Saturday, November 28, 2009

Novelties IV

Eating: Sweet potato, red pepper, black bean salad w/ cilantro and a lime jalapeno dressing. It seemed to be a hit at Thanksgiving. Here's the recipe.

Drinking: Chateau Le Pavillon de Boyrein 2006 Graves

Watching: The last of the fall colors on my walks.


Surfing: 1, 2

Learning: The reason that conservatives are happier than liberals, at least according to these two researchers. There is no ideology anymore - it's all psychology.

So, what's new with you?

The rewards of chosing the harder path (Books - The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble)

The long holiday weekend gave me a clean apartment, enough left-overs not to cook for a week, and a chance to catch up on old New York Times Book Reviews and finish Margaret Drabble's The Needle's Eye. What luxury - to sit in a chair uninterrupted for 3 hours and read. The problem with reading book reviews is that I now have a list of new titles it would be nice to have!

As for The Needle's Eye, my early impressions 1, 2, were driven by my reaction to the narrative voice, which I found fussy and prim, but my feelings towards the novel were warmed by Drabble's observant and deep rendering of character and the progress of the two central characters, Simon and Rose, which I had written of earlier. This is a novel about the tension that exists, as one develops insight, between being true to oneself and understanding and forgiving of others. The latter third of the book reminded me in many ways of a good Iris Murdoch plot, in which the foibles of multiple characters one has gotten to know so well become entangled and, if the pain isn't too much (usually their are some tragedies or at least near misses in Murdoch), deeper knowledge of self and sometimes love of others finally emerges. Rose, who has grown up in a largely loveless and monied household, falls in love with Christopher - a passionate, unsuitable, aspiring businessman. After the obligatory 6 months abroad, they marry and have 3 children together. She writes a check for the full amount of the money due her on her 21st birthday to build a school for an African village. Christopher and Rose then live in comparative poverty and later, due to fairly typical issues, their marriage ends in divorce. Rose is driven to live a more purposeful and more loving life than that she was given as a child, and pursues this notion of authenticity with some degree of hysteria. Her actions are tinged with the religious fanatic's lust for purity. She is not living life unless she is really working at it.

Into this mess drops loveless Simon who, having achieved his professional ambitions, is bored silly by his marriage to a socially ambitious wife and paralyzed by his lack of passion. His friendship with Rose begins as she needs advice on an impending court appearance during which Christopher will try to gain custody of their children. Rose and Simon's friendship becomes not precisely a love affair, but definitely an affair of the heart, and as intimate as a relationship can be. Simon observes in Rose someone determined to do what it takes to live out her values. This is a story of what we choose to spend our passion on. Ultimately our values are not abstract concepts held in our hearts, they are enactments realized through our actions in the context of our messy lives. Rose can give away her money, but finds that these values cannot be lived in isolation from her children or her marriage any more than they can from her past as the daughter of a wealthy family. One might label the book a coming of age novel, and in some ways it is, but for some, self-knowledge never begins and for all regardless, time marches forward. In this story Drabble shows us how development is shaped by purpose and by love. We may come of age at 21, and supposedly our frontal lobes are fully developed by then. But reaching voting and drinking age, coming into our legacy, or achieving synaptic maturity doesn't mean everything stops. We come of age again and again throughout our lives. Certainly we can see change in people and things around us even if we would rather not see it in ourselves. Drabble ends the novel with a marvelous picture of Rose's slum neighborhood becoming gentrified and her house tripling in value and finally being renovated. No matter that Rose wishes a meager existence, that must be lived in the context of the people and the forces around her. We are left with a picture of Rose, her husband, her father, Simon, his wife, and their children living in the context of the forward flow of time - as physics and biology dictate we must experience it - and those people reaching out for the those things around them that give them company when they feel alone, purpose when they feel meaningless, solidity when they become unmoored.

Drabble has concocted a rich and thoughtful novel. I think that some of my frustration with the narrative voice was a function of having to read it in too many short sessions. The sweep of time it encompasses is well matched to the swathes of its narrative that are embroidered rather than simply wrought. They were more pleasurably experienced having a longer time in which to read them. The bounty of this story and Drabble's rich development of character is a suitable reward and reason enough to read The Needle's Eye.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How narrative creates us (Books - Generosity by Richard Powers; A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti; The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble)

Three very important words: new Richard Powers. A writer who just can't stop writing about how what we know makes up who we are. A theme that has kept me returning to him book after book. Although I count his Gold Bug Variations as among my Top-10, I cannot say I have enjoyed all his books equally,in fact, there are two I just couldn't get through. But in the ones I have read, like The Echo Maker and Galatea 2.2 and especially the Gold Bug Variations, I am always astonished how he takes a fascination in our information-driven culture - the genetic code, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, a neuropsychological pathology called Capgras syndrome - and uses it not merely to structure the book, but to intersect with the basic ingredients that give character meaning - their loves, their drives, their identity. In Generosity: an enhancement for only the second time, I believe, Powers writes about writing. Also for the second time he writes about genetics. The emotional themes seems to be happiness and love. The writing has an effusive, run-on feel to it. An almost commercial chatty diction, lots of lists for sentences. I am finding it a bit annoying, truth be told. The opening of the book feels like it emerged from a writing exercise. I'm a creative-process fanatic, so I have no objection to that. I just don't want to be aware of it as I'm reading.
I give myself a first assignment: Russell Stone in one hundred and fifty words.

Start with this: His earliest crime involved a book about a boy whose marvelous scribbling comes alive. ...
Powers seems to be using the writing device as a type of virtual reality, an idea I am enjoying although it seems as perhaps the writer's faith was tested as he started this book and he's left feeling he must apologize for it.
No, you're right: those streets don't really run that way. That neighborhood is a little off. The college isn't quite there; it's not that college.

This place is some other Second City. This Chicago is Chicago's in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility. Ad these words are not journalism. Only journey.
That's may just be my feeling. What he is telling us he's doing is making a fiction and that we are supposed to take this fiction as a parallel for the creation of a genetic code. That's what you did in Gold Bug Variations, Richard, and I got it without the instruction manual. I'd rather discover through the reading how to put your ideas together. Is this Richard Powers for Dummies or what? I'm feeling a little anxious that this is going to be one of those Richard Powers books I can't read. Which is too bad, because I so look forward to his books. I'm going to give this one some more time.

I was delighted to receive an advanced reading copy of A Brief Life by a Uruguayan novelist I had never heard of - Juan Carlos Onetti. He lived in Buenos Aires and Madrid, wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s, and is described as the South American parallel of Beckett or Camus. The narrative floats in and out of time frames without preamble as our hero Brausen, moves from disatisfying life circumstances - a job that bores him, a wife who is recovering from surgery - to listening to his neighbors. Brausen uses this as a springboard for an existence that takes place in an imagined town - Santa Maria - through the lives of many characters he creates so that he doesn't have to live in his own life. It's a dark and highly imaginative work so far. I'm looking forward to reading more.

I am still making my way through Margaret Drabble's The Needle's Eye and still finding the narrative voice irritatingly verbose, but I keep coming back to it because the central characters Simon and Rose have won me over. There is nothing that is surprising to me about their blossoming friendship but I am particularly liking the way Simon, tight-laced ambitious, barrister that he is, is being revealed to himself as someone who can love. Moreover, someone who can love what he isn't supposed to love. He is seeing himself as someone he didn't know before. Rose is leading a less than conventional life, and can acknowledge her faults, but seems to be unable to live anything else. They both crave a more just world, Rose through giving away her money and living with the same means as those poorer than herself, and Simon, having worked his way up from poverty, through the law. How I just wish the diction were less runny:
It was he himself that was swamped. A bad word, swamped: because what he was, was dry, dry as a bone. And he wanted everything to be as dry as himself so that he would not be reminded of thirst. That woman in the off-licence, how her evening's plans had rejected and excluded and judged him. There was nothing to be done about it, nothing, there was nothing in himself that could save him: there was nothing to be done in life, but to keep going, keep working - and work, yes, he always came back to this point because work, could be done.....
How very Uncle Vanya. I wish the occasional sentence could have one verb. Her plans had rejected AND excluded AND judged him. And I understand the power of repetition as a rhetoric device but I would find it more persuasive if it were used more sparingly. Despite my complaining, the writing has clearly not sacrificed authority as the characters' lives are gripping my interest.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A fruitful collaboration

If you have enjoyed any of the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations of the great Russian novels as I have (I have yet to read their War and Peace but I really liked the Anna Karenina and the Crime and Punishment) then you might enjoy this interview with them from the Wall Street Journal. They're working on Dr. Zhivago now. That might be worth a re-read when it's published. I really enjoyed it the first time around.

Hat tip: Mark Sarvas

Friday, November 20, 2009

Novelties III

Installment #3:

Eating: Delice de Bourgogne - It's a triple-creme cheese. Buttery, nutty, mushroomy, with a little tartness. It's good with a fruity white wine with some acidity like a dry Riesling or Gruner Veltliner, or a lighter Red. I had it with a light Bordeaux. Nice too with a little fruit, like figs or raspberries.

Drinking: Fresh-pressed apple juice (not cider). Mmmmm.

Watching: Ready Steady Cook. One of my favorite British cooking shows in which two chefs compete against each other to make a meal in 20 minutes with ingredients for which they were not prepared.

Listening: I guess this counts as watching too...

Surfing: 1, 2

Learning: How to make poached salmon in mustard cream sauce in 20 minutes.

So what's new with you?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here to stay...

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Today’s question was suggested by Barbara: Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

I am not sure what qualities Barbara thinks give Dickens, Austen, and Bronte their status but I would say that, through a combination of insight, talent at telling an entertaining story about the big and constant forces in our lives, and the good luck of growing popular, they have endured. I was thinking about this yesterday as I was reading Richard Powers's new novel. I think his fascinations are very much our current information-oriented obsessions and despite the fact that he is a terrific writer, I think most of his books will probably not endure. Margaret Drabble is compared to Woolf and Eliot in the introduction to The Needle's Eye. I can certainly see the Eliot comparison in her diction but I wonder if this picture of 1970s values will end up telling the story of a corner of the world that still exists in 100 years. It feels a limited world even though I am enjoying the story, and I am finding the narrative voice equivocal rather than authoritative. However, I could see at least one or two of the works of her sister A. S. Byatt enduring. I see the work of Bernard MacLaverty lasting, as I said when I read Cal. He tells a great story about the same kinds of things Shakespeare and Austen wrote about - strong passions personal and national. The kind of subjects that drive lives. In addition, Ireland has a great literary tradition and that movement will produce readers. I cannot see Philip K. Dick's books surviving as anything more than quaint relics. They haven't even really survived 35 years. I cannot see Harry Potter surviving more than a generation. They're entertaining, but their ache to be popular will, I think, be very transparent, their voices generic, and their characters nothing but cute in 20 years time. But I can see Stephen King survivng. He's an entertaining story teller and a combination of real specificity about the world he creates and the way he puts words together will probably keep readers up nights 100 years from now. I see Chaim Potok's work surviving as Austen's has because it builds with words a corner of the world most people don't know so that they can see and hear it. In that world he places a story any of us would know but, because its setting is so specific, we think its stories would be different from ours. His loving point of view is evident in his telling of the story. That is, as I am writing this, a key feature of the kind of writing I predict has staying power - papable point of view in a narrative voice. In fact, isn't that finally what gives great works their authority. Virginia Woolf's ecstatic liquid poet with a glint of irony. George Eliot's voice-over-of-god narrative voice - who would dare throw one of her books away? That narrator would reach out through the pages and command one to put her back on the shelf.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Forget and forgive? (Books - Forgetfulness by Ward Just)

I had my introduction to Ward Just's work with his newest novel, Exiles in the Garden, just a few weeks ago. That book made enough of an impression on me to want to read more. Thank you Mike B. and JRJ for both recommending Forgetfulness, which I finished last night. This is the best fiction I have read since Molly Fox's Birthday. A marvelous and potent book about our recent past, and it is no easy feat to write a novel of our time without trapping the book in lingo and preoccupations soon to be forgotten, joke intended.
** THIS WHOLE REVIEW IS A SPOILER, SORRY. THERE IS NO WAY TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT IS GREAT IN THIS BOOK AND NOT WRITE ABOUT THE PLOT** The book, opens with Florette, a French woman, who becomes trapped in a snowstorm in the Pyrennes on her afternoon walk, breaks her ankle, and is picked up by three strangers who carry her on a stretcher as she slowly dies while moving out of present and past reveries. I wrote about my initial thoughts here. The rest of the novel follows Thomas, Florette's husband, a transplanted American painter, as he adjusts to his life without her.

Thomas's two boyhood friends, who work for the CIA, figure prominently in Forgetfulness. The worlds of this novel are post-9/11 Europe and America and, in a nutshell, Ward considers deeply with this book versions of life post-pain, post-loss, in which one seeks justice and in which one does not. Thomas is a painter, a man prone to reflection rather than violence. But he has done his share of odd jobs for his friends working in espionage. He now must wonder if any of his past actions could have been responsible for Florette's death. Bernard is determined to help his friend by pulling some strings and capturing the men who murdered Florette. He does so, and the crux of this novel is his arranging Thomas's witnessing their interrogation by a French operative expert (who moonlights doing Moliere with the Comedie Francaise). Ward's prose is measured, unsentimental, yet he is capable of drumming up a storm of tension as he does in a magnificent extended scene during which these two artists, the interrogator Antoine, and the painter Thomas, try to exact their measure of justice from the suspects. (I won't say how). The scene is a tour-de-force. I scarcely breathed as I read it, just wishing I could move my eyes faster.
Florette was not an ordinary woman, though I suppose that could be said of almost any woman. No one you knew well was ordinary - and if you loved her, then she was not only not ordinary but unique.
This is the crux of suffering, isn't it? Loss is entirely personal. Your loss is a fact, terrible though it might be. My loss is a tragedy. Victims of wars have been saying some version of this to each other as justification for their next killing for as long as there have been nationalistic or tribal struggles. Ward mixes political players and artistic ones like an artist mixing paints on his palettes, blending the two impulses of humanitarianism and desire for retribution. The impact of this book is how Ward allows them to play out in the hearts and the actions of artist and interrogator.

At one point in the book, Thomas visits one of the cemeteries on the Somme and reflects on World War I.
The Great War was a titanic struggle, a soul struggle, a struggle of civilizations, except it was the same civilization divided only by language and national custom. No one who lived through it returned from it entirely sane. No revenge was too harsh for the victors, no bitterness too deep for the defeated. The war glorified the values of the slaughterhouse. Nothing could justify it. Nothing could even the score, though a generation later the Germans would try.
The depiction of a struggle of civilizations sums up this novel perfectly, except in this case, the characters of individual men stand for the forces that motivated nations. After loss it can feel like the only way to survive is to remember. Justice for some is to pound our memory of our loss into the face of whomever we blame. If the men in a jail cell in Le Havre really did murder Florette and are successfully manipulated, will that really get them to mourn her uniqueness as Thomas does? And if one chooses not to hit back - does that really mean we've forgotten? Forgetfulness is at once deeply considered and action packed. The writing is calm and masterful and its preoccupations are still, largely, our own. It is everything I hope for in a great novel.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reading for obligation or for love?

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Suggested by JM:“Life is too short to read bad books.” I’d always heard that, but I still read books through until the end no matter how bad they were because I had this sense of obligation. That is, until this week when I tried (really tried) to read a book that is utterly boring and unrealistic. I had to stop reading. Do you read everything all the way through or do you feel life really is too short to read bad books?

Obligation to whom? Your time is your own; waste it if you wish. I really do feel that life is too short to read bad books, eat junk food, or drink bad wine. I've said it before and I'll say it again! That is not to say, that our tastes, our interests, or our talent as readers doesn't change. So while I feel no obligation to read anything I don't want to (except for a school assignment), I am not ashamed to try something again and am willing to contradict my original opinion by liking it. That happened with Bleak House and it happened with Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good (that didn't take until the 4th try). I actually think you do the writer greater honor if you read the book when you are best disposed to appreciate it rather than as some sort of intellectual vitamin pill or dreary chore. Read for love (or at least for like) and you might find you are a better reader.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Such stuff as dreams are made on...

Benedict Carry reports today in the Science Times on recent research into the role of dreams by Dr. J. Allan Hobson of Harvard.
Drawing on work of his own and others, Dr. Hobson argues that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but normally suppressed during waking.
Hobson sees this state tuning the brain for what it will encounter while awake. Dr. Mark Mahowald, another sleep researcher, praises Hobson's work for not letting psychological or literary notions of dreams drive his hypotheses.
Most people who have studied dreams start out with some predetermined psychological ideas and try to make dreaming fit those. What I like about this new paper is that he doesn’t make any assumptions about what dreaming is doing.
I appreciated the reporting which restrained itself from making fantastic claims and instead offered competing interpretations and some of the current sleep and dream research of other labs. The article made a point worth emphasizing - this neuroscientific research on the nature of dreams does not empty a dream of its narrative content nor obviate its psychological interpretation. It makes a hypothesis built on neuropsychological bases and tested with the tools of that trade, and offers an interpretation of its results about what function dreams might fulfill in the brain.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What drives us to act? - (Books - The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble & Forgetfulness by Ward Just)

I'm slowly working my way through two novels now, whenever I can catch a moment. Having read Margaret Drabble's recent novel, The Peppered Moth, based on the life of her mother, a fact that causes her great distress, led me to begin her latest book - The Pattern in the Carpet - a non-fictionalized memoir of her aunt which doubles as a history of puzzles and games. I had also recently acquired The Needle's Eye which many of Drabble's admirers think her strongest novel. I have begun reading it and find myself much more interested in returning to it than to The Pattern in the Carpet when I dip into a book before bed. Set in the 1970's, The Needle's Eye relates the intertwining stories of Simon, a reserved man who ascended from the lower to the upper classes of British society, becoming a lawyer. He encounters Rose, a divorced mother of three from a very wealthy family. Rose gave away all her money and lives the voluntary life of the working poor, encountering incomprehension from her family and derision from the press. Simon lived through ambition and now, having the model job and the model family (though in appearance only) doesn't know what to do with himself. He seems to have no passion, no interests, he is unable to connect, to feel his feelings and to act from them. Rose appears to live from clumsy impulse to impulse but is very much alive. Their story is told in lengthy swathes of omniscient narrative in a voice that I'm finding a bit circumlocutory, but the characters are richly drawn and I am interested to see what will happen.

Having just enjoyed my first Ward Just novel, his latest, Exiles in the Garden, I was interested to reading something else of his. Forgetfulness was among his books on the shelf at the bookstore on Friday and it seemed the one to read next. It has a stunner of an opening - for thirty pages, a woman named Florette, is carried on a stretcher through the Pyrenees in the snow having broken her ankle while walking. She doesn't know the men who are carrying her, nor where she is being taken, and she seems unable to speak. It is an interior monologue that moves back and forth between memory and the present. **SPOILER** It is obvious from the get-go that it will end in her death. Her husband, Thomas, a painter and occasional CIA operative, wants to know if her death is merely an accident or if she was murdered because of his work. **SPOILER OVER** Following the tense, hypnotic opening, the present-time action of the book is written in lean, clean prose. The dialogue between Thomas and his two American friends has the feel of a Mamet script - it is very recognizably a conversation between adult American males, but his writer's ear has rendered that artfully rather than simply transcribed dialogue from the corner bar. Being American in Europe post-9/11 is a theme that swirls through this story. Early in it several American tourists come to a bar in the small French town where Thomas and Florette live, and make quite an ugly show of themselves because they don't enjoy the wine they are served.
...It was a terrible thing, nine-eleven, but -

But nothing. But nothing. Jock's life is ruined. And he's angry. He's going to stay angry and that's his right because his life is ruined.


When they were alone at last, Thomas and Florette sat in a zone of silence, working the incident in their minds. There seemed nothing of it to discuss usefully except the question of forgiveness, mercy offered to a man living in darkness and hating every second, knowing all the while that those most directly responsible were dead and could not be called into account. He was an awful son of a bitch but his situation was not enviable. Grievous injury did not ennoble a man except in special circumstances.
Now it is Thomas who lives in darkness and wants to call to account those who took what he loved. Will he stay angry or be ennobled is the question I ask as I read on. I'm very taken by both the spare writing and the gripping story. I am liking this one even better than Exiles in the Garden.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Novelties II

I said this would be an occasional series. Here's installment number 2. What's new for me in:

Eating: Dark chocolate with chili, courtesy of The Ragazzo. Lindt makes a good one, but I know there are others out there. It's not what you think. The chili flavor combines with the chocolate the way hazelnut does to make a different taste that accentuates certain pleasures of the chocolate. This adds a very slight tang but there is just a touch of heat. I'm toying with the idea of using some to make a chicken mole, but I may just want to eat it all.

Drinking: Huang Mountain Hairpoint Green Tea - yummy, with a pronounced vegetal flavor and a very green color.

Watching: Hitchcock. What a body of work the man produced. Lately we've seen Rear Window, The Birds, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. There has been much to appreciate in Jimmy Stewart's acting too.

Listening: Perhaps I'm the last person to hear of these guys, but if you haven't checked them out - Pomplamoose Music is simply awesome. They do covers of everything from Simon and Garfunkle and Edith Piaf to Biancee. They work with the instruments they have at hand and they are genuine, passionate, immediate, and iresistably creative. I'm crazy about them.

Web surfing: These amazing photos,

Learning: There's a difference between being humiliated and being humbled and I might want to work on it, that's what my friend Kate said.

So, what's new with you?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading lives...

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Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

Memoirs can be wonderful. To hear the writing voice of someone you know for something else, acting or politics, and to see what it is they choose to show of themselves can be very revealing. Alec Guiness has written a couple of wonderful volumes about himself, as has writer May Sarton and I love publisher Katherine Graham's Personal History. I also love reading letters or journals - painter Emily Carr, composer Ned Rorem, and actor John Geilgud all come to mind. The journals of Victor Klemperer are an amazing history of the Nazi's infiltration of German life kept day by day. I find them particularly interesting when the writing makes me think that they were not intended for publication. These form an autobiography of sorts that's an analogue of a candid photo as compared to a studio portrait. Ghost written autobiorgraphies really depend on the quality of the ghost writer. Superstar-of-the-moment books obviously mass produced to sell as many copies as possible hold no interest for me. Great biographies are a favorite genre of mine. David McCullough's biography of John Adams is a masterpiece and I remember loving Merle Miller's oral biography of Harry Truman. I have Simon Callow's two volumes about Orson Welles from my friend Sheila sitting on the top of the pile for a time I get enough brain space to dive into them. While I enjoy a mammoth toe-nail-clippings-and-all biography, I have a special admiration for the succinct telling of a life with a specific angle. The one that rapidly comes to mind is Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidders' masterful portrait of physician Paul Farmer. An inspiring book if there ever was one. I'm aware in it that a writer has choosen to write a particular story in a particular way, the life that is the subject does not entirely engulf the work of art that is the book, if that makes any sense.

I'll try to add links to this post this evening, right now I'm late for Grand Rounds!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Are you in or are you out? (Books - Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just)

I had yet to read a book by Ward Just before picking up his latest, Exiles in the Garden. It is set in Washington D. C. and concerns Alec Malone, a senator's son who rejects a life in politics in favor of one as a photographer. It also concerns the women in his life, particularly Lucia, a Swiss emigre searching for a sense of belonging. Actually, that is what everyone in this book is doing, looking to belong somewhere or to something or someone. All the characters we meet from the 1960s to the 2000s are in various stages of aloneness or togetherness. We watch Alec's father's protracted final illness in which he searches his memory for clues of what connected him to life - politics - and his incomprehension at his son's disinterest in pursuing that calling. For a while, Alec and Lucia live in a house with a garden in Georgetown next to one inhabited by Central European immigrants, ambassadors and attaches, who hold frequent parties that are typical of the life Lucia misses in Switzerland. She hungrily attends them to bathe in that sense of familiarity, while Alec is more of a loner, a voyeur (not inappropriate for a photographer). Alec begins his professional life as a photojournalist but later becomes an independent artist.

The key event of the book is Alec's refusal of a job shooting the Vietnam War, ostensibly because Lucia doesn't want him to go, but mainly because he is troubled by the fact that most photography is useless and the pictures would not contribute anything of value. They were not service to country at all - they would have just a sham sort of meaning.
Alec wondered if he had made a mistake refusing the managing editor's offer. And did doubt lead him to his father's office seeking - what? Absolution? An argument? In the newspaper business war was the jewel in the crown. And his father was correct, he did have the eye for it and the agility. At the age of ten, Alec was taking photographs for the old man's campaign, learning to blend into the scenery, though the trick was to make not yourself but your camera disappear. Your eyes did the work but in the excitement of the moment your eyes were filled with emotion. Probably the same was true for a war, perhaps more emotion than your eyes could accept, not that it mattered now. Whether his father was correct about fear was another question, one that could be answered only in the event. The truth was, Alec had no desire for the war, and desire always came first. Without desire you were not a craftsman but a careerist doing what they told you to do in hopes that something wonderful would happen, a prize or a shot such as Capa's of the falling militiaman.
This choice of Alec's is the crux of the novel, and an interesting one too given that Just himself was a war correspondent turned novelist. Are you in or are you out - this book asks. It is hardly an accident that Lucia is Swiss - the supposedly neutral nation (although inaction is action too, of a sort, it has consequences at any rate). Both Alec and Lucia's relationships to their fathers are central to this story. Alec has a troubled relationship to his, as his choices in life are driven by very different engines. Lucia romanticizes hers, who she never met as he disappeared during the war and supposedly died there, but there are rumors that he was a resistance fighter and ultimately survived.

This book is about exile versus belonging - does one live in the fray or outside it? It doesn't pass judgment on the choice but rather examines the kind of people who make each - what motivates them, their satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Actually, that's not completely true, I felt the narrator ultimately did judge Lucia - despised her even - but that is because the story is ultimately Alec's. While Lucia is an exile in the sense that she lives away from her country of origin, Alec is an outsider wherever he goes. He lives on the fringe, observing and capturing bits of time. Focusing on Alec, it is not inappropriate that the book's voice is a detached one, gliding across 50 years time, landing just on the key episodes that end up joining together as a tale of key episodes rather than as a conventionally detailed plot. For a while I was dissatisfied by the sense that I was never really getting to know the characters, the narrative was composed of great swathes of generalities. But I found that the details accumulated and by the book's end I knew these people, could anticipate their behavior, and cared about their choices.

Having read this latest book of Just's, I am now interested to read an earlier one. Any recommendations?