of his property, rousing pockets of golden flies that point to the presence of truffles. Sobin is a poet, and his language is frequently lovely and rich, but he is a sloppy novelist (or perhaps in need of a better editor). He reminds us of cutesy facts, often in exactly the same language he has previously used. The effect of this is to make his poetic language cloying at times, and to create some mistrust of his grasp of the narrative as a whole. There are some marvelous passages in this book, and it is almost a book I found amazing. But failing that, it was a disappointment. 2 stars:
He'd take the same path, now, nearly every morning.
A Woman in Berlin is the newly republished diary of a 30-year-old German female journalist, written during the two months that Berlin fell to the Russians. It is a remarkable book--remarkable to understand the detail of the rending of the fabric of a civil society--first the water is turned off, then the gas. People huddle in basements, forage for food--eat nettles growing in the sidewalks. Buildings become small communities, and then these break down as the Russians advance. There is a chaotic period of frequent rape and abject hunger, then an economy of rape and sets of moralities emerge--when is taking stealing? Who owns what now that everyone has lost nearly everything? There are moments of shocking generousity and painful constricted selfishness. The German men are either absent or utterly ineffectual; the women shape this new order. Gradually some measure of civic order returns, and the book abruptly ends.
The author's voice is remarkably clear and thoughtful throughout--unsparing of the choices she is making, and must make, to survive. Her eye for the groups that emerge and breakdown is very sharp, as is her unsentimental but not cold presentation of both sides--the germans in defeat and the russians in triumph. The city degenerates into a few spare blocks, and then just theirs, and then builds back up into a vast ruin with odd pockets of life and its past persisting. She writes beautifully (at times so much so that I found it inauthentic--there is the eye of a fiction writer). It's an excellent read, provoking, especially in the wake of Katrina. 4 stars:
It's true. War is rolling towards Berlin.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
August Reading #3
You have no choice but to love Kelly Link--starts her own press, does the book design, publishes books that are good--how can you not? Well, envy for one. But I was psyched once I got a look at Magic For Beginners, which, to read the blogs (or Jonathan Lethem) is even better than sliced bread.
I'm not a huge reader of short stories--the bad ones are terrible and the good ones feel like novels anyone. And I usually feel like story collections have one good story in them, and then diminishing variations on that one.
Which raises a question I have about story collections--how do you decide the order? Even the writer can't honestly think, like your first grade teacher that everyone is equally excellent, just different. Strong enough to be included is a lower bar than strong (and I think I have noted previously in this space, it is heartening to read some of the BAD Cheever, for example).
I say this because I hated the first story, The Faery Handbag, it was awkward, cloying, contrived. I put the book down. Buried it in the to-be-reads. Scornfully considered the hypocrisy of the glowing blurbers.
But I figured the whole starting-a-press thing warranted another story or two. Some Zombie Contingency Plans was much better--funny, lighter, still plenty odd, but more coherent. The Stone Animals, which was really excellent--amazing. And then a few others to see if they went in new directions, or if they felt like variations on the excellence of Stone Animals. I found them the latter--good--funny, sharp, very well-written, but none on a par with that one.
I wonder that about books too--how many authors write more than one real masterpiece? Some, but I often feel like authors write towards their one big book, and then away. Some feel like they never quite bring it into focus--write a series of books getting better and better, and then worse, as if they passed their mark without ever hitting it.
Which returns me to my question about balancing the stories within a collection. I'm sure there are schools of thought around it--that, like great rock albums back when albums mattered, there are whole complex structures of meaning across the arc of the stories that, read in order, add more pleasure to the mix. I don't read them in order, and don't often venture in at all, so disliking the first story made for rough sledding. But she's got a unique eye, and voice, and she's started her own press and the books are good. This one is good (3 stars)
Here's the opening of Stone Animals: "Henry asked a question. He was joking."
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
August Reading #2
They had come in from the country. So begins Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting, a delightful, slight, rich book of imaginative non-fiction. The book presents a series of encounters between American artists and writers beginning with Mathew Brady and Henry James and ending 36 encounters later with Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell. Each chapter presents the encounters between two or three people--some life-long friendships, some passing ships; the chapters themselves are addictively short--around 10 pages or so--and present intimate, sidelong looks into longer lives of all veins and varieties--struggle and triumph, modest, steady achievement and blazing success, careers on wax and wane. The encounters themselves are based on substance--letters, reports, etc., but then also atmospherically imagined. I didn't like the combination at first--it felt forced, contrived. But they grew in assurance, and I to like them until I found myself racing unhappily toward the end.
The encounters draw in history, race, culture, politics, all around the edges of the threads of artistic flux. It is full of good lines from letters and diaries, and good anecdotes without needing to bear the burdens of completeness--it is full of savors and finds its own shape. A few:
Hearing the story behind Joseph Cornell's inspiration for Taglioni's Jewel Casket when 'the great ballerina Maria Taglioni had been pulled out of her carriage by a Russian highwayman and forced to dance naked on a panther's skin on the snow, an experience that had thrilled Taglioni so deeply that legend had it she forever kept a piece of ice in her jewel box to remember it by.'
That Carl Van Vechten: "barked to show enthusiasm...and had been known to bite people whom he liked and didn't like."
Or this line of Henry James's, in which he condemns historical novel in exactly the language I was struggling to find to praise Ali and Nino (see below):
The "historic" novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness....You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like--the real thing is almost impossible to do & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of the individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent....
The strongest chapter in the book is about 3 people who I know only a little (and am not especially drawn to read--Willa Cather, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett). The delicate richness of their friendship is lovely. It reminded of a Norton Anthology of Friendship, put together by Ron Sharp and Eudora Welty. I studied with Ron at Kenyon for a summer, and he explained that for most of human history, friendship has been a major topic--of literature, poetry and philosophy--much examined, dissected and portrayed--and that it is only in our modern sexualized age that it has faded to the point where the idea of an anthology of friendship seems odd and quaint and full of cloying pablum. The book itself is not--one highlight is the exchange of letters between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx--affectionate, funny and sweet.
A Chance Meeting also reminded me of a collection of criticism I found in the American Library in Paris called A Shock of Recognition--it was an anthology of American writers writing criticism of other American writers--Poe, Melville and DH Lawrence on Hawthorne, TS Eliot on Henry James, Dos Passos on EE Cummings, etc. (The best of that is reading DH Lawrence rant about Hester Prynne: "Hester Prynne was a devil. Even when she was so meekly going around as a sick-nurse. Poor Hester. part of her wanted to be saved from her own devilishness. And another part wanted to go on and on in devilishness, for revenge. Revenge! REVENGE!"--you can see Lawrence starting to foam at the mouth--he starts shouting FIE! later on--demented and hilarious and delightful.
So, A Chance Meeting--quite unusual, but certainly worth a read (4 stars).
And stay tuned--we're just starting to crack the stack....
Sunday, August 28, 2005
August Reading #1
Work has meant travel, and travel has meant lots of reading, but little writing--that and a concurrent state of bewilderment, of the world in stubborn parts. But the stack is built to toppling, so here at least is notes.
First, The Letters of Robert Lowell. I haven't ever been drawn to his poetry, and even after reading this (all 600+ pages of it), I still find it unreadable. But the letters were still a pleasure. In places he writes beautifully, as in this description of Delmore Schwartz:
He was much more bruised and swollen, when I knew him well, an intimate gruelling year, a year or so before you and I met--Jean and he and I, sedentary, indoors souls, talking about books and literary gossip over glasses of milk, strengthened with Maine vodka, the milk intended to restore what the vodka tore down--Delmore in an unpressed mustard gabardine, a little winded, husky voiced, unhealthy, but with a carton of varied vitamin bottles, the color of oil, quickening with Jewish humor, and in-the-knowness, and his own genius, every person, every book--motives for everything, Freud in his blood, great webs of causation, then suspicion, then rushes of rage. He was more reasonable than us, but obsessed, a much better mind, but one already chasing the dust--it was like living with a sluggish, sometimes angry spider--no hurry, no motion, Delmore's voice, almost inaudible, dead, intuitive, pointing somewhere, then the strings tightening, the roar of rage--too much, too much for us!
But the real pleasures of the letters are seeing his humanness, his lack of distance. For most of his life, Lowell was hospitalized once a year or so with intense manic episodes--these mounted over a period of months, often involving a torrid (or misguided, or attempted) affair, often some dramatic scenes. In the letters, there are threads--they get longer, grander, sometimes hard to follow. Then some months of silence--a gap in the record--then very short, contrite letters as he attempts to undo the damage he has caused. And so he goes, in and out of asylums, marriages, jobs--gossiping and struggling, trying to be a better tennis player, supporting his friends. His letters are not luminous, in the way that Cheever's journals are, but they provide an excellent portrait of a person, living along, obedient to the idea of making art amid chaos. 3 stars.
Saturday, July 30, 2005
I've been tripped amid a set of fragmented books--Robert Lowell's Letters, Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String, Kelly Link's Magic for Beginngers--and nothing quite come into focus for reporting on.
A friend recommended Ali and Nino by Kurban Said with a set of undercutting disclaimers--that it was a good eye into a region I have been thinking of writing about (central asia), that regardless it was a quick read, that it would be enjoyable if not transformative. So, tired of the fragments, I gave it a shot.
We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thiry Mohammmedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian.
It's a great book that feels like it keeps slipping into some diminished version of itself as I describe what makes it great. Vivid evovacations of place, great characters, a great plot that moves and moves; it seems about to slip into parody, a cardboard edge about to reveal itself, but it doesn't. It seems about to invite cynicism, but remains defiantly and compellingly sincere.
Kurban Said is a pen name of Essad Bey, which is a pen name for Lev Nussimbaum, a German Jew born in Baku. But the book was written also with an Austrian Baronness, Elfriede Ehrenfels--though the exact extent of their collaboration is unknown. Nussimbaum himself is a fascinating character, and the subject of a recent biography, The Orientalist. I feel a little at a loss at how to describe the book--something short of astonishing, but certainly excellent--3.5 menhirs worth of good reading, and one that makes you want to travel to places that may, perhaps, be impossible to arrive at.
Saturday, June 18, 2005
I picked up W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz at the suggestion of a friend and former writing teacher who thought I might like it--particularly its style. I did. Sebald writes beautifully--long, elliptical, dreamy sentences that gently illuminate places and moments that we are all surely having in our own lives--sights we could see, but are missing, moments that we may only understand as significant in another ten years, etc. One odd and pricking point of interest is that the story begins, in some ways, in the town of Bala in northern Wales; I spent a few weeks there when I was 12--my father was managing the US National Canoe and Kayaking team and we were there for the world championships. It is an otherwise (as far as I know) unremarkable town, though lovely--and I got a charge every time Sebald returned there. He also offered a few settings that I am a complete sucker for--disused train stations, ruined stone buildings in the midst of fields, flooded cities. This is the passage that prompted my friend to think I might like it:
...Elias stopped the pony-trap on the banks of this lake and walked out with me to the middle of the dam, where he told me about his family home lying down there at a depth of about a hundred feet under the dark water, and not just his own family home but at least forty other houses and farms, together with the church of St. John of Jerusalem, three chapels, and three pubs, all of them drowned when the dam was finished in the autumn of 1888. In the years before its submersion, so Elias had told him, said Austerlitz, Llanwddyn had been particularly famous for its games of football on the village green when the full moon shone in summer, often lasting all night and played over by ten dozen youths and men of almost every age, some of them from neighboring villages. The story of the football games of Llanwddyn occupied my imagination for a long time, said Austerlitz, first and foremost, I am sure, because Elias never told me anything about his own life either before or afterwards.
At this one moment on the Vyrnwy dam when, intentionally or unintentionally, he allowed me a glimpse into his clerical heart, I felt for him so much that he, the righteous man, seemed to me like the only survivor of the deluge which had destroyed Llanwddyn, while I imagined all the others -- his parents, his brothers and sisters, his relations, their neighbors, all the other villagers -- still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and walking along the road, unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide....
At night, before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water, and like the poor souls of Vyrnwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me, and see the reflection, broken by ripples, of the stone tower standing in such fearsome isolation on the wooded bank. Sometimes I had imagined that I had seen one or other of the people from the photographs in the album walking down the road in Bala, or out in the fields, particularly around noon on hot summer days, even when there was no one else about and the air flickered hazily. Elias said I was not to speak of such things, so instead I spent every free moment I could with Evan the cobler, whose workshop was not far from the manse and who had a reputation for seeing ghosts....Unlike Elias who had always connected illness and death with tribulations, just punishment, and guilt, Evan told tales of the dead who had been struck down by fate untimely, who knew it.
They had been cheated of what was due to them and tried to return to life. If you had an eye for them they were to be seen quite often, said Evan. At first glance they seemed to be normal people, but when you looked more closely their faces would blur or flicker slightly at the edges. And they were usually a little shorter than theyhad been in life, for the experience of death, said Evan, diminished us, just as a piece of linen shrinks when you first wash it....and it was certainly Evan, said Austerlitz, who once told me that nothing but a piece of silk like that separates us from the next world.
The book integrates a set of photos and images that is not as striking as it seems like it might be (given the attention accorded to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for doing the same thing, for example); I found it a small, interesting addition, but nothing astonishing.
The writing led for me from scene to scene in a drifty way, not accreting into a larger structure (for which I willingly point the finger at my own scattered attentions); Sebald seems to be mounting a charge as a "writer's writer", as a hidden genius that people mention as the shibboleth that marks their membership in a particularly urbane and sensitive company. Who cares. The book is a fine one and worth a read. (3.5 stars) Here's the opening:
In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. Not a car chase, to be sure...
Saturday, May 28, 2005
Books are emerging from boxes and with them the recollection that I have not yet noted them here though the reading has gone on. Reading in the midst of upheaval is an odd combination of skittering through books--the idea of reading is a comfort and seems like it should help shape the world back into order, but I lack fundamental purchase and find eyes passing merely over words--a page passes or ten, or a sentence. Books drift as a set of words and even the idea of reading seems grasping. And then there is a strike--word, image, idea--that in the middle of the shallow jostling stirs something raw, and whole shapes emerge into understanding again.
I am on the early end of that--still in the idea-of-reading stage, looking for solace, shape, end to this time of beginnings, terrible beginnings. So this will not be full of revelations, but some of progress for the idea of progress as a good, as ground passing beneath the feet with the faith that such movement must bring new worlds into view (I kept trying to use "hove" in that sentence, but couldn't wrestle it in).
So, in descending order from the really excellent to the powerful but flawed:
The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins is a great book (5 stars). He traces the history of human evolution back to the origins of life with great clarity, insight, and poetry. I have already written a recommendation of it for the fine folks at Post Road magazine, so you can find more there, but a taste: Dawkins has an eye for the poetic incongruity of life in evolution, and he draws our gaze in on wonderful moments in this our fecund history:
Here is a line that could easily launch a thousand novels:
Everything about an animal or plant, including its bodily form, its inherited behavior and the chemistry of its cells is a coded message about the worlds in which its ancestors survived; the food they sought; the predators they escaped; the climates they endured; the mates they beguiled.
The book constantly provokes us to understand our selves and the world around us differently, more richly and oddly, more humbly--we are all drawn from shrew-like nocturnal insectivores who snuck out when the mighty dinosaurs fell asleep--the whale gallops through the sea--40,000 years ago the human population shrank down to a mere 15,000 individuals. Full of delights.
A much more peculiar book--powerful and beautiful and often incomprehensible, Nightwood is a shadowy book that has moments of dazzling electricity, and undeniable currents of force. Here is the opening:
Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapporval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein--a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms--gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.
Djuna Barnes, like a lot of the modernists, seduces our sense of our own intelligence with obscure, dense writing that is laden with meanings but never resolves. This lets us draw in as many shapes as we have the energy to bring--a thousand women's studies theses--sub-industries of exposition.
It put me in the mind of the refreshing, but unsettling, pleasure of swimming in ponds--of extending a cautious foot down with no idea what you might find at the bottom.
She writes beautifully, and the book is flourless--short but so dense it feels heavy--dense with pleasures and more than an edge of madness. Here is a line that is a novel of its own, had someone the patience to write it:
I will love what she has loved, and then I will find her again.
And. AND. I told you it had been a while.
Continuing in that flawed-with-power vein, Tapping the Source is alternately called the best surfing novel ever and "surfer noir". It may be either or both of those things. It's a good read--violent, with odd depths and shallownesses--almost always better than you are expecting it to be, with all of the limitations inherent in that, but good. It collapses in the end under its own implausibilities, but that doesn't do it much harm--it is so far gone at that point. The opening:
Ike Tucker was adjusting the Knuckle's chain the day the stranger came asking for him.
More to come, with sleep and rainy days....
Saturday, April 23, 2005
I've been out doing some readings for the paperback release of The Rope Eater, during what has been a long and cold winter, and in the midst of a turbulent and sad time. I have found that my perspective on the book is shifting--I finished writing it almost four years ago now--and the world was a very different one then.
For the paperback readings, I've chosen different sections of the book to read, to keep the material fresh for myself and to make sure I was not just telling the same stories over and over ('yes, the Shackleton ad, the figure-skater, we get it already!'). And different sections of the book have taken on new meaning and resonance, while others have faded. At the risk of great narcissism, I thought I'd share one that has been echoing steadily of late:
You want for your heart to break and it doesn't, for your body to fail and it doesn't--for the world to end, but, remorseless world without end, the punishing sun arises and winds begin again to blow.
Some call this bleak (!), but it has in it also the seeds of what I see as redemptive--that the continuity forces change, and teaches that change is inevitable--the mind wants to hold onto what it knows, but there is no holding and that causes great pain. It is the sun that is bringing that message--dawn, light, beginnings. I think the pain of endings is easy enough to see, but the pain of beginnings, of needing to begin and begin again is something else entirely.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Graham Greene says that Orient Express is the first book he ever wrote for money; he draws a famous distinction between his novels and his "entertainments" of which this is the first. Faulkner responded to a critical question about the meaning of one of his novels (Sanctuary?), 'I wrote that book because I had a horse I wanted to buy.'--a posture, however artificial, that i like. I went into Orient Expresscurious to see how badly he could write--the answer is, obviously, not very badly at all. Here's the opening:
The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.
Not shabby, but not dazzling, to my eye. In the book itself, he seems to swing back and forth between lazy beginnings and virtuoso escapes. He begins with a rash of stock characters--the solitary, greedy Jew, the showgirl with the sweet, weak heart, the heroic, fallen Dr. Czinner (surely the secret agent could find a cleverer code than that?)etc. And then he writes himself inside them--making them rich and, almost uniformly, sweet and sympathetic--Mabel Warren, the drunken lesbian is completely charming and funny. Coral and Myatt grow beyond their rough strokes, struggle genuinely, are whole people before they recede again to types. The minor characters are mostly flat (the soldier who only strives to have something interesting to tell his wife), but some sparkle even so (the mad driver who carries Myatt back to find Coral).
The plot moves well and yet it is here that the "entertainment" side shows--it does not build, but merely resolve--at the end, the pieces slide together with a too-neat click, like the engineered wedding at the end of a minor comedy. It is hard to tell whether Greene has simply given up at the end, or whether he had no great aim as he set out, and merely infused these small pieces with some care and thought--most likely the latter. It is a good read (3 stars), but minor--as, I suppose, Greene intended.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
I read on a lit blog somewhere a note about how many blog entries (and how many letters also) begin with a lament about how long it has taken to write--so I'm abandoning that herd. Look! How swiftly! Must be the springtime--though there was SNOW in Boston yesterday.
Nicholas Christopher's excellent A Trip to the Stars is one of those slightly obscure, completely wonderful books that we all love to recommend--it makes us feel well-read and possessors of fine taste for having discovered him. (I came upon him as a present from my sister, who gives good rec.)
So when I saw his book Veronica in a book store, I thought I would open myself up to further dazzlement. Veronica is like a protoype for A Trip to the Stars. It has many of the same elements--specific, odd bits of information, peculiar mystical symbols, a fascination with magic, and a noir-ish sensibility and pace--but the components don't come together into as satisfying a whole. The book feels scattered into pieces as the overlapping symbols return and return (the crescent of stars, the locks that sound like stones underwater, the blue and gold bird, etc.); they are too many and too variable, and the action too choppy, to build up into a narrative that actually sweeps us up. The book is freighted with external knowledge (he even provides a reading list at the end)--the effect is that he doesn't seem to trust his own powers of engagement, or the worth of what he has made from the pieces he found. The short chapters (many are 3 or 4 pages) keep the narrative moving, but in a way that doesn't let us care for the characters in the way we do for the characters in A Trip to the Stars.
And so it feels like a first pass at a book that got fully realized later; for that reason it is interesting to read--to tease out the balance of elements and judge why they don't quite work. None of this against Mr. Christopher--he is an excellent writer and the book is solid--but A Trip to the Stars is far better. And I will be looking forward to reading whatever he writes next. But this one? 2 stars.
In Lower Manhattan there is an improbable point where Waverly Place intersects Waverly Place.
Thursday, April 07, 2005
Almost a month? For shame, for shame, especially with books to write about. But it was a wild and woolsome month, so I will do some catching up (now? Just as the weather turns warmish? I'll take what I can get.
Every review that Gilead got sounded like a book I should read--it was this drumbeat of ideas I thought I'd like to find--the kind of writing--the kind of book. And then it won the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sure signs of trouble.
Here is the opening line:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old.
This hints at some of the quiet pleasures of this book, but it didn't grip me--and so it was with the book. It sustains a remarkable focus on small joys--moments of pleasure--reflections on good things--in a way that is never sanctimonious or reductive. The writing is clear and strong, though not dazzling in the way The Great Fire.
But there was too much relfection and too little revelation in it for me--it accurately presented this world--inhabited it--but that was not enough for me. I don't know whether it is a question of my own ambitions for what I want a book to hold, or what I actually found in the book itself. Whichever it was, it was not enough.
Now I am arguing against the book because it has been so highly and exhaustively praised. I did enjoy it, and found, in some moments, that it really sang, like this one:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and see amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition comparted to what awaits us, but it is only lovlier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great, bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy I believe, and that all that has passed here will be the eopic of the universe, the balland they sing in the streets.
As I went back through and copied out my notes, I found I liked it better than I had remembered when I finised reading it--that the net impression was less than the sum of its parts.
Some irritations: the narrators dwells on the worth of the boxes of sermons in his attic and what to do with them, without ever resolving them to value or not, or really even exploring whether they have value. This felt loose.
And he claims to have spent a lifetime reading--in both spiritual and heretical texts, late into the nights (though he does explain that he feel asleep often, and got credit for reading more than he did). Still I expected there to be more of the wisdom of his reading, or its fruits, or a rejection of them. But it was simply the assertion that he had done a lot of reading. So? Good, but not great: 3 stars.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has received ample praise and recognition (including a victory in The Morning News Tournament of Books, downing many worthy opponents and some unworthy, including me. It is an excellent book (though it takes a little while to get going), and he moves so easily across styles and times that is dazzling. he gets beyond dazzling however, with some very substantial character development and real emotional depth. The writing is brisk and rich, the plot engaging. You can almost hear the but coming, can't you?
Cloud Atlas reminds me exactly of Atonement, in that it is filled with excellence--great writing, rich imagination--both excellent, excellent books. But both are, I think, nearly ruined by their last two pages, where the imaginative gold of imagination turns to leaden message giving. "Here's what I meant with all of this," says Mitchell. "Here's how the pieces fit together." I started to cringe and am cringing still in some ways. And the worst part was that it didn't feel organic to the sly suggestiveness of the novel--it felt like the editor, holding a gun to the head of the author, and dictating a clarifying conclusion so that the sewing circle/reading groups could pat themselves on the back for having understood this big, hard book. Other people seem to have had less strong reactions to both books. I'll still give it 3.5 stars, but I may tear out the last two pages and give it 4. Here's the opening:
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.
Sunday, March 06, 2005
"On July 18, 1926, the British freighter SS Shelley weighed anchor in Rotterdam, the great port of the Netherlands."
Ok so the opening line is not as great as Coetzee's, but Mark Steven's and Annalyn Swan's de Kooning an American Masterwas terrific. Let me start by saying I have no particular grounding in, or love of, modern art movements (or much art history at all--a series of physical mishaps in college (dislocated shoulder, oral surgery, badly sprained foot--all at once) conspired to pull me out of the one major survey course I took, though not before I had fallen asleep in many, many of the classes). I certainly claim no understanding of de Kooning's work or that of his peers, or even a visual vocabulary to navigate from one movement to the next.
What is remarkable about this biography is their unsentimental portayal of his pursuit--the integrity of his choices to paint and paint and paint--and of the consequences of that for his relationships, his family, his friends. The sheer relentlessness of it is very inspiring--makes me feel profoundly lazy. I was struck, in particular, by the section covering the 30s--when de Kooning and his peers had little prospect of making much money and there was no real fame to be had as an American painter. On and on they paint, in their grimy, freezing studios, grubbing for money--switching to house paint because it is cheaper. I think every person who imagines an artistic life sees some montage of this flash by on their way to fulfillment (and naturally, the economic freedom from worry). But to think of them there for 10 years, painting on and on, arguing about what they are doing. 10 years. More really, though Pollock starts to break ground for them, starts to create a model of success.
I think it is impossible for us now to think about that same kind of pursuit in that same vacuum--even if we push it off, the narratives of success are so pervasive that we are reacting to it.
There is much else that is rich in the book, but the other element most striking to me was of de Kooning's decline--of the period when he clearly begun to lose touch with reality and on and on painted--the grooves of that work worn so deeply into who he was that they persisted past speech and memory. (4 stars)
There is plenty else of merit--fine, clear writing, an excellent survey of modern american art, the growth of the commercial art world, reflections on the impacts of fame and money, the ongoing struggle of de Kooning despite all of his success to subside ever into ease with his art. The struggle remains the struggle, but for some moments free of it. An excellent book for anyone serious about making art.
Friday, February 25, 2005
A few readings for the paperback, a flurry at work, the inordinate tumult of days, and somehow I have ended up a couple thousand pages behind in these notes--so some catch-up is in order. Today's installment: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (in keeping with a trend of recent Bookers). Since I seem to be focused on openings, I'll start there, because I think Coetzee's is excellent:
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved
the problem of sex rather well.
In contrast to so many of the short story openings, this one starts with resolution, not problem. The problem of sex is solved. Well, not solved, but solved to his mind. For a man of his age. And what is the problem of sex exactly anyway. Deviously simple and yet we are caught. And, in his age, Coetzee has David Lurie leaning-still upright--but leaning and about to fall, and we begin to brace to think about it.
More? yes, there is. Lurie's character is in here also: self-satisfied, focused on his own appetites, complacent, arrogant. Here is a line that caught me more than the thousand mysterious dead bodies, or half-glimpsed beautiful women, or backward looking regrets. It is masterful.
The book doesn't disappoint--it pulls you along into awkward and ugly places and Coetzee does an interesting thing: he doesn't make us like his characters much, but he always makes us interested in what is happening to them. This is a tricky line--and runs in the face of much of the bad advice given to young writers about making characters sympathetic. Coetzee keeps us at a distance, but riveted. So as Lurie has sex with Melanie (not rape, he tells us, but undesired), he is completely repulsive, his delusions apparent, his greed appalling. But we need to know now what happens--how does punishment descend and will he come to understand it?
Coetzee doesn't release our interest and this creates a welcome, but difficult pressure--he doesn't let us love them--any of them, not even Lucy, who seems like she should be victim and yet refuses to descend to that--she keeps and makes her choices and these hold us off from her in a way that makes us look at our own choices, our own judgements about her rape and response to it.
An excellent book (4 stars), in a string of excellent books--stay tuned for more coming.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Footracing the opening lines: Now that you've had plenty of time to reflect, here are my choices for the good and the ugly. (Note: I am making no comment on the excellence or lack of it in the stories, no aspersions on authors, genres, publishers, the merits of leafy vegetables, the bullies from the playgrounds of my childhood, etc.--just the openings).
First, the schadenfreude:
Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch one day in 1898 for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range.
First, the name is so absurd as to be impossible to overcome, no matter how excellent the line or the story. It just stops you dead. Unless the story is now about the burdens of ridiculous names, I have lost my trust in the author's choices already (even given the likely historical accuracy of it--truth beyond plausibility does not engage me). And the sentence's sins are compounded by the careless, pointless "yellow metal". This doesn't strike me as a vital tonal choice--just an evasion that makes us do a little bit of unnecessary processing to no end.
Once they were out in the street, Grace, his dog, paid no attention to John Hillman, unless she wanted to range farther than her leash permitted.
Man/dog relationship nuance does not drive me into a story. This one's virtues may lie further in, but the drama of the leash is not starting me out strongly.
Now, the best, or the better anyway--I confess that this exercise made me a litle too aware of the strain in all of these lines and I think my praise of them is still the measured praise of craft, rather than the gush of enthusiasm.
The Kashigawa district, two hours from the Endos' home in Tokyo, was an isolated farming community with two claims to distinction: indigenous harrier monkeys up in the hills, and a new restaurant--Fireside Rations--that served "rice" made from locally grown yams.
The odd set of images--harrier monkeys have grabbed me already, and then the rice from yams--and these as the primary marks of distinction--provokes a set of questions about each (why rice from yams? is harrier a description of behavior or a name? Both?) and then about their connection and impending intersection--I'm starting to dread the potential for a restaurant overrun with screeching monkeys flinging yams. I like a subtext of mayhem to keep me reading.
The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it--though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary--because I would have gone down to Daggett's that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light.
What I like in this line is the way he uses language to create a range of moods (abrupt? yes, but I think it works). The "despair were the mildest term in the dictionary" is a little mawkish, but the bad to lovely transition brings me into the story--I'm curious about what ground this emotional range will lead us into.
Favorites? Disagree with my choices?
Friday, January 21, 2005
So I, like everyone else, like endings and beginnings. When I am deciding whether to read something, I read, like everyone else, the beginning. And the blurbs-I know they are all meaningless hyperbole, but are they the right kind of meaningless hyperbole--is the vein all about dark prophetic essentiality? is it bleakly spiritual? (never concerned with "faith"--though I am--because books with blurbs about faith are inevitably callow--Thomas Kinkade books, where you have a sense that for an appropriate price, a specially trained retoucher might name a dog after you, or set an episode at your old and much beloved summer camp.) And are the blurbs from the right people? Is the book good enough to compel someone I respect to forsake some small measure of integrity to offer up this hyperbole? It must be good. Once past the semiotics of the blurbs, it is the opening that is its first and last best chance to grab me (not the jacket copy--that only tells you how good a writer the editorial assistant was). I like sensing the effort--the opening has been paid particular attention, revised, slaved over, worried at--the writer is at his or her most solicitous, most desperate, most carnival barkery. They are establishing voice, style, tone; they are laying out the knot they will unravel. They are setting off, auditioning, with all of the fraught ambition that brings, and I love them for it.
I have been reading the new Best American Short Stories this year (Lorrie Moore likes'em loooong....), and thought it would be interesting to put up the openings of the stories (reflections on the aggregate to follow typing them all in). In order:
"One day you have a home and the next you don't, but I'm not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it's my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks."
"The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it--though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary--because I would have gone down to Daggett's that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light."
"Hassan comes to me on Tuesday nights."
"It wasn't even Halloween yet, but Ms. Hempel was already thinking about her anecdotals."
"How as I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private?"
"Sundays have always been depressing enough without having to do a job."
"I don't know why I committed us to any of those things," said Otto."
"Once they were out in the street, Grace, his dog, paid no attention to John Hillman, unless she wanted to range farther than her leash permitted."
"She was an American girl, but one who apparently kept Bombay time, because it was 3:30 when she arrived for their 1:00 appointment."
"Horace and Loneese Perkins--one child, one grandchild--lived most unhappily together for more than twelve years in Apartment 320 at Sunset House, a building for senior citizens at 1202 Thirteenth Street Northwest."
"The morning after her granddaughter's frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead."
"The intervention is not Marilyn's idea, but it might as well be."
"The day we planned the trip, I told Louise that I didn't like going to Idaho via the Gallatin Canyon."
"Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill."
"Word was that the missionary kid had a demon, though no one was supposed to know."
"Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch one day in 1898 for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range."
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, from hither and yon, and welcome to the Lee Chapel on the campus of historic Washington and Lee University."
"Their class had graduated from Olinger High School in 1952, just before the name was regionalized out of existence."
"The Kashigawa district, two hours from the Endos' home in Tokyo, was an isolated farming community with two claims to distinction: indigenous harrier monkeys up in the hills, and a new restaurant--Fireside Rations--that served "rice" made from locally grown yams."
"I have a friend with a son in prison."
It is interesting, in typing these, to feel the choices in them, the effortful push off. Each one has a hook, though some straining more than others--often just a word (anecdotals). I was struck by the number that begin with a negative assertion: "not Marilyn's idea", "paid no attention", "depressing enough without", "The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it"--establishing some resistance for the story to work against--starting action with reaction. More thoughts will come, but for now I'll let you digest. Footrace them--best and worst?
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
I have been doing much reading of late, but little writing--often the case when I find myself bewildered as I have been of late. Bewildered is too mild a word for what I am, but never mind. I tend to write best when I have a kind of focused curiosity--what will he do next? How can these pieces fit together? What happens if? I tend to read as a means of broader exploration--what kinds of questions are interesting enough to spend some time one--I find fodder in reading, and, after a fashion, answers.
People often try to explain the purpose of reading. I have never been in the measured camp of aesthetes who believe the function is some sublime apprehension of craft, some celebration of mimesis, or some equally pretentious and bloodless nonsense. I read because I know little, understand little, and hope in books to understand more. I am shameless in rooting out little bits that inform my own experiences, that shed light on my own struggles and questions. This is often denigrated as a primitive reason to read--if so I am a primitive. Books must have some blood in them for me, and if they do it is because they connect to my own experience of the human--they expand my understanding of people and what is possible, how to bear pain, what dignity might be, and faith. That as a means of saying I have been more bewildered than usual of late--and so more reading than writing, but here is the first catch-up.
The Bone People by Keri Hulme is a rich and strange book that I liked a great deal--it is a book with great strengths and some pronounced weaknesses, but ambitious in a way that I respect and successful on its own terms in a way that I admire.
The minor bad: there were a few false notes--story elements thrown in for narrative convenience that never seemed to be true--how Kerewin got her money, or her extraordinary fighting skills--these seemed too easy and not a part of the whole.
The major good: The book as two real triumphs--one is the interplay between Kerewin, Simon and Joe: Hulme keeps them so alive to each other and to us--their edges, their powerful and incomplete affections, the gaps between their feelings and their actions. This alone would make it extraordinary. The second is both a triumph and, at points, wearying--that is the language itself. The story skips around--Kerewin loves wordplay--and the story text varies between the straightforward and the poetic (and the Maori). Mostly I found this excellent--a whole and complete means of expression only lightly tethered to other writing, and using its new linguistic and narrative terrain to real advantage. There were a few points where it dragged, felt overlong and I felt myself skimming to get past it and back to the story.
The major less-good: I felt that the book lost its way a little after the final beating of Simon. First it seemed unnecessarily brutal--did he need his skull caved and implants to be able to hear? I felt something underneath or outside of the story intruding there--like it had to match up to some unarticulated reality that I didn't find in the story itself. And then each of their journeys back had more unresolved and unsatisfying mysticism in them (and I am a big mystic).
But the end pulled together and some digestion has made the books strengths considerably overshadow its weaknesses: 4 stars
Here's the opening:
He walks down the street. The asphalt reels by him.
It is all silence.
Friday, January 07, 2005
Some of you have complained that I like all these books so much--what about the ones I don't like? I try to avoid reading any of those, as a general rule, and books are so hard to write that I try to find something to like regardless. However, here was one that I didn't: The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. Now Stegner can write very well--I was actually surprised how much I liked Angle of Repose when I read it. And The Spectator Bird won The National Book Award, so I had high hopes. Here was the opening:
On a February morning, when a weather front is moving in off the Pacific but
has not quite arrived, and the winds are changeable and gusty and clouds
drive over and an occasional flurry of fine rain darkens the terrace bricks,
this place conforms to none of the cliches about California with which they
advertise the Sunshine Cities for the Sunset Years. No bland sky, no cool
morning overcast, no placid afternoons fading into chilly evenings.
Nothing spectacular, except from hints of tone that could be promising. But I found the first part of the book--his lamentations about the process of ageing, the decline of his friends--to be gloomy and uncompelling--bland even. (I perfer my gloom compelling...).
The second section of the book--the trip to Denmark and the mysterious countess--began to pick up, but then the book took a completely unbalanced and implausible turn--the incest and the genetics experiments, the past shame uncovered, etc. The parts seemed wholly out of balance, as if they came from different books and Stegner were making little attempt to reconcile them.
The kiss and near-affair (which by this time we had been awaiting for a hundred pages or so) was wel-enough drawn, but the shadow of the lurid history of her family battered the delicacy out of it. It was no longer a human situation, but a kind of historical and political one, yet there was no recognition of this in the narrative.
1 star. Stegner's good, but not here. The National Book Award??
Sunday, December 12, 2004
I enjoyed The Great Fire tremendously--one of those rare books that calls out during the day to be read, that usurps the days because you want to get back to it. This was a function of a few things, but mostly the writing itself--clear is a weak word for its directness and force, for the rhythm of it. I stopped a number of times to unpack what made it so good--the choices she made about what to omit, the gaps that she leaves that make every sentence feel essential. No sentence felt workmanlike, had that air of "now I need to get them out of the room before I can get back to the meat". it was all meat.
Here's the opening:
"Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.
I don't think this is the best of her writing--good, but not that which really struck me. Here is a more representative passage:
"Filth was in fact on Peter Exley's mind in those first weeks;the accretion filming the orient, the shimmer of sweat or excrement. A railing or handle one's fingers would not willingly grasp; walls and objects grimed with existence; the limp, soiled colonial money, soiled notes curled and withered, like shavings from some discoloured central lode. Ammoniac reek, or worse, in paved alleys and under stuccoed arcades. Shaved heads of children, blotched with sores; grey polls of infants lolling from the swag that bound them to the mother's back. And the great clots and blobs of tubercular spittle shot with blood, unavoidable underfoot: what Rysom called "poached eggs." In such uncleanness, nothing could appear innocent, not the infants themselves or even diseased chow dogs, roaming the Chinese streets, or scrawny chickens, pecking at street dirt."
Friends who liked the book less than I did found the language stilted, and I think it is in places--and also that I like language that works a little harder than most and so am inclined to be more forgiving of that particular sin.
The atmosphere, characters, situations, development, all excellent, with one exception: in the core love story between Leith and Helen, I found the unwavering state of their desire when they were separated to be implausible. I can believe that they loved each other, were able to sustain their feelings despite their distance and the obstacles that lay between them. But that there was no doubt in it ever, no wavering, no frustration or unevenness between how one felt and the other and when they felt it, seems false, unnecessarily fixed and rigid. The other relationships--Exley and Miss Xavier and Audrey Fellowes, for example, are all delicately and realistically drawn.
Still a very fine book, and writing worthy of study and emulation, and the best book in a while (4 stars), but with this odd sticking in the center.
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
And I forgot the first lines; here they are:
I was born in the city of Bombay. . . once upon a time.
The Power and the Glory
Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.
Neither, to my mind, revealing the eventual excellence of the books that follow.
Sunday, November 28, 2004
Midnight's Childrenby Salman Rushdie (did you need me to tell you?) is an excellent book that only selectively engaged me. Some of its excellencies: the core image of the children born in the hour after midnight being joined by a diverse set of magical powers, including the telepathic joining through the narrator; the overlapping narratives begun with a startling and peculiar image (that felt mannered at the start, then overdone, but finally won me over with its sheer exuberance); the story of a doctor's seduction through a sheet with a hole--seeing a different part of his beloved each visit as he summoned to diagnose a new ailment; the ruination by the monkeys; the trip into the jungle; there are lots of these--imaginative, sharply written, lovely.
And yet...his imagination takes odd turns that I can't absorb into the overall narrative--that make no clear sense and yet return again and again--the relentless emphasis on snot--Saleem getting his powers triggered by the flow far up into his sinuses; the villainous Shiva with his murderous knees--knees? prehensile knees? I can't even understand what that might look like--and couldn't ever manage to summon fear in the imagining of it.
So the reading went in and out--drawn into one story and then another, then scratching my head a little as I tried to figure out if there were an allegorical reason behind a jarring note. 3 stars
I also spent a few hours at big, bland bookstores trying to be struck by something to read next--thinking a lot about what I ought to read--the stacks of shoulds--do I need to read Naipaul? Amos Oz? What about the minor works of people who have written something I thought tremendous (what else of Saramago's? Faulkner? DH Lawrence?) I settled on Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and powered through it. Greene has great craft at moving the story forward effortlessly, economically. The book, like his others, is short; he keeps a steady tension up and the story turning and turning and rarely coming to rest.
The book itself had less meat than The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair; the flight of the unnamed whiskey priest had some moments of real majesty and lots of struggle, but there did not seem to be as much at stake. It seemed a little like there was some context missing--like the Communist subtext might have lost some resonance.
By the end, his struggles came to resemble Beckett more than any of the other books--protracted struggles that by their very persistence come to take on meaning and resonance. I can still feel the digestion of the book happening, so perhaps I will improve my opinion with a little more time. 3 stars.
Monday, November 01, 2004
One mystery has been half-solved. Despite a rash of online research, and email from anglo friends, colindancia remained opaque. Then this morning,a colleague said it had something to do with property--real estate transactions; and then a browse through the dictionaries (4 dictionaries! Including an unabridged harper-collins English/Spanish). The closest I came was colindante, which was boundary or border. So I am decided by associate fiat, therefore, that it means plot of land--which fits, and seems not wrong if not exact. Certainly sufficient for a Monday morning.
Sunday, October 31, 2004
Next up is an excellent and problematic read through of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing (thanks Barbara). As is my anti-book review preference, I'll start with the bad and move to the good. Here's the opening:
When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child.
So here is where I struggle with McCarthy. I speak no Spanish, and a little French, and stumble every time I hit one of his conversations in Spanish without translation. Some I can piece together from context and cognates; some he shifts into summary and I can backtrack to what I need to know. But many of the conversations pass unremarked--and by their length and substance I suspect that some essential information is passed in them, but I cannot access it. This raises a very fundamental issue of reader/writer responsibility. Do I need to learn some Spanish to enjoy McCarthy fully? Should I read with a Spanish-English dictionary along? Should there be footnotes for the ignorant few (or many)? I suspect McCarthy would laugh at the notion of having some responsibility for helping people understand more than he already does. And yet a significant part of the experience of reading the book was, solely as a result of this dynamic, an irritating one. And I finished the book with a sense of dissatisfaction despite its many evident strengths and pleasures (pleasures is perhaps not the right word for what is good in McCarthy). I still haven't resolved this one, so opinions on it are welcome. I have Cities of the Plain in my stack (and, yes, Melville II, Hersh), but am reluctant to go back into the morass of frustrating Spanish fumbling.
Outside of that experience, I took a while to warm to McCarthy's prose. I am all for the Old Testament rhythms, for the portentous pronouncements, the epic sweep, etc. And yet I was not quite ready to buy passages like this one:
In the jars dark liquids. Dried viscera. Liver, gall, kidneys. The inward parts of a beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more. Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood.
I want to believe, but reading this felt like a reverent parody of McCarthy more than the man himself. It took the first third of the book before than niggling suspicion of parody faded and I became absorbed in the narrative (until, at least, the Spanish bumped me out again).
And then some writing of undeniable power and force and rich strangeness that make me at my most irritated unable to dismiss him. Here is an extended passage that I think is remarkable. It is one of a series of parable-like stories that Boyd is told and make up, I think, the heart of the book; it describes a priest in his back-and-forth with a holy fool of sorts:
He [the priest] was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.
There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay in his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it. So. The priest in the very generosity of his spirit stood in mortal peril and knew it not. He believed in a boundless God without center or circumference. By this very formlessness he'd sought to make God manageable. This was his colindancia*. In his grandness he had ceded all terrain. And in this colindancia Goad had no say at all.
To see god everywhere is to see Him nowhere. We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one's goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be and it is this moment, you see. This same moment. It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.
I think this is remarkable--like the best of what I like in Merton and rich and in the same stroke baffling and true. (*and I can't figure out what colindancia means--online dictionaries have been no help--anyone?).
There is more of equal richness and strangeness--the final scene with the malformed dog is resonant and odd and, with the weight of the book behind it, very moving. Four stars for The Crossing, though I need to solve the Spanish piece before I take on Cities of the Plain.
Monday, October 11, 2004
With a little help from the discredited Columbus, I am getting this up over the weekend as promised. I haven't wrestled The Crossing to the ground, but here are the promised two at least. And reading in one of the lit weblogs, I enjoyed the practice of collecting first lines, so, by way of introduction to these two books, I'll start with first lines.
First, Orhan Pamuk's Snow: "The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of the poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow."
Pamuk is everywhere right now (reading in Boston tomorrow night, as a matter of fact--and unfortunately the same night as the talented David Gilbert, whose reading I'm afraid I will also likely miss, but you should not because his book is very funny). There is much to admire in Snow, and some problems as well. Rather than starting with the good and then damning it with faint praise, I'll go the other way. The biggest problem I had with the book was with the tone, which never fully resolved for me into something that felt real. There were parts that ought to have been menacing, or brutal, but the whole narrative seemed to carry with it a wash of the absurd--like Robert Coover. So the conflicts seemed, to my mind, faintly ridiculous, rather than powerful, and the power struggles pathetic rather than significant. ("But that's the point", the arch voices whisper, "he is both portraying and commenting on the human condition at the same time.")
Thus the animating politics of the novel, for which I had summoned an appropriately responsible enthusiasm, never rose to a level that engaged me, but always held me off.
There is much in it that I thought excellent--the premise of the poet returning to his home town, unable to write poems for many years--the newspaper that publishes events that come to be true--the love and desire of Ka for Ipek--the structure of the book of poems and, perhaps best in the book--the allusive coming together (absurd and sweet and moving) of the poems themselves--and the radical students writing their science fiction novel. A lot here to like, certainly, and yet I kept trying to like the book as a whole and did not.
One review I read explained that the book seemed to run out of gas about halfway through and never really regained its momentum, and I agree. The tropes of the snow, of the back and forth of Ipek, seem to repeat until they had lost meaning. And when they finally resovled, I had lost some measure of interest. This is a book that was better than the recounting here, but not as good as the international gush that is welling up around Pamuk--though he is certainly interesting and worthy, and My Name is Red has joined the queue. (3.5 menhirs)
The second book is Meatless Daysby Sara Suleri--a book that came so highly recommended from a surpassingly literate friend that I feared a little I wouldn't be able to read it fairly. The opening: "Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women." Suleri's book is a loose memoir about her family, relationships, and food; its chapters are more like essays that loop back rather than parts of a larger structure. She writes beautifully and sharply, though with some whiffs of the academic sneaking in here and there. She presents her family, and her life, with such a grace and spirit that it is hard not to find yourself at least a little in love with her as you read. That, I suppose is recommendation enough. Some of the essay-chapters are stronger than others, and I did not find that the whole built an edifice up beyond the sum of its delightful parts, but that is a substantial sum. (3 menhirs)
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
A fall of hectic travel and continued discombobulation (I know that onomatopeia is words that sound like what they represent, but I wonder what the word is for words that feel coming through your mouth like what they represent--that the saying of them is like a little experience of them--discombobulation fits that in my book--I wonder what others there are?). I have continued to do a great deal of reading, but less writing about that reading. For the faithful few--thank you for checking--I am alive and still very much enjoying getting your emails. For new visitors, take your time with the old posts, as I am slow to update.
I have two and nearly three books to write about Meatless Days, Snow, and The Crossing, but those will have to wait for the weekend (this weekend, I promise!). In the meantime, I need to spare some minutes to appease the howling demons of powerpoint (which is turning me rapidly into a full scale anarchist). Patience, readers, I am returning. And, as I'm about to finish The Crossing, on the prowl for what to read next, so suggestions are welcome. Harry--I'll take a closer look at the rest of Pat Barker on your recommendation--but somehow I think I'm in the mood for something a little more Old Testament--which McCarthy may cure me of, but I doubt it. I've got a hearty appetite for rageful prophets.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
A turbulent summer and the new rhythms of a job and commute have been good for reading, but not so good for getting the notes out. I'm mired in a few longer books (Holmes's bio of Shelley, The Idiot) and starting others willy-nilly. But I have finished a round of quite good reading--one excellent, one quite good, and one solid.
I was very struck by Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter (4 stars). I had read it before, in some ambitious and brainless moment as a teenager and remembered nothing about it--not even whether I had liked it or not. Now no longer so young and foolish, I found it really terrific--gripping even. Despite his reputation of ambivalence, I found that he is up to something quite specific--he creates out of our limitations the inevitability of faith--whether or not his characters respond to it with growth or fear--the traps of Scobie, his lack of energy and desire to be good and to avoid inflicting pain--the selfishness of Bendrix and his passions and impatience. It some ways it demonstrates the necessary evils in us--the spaces they carve out that let belief in--doubt amid goodness is thin beer.
The pathos of Scobie struck me:
He had prayed between the two knocks that anger might still be there behind the door, that he wouldn't be wanted. He couldn't shut his eyes or ears to any human need of him; he was not the centurion, but the man in the ranks who had to do the bidding of a hundred centurions, and when he opened the door, he could tell the command was going to be given again--the command to stay, to love, to accept responsibility, to lie."
He felt tired by all the lies he would have some time to tell; he felt the wounds of those victims who had not yet bled. Lying back on the pillow, he stared sleeplessly out towards the grey early morning tide. Somewhere on the face of those obscure waters moved the sense of yet another wrong and another victim, not Louise, nor Helen.
The darkness of difficulty of the ending felt real and substantial to me, and the ways in which Scobie drew nearer and fell away from his faith were beautifully drawn.
That led me in turn to The End of the Affair. (3.5 stars). It was a less even book than The Heart of the Matter. The opening is excellent, and the setup is a terrific one. If it is as autobiographical as people claim, it must have been a wild time to be Greene. I liked it less because it seemed to slip into complex contrivance about 3/4 of the way through as Sarah explored her faith with Smythe--as if Greene became more focused on the philosophical exploration and lost touch with the humanity of his characters for a while. This is a shading, not a train wreck--the book is a very good one, but not so powerful for me as The Heart of the Matter.
The third book in this installment was Pat Barker's Regeneration, and I'm still not entirely clear why I didn't like it more. I liked the premise (Siegfried Sassoon invalided to a mental hospital for objecting to the progress of WWI--his doctor, who agrees with him, has the duty to try to convince him to return to the trenches); I liked the setting--the combination of physical and mental horrors of the wounded soldiers and the ways they are making their way back to health; I think she is a skillful writer--economical and precise but without the coldness that those adjectives often imply. I have read some interviews with her, and liked how she spoke and thought about writing (and was looking for a special reading project--thinking of her trilogy). Perhaps Regenerationis improving in my estimation with a little digestion, but as I finished it seemed a good, solid book with a lot in it, but not extraordinary, not especially rich and transformative. I think it is a better book than that--perhaps in another few weeks I will have reconsidered it into excellence (3 stars).
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Reading has been happening, amid our nomadic days, and herewith some of what has risen to the top. First, two grave disappointments--I have liked CS Lewis's writing on Christianity--Screwtape, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy. I found some of the same expressive honesty that I like in Merton, and some of the same passionate, muted, intellectual self-awareness. So I picked up two more of his: The Great Divorce and The Business of Heaven. I read the intro of The Great Divorce and was excited--it is an extended allegory exploring how we must forsake all earthly things to reach heaven (and when we do we will discover earth as a kind of hell relative to heaven), and if the ways in which we cannot--our attachments and contortions, our self-deceptions. Lewis cited as a source of inspiration a scifi story about a man who travels back in time and finds the past is immutable--that the rain hits him like bullets, and food is like concrete--because he has no power to change it. Sounds promising, right? Unfortunately the whole of The Great Divorce does not travel far beyond that, and there are a lot of waterfalls and angels and unicorns in between. Other than that idea (of the eternal feeling immutable to us, and the idea that our souls must adapt by shedding our connection to earth to be drawn heavenward), the story obscured rather than clarified. The set of conversations were more suited to Davey and Goliath than to what I hoped for from Lewis. One star.
Then I turned to The Business of Heaven ('Surely joy is the serious business of heaven'). This is an edited compilation of reflections, drawn from a bunch of Lewis's other writing. Again, high hopes as I started skipping around. But I stumbled on an entry where Lewis celebrates the British monarchy:
"We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy [we still need more of the economic] without losing our ceremonial monarchy." he claims that we all have a craving for inequality, that it is our "taproot in Eden", and that those who are without it are "men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch". I wavered a little here, hoping he would rescue himself with a defense of beauty rather than status quo, but here was his conclusion:
"Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison." This is about as short-sighted a justification of the status quo as I have ever read, dressed up in spiritual language. Why are the kings food and the others poison? because a thousand years ago they had a generation of thuggish relatives that were able to seize power? That they have managed to manipulate the preservation of their own property for so long that they somehow now serve a social function as objects of veneration? My respect for Lewis has plummeted. Both books are away, and it will take a great deal for me to turn to them again. Lewis is off the list.
On the good reading, I am reading some Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter, and just finishing The End of the Affair), of which
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Life has intruded (pesky life!) in ways that have held off both reading and writing, but the hiatus is ending. One of the blessings of difficult times is that it lets you see how much people care for you, and for them, it lets them demonstrate their affection and desire to be helpful without feeling overwhelming or inappropriate. There is a sweet coming together of need and the desire (and love) to provide that lets us all lay bare the goodness in us--the generosity and kindness and thoughtfulness. It makes apparent how muted we are in the general run of our days when those veins are hidden or suppressed. Thank you my many great good friends for your support and thoughts and I wish we could all feel this affection without adversity to provoke it.
I finished up Edward Jones' The Known World a few weeks ago; it has been getting a ton of critical attention and it deserves all of the good things said about it. It's an excellent book in a remarkably quiet way. Jones is writing about an explosive topic (black slave owners), and there is room in his story for all manner of violence, horror, sentimentality, brutality, etc. And what he does is tell layers of stories with all of their good and bad in a manner that came to seem both rich and diffuse. Two things worth noting about it:
His real strength, I think, is in his writing of scenes (as opposed to language, or dialogue, or plotting, etc.) The novel overall is an accumulation of small moments that rise to a number of extraordinary scenes that overtake you before you realize it. Thus the history of Augustus Townsend, his modest dignity and years of careful planning, his structured peace, the delicate balance he has made between the white world and the black, builds to the moment when the patrollers eat his papers and sell him back into slavery. Jones provides no commentary--there is almost no inflection in the prose at all--none is needed. I found myself reading--skipping ahead, thinking this can't be happening--this can't be happening. It is intensely horrible and its power is in revealing the horror that is there rather than building something up to be horrible, or manufacturing elements that combine to be horrible. It is masterfully done.
One other note--Jones uses an odd--mostly compelling, sometimes frustrating structure to tell his stories. He lights on a series of events--some small and some larger, and then has the narrative ripple out from there. So he stakes out an event--when Oden cuts off part of Elias' ear, and then subsequent moments are set relative to that event--"that Tuesday night after", "some two weeks later, another Sunday, after Moffett had come and preached and gone"--until a new event takes over. This gives the book a localised, personal, oral feel--there is not a grand sweep of events here, but people in their days reacting to what is around them and remembering what they remember instead of what might be the most significant by some outward determination. It takes some getting used to because it means the overall ground is uncertain, relative. But it is very successful for the book as a whole because it keeps everything personal rather than historical, real rather than reflected. A worthy read--4.5 stars
Sunday, May 30, 2004
We seem to be in the midst of an Orwell revival (and I can't quite figure out how, but he has risen to an eminence that he has never previously enjoyed in my life.) I've read my requireds (1984 and Animal Farm, essays), but nothing else. So I picked up Homage to Catalonia this weekend (fresh from reading that it is one of the top ten best non-fiction books of the century, according to the National Review.
It is an excellent book, a remarkable book, though in an odd sort of way. In the introduction, Lionel Trilling writes (perceptively, not surprisingly) that the real strength of Orwell and of the book is that he is NOT a genius. Homage to Catalonia is a book that any one could write--if any of us were as perceptive and honest as Orwell manages consistently to be. The bulk of the book is a straightforward recollection of what the fighting life was actually like (boring, smelly, cold), and is interspersed with clear-eyed analysis of the complex political maneuverings that (60 years on) seem impossibly bewildering and petty. His presentation of the political shifts and their misrepresentations in the press is more remarkable for having been written just after his experiences and not heavily revised later.
The clarity of language and vision are notable mostly in immediately making other books seem contrived, forced, or insufficient--in the reading, the sensation is a simple transparency--there are no tricks of language or observation, no rococo images or flights of sentiment or rhetoric. You emerge thinking right, this is how books should be.
One striking thread of the book is Orwell's steady socialism--he is allied with the P.O.U.M--a group that wants revolutionary change (and, for a time, seems to be leading the way towards it). As they struggle, and are betrayed, or simply conflicted, Orwell continues to present a hopeful, clear-eyed desire for a just equality among men in a way that prevents it from sounding dated, naive, or misguided. The rise and subsidence of communism, especially in this country, is so charged by the Cold War, that all strains of it are too tainted for us to see their appeal in compelling terms. For us, equality must mean democracy (right...), and anything faintly Marxist must be totalitarian. As we see the complex (and almost invariably unjust) interplay of free market capitalism and democracy, it is refreshing to see the combination of philosophy and practice from a thoughtful and grounded person. Free of cant, Orwell's decisions to be out on the front line and fighting reset the context of the current domestic political morass. I am reminded of how shocking it is that so many people in this country refuse to use political power to protect their own interests, instead of in what seems to me to be the service of some potential life that their own actions are preventing them from accessing--preserving the rights of CEOs to save more in taxes on their benefits than they will make in years of hard work.
That intellectual people take their place in society in combination with all men on equal footing without condescension and without creating some sort of hagiographic distance no longer seems possible. We are so ill-equipped to talk about class in this country that we rarely confront the gap between how we talk and how we live--there is one common arc of experience about the land of opportunity and about the removal of obstacles to economic opportunity that overwhelms our conversations about justice and equality. Economics so dominates our discourse about all other spheres of human interaction so that other considerations take their place within it--it is the force that we find ourselves helpless within as in other ages it may have been political or (as it seems it might become again) religious. Much to ponder, especially among those of us who vote democratic but are somewhere closer to Anarcho-liberitarian-bolsheviks. 4.5 stars.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
William Langewiesche's Sahara Unveiled opens with a shot directly across Thesiger's bows (see Arabian Sands below. He says "Do not regret the passing of the camel and the caravan....You will not diminish it by admitting that its inhabitants can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you." This anti-romantic tone is a real strength of his book--he gives a genuine sense of the people and this world--people trapped by climate and circumstance and making their way along--the gun runner who abandons him in the desert, the Malian trying to sell cassettes on the riverboat.
The book overall is uneven--Langewiesche is trying to do some things that don't work--he reaches for the kind of prose that my hero Barry Lopez uses in Arctic Dreams and doesn't get there. His forays into history and climate are helpful but only occasionally compelling--his strengths are not in the kind of odd, rich anecdotes that Annie Dillard uses, or Lopez--and his prose is not Bruce Chatwin's nor Paul Bowles' (as the cover would have you believe). But it is refreshing to have such a hard-headed look at the place and the people--as a sucker for the romantic travel narratives, I need a little of this kind of balancing--he didn't make me want to take the trans-Saharan trek.
The most compelling character in the book for me was a Frenchman named Rene Caille, who was the first European to get to the fabled city of Timbuktu and back out again.. Langewiesche describes him as "an uneducated French peasant, frail-looking, gaunt, uncommunicative, the orphan of a prison convict." What makes him compelling is the way his nature and situation free him to travel. "Caille was the freest of men. He lived unrestrained by a proper upbringing, unrestricted by family or friendship, unconcerned with his dignity or comfort, and unafraid of dying. Carrying an umbrella and a few pounds of trading goods, he would approach his goal from the west, secretly taking notes in the Koran that he carried...." Here is a great character waiting for his novel--an anithero to fly in the face of the dashing Richard Burton model--an anonymous man who accomplishes great things because he don't call the attention of the world down on him.... (3 stars)
Friday, May 21, 2004
And The New Yorker has an excellent article this week on the men who hunt giant squid--Architeuthis. Now maybe fewer people will ask me where the Doctor's name comes from in my book...
Here's the online interview
A couple more for the stack, but first: it's a great pleasure to have new work out (given the years of wait until the novel grinds its way out). My collaboration with Brian Hall is up here or on my site here.
So that's the writing. On the reading front, I got pointed to the very solid The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Elie interweaves the biographies of four American Catholic writers: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. He traces the evolution of their writing lives and their faith through their reading, writing, and through the ways faith was made manifest through their lives. Given that Merton and O'Connor are two of my BIGS, it is hard to imagine that I would not like this book--I did like it, but am a little puzzled that I didn't fall down raving about it, or feel absorbed in it and sent off into swirls of subsidiary reading as a result of what I found in it.
First the good: Elie does a tremendous job with the structure of the book itself--this may be the best thing about it. He has themed chapters that are gently suggestive of what is happening in different ways to these four very different lives (The School of the Holy Ghost, Convergences). Each chapter is broken into pieces from each of their lives, and there were times when this was tiring--you wanted to finish out the arc of a particularly compelling story before you had to backtrack into a less compelling moment in another, not-quite-parallel. (And I have continued to find Percy someone I think I should like, but don't really). But as the shifting stories palled, I found the underlying suggestions of the chapters pulling me back into seeing parallels, to ferreting out what Elie was up to in combining the arcs in this way. This may seem like an odd thing to praise, but I was struck a number of times during my reading by the care and insight it showed. He never bludgeons you with it, and it is never so oblique that it didn't contribute to the meaning of the biographies--and that is a fine line indeed.
Most of the rest that is very good is that Elie is very well read in his authors, and that he stays out of the way of their own writing and reflections, which are terrific. He brought in biographical information that I didn't know (more on that in a moment) and used letters to illuminate points of progress and stall.
One biographical point that I got stuck on was this: I hadn't realized that Merton fathered a child as a young man. And having found that out, I couldn't shake the realization that it essentially disappeared after that not only from his life, but from his reflections. He included it in The Seven-Storey Mountain and it was cut by the censors, but it does not seem to have returned anywhere in his later thought--not the child itself as bearing a role in his life, not the idea of the child and what its life might be like out in the world, not the idea of being a father and what life that might have brought. This has cast a pall over Merton entirely for me--it seems fundamentally cowardly, and his life in the monastery as incomplete for not encompassing his whole person and the entirety of his place in the world. These are hard words to write--Merton is certainly one of the writers and thinkers that I most admire, whose struggles have been some of the richest for illuminating my own batterings around. I don't really know what to do with this--how to put Merton to rest again--it raises Emerson a little in my estimation. If there are later writings of Merton's on this subject, I would love to hear about them.
The Life landed a little flat at the end--it was a very rich exploration, but I didn't end with a sense of destination, of conclusion. During the reading, I was often wondering where Elie fit in this process--was he a Catholic? Was this a part, for him, of becoming one? The title is a pilgrimage not pilgrimages--is it his? As I said above, I was glad he stayed out of the way, but (in direct contradiction, I realize) there were times when I did want to hear from him--wanted his experience to somehow pull together the threads into the larger conclusion that I was looking for from the book. This was not, I think, the book Elie was writing (though I would still be interested to hear about it) (3.5 stars)
The other book I finished was lighter and more personal, Paul Collin's Not Even Wrong. This is about Collin's autistic son and some explorations of autism and autistics (from Peter the Wild Boy to Henry Darger to Newton and Einstein). As the father of an autistic daughter, I have my own store of ideas and histories here. Collins is a good writer--brisk, clear, thoughtful. But I found the book itself slight, and his seeking after a story of glorious potential for his son (while understandable) a little irritating--an overreaching sense that he needed to link his son's struggles to a set of gifts so much greater than ordinary that he seemed to be reassuring himself rather than trying to see his son honestly. This is a part of all of the autism lit, especially Asperger's--an idea that the neurological differences are opening a door into works of genius if we can only see the connections (and our brutal, dismissive world can shelter our children in the right way). To be fair, Collins does provide an accurate views into the moment-to-moment reality of his life (to have a three year old with a huge vocabulary that has never called you "Daddy" is wrenching). But I still came away with the sense that he was protesting too much in digging out the legacy of achievement to surround the idea of his son with a greatness that he may or may not reach. (Much more striking to me was the conversation with the doctor about the probability that Morgan would always live at home.)
I don't want to diminish the potential of any one, any child, especially not my own wonderful bright light, but I kept hearing echoes of the boasting parents that I associate with New York City--the my child this and my child that parents who are trying to find a story to tell about their children that is worthy of their own image of themselves. My daughter is mainstreamed in a supportive class with a teacher whose patience and ingenuity in finding ways to draw her in amazes me. And still the reality of our days is much more the struggle than the flashes of genius--she is so stressed by the difficulty of managing in this environment that she cries about going to school on some days, and I feel like an ogre for drawing her into it, or Procrustes with my iron bed, stretching and cutting to find a way to fit her into it.
Clearly I'm bringing a weight onto Collin's book that I think it was not meant to bear--for those coming at this world from the outside, I think it may be a wonderful window in, and it may be. For those inside it already, I am not so sure--interesting and honest, but it feels like he is at the beginning of it, rather than in a moment where he has some reflective distance that would be valuable to me--3 stars.
As an endnote, he mentions Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures--I was surprised not to see Donna William's book Nobody Nowhere--as the best book written by an autistic person about the inside of that world. Hearing Donna William's voice (in an interview on NPR now almost 10 years ago) remains one of the most striking moments in understanding autism and its connections--and lack of connections--to our own humanity. For anyone interested, I highly recommend getting a tape of it (from the FreshAir archives)--it is unforgettable.
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
I've had a deep John Cheever festival happening in the background of the rest of this reading, starting with the journals and dipping in and out of the collected stories The Journals (5 stars) are remarkable, some of the writing I most value anywhere from anyone. I was first given them in Xerox out of The New Yorker, by an academic advisor I had for one semester at Yale. I carried those around (still have them somewhere) ever since, though I did finally pick up the book itself.
What is so remarkable about his journal writing? Many, many things. The man writes about the weather so dazzlingly that I would read a collection of his writing just about that. He writes with such beautiful compression that he tells whole stories, or suggests sets of stories in a half-page or less. When I turned to the stories after the journals, I found them mannered, a little forced, overwritten after the allusive richness of the journal entries. And, he lays bare the work of being a writer-he tries things on--he gather little bits of the days and holds them up in his hands--and in hte middle of it all, he is human: drinking more than he likes and despising himself for it, struggling with his sexuality, loving his children, fighting with and yearning for his wife. In composing this, I have tried to resist the impulse to spend many days just recopying some of the best of his passages. I may resist and I may not. Here is one:
I wool gather about this (a museum guard making a pass), walking back in the sunlight—smell of burned coffee, church bells, and then at a turn in the street I step into the smell of the sea, strong and fresh, and my woolgathering is ended. The smell is persuasive, and this persuasion is: to have faith in men. There in that dark gallery for a minute or two we stumble on midnight, and the borders of the conscience, where we doubt the promise in the faces of strangers, we doubt that life has any spiritual value. Then I lunch with the Warrens and board a first-class local, a little compartment lined with red plush like a box at the opera, and so we speed north again toward Rome, me in the company of an old man, a young student, and a soldier. I see the fruit trees again and the trees hung with vines and the famous sea, and rising from the shacks of a disreputable summer resort a round tower and, with it, memories of heroes, purple cloth, its splendor and its disappearance. And than I can only exclaim, watching the country in the dusk, how incomprehensible life is: there is the son my wife carries, the guard caressing the marble limbs of Achilles, the smell of the sea, the love I bear my children, the fruit trees that seem to make their own light in the dusk, the conversation among the three passengers, which I cannot understand, the sparse farmhouse lights, the carts and bicycles on the roads leading into every village.
The balance in this writing, the simple power--it is lovely, lovely.
I have never read his novels, despite my admiration for his other writing--perhaps it is time for the Wapshots. More Cheever to come.
Sunday, April 25, 2004
I spent the weekend reading Theo Padnos's book My Life had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse: A Teacher's Notes. Theo is an old friend from high school, though I hadn't seen much of him since then--once when he was teaching at UMASS and I was teaching in Atlanta, and once when I was living in Paris and he drifted over looking for bike racing.
I was suprised (and happy and a little jealous all at once) to find that, in the interim, we had both written books and they were coming out at the same time. And then I saw him on 60 Minutes, and then in an article in The Atlantic, and then when we were reviewed in the same issue of 7 Days, though I haven't been able to track him down in person.
I read some reviews of the book which were mixed, to not so good, and the endorsements, but held off reading it until now. I shouldn't have--the book was excellent, though not for the reasons that the reviewers seemed to want it to be--for the insight into teenagers in prison, or the social forces that drove them there, or the general decay of society and why. This is not a book on public policy or sociology. It is much more of an autobiography through the lens of books and teaching in prison, and it is told with real honesty and care. From the opening scene of Theo rolling around on the dusty floor of a graduate seminar in pain and jest, through his ambivalent progress into the jail, he does a brave job of casting light in himself, his shortcomings, his doubts and his struggles. He is seeking after some authentic edge to his own existence--through violence, or drugs, through people or texts, and he steadily draws us through his own half-heartedness and enthusiasm, self-deceptions. It is pleasantly free of the simple moralizing that the book has been critisized for (how can he possibly be sympathetic to terrible murders and rapists?--by sitting in a room with them day after day, at a time when their passions have passed and he is exploring shakily his own grip on himself). His descriptions of the books made me want to read them and re-think them (and their reception made me not want to teach again ever). This is a fine autobiography--find the social science somewhere else. Bravo, Theo, wherever you are....
Monday, April 19, 2004
The reading blitz continues unabated. This weekend was unfinished business weekend: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (a book I have even taugh sections of, without ever finishing it--considering it is such a small, slight book, I've always been vaguely shocked at myself for this--very uncharacteristic).
Anil's Ghost, as I mentioned earlier, began very flat for me. I had the sense that there was so much history, tragedy, so much memory that was present behind the narrative for Ondaatje that he did not add it to the story itself. This may be presumptuous of me, but I didn't feel the book really got moving until we were in the Grove of the Ascetics, almost halfway through the book.
After that, it had some odd parallels with The English Patient (a set of damaged people with esoteric skills try to heal themselves and each otherin the late days of a long and brutal war, living in close isolation in a huge, moldering home that formerly held an artist. There were some moments of the same piercing beauty of The English Patient, and some great power in it, though it never rose to the same heights.
One small pleasure that is Ondaatje's: he provides observations within small comparisons that illuminate whole hidden, astonishing worlds. For example, he compares Palipana's discovery of words that are not there within ancient manuscripts to the way, in wartime, color-blind people are used to spot men in camoflauge, to see their shapes rather than being deceived by their colors. This is a lovely expression-and are color-blind people used this way? If so, it seems amazing that the military has come across this perceptual insight and used it to advantage--and that Ondaatje has unearthed it and put it to this purpose. And if not, then the invention of the whole plausible chain to support this moment of transfigured perception is even more remarkable.
And the book made me want to go to Sri lanka very badly, despite the horrors (or maybe because of them, in some ways. More on that later (3.5 Stars)
Einstein's Dreams is a lovely little gem of a book. The language is lyrical and tightly compressed and in exacting service to a set of ideas--dreams about the nature of time that come to Einstein the postal clerk as he finishes his Theory of Relativity in Switzerland. (4 stars). In each of a dozen worlds, time functions in a very different way and a different world takes shape as a result--in one, there is no future--the world is always at the moment of ending; in another, the future is rigidly locked into what it will be, and people can reflect on that as it happens, but not change it. These are fascinating exercises, and the precise shape Lightman gives them a startling and resonant life--the people living in platformed houses on mountaintops in the worlds where time runs more slowly the further you are from the center of the earth--the absurd terror of the people caught in eddies of time and cast back into their own pasts--terrified that if they disturb the world in the slightest, their own worlds will be destroyed.
This is a sketchbook--these worlds are all presented in a few small pages, and then he moves on to the next and the next, and all of them echo with possibilities for our own world of time, our own experience of it, the inferences we draw about our own ambitions. In a few places, the ideas strain at the stories (the houses racing past each other in the world where time goes more slowly for those in motion), but those are few. A delightful book, and, despite the fact that it has taken me a decade to read it, only the matter of a couple of hours to read.
Friday, April 16, 2004
Catch-up! For the first time in many moons, my reading has been outpacing my time to post so here goes:
Listened to William Brodrick's The Sixth Lamentation, which was cast as a "literary thriller", but which, I am coming to understand, people mean that the writer actually cares about the language, as opposed to trying to get out of its way as much as possible. I've got nothing but praise for Brodrick's book. His language is careful and rich and lyrical, and I got grabbed by his premise: an Auschwitz survivor's health is degenerating--will she lose the ability to communicate just as the SS officer who sent her to the camps comes to trial?
The plot was intricate, and (I suspect) would have worked better for me if I had read it, rather than listened in the car--it had plenty of plausible twists, though it seemed to be a few too many at the end, and everything revealed as too tightly intertwined.
His characters were strong and their dynamics well-presented, and I surprised myself by constantly expecting the narrative to veer into the fantastical--huge Da Vinci Code style conspiracies, maybe the Ark of the Covenant, etc. But it remained in the realm of the real. 3 stars, a good, solid, well-written book with more substance than your thrillery thrillers.
And, to continue the listening front, I've been zipping through Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (4 stars? I'll wait till I finish), which is mostly thoroughly engaging scientific gossip. (That the discoverer of Uranus wanted to name the planet "George" is delightful; that it ended up named Uranus seems to be the revenge of some Lord Beavis in the pre-Butthead era). Bryson is endlessly entertaining and the book rolls along with great zest--not something one normally says of thick scientific survey books. This doesn't have the density of something like Brian Greene, but it is most definitely worth a listen or read (and it does a fine job of filling in, to cocktail party depth, your neglected understandings of a dozen fields). More to come--Cheever--journals and then his stories--don't tempt me to read the letters again also. And another stab at Anil's Ghost, which I confess at 50 pages is a little baffling in its flatness. It seems impossible to revere The English Patient in the way I do and not find more in it.
I find there are few writers (none?)for whom I like everything or even several things they write. I usually find one work of great strength and resonance, and then works that echo it with weakening intensity, or push its elements out to inhospitable hinterlands where I find the explorations lifeless. I am always suspicious of writers who advocate for the greatness of the lesser known works--it often (but not always) seems to be an attempt to show their discernment more than a genuine expression of the "lesser" work's power.
I'll have to mull on this a little, and find a way of comprehending the baffling Trollopesians who read the 50, 60, 70 books with great avidity. How does that not get tiring? Also, might be interesting to chart the majors and minors for their threads, from the obvious (Byatt's Possession to everything else by her) to the less obvious (Faulkner's Light in August to the titantic, but overhyped The Sound and the Fury or the fetishsized Absalom, Absalom; and still revising my opinions about Joyce....
Friday, April 02, 2004
And suddenly a feverish rush of excellent reading! In moments like this--where after a long dry spell of not seeing much of interest, I read two or three things in a row, and the stack of would-like-to-reads jumps back up--I am always slightly mistrustful that the change has been more in my own receptivity and attention, rather than serendipity. I feel it strongly with magazines especially--after dutifully trudging through weeks of The New Yorker and finding things of marginal interest, I thought the most recent issue was chock-a-block with good stuff (great Laurence Fishburne profile; excellent Letter from China). I remember many moons ago reading The English Patient and then Possession--I thought a whole new world of reading had opened up--where I would always have books that called out to me through the day, that I was eager to get back to. For a while I attached this feeling to the judgement of the Booker Prize judges, but The Hungry Road diabused me of that quickly (it's a worthy book, but didn't grip me).
So: Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger (4 stars) This relates Thesiger's two trips across the Empty Quarter in Southern Saudi Arabia. He travels with Bedu tribesmen (he explains that "Bedouin" is a double plural and completely wrong) and is only the second European to cross them. The most compelling part of the book for me are his reflections on the life the Bedu lead and why. He explains that they have been living essentially the same life since Ishmael (from whom they are directly descended) and that it is important for us to understand that they have chosen their life--they do not feel trapped by it, or victimized by it, despite having threadbare clothing, sleeping out in the cold all the time, often hungry or thirsty or debilitated by sickness. They believe that this life is the best there is, because it shapes them into the best people in the world--strongest, most free, noblest. They ae still greedy (and yet fantastically generous), and petty, and yet they would not change their life for anything--not from fear or lack of imagination, but from considered choice--and Thesiger agrees with them in ways both thoughtful and honest. It is certainly provoking to think about your life in terms of the person that it shapes you into, rather than what you accomplish, or what it allows you to engage in. It is also provoking to think about the freedom they enjoy--they are bound by some strong customs, but no laws, and ungoverned. This lawlessness resolves itself through a combination of their faith and the conditions of their existence in the desert (Thesiger writes well about the implications of airplanes coming to Arabia--how the Bedu could previously melt into the open desert and be safe there, where now they were completely exposed and the desert shifted from a refuge to an obstacle).
Thesiger explains that they place a great deal of importance on human dignity and very little on human life (including their own). I was struck by this since I find our own (modern? American?) lives almost hysterical in the opposite direction--to preserve life regardless of its dignity, to privilege comfort or the absence of difficulty over all other considerations. This is an especially complex area to resolve as a parent--when deciding what is worth doing to protect my children, the answer to almost any question seems to be that it is worth it. Should they wear bicycle helmets? Of course. Even on tricycles that they can barely manage to move on their own? We spend so much time thinking about consequences that we insulate ourselves from the opportunity to experience life. Should we experience hunger to understand the value of its absence? Pain? Once you are aware of possible protections, how do you disregard them freely? And not end up in your RV with your 500 supersize cupholders looking at tame buffalo out the window?
There is more in the book of great interest--the tribal relationships, the actual experiences of crossing, Theisiger's own reflections on his difficulties and why he has chosen them, and the inexorable economic pressure that the discovery of oil brought to this region (effectively ending the Bedu way of life). This last set of ideas (about how the oil wealth unbalanced the economics of trade, and technologies ended the usefulness of the camels that the Bedu have to trade) is a terrifying one in many ways because of its inevitablity and the lack of potential for either judgement or control that our appetites inflict. It does not seem that there are many opportunities for moral choices within that framework, and that the most relevant set of choices are what lives we shape within these forces (or the lives we chose to shape us). These are questions worth some time to think about.
More to come: The 6th Lamentation, John Cheever's Journals (5 stars! 5 stars!)
Saturday, March 27, 2004
With a little help from some gastro-intestinal distress, I plowed through Volume 1 of Hershel Parker's biography of Melville. This is not a book for the faint of heart, though not (as I feared it might)for densely meaningless academic writing. In fact, I was surprised by the consistent clarity of Parker's writing--given the volume of information and materials, and the potential for disastrous overwriting, it was gracefully literate and clear. The not-for-the-faint element lies in the sheer volume of information, especially in the interconnections of the social lives of the Melville clan and their movements. It was far more than I needed to know, but brought me into thinking about what it is that I seek from literary biography and how Parker's book delivered and did not against what I was looking for.
I do not have the mental constitution of a historian, of maintaining the ordered flow of facts in their dizzying complexity--I tend to read for the threads of thoughts there are meaningful for me--especially for clues about the intellectual development of writers I admire--what forces and ideas moved them, what alchemical processes brought them to their beliefs and ideas and expressions? I found this focus strong in both Richardson's bio of Emerson and in Holmes' biography of Coleridge; less of in Andrew Motion's Keats.
There is a great deal of that exploration within Parker (as there is a great deal of nearly everything). The sections, for example, on the failure of Mardi and Melville's rebounding to write Redburn and White-jacket in four months, I thought were terrific. The weight of Parker's detail does accumulate (even in my dense brain), into a sense of the forces around Melville, of the texture of the time--of what it felt like for him to be trying to write ambitious books while the world around him rewarded some elements of his work and denigrated others.
And it was interesting to see Moby-Dick emerge as a part of the succession of his writings. I have only read a little of Melville-- Moby-Dick and some of his shorter work--Billy Budd and Bartleby, so I didn't have the context of Typee or Omoo. Parker also does a good job of drawing in Melville's relationship with Hawthorne as Moby-Dick comes into focus--their relationship is an intense one--fueled by only a few meetings but drawing out significant resonance for both writers.
Parker leaves us, after 880 pages, on a real cliff ("Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville's life."). I can feel the waves of schadenfreude building, even as I let this thud to the table. This is an exhaustive book, and you can feel Parker's relish in drawing its thousands of threads together. For my own interests, I needed less range and more focus, though I don't feel I can fault the book for that (Please make the writers do more of my work for me so I don't need to be as careful a reader....), and I have not decided whether to press through the other 900 odd pages of Volume Two, though leaving Melville happy seems both cruel and wrong. I am awed by the work of pulling this behemoth together (though I have resisted whale jokes and puns throughout) and have found the end product rich and heavy, though more historical than I have the appetite to absorb: 3.5 stars
Saturday, February 28, 2004
As I was reading Hopscotch, I imagined that I would be writing about it for weeks here--quoting passages, drawing out ideas, reflecting on the structure, etc. But as I have moved past it, it has faded rather than risen. It has lost some of its blood and muscle and seemed more like the kind of philosophic presentation that I would have sucked in as a student--it seems more and more like an exercise about life than life itself. Though that is not fair to it--there is great life in it--but it is tipping in memory more in the direction of lifelessness, of a product of its time in its presentation of absurdity. Before it faded completely, however, I wanted to capture some of that life and not damn it forever with my faint praises.
This, for instance, is a wonderful description of Adam at the moment of the Fall:
"He covers his face to protect his vision, what had been his; he preserves in that small manual night the last landscape of his paradise. And he cries (because the gesture is also one that accompanies weeping) when he realizes that it is useless, that the real punishment is the one about to begin: the forgetting of Eden, that is to say, bovine conformity, the cheap and dirty joy of work and sweat of the brow and paid vacations.
That idea in itself is worthy of a novel or two: that the punishment is the forgetting of Eden and the desperation of Adam to hold it back from darkness through darkness--I think of some last trace of light held in the physical space of his eye--the most infinitesimal flash of paradise--could you ever be persuaded to open your eye again? It brings to mind a line which (weak memory) comes from Lawrence, I believe--that there are many lights worse than the darkness.
And with that Hopscotch will return to the shelves, a significantly better great book than memory is currently treating it.
The late days of the book tour have involved more driving and less flying (which is a relief), and that has meant more time for listening and less for reading, and with that the interesting alchemy of finishing up two books at the same time.
First, I read Brian Hall's I Should be Extremely Happy in your Company, about Lewis and Clark, which I liked a great deal (4 stars). Hall's is a remarkable book--he does something in it that seems like it should be straightforward, but in the experience of reading comes to feel radical, experimental even, and I think he pulls it off. The book is composed of different voices--Lewis's, Clark's, Sacagawea's and her husband Charbonneau's, and, briefly, Washington Irving's. There is no straightforward exposition, no clear action. Instead, the book is composed entirely through reaction, response and reflection--the same event layered over from different perspectives and because each voice has its own spellings for names, or different expressions for the same phenomena, the work of reading it creates sets of small mysteries that demand working through--where are we in time? Are the sun-men indians or white men? And the work of this layering creates an confusing, but rich narrative that draws us away from the action and into the interior of the characters. It took a while to give myself over to it as I read--wanting (and expecting) a clear narrative and forced to backtrack and unravel and puzzle over while the sweep of the grand adventure went past. In fact that may be the most radical experiment in the novel--that Hall never lets the story rest on the great adventure of the expedition, but always keeps it swirled up in reaction--Lewis puzzling over how to write about the feeling of finding the series of falls at the head of the Missouri, rather than seeing and reacting. In this I Should has more in common with a book like The Hours than it does an adventure with depths, like Cold Mountain. This is a daring act, and the imaginative richness to carry their characters out into sensibility, and then language is dazzling (I found sacagawea's language very successful in this regard; Charbonneau's less successful). I think in taking a "big" story and turning away from it so vigorously into character Hall's book is surprising and delightful.
One other seemingly obvious, but very radical thing Hall does is that he presents the whole vulgar underside of being human in striaghtforward language and without blinking--shitting, fucking, veneral disease, cocks and cunts in a way that manages not to shock despite its steady presence, which is true to our experience and certainly to that of Lewis and Clark, but usually utterly absent--certainly in adventure literature and in most writing in general. At one of my readings, a woman said she kept wondering how my characters went to the bathroom when it was so cold all the time and I confessed that I had very little idea--it being so seldom mentioned in all of the literature I had read.
Second, I listened to Cold Mountain(4.5 stars), a book I had been avoiding for a while both because my book got lumped with it (as about Civil War deserters), and because its incredible success made me wary. On both fronts I was profoundly humbled--I think it is a tremendous book--rich and beautifully written and full in a way that makes me feel the poverty of my own understandings and experiences. I nearly stopped listening to it half-way through, but I had a long stretch of driving coming up and didn't want to turn away from it for so long, and had found Frazier's voice a wonderful complement to the language. Frazier's book is not sophisticated in the way Hall's is, and lacks its nuance. In its place it has a baroque complexity built up in the old-fashioned way--through compelling (and not overwhelming) detail, language that draws heavily (and believably) on locutions not our own, and through the interleaved stories of the major and minor characters (Veasey's, the Goat Woman's, Stobrod's). The stories are rich and varied and brutal and nuanced. Some other readers have found the book too freighted with symbolism, or leaning too hard on the Odyssey, but I did not. Cold Mountain deserves the praise that has been heaped on it (and that, from my contrarian and curmudgeonly heart, is high and humble praise).
Reading books like these brings to light the insufficiency of my own tools for writing--the paucity of my vocabulary, the halting steps of my imagination, my impatience with research, the unevenness of my attentions. I read back through a short story I wrote in college to see if it was worth rescuing and found in the comments of my professor much good advice that I wish I had drawn into the writing of The Rope Eater. And in those thoughts I saw the distance to new good writing, to actually coming to finish another novel that I thought was good--and at the same time being inspired by seeing such successful books--and I saw the arc, vanishing into years (two years? hopefully less than 6?), of the work with no clear vision of what it would yield, only the hope that the investment of that time would bear the fruits I am ambitious for. It is an odd process, to mute the internal judgment enough to allow the growth that work will bring--the vision not of the final object but, more simply, that the work of pursuing it will develop the vision as it brings the capability to realize it. This is a faint whispering around which to build a life and yet it doesn't ever fade into quiet--and thank god for that.
Saturday, February 14, 2004
Yet another mighty beast has fallen, at long last. In between the tour events and work, I polished off Hopscotch, and via the iPod, His Dark Materials as well. So, Hopscotch: let me begin by not damning with faint praise. This is a terrific, remarkable book. Cortazar writes beautifullly, even in translation and his book is a rich, profound, profuse one. 5 stars, and (pending some more digestion), maybe one of the finest novels of the last fifty years. No faint praise indeed--let me lay out my case and you'll be able to see the maybe as well as the praise.
First, and most obviously and famously, the book is a bold structural experiment. You read the first 56 chapters straight through (349 pages out of 564). Then you skip to chapter 73 and follow a sequence of chapters that takes you back through much of the book you have already read (73-1-2-116-3-84-4 and so on). Two things happen as you do this. First, you reread most of the book. As I rarely reread books, this was an interesting exercise, especially as the ending casts the early events of the book in a very different light, and different elements emerge, you respond to various characters in new ways. Second, Cortazar uses the supplemental chapters to subtly redirect the narrative, to add elements that are vague or absent in the straight-through reading, so the story takes on new layers and directions. For example, in the direct narrative, the protagonist, a intellectual named Oliveira comes upon a car accident. An old man has been struck by a car and is headed to the hospital, and Oliveira reflects on how that draws everyone out of their confined and isolated social selves and lets them talk freely to strangers. He thinks about visiting the old man in the hospital but lets the matter drop. At the same time, there are short chapters that contain quotations from a writer Oliveira admires, an Italian named Morelli (who is presented as if he might be a real writer rather than a fictive one). In the hopscotched reading, we find out that the old man is Morelli, and Oliveira visits him. He is given the task to sort through Morelli's papers and that is the source of all of the quotations. You can feel the contrivance as you read, and yet it works--curiousity about how the pieces will hang together mixes with interest in the story and the two parts blend into a suprised admiration as this odd and obvious structure draws you in.
This is not the only obvious structural contrivance that works. In one of the chapters, Cortazar combines two narratives by alternating the lines of them in the text. He does this without warning and only a very slight visual cue, so the experience is a jarring and baffling one:
IN September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
AND the things she reads,a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez who standing was as solvent
like this. To think she's spent hours on end reading tasteless....
As you can see it is tough to read--our eyes are trained to drop from one line to the next, so the process is reading is one of stopping, backing up, reconnecting to the thread and moving gingerly forward again. The contrivance is always there, impeding your ability to understand the text and intruding on the flow of the reading, and yet it too is successful--forcing you to bring a different kind of attention to the voices and the interplay of their concerns and preoccupations and then drawing them together at the end.
These are not idle accomplishments, and I can imagine this sort of textual experimentation going horribly wrong in a thousand contrived "experimental" stories. But Cortazar manages (mostly) to have the contrivances serve the story, and his sophisticated understanding of the reading process and its demands on our attentions is masterful. So, there is part one in a series about why this maddening book is great. More to come.
As I was fighting my way to the finish of it, I got drawn into listening to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which I also thought was excellent--4.5 stars. Its strengths are the fully realized ambitions of it (a war between "heaven" and the forces of rebellion spanning millions of worlds that includes the death of God and an entire alternate theology is gnostic in its basic structure, as well as a brutal assault on the villany of organized religions) and its coherent imaginative force. Pullman is grounded in Milton and Blake (LOVE them) and weaves their thinking into a ripping story with so many great inventions (the bears, how daemons work, Dust) that I listened to it feeling both craven and dull. Really excellent.
And for today, enough, but much stored up from traveling, so stay tuned.
Saturday, January 24, 2004
So this is the sort of endorsement I would like to read more of:
"Anyone who doesn't read Cortazar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder . . . and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair."
And, yes, that means I am still working through Hopscotch, which is both tremendous and--in the middle of the chaos of work and the tour--interminable. It is certainly great, and will be fodder for several of these entries, but it is far beyond the scattered hours I have here and there to give it.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
So I'm out on tour (in and out)--I've been in New York, Atlanta, DC, Keene, Peterborough and back to NYC in the last weekend and it has certainly been whirlwindy. I've been doing a combination of school visits during the days and readings during the evenings. On both fronts the most striking aspect of the experience has been the thrilling generousity of my friends--out in the freezing cold on a weeknight, and dragging their friends out, and everyone responding with great interest and warmth to the book. I've had an odd time balancing the teaching (all at high schools) with the readings to adults. For students, I have a very clear sense of what they know and don't know, and what they might be interested in and thinking about. For adults, I have no idea. I finished my reading in Peterborough and one woman said "that is appalling" and for a terrified moment I had no idea whether she meant the writing (naturally my first thought), or the content, and whether she was saying that as an accusation or as a compliment (the section is gruesome and awful and meant to appall, and she took it how I hoped, but I did sweat it for a moment).
Some other tour notes: two unrelated people at different readings commented on the same passage, one that I liked a great deal, but didn't think of as so distinctive that I should read it aloud. Another person came up and showed me passages she had highlighted--that was a great thing--great to see what moved her.
I had a moment prior to my reading in the Georgetown Barnes and Noble--I was sitting in the cafe, trying to be nonchalant, waiting (and hoping) for the massive crowds to gather and in an attempt to calm down, I looked at what people were reading--at the man carrying the digital photography magazine down the escalator, or the young man reading about how to get his baby to sleep through the night (who was soon joined by his wife, carrying a HUGE cup of coffee). Next to me was a man with a stack of WWII history books that he clutched with an unsettling ferocity. And I was struck in that moment as I was urgently hoping for people to come to the reading, and to be thrilled by it, and have their lives transformed by reading the book (just some little hopes)--I was struck by the vectors of these lives, by the range of what people are reading for--entertainment, self-betterment, rescue, curiousity, escape, release, distraction. And suddenly the gap between what I had hoped and intended--to write a book that would draw people in and, hopefully, move them--and reality seemed impossibly huge. Of the few people that even make it into the bookstores, few are looking to dig into dense fiction and be moved by it, and of those, few likely to try out an unknown writer, and of those, fewer still likely to have that writer be me and the book be mine out of so many that are written and have been written. And this even in a store where I was reading, where I had gotten an amazing review, where there was a poster of me on the wall of the store and a big stack of books on the table. This was brought home to me this Sunday, when I went into two large chains and scrabbled through the dusty corners to find copies of my book. Though I was still glad to find them at both stores, the vast unlikelihood of selling a significant number of books settled in with a dizzying obviousness.
The DC reading went well--complete with the obligatory question from a homeless man in the back--he observed first that my character would not suffer so much if he had found OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, and then asked me why he hadn't. Which was actually not an inappropriate question in some ways. All of the other warnings about readings have not materialized so far--I have had attentive groups at all of them and in a few cases huge crowds (thank you Dan and Elizabeth--thank you thank you thank you).
It is not hard to remain thrilled with how the book has been received--the reviews, the response of friends, and the response of strangers. At the same time, it is not hard to feel the difficult distance between this reception and the possibility of a life built more around writing. I think a writing life is a mythic beast--not nonexistent, but, like a happy marriage, often so well-disguised as to be difficult to recognize in the middle of it. And around this is envy--for more established writers, or for people to whom the actual writing seems to come easier--and a little despair at not being able to work amid the travel and focus on this book.
But mostly it is joyful. It is joyful to feel a thousand nervous assumptions validated, to have moved some people--if not the man with the colicky baby, or the digital camera enthusiast, than the woman who had not imagined icebergs filled with colors, or Lou in Seattle, who sent me a copy to be signed, or the people who could not make the readings, but have asked the bookstore staff to get a signed copy. This is immensely flattering on the shallow end, and immensely fulfilling on the deeper end and it makes me want to stay out on the road reading, and rush home to work at the same time.
Saturday, January 03, 2004
The Rope Eater is, as they say, in stores now and I could pretend some sort of aloofness, but it is completely thrilling. Six years of writing on and off (and its constant witherings and resurgences), two years of editing and waiting (mostly waiting), and here we are. Annie Dillard writes well about the fact that no one is ever waiting for a novel--that it could simply not come into being and no one would notice--an observation that persisted stubbornly when I was not making progress on it.
The reviews have been generous and thoughtful, and the response from a range of readers has been great (if you have read it and have thoughts, let me know). The most surprising and compelling part of this time has been the combination of remoteness and intimacy. Writing is such an intimate process--following your own instincts, daring or not to lay out your reflections and ideas, imagining how readers with react to this or that and the steady undercurrent of imagining the book, and yourself, judged as a result of these thousands of solitary decisions; and now it is out there in the world, striking people, or not, moving them, or not. I still somehow do not believe that anyone can read it unless I have placed it in their hands myself and looked them in the eye. And yet I have gotten some wonderful notes from readers (strangers!), who have engaged with the book thoughtfully and deeply, and have responded to things as I hoped they might--or in their own ways that I had not foreseen. And yet they are still in all other ways strangers--so you write back with gratitude, with no idea really what they might be like--what they think and need--what they brought to the book and books and reading, and everything else in the bigger, broader world. It is an odd connection, at once very close and completely anonymous.
I am sure if I were a journalist, or had spent years cranking out short stories, this would just be old hat, and I would have polished up my "author" self in an MFA program and know the postures and speeches. But it feels delightfully new and strange to me, so thank you, anyone who chooses to read the book, and feel free to let me know what you think.
Friday, November 28, 2003
With the end of one book and the start of the next, a new pattern from within my own reading: novels set in cities where I lived. I just finished Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, although it hasn't settled into its final shape in my mind yet (most likely 4 stars, regardless). The first section, covering Dylan Ebdus' childhood in Brooklyn, is spectacular--the language is rich, surprising and precise (anger like "a cloud of hammers"). The flow of events is seamless and engaging and the progression is rich with possibilities. I actually started listening to the book, but switched over to the paper book because I liked it so much.
The book veered sharply in the second half, as the grown Dylan works through what he is and looks at the gap, and back to his childhood to figure it out. This became more of a muddle, but I have yet to see what of the muddle is part of the being-an-adult muddle, of depicting and working through the complexity of his world (which is still very well done, though it offers few of the consolatory joys of his childhood). But there were elements that I haven't gotten around yet--a deep well of anger, and stagnation, that is tied to the childhood, but does not seem driven by the major events--the shooting, for example--but by the minor ones--all the yoking. When Lethem drops into Mingus Rude, and you see his progress and descent, it is, again, spectacular. And yet, and yet--something in the structure of the second half of the book was unsatisfying, and it has not resolved into either a disappointing element of the book, or some finely crafted and intentional communication that I have been too dense to receive. So we wait...
And then I started Hopscotch, which may have gotten the most gushing reviews/endorsements of any book ever in history. The initial portion is set in Paris, and the familiar street names have caused a rush of desire to be back--to move back and never leave, to smoke cigarettes and sketch and drink too much--I feel woefully locked in my child-rearing, and workaday schedules, and the limits of my walks to the limited Vermont woods--where that kind of managing a life feels like cowardice, like holding the world at a distance rather than waging war with it.
The book is lovely and difficult so far, and mature in way that suddenly makes the rash of recent American books I have been reading seem like the work of precocious adolescents--like the suddenly simple (and easy-to-cliche) idea of sex as a pleasure. I can't think of an American book where people have sex but do not love each other and it is not some form of clandestine rape, or the sign of deep wounding, or submerged struggles for power--just pleasure. It is too easy to say Americans are all priggish children and the Europeans grown up, but still.
The diffilcult reminds me of other books in translation--and I'm trying to gauge whether it is mostly difficult books get translated, or the translation makes them more difficult than they otherwise would be, or those are the works I am drawn to in translation. It reminds me (so far--40 of almost 600 dense pages) of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony--another enjoyable struggle in translation. I had a moment of happy dread as I looked at the 600 pages-ness of it and thought about how much of it was going to lead to hard-won understandings, and how much was going to be dust-gathering on the nightstand, and then a girding and soldiering on.
In thinking about this, I also thought some about flash of light novels--I am thinking of Life of Pi here, but also The Red and The Black--long books where events pile up, moving ahead to be sure, but not in any revelatory way, until a singular shift--the flash of light--that casts the shadows in a completely different direction, and raises an entirely new book from the familiar material. This is a risky structure and (I'll confess) while I admire some of these (those two, certainly), I do not find them as great as others. I suspect this may have something to do with the actual less-than-enjoyable hours spent digesting the events so that the light can flash and the new shape be revealed. Hopscotch has not shown its colors yet, though some of the writing is lovely:
I never took you to have Madame Leonie read your palm, probably because I was afraid that she would read some truth about me in your hand, because you have always been a frightful mirror, a monstrous instrument of repetitions, and what had been called loving was perhaps my standing in front of you holding a yellow flower while you held two green candles and a slow rain of renunciations and farewells and Metro tickets blew into our faces.
Saturday, November 22, 2003
Surely joy is the condition of life.
The line is Thoreau’s, and it has been echoing in my head for these weeks since I finished the Emerson. I don’t know its context—3 steps removed from it, but that has added to its resonance for me. Is it a prayer? An affirmation? A complaint? It seems to shift with the light for me from one to the other of these—as prayer, pointing to the gap between the real and the ideal as a means of drawing the ideal closer; as affirmation (which, given Thoreau’s often vigorous and hopeful language—as often at odds with his difficult problematic and fragrant self, I think is likely), proclaiming his confidence in something that, as experienced, is at best sporadically true—and yet, as the moments of existence when life—Life—is happening, it is perhaps true. Or perhaps it is my own limitations that prevent me from seeing the Joy that is life in its fullness and richness, all of its edges forming beauty rather than incompleteness. This is an easier thing to assert than to feel. Finally, the complaint—despairing rather than hoping at the gap between the ideal and the real (that there is despair behind the act of praying, or not far from it is a thought to chase another time).
I have been much pre-occupied with joy lately—not feeling it and feeling its lack, pursuing it and mulling it in intellectual ways while feeling baffled at how to let it draw near. I feel closed off from it, discreet from it—I can see the elements that could send it coursing through me—the sky filled with geese, taking long minutes to pass over in ungainly rows—and their flight looks clumsy and somewhat desperate, fleeing more than seeking.
I have little children—offered up as great sources of joy—ready, inexhaustible supplies, as they discover the world and themselves in it. And I love them and take pride in and am curious about their progress. My older daughter is just learning to read—picking out words, recognizing more and more every day—then reading whole, simple books by herself, and listening to long chapters of Roald Dahl and Harry Potter and not just letting the words wash over her, but engaged and understanding. My younger is just
And yet…and yet…I feel held back from it—skittish—skittish to the point where I can’t get away from the word—can’t move past it into a more substantive understanding of where I am in relation to the world. I can imagine it in an intellectual sense, and scheme about it—have ambitions for it—and doubts and dread and hope. But am in some essential sense unmoored to it—I cannot feel my way into it, nor imagine how it is I will feel about events that are only a few moments away—some part of me sits back and takes note that I do not know and is puzzled by it—that small and skittish piece fills it with speculation about what might or might not come to pass, and then is barely able to take in whatever my feeling about it is. It is profoundly odd to stand so obliquely to my self, and despite my skittish grasping, it seems to be a time to rest in this jittery darkness to myself to see what growth will come of it—to rest listening and aware, to take solace in the unfelt, intellectual apprehension that the growth will come—this is not faith, but a lack of options—this may be prayer, however—may be complaint sliding into prayer and despair, and hope, at least, if not faith.
Outside the sun blazes up as an indictment—I feel the world always throwing its blessings at me, and my own insufficiencies pushing them off.
Saturday, October 25, 2003
The hectic travel of the fall has been good for getting some reading done. I have most recently been reading current or recent books (even as Russell's History of Western Philosophy glowers from the nightstand). There is a reductive school of the novel which constrains the proper form of the novel into one thing: a cleanly written and carefully observed study of realistic characters interacting and, through that interaction, developing, learning, and changing, hopefully for the better. I do not mean to be reductive about this type of novel--there are many excellent novels that fit this description, but they are not the only fruit. And, somewhat oddly, I think, a significant amount of criticism is leveled at books that are ambitious to depart from this model. Novels that are wholly fantastical, or allegorical, or are stylistic experiments, can sometimes be judged on their own terms, but those that present the semblance of obeying these conventions and then depart seem to be regarded with suspicion. I think of books like The Dive from Clausen's Pier or The Hazards of Good Breeding as good examples of successful character-driven novels, or Wallace Stegner, or Penelope Fitzgerald. And successful non-character driven novels--the titanic modernists--Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, or Italo Calvino, or Saramago or Jeanette Winterson--forge their own space. Their success is in using something outside of character dynamics to illuminate fundamental human truths--they find a different way of telling the truth.
So recently I have been reading (not intentionally as a type), character-plus novels--largely character driven, closely observed, but with some additional element that is pulling against the realistic frame. They are both best-sellers, so they are hardly experimental or difficult, and neither has been pummeled for this shiftiness at the edges.
For Peace like a River by Leif Enger, (3 stars) the outside element is the straightforward presentation of miracles as real events offered without apology as events in the narrative like others. It helps, of course, that the writing itself is excellent--clear and sustained and evocative; the characters tangible and coherent, the plot peculiar in a realistic way and the whole thing sweeping briskly along. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise at all--it is an excellent book and I enjoyed reading it, and would certainly feel comfortable recommending it, but it was not astonishing, and I think more and more that I am craving astonishment from my reading--the books that yank you around and shove your face into the world and hold your eyes open to it. I'm not sure character-driven books will ever achieve this for me--as I read them I feel the frame around them and some part of me ceases to pay attention--maybe there is something in the ambition of it, or something in my own internal over-intellectualized prattling that holds me back from being moved by these types of books. It seems, somehow, like a different kind of reading, moving out on the spectrum towards reading to be entertained--in the direction of mysteries, or thrillers. Even the ones I really like (and I like the ones all mentioned above), I like in this more limited way--as good for this type of book, and I think Enger's book, for all of its accomplishment, does not reach escape velocity.
The second book, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is a different case for two reasons. First, it is less realistic--haddon's presentation of the rigidly logical perspective of an autistic boy is further removed from the realistic than Enger's. Second, as the parent of an autistic child, I have more personally at stake in the realism that he is pursuing through his experiment in voice and perspective. I think Haddon is quite successful at rendering this world not just coherent (which is not trifling), but charming, and sympathetic in its coherence--connecting enough to our own structures of order and our own reactions to bring it to life. And, perhaps best, his is able to use the flatness of the narrator's tone within a set of highly unusual observations and decisions to create striking warmth and emotional struggle. As with anything trying something this hard, there are a few clangers, but they slip past without jarring. It is, overall, a slight book, but with real force and unexpected power in it. 3.5 stars
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Recently finished a magnificent book--a simply magnificent book: Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. 5 stars and then some. There are many excellent things about this book; here are a few:
1. Richardson does an amazing job of presenting the intellectual interplay between Emerson's reading and his own intellectual development--not just in the blunt tacking of he-read-this-and-now!, but in picking up threads as they re-emerge years later--in tracing the influence of Persian poetry on Emerson's religious conceptions, for example. The biography was originally intended to be a reading history--focused on this element of Emerson's intellectual development, and that remains a real strength. Richardson has a tremendous sensitivity and clarity about what strains come in where, and how different elements combine, are transformed or subsumed, and then re-emerge.
2. He does an excellent job of introducing and reiterating the impact of the human elements of his life--his second wife's persistent illness, or his brother's relentless indebtedness, for example. He has a deft touch in establishing them, and then raising them again to demonstrate their ongoing impact on Emerson's view of the world. Emerson emerges as profoundly human--working, struggling, doubting. His triumphs are more triumphant and his losses more devasting than I have found them in other biographies. I think there is a special danger in Emerson of seeing him as a cheerleader--in reading his aphorisms as glossing over the darker or more complex aspects of moving through the world because they are so compressed. Richardson draws Emerson out from this compression and reinvigorates much of the prose that we (I) have read a thousand times.
3. He also does an excellent job in drawing other writers into service--not just in quoting writers Emerson was reading to show us what moved Emerson, but in quoting writers who have ably expressed ideas that help us understand the point Richardson is making about Emerson. This is a special pleasure, because it opens out new areas of interest, while clarifying and extending what Richardson has to say--this is a world above most biography. For example, late in the book, Richardson quotes Henry James on an awareness that Emerson was develpoing about the fundamental nature of man:
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths—the depths of an essential dearth in whichs its subject's roots are plunged. . . . The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters
Not just Emerson's writings, nor his readings, but other writer's with eloquence to bear on our understanding what Emerson is going through. 5 stars? Not enough...
4. Richardson's own writing is usually crisp and unmuddled by jargon, clear while managing great complexity and nuance, and in some places it rises to a sublime level, like this:
The personal consequence of such perceptions was an almost intolerable awareness that every morning began with infinite promise. Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken. Anything that has ever been possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning. On a day no different than the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet and Fuller began her history the Roman Revolution of 1848. Each of us has all the time there is; each accepts those invitations he can discern. By the same token, each evening brings a reckoning of infinite regret for the paths refused, openings not seen, and actions not taken.
This is the stuff--worth a read and a re-read and hoarding a copy and dogearing and marginal scrawling.
Here it is.
Saturday, September 13, 2003
Guilty pleasure alert--as I've started listening to more audiobooks, my old Puritan kicks in and snorts dismissively--somehow it's better in that dark corner of my own mind to listen to another near-naked 14-year-old bleating out overproduced synth-pop, than trying to take in a reasonably good book either over the radio or iPod. For a while I rested on the wobbly fence of listening to less literary works (DaVinci Code OK, Bleak House, Not OK). Then just poetry on the serious side, then things go muddy. So I tried Life of Pi, a book I was vaguely suspicious of for some reason not clear to me. But after a friend raved, and said it reminded her of my own writing, some mix of envy and vanity and curiousity drew me in.
One of the problems with audiobooks is that a poor reader can really damage your enjoyment of the book, and I don't think the Life of Pi reader was a great one (though not as terrible as the dismal French accents of Dan Brown's reader--I guess there are only so many Jim Dales).
The book started off with great promise--the passages described how he got his name and his nickname were terrific--taut and funny and bright--as were the zoo information about animal behavior, running a zoo, and animal training. I was finding excuses to take walks with the iPod and volounteering to run errands for a few minutes in the car.
But the religious studies section of the book, where he decides to become Christian, Muslim and Hindu was terrible, I thought. Over-long and not particularly rich, or particularly clever. I dragged through it, hoping that it would cleverly turn into something that was genuinely profound, or deal with the overlapping elements of the different religions in a substantive and complex way, but it did not (and, as you will see below, even the eventual turn of the narrative that redeemed the book for me did not redeem this section).
The shipwreck, death of the animals and taming of Richard Parker were all solid and often much better--especially the process of understanding that he needed to tame the tiger to survive, and the process of doing so. Through all of this, I had in the back of my mind the nagging questions of what my friend (a trusted one, and a good reader) had seen in this that reminded her of my own work.) I had heard enough about the book ahead of time to be on the watch for allegory--a form I usually like, but had not seen it yet--I was fearful of some overdrawn hindu/muslim/christian animal symbolism, which, fortunately, did not develop.
As the book turned to survival and starvation, I began to see more resemblances--my own book features starvation, cannibalism, going blind, and other unhappy accidents, and mostly without the leavening of the humor in Life of Pi. The fantastical island of algae was quite good, but it ended abruptly and somewhat implasuibly, and the book fell off precipitously--the flat remainder of the trip (most of the Pacific) and the odd, supposed-to-be-funny conversations with the Japanese men.
Redemption did arrive, and in so unexpected a fashion and so completely, that I was irritated that it worked so well, and that I was forced to concede so much more value in a book that I had, for long stretches, not particularly enjoyed reading--err--listening (here's where the guilt comes in).
So I'm left with this odd conflicted feeling--the book has done something remarkable and within that has some real originality and sparkle, but it is certainly uneven, and it is flat for long stretches (and it is that, in part, that I think reminds my friend of my own work which--I hope--has these same flaws, if it has virtues). So: 4 and 2 stars in measure, rather than the milquetoasty 3. I think also that the book has so many threads in it that his next book could make this one seem much better or much worse as different strains of his own exploration come out in it.
Thursday, August 21, 2003
Banged out The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson, which was disappointing (1 star). It is a decorated design book--a novel version of the Griffin and Sabine books, and I had high hopes for the premise: a woman travelling in Morocco has a map mysteriously begin to appear on her arm. It spreads and hints at a journey she needs to make, and hints at a train of others drawn into the same journey. She disappears and her companion tries to track her down. Sounds interesting, right? And it was lovely--scrawled notes, old maps, serene black and white photography, elegant design. The problem was that it never went anywhere, and there was not enough substance within the elements to give the story a center. The design elements decorated rather than contributed to the story, and the writing itself was slight with occasional lumps of sudden change. I felt set up for a sequel. The evanesence of the original Griffin and Sabine was charming--and the more intense design there took some of the load off it being meaningful--its whimsy felt appropriate, where here it feels unsatisfying. I think there is still real potential for an amazing book of this sort (and maybe Barbara Hodgson will produce it), but this is not that book.
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Titus is dead! Not the whole 1000+ page monstrosity, but at least the first installment Titus Groan, and I give it 3.5 stars. It is a book of magnificent virtues and bad vices. (That it felt simultaneously like I would never finish and that it was too good to abandon may give you some sense of its contradictory nature.) First, the virtues: the names are as entertaining as anyone's since Dickens and maybe more so--Flay and Swelter the servant arch-enemies, Rottcodd, Barquentine, Gormenghast, Nannie Slagg, etc. And Peake writes amazing set piece descriptions of the architecture and atmospherics, especially of the castle in different weathers. His language is rich, dense and precise (he finds infinite ways to say that things are dark and gloomy--I found myself going back to see if the descriptions were repetitive and they were not, though he does overuse "momently" .
He also has an amazing imagination for tracing out the quirks of character into marvelous visions of how the inhabitants of Gormenghast might live--Gertrude trailed by her snowy serpent of white cats, Flay sleeping for years on the dark floor outside his master's bedroom, the undulant flesh of Swelter moving through the air.
At the same time, the plot moves glacially, and there is so much rich description that I found myself skimming ahead, and then forcing myself back--like I was eating a much-too-big steak that was delicious, but making me sick. And unlike other writers of this density (like Proust), Peake's accomplishments are more technical than substantive. His book is full of marvels and I admire him, but do not find myself moved by the book, and, other than envy, do not find myself stirred by its accomplishments. I am relieved to put it aside (for now), but to know that it sits there, ready to rebuke me when my own imagination feels confined by the dreary sameness of delicately sketched oblique family dramas and thinly veiled autobiographies of vaguely disaffected and over-clever "writer" writers--and that is a noble charge....
Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Waterland it was (4 stars). Graham Swift does a bunch of things right in this: choosing a rich odd world and looking at it from a range of interesting and lovely angles, draws a great range of sharp characters, and handles some awful and violent content with great delicacy. I did find a few moments (in descriptions of the land and water, or the eels, where I had the feeling I had read the same thing earlier in the book ,). One of the best parts of the book was the combination of structure and pacing that takes over in the second half of the book--he draws you into several narratives simultaneously and then skips from one to the next, leaving each hanging, but blunting your potential frustration by casting you into another, equally absorbing story. It is one thing to be drawn into a story and be unable to put it down, and quite another (feat!) to be able to be drawn into 4 or so at the same time (Who is the father? Where is the baby? Will he kill his brother? Is she completely insane? Will they reconcile somehow?)
I picked up Waterland because all of the reviews of The Light of Day referred to it in such glowing terms, so I figured I'd start there and go on to The Light of Day if it was all it was purported to be. It's certainly an excellent book and worthy of its praise--still haven't gone on, however, with another 200+ pages of Titus Groan left, and four other books lingering, I feel a little trapped by the worthy for the lack of the essential--nothing now is pushing itself forward with that urgency that makes it loom up, and other books diminish behind it.
Monday, June 30, 2003
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful feedback and support. The book has been so long in the pipeline that it can get difficult to talk about (One of my friend's came up and apologized for not having read it yet and was relieved to hear that it wouldn't be in bookstores for another 6 months). The steadiest advice I've been given about it is to ignore it and get on with the next and the next after that. Then, when the book is roundly ignored, you'll hardly even notice...
I've been moving slowly through Titus Groan, the first novel in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It is a baroque amalgamation of wild character description, wry humor and absurd melodrama--it is so richly (and oddly) drawn that it really is a thing unto itself. I find myself reading and shaking my head slightly at its over-the-topness, and then I hit a line or image that is very lovely and entirely consistent to this world. Still, getting through it feels a bit like a punishment (especially after Hardy), though I take the fault for that squarely on my own shoulders.
Which brings me to the two schools of unenjoyable book-reading thought: finish, no matter what the cost, or stop when you've had enough and move on to something you like. I have long inhabited the former--and suffered through many loooong and mediocre books. But I've also weather the rough spots into some compelling reading (see Victorians, below). Lately, I've been less inclined to grind my way through--not because of some sense that the books are stacking up and I need to get through them before I knock off (though Milton was said, in his day, to have read every book there was-and he was rumored to be the last person to have done so. Many fewer books, but a worthy accomplishment nonetheless. I don't like not finishing books--I feel horribly guilty and shallow--even if the book is a potboiler (though I've learned to not even tempt the plotty doorstops like Ludlum's any more). Now, with four books drifting around my desk in varying states of inattention, I'm trying to get through the Peake to free myself up for something else (Graham Swift's Waterland? Jose Saramago's The Cave?) Onward...
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
I have, despite all appearances here, actually read a book or two since February--though I have been reading a disgraceful number of magazines as well. I think we have exceeded our subscription threshold, and we need to start putting them into rotation. We're currently getting The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, Vanity Fair, Brick, The Atlantic, Book and the New York Observer. Throw in the Times more Sundays than not and I begin to see why I've got three or four started-and-waiting books sitting on the desk.
I did finish Far From the Madding Crowd.--4 stars
The opening chapters of this book surprised me some with a number of lovely, sharply observed moments--much more modern in their feel than Victorian. Then I bogged for a while in the set of conventions around people slowly getting trapped as a result of never having had an emotion in their lives (perhaps this had more resonance for them, but I find it both tired and unconvincing. But the playing out of the molasses trap, once sprung, was very moving. I was expecting more density of vocabulary from Hardy, given his poetry, and was a little surprised to find the too-long scenes of the yeomen gabbing in the pub. (this, again, perhaps more shocking in its own time, but now lacking real resonance.)
But, like The Red and the Black, the ending is suddenly modern and fresh, especially after the 300 pages of lulling. My patience may have been somewhat addled by the wave of magazines; I think I'll need another six months before grappling with another of the Vics--I did pull out Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, but it went back up on the shelf after the move.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Saturday, February 01, 2003
With many moons passing since my last entry, I thought it time to venture back in. The editing has finished, the book has headed into production, and I received my first blurb (is there a nicer word for this? There must be, but I've never heard it.) It came from Jeffery Lent, Author of In the Fall and the excellent Lost Nation. (In the Fall might well be excellent also, but I haven't read it):
Advance Praise for The Rope Eater by Ben Jones
“With The Rope Eater, Ben Jones has produced not simply a novel but an entire world both fabulous and mythic, a world rendered in prose both stark and lovely as the landscape and characters within. Although set in the not-so-distant past, this account of the dreams and harsh realities of humanity serves as a clearly distinct fable for our times. I cannot recommend The Rope Eater more strongly – Ben Jones enters the ranks as a storyteller of first note.”
– Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
This is immensely wonderful and thrilling (he also noted in a letter to my editor that I was not someone he'd want to go camping with, which I think is very funny--especially if you'ver read Lost Nation--I don't think either of us will draw many camping companions for our fiction).
I've started working on other projects also, but neither of them is baked enough to begin to share, so I thought I'd steal an idea from Tracy Chevalier's web site, and keep a running list of what I've been reading and a simple rating, with notes if the spirit moves me. If anyone wants more on a book, just shoot me an email. Eventually this will be chronological, but I'll start with what I've been reading over the last 3 months:
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason--4 stars (out of 5)--A lovely book, beautifully written, very rich
six nonlectures by ee cummings--4 stars--This is the Norton lectures that cummings delivered at Harvard (1953). In many places they are infuriatingly cummings-ish, but they really sparkle in other places, and it's always interesting to hear him ground himself and his directions in the writings of others--you begin to get a strong sense of his erudition, and the connections between the strengths of his work and that of others
That led me in turn to:
The Craft of Verse by Borges-- 3.5 stars-- This is Borges' Norton lectures at Harvard (I wrote and asked if there was a collection, or plans for one (Emerson's Norton lectures are also worth reading), but they said no). Borges offers (surprise!) deceptively simple advice and insight--some of which resonated for me very strongly and some of which fell flat. Still, a strong read.
That'll be enough to start with--and I'm always looking for suggestions, if you'd care to pass them along. I just started Hershel Parker's bio of Melville--don't expect that to show up here for a good many months....
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
The following reflections are amalgamated from some of my letters…
I’m deep in the editing process now, and that has raised all sorts of questions about the reader relationship (what kind of demands can you place on readers?) and the associated issues of what the hell you are trying to do in writing the book anyway. It has also raised some interesting issues of internal coherence—I’ve found that there are passages that I think are wonderful, but they are so different from the rest of the book that they stink of vanity and in their oddness do some disservice to the other writing. Below is a passge, its edited version, and some of the thinking behind making (or not making) the changes. **Spoiler Alert** This comes late in the book. Reinhold has died and Kane is grieving for him as they bury him.
Here is the original:
I imagine if there is justice in this world that on a small and humble lane, within a peeling white spire, my lone grief struck a lone bell, and that one unruly tongue flung out broad its great grief and spread wordlessly, like a cloud’s shadow racing before the sun, fell upon the bells silent but for their office of the hours, that measured light days, and told them dark had come; no order driven, but heart sick to heart, sent what men did not know and knew in that bell’s toll, and told, and so passed one grief and one shadow fell,—a wave of bells, like candles lit from candles, rolled across the land.
And the revised:
I imagined that on a small and distant lane, in a plain and peeling white spire, my lone grief struck a lone bell, and that sound passed from man to man, and then from bell to bell,—a wave of bells, like candles lit from candles, that rolled across the land.
And here is what I was aiming for when I wrote it:
He is deeply sad, and he is imagining, really for the first time what he connection is to his friend. And in that act, he is coming to understand a fundamental aspect of himself—his capacity to connect to another and by extension for all men to be connected—in this case in a wave of grief rolling across the land. Thus he is developing in this moment a connection that makes him human—I was trying to both describe and mirror the development, hence the freighted language. I was building it onto the story (legend?) that when Lincoln was assassinated, the news spread by the ringing of bells—that people knew that the ringing could only mean one thing: the death of the President. I love this idea that there could be so great and shared a grief that it could spread wordlessly like this, as if through some shared subterranean fabric. It is troubling to reflect that the only thing we would believe this to mean now is some sort of massive and devastating attack in progress—it does not speak well for the advancement of technology, I think.
And in the language, I was making reference to Hopkins’ great poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rims in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
--Stay with me here, I’m almost wound up—
Hopkins poem is about how each object expresses its fundamental nature (what he called inscape—like landscape, but unique to each individual object). So my ambition in making reference to the poem was to show that this act of sympathetic imagination is part of what is fundamental to Kane’s character—and the human character. Describe the development; mirror it in the syntax; create, through reference, a context that reveals that sympathetic imagination is what links us through our suffering and failure.
I know this is FAR more than even a dedicated reader will unpack, and that maybe it will exist only in my own head as a component of what this moment is about. And yet there is a part of me that believes for some readers (one reader, maybe) this thought and its language will flower, and make this more than a good story well told. I know the book is more than that already. But I wonder if this moment of reaching isn’t worth keeping.
Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Such arenas of fruitful interaction are only now beginning to be understood in their general laws; a hierarchy of sciences—chaos theory, complexity theory, new mathematical flesh on the vague old concept of "emergence"—has recently arisen, itself emerging by the very processes it formalizes out of a chaos and complexity of ideas. The essence of these theories is this: that if a collection of entities is sufficiently numerous and richly interactive, and if it is continually feed with energies that disturb it from sluggish equilibria, eventually parts of it will fall by chance into patterns or cycles that have some capacity for persistence; and if such persistences are continually forthcoming, eventually some will arise that have the property of seeding the development of their like, of replicating themselves; and once there are relatively stable dynamic systems all calling on the same resources of material and energy, they will evolve, be co-opted into systems of higher order. All this is a consequence of the law of large numbers—that if enough things happen, then it is certain that something extremely improbable will happen. Life, intelligence, and love are not aliens marooned in a hostile world of iron determinism, doomed to be chilled to death by the dreadful second law of thermodynamics if left unredeemed by the transcendental. . . .
This is drawn from Tim Robinson's excellent essay called The Fineness of Things, and it contains many such distillations and fruit for reflection. The core idea of this--that the application of energy into systems creates persistence and complexity is a delightfully rich one--I can see in this passage a speech to lethargic teens, and an examination of the sometimes-pointless or hopeless feeling within marriage or as a parent of our own waves of unacknowledged love--that there is some bedrock math on our side that lets us feel, finally, that the order of the universe is predicated on building rather then simply dissolution. I remember reading Pynchon's story Entropy and feeling devasted by the conspiracy of empty space in the universe--that it was sure to suck away our tiny packets of heat and that surrender to the absurdity of our own efforts was the realistic position to hold. Hardly something to get you out of bed in the morning (which I seldom managed as an undergrad).
This is also an interesting set of concepts to apply to economics, which I have the sinking feeling is entirely dependent on the development of unhealthy appetites--that it is a sledge driven by gluttony and lust and envy and that we poor prisoners must distend as patriots in order to prevent the whole massive machine from grinding to a halt. What new thing is created through our labors and where does it intersect the pathways of human affairs. I think often if you look at people, at their work (especially when you have not had steady work yourself) the whole mess becomes increasingly bizarre--how it is that we can get food and heat in return for such abstract exercising of the mind that may intersect the lives of others in only the most attenuated ways and then have little clear value. This is a terrifying reflection to indulge in, makes me want to plant vegetables immediately.
But the idea of these persistent systems, and their necessary allocations of energy starts to ease this black fog--so what if I am one of the other proverbial thousand monkeys typing away in the infinite room and that I will not be producing Shakespeare (what about an incomplete Beckett and some off-color nursery rhymes?) for my infinite typing? There is some comfort in feeling that the pouring out of absurd energy may at last be generative, and though our faith is blind at least Big Math is backing us up.
Tuesday, August 27, 2002
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing--
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked no ling-
-gering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
So after a little August vacation, a lovely poem from Hopkins. Despite its many obvious and easy targets (the extreme, mawkish, elaborate plea; the ling break), I find this, and him, wonderful for a number of reasons. His rhythms are fantastic--odd, difficult, stuttering, but stuttering in the way that brings you into understanding, and the gentle smooth release of the final line that eases at last the dense constriction of the body. And his compression, and his address, both startling and hard to follow, but, for me, appropriate to the intensely personal nature of the dialog--as if tortured out, and in its economy making it clear he is not a fool, that he has passed the easy answers and the simple comforts. If you can follow him here, it seems to say through the structure, then you know his meaning. He sees more clearly than perhaps anyone down to the bones of the language--the parts of words that he needs to mean, only those that lurch him forward. Lovely.
Saturday, August 10, 2002
A work of art is created when an individual or group is compelled to convey an experience that is particularly his or theirs. Such an urge might very well have been provoked, and usually is, by contact with an influence or model that acts as a catalyst. Even so, the more significant a work of art, the more marked will be the elements of revolt, the destructive tendencies, even in regard to the work that served as a prototype.
This is from a study of Gothic cathedral architecture and though I disagree with the premise of the model (which makes the art seem more insular and referential that it seems to me it ought to be), I think the ending dynamic is an interesting one, particularly in the question of what is destructive and what is destroyed? What elements or threads are brought forward and what are necessarily removed? There are some hackneyed threads of this discussion (son kills the father; nothing original has been written since Shakespeare, etc.), but some fresh ones as well. I think a wealth of art in the recent past has focused on the necessary destructiveness without moving substantively beyond it--has defined through rejection and violence and space that refers back to its inspirations.
I think some newer art, particularly some sculptural spaces on the boundaries between sculpture and architecture are finding ground again that is re-shaping through revolt some of the experiential shape of art through our perceptions of it in ways that are not simply out destroying what existed before, but by bringing forth some older threads that balance the elements in revolt with some more stable, less intellectual perhaps, more human.
Thursday, August 08, 2002
A Canadian archaeologist named Robert McGhee has written that the ASTt (Artic Small Tool tradition) peoples migrated into "the coldest, darkest, and most barren regions ever inhabited by man." He speculates that during the winters when they were hard-pressed for food, these people "may almost have hibernated in their unlit and unheated dwellings." One looks today upon the remains of their dwellings—a fox-bone awl, a quartz arrowhead, the ring of stones that held down their skin tents—with profound respect.
This is from Barry Lopez's magnificent Arctic Dreams—the book that, more than any other, got me interested in the Arctic and in the possible meanings of its landscape and exploration--I really can't say enough good things about it. Here he is discussing a prehistoric nomadic set of peoples that lived in the Canadian Arctic, including the far north. What interests me about them (in addition to the horrified respect of huddling in an unlit and unheated tent on an island north of Greenland) is the thought that there is some inherent aspect to their characters that drew that into that landscape and that, because of this aspect of their character, they persisted there for many years.
Try to imagine what the nature of their perception of the world must have been to elect a life like that--what aspects of their character it satisfied, what needs (both physical and spiritual) it met.
From there it is interesting to look in on any geography and imagine what in the landscape or environment people respond to in order to make their lives there. One of our neighbors, in commenting on the peculiar stubborn contrarian spirit of people who have grown up in Vermont (not those who summer and then move, or ski, and who are so protected from the land by technology that they could be anywhere, except for the views--similarly in the south, where air conditioning, in particular, has leached out any sort of native character, and replaced it with a desire for bright sun and no cold weather in a steady bath of physical comfort--not that there is anything wrong with that...) explained that you needed to imagine who would elect to stay in Vermont to farm its rocky slopes in its short growing season when they could move out to areas with flat land, warm weather and rich topsoil dozens of feet thick. That suddenly illuminated much for me about the odd contradictions in Vermont (muted by the layers of New York and Boston professional migrations).
And I think it is interesting to extend this to a personal level—to look at the discomforts that we inflict on ourselves to answer what needs and satisfy what traits of our own characters. Some, of course, comes from our circumstances--what choices we have been unable to avoid and have adapted to--and some comes from a lack of imagination--those things that we cannot figure out how to resolve or avoid. But that doesn't explain the all of the parts of our lives that trouble us, or cause us pain or discomfort. We have each chosen our hairshirts (consciously or not) that answer some need we each have for a certain kind of (what externally may be seen as) imperfections or flaws, easily correctable. imagine what it might
Saturday, August 03, 2002
They have divided themselves by Wrath, They must be united by Pity—in terrors of Self-annihilation.
This is one of Blake’s Proverbs from Hell, and I wrote it down when I read a biography of Blake’s while I was living in Paris. At the time it sounded extreme, as Blake often does—but it made sense to me as I was focused on the first movement, from wrath to pity.
In the current state of our world, however, the closing phrase has been the one that resonates—first through the suicide bombers, and the intractable bloodshed in Israel, and then as a path beyond that, as the point where there is hope again. Unlike the gentle pablum we seem to be fed about how to resolve it, Blake is clear on the difficulty of dissolving wrath—that it is not a short step, nor lightly undertaken, nor painlessly resolved.
It is hard to track the moment when dynamics and scale begin to diverge: when a poor person in the United States is actually poor on a global scale, or when the psychological anguish of an unemployed middle manager matches up to the bone-grinding difficulty of a subsistence farmer in drought. I say this not to ridicule Americans, but to point in the opposite direction—that there may be more consistency in the dynamics of suffering that difference in the scale, and so with many things—with happiness also, though not with physical comfort (though its excess probably creates more unhappiness that its mild lack).
This runs counter to Blake’s thesis—annihilation is unequivocal, but I think the dynamics of the self are resilient and cyclical. Even people who have changed a tremendous amount have frequently changed within a range—on a scale—that is still bounded by their core character. That when a wrathful Self is annihilated, the new self that rises in pity is an echoed shape of the old self, and the patterns of wrath likely to emerge and emerge again. And yet this is as hopeful as it is depressing—that the patterns of joy are as likely to emerge and emerge again—and that our experience of that rebirth and that resurrection are likely to lead us to be hopeful about whatever small changes can be wrung from our limited selves.
Wednesday, July 31, 2002
He would tell me how exciting it was to put your ear against the belly of a sleeping she-goat. You could hear the milk coursing down to the udders, a secret sound no one but that poet of goats has been able to listen to.
I had thought this was from Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a tremendous book, and full of amazing writing and thinking about the gradual transition through myth of the early greeks through their process of civilizing and into the Roman age. I could not find it again (help! attentive reader! stop me before I kill again!).
What I like about this line is that it celebrates the persistence of uniqueness--in our age of endlessly replicating age of binaries, I think we crave the unique--we need to be reminded that a cast of light and a certain sense, or the variety in a moments smile is not all translatable--that it might be lost, or held only as memory. I ahve done some reading in the area of disappearing languages (Vanishing Voices—The Extinction of the World's Languages is very good), and I have been preoccupied by the untranslatable gaps, and the unique insights that lanugage can contain, and the implications of a world moving toward bad English as the standard. Despite the apocalyptic tone of some the language loss books, however, I think language is consistently and constantly re-inventing itself in fluid sub-populations (international businessmen, bloggers, SportsCenter watchers), and though I am likely to be dismissive of the insubstantiality of the unique insights getting generated, the processes are fascinating.
Saturday, July 27, 2002
Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?
THE DUKE OF GLOUCESTER, upon accepting the second volume of A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from its author
Whenever my energy flagged or I got too wrapped in the MISSION of getting the book done, I found this always restored me, and the sporadic grind of getting finished, to an appropropriate order....
Friday, July 26, 2002
I'll be able to go on, no, I'll be able to stop, or start, another guzzle of lies but piping hot, it will last my time, it will be my time and place, my voice and silence, a voice of silence, the voice of my silence. It's with such prospects they exhort you to have patience, whereas you are patient, and calm, somehow, somewhere calm, what calm here, ah, that's an idea, say how calm it is here, and how fine I feel, and how silent I am, I'll start right away, I'll say what calm and silence, which nothing has ever broken, nothing will ever break, which saying I don't break, or saying I'll be saying, yes, I'll say all of that tomorrow, yes tomorrow evening, some other evening, not this evening, this evening it's too late, too late to get things right, I'll go to sleep, so that I may say, hear myself say, a little later, I've slept, he's slept, be he won't have slept, or else he's sleeping now, he'll have done nothing, nothing but go on, doing what, doing what he does, that is to say, I don't know, giving up, that's it, I'll have gone on giving up, having had nothing, not being there.
This from Beckett's Texts for Nothing, and is a dizzying circularity of the persistence of energy and hope and the persistent lack of courage and imagination that spirals down for every writer, straining after a fit subject, playing with voice, and then instantly doubting and casting away until he imagines himself out of existence entirely. The lack of progress and the collapse after collapse are bleak, but the energy rising again and again in waves, the persistent hopefulness, and sharpness of the rhythm keep this in balance, show its struggle, and is evidence in itself that refutes what the narrator is saying.
Thursday, July 25, 2002
And when they went to the windows there clashed beyond the howling, bristling mob of the world: collectors of deliquent bills knocking at the doors, moneyhounds, makers of war, killers, thieves, beggars, fringers, imitators, the chic; the eternal daily human traffic at their windows. Yet they knew that they too, were among the crowd outside their own windows, that they were on both sides of their windows: outside: their own enemy come to remind them of their brotherhood; inside: two people saving back, like thieves, a stolen redemption.
Another from Goyen, describing a pair of lovers in an apartment as a destructive mob gathers outside. His rhythm here, and the progression is wonderful--"the chic" in particular is lovely. And his idea of their kinship, of those aspects of themselves, of their internal conflict mirrored in the world outside brings a real richness to their struggle. Often, I think, especially in more philosophical fiction there is an impulse to set up allegory that functions like chess: a=trait 1, b=trait 2, set pieces in motion and watch conflict resolve appropriate to my belief system. Edward Said wrote (in a passage, I believe from his autobiography, and that I'm kicking myself for not writing out because I think of it often) about his own nature as a set of streams that well up and recede, so that there is a consistency (the same set of streams) as well as fluidity, and that there are moments when one or another is dominant, and others when it is muddled, dilute.
This drew me to the idea of rivers within the ocean (like the one Kane tracks) and the maps of the sky that the Doctor attempts to make, as well as the molten rivers that have shaped the rift valley and the islands--the complexity that lies within what we perceive as uniform--and that we desire to be uniform in order to give our poor struggling brains some chance for rest and at the same time point to the limits of our understanding of the things that lie directly before us and around us.
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
So often as we eat ordinary bread, we may remember our own death, for even hunger and thirst are diseases; they are mors quotidiana, a daily death, and if they lasted long, would kill us.
This is from a sermon of John Donne's (glad that I haven't started the notes too bleakly!), and in it I am drawn to the dailyness, to the ordinary moment-to-moment linking to death. The immediacy and tenuousness of our existence, and the body's role in both shackling us to death and being the only thing that separates us from it in our own individual and limited consciousness. It is a wonderful and paradoxical relationship, one that I explore in the book.
Tuesday, July 23, 2002
I am speaking of a connection, woven, as of threads and veins and vessels, through which human beings may communicate and tell each other everything. I am speaking of the traffic that moves through us as in tunnels under ruins, the traffic through us, below the river, under the sidewalk. And this connection was between his dreaming mind breeding the images on one side, on the other side mine, the shaping mind, conscious, controlled—or struggling to be—and the traffic beyond the wall, below the river, beneath the sidewalk.
THIS is from Goyen, and in the book he does a wonderful job of creating a dream-like conflation of individual circumstance and universal dynamics of human interaction so that he draws you, in this passage of a couple in an apartment above the streets of a city, into the whole unacknowledged world of interactions that bind and trouble and buffet us.
Sunday, July 21, 2002
Woman has tempted me. Wine has tempted me. Food has tempted me. Woman is pernicious, wine is poison, food is death. I must hate and revile them. By hating them, I will please God. . . . These are the thoughts and attitudes of a baby, of a savage and of an idolater who seeks by magic incantations and spells to protect his egoistic self and placate the insatiable little god in his own heart.
This is from Thomas Merton, and to me it hits at the heart of a great deal of the American explorations (especially public explorations) of faith and religious practice in our lives (post the commandments! don't burn the flag! don't teach kids who are already having sex how (and why) to do it safely!). America gets a lot of mileage for its shows of piety (I read an assertion based on the number of churches we have per capita--love THAT way of thinking about our souls), and yet I think it is an intensely unsophisticated and shallow religious affectation on both the side of the believers and the side of the agnosto-athiests. Having spent a fair amount of time in that camp (ag-at), I found a lot of blithe dismissiveness, but very little desire to ask if not this, then what? in a way that is consistently pretty arrogant--and not that the end point is the selection of a monotheistic religion, or any religion, but of a serious engagement with the nature of our existence, its components (self/body/brain/society/nation/species/soul) and their interrelationships, and the responsibilities that reflection and its conclusions might create. Perhaps it is a persistent and universal human trait and I expect too much reflection from people, or waste too much time in it myself. Part of the reason that I moved away from the US (and would again if I could see my way clear to it), is that I didn't find great numbers of intelligent people who were interested in exploring those issues, and that the general run of possible conversations was largely anti-intellectual. Either people were not talking seriously, or they were talking about how they felt, as if that were all. One of the things I love about Merton (and Goyen and Annie Dillard) is their forthright and intelligent engagement--they are not faithful because they are ignorant, or because they lack the intelligence to understand the empty gymnastics of post-post-modernism and its philosophies of posturing, but their intelligence and reading and emotional richness makes their faith rich and complex and profound. This, to me, is a path of interest, and one that seems always before us, but largely unremarked on and ignored. In the moments when you realize this, when it strikes you, it is astonishing.
...a new order, a new heaven and the world in anger trying to revoke it...
CORRECTION: This line is from the letters of DH Lawrence--also a magnificent book, for the exact expressions of his bitter fierceness--he is someone whose writing is often extraordinary, but sometimes a horrible parody of itself; his letters, however, are consistently fresh and inspiring (and usually full of spite and bile). Some other lovely images: "the mountain that faith must move--the mass of static men" "opening the hard little buds that seem like stone in the people".
Even though this line is not from Goyen's book, it is still worth attention: a great "lost" book: half a look of cain by William Goyen. Goyen made a splash in the 1950s with his debut, called The House of Breath, which is a lovely, stylistically ambitious book--an interrelated set of voices that together build the story. Half a look of cain (from a DH Lawrence poem--"they come with half a look of gathered love/and half a look of cain) was not published during Goyen's lifetime--but rescued and put out by Triquarterly Press. It is a magnificent book, intensely lyrical and profound. It is not as experimental as The House of Breath (or the later Arcadio)--it seems to more more focused than either of those efforts, and also tapping a vein that is in each of them, but clearer in cain of the force of love on a universal scale as it emerges from an individual situation--cain is full of loving pairs that through their joint experience confront and alter the world in its hungers and its ignorant and fearful destructiveness. Certainly worth a read for you and a thousand or so of your friends.
This quotation echoes for me some of the thinking of Thomas Merton, about the rebuke that a single person creates through persistent honest regard of their own life and the inevitable conflicts that can generate in their wake. It also called up (faintly) Paradise Lost, and my curiousity about how so charismatic a devil did not have more active legions, but retained the help of man largely as passive, or willfully ignorant, or self-deceiving....
Friday, July 19, 2002
Book note: Nystagamus a rapid, involuntary rolling of the eyeballs; Focal infection an infection rooted in one part of the body such that it spreads infection to other organs.
I have an old dictionary (Websters Collegiate thin paper, 2nd ed.) with the cover shorn off (though present), and whenever I use it, I stumble on words or ideas, like those above that spark new thoughts or possibilities. This happens far less often with any other dictionaries; I think it is a combination of the slightly archaic, formally precise prose, and the lack of contemporary words (Never stumbling on powerpoint, for example, lets me continue to ignore the fact that I live in another world, one where I have, and need to keep, a job) put new words in front of me in a way that makes them richer and more exact. The slight foreigness makes me favor them over my own workaday words--a dangerous trap--but even the base ideas can be productive--like the idea that someone would endure sufficient trauma that they would be unable to control the rolling of their eyes--the thought of being lucid and otherwise calm and having your eyes rolling around in your head, of the world, now returned to calm, but still reeling around, like some echo in your own head.
This, like the focal infection, is about the idea of the betrayal of the body, of some inherent aspect of the body failing, or in this case, carrying the persistent seed of failure. We so often equate the body as a monolith, as ourselves, and this, I think can prevent us from seeing ourselves fully and richly. Certainly the body is extraordindary, more than we ever imagine it to be, but it is not all.
Thursday, July 18, 2002
Book note: Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum
I got this from a now-lost book I read (The Unknown Shore?) and haven't been able to track it back to its source. Before you go all Doris Kearns Godwin on me, I didn't use it, but still think of the idea as an interesting one.
My recollection of the meaning was of the gateway between earth and heaven--that the Isles of the Blessed was that gateway. Once I went looking for it, of course, the exact meaning slipped. I tried translating it back via the latin--"repromissionis" means to repromise (!). That isn't close to the meaning I had remembered which leads me to believe either I missed it in context, or I was had by the previous author (nothing like passing on erroneous translation to score points for the deconstructionists--I'm hoping they'll pop up on an Entertainment Tonight Weekend "Where are they now?" special). Funny to think that there are many gateways to Hell from earth, but rarely any to Heaven, and few myths of heroes visiting them....
OK--trying again--pathetic failures on the perl install, followed by a browser crash of epic proportions--an inauspicious start for me--suddenly I'm my grandfather and need to invite some 13-year-old to snidely help me find the db path. We have heard the chimes at midnight....
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