Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Long Time No See by Dermot Healy

Dermot Healy. Long Time No See. Viking, 2012.

I loved this book, and, after having put aside a couple of books without finishing them, it reminded me about how wonderful it can be to read an excellent novel. This story takes place in an Irish coastal village in 2006. In many ways it could take place at any time, but we are reminded from time to time that it is in our own time as mobile phones are mentioned or a recent popular song. The narrator is a young man who is just finishing school and preparing for college. We are not privy to his thoughts, it more as though we are hearing what he hears and seeing what he sees. The novel has plot elements, but it isn't plot driven. Overall, we realize what doesn't change with the times is the importance of community, friendship, family, and caring about others. This is not a sentimental book with a simplified message.

Philip, or Mister Psyche as he is called by his granduncle, is spending his summer picking up work around the village, assisting his father on jobs, and looking out for his aged granduncle and his granduncle's aged friend, The Bird. In his spare time, he is building a wall with stones from the ruins of an nearby ancient monastery. Fierce storms, long hours of work, concern and worry for failing friends and family members, loneliness  are all part of this novel. The old are lonely in their old age, the many foreigners, particularly from Eastern Europe, are lonely in their distance from home, the young are lonely as they contemplate leaving home or the loss of a friend. But as Philip tells the story, everyone is cared for by someone else--it comes naturally and is a way of life.

The narrative style is interesting and takes a few pages to settle into ... because we're thrown into the story without context. It isn't exactly stream of consciousness, but it isn't a straightforward telling of a tale. Details emerge and add to the overall impression creating a complete picture. I will look forward to other novels by Dermot Healy.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mikhail Epstein. Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (1)

Epstein, Mikhail. Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. NY: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Epstein is diving into the broad discipline of humanities and starting anew. I hope to bit by bit write about what he is laying out in his manifesto. Writing from a Russian intellectual tradition he looks at, among other Russian intellectuals, Mikhail Bakhtin, in particular comparing his ideas of community, birth, unity, and culture to those of Foucault (to greatly oversimplify). Epstein does this in part to support his concept of moving from a world of post- to a world of proto-.

In this post I will just write a few lines about his idea of word formation. In Chapter 6, entitled "Semiurgy: From Language Analysis to Language Synthesis," Epstein explores that idea of word coinage and formation. He briefly describes three types of sign making, combinative (most textual writing and in particular philosophical and literary writing), descriptive (words and their definitions as in dictionaries for instance) and the third being formative, or sign formation, the introduction of new signs into language. Epstein himself is developing a new vocabulary throughout his book, which includes an eight page glossary of new vocabulary. He predicts that "sign makers" and "sign givers" will become as important as "law makers," because he sees these two distinct activities as complementary. "[L]aw makes everyone subject to self-restriction, while the new sign creates for everyone a new opportunity for self-expression" (98). The combination of signs (as in philosophical and literary writing) will move from the bringing together of old signs, to the generation of new signs.

Along with the creation of new signs comes the evolution of new concepts bringing with it "new layers of meanings" and "new shades and nuances in the range of feelings, actions and intentions" (99). As an example Epstein presents nine new words for love including dislove, "a deeper feeling than 'dislike', a matter of personal relationship rather than taste" and siamorous, "closely connected by a psychic symbiosis based on love" (100-101). Epstein calls these new words protologisms, "a freshly minted word not yet widely accepted" (101). The name for the next phase for the newly created word as it moves into common use (aided by the prevalence of the Internet) is neologism.

To support this active development of language, Epstein calls for a fourth branch of Semiotics that he calls Semionics (the first three being semantics, syntactics,  and pragmatics). Semionics would be the study of the activity of generating new signs (99) complimenting Semiurgy, which is the practice itself of creating new signs.

Epstein talks about the development of new words and the augmentation of language in the same way a cosmologist might talk about the universe. He exhorts all those tied to words and language to give back.

"A new word is like a mini-meme; it contains the strongest power of propagation, since the maximal meaning is generated with the minimal sign. Cultures that worship Logos as the Word that was before everything must also pay attention to the Neologism, or anticipation of the new word, still silent in the depths of language, until the moment when it bursts into life. In this respect, I wish to make a plea to all writers, lecturers, orators, linguists, literary scholars and teachers, and journalists. We are all users of language's treasures, drawing from it words and phrases and turning them into the means of our very existence; in this way, language value turns into monetary value. We are all dependent on language for our lives. However, language has no Internal Revenue Service agency, to which each of us must pay back with at least one new word for each thousand or tens of thousands of words we have used. And yet, we still can repay our debt (if only in part), enriching language with new words. Let it be a matter of our professional honor" (104).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Greek and Roman Historians, II: Should We Read Them

Revisiting Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation by Michael Grant (Routledge, 1995) and in particular his penultimate chapter, "Should We Read the Ancient Historians?"

Not surprisingly, the answer is yes and in some respects an unqualified yes. The qualifications make their way into the assessment if you ask, "should we read them in order to know exactly what happened in ancient history?" Grant takes a quick look at all histories, whether written last week or a couple of thousand years ago. He writes that "the truth is hard to capture" despite the fact that it is the truth toward which historians aim. Grant evokes the 19th century and its turn toward a scientific approach to the reliance on facts, events, and dates supported by evidence found in documents and observation. But facts are of little use without interpretation. Historians must present the facts, as well as the ideas behind the facts. He quotes Ranke who wrote that historians must, "show why things happened and . . . the forces which were at work." Ranke urged the historian to note "changes, relationships, causes and consequences, and to explain the sequence and connection of events" (92).

But science is not without its biases and how we think, the values we've inherited, color or influence what we see and how we interpret what we see. No amount of science or evidence can do away with the bias that comes with recording history. Isn't this why we exhort students to critically assess the sources they are working with--author affiliation and previous works, supporting entities such as publishers and associations, and sources cited in any particular work. Isn't this why we have controversies over smoking, global climate change, immigration policy, the trade offs of nuclear power, and so on.

Grant offers that each generation of historian has a greater share of historical experience than the previous generation, but despite the availability of more and more accurate documentation, each historian is a product of his or her time and place. He offers three caveats regarding the difficulty of objectivity--concepts to keep in mind when reading history:

1) Every age rewrites history and revisits the past, this can shed new light and new perspective, but, he writes, "that can result in anachronism when the past is being considered" (92).

2) Any person, any one writing history, cannot escape their own personality. Grant quotes Theodore Mommsen to elucidate this, "history is neither written nor made without love and hate" (92).  In addition, he invokes Benedetto Croce to point out that "history is always contemporary history," and the past is meaningless "except as it exists for us" (93). Historians are always present in their work.

3) Finally, historians have to select. Grant devotes a significant amount of attention to this detail in the body of his book. Historians can only select from what they know--what is buried or otherwise lost might reveal a different story, but it is a story that is lost to us.

Grant views the ancient historians as working within the genre of literature. They are literary artists, focusing on people and events they deemed to be important. They elaborated, created speeches, made choices about which tales and stories to incorporate and which to leave out; they aimed to please their audience. Despite this, they are our best single source of information, and they represent their particular universe regardless of the veracity of their assertions. Grant recommends that readers apply literary analysis when interpreting the ancients. "The glory of the ancient historians is unrelated to any particular age, because it is timeless. We must read them because of the  wonderful and influential literature that they wrote" (99).

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera

Romesh Gunesekera. The Prisoner of Paradise. Bloomsbury, 2012

This novel of the Colonial English and to a minor extent the French and their colonized subjects takes place on the island of Mauritius in 1825. Lucy, recently orphaned has traveled from England with her Aunt Betty to settle on the island and all the promise of a new start with her aunt and Uncle George who live at the lovely garden estate of Ambleside. Uncle George has been entrusted with Lucy's inheritance, which is intended to be enough to allow her to live independently (married or unmarried) when she comes of age. Uncle George has an official position and sees the island as full of potential for advancement and reward. "...[T]he British victory in 1810 ended ninety years of French vacillation; ...the subsequent treaty of Paris marked the start of a great enterprise where control of the Cape, Ceylon and Mauritius, would ensure that trade with India would be for ever British and noble" (18). Besides the French and the British, the island was the enforced home to an enslaved population of prisoners from Britain's other nearby colonies. Interestingly, the "prisoner" in the title of the novel is singular, but there are many prisoners, literally and metaphorically, in this novel.

In many ways, Prisoner of Paradise resembles E.M. Forester's Passage to India, but with the perspective of the colonized more intimately portrayed. In addition, Gunesekera juxtaposes the condition and status of the colonized, both slave and independent to that of, in this case, British women. The island environment suggests freedom from social constraints of class, rigid behavioral codes, and divisions formed by racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. And yet, the island is full of enslaved prisoners, Lucy and her aunt or at the mercy of the whims of the uncle. And even Uncle George and those who share his power and privilege must adhere to a some vestige of social decorum. Other central characters in the novel include the gifted linguist Don Lambodar and the exiled Prince for whom he is a translator, and the prince's cousin Asoka, all from Sri Lanka. They have their own sense of the barbarity and inscrutability of their Island hosts.

Lucy and her Aunt Betty share much in their view of their location and condition. Betty, coming from an older generation, has a carefully constructed view of her place in the household and working within the confines of an unhappy marriage, has made the most of her situation. She has maintained a kind of control through developing a careful routine and maintaining a standard for her expectations. In addition she has lavished much care on her garden even to the extent of creating a private space where she can be assured of being left to herself. Aunt Betty is strikingly different from her husband in that she treats her servants respectfully, addresses them by name and has provided opportunities for education and personal development. She lives perhaps unconsciously by a code of humanity, rather than by a colonialist's code. George is essentially a slave master, referring to his servants as boy or by other insulting terms. He must flaunt his status and power and is at the same time corrupted by both.

Lucy, was raised in a less restrictive environment and arrives on the island ready and waiting to be experience freedom. Her head is filled with the romantic novels of travel and adventure she grew up reading. From her reading, Lucy has a particular expectation for what the "Orient" has to offer her. She is immediately, though guardedly, taken with Don Lambodar, the handsome and cultivated multi-linguist in the service of the exiled Prince. She and Don Lambodar are a perfect illustration of cross cultural miscommunication. Neither understands the other despite being strongly attracted to one another. While their relationship is not explicitly forbidden, it is on the threshold of impropriety.

Aunt Betty is anxious for Lucy to marry and becomes more anxious as the narrative plays out. Aunt Betty's marriage gradually reveals itself to Lucy as a very unhappy situation--not to be sought after. Aunt Betty's husband, George, at first appears to be a jovial, indulgent husband and uncle, but his character becomes more and more sinister as the novel progresses. There are hints that his interest in Lucy, even as a small child, was more carnal than protective. His tendency toward drunkenness brings out this dangerous side of his character. While the reader senses the precarious situation of the household within the triangle of Betty, George, and Lucy, there is never any indication that Lucy considers herself to be threatened by her uncle's prurient interest in her.

Lucy's mind is on imagining her own freedom and her waxing and waning interest in Don Lambodar as the household's tenuous balance begins to shift toward instability. While she begins to note that things are amiss, she really has no sense of what the troubles might be. Aunt Betty's ability to put appearances and practicality ahead of calling her husband to account of his marital lapses, has lulled George into a false sense of security. In a final hubristic act, George bring his mistress and her daughter into the household to act as a maid. Lucy, thinking that mother and daughter are sisters, brings them into the house when her aunt is not at home. Although Lucy is unaware of their connection to George, Aunt Betty is very much aware of who they are and why they are there. Eulalia, the mother and mistress (and daughter to a respected former slave on the island), shows a lack of respect to Aunt Betty and makes no pretense to playing out her role as housekeeper.

In the meantime, as neither slave, nor prisioner, nor British, Don Lambodar finds himself in an uneasy role between his social position of more or less equality with the empowered and his sympathies for the oppressed. They, the enslaved prisoners, seek him out as one with connections and the ability to communicate. But his efforts to speak on behalf of the prisoners is hampered by his inability to understand the minds of those with whom he attempts to negotiate. He no better understands the workings of Lucy's mind than he understands the prejudice and grasping, mean spiritedness of George and his ilk on the island.

This arrival of Eulalia and her daughter, coincides with Don Lambodar's decision to let Lucy know exactly how he feels by letter. At the same time Lucy has decided to treat Don Lambodar more kindly and to try to make up for other times when she has been curt and unfriendly to him. There are hints that George has rashly dealt with Lucy's inheritance. As she counts on her future independence, the freedom that will come with that independence, and her ability to choose or not choose marriage, it becomes apparent to the reader, and possibly the Aunt, that George has done the unthinkable by speculating away Lucy's inheritance. With this storm brewing within the household, a terrible hurricane sweeps across the island, overturning everything: a storm within a storm.

In the end Lucy finds her dreamed of freedom elusive. Don Lambodar, with fewer expectations, perhaps, survives the devastation of the storms, but does not emerge unscarred. Uncle George, having indulged his pride in bringing his mistress into the house that he shares with his wife, finds that pride does not come without a fall. Aunt Betty loses everything in the storm, but she retains her humanity and thwarts a colonial justice that favors the conquering class. She does not forget Don Lambodar nor the attachment she knows that Lucy felt for him.

Aunt Betty's final gesture to Don Lambodar and her tragic triumph over George provide an unexpectedness to the novel's conclusion. There is a point of resistance; the desires for change seem  stronger than the impoverished morality and selfish motivations of those trying to maintain a kind of unnatural status quo. The combination, however, of entrenched power and wealth are apparent, overshadowing the small aberration caused by Betty's final acts. Lucy's dream is not for this world and even Betty's carefully constructed life with her garden and privacy, is untenable.

But Gunesekera does not discourage dreaming nor is his message fatalistic. Mr. Amos, a former slave who purchased his own freedom tells Don Lambodar as he despairs his losses, "To imagine is to embrace, not to escape. ...We cannot forget those we love. They shape our lives for ever, by their absence as much as by their presence" (381). Don Lambodar himself sees hope in the development of the younger non-British Mauritians, in particular, a young servant to Aunt Betty. "Don saw in his stride how the future might be improved, if one had the strength to grasp it. He remembered Lucy praising Muru's eager talents. Perhaps this island could become more than one of cane and hurricanes sooner than he imagined. Perhaps, he could yet effect a change and shift the balance in favor of what is right, not wrong, in the world. Do something that both Lucy and Mr. Amos, despite his present dejection, would approve and applaud" (383).

Of course, we know in hindsight that Don Lambodar or those like him would, if he succeeded at all, be able to make only very small changes. The spectre of the Western imperialism haunts us all even as the balance of power begins to shift.

There are many strengths to Gunesekera's beautifully written novel. The depth and complexity of his characters are perhaps a major strength of Prisoner of Paradise. There is no monolith of colonizer and colonized, and somehow what each character knows about another is different than what another character knows about the same character or what you the reader knows about that character. One character may be blinded by prejudice, another merely by lack of experience, and in other cases it is safer to not know than to know. As with any layered novel, there is much to interpret, and any one interpretation is subject to our own vision and blindness.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation

This book by Michael Grant, published by Routledge in 1995, is more or less written as a catalog of the short comings of the ancient historians. Grant is not necessarily comparing the ancient historians with our modern day historians, but does touch on the differences here and there. Primarily, today's historians are writing document based history and the ancients, while they had access to some documents and inscriptions were not that concerned (according to Grant) with supporting their histories through documentary evidence. Grant looks closely at 12 historians, although drops the names of at least a dozen more in his writing. Sadly, or perhaps just as a matter of fact, we are dependent on a lot of what we know from these writers of the ancient world. And, much of our historic method probably directly descends from their preferences to write about wars and famous men (and a troublesome woman here and there).

I don't know if I find it comforting or not that studying the ancients is really like studying our own modern day selves. Is it terrible that since the dawn of recorded history we really haven't evolved emotionally or psychologically? Or is it comforting?

When I was younger I used to think about the crime that I read about during Shakespeare's time or poverty described by Dickens and comfort myself that the world really wasn't less scary then than it was then, just different scary. But now, I'm not so sure. I guess we will always be wise and foolish, caring and selfish, dangerous and protective.

But back to the historians.

Misinformation and Disinformation: Getting something wrong by accident is misinformation, getting something wrong on purpose is disinformation. In Grant's chronicle of the short comings, this is the last entry: errors. Yes, in the current rendition of the facts of today, I think we can see pretty clearly that we are presented with plenty of both mis- and disinformation. Is it heavy on the side of disinformation? In the future, which type of error will end up as the history of our time? Possibly no history at all, is we madly convert everything to temporarily viable digital files.

Selectivity: Sorting through the available information and picking out what best suits the agenda of the ancient historian. This takes me to the reason I read this book in the first place. I came across a reference to it as I was looking into the last twenty years of writing (and honestly, the 20 to 40 years preceding--he (Martin Bernal) gets the credit and notoreity, but he wasn't the first)  Martin Bernal's Black Athena. There is nothing about the representation of race in this book, but we know that 19th century and even into the twentieth century, historians, classicists, were keen to literally white wash the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. They were selective in their sources and biased in their interpretations and I find it shameful and disheartening. Which leads me to Paul Ricoeur and his philosophy of time and history. Very briefly, history changes as time passes. I am not an expert, so I won't dwell on this, but it makes every kind of sense to me. As Michael Grant reiterates, history is written by the victors, by the oligarchy in power. As the victors change, one oligarchy fades into another, the libraries are burnt and rebuilt, the facts and their interpretation shift. We see plenty of that on the campaign trail, in Congress, over the air waves, in our own heads. The more we tell a story, the more we consciously or unconsciously shape it.

Imagination: Grant sees Homer as the great model for both history and literature to the Greek and then Roman writers to follow. (And of course we see Odysseus and his travels everywhere in our own modern day literature.) Herodotus, for instance, left a written record, but he read his histories aloud to an audience. He needed to entertain as well as to inform. Some of our ancients were successfully literary; sometimes a good story was more important than strict adherence to the facts. And of course, some of the facts, so to speak, that Herodotus and his fellow historians incorporated into their histories were passed on as part of an oral tradition.

Michael Grant writes, "One must not ... be over critical of [the ancient historians' errors], because they are only human and it is human to make mistakes. Besides, their sources are not as good as those which are available to modern scholars."

I especially like this sentence, in that it reminds us of our frailties, then and now. But, it is a little harder to excuse our mistakes.

Next chapter, does Michael Grant think we should continue to read the ancient historians? I'm pretty sure he will say yes, if for no other reason than that we can see ourselves so clearly both in realizing their mistakes and learning from the past as they describe it. Whether it is completely accurate or not--it is as they believed it to be and it is as they chose to see it. But more on that later.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Walter Mosely: All I Did Was Shoot My Man

This is a relatively new novel (New American Library, 2012) in Mosley's Leonid McGill Mystery series. McGill has a past full of regrets. He is a private investigator with a criminal past, a father that went missing 44 years earlier, three children, a wife, and a former lover. This novel opens as he waits to make amends for one of his more recent wrongs. On request, he framed an innocent woman, implicating her in a massive theft for which she received a heavy sentence. After doing some work to clear her and earn her an early parole, McGill finds that, mysteriously, the crime continues to follow her and its tentacles are wrapping around McGill, his family, and everyone connected to Zella. As he follows the various threads, he attempts to protect his family from the fall out. On the way, McGill's son Twill is learning the art of investigation, his former lover seeks to win him back, and his father surfaces.

Mosley's characters, like the names he gives them (Leonid, Socrates, Ptolemy, Tolstoy, for instance), carry a lot of weight. They are strong with their hands and their hearts, brilliant, and worldly wise. They have insight into the characters and motives of those they encounter, and their senses are sharpened by the injustices and hardships they've had to survive.

I am not a lover of mysteries, although I know there are good ones out there. I don't want to read a book that I can pretty much follow by reading a sentence here or there on the page--its fat, but there are way more words than necessary. Nothing engages with your brain--ho hum. With Mosley, every word is necessary and every word is a pleasure to read. I'll quote a trio of paragraphs from near the end of the novel:

"I'm a twenty-first century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It's not that racism doesn't exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate becaues of color and gender, religion and national origin. It's just that I rarely worry about those things because there's a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.

"Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

"That said, Antoinette was one of the racists. She hated her own people because they didn't see her for what she was. She felt betrayed by black men and then I came along. I brought out a thrill in her heart, and maybe her nether regions. That was all good and well; she was a handsome, brave, and intelligent woman, but I was preoccupied with pain so profound that could barely tell if it was mine alone."

Find a copy at your local library or favorite bookstore.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What I learned about the Writing Life from the Founding Editors at Full-Stop Magazine

Earlier this month, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania brought the editors of Full-Stop Magazine in for an interview and conversation. Max McKenna interviewed Eric Jett, Jesse Montgomery (of Philadelphia), Max Rivlin-Nadler, and Alex Shepard about the why and the how of starting up an online magazine, their philosophy and mission, and the practical detail of running a magazine when it isn't your day job. I think that all four are Oberlin grads, and, as one is supposed to do--in full disclosure--my daughter, also an Oberlin grad, Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, is a regular contributor to Full-Stop.

As a librarian, I hear plenty about how "these days" "no one reads" "anymore." I put each segment of that phrase in quotations because each segment can be applied to any number of similar sweeping statements that when one looks at particular cases seem to be quite unsupported. We hear that "we" no longer have the attention span to read long thoughtful essays.

Jonathan Franzen has an essay in his collection How to Be Alone. I'm not sure which one--maybe "The Reader in Exile"--but in an essay in that collection he writes about his pessimism about readerly audiences, writing and publishing. I have to gloss because I don't have the book with me, but in essence, he looks back at the statistics for bestsellers back maybe 50 or 60 years ago, and the figures required to hit bestseller status were so much lower than they are now--suggesting that there really aren't fewer readers now than then. At least the statistics for bestsellers then and now would not be evidence to support such a claim. We also know that publishers, when they were once privately owned,  labored out of love (there were some of those out there and there still are) and were looking for talent and making money along the way was a bonus. They didn't have to infinitely increase their profit margin from one year to the next and so who was published was not so much determined on the possibility of bestseller status. Franzen concluded, and I would concur, that we don't necessarily have fewer readers--there never were that many readers of literary fiction or long form prose to start with.  In sum, it is possible that there are as many readers and as many readers of long form prose as ever, we just care more about the profit margin now than we did in the past. "We" constituting some abstract unidentified entity.

Okay, well, back to our friends at Full-Stop Magazine, profit margin is not part of the equation for them yet, but long form, thoughtful prose about literature, culture, new media and information is. Here might be a good place to add that the editors are not planning on leaving their day jobs anytime soon. If they make money, they choose to pay their writers first.

In starting their magazine, the editors at Full-Stop made a decision to create their own opportunity to write the kind of material into which they wanted to pour their energy. In addition, they had a network of friends who they could ask to contribute. This was, infact, part of their motivation to begin the magazine, it gave them a vehicle to create a community of writers and a way to remain connected as friends. How much does it cost to start your magazine, not including the sweat of your brow and the carpel tunnel syndrome developing in your wrists? Just a few dollars--somewhere between $10 and $20 (and that may be on the high side).

Part of the mission of Full-Stop is to highlight writers who aren't necessarily being highlighted elsewhere. You may have a new take on a heavily reviewed writer, but maybe you've discovered someone that others are not yet reading. Besides their offerings of interviews, reviews, and special features, Full-Stop contacts writers asking them to fill out a survey. This year's survey is called Pathos: "This year, we’ve crafted a questionnaire asking writers about the effect writing has had on their physical, emotional, and economic health; on the idea of poverty being a precondition for writing well; on what makes writing truthful to one’s self and to readers. Ultimately, we are interested in the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation."

I have not been a close follower of online magazines, barely managing to read the magazines that come through the mail slot at my house. But I learned about these online journals before the evening was through:  The Millions (they do not aspire to be another Millions), The New Inquiry (started up about the same time as Full-Stop, and also edited by young writers), or The Jacobin ("modify your dissent), and The Awl (which has a lead story on poet and Penn English Department faculty member Kenny Goldsmith  and his new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters)

I also learned from the evenings presentation about some writers I should be paying attention to:

George Saunders, whose most recent collection of short stories is Tenth of December: Stories published in 2012. If library circulation is any indicator of hotness in writers, then George Saunders is very hot. All of his books are currently checked out of the Van Pelt Library at Penn, and Tenth of December is not available at any of Penn's borrowing partners. I guess you'll have to buy your own copy for now.

Teju Cole, Open City (paperback 2012) (I've linked Cole's name to a short commentary on his writing at Full-Stop.)

Lars Iyer's trilogy of novels Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus. I've just read Spurious, and based on the New Yorker review of Open City, I would say that there are similarities, both at least somewhat autobiographical, both plotless, unless the process of the complete submission of an apartment to damp can be called a plot. Iyer's work is written with a definite sense of humor although its two heros are self professed failures waiting for the the end of all things. I would say, again, based on my reading of just the one novel, that Iyer's could be compared to Gary Shteyengart (also an Oberlin grad), and James Boswell (although Lar's Samuel Johnson, W., specifically states that Lars is no Boswell).

Alex Gilvarry, Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel and

Nicole Krauss, author of Great House.

Full-Stop Magazine is a place for discovery and new perspectives fruitful for readers of all ages. If you are a young writer, pay attention and perhaps you will intersect with this outstanding community of writers. 

I left the Kelly Writers House feeling satisfied that their is a healthy future for writers and their readers (if we don't think too hard about that profit margin), and unlike Lar's and his W., I feel there is at least some small reason to hope that we are not at the end of all things.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. NY: Vintage, 2011.

The plot and substance of Swift's most recent novel slowly rolls out at a pace and transparency that echoes the slow, deliberate, withdrawn nature of its main character, Jack Luxton. It's setting is a remote English dairy farm in farming community in Devon. As the novel opens, Jack is remembering the first two tragedies of his life, his mother's early death and the destruction of the family's cattle herd as ordered by the British government following the first signs of mad cow disease on another farm in a different remote area of England.  Jack is 15 at his mother's death and he lives with his father and his brother Tom, eight years his junior. Jack's father never recovers from losing his wife and the boys suffer for it. In the opening pages of the novel, Jack recalls that as the three surviving Luxton men watch their cattle herd burn, his father does not offer any comfort to his sons; he does not put his arms around the boys. "He'd looked hard at his  feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat." Many years later, when Tom is 17, the boys beloved dog has aged and weakened. The father decides to shoot the dog. Tom cannot forgive his father for how he handles this final act toward their dog and he decides to leave the farm as soon as he turns18. On his next birthday, he leaves the farm to join the army. Jack's father disowns Tom and, when the father later commits suicide, he leaves Jack  the farm and all the land. Tom doesn't return for the funeral although Tom writes to him and informs him about the will.

Jack's father's death leaves Jack the last Luxton in Devon, and he would be all alone on the farm except that his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, lives with her father on the neighboring farm. Her mother left their farm when Ellie was quite young, and although Ellie never sees her again, her mother leaves her some property on the Isle of Wight after she dies. When her father dies not long after Jack's father, Ellie convinces Jack that they should sell up and move to the Isle of Wight. Jack can do this, but it weighs on him that he sells his birthright without consulting Tom first. Ten years later, Jack receives a letter from the government announcing Tom's death.

Although the novel begins at the point following this final tragedy of Jack's life, the novel is nearly over before Swift brings the reader back to that point with all of the threads finally knit together.  Tom's death leads Jack to look back over his life and lay out and fit together the pieces that have brought him to a near fatal crisis. Questions are raised throughout the course of the narrative and the details that provide the answers to the questions are only slowly revealed as the narrative moves backwards and forwards through time.

 Jack's past is an enormous burden, one that he finds nearly impossible to bear. Jack's head and heart are full of "what if's." But the novel is more about loss and grief than about Jack's guilt. Tom's death in Iraq is in stark contrast to the deaths of two earlier Luxton brothers who died during the first world war. One of the brothers received a Medal of Honor posthumously, but the family and village considered it a shared honor. Their deaths were remembered yearly for more than a generation. But Tom's death leaves only questions of why and how and to what end. And so the losses that define Jack are losses shared by the nation. The loss of a way of life as farming becomes unsustainable and the loss of loved ones at home and at war, humans and animals. Jack's father was not the only farmer to commit suicide as the government instructed the destruction of cattle and livelihoods. Just so, Tom is not the only death during a war. The loss of life, returning with honor, but from a war that is little understood or supported.  In Jack's mind, the events of September 2001 aligns with the loss of his mother, the first devastation of cattle because of Mad Cow Disease, the second devastation years later because of Foot-and-Mouth disease, and finally Tom's death.

"Wish You Were Here" is a sentence on a postcard, but it is also a cry of pain for those who have been lost, and in particular, it is Jack's pain as he considers the possible loss of Ellie who has, for her own little understood reasons, refused to join him as he goes to receive Tom's body and attend Tom's funeral. Jack's odyssey to bury his brother is also an odyssey through his past. The act of burying his brother and his reliving of the past drive him to madness, but in the end it is a madness that draws him closer to Tom, and it is this closeness that saves him in the end.

So much loss and grief and sadness--Jack's and England's and the world's. The ghosts of the past reveal the hollowness of the present time. And yet .... the story isn't over.

In our society, the events of 2001 changed many things including the priorities of government. The loss of a particular way of life is trivialized and forgotten in the wake of the disaster, but tragedies surround us and as they happen they are of no less consequence than that of 2001, but perhaps more easily forgotten. Their repercussions radiate out none the less--over time and over space. Jack is chiseled away at, sculpted by each event and loss, he is formed by tragedy almost to the point of no formation at all... and yet he survives.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. NY: Knopf, 2012.

You may have heard about (or of course already read) this book. It has received a lot of attention. I received this book as a Christmas gift, in part due to its Philadelphia setting, but Philadelphia has only a minor role to play in this series of tales. Hattie, at a young age, moves with her mother and sister from Georgia to Philadelphia during the great northern migration--it could have been any southern state and any cold northern city. Hattie settles in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and marries and has children, twins, by the time she is 17. During the twins first cold, northern winter, they contract pneumonia and die. Hattie survives their deaths, but despite giving birth to nine more children, her tenderness is gone with the twins, and pragmatism directed toward bare survival is her primary parental characteristic. Mathis's novel is essentially a collection of linked stories, each chapter telling the story of one (or two) of Hattie's children at a different point of time from 1925 to 1980. Each story is moving in its own way and demonstrates the hardships of poverty, racial discrimination, gender and sexual orientation bias and the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with living with all of these hardships.

Floyd is a jazz musician coming to terms with his sexual orientation, for which he faces violence and descrimination from whites and blacks alike. Floyd has chosen to remain away from home, working in the north and the south as a musician. He seeks out the love and comfort of his mother in his confusion and fear. In this story, Hattie maintains some of her motherlove and tenderness ... but it is far from present in the stories that follow.

Six, who has serious scars from terrible burn accident, has violently beaten another boy in retaliation for the treatment he has received from others. He is whisked away in the night to avoid punishment and enters the preaching life living primarily in the south. Although he has no sense of his religious calling, Six nonetheless undergoes a transformation in the heat of revival meetings, and evokes the spirit for others. In addition, Six is believed to have healing powers. Women are drawn to him and he does not resist them.

Ruthie, is one of Hattie's youngest children. Hattie believes her to be the child of her lover, Lawerence, not of her husband, August. Although her husband is a source of unhappiness for her, August is in his way devoted to his children. He is lost in the world he lives in, floating from job to job, woman to woman, and neglectful of his wife and fiscal responsibilities. In Ruthie's chapter, Hattie attempts to run away with Lawrence, and he is ready to care for her and their daughter, but, in the end, Hattie cannot leave her older children behind. And it is clear, from the scenes of the abandoned at home, that the household depends on her. August, her husband, takes her back gratefully and loses none of his love for Ruthie as Hattie reveals that the child is not his.

Ella is born five years after Ruthie, and August arranges for her to go to Hattie's childless and well-to-do sister Pearl who lives with her husband in Georgia. As the couple drive to Philadelphia to meet their soon to be adopted daughter they are violently harassed by white thugs at a roadside park. Escaping with their lives but having been robbed of their belongings and their dignity. As they make their way to Philadelphia, Hattie struggles with the approaching loss of her daughter and her resentment of her sister and her lifestyle.

Jumping from 1954 to 1968, daughter Alice has married into wealth. Her concerns have to do with the managing of a large home, entertaining, and looking the part. She is close to the extent of co-dependency with her younger brother Billups. It becomes clear as the story progresses that she and her brother have a dark secret about which they have never told their parents. The secret is theirs together. Billups finally succeeds in breaking free of Alice's desperate hold on him, but this is devastating for her.

Franklin is serving in Vietnam. He is writing a letter to the girl at home who he lost even before leaving for the war. If going to war is supposed to turn the boy into a man who can face responsibility, it is clear from Franklin's letter that the war is devastating and dehumanizing. Bell, in 1979, is dying of tuberculosis. As a child, from the school bus window, she had witnessed her mother out walking with her lover. Her mother looked beautiful and happy with Lawrence, and Bell wonders how this same woman could be her mother. Haunted by this, as a grown woman, she meets an older (but perhaps not wiser) Lawrence and seduces him eventually createing an impenetrable barrier between mother and daughter, that only begins to heal, when Hattie, through various twists and turns learns of her daughter's illness and comes to care for her and help her back to health and to family.

Cassie suffers from severe mental illness and her parents have decided to institutionalize her and the final chapter, the twelfth in Hattie's tribe, is devoted to Cassie's daughter Sala who suffers through the deterioration of her mother's mental health and then loses her altogether when Hattie and August determine that Cassie is a danger to herself, Sala, and others.

While each story on its own is moving, it is difficult to accept that all of Hattie's nine surviving children could have such unrelentingly tragic stories. In the end Hattie recovers some of her tenderness to nurse Bell back to mental and physical health, and it is clear that she will attempt to nurture Sala. Bellup breaks away from his dark past to find a new path to wholeness. August appears to go through his difficult life without being destroyed by the pain and misery around him and he maintains a kind of loyalty to wife and children. Mathis's novel fits into the genre of expansive family sagas, as she picks up the reader and drops her in and out of individual moments within one Philadelphia family's history.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel. Beatrice and Virgil. A Novel. Random House, 2011.

Beatrice and Virgil is about a couple of Henry's, a donkey, and a howler monkey. Henry, the first person narrator of the novel, is a successful author whose idea for his second novel has been politely and kindly but quite definitively rejected by his publisher and agent. In the first part of the book, he describes his rejected idea and his thinking behind it. He wants to explore the possibility of writing about the Holocaust as fiction and metaphor. He writes, "A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality? ... Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.... Art as suitcase, light, portable, essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?" (p. 11). To explain the thinking behind his fiction, Henry decides to begin his novel with an essay, and he gives substantial thought as to how best to present the combination novel and essay. How can he make sure the reader  reads the essay and does it matter whether it is read first or last? Henry decides to turn the book into a flip book--read one way from one end, turn around and over, and begin another text from the other side. It has been done before but not often. Thus, neither the essay nor the novel is privileged and the reader can freely choose, without hierarchy, where to begin his or her sojourn through the linked works.

The rejection of this completed work of five years throws Henry into a crisis and he and his wife decide to pack up and move to an unidentified city outside of the United States. "They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin" (p 21).   His wife easily finds work and Henry is involved in theater. They adopt a cat and a dog and are expecting a child. In the midst of this seemingly settled life, Henry receives an unsolicited scene from a play, accompanied by "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitator" the striking feature of which is the young Julian's love of killing animals, in large numbers, with relish, and without regret. Although in the end he achieves sainthood Julian is apparently absolved without asking forgiveness or expressing regret. The scene from the play that arrived with the legend, involves two characters, Beatrice and Virigil, who are discussing the merits of a pear. One of them has eaten a pear, and one of them has never seen a pear. Henry is intrigued by the juxtaposition of the play and the legend, and decides to find the writer, who in his letter, has asked Henry to help him with the play. The playwright is also named Henry.

Henry's first visit to Henry the playwright who is also a taxidermist, leads to many more visits. They discuss the play, and Henry the novelist, tries to understand the motives behind the play as well as the connection to the St. Julian legend. Henry the taxidermist never gives him the entire play to read, and rather than hand him pages, insists on reading it aloud. It gradually becomes clear to the novelist through more subtle and less subtle details that the play is in fact a fiction about the Holocaust told from the perspective of Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey, both of whom are victims of a regime of hate. It is in fact, the very thing that the novelist had hoped to accomplish. The play about, as Henry the novelist thinks of it at one point, "the abomination of animals," is never far from his mind and he works on sections of it, makes suggestions to Henry the taxidermist, and is fully engaged in its development. But as the novel progresses, Henry's views of the taxidermist as benign writer in a dying profession begin to change.

Although Henry, for various reasons leaves the play and its author behind, the characters of Beatrice and Virgil stay with him. In the end, it is the memory of these tragic charters that leads him to begin writing again.

As I started to read this novel, I was surprised at how much Beatrice and Virgil were not the subject of the novel. Yes and no.  I liked Life of Pi very much and after reading that read Martel's novella, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (no animals in this one, but it is a story about creating a story), which is an amazing piece of writing, so I was looking forward to a new novel by Yann Martel. But when I read the review of Beatrice and Virgil and what I picked up was that this was a story about a donkey and a monkey and that just didn't really excite me.  I  couldn't bring myself to read the novel. I don't know if it was a terrible review written by someone who hadn't read the novel, or if I skimmed the review so mercilessly I didn't pick up any of the important points. At any rate, this novel is so much more than a story about a donkey and a monkey although they are central to the novel, both in their theatrical representation and in their preserved form as products of the taxidermist. As I started the novel, I was immediately drawn into Martel's writing. He is thoughtful, and is not afraid to give the reader something to work with. Indeed, his novel, although not a flip book, is very much the rejected work he describes in the opening segment of the novel.

Why so important to fictionalize the Holocaust? To make it a large and universal, perhaps timeless story that goes beyond the individual stories we hear and read about, to make it part of our ancestral memory, a story that is retold, a fable, a cautionary tale, a nightmare, a horror story, something that brings all the threads and thoughts and pieces together into something that can never be forgotten or diminished. It is hard to imagine that this could happen, that we could forget or lose touch with this historical reality, but we are still within living memory of the murder of the European Jews, and one day, we won't be and in this small piece of fiction, the stage is set.

Martel's adroit use of animals in his novels makes me think of the writer, who according to Wikipedia is currently living in Philadelphia, Josh Emmons. I heard him read a short story at Grinnell College where he spent a year running the creative writing program a few years back. The story was essentially a fable with animals--it has been awhile--but it was an excellent reading and an excellent story. It looks like he has two novels published--so perhaps next on my list.

But back to Martel--read this book. It is barely 200 pages, and, while it will give you plenty to think about it, it is a beautiful novel and you will not find yourself struggling to get into it or reluctant to turn the next page.