Saturday, October 30, 2010

Telling stories about stories about... (Books - The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra)

It was Verbivore who alerted me to young Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, and his 2007 novella The Private Lives of Trees and I am glad she did. This is a smart little piece of self-reflective meta-fiction. A tale about a tale and about tale telling. At the same time, it has a cozy sweetness, despite having a protagonist who is about to (maybe) lose his wife.
Julian lulls the little girl to sleep with "The Private Lives of Trees," an ongoing story he's made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being tress and not people or animals or, as they put it themselves, stupid hunks of cement.
This evening, Julian tells Daniela this story as much for himself as for her because his wife and her mother, Veronica, is several hours late in returning home and Julian has a growing suspicion that might not do so. He makes a deal with himself that he will tell the story until she does or until he is sure she will not. As he does so, that imagined world gives way to others:
He sees Daniela sleeping, and he imagines himself, at eight years old, sleeping. It's a reflex: he sees a blind man and imagines himself blind, he reads a good poem and imagines himself writing it, or reading it aloud to nobody, driven on by the dark sound of the words.

He takes a long second to create, instead, an eye-catching room, replete with mirrors and a fountain that emits a subtle artificial noise. He imagines Veronica dulled by rough whiskey, topped off with a few lines of coke, moving, unhurriedly, on top of someone.
Julian has gotten into the habit of always imagining and drawing out his imaginings in his form and playing with them. It is an artist's habit. If he imagines, he writes. Zambra, the writer writing of the writer, plays with the written form as a hall of mirrors.
When someone doesn't come home in a novel, Julian thinks, it's because something bad has happened. But this is not, fortunately, a novel: in just a few minutes Veronica will arrive with a real story...
This works at most points in the novel except for Zambra's self-referential reference to his first book, Bonsai.
At the end of a cold night of writing, Julian decided to stop filling pages with diffuse and indecipherable stories; he would write, instead, the diary of a bonsai, a painstaking registry of the tree's growth. It seemed simple....
This reference got a little cute for me, it was as if Zambra couldn't figure out where the joke should end. The most powerful imaginings of this intellectual adventure, is Julian's imagining his step-daughter Daniela at 15, then at 30 years old, without a mother, reading this novel, which contains her 8-year-old self hearing a story about trees....

This is a story about how we remember in stories, project to our future with stories, how we comfort with stories, how indeed we create our lives through stories, or at least it feels that way while we are telling it. It is a swift and sweet read from a fresh voice (as translated by Megan McDowell). I'm tempted to get a copy of Bonsai and see what Zambra's debut was like.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The risk of standing in another's shoes (Books - Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson)

Hans Keilson wrote Comedy in a Minor Key over fifty years ago after emigrating to Holland from Nazi-occupied Germany. Keilson was a child psychiatrist as well as an author, and a few of his books were recently re-released on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Comedy... concerns a Dutch couple who take in a Jewish man who must go into hiding or risk being deported to a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They risk their own lives to save Nico, as he is known to them. They give him a bed, food, and friendship, hiding him from the cleaning lady and the milkman, but when he dies they panic, because his dead body is more of a risk to him than his live one ever seemed to be.
Before the doctor left he went up to Marie, took her right hand in his hands, and said in a solemn voice, There is no one here to offer condolences to. That's often how it turns out. But still, it must be a loss for you. In fact, you probably have the most difficult burden - problem," he corrected himself...
"But it's not as dangerous as you think," the doctor continued, because he had the impression that they were still a little frightened. "There are a lot of other things that could have happened. Never mind, infectious diseases that we have to report - diptheria, a child with polio. That is very, very unpleasant. But there are also children born in circumstances like this..."

"That's impossible," Marie stammered. It was horrible to think of. Children? Did people have no sense of responsibility?

"Really, it's true," the doctor confirmed, having guessed Marie's thoughts. "I have personally brought quite a few into the world. Four little Jewish babies. Strong boys. They scream just like every child screams when it comes into the world. But that's the danger! Someone could hear them! The neighbors! In childless marriages, after twelve, fourteen barren years, suddenly there are children born. Naturally they are sent off to other families."
Keilson has an eye for the ironic detail that arises in the midst of everyday life. He smiles in the face of disaster - very much like Chekhov. These conflicts are life, he seems to tell the reader. The Nazis are murdering millions, a world war is fought, and people still have the nerve to be born, sicken, and die day every day. And he does so, at least in this translation by Damion Searls, in straight forward, everyday prose. His language is clean and his ironic eye is a compassionate one. As Marie takes care of Nico, first in health and then in sickness (it's almost a second marriage for her), she struggles to imagine herself in Nico's shoes so that she might understand him.
Then Nico came to her mind again. She had understood him. The whole time he was hidden in her house she thought she understood better and better - understood both him and the other thing that stood behind him, invisible, which he embodies - until at last, alone in his room, she got to what was behind his secret too. But now it seemed different to her, as though she herself had entered into this secret in a new way. And she remembered having seen, every once in a while, a flitting in his eyes as though dogs were hounding him.
Lovely writing. This story, like many that I like, is about the struggle to know another person's circumstances the way they do. It is can be difficult to know another's circumstances, especially if that is in any way unpleasant. For example, when someone is grieving or when they are ill. I think that might be why so many people think that other people are handling grief or illness well when they are being positive. This is more wishful thinking on their part, so that they might skirt negative feelings. As though in fear we might catch pain by imagining it. Standing in another's shoes is the only true way to imagine another's life, says this book. In that act is an element of risk, so not everyone is up to it. That practice is called compassion, and it is the subject of this wonderful little novella.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Playing ball to know the other (Books - The Hustle by Doug Merlino)

The Hustle by Doug Merlino is about the socio-politics, economics, and personal drama of relations between blacks and whites in America. Merlino, a journalist, (and also a friend and the provider of this advance copy) played on a basketball team in 1980s Seattle that was the dream- child of a black coach from the inner-city and a wealthy white entrepreneur. Both were fathers of teenage boys, both were proponents of the value of team sports for making men out of boys who can collaborate with one another on reaching a collective goal, but both wanted an experience for the boys of their city that was about building a less racially divided future. When Merlino learns of the death of one of his fellow teammates, he is moved to remember:
Reading the story again, it becomes clear that the reason Tyrell's death was considered worthy of the front page was his involvement in integration programs - there was one where wealthy families from the suburbs "adopted" poorer ones at holiday times; and there was our team. The reported spoke to Coach McClain, who told her, "We thought it was a good idea to expose these different kids to each other, to combine inner-city kids with rich white kids. And it worked."

I wonder if it had actually "worked" for anyone. Did any of the white kids still think about it? What had happened to my black teammates who'd gotten into private schools through Randy Finley's efforts? It was nearly twenty years since we'd all practiced together in the Lakeside gym. How had my teammates fared? What kind of men were they? Did anyone, like me, miss the amaraderie we got from playing together?
The basketball team was, in essence, a social experiment in knowing the other. Merlino fulfills that experiment in writing a book that attempts to understand whether they gained that knowledge and the men that the team members became as a consequence of it.

He takes on two roles in this book, one as a team-member who was affected by the experience, and who is touched as he gets to know each of his fellow team members as adults:
We pull up the driveway in front of my house, a large, gray, modernist structure with two gables. It has a basketball hoop and the outline of a key set in front of the three-car garage. Damian asks, "What side do you live on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you live on the right side or the left side?"

It takes me a second to catch on.

"It's just one house," I say, clutching my gym bag.

"You mean this is just for your family?"

"Yeah, we're the only ones who live here."

I pull the door open and thank Coach McClain for the ride.

"I'll see you guys at practice," I say and scurry into the house.

I'm embarrassed. All the gawking undermines the feeling fostered by playing on the team - that we are all equals. I worry that my teammates might not like me after seeing the house. The next day at school, Eric tells me that the guys had joked about my reaction on the way back to the Central Area, saying "He probably didn't invite us in because he was scared we'd steal everything."


There is nothing I can really say. I have never seen house and have no idea how he lives. For the whole season, the black side of the team always makes the commute north. We never visit the Central Area.
This is a personal, retrospective voice, one of memory. This is the less formal of the two. Merlino peppers his memoir with relaxed, chatty, diction:
On the court, though, the team kind of resembles the chickens - they get blown out in the three games they play.
Although full of perceptive details, the frequent use of phrases more typical of spoken diction, gives some of these passages an equivocal tone. This creates a modest character for Merlino the team member, one that is easy to read. It sometimes feels a less secure voice which can undermine his security as the chronicler of his teammates' personal narratives, but the positive side of that choice is that it communicates the unease of race as a subject that is so prevalent in America out of which Merlino writes. He writes these sections in the present tense which gives them immediacy:
JT joins the freshman basketball team and scrapes by in school. Then his mom, who has always been the center of his life, starts to use cocaine, and things quickly go south from there. Often when JT comes home, the shakes are drawn and all the lights are off. There's no food in the house. People stop by at all hours, laughing and talking while JT tries to sleep. One guy passes out in the living room with a stack of money piled on his belly. JT stops going to school, runs away from home, and takes to the streets, sleeping in bus shelters when he can't find any other place. He never plays organized basketball again.
This is, I acknowledge, a contemporarily accepted literary practice, but I sometimes found it jarring, so aware was I of the key function that memory was playing. I thought that the distance afforded by past tense might have been able to be more consistently played off of the writer's present knowledge. Granted, the use of present tense probably makes for a less choppy narrative.

Merlino's second role assumes a distinct narrative voice from the first. It is that of the journalist who gives us context - the social history of black Seattle, the economics of cocaine use in American cities, Seattle's tech boom and subsequent bust - and then brings it back to the story.
...On the West Coast, cocaine was brought up through Mexico and smuggled over the border, where it was then sold to already established street gangs in Los Angeles. They converted the powder to crack and began to sell it in their territories, with violence often erupting when one set infringed on the turf of another.

With their own markets saturated, the Los Angeles gangs began moving the drug to other cities, which was as simple as loading the trunk and heading up the freeway....The first time crack really registered in my consciousness came that March, when a different issue of Newsweek landed in our mailbox. The headline KIDS AND COCAINE was splashed on the front...
For middle-class people, this had been the model for decades - men went off to the office or factory, worked as part of a team within a formalized structure (the corporation or the state), played their part, and came home to the women and children. This had been the pattern since industrialization in the mid- and late 1800s, when youth sports leagues such as the YMCA and the AAU had been established. With men leaving farms to work in offices and factories, the idea of Muscular Christianity was that boys needed organized structures in which they could develop physically and enter into competition to avoid becoming too feminized. The skills learned on the field - stamina, discipline, sacrificing for the good of the team - were supposed to translate later into success in the working world. This was still the model when we were boys...
These passages are terse, energetic, and fact-filled. They provide context that is relevant to the story and efficiently tied it back to the personal narratives, and in contrast to the voice assumed in the personal narratives, this one projects confidence.

The Hustle brings together these two perspectives in one book that has value because it treats the sociopolitical history of race credibly while communicating its relevance to individual's lives. Race as it is dealt with in America today, is a subject that makes many non-American roll their eyes, but it is relevant to struggles in other countries that one can read in the papers every day: the Turkish workers in Germany, the North Africans in Holland, the Pakistanis in England. These have socio-economic and imperialist roots without the added burden of legalized slavery, but their relevance is still apparent. Race is a subject many Americans probably hoped they had gotten beyond by electing a Black president, but it is ubiquitous and, at this point in our history largely inseparable from socioeconomic inequity. The Hustle is an accessible source of insight. While it is useful to know facts about social, political and economic history of the relations between blacks and white in America, that can be comfortably distancing. At the end of the day its meaning is most apparent in its consequence to individual lives. The Hustle succeeds as a book by being honest about what's personal, clear-eyed about what is factual, and having its narrative driven by the emotions of nostalgia and loss. It is to be released in December but you can pre-order a copy here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Foreign invasion...

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Name a book (or books) from a country other than your own that you love. Or aren’t there any?

You're kidding, right? How can you love books and reading and not read further afield than your own back yard? Understanding the experience of others is one of the chief reasons I read. A few favorite non-American titles are:

Any Human Face - Charles Lambert (Italy/England)
Molly Fox's Birthday - Deirdre Madden (Ireland)
Tell Me Everything - Sarah Salway (England)
Hopeful Monsters - Nicholas Mosley (England)
Cloud Street - Tim Winton (Australia)
Howards End - E. M. Forster (England)
The Glass Bead Game - Hermann Hesse (Germany/Switzerland)
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevski (Russia)
The Cherry Orchard - Anton Chekhov (Russia)
The Waves - Virginia Woolf (England)
A Very Long Engagement - Sebastien Japrisot (France)
Atonement - Ian McEwan (England)
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry (India)
At Swim Two Boys - Jamie O'Neill (Ireland)
The Poems of Tomas Transtroemer (Sweden)
The Imposter - Damon Galgut (South Africa)
Mr. Mani
- A. B. Yehoshua (Israel)
Fall on Your Knees - Anne-Marie MacDonald (Canada)
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Sasa Sanisic (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany)

...and yourself?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Existential angst in Sussex (Books - The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson)

How much is enough? At its core, William Nicholson's The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life is about abundance. When I began reading this book I was immediately grabbed by the quality of its prose, its succinct communication of character and situation with the right collection of details:
She recognizes the handwriting on the envelope. She drinks from her mug of tea, looks across the kitchen table at Henry, sees him absorbed in the triage of the morning post. One pile for the bin, one pile for later, one for now. He uses a paper knife when opening letters. Not a kitchen knife, an actual slender, dull-edged blade made for the purpose. The children silent, reading. Rain outside the windows puckering the pond.
There is a ton of information in that opening paragraph. A family is introduced. We know Henry is fastidious. And, although we are reading a third-person narrator, the woman who is the subject of the opening sentence is still nameless. Somehow this seems to make the point of view of this paragraph her's and, by the use of the word actual, we might conclude that she is something other than fastidious. Then there is that letter, who is it from? So Nicholson has also created a little suspense. Good writing.

Not only is Henry fastidious, his deep love for his wife, Laura, and their children makes him anxious about their possible loss. While Henry dotes on his family, he hates his job as a the writer and director of a television program on history, which features a celebrity scholar who receives all the credit for Henry's work. Laura's letter turns out to be from her first love, and so the lives of these upper-middle class Sussex suburbanites or really, villagers, is thrown into existential disarray. Henry, Laura, her first love, their employers, and family are the center around which revolve several other characters - a divorced mother and journalist whose child is bullied at school, the vicar who is more interested in preaching about kindness than about a god he has trouble believing in, a school teacher who would rather write for the theatre - we make desultory jumps from story to story as all fight the mundane battles of their exterior lives as well as the troublesome inner battles of doubt, disappointment, and what-ifs that can plague an adult life lived with ambition and insight. The central characters' more or less converge on a performance of Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne, which Nicholson uses as a suggestive scaffold for his own plot, which shares superficial similarities with the opera, including multiple characters' sexual hi-jinks, troubles in marriages, mistaken suspicions, and ultimate redemption.

On the one hand Nicholson treated the secret dread of his characters with loving depth and insight and he is capable of laying good prose on the page. However, I felt this insight was reserved for the characters who are (as far as I can tell) most like himself. Although he shows compassion to the only farmer left in the village, he never enters this character's head. He is pitied from the outside. He does try to enter the mind of an elderly, mentally-addled landlady, but that character comes off feeling satirized, rather than loved. The wealthier urban sister of Laura, who also attends the opera, is mocked outright:
Laura's Sussex life has no bearing on Diana's metropolitan concerns, and when her bored gaze passes regally over Laura's house and husband and children it's only to confirm that there's nothing here to merit her attention. Her habitual expression when spoken to is one of mild surprise, as if to say, 'How curious to think that this person imagines I want to hear this.'
This came off as its own kind of snobbishness to me. As if to say, if you have more money than me and live in the city, you cannot possibly have an interior life worthy of my examination. Nicholson likes to plumb the depths of disappointed adult ambition and desire, yet I found his writing of sex somehow not quite believable. I thought the two characters whose point of view he captured with the most verisimilitude and tenderness were the vicar, who offers more loving compassion to his parishioners as a doubter than many a bible-thumper, and the children. Nicholson writes beautifully of a two young childrens' psychic pain as they are the victims of their own heartache and attempts at social mobility.

Nicholson seems to have trouble trusting that his story will get his points across and can't resist peppering the narrative with instructions for what to read in it:
When are we supposed to be satisfied? Monogamy is just a social arrangement, introduced to protect property rights, subsequently elevated into a secular religion.
It's not that I disagree. I would just have Henry's point of view revealed from his behavior than have it close-captioned.
People want to tell their stories, but they're afraid they're too trivial to deserve the attention of others. They are trivial, perhaps, compared to the great dramas we read about in the newspapers. But if you could enter the minds of hearts of each person you meet in the course of a day I think you would be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. I may think I'm the only one whose voyage is through the wild seas, but we're all sailors in the storm.
Ok, ok, I know this is probably the paragraph that led to the creation of this entire book but really, if the novel doesn't communicate it well enough to leave this paragraph on the cutting-room floor then I'm not sure one can say it does its job. George Eliot pulls those grant thematic pronouncements off but from Nicholson's pen they read to me as a trifle insecure. At the end of the day, the use of the Nozze di Figaro and one of his character's own plays makes it obvious how the action will conclude, so the dramatic tension slackens over the concluding chapters of the novel and Nicholson fails to knit the separate skeins that comprise this novel's actions together as a cohesive whole. I loved the themes, but the overall impact of The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life fell a little flat for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A collection of objets d'art (Books - Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch)

The past week has been a heavy one of studying for exams, writing papers, and school-related reading at bookeywookey. So I uncharacteristically had scarcely a minute to read anything of a more recreational nature. I finished Denton Welch's Maiden Voyage on a subway ride last Saturday but haven't been able to write about it until now. This book sits somewhere between novel and memoir. It concerns Denton Welch, an English boy, who at 16 feels very out of place because of his love for objets d'art and his hatred for his public school. He runs away and then gets sent to his father in Shanghai. The book concerns his year-long visit there as he flirts with soldiers (even in the 1930s he wrote openly of his attraction to men) and gets invited to people's homes because they have heard of his love for pretty things. It is unknowingly peppered with many instances of that institutionalized imperialist racism and antisemitism the British Empire was so famous for, which frequently had me cringing. Otherwise this book consists of two things an acute sensitivity to what surrounds him:
On the desk near the door was a lovely Greek bronze head. Its empty eye-sockets made it look blind and as if it were crying. The librarian showed us how the inlaid eyes would have fitted, and where tufts of hair were inserted in the holes on the scalp.

We left the library and went into the private dining room. A sticky-looking, empty medicine bottle was on the sideboard.

"The mixture. To be taken three times a day. His Grace the Duke of Devonshire," I read. I wondered what it had tasted like and what it was for. If I had been alone I would have smelled the bottle.
Welch has a talent for choosing the details that will help the reader have a fully sensoral appreciation for what he describes. He also makes smarter-than-his-years observations about many of the people he meets accomplished with the more-than-occasional well-turned phrase:
"People think that because you're grown up you don't want any fun."

"Yes, isn't it silly?" I said politely.

"Shut up all day in that uniform, you need a little freedom when you can get it," she mused as if talking to herself.

Now I knew why Nurse Robins was so quiet. She hated her uniform. She wanted to run in the fields, to trip over mole-hills and sprawl in the mud. She was Peter Pan to herself.
Or this moment of horror which, even though it seems a rip-off of the beating of the horse in Crime and Punishment is still a grotesque - horrible and beautiful:
One day as I walked through one of these mournful villages, I saw a strange creature steadying himself against the counter of an open shop. He was in rags, and his chin was covered with stubble, but he was young, and against the background of jeering Chinese faces his skill looked almost startlingly white...

I watched him trying hopelessly to push through the crowd. He was swaying dangerously and a vicious kick brought him down. He lay still, with his face in the gutter. People spat on his back where the white skin showed through the rents in his paper-thin shirt. Others aimed playful kicks at his hard, trembling buttocks. A little boy jumped on his shoulders and straddled his neck with small fat legs and dimpled knees. He grabbed two tufts of the man's hair and jigged up and down on his neck, riding him as if he were a horse.

I waited until the crowd melted away; then I went up to the man. He lay breathing into the dust, making a frightening, grating sound in his nose and throat. I was about to try to turn him over when he groaned and muttered something angrily. I stepped back and watched him staggering to his feet. He began to sway very slowly out of the village. I walked behind, keeping my eyes off him for fear of seeing him fall again.

Suddenly he began to sing, throwing his head from side to side, and waving his arms wildly. He shouted the words and rolled along as if he were happy; then, as suddenly as he had begun, he stopped. His hands dropped, his head fluttered weakly and he fell. But this time it was soft grass that received him. We were all alone in the country. I looked down at his face lying sideways amongst the blades of grass. A little tickle of saliva ran out of the corner of his mouth and lost itself in his young beard. He looked like Jesus.
I found the sections like the one above startlingly poignant, but these were set pieces amidst the second of the two features of Maiden Voyage - a tiresomely repeated refrain of someone or other saying "I have heard you like pretty things..." and young Denton going off to that someone's home and admiring their coffeepots and their little glass bottles or wishing to dress in a fez "like Disraeli in 1830." Just a few chapters before his departure and the book's end, Denton pays a visit to his selfish aunt, telling a story of a shameful childhood memory as the background to his present visit, which ends up being coincident with his uncle having a stroke:
I said good-night and went to my own room. There on the bedside table lay the Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I took the book up and wished that I could write a story about a mandarin swinging from the scarlet beam, my uncle's sudden stroke, Clutterbuck's sour philosophy, and my aunt's childish, pleasant love of show and her longing for affection.
He had, in fact, done just that. But I found myself wishing that he could have told more stories like it. It is one of the few satisfying sections of the book amidst what ends up feeling a frivolous collection of impressions loosely arrayed like the pretty objects he sees in the homes he visits. The book never finds a form that gives integrity and completeness to the full-length work suggested by the covers that collect its pages together. Its admirably precocious but finally a little precious, and makes me wonder if it is the strength of Welch's writing that so many admire or the experience of that writing in the context of the knowledge of his tragic accident at age twenty and subsequent death at thirty-three? I'm not sure yet what I think. I may have to read another of his books to decide.

Vacations are for reading...

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A question much on my mind as I get ready to pack for vacation:When you travel, how many books do you bring with you? Has this changed since the arrival of ebooks?

As far as I am concerned, a vacation is an opportunity to read away from the typical pressures of life, acquire new books at bookstores I've never been to, take a look at the books in the libraries of the b&bs we stay at, and get through my stack of old New Yorker and New York Times Book Reviews to get new ideas for reading I want to do. In fact, a vacation is not a vacation for me if I can't read. On a ten day trip I might take 6 or 7 books with me and I will usually bring even more of them home. Sometimes I have even mailed a box home. And, no, ebooks have not changed this habit of mine, since I don't read books in electronic format. Were it not for my love of reading on vacation, I would be considered a very efficient packer. I generally take only one 25" suitcase and a small carry-on. They are just weighed down with books. So I wouldn't say I'm excatly your model unless you like heavy luggage.