Sunday, December 31, 2017

One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

We shall tell all the stories that are never told. Stories about bad husbands and murderous wives and mad gods and mothers and heroes and darkness and friends and sisters and lovers...
Yes! And above all...stories about brave women who don't take shit from anyone
.
In a reimagining of Scheherazade's 1001 nights, Greenberg gives us Hero, who tells a hundred nights' worth of stories to keep her lover, Cherry, safe from a gentlemen's bet. The stories are packed full of brave, independent women. Women who read and write and tell stories to stay alive. The stories are about love and loss and all the varied meanings of sisterhood.

This was a really beautiful companion to Fahrenheit 451. I didn't intend to pair the two, but this gives a whole new dimension to the power of stories. Women are largely absent from Bradbury's novel, but here women are the bearers of history. Despite being trapped in a patriarchal hierarchy designed (or re-designed...their world was initially built by a god's daughter and then re-vamped by the god when he grows bored) by a vengeful god, these women push to break through. They aren't always successful--in fact, they often fail--but they rally around each other and build each other up in ways that are rare in literature and in life.

Greenberg's drawings are whimsical and angular, and her women float through the panels as though defying gravity. As happens too often with me and graphic novels, I breezed through this. Her written style is engaging and funny, and the stories moved quickly which made it easy to skip over the images. I want to go back and read it again!

Christopher's Top Ten 2017

It's top ten time, everyone!  Gather round the warmth of the fire and I shall regale with you with my top ten books of the year.

My resolution this year was to beat my personal best, which I set in the very first year of the blog's existence: 62 books.  Resolution achieved--I finished with 67.  In 2018 I'm going to beat my record again, and if I can, I'd like to read 75 books.  There are just too many books in the world, and too little time in a life.  So why not read as much as you can?

As a consequence, I feel like my list of favorite books this year is very deep.  I'm not sure I read anything that bowled me over like last year's Lives of Girls and Women or The Man Who Loved Children, but I think I may have really liked more of what I read than any other year.  Even some books I really enjoyed, like Molloy, Love in the Ruins, and The Radiance of the King, didn't crack the honorable mentions below.

Before the top ten, let me say, as I always do, we would love to have people join us in our yearly quest.  It was great to have John join us this year, and to enjoy a second year of Chloe.  If you'd like to try it out, send me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.

Honorable Mentions 2017:

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler
The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich
The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem
The Sinking of Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews
The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

Top Ten 2017:

10. Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick - I realized in December that I hadn't read any of PKD's books all year--and since he wrote dozens, that meant I was going to fall behind if I wanted to read them all.  I picked this one more or less at random, and I was blown away by how good it was.  Its vision of a schizophrenic unmoored in time is terrifying, and its black cynicism toward the future of space colonization is some of the most trenchant of PKD's career.  Dick's talent for churning out books in the same style without getting repetitive or tired was truly something.

9. The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White - The Twyborn Affair is, like Nightwood, exceptional because of its vision of the life of a trans woman before we even had the language to really talk about such things.  We track the protagonist as a sensuous young woman, transitioning back into a man doing hard labor in the Australian Outback, to a madam in a London brothel.  It works because no one writes about the body, in its ugliness as well as its possibility, as well as White does, and because, uncharacteristically, it leaves some room for hope of acceptance, not just for Eadie, but for all those who feel estranged from their own bodies.

8. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote - I've never seen this movie.  But I can't imagine it has the same kind of spare, slimmed-down confidence as Capote's novel, or as deep an understanding of its troubled heroine.  Like Gatsby--and a million or so other literary characters--Holly Golightly turns toward wealth, status, New York, and crime in order to escape from the burdens of the past.  But Holly Golightly's run from the pettiness of small town American life seems heartbreakingly real in a way that Gatsby's melodrama never does.

7. Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner - I love it when books seem like they're going to be one kind of book, and then they turn out to be another.  For a long time Mr. Fortune seems like a particularly sharp satire of colonialism and repressed sexuality, and then it takes a sudden turn, and becomes a touching meditation on the pain that comes from really loving someone.  It manages to be deeply, darkly funny, but never sacrifices empathy for its misbegotten missionary or the young Polynesian man who is the object of his affections.

6. I Served the King of England by Borumil Hrabal - I Served the King of England is a comedy about a man caught up in the great social upheavals of Eastern Europe in the 20th century: first Nazism, then Soviet Communism.  But it works so well because its protagonist, the hotel waiter Ditie, isn't a mere victim of historical circumstance, but a proud and ambitious man who keeps reaching for his dream of owning a beautiful hotel in the midst of war and farce.  It's the funniest book I read this year, but it also exhibits a deep Voltaire-like wisdom.

5. Loving by Henry Green - What's better than picking up a new author for the first time and saying, "Huh--I didn't know fiction could do that."  How can a book be so tightly written, so unadorned, yet demand such patience and care?  Loving is slow, slow, work, but tells a story worth the effort, about a group of bored servants waiting for their master to return at the height of World War II.  It's a book that knows how much pathos is to be found in the mundane, and it's written accordingly.

4. Augustus by John Williams - How can you humanize a character as immense as Augustus, a man who brought the whole world under his sway?  Much less one that existed at such a historical distance to ourselves.  Williams' strategy is to write an epistolary novel, one in which we are forced to manage the manifold versions of Augustus Caesar as reported by his friends, his family, his enemies, his subjects.  And only then do we get to see Augustus' own account of his actions, an account whose wisdom and acuity he knows to be irrelevant, because the voice of even such a famous man isn't enough to counteract that of history.

3. Runaway by Alice Munro - The story that's stuck with me the most of Munro's from this year has actually been "The Office," about a woman who literally can't get a Room of One's Own because her landlord is always pestering her.  That story's in The Dance of the Happy Shades, but it's Runaway that's the best collection.  Every story here is like a little novel in miniature, a self-contained masterpiece wrought with great care and ingenuity.  The title story, with its lost goat and its subversive ending, is as good as anything Munro ever wrote--so far as I know, at least.

2. Herzog by Saul Bellow - Bellow's style isn't really to what I might call my taste--it's overcrowded, throwing every possible detail at the reader, as if to see what sticks.  But Bellow's just so good at it that it can't help but win me over.  Word-for-word, he's one of the best writers I've ever read, and I'm amazed at his ability to keep it up for the space and length of a book like Herzog.  The neurotic, cuckolded title character might be an early (that is, good) Woody Allen character; he's the kind of character Philip Roth has been trying to create for decades, but Roth has never had Bellow's genius, or his vitality.  This book just explodes off the page.

1. Independent People by Halldor Laxness - Independent People is my favorite novel of the year.  It's a classic old Russian novel, filtered through the particular sensibility of Iceland, a small, cold, isolated place.  It's got a little James Joyce in it, and a little Thomas Hardy.  But mostly, like all good novels, it's a good depiction of character, and no character was affecting this year as Bjartur, the fiercely independent Icelandic farmer who must adhere to his own sense of dignity in the face of death, starvation, and the estrangement of his daughter.  "You can always call the air you breathe your own," he tells us.  Well it feels like Iceland outside right now, and I can see the air that I breathe, so I've been thinking about that advice quite a bit.

And now the list resets, and we get to start again.  Happy new year, everyone!

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The fact that many prescriptive rules are worth keeping does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is worth keeping.

Writing, amirite? Can't live with it, can't live without it. Or at least, I can't because most of my work involves writing. But writing is one thing, writing well is another. Steven Pinker's book is aimed at helping its readers write well.

Or at least, kind of. The books is focused on helping its readers write well in a technical sense. Style, as referred in the title, is writing in the "classical" style; this means writing with as little ambiguity as possible, and in a way that does not condescend to its readers. Here is Pinker writing about a Judith Butler passage, which Pinker feels exemplifies the opposite of classical style:
A reader of this intimidating passage can marvel at Butler's ability to juggle abstract propositions about still more abstract propositions, with no real-world referent in sight . . . . What the reader cannot do is understand it--to see with her own eyes what Butler is seeing.
Pinker identifies the "curse of knowledge," which he suggests is the root of much bad writing. The curse of knowledge is that the writer knows; when the writer writes, unfortunately, this  knowing prevents the writer from spotting ambiguity or obfuscation in his writing. The writer cannot see the ambiguity because when the writer reads his own writing, it appears clear.

I think this is right. My experience with myself, my colleagues and opposing counsel--professional writers in a sense--is that we are often blind to how confusing our writing can be. Our level of expertise works against our writing because we do not see where concepts need to be simplified; we do not see that a sentence could convey two meanings because we intuitively reject the wrong interpretation; that is, we only see the interpretation we intended to convey, not the accidentally-conveyed interpretation.

Pinker's concept of classical style is a remedy: write to maximize your audience's understanding. Simple, clear prose; not jargon-riddled, dense word-vomit. I would add, and I think Pinker would agree, that the jargon-filled and dense prose often hides undeveloped ideas.

After describing classical style, and what is not classical style, Pinker identifies a number of ways that writing can be more clear. What follows is a series of writing problems, and how to avoid them. He provides a new (to me, at least) way of diagramming sentences (using trees), how to develop and maintain "arcs of coherence," and, finally, a long list (spanning the last 100 pages of the book) of grammar myths and grammar truths.

This is the first writing style book I've ever read for general writing (I've read a handful of legal writing style books). I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it very helpful. The tree diagramming method is helpful in contemplating how one should structure sentences; his description of classical v. not classical writing was helpful in thinking about what good writing is; his list of grammar myths/truths will be my go-to source whenever I need to know how to approach a grammar problem.

Pinker explicitly disavows any interest in replacing more classic writing style guides. Having never read any others, I do not have a strong opinion about whether this work will or will not replace others. That said, I do think, for me, I will be reluctant to read older style guides because Pinker convincingly indicates that many of them are outdated. Being a more casual reader of grammar guides, I'm not sure I have the patience or fortitude to figure out which parts of Strunk and White are still good or bad. In contrast, because of The Sense of Style's more recent publication, I feel fairly confident relying on it. So, for me, this is probably going to be my definitive writing style guide for the foreseeable future.

[Sidenote: a colleague pointed out that there are hilarious one-star reviews of this book on Amazon, which, in a way, are their own endorsement of the book].

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. The book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. 
I'm embarrassed to admit that this is my first time reading Fahrenheit 451. I've always preferred Vonnegut to Bradbury and have passed this one over a few times in favor of other dystopias. We're reading it in ninth grade English next month, so it was time to bite the bullet, and I'm glad I did.

I won't dwell too much on the plot here (even I knew the bulk of it before sitting down to read it). In Guy Montag's world, books are illegal. Firemen like Montag come to the rescue when books are discovered and gleefully burn them. Montag, we discover, has had subconscious doubts about this system for a while and has been stashing books salvaged from these fires. He starts to read them and all hell breaks loose.

I was struck by a couple of things while reading this. First and foremost, Bradbury's eerie prescience about the power of screens and technology. The book describes a natural turn away from literature and towards the bright, explosive entertainment of a version of television that doesn't seem far off from what we have today. A system that probably seemed impossibly futuristic 60 years ago--screens the size of parlor walls that created an immersive entertainment system--now feel totally within reach (if not something that already exists in fancier homes than mine). I'm intrigued as to how my students, who grew up with the omnipresence of screens and are often frustrated with or bored by books, will take all of this.

We throw around the concept of banned books and our reaction to them as somewhat of a badge of honor in this country. The Strand has a display table called Banned Books (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Handmaid's Tale), and liberal outrage when schools or districts ban a particular book or author is loud and justified. That being said, we do not (as of yet) make it a nationwide practice to limit our citizen's access to literature. I spent six months in Moscow in college, and while I was there I struggled through Bulgakov's Master and Margarita in Russian (by struggled through I mean that I would read a few pages in Russian and then cave and read the chapter in English). After dinner one night, my host mother brought a dusty manuscript out of the closet. It was a thick, handbound, typewritten stack of papers; the cover read: Мастер и Маргарита. When she was a student, Bulgakov had been banned, and she and her friends had passed a single copy of the book around. She had loved it so much that she wanted to re-read it, so she sat down one night and typed the whole thing out. Start to finish. An entire class of intellectuals in the Soviet Union was doing the same with Solzhenitzyn, Pasternak, and more. Just a decade after Bradbury's intellectuals huddled by campfires, holding tight to their memorized Byron, Confucius, and Jefferson, the same scene was playing out in Soviet dorms (as I'm sure it did in Nazi Germany and every other oppressive regime that has attempted to limit access to literature). It's comforting to look back at Russian and Soviet literature and see what grew out of that time period: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky. Censorship hasn't worked yet. The jury is still out on screens, though.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t induced violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird. It wasn’t just music but also rumbling trains and rainstorms, occasional voices, a collective din.
Lisa Ko's The Leavers follows Deming Guo as he becomes Daniel Wilkinson. Deming's mother, Polly, an undocumented immigrant, disappears one day, leaving Deming behind in the Bronx. Deming is adopted by the Wilkinsons and moves upstate, leaving his old life and self behind. As Daniel grows older, pieces of Deming start to surface within him, and the novel centers around his attempts to reconcile the various versions of himself.

Deming's growing up is a little bumpy (as could be expected). He struggles with addiction and figuring out who he is is not as simple as drawing a line from one version of himself to the next. Those aspects of the novel are well written and engaging, but not particularly earth-shattering. On some level, it's a regular coming of age story. Throughout, however, Ko does shine some insight into the perils of interracial adoption, and those perils are revealed gradually and well.

If Deming's story is fairly run of the mill, Polly's is exceptional. Her ambivalence about being a mother is artfully and sympathetically portrayed, and her decisions and development throughout the novel are fascinating. While Deming/Daniel operates largely in spaces I'm familiar with, Polly's universe is totally alien to me. It's more Deming's story than Polly's, but she lends it the nuance and the depth that makes the novel worthwhile.


Men Explain to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I had just begun to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don't know your actions are futile; that you don't have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. This is when the words of so many writers often resonate most. 
I've seen this essay collection floating around for a while now, and in the wake of the most recent wave of sexual assault allegations, it seemed time to break it open. Solnit starts with a chillingly familiar story; at a party she finds herself in conversation with a man who is hell-bent on explaining her most recent book to her--a "very important" book that she couldn't possibly have read, let alone written. Her essay about that incident inspired both the title of the collection and the term "mansplaining."

As is her style, Solnit ranges pretty widely here. Assault on Indian busses, the IMF, Virginia Woolf, Cassandra. Despite some of the essays being close to a decade old, Solnit's insights on navigating the world as a woman are largely heart-wrenchingly spot on. She describes a college class which unearths a "chasm" between the male and female experience: "The intricate ways [women] stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment," and the ways in which women around the world are consistently marginalized in every sense of the word: "Billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever." Her prose is beautiful and intricate and painfully accurate.

Violence is a focus throughout--physical, emotional, verbal--but Solnit shows a serious blindspot as she tackles statistics about both American and international violence against women. This statement, made early on in the book, really rubbed me the wrong way: "Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender." I understand her point here, that women, on the whole, are subjected disproportionately to violence and abuse, but the reality is that violence does have a race, a class, a religion, and a nationality. White women, Solnit included, operate a space of privilege that not only shelters them from some of this violence, but that also prioritizes their voices and stories. Solnit seems fairly blind to this fact throughout her essays; she talks about the experiences of women of color abroad, but largely neglects the experiences of women of color in this country, and her writing loses some credibility as a result.

Overall, this felt very, very relevant. The book was published before the current torrent of accusations, firings, and the #metoo movement, and I like to think that Solnit might permit herself to feel some hope in the reactions over the past few months. White Feminism aside (and the essays have a serious White Feminism problem), the book does an excellent job of describing the underlying infrastructure that enabled the culture of assault that is slowly coming to light. Taken with a (white) grain of salt, it's worth a read.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

Dr. Tom More lives in Louisiana, in an America some vague time in the future, a few decades past the old "Auto Age."  Of course, life in Louisiana in the future looks a lot like it did in Percy's day; there's no flying cars or technological upheaval.  There's a bit of unintentional irony in the fact that much of the novel takes place at an abandoned Howard Johnson's.  The real difference is that the political tension that Percy observed has been carried to its extremes: right-wing "Knotheads" battle bloodthirsty Lefts, and separatist black guerillas are scheming against the country-club towns of Louisiana in the woods.  The U.S.A. is on the verge of breaking up, and symbolic vines have taken over much of the abandoned infrastructure of the "Auto Age"--the highway cloverleaves and the Howard Johnson'ses.

Percy suggests that the partisan strife is part and parcel with the strife of the human soul: Knotheads have their rage and Lefts their terror.  More's invited a machine, a More Ontological Qualitative-Quantitative Lapsometer, which can identify the specific points in the brain of psychological abnormality.  It might even be able to cure what More calls the pervasive "angelism-bestialism" of modern man, the bipolar sense of detachment from the body, alternating with the primitivist wallowing in animalistic urges.  There's a fine theological point being made here about the precarious balance between soul and body, and the need to believe in the reality of both.  Someone has been sniping at More from the woods, and others seem to want to use his device not to cure the ills of America, but to exacerbate them, and bring about a literal culture war.

It's hard not to feel, on the eve of 2018, that such a vision of the future was spot-on.  Percy's intuition that political and cultural divisions in America would only deepen has to be considered confirmed.  And yet there's an aspect to Percy's vision that I no longer feel like endorsing: the belief that all are equally responsible for these divisions, Knothead and Leftist, white country clubber and black guerilla.  Or, if not equally responsible, that each comes to their enmity through the same malady of mind and soul, in a way that seems to dismiss the actual dynamics of power that create racial conflict.  I am not at all sure about this paragraph, in which More is shocked by a friend's admission that he chased a black couple out of a bowling alley:

Where did the terror come from?  Not from the wrongness, violence gives release from terror.  Not from Leroy's wrongness, for if he were altogether wrong, an evil man, the matter would be simple and no cause for terror.  No, it came from Leroy's goodness, that he is a decent, sweet-natured man who would help you if you needed help, go out of his way and bind up a strangers wounds.  No, the terror comes from the goodness and what lies beneath, some fault in the soul's terrain so deep that all is well on top, evil grins like good, but something shears and tears deep down and the very ground stirs beneath one's feet.

I think Percy is probably right that it's too easy to dismiss racism as evil, and that the more difficult and productive thing is to grapple with the way racism can take root even among people's more altruistic impulses.  But it no longer seems tenable to hold, as Love in the Ruins does, Leroy's racism on one side of the scale and the anger of the black guerillas in the swamp on the other.

Here's another part that struck me:

The poor U.S.A.!

Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn't work after all.  The U.S.A. didn't work!  Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were really not different form Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer.  Moon Mullins blames it on the n----rs.  Hm.  Was it the n----r business from the beginning?  What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers.  But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you.  And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you because you had already passed the big one.  One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him.  That's all!

One little test: you flunk!

The irony here is so thick that it's difficult to parse.  Is it satirizing the belief in America as divinely procured, or does it believe in it, deep down?  I sense that the truth is somewhere between; that Percy, through More, wants keenly to believe in the ideal of America but knows that slavery and colonalism put it to the lie.  The tone is outrageous, but I think this passage properly acknowledges how immensely slavery blots out our most cherished ideas about America, and ourselves--us whites, that is.  And it shows how difficult, perhaps impossible, that can be to process.  And yet I feel like this admission ought to lead somewhere that the novel isn't prepared to go: a greater understanding of black voices, and an acknowledgement that America's deepest problem isn't just that we all don't get along anymore.  What the past two years have taught me is that such statements are only true if the borders of "we" are drawn very tightly.

That said, Love in the Ruins is many times more successful than The Thanatos Syndrome (which is a sequel to this, though I didn't know it when I picked it up).  Percy uses his near-future setting more nimbly, sticking with pure farce instead of the CSI-type forensic quest that characterizes the sequel, and steering clear of the humor-killing blackness of the child abuse plotline.  Parts of Love in Ruins are just fun.  In the future, apparently, medical doctors battle for diagnostic supremacy before their students in a cage match called "The Pit."  More uses his battle in the Pit to test his lapsometer on his unsuspecting opponent, and proves to everyone that the mute octogenarian they're fighting over is really just pissed about living in an old folks' home.  It's silly and weird and makes perfect use of the slight separation that science fiction provides from the real world.  Leave it to Percy to find the humor in the end of the world.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Fates and Furies by Lauren Grofft

It was mathematical, marriage. Not, as one might expect, additional. It was exponential.
Fates and Furies is blurbed as a book about a marriage, and on the surface it is. Mathilde and Lotto are married at 23 in the opening pages, and the work of their relationship takes up the bulk of the novel. That being said, it is also a book about perspective (although perhaps any good book about marriage is inherently also a book about perspective). Lotto's side comes first: his childhood, his career, his side of their partnership. Mathilde's--far more interesting--takes up the second half of the novel.

Lotto is an actor and a playwright, and scattered throughout both sections of the novel are parenthetical asides; the audience is acknowledged and addressed directly. These asides break the flow of the narrative and take you out of the story, sometimes for a sentence sometimes for an entire paragraph, but they drive home the idea that this is a book about perspective and they acknowledge that you, the reader, are partaking in the story along with the characters. One of my favorite of these asides comes as Mathilde and Lotto are struggling through a particularly chaotic family holiday, one filled with tears and accusations and surfaced bitternesses. As the evening winds down, Groff pulls us out of their basement apartment to this:
A stranger hurrying as fast as he could over the icy sidewalks looked in. He was a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children, who were already sleeping in their beds, to his wife crossly putting together the tricycle without the screwdriver that he'd run out to borrow. It remained long after his children ripped open their gifts and abandoned their toys in puddles of paper and grew too old for them and left their house and parents and childhoods, so that he and his wife gaped at each other in bewilderment as to how it had happened so terribly swiftly. All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystalized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like. 
Groff does some of her best, most sweeping writing in these moments. She condenses time and space and perspective in just a few sentences, and it makes a nice break from the pacing of the rest of the novel.

It's hard to write a full review of this book without spoilers, but I think it's worth a try. In some ways, the novel feels complete at the end of Lotto's section, and Mathilde's retelling feels like it could be a totally separate piece. That being said, her perspective reshapes and reforms the entire story in unexpected ways that make the novel far more engaging and worthwhile. It gets darker, more layered, and far more imaginative with her version laid over his.

Overall, this was a fun read. It wasn't hugely literary, but it was suspenseful and the characters, while not entirely likeable, were engaging. I rarely say this, but this would be a good book to read on an e-reader. I read it in paper form, and when things really started getting crazy, I wanted to be able to reach back and find specific moments and characters. Doing that on an e-reader would have been much easier, and I think there are a few things I missed by just flipping back and forth.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

So I am left to the girls, real girls at last, in the flesh. But I'm not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I don't know what to say. I know the unspoke rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder. 
Atwood's novel, Cat's Eye, is told in brutal flashbacks to the narrator's girlhood. After a young childhood spent on the road in Northern Canada with her entomologist father, her family settles in Toronto and Elaine is taken in by a group of elementary school girls. The novel alternates between Elaine's adulthood (she is a surrealist painter, in Toronto for a retrospective show of her work) and her painful progression from elementary school through to that adult future.

Elaine's early childhood and family relationships are the comforting center of the novel. Her eccentric parents and nerdy brother provide the kind of delightfully oblivious stability that families ought to provide throughout a particularly turbulent adolescence (and, like any particularly turbulent adolescent, Elaine is fully immune to their virtues). Inserted in between the horrors of puberty are delightfully odd moments: tours of her father's entomology lab, astronomy lessons from her brother, her mother cooking dinner over a camp stove in a men's workshirt. Where Elaine is being dragged under by the current of teenage society, her family drifts somehow above it.

Where Atwood excels, and what makes the book both fabulous and at times difficult to read, is in her portrayal of the viciousness of young female relationships. Elaine's little knot of friends identifies her early on as the black sheep and spends middle and high school brutalizing her. Their attacks run the gamut from subtle ("training" Elaine by quietly pointing out her every fault) to downright cold-blooded (forcing her down a snowy riverbank and leaving her once she falls through the ice). We know Elaine survives it all, but it's touch and go there for a while. I found myself terrified that my unborn child might be a girl--no part of this experience seems okay and all parts of it felt unsettlingly familiar.

A novel build on catty female relationships could easily slide into the trashy, but Atwood's writing keeps it centered. The whole book is haunting and beautifully written, but the first paragraphs may have been my favorite (and among my favorites this year):
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his raveling maroon sweater to study and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down to his brain and nourish it. I didn't understand what he meant, but maybe he didn't explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away. 
The sweater; the slow drift of the older sibling; the fluidity of memory. All in half a page. This was an emotionally challenging read and a little bit of a slog plot-wise, but flashes like this one made it very worth it.
 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil, they will pursue you to the ends of the earth, the vomitory in their hands.  The Salvation Army is no better.  Against the charitable gesture there is no defence, that I know of.  You sink your head, you put out your hands all trembling and twined together and you say, Thank you, thank you lady, thank you kind lady.

Molloy is a vagrant on his way to meet his aged mother.  He gets waylaid: he is arrested for sitting on bicycle in a suggestive way; he accidentally runs over and kills a woman's dog; he is invited to live with that women (in place of her dog?); he kills a man in the forest.  It's never clear how long these digressions take, because Molloy's sense of time is fragmented; it could be years.  He write this story from what seems to be a kind of cell, where every now and then a man comes to take his pages away and return to him edited pages, which he does not read.

His work is peppered with aphorisms: "The fact is," he tells us, "it seems, that the most you can hope for is to be a little less, in the end, the creature that you were in the beginning, and the middle."  His style is confused but somehow, grammatically, at least, hyperclear, the stylistic effect of Beckett's method of writing in French and translating himself back into his native language, English.  He talks a lot about his body: his bad leg, and his farting.  The modernists all love pooping and farting, and Beckett's no different.  All in all, he gives an image of the world seen from the outside, not in the gritty mode of the social realist, but from the distance needed to see through the false bourgeois assurances of social realism.  He never does make it to his mother.

And then, the book shifts: done with Molloy, we follow an investigator, Jacques Moran, who has been tasked with tracking down Molloy.  For what purpose, we don't know, and neither does Moran.  Though he's less quotable than Molloy, I enjoyed Moran's half of the book--and they are almost perfectly balanced, 85 pages each--a little more.  I loved his anal retentiveness, his fastidious grumpiness, and the cruelty with which he treats his son, who he demands accompany him on this journey.  (No, Jacques Jr. cannot bring his stamp collection along.)  Along the way, Moran's body begins to fail him.  His leg starts to go wonky, and he demands his son go into town to buy him a bicycle.  He begins to take on Molloy's mannerisms--small things, like tying his hat to the lapel of his coat.

Is Moran turning into Molloy?  The novel suggests that Moran's part comes after Molloy's, but the conclusion is difficult to escape.  It's like the highbrow version of every dumb detective story where the detective turns out to be the killer.  We become what we seek, maybe.  If so, Molloy's vagrancy might redeem the uptight smallness of Moran's life.  But then again, what becomes of his son?  And where did he get this mother?  There's no answer to those questions, of course, although Beckett lulls us into forgetting that Molloy and Moran are nothing but fictional constructs of people, nothing more than what we see on the page.  And he does it not through, again, social realism, but the construction of a little circular puzzle that seems like it ought to resolve but--like life in the 20th century--doesn't.

Monday, December 11, 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

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

'I don't get you, Helio.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeesh. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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

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

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

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

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