Every other Wednesday at 10 a.m., book editors Doris Ober and Myn Adess join me in co-hosting a program about “books and the publishing revolution” on KWMR Radio in Point Reyes Station, a gorgeous coastal community about 40 miles north of San Francisco.
The show is called Radio Bookmobile, and during this hour, we take a look at the modern book scene by reading aloud some of the most beautifully written passages one can discover in books as well as websites, magazines, blogs, movies, ads and social media.
In some cases these excerpts reflect the chaos and confusion that have struck book and media industries since the Internet began. That’s the “publishing revolution” that’s still in turmoil, as fascinating and tragic as it is inspiring and full of surprises.
You can listen to the Bookmobile via streaming on KWMR.org or by clicking on the Archive links above.
Below I’ve condensed the most recent shows so you can read these examples of gorgeous, angry, amusing and controversial writing as they are best experienced: in print on the screen or page.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #24
June 29, 2016
Maybe: A Story
Little Brown & Co., 102 pages (1980)
Doris: In 1979, Mary McCarthy*, a contemporary of the playwright Lillian Hellman, accused her of fabricating parts of prior memoirs—Pentimento, most notably, which became the movie Julia; of glossing over her defense of Joseph Stalin years earlier; and of making much of her refusal to name names when called by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. A feud insued, and finally, Mary McCarthy had had enough. While a guest on the Dick Cavett show, and she said, on the air, “Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman sued.
*[Mary McCarthy: The Company She Keeps (short stories), Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the novel The Group, also essays, Vietnam reporting—21 books altogether. Hellman sued McCarthy for defamation, but she died before any settlement was reached. Hellman’s estate dropped the suit.]
No doubt in response to the accusations of falsifying truth, Hellman wrote Maybe, a very interesting “story,” which begins like a novel—maybe, at least it seems to begin like a novel. Everything is very uncertain. Here are the opening sentences:
It was always with Sarah this way and that way all over the place, or maybe I never saw enough to understand. At a few points I know what happened, but there’s a good deal I don’t, because of time or because I didn’t much care.
It’s not easy. But not much is easy because as one grows older, one realizes how little one knows about any relationship, or even about oneself.
I don’t even know if Sarah is dead, but I am fairly sure she was alive two years ago because I think I saw her come into the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and go to the reception desk.
Have there ever been more obscure opening lines to a book?
Sarah happens to travel in the same circles as Lillian, and so they sometimes cross paths at clubs, and parties in NYC, San Francisco, and in Europe. And it seems Sarah’s identity changes almost every time they meet. On some occasions, Sarah even denies being the person Hellman believes she is. We don’t know who’s lying, or why. And at one point in the book Hellman hires a private eye to try to learn the truth. (Or is that a sly reference to her lover, Dashiell Hammett, famous author of detective fiction. Hammett makes other appearances in this book, one memorable one passed out from drink in the living room, where the woman he brought home with him sits playing the piano. And will not leave.)
So is this a true story, a memoir, or is it a made up story more about Sarah Cameron than Lillian Hellman. Or is it really an essay on time and memory disguised as a memoir—or as fiction, because Sarah’s story, or the one this book ends with, is extremely novelistic. But listen to these words and you’ll see why I’m including essay as another possible category for this book:
Why am I writing about Sarah? I really only began to think about her a few years ago, and then not often. Although I always rather liked her, she is of no importance to my life and never was. I do not know the truth about her or much of what I write here. It is the first time that has ever happened. It goes without saying that in their memoirs people should try to tell the truth as they see it or else what’s the sense? Maybe time blurs or changes things for them. But you try, anyway. In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth. I did try, but here I don’t know much of what really happened and never tried to find out. In addition to the ordinary deceptions that you and others make in your life, time itself makes time fuzzy and meshes truth with half truth. But I can’t seem to say it right. I am paying the penalty, I think, of a childish belief in absolutes, perhaps an equally childish rejection of them all. I guess I want to say how inattentive I was—most of us, I guess—to the whole damned stew. For example, … what she told me and when, are all over the place, and except in a few places I can find no dates. When I talk to myself I can say it clear to me, about Sarah and other people, and places and dates, but I cannot seem to sort it out here. I am not alone: for years I have been amused or frightened or angry when people repeated or wrote stories about me, what I said or did. There have been few times when it was not somewhere inaccurate.
But it is not that I am inaccurate about Sarah: it’s that I know so little about any of the Camerons. What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn’t have much to do with the truth. It’s as if I have fitted parts of a picture puzzle and then a child overturned it and threw out some pieces.
Then Hellman continues probing memory:
But memory for us all is so nuts. Just last week I saw a man I once worked for. He had a large yacht in those days and a Scotch captain whose wife was traveling with him on that voyage. The captain didn’t like the owner and the second day they had a loud fight. The captain had to win, of course, but when the boat returned to New York, the captain and his wife left, and the owner talked angrily about him and ingratitude and the rules of the sea for many years. That night, last week, I reminded the owner of the Scotch captain. He was amazed: he said he had never had a Scotch captain, there had never been a traveling wife on his boat, there had never been a fight. The other people at the table, if they were normal, must have thought I had some odd reason for my invention of the Scotchman, and in a little while I begin to wonder if it had ever happened. It kept me awake that night. I got up very early and after missing the date of the boat trip by two years, I found the diary I had kept on that trip and clipped to the page was a postcard from the Scotch captain, sent the Christmas after the voyage, from Cornwall saying he and Betty had bought her great-uncle’s house, liked Cornwall. The card said that each spring he picked any yacht he liked in the Mediterranean, and his wife sent her regrets for the nasty fight. I guess for everybody it goes like that, but you could easily go crazy and send others with you. It’s no news that each of us has our own reasons for pretending, denying, affirming what was there and never there. And sometimes, of course, we have really forgotten. In my case, I have often forgotten what was important, what mattered to me most, what made me take an action that changed my life. And then, in time, people and reasons were lost in deep summer grass.
I love how conversational she can be (love that word “nuts”) while tossing out this anecdote and that, explaining various concepts of memory and its faults while not disclosing a lot about herself. We can admire that last line but wish “people and reasons” were not “lot in deep summer grass.”
An Unfinished Woman
Little, Brown (1969)
Back Bay Press reprint (1997)
Pat: What strikes me nearly 50 years later is how easily, cozily, Lillian Hellman invites us inside that rigid, closed-up mind, late in midlife when people were afraid of her intellectualism and political values, not to mention her track record for famous plays and lovers.
Her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman, was widely heralded as giving us a glimpse into the book trade of the 1930s (she began her career working for the famous publisher Horace Liveright) and theater world as her plays began to take off. I found it most compelling in the first pages when she talks about the experience of growing up wealthy, then middle-to-working class, in New York and New Orleans.
I first remember (my mother’s family) in a large New York apartment: my two young and very pretty aunts; their taciturn, tight-faced brother; and the silent, powerful, severe woman, Sophie Newhouse, who was their mother, my grandmother. Her children, her servants, all of her relatives except her brother Jake were frightened of her, and so was I. Even as a small child I disliked myself for the fear and showed off against it.
The Newhouse apartment held the upper-middle-class trappings, in touch of things and in spirit of people, that never manage to be truly stylish. Heavy weather hung over the lovely oval rooms. True, there were parties for my aunts, but the parties, to a peeping child in the servants’ hall, seemed so muted that I was long convinced that on fancy occasions grown people moved their lips without making sounds.
In the days after the party one would hear exciting stories about the new suitors, but the suitors were never quite good enough and the parties were, obviously, not good enough for those who might have been. Then there were the Sunday dinners with great uncles and aunts sometimes in attendance, full of open ill will about who had the most money, or who spent it too lavishly, who would inherit what, which had bought what rug that would last forever, who what jewel she would best have been without.
Look at the risk she takes with that last sentence!
It was a corporation meeting, with my grandmother unexpectedly in the position of vice-chairman. The chairman was her brother Jake, the only human being to whom I ever saw her defer. Early, I told myself that was because he was richer than she was, and did something called managing her money. But that was too simple: he was a man of great force, given, as she was given, to breaking the spirit of people for the pleasure of the exercise. But he was also witty and rather worldly, seeing his own financial machinations a natural not only to his but to the country’s benefit, and seeing that as comic.
(I had only one real contact with my Uncle Jake: when I graduated from school at fifteen, he gave me a ring that I took to a 59th Street hock shop, got 25 dollars, and bought books. I went immediately to tell him what I’d done, deciding, I think, that day that the break had to come. He stared at me for a long time, and then he laughed and said the words I later used in The Little Foxes: “So you’ve got spirit after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.“)
Her father, Max Hellman, somehow lost her mother’s dowry and so kept the family in New York for six months and moved them to New Orleans (not sure why) for Lillian and her mother to live with his sisters, who run a boarding house. Yanked out of school on each end at the wrong time of year, Lillian has problems making friends. Here she is remembering her escape in childhood i
There was a heavy fig tree on the lawn where the house turned the corner into the side street, and to the front and sides of the fig tree were live oaks that hid the fig from my aunts’ boardinghouse. I suppose I was 8 or 9 before I discovered the pleasures of the fig tree, and although I have lived in many houses since then, including a few I made for myself, I still think of it as my first and most beloved home.
I learned early, in our strange life of living half in New York and half in New Orleans, that I made my New Orleans teachers uncomfortable because I was too far ahead of my schoolmates, and my New York teachers irritable because I was too far behind. But in New Orleans, I found a solution: I skipped school at least once a week and often twice, knowing that nobody cared or would report my absence.
On those days I would set out for school done up in polished strapped shoes and a prim hat against what was known as “the climate,” carrying my books and a little basket filled with delicious stuff for my Aunt Jenny and Carrie, the cook, had made for my school lunch. I would round the corner of the side street, move on toward St. Charles Avenue, and sit on a bench as if I were waiting for a streetcar until the boarders and the neighbors had gone to work or settled down for the post-breakfast rest that all Southern ladies thought necessary. Then I would run back to the fig tree, dodging in and out of bushes to make sure the house had no dangers for me.
The fig tree was heavy, solid, comfortable, and I had, through time, convinced myself that it wanted me, missed me when I was absent, and approved all the rigging I had done for the happy days I spent in its arms: I had made a sling to hold the school books, a pulley rope for my lunch basket, a hole for the bottle of afternoon cream-soda pop, a fishing pole and a smelly little bag of elderly bait, a pillow embroidered with a picture of Henry Clay on a horse that I had stolen from Mrs. Stillman, one of my aunts’ boarders, and a proper nail to hold my dress and shoes to keep them neat for the return to the house.
It was in that tree that I learned to read, filled with the passions that can only come to the bookish, grasping, very young, bewildered by almost all of what I read, sweating in the attempt to understand a world of adults I fled from in real life but desperately wanted to join in books.
Brief respite of humor with aunts :
I learned to laugh in that house and to knit and embroider and sew a straight seam and to cook….I think both Hannah and Jenny were virgins, but if they were, there were no signs of spinsterhood. They were nice about married people, they were generous to children, and sex was something to have fun about.
Jenny had been the consultant to many neighborhood young ladies before their marriage night, or the night of their first lover. One of these girls, a rich ninny, Jenny found irritating and unpleasant. When I was sixteen I came across the two of them in earnest conference on the lawn, and later Jenny told me that the girl had come to consult her about how to avoid pregnancy.
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her to have a glass of ice water right before the sacred act and three sips during it.”
When we had finished laughing, I said, “But she’ll get pregnant.”
“He’s marrying her for money, he’ll leave her when he gets it This way at least maybe she’ll have a few babies for herself.”
And four years later, when I wrote my aunts that I was going to be married, I had back a telegram: FORGET ABOUT THE GLASS OF ICE WATER TIMES HAVE CHANGED.”
I tend to doubt Hellman as an author when she attempts to sneak in episodes of false modesty. For example, about Sophronia, the African American woman in New Orleans who raised her and whom Hellman calls “the first and most certain love of my life,” she says:
Sophronia was a tall, handsome, light tan woman who was for me, as for so many other white Southern children, the one and certain anchor so needed for the young years, so forgotten after that. (It wasn’t that way for us: we wrote and met as often as possible until she died when I was in my twenties, and the first salary check I ever earned she returned to me in the form of a gold chain.)
Radio Bookmobile, Program #23
April 20, 2016
Emily St. John Mandel
Doris: I don’t especially like science fiction. I read Dune way back when, and thought it was quite extraordinary, and earlier than that I’d read some spooky Ray Bradbury short stories I sort of liked. But now with Station Eleven I’m beginning to think I might expand my horizons.
This is the story of an apocalypse. The world is hit by a fast-moving flu that kills in a matter of hours. It wipes out 99% of the world’s population.
The beginning of Chapter 6 reads:
An Incomplete List:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by.
No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones about the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars.
No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.
It goes on. And for someone who goes crazy when the Internet goes down, I found much to think about here. The opening itself swept me away because we get so few clues as to what’s really going on. The details are just revealing enough to bring us fully into the moment, so we’re not distracted by the larger framework of the story:
The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.
“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.
“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.
“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible. He cradled his hand to his chest like a broken bird. The actor portraying Edgar was watching him closely. It was still possible at that moment that Arthur was acting, but in the first row of the orchestra section a man was rising from his seat. He’d been training to be a paramedic. The man’s girlfriend tugged at his sleeve, hissed, “Jeevan! What are you doing?” And Jeevan himself wasn’t sure at first, the rows behind him murmuring for him to sit. An usher was moving toward him. Snow began to fall over the stage.
The three little girls; the death scene; the man coming up out of his seat. The action! It’s like a three ring circus — so much happening at the same time.
Station Eleven is another novel that moves back and forth in time, ranging from before the deadly flu erupts to 20 years after the world collapses. The story follows several characters who are all connected in some way with Arthur, the actor who plays Lear and who dies — not of the flu but of a heart attack — on stage in that very first scene.
There are places where the plot drags, which is disappointing after a stunning, heart-pounding beginning; you wonder why certain story lines even exist; you sometimes lose track of who’s who (actors in the group named Dieter, August, and Sayid seem to run together). But the writing is frequently so fine, and the featured characters portrayed with such insight, as this next passage demonstrates, that never wanted to pull away.
This is Arthur, the famous actor playing Lear whom we watched die in the opening pages, in spite of the intervention of the paramedic. In this flashback scene, Arthur is having dinner with his oldest friend, Clark.
“I’ve been indecently lucky,” Arthur said later that night, on his fourth martini. It was a line he’d been using a great deal lately. Clark wouldn’t have been bothered by it if he hadn’t read Arthur use it in Entertainment Weekly a month or two earlier. The restaurant was one of those large, under-lit places that seemed to recede into shadow at the periphery, and in the murky middle distance Clark saw a pinpoint of green light that meant someone was recording Arthur on a cell phone. Clark felt increasingly stiff. He was aware of the whispers that had sprung up, the glances from other tables. Arthur was talking about an endorsement deal of some kind, men’s watches, his gestures loose. He was telling an animated story about his meeting with the watch executives, some kind of humorous misunderstanding in the boardroom. He was performing. Clark had thought he was meeting his oldest friend for dinner, but Arthur wasn’t having dinner with a friend, Clark realized, so much as having dinner with an audience. He felt sick with disgust….
Arthur has, then, turned from a down-to-earth good friend and gifted actor to a kind of flaky celebrity who’s always aware of the spotlight, and always turning toward fame, almost as a life force. As flashbacks follow his many peccadillos before the flu wipes out 99% of the population, the present story follows the remains of art in this not-so-brave, thinly populated new world. Shakespearean plays are not only still alive, it turns out they are thriving through a group of actors and musicians calling themselves the Traveling Symphony and Shakespeare Co. They walk beside their horse-drawn covered wagons from one tattered community to another, playing Vivaldi and putting on plays like King Lear, which attract and enrich each local populace.
Along the way we hear of poems being written …
If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you
Silent, my starship suspended in night.… and we listen to people doubting and then rediscovering the meaning of life. This is a thought from one survivor of the flu who happens to be dying of other causes:I’ve been thinking lately about immortality. What it means to be remembered, what I want to be remembered for, certain questions concerning memory and fame. I love watching old movies. I watch the faces of long-dead actors on the screen and I think about how they’ll never truly die. I know that’s a cliché but it happens to be true. Not just the famous ones who everyone knows, the Clark Gables, the Ava Gardners, but the bit players, the maid carrying the tray, the butler, the cowboys in the bar, the third girl from the left in the nightclub. They’re all immortal to me. First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.There are communities coming together in abandoned airports, roaming bandits that act as death squads, cults emerging with treacherous designs on little girls, early signs of emerging culture (a makeshift newspaper; a junky but formidable museum) — perhaps a dozen or more threads that all come together in sometimes disappointing, often very fulfilling fashion.
In the end, I think the basis for the novel is so refreshing that it’s well worth our time and effort to figure out what the author wants to say.
And one thing she keeps saying is that no matter what your belief system or sense of achievement, and no matter what kind of world — civilized or primitive — you find yourself in, there is always something truly precious in front of us that makes all our efforts worthwhile. Here’s a small glimpse of the author’s subtle way of leaving us this message.
Arthur nodded hello to the hot-dog guy who always stood on the same corner halfway between the hotel and he theater. The hot-dog guy beamed. A pigeon walked in circles near the base of the hot-dog stand, hoping for dropped garnishings and crumbs. The beauty of the pigeon’s luminescent neck.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #22
April 6, 2016
Portrait in Sepia
Harper Collins Perennial, 2001
Doris: This is one of my favorite of Isabel Allende’s multigenerational novels, The story covers the post-Gold Rush years (late 1800s) through the turn of the century in San Francisco. In it is an unexpected treat: Some of the characters from previous books, including Nívea, Clara’s mother in Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, appear here. In Portrait in Sepia, the main character, Aurora, is Nívea’s niece. There’s at least one other prequel like this: Daughter of Fortune also precedes Portrait in Sepia, but tracing a different character’s history. Nivea appears in all three of these novels.
We know Allende weaves feminism into most if not all of her books. Nívea is a very early suffragette. She also bears 15 children in her lifetime. Here’s a segment I particularly liked:
The most memorable thing about Nívea was that she was preceded by an enormous round belly. In those times, procreation was thought to be indecent, and among the bourgeoisie pregnant women were confined to their homes—but not Nívea. She had no intention of hiding her state; she exhibited it, indifferent to the disturbance she caused. In the street, people tried not to look at her, as if she had some deformity or were naked. I had never seen anything like that, and when I asked what was the matter with that lady, my grandmother Paulina explained that the poor thing had swallowed a melon. In contrast with her handsome husband, Nívea looked like a mouse, but you only had to talk with her a couple of minutes to fall prisoner to her charm and tremendous energy….
Nívea realized that if she followed the usual norms of decorum and stayed at home with every pregnancy and each new baby, she would spend the rest of her life trapped in the house, so she decided not to make a mystery of maternity. Just as she sashayed around exhibiting her bulging womb like a shameless country woman, to the horror of “good” society, she had her babies without any fuss, limited her confinement to three days—instead of the forty the doctor recommended—and went everywhere, including her suffragettes’ meetings, with her babies and nursemaids in tow. These nannies were adolescent girls recruited in the country and destined to serve for the rest of their lives unless they married or got pregnant, neither of which was very probable. Those self-sacrificing youngsters grew up, withered, and died in someone else’s house; they slept in grimy, windowless rooms and ate food left from the main table. They adored the children it was their lot to look after, especially the boys, and when the girls in the family married, they took their nannies with them as part of their dowry, to serve a second generation of babies. In a time when everything relating to maternity was hidden, living with Nívea taught me things at age eleven that no ordinary girl in my surroundings knew. In the country, when animals were bred or dropped their young, they made us girls go in the house and closed the shutters, the basic assumption being that those functions wounded our sensitive souls and put perverse ideas in our heads. They were right, the lascivious spectacle of a magnificent stud mounting a mare, which I saw by chance on my cousin’s estate, still makes my blood run hot.
This gives you so much information, not just about how pregnancy was dealt with at the time, but also about nannies and their lot in life.
Another thing I’ve admired is the way Allende describes death in the most matter-of-fact way. And this is true in all the books I’ve read of hers. Here’s an example from Portrait in Sepia:
[T]hree weeks later… the maid who looked after my father sounded the alarm. The doctor was summoned immediately, and in a thrice the house was filled with people: my grandmother’s friends, politicians from the government, family members, a quantity of monks and nuns, including the frayed fortune-grubbing priest who now was hanging around my grandmother with the hope that the sorrow of losing her son would soon dispatch her to a better life. Paulina, however, was not planning to depart this world; she had some time ago resigned herself to the tragedy of her eldest son, and I think she saw the end come with relief—witnessing the slow calvary was much worse than burying him. I was not allowed to see my father because it was supposed that a dying man was not an appropriate spectacle for a little girl and that I had suffered enough anguish with the murder of my cousin and other recent violence, but I was able to say a brief good-by thanks to Frederick Williams, who opened the door for me at a moment when there was no one else around. He took my hand and led me to the bed where Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz lay, of whom nothing tangible remained, barely a handful of translucent bones buried among pillows and embroidered sheets. He was still breathing, but his soul was already traveling through other dimensions. “Goodbye, Papa,” I told him. It was the first time I had called him that. He agonized for two days more, and at the dawn of the third day he died like a baby chick.
I also recommend Allende’s Young Adult trilogy of novels: City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies. By the way, the only difference I could see in her Young Adult books is that the paragraphs in these are shorter, by which I mean of normal length.
Then, when my sister-in-law, who writes mysteries, asked me if I knew that Isabel Allende had written a mystery, I put aside City of the Beasts and picked up Allende’s first mystery, Ripper. After reading the opening lines of this book, I knew it was right up your alley, Patty. It begins:
Mom is still alive, but she’s going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday,” Amanda Martín told the deputy chief, who didn’t even think to question the girl; she’d already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together. The woman in question was being held at an unknown location somewhere in the seven thousand square miles of the San Francisco Bay Area; if they were to find her alive, they had only a few hours, and the deputy chief had no idea where or how to begin.
Many people in this book believe Amanda is psychic, but Amanda herself is a skeptic and reasons things out based on the information she and her pals are able to gather. For instance:
Amanda closed her eyes and took a deep breath of fresh winter-morning air. The smell of pine needles told her that they were driving through the park; the stench of dung, that they were passing the riding stables. Thus she could calculate that it was exactly 8:23 a.m. She had given up wearing a watch two years earlier so she could train herself to tell time instinctively, the same way she calculated temperature and distance; she’d also refined her sense of taste so that she could distinguish suspect ingredients in her food….
This was great fun for me to read because coincidentally I had recently picked up a book of Sherlock Holmes stories and was really enjoying them. Holmes kind of deduction is also the theme in Ripper, which is not only the title of this book but an Internet game in the story, where players try to solve an online mystery. When the heroine, Amanda, along with her grandfather and an eccentric cast of other characters transform the game into a real criminal investigation, they explore a rash of murders, predicted by Amanda’s godmother, that we readers are also trying to figure out. Amanda’s father happens to be the deputy chief of Homicide in San Francisco’s Personal Crimes Division, providing Amanda with insider information.
One of Allende’s great talents lies in creating remarkable and offbeat characters, and in the course of telling us something about them, I think Allende offers us her own opinions about one thing or another. For example:
Amanda went to an all-girls boarding school—one of a handful that still remained since America had opted for the muddle of mixed education—at which she had somehow survived for four years by managing to be invisible to her classmates, although not to the teachers and the few nuns who still worked there. She had an excellent grade-point average, although the sainted sisters never saw her open a textbook and knew she spent most nights staring at her computer, engrossed in mysterious games, or reading unsavory books. They never dared to ask what she was reading so avidly, suspecting that she read the very books they enjoyed in secret. Only the girl’s questionable reading habits could explain her morbid fascination for guns, drugs, poison, autopsies, methods of torture, and means of disposing of dead bodies.
Simon & Schuster
Pat: In the midst of all this crazy talk that’s coming out of the presidential campaign, I’m fascinated by the study of language it presents.
Most of my fascination is not with Donald Trump’s wild exclamations — he’s so obviously self-serving and superficial that you don’t have to dig very deep to see why he appeals. Using dirty and racist language, insulting women, baiting his opponents and grand-standing wherever he goes are all part of that shock effect: It’s the adolescent bully saying outrageous things until Mom and Dad make him stop.
Right now I think the country is shifting away from Trump (which might be even worse: The big fear with Trump is that he’ll kill us all unknowingly, while Ted Cruz will do it on principle)
But more intriguing is the way language may still shift about Hillary Clinton.
Most people acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate by far. That fact alone should be enough for a landslide victory.
But it isn’t enough, and the reason is well known: Hillary has a trust problem. I find it painful to watch her sometimes, because she sounds self-conscious, unconvincing, even phony. Perhaps it’s because Trump throws his entitlement in our face (“I could go out and shoot someone and still get elected“) that he has a certain authenticity nobody disputes — that of the swaggering, braggadocio straight white male appealing to his peers.
And maybe that’s why Trump supporters forgive his many gaffes — yes, he’s belligerent, they say, but at least he’s honest. Maybe he’s fibbing, but he would never lie to us. Not in the way Hillary could. When the Washington Post reported that “1 in 5 people” believe Hillary is “dishonest” or a “liar,” it’s hard to believe so many men and women don’t trust her.
Maybe it’s Hillary’s advisors. There must be dozens of them making pronouncements about her style of speaking, dressing, talking, debating and, unfortunately, writing.
This last — her writing style — is my purview. I’m a book reviewer who for 20 years has been decrying and pounding the table and worrying about the narrative voice that Hillary Clinton uses in her books.
She’s written three memoirs to date and I’m sorry to say they’re all overwritten and full of palaver. Here’s an example from page 26 of Hard Choices, her 2014 book about being Secretary of State:
My confidence was rooted in a lifetime of studying and experiencing the ups and downs of American history and a clear-eyes assessment of our comparative advantages relative to the rest of the world. Nations’ fortunes rise and fall, and there will always be people predicting catastrophe just around the corner. But it’s never smart to bet against the United States. Every time we’ve faced a challenge, whether war or depression or global competition, Americans have risen to meet it, with hard work and creativity.
Oh, dear. You have to prop up your eyelids to slog through the blah-blah effect that takes up about a third of this 635-page book.
It sounds so bureaucratic that I used to joke after reviewing Living History, her 2003 memoir: Why, the committee that wrote this book should be ashamed: Two or three words of actual significance sneaked through.
The “Rape Capital of the World”
At the same time, however, I want to say, READERS, KEEP THOSE EYES OPEN, because when Hillary Clinton decides to take action, the writing comes alive, and big, trustworthy events take place.
For example, on page 280, here is Hillary going to the “rape capital of the world” — the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where soldiers on both sides of the conflict were raping women “as a way of dominating communities and gaining tactical advantage.”
This hideous idea, that rape has become tactic of war, systematically used to demoralize entire populations, is so brutal that women “could no longer bear children, work, or even walk,” Hillary writes. And the practice wasn’t limited to Goma. Hillary would tell NPR that rape as a weapon of war spread “from the Balkans to Myanmar, Sri Lanka to Guinea.”
She doesn’t mention this in her book, but according to the New York Times , Hillary Clinton was the first Secretary of State to visit an active war zone. In diplomatic circles this is a huge and risky undertaking. She does describe here what it took for the United States to “show greater leadership” in the Congo because she was frankly “horrified by the reports” of “roughly 36 women a day, or 1100 a month” reporting rapes, a number that has to be multiplied several times by how many went unreported.
Forget for a moment how many Secretaries of State risked their lives to enter a war zone. I want to ask how many of our highest officials before Hillary have even mentioned the horror of soldiers raping every woman in sight as a war tactic?
Colin Powell’s report on “the atrocities in Darfur in 2004” included exactly 5 sentences” on the subject in 2004. Madeleine Albright mentioned “organized rape” as a weapon of war in Kosovo in 1999. Condoleezza Rice spoke about it movingly on ABC News in 2008..
But it was Hillary who made international headlines in 2009; Hillary who declared it the responsibility of America to expose what is now recognized as an “epidemic of rape”; and Hillary who didn’t just meet with Congolese president Joseph Kabila but talked to rape survivors, aid workers, engineers, medical personnel and children in refugee camps that were getting larger by the day.
And here is the lesson I learned about language from Hillary Clinton. Even if a committee of ghostwriters has taken over the narrative, at the moment that we see this author cutting through that language to tell us what really happens at crisis moments, well! No more trust problems for Hillary, at least for this reader.
So here is Hillary in Goma, the rape capital of the world and the active war zone, meeting President Kabila in a tent behind the governor’s house on the shore of Lake Kivu.
Kabila was distracted and unfocused, seemingly overwhelmed by by the many challenges plaguing his country. One crucial issue was figuring out how to pay the government’s soldiers. Undisciplined and unpaid, they had become as much a threat to the people of the region as the rebels who attacked form the jungle. It wasn’t enough to allocate money in Kinshasa, the capital. By the time it filtered down through the ranks, nearly all of it would be pocketed by corrupt senior officers, leaving nothing for the enlisted men. I offered to help the government set up a mobile banking system to make it easier to transfer money directly into accounts for each soldier. Kabila was amazed at the potential of this technology and agreed. By 2013 the system was being hailed as “just short of a miracle,” although corruption remained endemic.
I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone of this passage and its straightforward rendering of issues in detail that wins back my trust in Hillary Clinton. Keeping the lid on the whole world is the job of the Secretary of State and ultimately the president.
Trump’s version of diplomacy, whether to attack Rosie O’Donnell or China, is to distract people from the facts and bring attention, again, to his role as our next King:
Get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades. I really mean it. I really mean it. You’ve got to hit people hard and it’s not so much for that person, it’s that other people watch.
There’s something scary and a bit paranoid about that statement, again because the language has no nuances or complexity at all.
In the example of Hillary Clinton in the Congo wanting to expose rape as a strategy of war and actually do something about it, the section in Hard Choices that proves her intention comes when she doesn’t get on a plane to fly off to the next hot spot after meeting with President Kabila. She stays in Goma to talk to refugees in the Mugunga camp for internally displaced people, and to ask them — not Kabila — what they need the most.
“Well, we’d like our children to go to school,” one woman said.
“What?” I asked, appalled. “There is no school? How long have you been here?”
“Nearly a year,” she said. That drove me crazy.
The more I learned, the more questions I had: Why were women being raped when they went out to get firewood and water? Why couldn’t the camp organize patrols of the men to protect the women coming and going? Why were babies dying from diarrhea when medical supplies were available? Why couldn’t we donors do a better job of learning and applying lessons from our experiences in helping refugees and internally displaced people in other places?
And even here I expected Hillary to assign task forces and research groups and exploratory committees and so forth to investigate the extent of the problem and see what could be done while she moves on. Instead, she called a press conference in the middle of it all and launched this:
I announced that the United States would provide more than $17 million to combat sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The money would fund medical care, counseling, economic assistance, and legal support for survivors. Nearly $3 million would be used to recruit and train police officers to protect women and girls, to investigate sexual violence, and to dispatch technology experts to help women and frontline workers use cell phones to document and report abuses.
It’s a good, straightforward statement that condenses her announcement, but I noticed after looking it up online, that she doesn’t mention a few essential details, perhaps so she won’t sound like a braggart.
Here, for example, is the way the New York Times summed up that same announcement:
She announced that the American government would train doctors, supply rape victims with video cameras to document violence, send American military engineers to help build facilities and train Congolese police officers, especially female police officers, to crack down on rapists.
Again it’s a matter of language but you get the feeling that the NYT’s report includes more telling details –like the video cameras and the female police officers and the American engineers actually building facilities — than Hillary felt she could afford in her own description of the trip.
This is because Hillary Clinton is writing a full-length book that’s going to stand for the ages as a work of history representing the United States’ position on foreign policy during this period of Barack Obama’s administration. She is not going to use the book to boost her run for the presidency.
As to Donald Trump, you need only read from his previous books to realize that Trump believes in a kind of overbloated destiny, which is why people think he’s so honest. Here for example is the first part of Elements of the Deal in Chapter 2 of Trump: The Art of the Deal, published in 1987:
My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want. More than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with. It’s in the genes. I don’t say that egotistically. It’s not about being brilliant. It does take a certain intelligence, but mostly it’s about instincts. You can take the smartest kid at Wharton, the one who gets straight A’s and has a 170 IQ, and if he doesn’t have the instincts, he’ll never be a successful entrepreneur.
Moreover, most people who do have the instincts will never recognize that they do, because they don’t have the courage or the good fortune to discover their potential. Somewhere out there are a few men with more innate talent at golf than Jack Nicklaus, or women with greater ability at tennis than Chris Evert or Marina Navratilova, but they will never lift a club or swing a racket and therefore will never find out how great they could have been. Instead, they’ll be content to sit and watch stars perform on television.
And so we find that Donald Trump IS honest: He believes in himself, his instincts and his courage to succeed as an entrepreneur. But for the same reasons — “pushing and pushing” instead of negotiating; swinging that club instead of letting the pros handle things — what kind of president he’d make is a tossup.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #21
March 23, 2016
Doris: This book is a most unusual memoir, written in the inimitable Isabel Allende style, a combination of novelistic description and rich characters, of fantasy and superstition. Here Isabel Allende shares her earliest memories, the story of her family and her country, the military coup in Chile in 1973, the years of dictatorship afterward, and then her years of exile.
She writes to her daughter, Paula, who is in a coma, suffering with a rare neurological disease: Until now I have never shared my past; it is my innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed. Take it, Paula, perhaps it will be of some use to you, because I fear that yours no longer exists, lost somewhere during your long sleep—and no one can live without memories.
Here Allende describes her grandmother’s death:
Memé left this world with great simplicity. No one took note of her preparations for her journey to the Beyond until the end, when it was too late to intervene. Aware that it requires supreme airiness to detach oneself from the earth, she lightened her load. She rid herself of earthly goods and eliminated all superfluous emotions and desires, keeping only the barest essentials. She wrote a few letters and then, as her last act, took to her bed, never to get up again. She lay dying for a week, attended by her husband, who used every medication within his power to prevent her from suffering as her life drained away and a muted drum thudded in her chest. There was no time to inform anyone, yet her friends from the White Sisterhood received a telepathic message and came at the last instant…. This marvelous woman left no physical trace of her presence other than a silver mirror, a prayer book with mother-of-pearl covers, and a fistful of wax orange blossoms, remnants of her bridal headdress. Neither did she leave me many memories, and those I have are surely deformed by a child’s view of that time and by the passing of years. None of that matters, though, because she has always been with me. When her asthma or anxiety made it hard for her to breathe, she hugged me close so my warmth would relieve her. That is the most vivid image I have of her: rice paper skin, gentle fingers, the wheezing, her affectionate hug, the scent of cologne, and an occasional hint of the almond lotion she rubbed on her hands. I heard people talk about her, and I hoard her few remaining relics in a tin box. All the rest I have invented, because we all need a grandmother. Not only has she played that role to perfection—despite the inconvenience of her death—but she also inspired the character I love most of all those in my books: Clara. . . clearest, clairvoyant Clara, of The House of the Spirits.
Isabel describes meeting the man who would become her lover:
There was a full moon, and the velvety voice of Frank Sinatra was crooning “Strangers in the Night” as our ravioli was served. This is the kind of detail that is forbidden in literature; in a book, no one would dare combine a full moon with Frank Sinatra. The problem with fiction is that it must seem credible, while reality seldom is.
She had an uncle who convinced her that in the dark the characters from all the books in his room escaped and roamed through the house.
In my grandfather’s house, which was as long as a railroad, the walls were so thin that our dreams intermingled at night. In the salt air, water pipes, anything metal, promptly surrendered to the pernicious leprosy of rust.
We can see why Isabel Allende has been called a combination of Sheherezade and Chagal. She sometimes calls herself “sentimental” in a disparaging way. I don’t think so — romantic, superstitious, but not sentimental>
She confesses: I burned with restlessness, I saw injustices everywhere, I intended to transform the world, and I embraced so many different causes that I myself lost count and my children lived in a state of constant bewilderment.
About writing, from Allende’s website:
I love the time I spend alone and in silence in my study: weeks adding details to create the unique world of the story, months allowing the characters to grow and to talk for themselves, years trying to understand their motivations and their passions. A novel requires passion, patience, and dedication. It is a total commitment, like falling in love. The first impulse that triggers the writing is always a profound emotion that has been with me for a long time. Time reveals the motivations and gives me enough distance, ambiguity, and irony to narrate it. It is difficult to write in the middle of the hurricane; it is preferable to recreate the story after the furious winds have passed and I can make some sense of the debris. Struggle, loss, confusion, memory—these are the raw materials of my writing.
For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.
Isabel Allende’s The Infinite Plan (1994), is set in the U.S., spanning a lifetime beginning at the end of WWII. It’s a story of love (as all Allende’s books are), of friendship, of family, of heartbreak and joy. The two featured players in this book are Gregory Reeves and Carmen Morales. We meet them at age 6 and seven years old: “One look was enough to establish the complicity that was to last throughout their lifetimes.”
One of the happy circumstances in her books is the most delicate foretelling of events: like a thread extended to pull you along:
“While Margaret hovered in the shadow of the furniture and in dark corners, her parents, busy with their own affairs and deceived by the good-little-girl façade, failed to see the demons gestating in her soul.”
“Within a few days [Carmen] had stitched up a number of ruffled skirts that reminded her of Olga in her younger years and of the costumes she herself had worn for her juggling act in Pershing Square. That look would be her style for the rest of her life; in years to come she refined it to perfection for her personal pleasure, never knowing that in a future time it would make her wealthy and famous.”
“They left Thui alone with the boy for a few moments. He sat on the bed with the sense, even then, that this was a turning point in his life; many years later, when he was a prodigy in mathematics and being interviewed by scientific journals, he told me that his only real memory of childhood in Vietnam was of a pale woman with burning eyes who kissed him and handed him a yellow package.”
Another thing that distinguishes Allende is the looong paragraph. This is about half of one paragraph that focuses on Carmen:
Like Gregory, Carmen had fallen in love at the drop of a hat, always with breathtaking passion, but unlike him she was bound by the patriarchal traditions of her family and her society. Her fiery nature was at odds with the double standard that made prisoners of women but granted a hunting license to men. She knew she had to protect her reputation because the least shadow could unleash a tragedy: her father and her brothers watched her like hawks, ready to defend the honor of the house while they themselves tried to do to other girls what they never allowed women of their own blood. Carmen was ungovernable by nature, but at that stage in her life she was still enmeshed in the cobwebs of “what will people say.” She feared her father most of all, then the explosive Padre Larraguibel, and then God, in that order—and last, the evil tongues that could destroy her future. Like so many girls of her generation, she had been raised by the axiom that marriage and motherhood were the perfect destiny—“They got married and had a lot of children and lived happily ever after”—but she could not find a single example of wedded bliss around her, not even her parents; they stayed together because they could not imagine any alternative, but they were light-years from the image of romantic couples in the movies. She had never seen them embrace, and it was rumored that Pedro Morales had a son by another woman. No, that was not what she wanted for herself. She continued to dream, as she had in her childhood, of a different life, a life filled with adventure, but she lacked the courage to make the break and leave home. She knew that people were gossiping behind her back: What is that youngest Morales girl up to? She doesn’t have a steady job, she goes out alone at night, she wears too much eye makeup, and isn’t that a bracelet she wears on her ankle? And she run around with Gregory Reeves too much—after all, they’re not related. The Moraleses should keep a closer eye on that girl; she’s old enough to get married, but it won’t be easy to find her a husband when she acts like one of those easy gringas. Carmen had not, nevertheless, lacked for candidates for her hand in marriage. She was barely fifteen when she received her first proposal, and by the time she was nineteen, five young men had desperately wanted to marry her; she loved all of them with a chimerical passion, and after a few weeks, at the first hint of predictable routine, she became bored.
Feminism an important theme in most of Allende’s books. (I wonder if Isabel grew up in this kind of family.) And this manner of writing, almost stream of consciousness, seems to pour out of her. In Paula, she describes what writing her first book felt like:
On a day like today, eleven years ago in Caracas, I began a letter that would be my goodbye to my grandfather, who was dying…. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that nothing would be lost of the treasury of anecdotes he had told me through the years of our comradeship; I had forgotten nothing. Soon he died, but the story I had begun to tell had enmeshed me, and I couldn’t stop. Other voices were speaking through me: I was writing in a trance, with the sensation of unwinding a ball of yarn, driven by the same urgency I feel as I write now. At the end of a year the pages had grown to five hundred, filling a canvas bag, and I realized that this was no longer a letter.
“Love and Death Among the Molluscs”
from Consider the Oyster, 1937
included in collection: The Art of Eating, 1954
World Publishing Co. (out of print)
Pat: Last time, Dory, your exploration of Isabel Allende’s glorious book about food and sex, Aphrodite, reminded Myn of the Bay Area’s gifted food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. In some 27 books, as well as in her dispatches from Europe to the New Yorker, she taught us all how to think of food as an art form — to appreciate its source, to delight in its structure, to have as much fun cooking it in the kitchen as we do eating it at the table.
So I dug out The Art of Eating, a collection of M.F.K. Fisher’s writing from 1954, and found myself entranced with her story, “Love and Death among the Molluscs,” from a book I’m sure was a bestseller in 1937, Consider the Oyster.
Here is a sizeable chunk of this tale about a single oyster emerging as both male and female from hundreds of millions of eggs, beginning as a “spat,” evading numerous predators, and thriving in an oyster farm, probably on the Atlantic Coast.
I feel a little tug about reading this at KWMR in Point Reyes Station, where the treasured Drakes Bay Oyster Farm has been shut down by the National Park Service. Still, the respect and eloquence M.F.K. Fisher brings to the subject of oysters could be considered an homage and a thank you to the Lunny family for standing up for family farms everywhere.
…Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of the water is somewhere around or above 70 degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to 100 million at a time, with commendable pride.
American oysters differ as much as American people, so that the Atlantic Coast inhabitants spend their childhood and adolescence floating free and unprotected with the tides, conceived far from their mothers and their fathers too by milt let loose in the water near the eggs, while the Western oysters lie within special brood-chambers of the maternal shell, inseminated and secure, until they are some two weeks old. The Easterners seem more daring.
A little oyster is born, then, in the water. At first, about 5 to 10 hours after he and at least a few hundred thousand of his mother’s eggs have been fertilized by his potent and unknown sire, he is merely a larva. He is small, but he is free-swimming … and he swims thus freely for about two weeks, wherever the tides and his peculiar whims ma lead him. He is called a spat.
It is to be hoped, sentimentally at least, that the spat — our spat — enjoys himself. Those two weeks are his one taste of vagabondage, of devil-may-care free roaming. And even they are not quite free, for during all his youth he is busy growing a strong foot and a large supply of sticky cement-like stuff. If he thought, he might wonder why.
The two weeks up, he suddenly attaches himself to the first clean hard object he bumps into. His 50 million brothers who have not been eaten by fish may or may not bump into anything clean and hard, and those who do not, die. But our spat has been lucky, and in great good spirits he clamps himself firmly to his home, probably forever. He is by now about one-5th of an inch long, whatever that may be … and he is an oyster.
Since he is an Easterner, a Chincoteague or a Lynnhaven maybe, he has found a pleasant, moderately salty bottom, where the tides wash regularly and there is no filth to pollute him and no sand to choke him.
There he rests, tied firmly by his left foot, which seems to have become a valve in the immutable way of all oyster feet. He devotes himself to drinking, and rapidly develops an envious capacity, so that in good weather, when the temperature stays near 78 degrees, he can easily handle 26 or 27 quarts an hour. He manages better than most creatures to combine business with pleasure, and from this stream of water that passes through his gills he strains out all the delicious little diatoms and peridia that are his food.
His home — we are speaking now of domesticated oysters — is a wire bag full of old shells, or perhaps a cement-coated pole planted by a wily oyster-farmer. Or perhaps it is what the government describes winningly as a ” particularly efficient collector,” which is made from an egg-crate partition coated with a mixture of lime and cement.
Whatever the anchorage … spat-dom is over and done with. The two fine free-swimming weeks are forever gone, maturity with all its cares has come, and an oyster may be crossed in love.
For about a year this oyster — our oyster — is a male, fertilizing a few hundred thousand eggs as best he can without ever knowing whether they swim by or not. Then one day, maternal longings surge between his two valves in his cold guts and gills and all his crinkly fringes. Necessity, that well-known mother, makes him one. He is a she.
From then on she, with occasional vacations of being masculine just to keep her hand in, bears her millions yearly. She is in the full bloom of womanhood when she is about seven.
She is a fine plump figure of an oyster, plumper still in the summer when the season and her instincts get the better of her. She has traveled some, thanks to the cupidinous farmers who have subjected her to this tide and that, this bed and that, for their own mean ends.
She has grown into a gray-white oval shape, with shades of green or ocher or black in her gills and a rudimentary brain in the forepart of her blind deaf body. She can feel shadows as well as the urgency of milt, and her delicate muscles know danger and pull shut her shells with firmness.
Danger is everywhere for her, and extermination lurks. She is the prey of many enemies, and must lie immobile as a fungus while the starfish sucks her and the worm bores.
She has eight enemies, not counting man who is the greatest, since he protects her from the others only to eat her himself.
I think M.F.K. Fisher must have been the first “foodie,” don’t you? Even before Julia Child, certainly long before Alice Waters, Mary Frances Fisher chatted amiably and wisely in print about a world so close to us we don’t see it. But when we do, thanks to her, we never want to leave.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #20
February 10, 2016
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer
Doris: I’d like to talk a little about first person writing. How difficult it is.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (after Everything Is Illuminated) was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin, 340 pages.
Since the publication of his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated in 2002, Foer has been seen as a polarizing figure in writing circles because of his frequent use of modernist literary devices — changes in type face, use of all capital letters, single sentences in entire pages or so many sentences crowding together the page seems to turn black. A critic at the New York Press called Foer’s writing “Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False.”
“Foer is supposed to be our new Philip Roth, though his fortune-cookie syllogisms and pointless illustrations and typographical tricks don’t at all match up to or much resemble Roth even at his most inane.” Another critic included Foer in his list of the fifteen most overrated modern American writers.
In the novel I’d like to discuss today, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer uses 9/11 as a backdrop for the story of 9-year-old Oskar Schell, who learns how to deal with the death of his father in the World Trade Center.
Here again, Foer uses writing techniques known as visual writing. It follows multiple but interconnected storylines, is peppered with photographs of doorknobs and other such oddities, and ends with a 14-page flipbook in which we see a man falling from the top of a building.
These techniques were roundly criticized but also given a great deal of praise. John Mullan in the Guardian placed Oskar on his list of “Ten of the Best Child Narrators” in literature. The Spectator praised Foer for “describing a suffering that spreads across continents and generations” and added that the “book is a heartbreaker: tragic, funny, intensely moving….
“Foer’s excellent second novel vibrates with the details of a current tragedy but successfully explores the universal questions that trauma brings on its floodtide…. It’s hard to believe that such an inherently sad story could be so entertaining, but Foer’s writing lightens the load.
So let me begin where Foer begins, on the opening page with a first chapter entitled only, “What The?”:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a ,uoth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’etre, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’etais pas moi!”
What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, ad they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.
Myn: In some ways he reminds me of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s story of an autistic boy at 15 who makes sense of the world in ways other people consider strange.
Pat: Yes, there seems to be something to Oskar that sounds very “aspie” [as in Asperber’s Syndrome, a condition on the “autism spectrum”], that today I think means obsessive and sometimes creatively explosive stream-of-thinking that could be as brilliant as it is antisocial.
Doris: I find Oskar to be not unlike 13-year-old Theo Decker in The Goldfinch, who suffers a trauma at the beginning but finds something — in this case the famous 1654 portrait of a chained goldfinch by Carel Fabritius — that may take him on a journey of recovery. He in turn is not unlike Huck Finn, maybe a very young Holden Caulfield.
Pat: There’s a long history of adolescent-boy characters whose very nature as loners and outsiders turns the spotlight on society’s injustices. That can be hugely affecting in the works you mention. But I’ve come to suspect that Foer messes around with typefaces and weird photos and all-caps and stream-of-consciousness as a replacement for good writing. Granted, the narrator is a kid, maybe autistic, maybe some kind of prodigy, certainly in the throes of terrible grief. But you can’t just capitalize sentences to portray an inner state of mind. You have to get down to the business of good fiction writing.
Doris: I’m more concerned with following this young author’s different way into fiction, though, Patty. The story is told from Oskar’s point of view, but we also hear from his Grandmother, whose observations sometimes appear on the page with big white spaces between words, or broken up into separate lines, like this remembrance from Grandmother, in a letter to Oskar, describing her childhood, when she began collecting letters from people around her:
I went to my piano teacher. I always wanted to kiss him, but was afraid he would laugh at me. I asked him to write a letter.
And then I asked my mother’s sister. She loved dance but hated dancing.
I asked my schoolmate Mary to write a letter to me….
I went to my grandmother, your great-great-great grandmother, and asked her to write a letter. She was my mother’s mother. Your father’s mother’s mother’s mother. I hardly knew her. I didn’t have any interest in knowing her. I have no need for the past, I thought, like a child. I did not consider that the past might have a need for me.
Why kind of letter? my grandmother asked.
I told her to write whatever she wanted to write.
You want a letter from me? she asked.
I told her yes.
Oh, God bless you, she said.
The letter she gave me was sixty-seven pages long. It was the story of her life. She made my request into her own. Listen to me. I learned so much. She sang in her youth. She had been to America as a girl. I never knew that. She had fallen in love so many times that she began to suspect she was not falling in love at all, but doing something much more ordinary….
That’s grandma. like the following: and from his disappeared grandfather, whose voice sounds sometimes like one long sentence, written with no break and gradually becoming so dense on the page that we can’t read it.
As for grandpa, he doesn’t speak. On his hands he’s has outlined the only two responses to the world he needs — “Yes” on one hand and “No” on the other. He carries a notebook with cryptic comments, “I’m sorry” being frequent. “Help,” and “You have to go home” are others.
There’s a mysterious renter in grandmother’s house. Oskar’s mother is seeing someone named Ron, who, she says, is just a friend, but Oskar isn’t sure. But the pain in this book is palpable. I found myself swallowing back tears on several occasions, but I never once felt manipulated as I did when we read Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See. And as many times as I felt like crying were times I laughed out loud.
Pat: I remember trying to read Foer’s first two novels several times, and giving up. My own suspicion that he was just showing off kept getting in the way. But you have convinced me it’s possible to feel the opposite: Whereas I feel exploited by the author’s clownish antics with type and white space, you say you “never once felt manipulated” and the book brought you to tears many times. That’s good enough for me to go back and try again.
Everything I Never Told You
Pat: The novel starts with this very bold opening line: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
We live in an era of murder mysteries and crime detection stories all over the screen and especially in books from pulp fiction to literary thrillers (as this book is called). So a sudden and mysterious death in the first sentence is all we need to catch us in mid-breath. It stops us and starts us all at once, we want to race through the story to find out whodunit.
However, it means the author has to keep everything moving fast, like keeping those plates spinning, in order to tell the real story of this novel: how the characters got to this point, and the effect of Lydia’s disappearance on each of them.
I have to stop here to say that calling this book “a literary thriller,’ as some critics have, is kind of a fib: Thrillers have their own conventions in terms of building tension and suspense, to which Everything I Never Told You never even alludes. However, if I were the publisher I’d grab that term and quote it on the cover — nothing sells fiction these days more than a term like “literary thriller.”
The better surprises here involve the nuances of what other critics point out about this book — the “casual racism” that by now has become embedded in society in subtle but often profoundly life-altering ways.
The story about 15-year-old Lydia begins with her disappearance in a small Ohio town in 1977, but it flashes back to the early ’50s when Lydia’s mother Marilyn, a white girl with a bent for physics and chemistry, must convince her high school (and her mother) to allow her into science rather than home economics classes.
Marilyn finds her way to Harvard where she’s one of a very few women students on track to become a doctor. To take a break from pre-med, she enrolls in a course called “The Cowboy in American Culture,” thinking like other students it’ll be an easy A. The course is taught by someone named James Lee, whom she imagines will probably be a descendant of Robert E. Lee or somebody else always pictured in battle and on horseback.
On the first day, though, she’s shocked to find an Oriental teaching the course, and an Oriental with high academic demands, it turns out:
She had never seen one [an Oriental] in person before…(but) she could see him through her classmates’ eyes, and she knew what they were thinking. This was their professor? This little man, five foot nine at most and not even American, was going to teach them about cowboys? …
The image of the cowboy,” he said, “has existed longer than we might imagine.” There was no trace of an accent in his voice, and she slowly let out her breath. Where had he come from? she wondered. He sounded nothing like what she’d been told a Chinamen sounded like: so solly, no washee. Had he grown up in America?
Ten minutes in, the room began to rustle and murmur. Marilyn glanced at the notes she’d jotted down: phrases like “undergone multiple evolutions in each era of American history” and “apparent dichotomy between social rebel and embodiment of quintessential American values.” She scanned the syllabus. Ten required books, a midterm exam, three essays. This wasn’t what her classmates had had in mind.
A girl at the side of the room tucked her book beneath her arm and slipped out the door. Two girls from the next row followed. After that it was a slow but steady trickle. Every minute or two another few students left. One boy from the first row stood up and cut right in front of the podium on his way out.
The last to leave were three boys from the back. They whispered and sniggered as they edged past just-emptied seats, their thighs bumping each armrest with a soft thump, thump, thump. As the door closed behind them, Marilyn heard one shout “Yippee-ki-yay-ay!” so loud that he drowned out the lecture.
Only nine other students still remained, all studiously bent over notebooks, but they were all reddening in the cheeks and at the edges of their ears. Her own face was hot and she didn’t dare look at Professor Lee. Instead she turned her face to her notes and put her hand to her forehead, as if shielding her eyes from the sun.
I love that reference to “the sun” — she has to shield her eyes because suddenly the real world in all its many complexities has shattered her assumptions and she can hardly take it all in.
And by the way, do you know who taught the first course in Black History at an American colleges? It wasn’t a black guy but a Japanese American man from Hawaii, Ron Takaki, an associate professor at USC, who faced those same shocked looks and probably an instant walk-out by many African American students who couldn’t believe an Oriental would have the audacity to teach them about their own history. Ron Takaki went on to become a full professor and author of many books about merging nationalities and races at UC Berkeley so I got to interview him several times. To see the birth of America through his eyes was so astonishing, and you just know that way back in the ’70s when he taught that first course at USC he had to earn the respect of his students one lecture — probably one sentence — at a time.
Anyway in Celeste Ng’s book, James Lee has a lot to contend with, as we see when Marilyn happens across her mother’s edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. It’s this and other sources that Ng brings forward to show us that chirpy propaganda of the 1940s and 50s that middle-class white women were so good at. I used to cook from my mother’s own Betty Crocker and must have skipped over the boosterim parts that tell women how to please your man, how to feel good about devoting life tor your kids, your husband, your house. I was shocked to see the certainty and authority woven into helpful recipes that tell the reader why staying in the kitchen is women’s rightful place:
— Under cookies: Always cookies in the cookie jar! Is there a happier symbol of a friendly house?
–Under Pies: If you care about pleasing a man — bake a pie. But make sure it’s a perfect pie. Pity the man who has never come home to a pumpkin or custard pie.
— Under Eggs: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are h’ell be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how ot make an egg behave in six basic ways.
–Under preserves. Betty’s pickles! Aunt Alice’s peach conserve! Mary’s mint relish! Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction than a row of shining jars and glasses standing on your shelf?
Reading these quotes in Celeste Ng’s book, I wanted to think, oh, look how far women have come, but one of the great insights of this novel is to see how changing times have only pushed the more blatant methods of yesterday under the radar of today. The same goes for another bestseller of the time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Ng reveals the push toward normalcy that comes even from the Bible, which you’d think would be considered classic and untouchable, but no: At Lydia’s funeral, the minister — who of course looks to everything like President Ford reads a revision of the 23rd Psalm that’s been made to sound like he looks: affable, neutral, and nonthreatening:
The narration describes changes to the original in this way:
“I have everything I need instead of I shall not want; Even if I walk through a very dark valley instead of Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. To James, revisions like this feel disrespectful, a corner cut. Like burying his daughter in a plywood box.”
As a first novel, Everything I Never Told You was a big breakthrough book for Celeste Ng in 2014. As a first novel it was listed on many year-end lists of “most notable” books and declared by the editors of Amazon the #1 Book of the Year.
I think it has many flaws and should never have been given top honors by any critic, but Celeste Ng is certainly one of the most promising fiction writers I’ve read in a long time. She has that rare gift of the One-Word Knockout, meaning she’ll take an otherwise predictable sentence and insert a little twist that changes its meaning almost entirely. For example, here is:
–Mom reading Lydia’s diaries — big books with plenty of white space intended for Lydia to pour out her secret feelings — and realizing they’re all empty. She takes down 1976. 1975. 1974. Page after page of visible, obstinant silence.
Ah, the word “obstinant” — something mom would never have said about Lydia when she was alive, but that now creeps into consciousness whether mom wants to admit her own feelings or not.
Here are other examples — I’ll put the knock-out word or phrase in bold:
—Marilyn looked at Betty Crocker’s portrait on the back cover of the cookbook, the faint streaks of gray at her temples, the hair that curled back from her forehead, as if pushed back by the arch of her eyebrow.
–Marilyn after cleaning out her mother’s house and starting to drive home in the rain, stopping in the middle of the night: She snapped off her car’s lights and leaned back against the headrest. How good the rain would feel, like crying all over her body.
–After she’s drenched by the rain: Back in the car, she peeled off her blouse and skirt and stockings and shoes. At the far end of the passenger seat, tehy made a sad little heap beside the cookbook, like a melting scoop of ice cream.
—She drove on into the night, homeward, her hair weeping tiny slow streams down her back (almost too much tears/crying/weeping)
–James guilty after being with Louisa, tries to cleanse himself by taking a hot shower. A very familiar scene but with a little twist : He turned the shower on hot, so hot he couldn’t stand still beneath it and had to keep turning, like something on a spit, offering the steaming spray a new patch of flesh again and again.
–The newspaper refers to Lydia “as one of only two Orientals at Middlewood High — the other being her brother, Nathan — Lydia Lee stood out in the halls.” James knows that feeling: all those faces, fish-pale and silent and staring.”
–Marilyn berates James for not standing up to the police. “If I have to find out what happened to Lydia myself, I will.” She scrubs at the counter with the dish towel and tosses it down. “I would think you’d want to know, too. But listen to you: Of course, officer. Thank you, officer. We can’t ask for more, officer.” The foam chokes its way down the drain. “I know how to think for myself, you know. Unlike some people, I don’t just kowtow to the police.”
In the blur of her fury, Marilyn doesn’t think twice about what she’s said. To James, though, the word rifles from his wife’s mouth and lodges deep in his chest. From those two syllables — kowtow — explode bent-backed coolies in cone hats, pigtailed Chinamen with sandwiched palms. Squinty and servile. Bowing and belittled. He has long suspected that everyone sees him that way — Stanley Hewitt, the policemen, the checkout girl at the grocery store. But he had not thought that everyone included Marilyn.
–Nath tastes his first beer: “more excited by the idea of it than the flavor — it had tasted, to him, like fizzy urine…”
–Nath reading clippings in his folder on outer space: His father came into the kitchen. “Still mooning over those astronauts?” he said, plucking an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter. He laughed at his own joke and bit into the apple, and even across the kitchen Nath had heard the hard crunch of teeth piercing skin.
The next example has a lesson for writers. When you hit a nerve by using an unexpected word in a sentence, that’s it for the rest of the book. You never get to use that word again, or your originality, your unique talent, your vision for the book will all be called into question.
—Marilyn and James fight about Lydia at the dinner table while Hannah and Nath pretend to eat. “Stop badgering her, James,” said Marilyn. “Let her eat her dinner,” and James said, a little less quietly, “I’m not the one nagging about her homework.” Hannah prodded a pebble of hamburger on her plate.
I love that word, “pebble,” — it acts as a metaphor for the younger sister’s role in the family (insignifcant, inferior), and the very Hamburger-Helper look of it speaks of synthetic things, like packaged food and TV families that were coming on the scene at the time.
So hooray for Celsete Ng, but, she forgot the rule of the Knockout Word: you only get one per book. About a hundred pages later, again at the family table, Hannah picked pebbles of cereal from her bowl. Too bad. Even if we don’t realize the word “pebble” has been used again, its second appearance takes the impact out of the first.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #19
January 27, 2016
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/PicadorPat: Today we’d like to devote the full hour to a very good British novelist, Rachel Cusk, who’s not well known in the United States but has been acclaimed in England. With her latest work of fiction, Outline, she has chosen to challenge the reader with a novel that has no story, no suspense, no developted characterizations and almost no action.Doris: It’s so different. Rachel Cusk has written five acclaimed novels, so you expect a good story with intriguing characters to pull you through it. Not here.Pat: We don’t even like any of these characters, and the location, Athens, which is usually noted for its art and the beauty of surrounding islands, is described as crowded, noisy and dusty. But the writing is exquisite — so thick and rich it’s like pouring syrup on your pancakes.Doris: I started this book impressed by its beautiful paragraphs, and put a Post-It on page 1, and on page 2, and then on page 3, and now my book is filled with Post-Its, — which is to say the writing is amazing.But as a novel, you’re right, it has no story — or at least, that’s what we think at first. The narrator, whom we learn very late in the book is named Faye, goes from one conversation to another – one beautifully written paragraph to another — and while we don’t know what’s happening for the longest time, in fact, dear listener, there IS a story. It’s up to the reader to find it, and to fill in the gaps.Pat: In it, Faye has 10 different conversations in which we find out just enough information about each character to form an outline about each person, never enough for a solid personality.Doris: Secondly, these ten conversation create the barest outline of Faye herself. She’s the narrator, but the way she views the world comes to us in pieces, mostly observations she makes about each person with whom she’s conversing. Again what happens within the conversation isn’t the important thing. Her observations-in-passing give us the real clues as to what’s going on.In Chapter One, for example, Faye’s on a plane to Athens where she will be one of several teachers in a course on creative writing. It’s nighttime, the plane is crowded, and on this long flight while the other passengers are quiet, she notices a heavyset man walking the aisles with a baby in his arms.There was now blackness at the windows. In the cabin people were reading, sleeping, talking. A man in long baggy shorts walked up and down the aisle jiggling a baby on his shoulder. The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward.The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshly and real, their detail so unmediated, so impersonal, so infinite. Each time the man with the baby passed I saw the network of creases in his shorts, his freckled arms covered in coarse reddish fur, the pale, mounded skin of his midriff where his T-shirt had ridden up, and the tender wrinkled feet of the baby on his shoulder, the little hunched back, the soft head with its primitive whorl of hair.The whole book is filled with this kind of writing. Every detail so originally perceived. What a wonderful touch, just as an example, it is to mention the man’s “freckled arms covered in coarse reddish fur.”Pat: Every sentence has that ability to put us right behind the eyes of the narrator. I love the baby’s “little hunched back, the soft head with its primitive whorl of hair.” Just so subtle, so precise.
Doris: As often happens when I come across a particularly descriptive paragraph, I read it out loud to anybody nearby, and this time it was to my husband Richard. He said, “Well, that’s beautiful writing. And nothing happens.”
Pat: That’s the feeling many readers have: If this is fiction, and the purpose of fiction is to tell a story, why do we have all this beautiful writing but no story?
Doris. So I’d like to talk about the kind of book that engages a reader like Richard but then disappoints him, too. A novel should be full of tension; it should have some action, it should clearly be going somewhere and take you along for the ride. Outline does not do that — it presents only, again, an outline of the story, and of the characters, and we as readers get to fill in the rest.
Pat: Usually blurbs on the jacket by other writers don’t mean much — they’re too gooey in their complimentary way — but I think some light can be shed by Jeffrey Eugenides, that great novelist (Middlesex is his masterwork and I hope every listener gets a chance to read it), whose quote on the back of this book refers to subatomic matter in space called the Higgs boson, which can’t be seen until it reacts to other matter. He writes:
Like the Higgs boson, which appears only when bombarded by electrons, Rachel Cusk’s nearly nameless narrator flickers into visibility only through her encounters with a series of amazingly eloquent and fascinating interlocutors.”
So during these 10 conversations, what flickers into visibility is the narrator’s observations of each person; and these rare responses to the things people tell her begin to connect like dots, which in turn outline her character. The nearly invisible victory of this novel is that the narrator doesn’t want to tell us a story, and doesn’t want to engage personally with anybody, so the reader is challenged to simply follow her thoughts and observations — and let the book happen to us.
We notice that Faye almost never asks a question. Instead, people bombard her with anecdotes about their lives, and every once in a while they may ask her about herself. Eventually we learn that she’s the mother of two boys, and her marriage seems to have been stable until a few years before when there was a bitter divorce she will not talk about.And we also notice that with most characters in the novel, bitter divorces and break-ups are the norm.
Doris: Along the way we begin to understand that all the women define themselves in relation, usually, to a man. Our heroine, who’s narrating this book doesn’t talk about her life but clearly, something bad happened three years ago, and perhaps that’s why she’s so passive now. She doesn’t want to be hurt so doesn’t engage in any way. For her there is “virtue in passivity,” in removing any evidence of self will.
Pat: So we come to feel she is done with an active life. She doesn’t engage; she recedes. That’s why whatever they’re saying to her that registers — and is usually followed by a knockout observation — is like the Higgs boson phenomenon: another part of her comes into view.
Myn: As someone who hasn’t read this book, I’m wondering if the buildup suggests that somewhere along the line there’s going to be a sense of redemption for this character. Most books that start out like this — a very damaged character has a strong role, and there’s some insight or growth in the end. Is it asking too much to know if this protagonist, Faye, is heading toward something like that?
Pat: That’s a wonderful question because the idea of growth, progression, improvement is constantly talked about by the other people, never by Faye. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that staying out of the limelight of whatever happens in this story IS the story.
Doris: As to a theme of redemption, as Pat mentioned it may be the author’s as much as any character’s, because Rachel Cusk went through a personal crisis in her own marriage and experience of being a mother, and she seems to be working out something like this in Outline. Pat, maybe you could fill us in about the real-life background to this novel.
Pat: Well, as we mentioned, Rachel Cusk was revered in England as an author of many novels until she went through a bitter divorce and turned to nonfiction by writing several very controversial memoirs. Critics were so negative the reviews got pretty nasty.
The first one, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, was called by one reviewer “merciless, a raw account of Cusk’s ambivalence surrounding the birth of her daughter.”
After the second memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was published, the Sunday Times called Cusk “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish.”
Doris: Whoa. A “brittle” what?
Pat: “A brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist.” I don’t know how scathing critics were about the third memoir, but that was enough for Cusk. The violently negative response to Aftermath, she told the Guardian in 2014, left her in a “total silence.” She wasn’t able to write for years.
During her divorce she had already “come to hate stories” like the ones her husband told about her. Gradually she came to believe that traditional, realist fiction and memoir had failed her, so she went looking for a new kind of storytelling mode altogether. The result is Outline.
We get a clue about this new direction when her protagonist Faye finds it impossible to say why her marriage ended: “Among other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.” The reference to “story” as the basis of marriage — or any experience, for that matter — sets the tone for the whole book. Human beings are “addicted to story,” several characters will tell us. It’s so easy to see ourselves as the hero of our own story that we tend to play out scripts that have been embedded in our minds since childhood.
Doris: This is why in Chapter One, before Faye even gets on the plane for Athens, she sets up this theme during a conversation with a billionaire who is thinking of starting up a literary magazine.
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended—obviously—with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer, with the literary magazine as his entrée.
A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it. This man had bought himself in, and out, of a great many things. He mentioned scheme he was working on, to eradicate lawyers from people’s personal lives. He was also developing a blueprint for a floating wind farm big enough to accommodate the entire community of people needed to service and run it: the gigantic platform could be located far out to sea, thus removing the unsightly turbines from the stretch of coast where he was hoping to pilot the proposal and where, incidentally, he owned a house.
On Sunday’s he played drums in a rock band, just for fun. He was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala. I was finding it difficult to assimilate everything I was being told. The waitresses kept bringing more things, oysters, relishes, special wines. He was easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents. But when he put me in the taxi he said, enjoy yourself in Athens, though I didn’t remember telling him that was where I was going.
That’s it for this character — we will never see him again. Does he really want to be a writer? His funny/inventive ideas are intriguing in their own right: eradicating lawyers, floating a wind farm far out to sea. Quintuplets! A whole life is laid out. Can you believe how much the author has given us in this billionaire’s life? It’s like she’s presented it on a platter: But where is it going?
Pat: He sounds false and self-aggrandizing, as if to say: I started with nothing, overcame barriers by my wits alone, fought my way to the top and ended up rich and successful, the captain of my ship, and so forth. That’s the kind of “story” that’s so familiar we could write it for him.
Doris: And it turns out that other characters add to this theme: Each one tends to live out life as a story that begins with birth and progresses toward some kind of myth of success and maturity. So we’re always searching for ways to improve or elevate our role in the story. This is what the character of Paniotis, a Greek editor, describes as he looks back during his conversation with Faye:
In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive toward higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey: and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love.
If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress. Saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction.
Pat: We don’t have time to get into this, but you could read this novel as a metaphor for the author’s experience. As once character says,
…”the story of improvement … has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.”
It’s hard to explain briefly here, but this is why Rachel Cusk’s return to fiction in Outline has become internationally celebrated. It’s like a literary game of hide-and-seek, with every character running off to hide, none as slyly as the narrator Faye, or her creator, Cusk. As soon as you get a hint of a story launching, all the little trails to it lead nowhere.This is what one of Faye’s more precocious students, a 15-year-old named Georgiou, has concluded — that there is no story, only what we make up to be a story:
It’s interesting to consider that a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but in which we have absolutely no influence at all. He himself he saw the tendency to fictionalize our own experiences as positively dangerous, because it convinced us that human life had some kind of design and that we were more significant than we actually were.
Doris: I think Rachel Cusk suggests here that women especially get so wrapped up in the story of their lives that they change their identity to fit their male partner — so much that they no longer recognize themselves. In this way Angeliki, a writer on tour, confesses her fears of traveling without her husband, because travel “caused me to feel, in an entirely new way, what I actually am.” Then Faye, who’s just emerging from her own failed marriage, responds:
I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person. I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist. My mother once admitted, I said, that she used to be desperate for us to leave the house for school, but that once we’d gone she had no idea what to do with herself and wished that we would come back.
Pat: So here is the complexity of inventing ourselves in a story we’ve also invented. Anne, another teacher at the course, remembers how she stopped being that person after her divorce — stopped measuring herself against her husband. However, later, when she tries to notify him after a crisis occurs — she gets hurt in a mugging — it’s hard for Anne to remember which version of herself she’s describing:
She had become, through him, someone else. In a sense he had created her, and when she phoned him that day of the incident [the mugging], she was, she supposed, referring herself back to him as his creation. Her links to the life before him had been completely severed—that person no longer existed, and so when the incident occurred it had been two kinds of crisis, one of which was a crisis of identity. She didn’t know, in other words, quite who it had happened to.
In the end I find myself not wanting to seek out the story that drives this work of fiction. Like the narrator I just want to sit back and take in whatever the world (in this case the narrator’s observation) offers. Rather than take the novel apart and see what’s going on, I want to let it happen to me in a newly organic way, its own way.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Ten Speed Press
Pat: Here’s a phenomenon I love to see: Experts in various fields who can’t find a book that explains their specialty to patients and clients — so they decide to write it themselves.
You’d think writing a full-length book for publication would be intimidating for people who aren’t writers by profession. But it turns out these experts are often so angry about wrong or inadequate books out there that what comes out is often eccentric, humorous and convincing.
So it is with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book that’s full of wise instruction, but the reason it’s a huge bestseller, I think, is the author’s stern, surprisingly funny, get-with-the-program voice.
Doris: You mentioned before we went on the air that here is a serious nonfiction author who wants us to feel a “spark of joy” whenever we are tidying up. If we hold an item in our hands and feel that joy, it stays; if there’s no spark, out it goes.
Pat: I think the “joy” factor is the reason Marie Kondo has become such a successful consultant in Japan. She’s been hired apparently by thousands of clients ranging from individuals to corporations; from lifelong hoarders to people with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
But what stands out when you read Marie Kondo is not so much her very helpful advice; it’s her teacherly yet heartfelt delivery. We also come to realize that Kondo is a booster of things. She takes the point of view of every item in your house and kind of sells it to you all over again. If you don’t love it, the decision is made to discard.
Take those pairs of socks people tend to roll up tightly, stretching the elastic. Kondo writes: I pointed to the balled-up socks in the drawer [and said to the client], “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that? “
Here’s another glimpse at Kondo’s love of items, this time about spare change tossed willy-nilly into plastic bags: Writing this description is hard enough, but to actually see these coins, stripped of their dignity as money, is heartrending.
When I got to the section on discarding books, I thought I knew how to sort through bookshelves since I’ve been doing that for decades, but Marie Kondo knows better. When choosing which books to cull out, she says you don’t just run your finger along the shelf and make decisions along the way:
Although in plain sight, these books remain unseen. If you ask yourself, do these titles spark joy when you are just looking at the things on your shelves, the question won’t mean much to you. To truly decide whether you want to keep something or dispose of it, you must take your things out of hibernation. Remove all books from bookcases and put on floor. Just like the gentle shake we use to wake someone up, we can stimulate our belongings by physically moving them, exposing them to fresh air and making them conscious. …
Don’t you love that metaphor: “Just like the gentle shake we use to wake someone …” that’s the kind of writing that makes this book so much fun to read. Some people think Kondo goes overboard in this next instruction, but to me, she’s right on:
Once you have piled your books, take them in your hand one by one, and decide whether you want to keep, or discard, each one. The criterion is, of course, whether it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment. Instead of asking yourself what you feel, you’ll start asking whether you need that book or not.
Here again, her very sternness — “Remember, I said when you touch it ” — calls attention to a way to love while thinking objectively. “Reading clouds your judgment,” she says. It gets in the way of that spark.
Doris: That’s the best line in the book.
Myn: It’s worth noting that the author has never been outside Japan and has worked only with clients in Japan. If you’ve been to that country, you know that in cities like Tokyo, people generally live in very small places and have small amounts of stuff. I kept thinking it’s well and good for Marie Kondo to say, “put your books on the floor,” but I’m sure in your house, Pat and Doris, these books number in the hundreds. So it’s sort of daunting.
Pat: I realized that’s why I need Marie Kondo — she understands how hard it is to get rid of books you’ve had on your shelves for years.. When I leave the books on the shelf, I don’t get that “thrill of pleasure” that comes when by holding each one to see how much it means to me.
Doris: Sitting on the floor with your stacks all around you really does work. I find myself starting to read a book and think, Oh, I have to keep this one, and this and this and this. But if you give them their space, I think she wants them to breathe into their own consciousness. And then it’s not enough to leave them in piles — you have to move them around, restack and reassess, to get the job done right.
Pat: Every once in a while, Marie Kondo waxes poetic about mundane things in such a way that we find ourselves thinking more philosophically. Here she is on the subject of “unread books”:
Books are essentially paper, sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves. You read books for the experience of reading. Books you have read, have already been experienced, and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember.
Their content is inside you! So true.
So when deciding which books to keep, forget about whether you think you’ll read it again, or whether you’ve mastered what’s inside. Instead, take each book in your hand and decide whether it moves you or not. Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves. The ones that you really love. That includes this book, too. If you don’t feel any joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you discard it.
Doris: Another great approach: I would rather. As if to say: Don’t do me any favors, please. Get rid of my book, it’s fine, especially since by now you’ve already paid for it.
Pat: She sounds almost aristocratic, but not. It’s a great narrative smile. And here’s one of those great Marie Kondo insights that surprised me:
What about books you’ve started but not yet finished reading? Or books you intend to read sometime? The Internet has made it easy to purchase books, but as a consequence, it seems to me that people have far more unread books than they once did, ranging from 3 to more than 40. It is not uncommon for people to purchase a book and then buy another one not long after, before they have read the first one. Unread books accumulate. The problem with books we intend to read sometime is that they are far harder to part with than ones we have already read….
Pat: That’s a new truth for the Internet age. People get a Kindle or Kobo or other electronic reader that can carry dozens of books at a time — some incredibly cheap, some free like classics in the public domain, and some current titles that are temporarily discounted — so it’s no wonder the tendency is to buy a lot of books at a time.
Doris: She’s right in the traditional sense, too. You don’t need an electronic device to build up a collection of unread books. When I ask Dawn at Point Reyes Bookstore for suggestions, she might point out several titles that have just come in, and I’ll buy two of them each time, while at home other books get tossed on top of the new ones, and months later there’s the stack of books that Dawn recommended, unread.
Pat: Oh yes, unread books. Here’s what she says about that:
You may have wanted to read that book when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it. There’s no need to finish reading books that you only got halfway through. Their purpose was to be read halfway…
Only by discarding that unread book will you be able to test how passionate you are about that subject. If your feelings don’t change after discarding it, then you’re fine as is. If you want the book so badly after getting rid of it that you’re willing to buy another copy, then buy one. And this time, read and study it.
Doris: This brings up that parallel phenomenon of mixing favorite books on a bookshelf, which is described with eloquence and wry humor in another and very different book by Anne Fadiman. It’s a memoir called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. I thought of it because like Kondo, Fadiman may be talking about something practical and straightforward, but her voice has a rich and lovely staying power.
A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other’s T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident… But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby-Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together…
Pat: Their record collections had “miscegenated”! I’m sold.
Doris: And wait, it gets better:
Our reluctance to conjugate our Melvilles was also fueled by some essential differences in our characters. George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingled democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature. Some were vertical, some horizontal, and some actually paced behind others. Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter. Like most people with a high tolerance for clutter, George maintains a basic trust in three dimensional objects. If he wants something, he believes it will present itself, and therefore it usually doe. I, on the other hand, believe that books, maps, sciessors, and Scotch tape dispensers are all unreliable vagrants, likely to take off for parts unknown unless strictly confined to quarters. My books, therefore, have always been rigidly regimented….
Pat: A “lumper” and a “splitter” — familiar types but Fadiman coins the words. And “conjugating our Melvilles” is superb.
Doris: Anne Fadiman is best known for a 1997 book about the Hmong people of Vietnam who immigrated to the United States after the war. They ran right into a “collision of cultures” when they treated epilepsy as a condition that results when The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which Fadiman used as the title of the book.
Pat: It’s beautiful to read because she describes both sides of that cultural collision with espect and awe. It’s still taught in medical schools but is also a real life-changer for anybody who reads it, whether you’re in healthcare or not. I still have it on my bookshelf, which would make Marie Kondo would cheer – the “spark of joy” leaps right out with that one.
By the way, I think I love Marie Kondo for another reason — she doesn’t mind telling us about surefire processes of tidying-up that didn’t work, like her famous but failed “Book Reduction Method”
[Early on] I began to search for a way to let books go without regret, and eventually hit upon what I called The Bulk Reduction Method. Realizing what I really wanted to keep was not the book but certain information or specific words it contained, I decided that if I kept only what was necessary, I should be able to part with the rest. My idea was to copy the sentences that inspired me into a notebook. Over time, I thought, this would become a personal collection of my favorite words of wisdom. It might be fun to read it over in the future, and trace the path my interests had led me.
With great excitement I pulled out a notebook I liked and launched my project. I began by underlining the places I wanted to copy. Then I wrote the title in my notebook and began transcribing. Once I started however, I realized this process takes far too much work. To copy 10 quotations from a single book would take at least a half hour. The thought of doing this for 40 books made me dizzy.
My next thought was to use a copy machine, much quicker and easier, but this even more time and effort. Then I started to rip the relevant page out of each book. But pasting pages into a notebook was also a pain, so I simplified the process by slipping them into a file instead. This only took 5 minutes per book. I managed to get rid of 40 books and keep the words I liked. I was extremely pleased with the result.
However, two years after launching this Bulk Reduction Method, I never once looked at the file I created. All that effort had just been to ease my own conscience.
Recently I noticed that having fewer books actually increases the impact of the information I read. I recognize necessary information more quickly. Many of my clients mention this. For books, timing is everything. The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. To avoid missing that moment, I recommend that you keep your collection small.
Doris: This gets us into that area of changing or underlining or making notes in a book — I know that you Pat make notes all over the margins and text; my husband Richard highlights paragraphs he wants to remember. But for many of us, any mark you put on the page will ruin it.
Myn: It says something about the preciousness with which we hold these objects called books that it’s hard even to read about altering them in that way. Books are collections of paper and ink, as she says. I’ve been wanting to underline passages, but it’s difficult to do.
Doris: Using Post-its is a good compromise — they never stick permanently on the page and you can always turn to the exact passage you want. The only problem is using so many Post-its the book appears to be hemorrhaging little squares of colored paper.
Pat: It’s easy for me to write on a printed page because I started out in publishing by reading those long galley sheets that invite editorial markings. Then came bound galleys, also temporary, so I’d write all over them but afterward couldn’t toss ’em out because they felt like old friends, definite “keeps” in Marie Kondo’s terms. For a while I wouldn’t touch hardcover books with pen or pencil because they were permanent — they had sewn (not glued) signatures, wood (not cardboard) and cloth (not paper) covers so they’d last for our lifetime and posterity’s. As we turned into a disposable society, paperback were cheaper, but people saved them anyway.
Doris: I have to disagree about not stopping the cleaning-out processs by rereading a book, because I have just recently discovered how fabulous it was to reread In Cold Blood and other titles by Truman Capote.. And recently I rediscovered The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, which was all the rage when I was in my twenties, and fell in love with again. The copy I have cost $1.50 at the time. I was thrilled by what entranced me as a very young woman, and by ideas that mean even more to me now.
Pat: I think Marie Kondo would agree — she’s saying that if one book hits you with that spark of joy when you’re sitting on the floor surrounded by piles and piles of books, the decision is made. It’s a keeper and now if there’s time, reread!
Doris: Well, in fact, I took it off the shelf thinking I’d get rid of it, but maybe it was that act of having it in my hands that caused me to start reading, and then the more I felt the old thrill, the more I knew I’d keep it forever.
Myn: It may be partially a generational thing. Marie Kondo is a young woman, as we can see by photo on back cover. I was listening to an interview the other day with Pico Iyer, the wonderful travel writer and thinker, and he was saying at this time in his life, all he wants to do is reacquaint himself with books he read as a younger man and talk with old friends about them now. He’s not so involved in everything that’s new. Maybe we get to a certain point in our lives, and that’s what we want – the old familiarity but also the new learning we can get from books we loved when we were younger.
Pat: That’s the feeling she’s getting at — you stroke the old book and you get the spark of joy anew.
Doris: Also when Marie Kondo talks about ripping pages out of books — so painful to begin with — the question is, how did she get rid of them then? She can’t sell or give them to a library. She really means burn them.
Pat: I’m not sure if she can recycle the remaining pages if they’re still attached to the binding. Most recycling machines can cull out ink particles and metal staples, but glue along the spine and coatings on hardcovers are still a problem. According to Slate.com, “If your library can’t be donated or swapped, search the database at Earth911.com for a book recycler in your area. Failing that, you can slice out the pages using scissors or an X-Acto blade and put them in with your regular paper recycling.”
There’s another “spark of joy” Marie Kondo doesn’t mention, and that struck me when we talked about Truman Capote, and Doris you brought in your old paperback copies of his works, many of them a little moldy and a little brown because publishers weren’t using acid-free paper at the time.
I don’t know — my heart swelled at the sight of them because of the way people treasure paperbacks from the pre-Internet era. Siddhartha is the Hermann Hesse reprint edition that I would never want to get rid of because even if the pages are crinkling and breaking up, and maybe so dark from aging they’re hard to read, that little paperback represented a certain intellectual freedom had been loosed upon the world!\
Doris: In any case, Marie Kondo’s book just goes to show you how powerful an author’s voice can be. For me it unleashed such a sharp memory about housekeeping that I dug out a proposal for a children’s book that I was going to call The Housecleaner’s Starter Book. Nothing came of it — children were raised differently when I was growing up – but today when I read the Introduction to this book I feel just as excited about getting out the cleaning tools and attacking dust as I did as a kid.
Pat: Talk about the use of voice — this Introduction has an air of celebration and certainty about housecleaning that I find refreshing and useful for everyone, young or old.
Doris; Well, I got as far as the Introduction, so here it is.
I think I was around eight or ten when my mother gave me a book about housecleaning. I took it seriously. My mother took it seriously too; she loved taking care of the house, of my father and brother and me. The traditional “homemaker” jobs challenged her and suited her, maybe even more than her career as a nurse had before she married.
I received the gift book as if it were the key to the city. My mother was about to let me in on her secrets and I was thrilled. I remember it being incredibly informative. It told me, “Always clean from top to bottom so that dust drifting down from above doesn’t spoil what you’ve just cleaned below.” Such a concept would never have occurred to me. I was terribly impressed. There were line-drawings, a couple of ways of making a bed, for instance—my mother preferred “hospital corners,” naturally. And there were pleasant illustrations of a mother and daughter working through the house together. I remember one in which both held plump pillows tucked under their chins, slipping them into freshly laundered pillowcases. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a less silly way of putting cases on pillows, but apparently not—this was precisely my mother’s own technique.
I don’t remember the name of that book, and I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve been to the library to look for it, with no success. I’ve searched Books Out-of-Print. Also no luck. In fact, I didn’t find any book on the subject of housecleaning written for kids, which struck me as a serious hole in the literature. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of consulting some specialists, including my mother and several other experts, and have assembled THE HOUSECLEANER’S STARTER BOOK you see before you.
I hope it opens doors for you like it did for me. I hope it tells you things you hadn’t thought of. I hope it enhances your relationship with the place you live—because you’ll really get to know your house, or apartment, or room, depending on what you are responsible for cleaning. I hope you feel as welcomed into this little corner of the real world as I did.
In case you were wondering, when my brother was eight or ten years old my mother did not buy him a book like this. I think it’s a shame what he missed out on and will rush him a copy of this book as soon as it’s published.
A Listener Writes:
It was a very interesting discussion this AM on KWMR about truth in “non-fiction novels” [Truman Capote’s term for In Cold Blood] or in historical fiction. Enjoyed hearing the three of you grappling with the issue, often having different “takes” on the truthfulness of passages that were read. Some may have believed the accuracy of an author’s portrayal in a scene while another of you may have felt it was impossible for the author to have known the truth in such fine detail, thus, had created it–or at least parts of it.
I find the whole subject perplexing and fascinating, since it brings up ideas/questions such as how do we know what is true; what are our tests of truth; how does culture affect how we as individuals perceive truth; how does “what is true” change over time; and if “what is true” can change over time, what does truth really mean?
I’m not kidding. These things and more were circulating in my mind as I listened to your conversation. Another branch of the discussion involved how important –or not–it is for the author to be true to fact. I’m not sure, but think these questions have been considered for a long, long time. It’s hard to believe that the approach in In Cold Blood was so revolutionary. I think of Melville in Moby Dick. He wrote marginalia in a book of another author (Thomas Beale) that later showed how he used information from that book in crafting credible but unknowable details upon the true story of the whaling ship Essex lending authenticity and power to Moby Dick. Not exactly the same thing since he never claimed that his novel was in any way “true.”
A little story…I always remember what happened one day in my 8th grade history class. The day after a test, the teacher, Miss Robinson (this was pre-“Ms.”), began a brief lecture on cheating. She said someone in the class had cheated on the test and gave reasons why she considered it such a significant and immoral act. Then she said she knew who had cheated, looked directly at him, called out his name, Tim, and told him to go to the principal’s office. This was a kid frequently in trouble. He got up abruptly, loudly and contentiously denied that he had cheated, seemed almost physically threatening toward her, then stormed out the door, slamming it behind him.
She was upset, red-faced, and silent for a minute and sat down at her desk. Then she told us she was worried about how this drama would play out for both her and Tim and asked the class to write honestly in as much factual detail as we could what had transpired in case there were repercussions for her later. It was a very emotional scene. We wrote for a while, maybe 30 minutes. Miss Robinson collected our papers. Then Tim strolled back into the room, not only calm, but smiling. I bet you already know that what had happened was orchestrated to offer us a lesson. The whole scene had been constructed by Miss Robinson to teach us something about the validity of the truth we read in history books. The acting of both players had fooled everyone. The next day she read each observer’s account aloud to the class. It was amazing to us all how much the accounts differed, yet as individuals, we thought we were each writing the truth to our best ability at the time. We saw how much the emotional reactions of an onlooker can affect his perceptions of reality, and thus, his expression of truth to others.
I also thought of Gerhard Richter, the painter, who was for a time obsessed with comparing the value of a painting as opposed to a photograph with regard to the potential for accurate representation of reality inherent in each. Although photography is usually seen by most as the more reliable of the two, he felt both presented incomplete views of the truth. You have probably seen some of his highly photographic paintings, almost indistinguishable from photographs.
I didn’t mean to get so verbose here, it just came out. I hope it feels good to know how much engagement your radio show sparked in me.
Thanks to Myn, Doris and Pat, good show,
Pat: Today Myn and Doris and I want to welcome welcome our guest, Caroline Heller, the author of an extraordinary memoir, Reading Claudius, which is newly published from The Dial Press. Caroline, perhaps you can summarize the book for us.
Caroline Heller: It’s a memoir about my parents, who met in prewar Prague in 1933. My mother, Liese, was 19 years old and already a Jewish refugee from Germany. To continue her education, she traveled to Prague, which had become one of those places in Europe that welcomed refugees. And Prague was the center of the still-young democracy of Czechoslovakia where president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk had enormous antipathy toward Adolf Hitler. I think he was a little more prescient than many leaders about what was coming.
There my mother met the Heller brothers, Erich and Paul, one of whom would become my uncle and one my father. These were the rich prewar years, when the Jewish community of Prague had become the epitome of cultural activity, talking about philosophy and great writers as we can imagine in the cafes and parks and classrooms that made up cosmopolitan life. They had an ominous feeling about the future but also a great joy at life. And then the shadow fell.
Doris: One of the things I found interesting is how different these two brothers are in terms of personality before they are separated. Certainly their circumstances change greatly as the older brother, Erich, gets out of Czechoslovakia in time and finds his way to a high academic placement in Cambridge; while Paul waits too long to get his medical degree and is sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Caroline, can you talk more about the way differences in their character informed what became of them both?
Caroline: The question I kept asking, too, was if the trauma of the Holocaust distorted their basic nature, or if each was going to find his own way whatever the circumstance. I’ve come to believe that in general, the central personality of a person does not change in the midst of crisis. In my family’s case, it’s just that one of the brothers suffered a great deal and one less.
Doris: One has to wonder what would have happened if the situation were reversed — if Erich had been imprisoned and Paul with his medical degree had gotten out.
Caroline: It’s hard to know because Erich was the one — and I don’t mean to use this label lightly — who was more narcissistic and in his own mind more artistic than Paul.
Pat: Although it seemed he had every reason to be. The papers you found confirm that many well-known writers and artists thought highly of his ideas and his work — you mention Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, even “gossip-filled letters from E. M. Forster.” From the beginning of the story, even in his 20s, Erich’s thoughts and declarations seemed to be revered by young intellectuals and became the center of everyone’s discussions.
Caroline: I don’t mean to minimize Erich’s artistry but rather to raise my father’s own accomplishments and artistry, which were revealed in his letters and diary entries. Like so many brilliant people, Erich felt a calling to keep German literature alive in the new land. In part that too describes the impetus for his having the knowledge to get out. He was on a mission — a literary mission.
Pat: It’s easy to say in retrospect but I felt reading the book that Paul was kind of destined to be the brother sent to the camps because his calling was to be a doctor, and it’s clear he saved many people’s lives in the concentration camps. And there, with so many people killed all around him, or dying of starvation and disease, not to mention the incredible number of suicides, Paul had to be the tougher, more ironclad brother simply to survive.
Doris: How did you find the letters from Erich to other people, especially the personal ones to the man he fell in love with at Cambridge, Graham Storey?
Caroline: Most of Erich’s papers are held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. After he left Cambridge and moved to the United States, Erich became a well known professor at Northwestern — he had an endowed chair there — and so there is an Erich Heller Archive where all of his letters are stored, including those to Graham Story, who became a prominent scholar at Cambridge.
Doris: I should mention that Caroline, you were here in Point Reyes a couple of months ago and did a reading at the Presbyterian Church. It was a full house with an absolutely rapt audience when you read a portion of a letter from your grandfather in 1936. He and your grandmother were still in Germany and had only then decided it was time to leave the country, so this letter is asking the advice of his children about what they should bring out of Germany when they emigrate. It’s a beautiful passage and maybe you could read that first.
Caroline: My mother before she died gave me this envelope of letters she had saved from my grandparents. They were written in old German script, and even though I spoke a lot of German, they were Greek to me! I thought I’d never translate them and they’d just be artifacts, but sure enough a relative, an in-law who’s a house painter, turned out to be a scholar of old German script and he translated them for me. We became very close through that because it felt like we were meeting my grandparents together.
So in 1936, as Hitler became more and more powerful, the older generation of Jews in Germany began to realize they had to get out, as many of their children, like Liese, had. That’s how LIese got to Prague — her parents had sent her out of Germany to pursue her education. But my grandparents’ generation was so German, so assimilated, they had a terrible time believing the kind of fascism that was overtaking the country. Yet although they finally did understand, their letters showed not a hint of the catastrophe already underway:
For the past three days, blustery and rainy, then an hour or two of sun, then more storms; two sides of the weather are in discussion with each other. Unlike promises the weather can make, we hope to answer our doubts with creativity and concentration. One will yet see. Love to LIese on your 23rd birthday…
A few days later, another letter. Along with Albert’s sister, Hedy they had obtained stamped immigration card to Luxembourg. Albert wrote in uncharacteristically tiny cramped handwriting, as though whispering.
Many decisions need to be made and quickly. Write, please, with your opinions on what we should pack and what better left behind. Container 28 cu. meters. Definitely we will leave behind the older table– too large and heavy, and, of course, we will leave piano behind. We want to bring the high-back chairs and Mother’s blue armchair. We can break down clothing cabinet so it will take little room. We will write reluctantly part with writing table – too large and heavy. Big question is green sofa. The material is no longer pretty, in need of recovering. What do you think? And the bookcase will take up little space in the container for it can be in back, behind other things, not deep, maybe 30 cm., but wide, 2 m. The kitchen utensils and candlesticks of course, and the silver trays and tea set. Adler typewriter already with you Ernie. Wine labels, photographs, books, clothing for Mother and myself. Give your opinions. In October it should all be picked up. I think that’s all there is to be decided. Heartfelt greetings, lovely children, may you remain in good health. Don’t worry about us and be happy.
From your father, Albert.
Pat: Wow. It sounds as matter-of-fact as a letter from one’s parents who are moving out of the old family house and asking the kids who are now in college what they want to keep. To think it was 1936 —
Myn: — That’s the heartbreaking part about it. It’s so normal-sounding, and yet without that sense of how almost absurd it is to be thinking about taking a sofa and candlesticks and large objects they couldn’t possible take with them, because in the end they had to flee.
Caroline: That was one of so many aspects that made this book difficult to write: When there is a world calamity in history, we who are writers and readers in the present look back in retrospect with all the knowledge no one had at the time. It’s hard to realize my grandparents mindset at the time, but so many Jews felt that way, operating day to day with the not knowing and not believing it could happen.
Doris: The idea that your grandfather and grandmother had been thinking about bringing the writing table, or the green sofa, is tragically pertinent today, for one thing because the news shows us people escaping from Syria carrying their children and very few items, maybe a back pack. So the thought that they once hoped to bring family furniture, even a pair of candlesticks or a green sofa is so darling, and so sad …
Caroline: —The parallels are devastating.
Pat: And then as you say, Caroline, “the shadows fell,” and you move ahead in the book to the late ’30s and early ’40s when the brothers are separated. The book follows a strict chronology without commenting on the astounding difference in voice and experience of each brother, so the contrast of each story as told in letters is quite dramatic.
Doris: I’m going to read from the alternating writings from Erich (letters from Cambridge) and Paul (diary entries before and during his imprisonment in the camps):
Here is Paul in November 1939:
A bomb explodes at a Nazi headquarters in Munich. Five-day fast for Jewish prisoners is ordered. We’re assigned to work groups. I report to stone carriers. I’m ordered to run with stones in wheelbarrows. I wear wooden shoes and paper socks. Worse than the cold is the mud. Prisoners around me collapse. They’re carried to the infirmary and I never see them again. I work 7AM – 6PM without purpose. Prisoners commit suicide by running into electrical fence. I become friend of political prisoner, Max Girnd, a former communist functionary, imprisoned since 1933. He has extra bread. Without his help I would become a “Muselmann,” as the emaciated prisoners are called, very quickly.
–and in another entry later in the month, Paul writes:
The central square of the camp is converted to a tent camp. Thousands of Jewish prisoners from Poland arrive. Most of them die of starvation and freezing temperatures. Tents are removed. Mass murder.
Here is Erich in August 1940:
My dear Graham, Cambridge is lovely and quiet . And I am excessively in love with my writing desk… Yet there are lots of interviews, appointments, and other annoyances. The results are some vague but rather ‘promising’ promises for next term. So let’s hope and see…
–and in September 1940:
My dear Graham, There is a fine light in the fireplace, and the autumn’s flowers on the table look pensive, deep, knowing, and resigned. One of these still and miraculous hours when the brain is on leave from its diplomatic duties and excessively receptive to the insinuations of the heart… music comes,… What a great light from within. I had given up all hope that there could be again a summer and autumn like this.
Pat: As stark as that contrast is, I kept thinking, what else could Erich do? His job is to be scholarly, to find that “light from within” and bring literature to the world. Just because his world is safer doesn’t mean he runs away from risk. After all his love for Graham at the time could have gotten him killed. Long after the war, when he’s “safe” in the United States, things turn darker for Erich, and I thought it’s his guilt that psychologically pulls him down —
Doris: I didn’t think Erich suffered guilt. Because you can’t really tell us too much about his emotional state, Caroline. It just seemed to me that as a privileged man who was used to the best in life, discovering at the end that things weren’t beautiful anymore, he couldn’t bear it.
Caroline: I think you’re both right. Erich did feel tremendous guilt, but to go back to the artist in him, he was very comfortable with his calling, and he was a hard man to know. There was the whole suppression of his gayness for most of his life. Although one sees that very real love in his letters to Graham, it wasn’t often that he could reveal his feelings, and this made him incapable of the full emotions that people usually express. He loved his brother’s family, but his love didn’t show much tenderness — it was more combustible than that.
Pat: Erich was the stern uncle. He didn’t like children being raised with too much — what would you say, coddling?
Caroline: Yes, when he stayed us at night, my mother didn’t come up and say goodnight when we went to bed because Erich didn’t believe in that. He found it too domestic.
Myn: You mention his guilt but you also talk about his visits every Sunday. There’s some obligatory family connection there. After you go to bed he argues with your parents (especially your father), but you can’t tell about what, because you’re a small child upstairs in bed. But their voices get raised, more alcohol is consumed, and at one point you hear your father saying to him, “And where were you during the war?”
Pat: That’s the kicker right there. While Paul came close to death many times at Buchenwald, Erich was advancing up the ranks of academia in Cambridge. But after the war, Paul, whom you affectionately called “Bau,” was consumed by his own work as a doctor and hematologist. Although you remember him working all the time, every once in a while your family took a walk across a city park, and he read to you from some wonderful books, such as Dr. Zhivago, which was a surprising choice considering your young ages as little kids. And you quote from his reading of the book where Yurii Zhivago,
“explains his beliefs about consciousness, religion, and the meaning of memory and eternity to a dying and frightened Anna Ivanova Gromeko, the woman who raised him. Bracketed in faded pencil is this passage:
And now listen carefully. You in others — this is your soul. This is what you are, what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality in others. … So, what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s? … What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestations of yourself that you come across your identity -– in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people … There will be no death because the past is over. It is already done with. What we need is something new, and that new thing is life.
Bau read in his deep, heavily accented voice, the book cradled in his lap, Tom and I seated on either side of him, our hands clasped around our knees. “And that new thing is life,” my father repeated, tapping his knee, then each of ours, with his soft fist, and nodding as if renewing a bargain he made with himself long ago.”
This is a lovely memory and I assume you’ve pulled it out of your childhood to show how much the idea of a soul meant to your father as a Holocaust survivor. His sanity depended on the past being “already done with” so that the soul’s constant renewal inspires human beings to live on, fully invested in the future. He wants to pass this life lesson on to his children but this is the irony of that time — his kids need to develop their own identity as they grow up before they can absorb such a dense and sophisticated idea.. Lessons from faraway Nazi camps and even Russian novelists could be lost on them. What did you yourself feel you inherited from your dad?
Caroline: Well, I’d say that one of the great gifts of any artistic undertaking — I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious — is the retrospective view. You get to pass through life again. When I was a little girl and my father read Dr. Zhivago, I’m sure I was thinking, oh god, why don’t you just hold my hand and let me eat my cookies? But Dr. Zhivago was the book he brought out to read to us, especially every holiday season, and I am lucky to have my father’s copy, because when I saw those lines he bracketed in pencil, I could relive the moments he read to us and think, Oh, my god, I love this man. He was more than likely trying to tell his very young children something about survival, something about how he wanted us to live, something about what a soul is. Had I not decided to write this book I don’t know that I would have revisited those passages in the same way and reconnected with what his message was.
Pat: This is a theme that emerges often in stories by children of the Holocaust. There is this distance between the aftermath as endured by the parents and the needs of the children as they grow up. You put it more directly when you tell us later how much it meant to your parents that your existence seemed to right the world again. It’s lovely and loving, yet the message does have a weight. Here’s how you put it:
… the truth of the past announced itself indirectly and incompletely. Mostly it whispered in our ears: Don’t ask. Just be good. Be so good that through you, their world will be made whole again.
Caroline: I think this is the message to the children of any parents who have lost so much. To go back to Doris’ comment about the present refugee crisis, it’s a universal burden — not to say burden in its typical sense, but a hope or an expectation for the next generation —
Pat — for all of us —
Caroline: — to carry on in a way that would have been impossible for the parents. In terms of being the daughter of Holocaust survivors, for most of my life I know I was trying not to feel too defined by that — not to feel this is your legacy; this is determining you. But then as I got older, I realized, it is! The enormity of my role registered more and more. I mean I’m my own person — all of us become our own persons — but there is more and more research about what our DNA holds, about our historical memory being far greater than our lives. So the writing of the book was an evocation of my full recognition of that.
Doris: It’s very touching that in writing this book you discovered so much more than the story of your uncle and parents. You discovered yourself in it, and so the reader wonders if there are other ways that people who aren’t born writers can get the same out of the history of their parents and their family. How else can you paint it, in other words, and discover who you are as a result.
Pat: And listeners, by the way, the book is not all that grim. Many pages surprise us with unexpected humor, such as reference to a bestselling novel after the war called The Education of Hyman Kaplan. In it, he author, Leonard Q. Ross, describes a Jewish refugee with irrepressible optimism who when he writes his name, painstakingly inserts the Star of David between every letter. At the American Night Preparatory School for Adults he attends, Hyman Kaplan learns English in a funny and endearing way, if for no other reason than his use of malapropisms.
Caroline, you have an ear for German accents, so I know our listeners would be grateful if you would you read this part, in which your mother Liese and her friend Lilo turn to The Education of Hyman Kaplan as a guide with two purposes: How to speak English, and not to speak it as well.
Caroline: I’m happy to read this — it’s very sweet and it does add humor to an otherwise dark story:
They copied lines from Hyman Kaplan into the notebooks they carried in their purses, increasingly satisfied with the full English sentences springing from their hands, their own accents perfectly imitating Kapan’s.
“Avery day in de country my vife vas gatink op six o’clock, no matter vat time it vas!”
And, “Ve all heaven a fine time!” The latter was the proud recitation of the fictional emigre Mr. Kaplan to his English teacher, when he was asked to use one of the week’s new vocabulary words, “heaven,” in a sentence.
Pat: That book broke the ice for a lot of Americans after the war who wanted to know more about the experience of Jewish then flooding into the United States, and of course humor breaks a lot of barriers.
Another unexpected delight is your mention of famous writers who admired and corresponded with Erich, like Iris Murdoch and W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, whom we mentioned earlier. But the one person who really befriends Paul is Edward R. Murrow, that great journalist and war correspondent and, it turns out, basic nice guy.
Caroline: My father as you alluded before did get his medical degree before he was arrested in Prague, and at the end of the war, when the allies had won in that corridor of the war but before Buchenwald was liberated, he, Paul, was trying to isolate and treat tuberculin prisoners in a small building by the gates of Buchenwald. They were all starving, but he hoped to keep them as healthy as he could, and separate from other prisoners, so when the Allied soldiers arrived with the journalists arrived, in one of the first jeeps was Edward R. Murrow, who wanted a guide. My father as one of the healthiest people there showed Murrow the camp. He had been in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and Murrow could see it was virtually impossible that he hadn’t perished, so at the end of that tour of Buchenwald, Murrow asked what he could do for Dr. Heller. My father said, “Please get my name on the air, so my family will know I’m here.”
This became a famous broadcast. Paul Heller’s name was mentioned, and at that moment — what I had never known until researching the book — my uncle Erich, while having dinner with friends from Prague, just fell apart when he heard his brother’s name.
Pat: I also love the fact that the book refer to Schocken Publishers way back then. Schockin is a much admired and enduring publisher that’s still very active as an imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, publishing books on Judaica that might not otherwise be published.
And then there is the title, Reading Claudius — could you tell us why you used that little-known reference?
Caroline: Claudius is not the Roman emperor most people think it is when they see the title, but rather Matthias Claudius, an 18th-century German poet who was considered the poet for central European children. He wrote very simple, beautiful verses about ranging from nature to getting your tooth pulled out, and many parents in Europe read his verses for children at bedtime. But he was a delight to adults, too, and I remember both my parents reading Claudius as they approached their own death. Most significantly when my mother was dying, I recognized that her connection with Erich, which had always been combustible, had a very tender side, too, because Uncle Erich read this old book of Matthias Claudius poems that my mother’s brother had gotten out of Germany.
So I wanted to call the book Reading Claudius, and at first my publisher wanted the title to be a kind of place-keeper as a title. It may not be the best title for an American audience — Claudius’ poems weren’t translated that frequently, although Schubert used his poems in many compositions, such as “Death and the Maiden.” During the writing and editing process, we kept Reading Claudius as a placekeeper, but at the last hurrah, as we approached publication, we all felt it had earned its role as the title.
Myn: It’s wonderful that as one reads the book, Claudius comes back as a kind of leitmotif. When your mother’s brother Ernie leaves Germany, he brings the book of Claudius poems with him, and then as you say Paul’s brother reads from this book to Liese as she’s dying. So Claudius becomes a kind of through story, tying together all these parts of your parents’ lives.
Doris. We have little time left, but here’s a topic all of us wanted to cover: With nonfiction books, we’re very interested on Radio Bookmobile about what is true and what is made up, especially in a memoir. We recently discussed Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, a true story told through fictional techniques, some of which you use. Can you talk to us about some of the choices you made, how you dared to describe the first teacup that in fact you didn’t know was on the table?
Caroline: It’s a very complex question that I address in the Foreword, a Prologue, the Source Notes and in my mind still. At the beginning I had brought together a lot of documents, but it was difficult to know how to enter this story. I started in that manner of inventing details, realizing sentence by sentence that I had to talk about how the trees looked, how people appeared to each other — all the alive and innert surroundings of my parents’ and uncle that I never witnessed, or the prose would just be dead.
So the writing really was very much about my subject exceeding the possibilities of factual history. In order to make it come alive, to bring that full painting back to life, it seemed necessary to imagine some of the details, based in research. It was the proportion of fact, as I was able to uncover it, to imagination. I hope it was a proper proportion, but I know that pure historians — not that there is such a thing as pure history — might find fault with it. I think once one decides that all written history is in a sense subjective, one enters sort of a moral universe where one has to make choices about how to bring forth the story to an audience.
Pat: You write on the first page that until you made that decision
I became paralyzed. Rich with information from research, I still had no way of knowing how the light looked through a window, what someone wore, the inflection of someone’s voice — what the philosopher Michel de Certeau refers to as the “immense remainder” that makes real lives real and a story about those lives larger than a compilation of “facts.”
What a term, the immense remainder. Bringing it forward is your charge as author, to both say it and not say it. You can’t be too direct or we’ll suspect a kind of inauthenticity about the story; but you can’t be too distant either and leave the story to spare fact.
However, I remember thinking very early, by page 20 when your parents meet, that I didn’t care if you made it up because you were handling it so well:
Soon Paul Heller arrived at the lake, winding his way toward them through the dense beach grass at the edge of the sand, wet reeds clinging to his legs and the straps of his sandals. He was a sturdy, gentle-faced boy with gray-green eyes and black hair combed straight back, in the style of the times, revealing shiny peaks and valleys of comb marks.
How I loved those comb marks! Again I didn’t care what details you created because here is a detail that’s so immediate and so instantly, visually true that it doesn’t matter. Did you get that detail from a photos?
Caroline: I wrote primarily about events that I did know something about. For example, I got a lot of stories from my mother late in her life. And of course when it comes to something so revered in memory as Liese meeting Paul and Erich, we don’t know if she was making it up, but she did describe in great detail that day. And I do have photos of my father from that era — very few because most were lost.
Pat: And finally , Caroline, considering the many references we’ve made to parallels today, it comes to mind when we’re reading your book that for Muslims in the United States today, something really terrible is happening. Perhaps like your grandparents, few of us can see it because we’re too close, or, maybe — I don’t want to exaggerate but many people worry that Donald Trump may be becoming not just a clown but a powerful tyrant, especially if he gets the nomination. And what he says about excluding immigrants or kicking people out even if they’re citizens kept reminding me of Reading Claudius. Has this been on your mind in any way?
Caroline: As I was writing it, even though all of this was happening, the crisis building in the United States was less apparent. So it is more in retrospect, in this current wave of horrifying knowledge about Trump and others, that I do see the the blindness, the collective labels that are used to profile groups of people at the expense of references to individuals. The parallels to what happened to my family before the Holocaust are mind-boggling.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #16
December 2, 2015
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences
Pat: In past shows, Dory, you’ve discussed Truman Capote’s invention of “the nonfiction novel,” a term he used to define his breakthrough 1965 bestseller, In Cold Blood.
Doris: Yes, that single book was a turning point in the way writers documented real life. Capote roamed around Kansas for six years interviewing people about the 1959 murder of a farm family. He didn’t want only to report the facts of the case. He wanted us to care as much about the people who were killed as the two men who killed them.
Pat: So he acted more as a novelist than a reporter, and on two occasions, some critics believe, he went to far. For example, the book creates the impression that detectives acted immediately on a tip that the killers were hiding out in Florida, when in fact police took several days to follow up, giving the killers time to slaughter yet another family. (That murder has never been solved.) So why would Capote, who insisted the book provides an “immaculately factual” account of what happened — change important facts such as this?
Doris: One reason could be that the Florida murder was never solved.
Pat: Another reason has been proposed, that Capote made a deal with Kansas detectives: He wouldn’t embarrass them by pointing out this delay if they kept access to the investigation.
Doris: Or you could say he simply cut away everything that he felt didn’t directly have an impact on the story of the Kansas murders. The one scene he probably made up comes at the very end — at the town cemetery where the detective happens upon Sue, the friend of the murdered girl. Here I think we allow Capote some latitude. The novelist in him wanted a brief farewell to the ghastly events of the past, and a way for these key characters to turn to the future.
Pat: So our discussions have centered on a closer reading of the text: When did Capote, say, reconstruct conversations, insert adjectives of his own, rearrange events in the chronology to make for better pacing, characterization and tension?
Doris: Let’s take a look at what Capote himself wrote about the process of writing In Cold Blood. I read this on a previous show but want to repeat it here because the book has become such a classic that it’s easy to forget how completely isolated Capote felt as a serious writer embarking on this new form.
[I]t was like playing high-stakes poker; for six nerve-shattering years I didn’t know whether I had a book or not. Those were long summers and freezing winters [in Kansas], but I just kept on dealing the cards, playing my hand as best I could. Then it turned out I did have a book. Several critics complained that “nonfiction novel” was a catch phrase, a hoax, and that there was nothing really original or new about what I had done. But there were those who felt differently, other writers who realized the value of my experiment and moved swiftly to put it to their own use—none more swiftly than Norman Mailer, who has made a lot of money and won a lot of prizes writing nonfiction novels (The Armies of the Night, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Executioners Song), although he has always been careful never to describe them as “nonfiction novels.” No matter; he is a good writer and a fine fellow and I’m grateful to have been of some small service to him.
Pat: I love that little dig at Norman Mailer, a real blabbermouth who certainly was not a “fine fellow” in his noisy criticisms of other writers at the time. Good for you, Mr. Capote, for taking the high road.
Doris: We should mention that beyond the screen adaptation of In Cold Blood, two movies have been made of Capote’s experience writing of the book: Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for it in 2006, and Infamous, a subtler film starring Toby Jones.
Pat: So by now a massive cultural consciousness exists about the writing of In Cold Blood and it does get in the way. These movies make it look as though Capote went on a heroic quest to change the literary world, and that his success was inevitable. At the same time, the movies unleashed a torrent of speculation about what was true and untrue in this “nonfiction novel.” I love the critic who uses “Based on a Tru Story” as the title of his review of the movie Capote. Then you scroll down to his review of the other movie Infamous, and the title is “Tru Enough.”
Doris: Since this kind of mass murder has happened increasingly since then, it’s more familiar to us today than it was a half century ago. No wonder Capote felt he needed to explain from the start what kind of book this was going to be, so the subtitle, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, tips us off that a massive killing is going to take place. No spoiler alert needed.
It’s Capote the novelist who sets the scene at the beginning of the book. He describes the town of Holcomb, Kansas, then narrows the focus to the Clutter farm, where the murders will occur. He sounds like a reporter as he gives us the background, a tour of the house and barns and property. But at the same time his writing is beautiful and bucolic. And he introduces an ominous feeling in this scene, in which he shows how guns and violence are part of the hunting culture of Holcomb:
Mr. Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile and a half from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance. Now, suddenly a whole party of them appeared, and Teddy, the dog, rushed forward roaring out a challenge. But it was odd about Teddy. Though he was a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain, his valor had one flaw: let him glimpse a gun, as he did now—for the intruders were armed—and his head dropped, his tail turned in. No one understood why, for no one knew his history, other than that he was a vagabond Kenyon had adopted years ago. The visitors proved to be five pheasant hunters from Oklahoma. The pheasant season in Kansas, a famed November event, lures hordes of sportsmen from adjoining states, and during the past week plaid-hatted regiments had paraded across the autumnal expanses, flushing and felling with rounds of birdshot great coppery flights of the grain-fattened birds. By custom, the hunters, if they are not invited guests, are supposed to pay the landowner a fee for letting them pursue their quarry on his premises, but when the Oklahomans offered to hire hunting rights, Mr. Clutter was amused. “I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,” he said. Then touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last.
Capote gives us so much information here, establishing that Mr. Clutter’s farm is secluded, that the dog isn’t good protection. We can easily visualize Mr. Cutter touching the brim of his hat. That gesture says a great deal about his generosity, maybe pride.
Pat: And this is one of those occasions where our closer reading of the text has opened questions about exactly what a “nonfiction novel” can be. I think you’ve said that Capote might have invented that touch-of-the-hat gesture, but I disagree with you. It’s exactly the kind of thing Capote would never create because he’s not telling the story. The people he interviewed over six years have told him so much about what happened before and after the murders that he selects various bits of information and places them strategically, for the sake of the story. I bet the hunters happened to mention in an interview that Mr. Clutter touched the brim of his cap, and Capote’s ear for fiction referenced it for later. He doesn’t have to tell us about the hunters at all, of course — he chooses to use that encounter as a means of following the novelist’s rule of showing rather than telling readers about a character’s personality.
Doris: The reader can get mired down questioning every choice Capote makes in creating a “nonfiction novel.” But the great discovery we make each time is that Capote was a master of storytelling. However he created the narration of In Cold Blood, we believe every word. We become addicted so fast to what happens on the page that whatever Capote chooses to call it doesn’t really matter.
For example, look at how he brings us toward the end of the book, some time after the murders, but before the trial. This is when the contents of the Clutter family home are being auctioned off. (We know that Nancy was the 15-year-old daughter who was killed, and Susan Kidwell was her best friend.)
The last thing to go was the contents of the livestock corral, mostly horses, including Nancy’s horse, big, fat Babe, who was much beyond her prime. It was late afternoon, school was out, and several schoolmates of Nancy’s were among the spectators when bidding on the horse began; Susan Kidwell was there. Sue, who had adopted another of Nancy’s orphaned pets, a cat, wished she could give Babe a home, for she loved the old horse and knew how much Nancy had loved her. The two girls had often gone riding together aboard Babe’s wide back, jogged through the wheat fields on hot summer evenings down to the river and into the water, the mare wading against the current until, as Sue once described it, “the three of us were cool as fish.” But Sue had no place to keep a horse.
“I hear fifty…sixty-five…seventy…”: the bidding was laggardly, nobody seemed really to want Babe, and the man who got her, a Mennonite farmer who said he might use her for plowing, paid seventy-five dollars. As he led her out of the corral, Sue Kidwell ran forward; she raised her hand as though to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.
It may be that Capote made up that term “cool as fish” — it sounds too poetic for a teenager at the time — but that’s fine with me. Visually the scene is so moving that I felt unexpected tears well up Sue attempts to wave goodbye to the horse but is overcome with emotion.
Pat: I can’t imagine Capote putting words in Sue’s mouth like “cool as fish,” Dory, but let’s get to that later. What strikes me now is the power of that single gesture by Sue as Babe is led away. Like you I was so struck by her hand in mid-wave having to cover her mouth that I felt the tears sting as well. This is where Capote’s arrangement of details is so stunning. Like Sue, we may consciously accept the murder of Nancy, but perhaps in a deeper way we don’t really feel it until Babe is gone.Again, Capote doesn’t have to tell us; in the tradition of great novelists, he shows us the outward signs.
Doris: This next piece is the opening scene of the trial and also reveals how skillfully Capote can be with each telling detail. The characters here are the accused murders, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and Mr. Meier, the sheriff.
Although the eyes of the nation were not upon them, the demeanor of the event’s main participants, from the court recorder to the judge himself, was markedly self-aware on the morning of the court’s first convening. All four of the lawyers sported new suits; the new shoes of the big-footed county attorney creaked and squealed with every step. Hickock, too, was sharply dressed in clothes provided by his parents: trim blue-serge trousers, a white shirt, a narrow dark-blue tie. Only Perry Smith, who owned neither jacket nor tie, seemed sartorially misplaced. Wearing an open-necked shirt (borrowed from Mr. Meier) and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.
Capote’s spare description brings out the class differences as expressed by the men’s suits at trial. It’s the little things — for example, what is bought and what is borrowed — that take us right into the courtroom.
Pat: The only slight misstep I find here is the term “sartorially misplaced” by Capote. It seems just a bit show-offy and very unlike the author at this point in the book, when he’s immersed in the more plain-speaking talk of the residents.
Doris: I would say that’s a novelist’s decision. He may want to make the context larger than descriptions of the shoes and suits allow, so he changes the sound of the narrative. I like leaving it up to him.
Pat: Me too, even when I disagree with him. And again I want to believe that Capote very rarely, if ever, inserts made-up dialogue or details in this true story.
Let’s go back to his first reference to that beloved horse, Babe, from a quote by Sue, the best friend of Nancy Clutter:
“Summer nights we used to ride double on Nancy’s horse, Babe — that old fat gray? Ride straight to the river and right into the water. Then Babe would wade along in the shallow part while we played our flutes and sang. Got cool. I keep wondering, Gosh, what will become of her? Babe.”
Here she says “got cool,” not “cool as fish.” Capote could have used the latter phrase here but I think he wanted to wait for the end, when we’d feel the emotion of the moment as much as Sue does. Just to see how he built the tension of Sue’s point of view, here’s the second quote — extended from the excerpt you read about the auction of Clutter possessions, Dory — from Sue about Babe:
“The last thing to go was the contents of the livestock corral, mostly horses, including Nancy’s horse, big, fat Babe, who was much beyond her prime. It was late afternoon, school was out, and several schoolmates of Nancy’s were among the spectators when bidding on the horse began; Susan Kidwell was there. Sue, who had adopted another of Nancy’s orphaned pets, a cat, wished she could give Babe a home, for she loved the old horse and knew how much Nancy had loved her. The two girls had often gone riding together aboard Babe’s wide back, jogged through the wheat fields on hot summer evenings down to the river and into the water, the mare wading against the current until, as Sue once described it, “the three of us were cool as fish.” But Sue had no place to keep a horse.
So there is Sue’s mention of the three of them — and you get the feeling that Babe is more friend than horse at that moment — becoming “cool as fish.” It’s a small detail, but Capote has saved it for 200 pages because at the end it has more emotional force. What discipline and planning on Capote’s part.
Doris: Oh, Patty. I think Capote allowed himself the license to create this kind of phrase many times, like the gesture of Mr. Clutter tipping his hat —
Pat: He would never —
Doris: But it’s just as possible he didn’t touch dialogue or action. He waited to bring his novelist’s voice in to describe events, like the courtroom scene, where he could control every word. It’s when people are quoted talking a bit more elaborately than they might have that I see Capote more as a fiction writer than reporter of fact.
Pat: We certainly saw how gripping that third-person narrative could be when it was quoted in the movie Capote and people in the theater gasped. This section describes the moment when family members are allowed to view the bodies at the funeral parlor before the service begins.
The four coffins, which quite filled the small, flower-crowded parlor, were to be sealed at the funeral services – very understandably, for despite the care taken with the appearance of the victims, the effect achieved was disquieting. Nancy wore her dress of cherry-red velvet, her brother a bright plaid shirt; the parents were more sedately tired, Mr. Clutter in navy-blue flannel, his wife in navy-blue crepe; and – and it was this, especially, that lent the scene an awful aura – the head at each was completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon twice the size of an ordinary blown-up balloon, and the cotton, because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas-tree snow.
Capote’s gift for visual description offers a more sophisticated image than interviews of the real people could have, yet brings us deeply inside their point of view. At the same time, when Sue admits that all she could see of Nancy’s body was her dress, Capote shows that even puntuation can convey real-life emotion:
….all I could see was the dress. I knew it so well. I helped her pick the material. It was her own design, and she sewed it herself. I remember how excited she was the first time she wrote it. At a party. All I could see was Nancy’s red velvet. And Nancy in it. Dancing.”
Doris: Right, here is our question again: How much leverage does the author have in a “nonfiction novel”? Well, when you can slow the description stated, right down to the placement of a period, to emphasize what struck an open nerve as Sue remembers the emotions of that moment, I would say in Capote’s hands, you get a lot of leverage. The remarkable thing is how light and quick the visual can be.. He never got heavy-handed or sentimental. He respected the work too much.
The Glass Castle
Pat: We have just enough time to mention something that Capote’s idea of the “nonfiction novel” unleashed. That is “creative nonfiction,” a way to approach autobiography and memoir by using the tools of fiction to draw out a life story that’s as gripping as a novel. The best example I know of is Jeanette Walls’ bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle.
Here is the first paragraph on page one:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
Wow. Who can turn away from an indelible introductory scene like that? At the time I first read it, there was no doubt it really happened. But let me interrupt the quote here to ask whether it matters to the reader if the author invented it?
Dory: We know her mother ended up homeless and was almost proud of living on the street. She did go through dumpsters for food and clothing, did carry her terrier everywhere, even among the trash-filled doorways she slept in. So the event in the taxi, when the author is dressed up to go to a fancy party, might have been inevitable. But did she create it? The scene is, after all, a sensational way to start this book.
Pat: Next paragraph, page one, launches the story:
Mom stood 15 feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom’s gestures were all familiar – the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she’d hoisted out of the dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York city.
So that gets the story going, but here’s what set the hook, at least for me:
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.
I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue.
We’re only on page 3 and it’s almost impossible for me not to take the author’s point of view. The description of her mother has such immediacy that I see her right there before me as I slide down the seat to hide. And I want so much to hear more about this family that picking these sentences apart to see what sounds true and what sounds made-up is of no interest.
Doris: It’s certainly arresting, and I too, am hooked early on, but I can’t help wondering, as the story of Jeannette Wells’ bizarre family unfolds, how much the author re-creates her past and how much she leaves alone. I believe most of it is true, but my question is how much is factual.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #15, October 7, 2015
Music for Chameleons
Pat: I’ve gotten hooked these past months listening anew to works by Truman Capote, whom you’re helping modern audiences discover, Dory. As you mentioned, the addicted and depressed Capote did so little writing in the last years of his life (he died in 1984) that it’s hard to remember how celebrated he had become from the publication of his first first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948, through breakthrough books like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), In Cold Blood (1966) and the book you’ve been featuring, Music for Chameleons (1975).
Doris: Yes, we also tend to remember Capote as the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2005 film Capote — and also played by Toby Jones in the 2006 film Infamous — about the writing of In Cold Blood. So I’ve wanted to explore the real-life person from two angles: the hard-working writer looking back on his career in the Preface, and the creative mind who brought many forms and styles together in the pieces collected in Music for Chameleons.
In this excerpt from the Preface, his subject is simplicity in writing, which is one of the great talents Capote had—though he berates himself for having discovered this fairly late. In fact, those books he thinks were overwritten (In Cold Blood, in particular), were not, in my opinion.
I think most writers, even the best, overwrite. I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek. But I felt my writing was becoming too dense, that I was taking three pages to arrive at effects I ought to be able to achieve in a single paragraph. Again and again I read all that I had written…and I began to have doubts—not about the material or my approach, but about the texture of the writing itself. I reread In Cold Blood and had the same reaction: there were too many areas where I was not writing as well as I could, where I was not delivering the total potential. Slowly, but with accelerating alarm, I read every word I’d ever published, and decided that never, not once in my writing life, had I completely exploded all the energy and esthetic excitements that material contained. Even when it was good, I could see that I was never working with more than half, sometimes only a third, of the powers at my command. Why?
The answer, revealed to me after months of meditation, was simple but not very satisfying. Certainly it did nothing to lessen my depression; indeed, it thickened it. For the answer created an apparently unsolvable problem, and if I couldn’t solve it, I might as well quit writing. The problem was: how can a writer successfully combine within a single form—say the short story—all he knows about every other form of writing? For this was why my work was often insufficiently illuminated; the voltage was there, but by restricting myself to the techniques of whatever form I was working in, I was not using everything I knew about writing—all I’d learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novel. A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling (and in suitable instances, simultaneous supplication). But how? …
The truth was, I had to go back to kindergarten. Here I was—off again on one of those grim gambles! But I was excited; I felt an invisible sun shining on me. Still, my first experiments were awkward. I truly felt like a child with a box of crayons.
From a technical point, the greatest difficulty I’d had in writing In Cold Blood was leaving myself completely out of it. Ordinarily, the reporter has to use himself as a character, an eyewitness observer, in order to retain credibility. But I felt that it was essential to the seemingly detached tone of that book that the author should be absent. Actually, in all my reportage, I had tried to keep myself as invisible as possible.
Now, however, I set myself center stage, and reconstructed, in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people: the superintendent of my building, a masseur at the gym, an old school friend, my dentist. After writing hundreds of pages of this simpleminded sort of thing, I eventually developed a style. I had found a framework into which I could assimilate everything I knew about writing.
Later, using a modified version of this technique, I wrote a nonfiction short novel (Handcarved Coffins) and a number of short stories. The result is the present volume: Music For Chameleons.
And that’s what’s so lovely about this book: it’s not that he has simplified his writing, it’s that he’s combined techniques learned from scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, and the novel, as we see here in Handcarved Coffins. If anything, this work is more complex than many of his other works, though the writing is simple and clean: clear, as he might say, as a country creek.
A town in a small Western state. A focus for the many large farms and cattle-raising ranches surrounding it, the town, with a population of less than ten thousand, supports twelve churches and two restaurants. A movie house, though it has not shown a movie in ten years, still stands stark and cheerless on Main Street. There once was a hotel, too; but that also has been closed, and nowadays the only place a traveler can find shelter is the Prairie Motel.
The motel is clean, the rooms are well heated; that’s about all you can say for it. A man named Jake Pepper has been living there for almost five years. He is fifty-eight, a widower with four grown sons. He is five-foot-ten, in top condition, and looks fifteen years younger than his age. He has a handsome-homely face with periwinkle blue eyes and a thin mouth that twitches into quirky shapes that are sometimes smiles and sometimes not. The secret of his boyish appearance is not his lanky trimness, not his chunky ripe-apple cheeks, nor his naughty mysterious grins; its because of his hair that looks like somebody’s kid brother: dark blond, clipped short, and so afflicted with cowlicks that he cannot really comb it; he sort of wets it down.
Jake Pepper is a detective employed by the State Bureau of Investigation. We had first met each other through a close mutual friend, another detective in a different state. In 1972 he wrote a letter saying he was working on a murder case, something that he thought might interest me. I telephoned him and we talked for three hours. I was very interested in what he had to tell me, but he became alarmed when I suggested that I travel out there and survey the situation myself; he said that would be premature and might endanger his investigation, but he promised to keep me informed. For the next three years we exchanged telephone calls every few months. The case, developing along lines intricate as a rat’s maze, seemed to have reached an impasse. Finally I said: Just let me come there and look around.
And so it was that I found myself one cold March night sitting with Jake Pepper in his motel room on the wintry, windblown outskirts of this forlorn little Western town.
They start to talk about Jake’s strange and difficult case.
Truman Capote: The amazing thing is, nobody seems to know anything about this case. It’s had almost no publicity.
Jake: There are reasons.
TC: I’ve never been able to put it into proper sequence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Jake: Where shall we begin?
TC: From the beginning.
Jake: Go over to the bureau. Look in the bottom drawer. See that little cardboard box? Take a look at what’s inside it.
(What I found inside the box was a miniature coffin. It was a beautifully made object, carved from light balsam wood. It was undecorated; but when one opened the hinged lid one discovered the coffin was not empty. It contained a photograph—a casual, candid snapshot of two middle-aged people, a man and a woman, crossing the street. It was not a posed picture; one sensed that the subjects were unaware that they were being photographed.)
Jake: That little coffin. I guess that’s what you might call the beginning.
Myn: So Doris, is this a short story or a non-fiction recollection by Capote?
Doris: Well, it’s both, because here you see Capote employing everything he’s learned — descriptive prose, script writing, reportage, mystery, poetic writing (as in the affliction of Jake’s cowlicks). It’s a story that causes shivers to run up and down your spine. We know that Truman Capote will survive the mystery, but there are moments in which we and he are frightened for his life.
The Spectator Bird
Myn: This is a novel by Wallace Stegner about a 69-year-old, recently retired literary agent, Joe Allston. He is shuffling through his files, urged on by his wife, Ruth, who wants him to write his memoir so as to “keep busy” and not be depressed. He feels he has passed through life as a spectator, hence the title, Spectator Bird, though the story reveals that’s not entirely the case. In the writing, which is in the first person, Stegner adopts a tone of wry self-pity. But the effect of the writing is to let the reader know that our anti-hero has great intelligence and wit.
Here’s a paragraph from the opening chapter:
The writers I represented have left their monuments, consequential or otherwise. I might have done the same if I had not, at the bottom of the Depression, been forced to choose whether I would be a talent broker or a broke talent. I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that prove I ever existed. So far as I can see, it is bad enough sitting around watching yourself wear out, without putting your only immortal part prematurely into mothballs. I am not likely even to put the papers into order, though that is the excuse I make to Ruth for not starting to write. A sort of Heisenberg’s Principle applies. Once they are in order, they are dead, and so am I.
Pat: I love that rephrasing — “a talent broker or a broke talent.” I remember thinking years ago there were two kinds of people in book publishing: Those who had an idea for a novel and wanted to soak up everything they could learn about publishing before they started writing (I’m thinking, for example, of Joe Kanon, who after runnin Houghton Mifflin’s trade division in the 1970s, left to write a series of successful novels set in Germany at the end of World War II. You could almost see the hunger in his eyes to leave the book trade for the book page, as it were). The other kind were people who considered themselves contented members of the audience and realized that writers who are really gifted probably account for .0000001 percent of the population, so it was an honor just to work with them as their manuscripts turned into galleys and bound books on the way to publication date. For people in between, like Stegner’s character Joe Allston, even the agent’s great achievement — bringing that .0000001 percent to the right publisher at the right time — never brings personal satisfaction.
Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World
Sabina Berman, translated by Lisa Dillman
Pat: In this exquisitely different novel from the Mexican writer Sabina Berman, an autistic young woman named Karen inherits a tuna fish factory in Mexico and finds herself doing for fish what the real-life autistic writer Temple Grandin has done for cattle: She devises a humane way to capture and kill animals for the food industry.
But first there is that battle with the self that many autistic people must undertake as they grow up: Karen hates to be touched, can’t look you in the eye, takes everything you say literally (meaning she has no sense of humor or understanding of metaphors and symbols) and basically keeps herself separate from all other human beings.
She can’t lie, or go along with what she believes is the lie of society that Descartes introduced centuries ago, and here is one reason why:
I found a page in an old tome written by a French philosopher: a sentence that expresses in words my distance from humans. I think, therefore I am.
This sentence astonished Me, because it is, obviously, incredible. All you need is 2 eyes in your head to see that everything that exists, exists first and then does other things.
But here’s the most incredible thing about it: the philosopher isn’t proposing that as a concept; he’s simply articulating what humans believe about themselves. That first they think and therefore then they exist. What follows is even worse: that since humans live that way, thinking that first they think and then they exist, they also think that anything that doesn’t think, also doesn’t fully exist. Trees, the sea, the fish in the sea, the sun, the moon, a hill or a whole mountain range. None of that exists all the way; it exists on the second plane of existence, a lesser existence. Therefore, it deserves to be merchandise or food or background for humans and nothing more.
And what makes humans so sure that thinking is the most important activity in the universe? Who told them that thought is the 1 activity that distinguishes the superior from the inferior?
I, on the contrary, have never forgotten that first I existed and then, with a lot of difficulty, I learned to think. And every day that is my reality. First I exist and then and only sometimes, and with great difficulty, and only when necessary, do I think. So, that’s why I’m far away from humans…. The standard human world (is a) bubble where nothing that isn’t human is really seen or heard, where only what’s human matters and everything else is either background, or merchandise, or food…
Karen is soon to discover, though, what the healthcare community and enlightened school counselors call her “different abilities” — sensitivities that other humans don’t have, such as her ability to listen to the sea, an awareness of nature the rest of us can’t experience. But this is a gift she won’t find without help, and this begins on the day she tries on her first wetsuit.
The wetsuit turned out to be a discovery that changed my life. The neoprene compressed my skin, the mask covered my eyes and nose, the mouthpiece barely allowed Me to breathe through my mouth, and the weight of the tank seemed to pin Me to the floor, but the overall effect of it made Me feel – I don’t know why – safe. Protected. Out of harm’s way. A safe distance from standard humans. With uniform pressure on my body that made Me feel steady….
The wetsuit is so protective, so womb-like, that she rigs it up with a harness at home where she can climb in and not think, as when she sinks into the sea with only her five senses operating. At the bottom of the ocean, she sets her tank alarm to go off when it’s almost out of air. That way she can sleep in a trancelike state — becoming, as the title of the book reveals, the Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World — and still make it to the surface on time.
Then Karen discovers that along with his declaration, I think, therefore I am, Descartes wrote about the five senses, too:
Descarte wrote that happiness is a matter of the senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting: That is happiness….Thinking with your eyes and skin and tongue and nose and ears.
And so in the turquoise layer of water I stretched out on my side so I could just descend while looking through the tuna mask and through the lucid water’s surface to the white clouds.
… In the deep blue, a grey ball came swirling at Me and then, after delicately bumping Me in 1,000 places– plip plip plip plip plip plip – dissolved into 1,000 steel- colored mackerel that darted toward the dark blue…
In order to be happy all you need to do is listen to your senses and not to Descartes. Feel with your senses and without words. All you need is to be in your body in the real world…
And to be even happier you have to treat the real world as if the real world were the things you think.
Think with the fins of the barracuda darting diagonally upward and leaving a line of bubbles in its wake.
Among the red strips of the red forest of algae, I came upon a sandy clearing with a flat green rock at 1 end, and I lay my head on the flat green rock and waited for the rest of my body to drift down onto the sands. A white triangle above: a white manta ray. As its shadow slid across the length of my body, I set my tank’s alarm to go off when I had just enough oxygen left to reach the surface, and I left my Me behind; my Me dissolved into the slow, heavy, blue water –- the enormous joyous Not-Me: the sea.
Doris: That’s a beautiful image, and deeply moving. I notice that Karen as narrator capitalizes the “m” in Me every time, and she never uses numerals, only the numbers themselves, even for 1 or 2, as in “1 time” or “2 eyes in your head.” Is there a reason?
Pat: I think it’s because she takes everything literally. Karen doesn’t know who she is growing up, so the shaping of her identity occurs only if she’s assured that a “Me” exists. Similarly, words that stand for numbers, such as “one” or “two,” are too symbolic to Karen. She needs the sight of each literal number, like “1,” “2” to some real thing is being counted
William Heinemann (UK), 1983
Doris: This is an amazing book about history, which was made into a movie starring Jeremy Irons. It is set in the Fens, in East Anglia England.
It’s about nature and the importance of history—how the past influences the future — and not an easy book, because the most compelling story (to my way of thinking) is fed to readers in between the narrator’s history lessons about the Fens, about eels, about the teacher’s own family to a classroom of teenagers. (Though the movie pulls that compelling story out of the history lessons that the main character teaches, and concentrates mostly on it.)
The plot revolves around the firing of our history teacher, a murder, and a kidnapping. Critics have compared this book to John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The London Observer wrote that Waterland appropriates the Fens as Moby Dick did whaling or Wuthering Heights the moors….
“And don’t forget,” my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, “whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them had a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk…”
Fairy-tale words; fairy-tale advice. But we lived in a fairy-tale place. In a lock-keeper’s cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens. Far away from the wide world. And my father, who was a superstitious man, liked to do things in such a way as would make them seem magical and occult. So he would always set his eel traps at night. Not because eel traps cannot be set by day, but because the mystery of darkness appealed to him. And one night, in midsummer, in 1937, we went with him, Dick and I, to set traps near Stott’s Bridge. It was hot and windless. When the traps had been set we lay back on the riverbank.
Dick was fourteen and I was ten. The pumps were tump-tumping, as they do, incessantly, so that you scarcely notice them, all over the Fens, and frogs were croaking in the ditches. Up above, the sky swarmed with stars which seemed to multiply as we looked at them. And as we lay, Dad said: “Do you know what the stars are? They are the silver dust of God’s blessing. They are little broken-off bits of heaven. God cast them down to fall on us. But when he saw how wicked we were, he changed his mind and ordered the stars to stop. Which is why they hang in the sky but seem as though at any time they might drop…”
For my father, as well as being a superstitious man, had a knack for telling stories. Made-up stories, true stories; soothing stories, warning stories; stories with a moral or with no point at all; believable stories and unbelievable stories; stories which were neither one thing or another.
So we readers sit back, knowing we’re in for a wonderful story. And so we are.
In talking to my husband, a dedicated nonfiction reader, about this book, I’ve come to see it as exceptional for its blend of fiction and nonfiction. The history of the Fens, the science of water and dredging and siltation, the biology of eels, the geneology of families are all real. And the mystery that winds through all of that is all made up. What readers get is a tightly woven tapestry made up of the most exquisite language.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #14, September 23, 2015
Music for Chameleons
Doris: Here is another look at Truman Capote as he discovered the world opening up for him as a writer of fiction and as America’s first “true-crime novelist,” as critics would say. I’ll start with his recollection in the preface to Music for Chameleons of coming upon the then-unheard of idea of a “nonfiction novel,” then turn to a still-early piece that mixes writing styles with fact and fiction.
From the preface:
For several years I had been increasingly drawn toward journalism as an art form in itself. I had two reasons. First, it didn’t seem to me that anything truly innovative had occurred in prose writing, or in writing generally, since the 1920s; second, journalism as art was almost virgin terrain, for the simple reason that very few literary artists ever wrote narrative journalism, and when they did, it took the form of travel essays or autobiography…. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.
It was not until 1959 that some mysterious instinct directed me toward the subject—an obscure murder case in an isolated part of Kansas—and it was not until 1966 that I was able to publish the result, In Cold Blood…
Many people thought I was crazy to spend six years wandering around the plains of Kansas; others rejected my whole concept of the “nonfiction novel” and pronounced it unworthy of a “serious” writer; Norman Mailer described it as a “failure of imagination”—meaning, I assume, that a novelist should be writing about something imaginary rather than about something real.
Yes, it was like playing high-stakes poker; for six nerve-shattering years I didn’t know whether I had a book or not. Those were long summers and freezing winters, but I just kept on dealing the cards, playing my hand as best I could. Then it turned out I did have a book. Several critics complained that “nonfiction novel” was a catch phrase, a hoax, and that there was nothing really original or new about what I had done. But there were those who felt differently, other writers who realized the value of my experiment and moved swiftly to put it to their own use—none more swiftly than Norman Mailer, who has made a lot of money and won a lot of prizes writing nonfiction novels (The Armies of the Night, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Executioners Song), although he has always been careful never to describe them as “nonfiction novels.” No matter; he is a good writer and a fine fellow and I’m grateful to have been of some small service to him.
Pat: As I recall, Norman Mailer not only took advantage of Capote’s “nonfiction novel” form, he came close to fictionalizing the very facts — especially of The Executioner’s Song — as they happened. I think that’s why his writing was labeled by some critics with a more dismissive term, “faction.”
Doris: Capote by contrast seems very loyal to the details of real life in this excerpt from “A Beautiful Child.” This is another story written partly in scenes, with dialog the sounds true to life taking place between two characters only, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, who became his dear friend. It takes place in the chapel of the Universal Funeral Home at Lexington Avenue and 52nd St. in New York City at the funeral of Constance Collier, an English actress who had died the previous day at the age of 75.
Capote tells us that during the last decades of her life, Ms. Collier was a drama coach, accepting only professionals, and usually only professionals who were already stars: Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and for a few months prior to her death, “a neophyte Miss Collier referred to as ‘my special problem,’” Marilyn Monroe.
It was I who introduced [Ms. Collier] to Marilyn Monroe, and at first it was not an acquaintance she was too keen to acquire: her eyesight was faulty, she had seen none of Marilyn’s movies, and really knew nothing about her except that she was some sort of platinum sex-explosion who had achieved global notoriety; in short, she seemed hardly suitable clay for Miss Collier’s stern classic shaping. But I thought they might make a stimulating combination.
They did. “Oh yes,” Miss Collie reported to me, “there is something there. She is a beautiful child. I don’t mean that in the obvious way—the perhaps too obvious way. I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has—this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence—could never surface on the stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight: only a camera can freeze the poetry of it. But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow or harlot or whatever is mad.
Doris: I’d love to give you some of Marilyn’s voice in this little play, but it’s difficult to find any of her dialog to read here because she uses many of the seven words you’re not allowed to say on the radio. But here’s a small bit, broken up with Truman Capote’s description of how she looked at the funeral.
But now Miss Collier had died, and here I was loitering in the vestibule of the Universal Chapel waiting for Marilyn; we had talked on the telephone the evening before, and agreed to sit together at the services, which were scheduled to start at noon. She was now a half-hour late; she was always late, but I’d thought just for once! For God’s sake, goddamnit! Then suddenly there she was, and I didn’t recognize her until she said…
Marilyn: Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. But see, I got all made up, and then I decided maybe I shouldn’t wear eyelashes or lipstick or anything, so then I had to wash all that off, and I couldn’t imagine what to wear.
(What she had imagined to wear would have been appropriate for the abbess of a nunnery in private audience with the Pope. Her hair was entirely concealed by a black chiffon scarf; her black dress was loose and long and looked somehow borrowed; black silk stockings dulled the blond sheen of her slender legs. An abbess, one can be certain, would not have donned the vaguely erotic black high heeled shoes she had chosen, or the owlish black sunglasses that dramatized the vanilla-pallor of her dairy-fresh skin.)
Truman: You look fine.
Marilyn: (gnawing an already chewed-to-the-nub thumbnail) Are you sure? I mean, I’m so jumpy. Where’s the john? If I could just pop in there for a minute—
Truman: And pop a pill? No! Shh. That’s Cyril Ritchard’s voice: he’s started the eulogy.
Doris: It’s a wonderful story. After the funeral, Marilyn wants to avoid anyone speaking to her. She and Truman go to a bar and share a bottle of champagne and lots of gossip.
Pat: I think Miss Collier captures that elusive gift of Marilyn Monroe perfectly — it’s not acting ability or even that blond-bombshell look but rather something very simple, “this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence” that’s “so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera.” I remember how often Marilyn Monroe’s eyes would widen suddenly, as though she were surprised to be in a movie at all. What was it that still pulls viewers in at such moments? Again Miss Collier is so right — Monroe “was like a hummingbird in flight: only a camera can freeze the poetry of it.”
A Window Opens
Simon & Schuster
Pat: This is the novel you may have heard buzzed about, as they say, because the author worked for Amazon a few years ago and in this novel creates a funny but sometimes tragic inside look at a company very much Amazon. You remember the New York Times expose a few months ago in which Amazon workers were crying at their desks because of the pressures to compete, to advance, to be on call 24/7? Well, this comes pretty close to showing us how that must feel.
In A Window Opens, Alice, a happily married mother of three who lives in a suburb of New Jersey, has held a part-time job as book editor for YOU! (like Self and Glamor magazines where the author also worked in real life).
Now, because her attorney husband has been passed over for partner and decided to start his own law firm, Alice is interviewing for a full-time job as a “content manager” for Scroll, a new chain of bookstores. “Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist who discovers Alice — not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course but by following her on Twitter.
We’re never sure what “content manager” means, and anyway, Scroll outlets are not bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical books in the stores. Customers will be able to, as Alice learns from a New York Times article,
“browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”
Scroll would be based in New York, “the epicenter of the literary universe.” The industry’s most discerning, community-minded tastemakers would be hired to curate the e-book collection for Scroll, whose site will be tethered to its parent, the MainStreet chain of malls, so patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book.
So you can see the author’s smart set-up. Words like CURATE, ECO-FRIENDLY, and REINVENT all sound like something you’d here from a company like Amazon since after all Scroll’s literary salons, though original to this story, will customer-centric, as Jeff Bezos might say. In a Scroll store, you get to browse the inventory in a recliner chair complete with cup holders that keep your organic beverage warm, and you can sit there as long as you want doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).
I kept thinking, Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years, for one thing because it’s already been done. The very first B. Dalton store was meant to be like this — with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful staff and a muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people wanted. It flopped badly until a management scout visited the crowded, noisy Pickwick Bookstore on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. There the aisles were so narrow and covered with ratty linoleum that there was no room to walk or sit, the inventory was entirely all self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading in the store) books by the ton.
The lesson learned was that in a retail setting people who buy books don’t want to interact with a sales clerk who may ask embarrassing literary questions they can’t answer. And they don’t like SSR in a retail store — too much like a library — and they prefer to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop. B. Dalton learned this quickly and as a result its rather junky commercial-books-only mall stores did very well, as did its competitor, Walden Books.
So the “Scroll model” needs shaping, which is part of the point. Scroll leaders believe that adapting to business pressures and customer needs keeps them “nimble” as “tastemakers” and “curators.” Alice learns that in meetings at Scroll, one chair is always kept empty to remind everyone of the needs of the customer. That’s something you know Jeff Bezos probably loves to do, just so nobody forgets what “customercentric” means.
Nevertheless, Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a chain of high-end suburban shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers — and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who founded Borders Books, now defunct but a huge breakthrough in big-box bookstores at the time that were even more damaging than Barnes & Noble in terms of driving independent bookstores out of business.
Scroll will become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” which are called Heritage Towne — and that’s TOWNE WITH AN ‘E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe). Heritage Townes are successful, Alice tells us, because they
mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.
No wonder Alice thinks “it would be fun to be at the beginning of something. How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?” So here again is that Amazonian kind of allure – not just to have a job but to change the future. That’s the modern day euphoria we talked about last time, and I know, Dory, you’re going to quote from the book Euphoria in a few minutes.
What grates the ear — even Alice’s ear – from the beginning is that tone of righteousness we hear so constantly from Internet leaders like Jeff Bezos and the many “content managers” and “curators” in the new Internet-Facebook-Instagram-Twitter-Google-iTunes-Yahoo-Amazon-Apple world of “progressive” online thinking.
For example, at her job interview, Alice is asked by the Scroll team leader Genevieve,
“Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”
“Oh — well, I love to read!”
“I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?” She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands..
“Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”
“So you’re agnostic.”
“Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)
“Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”
Carbon-based books! I love the way the author takes a word like carbon, which has become the villain to everything green (your carbon footprint and anything carbon-based being BAD; while anything online is GOOD), and has these characters use it casually. Agnostic — and she means platform agnostic — is another one.
Once hired, Alice travels to Cleveland, where Orientation is led by Greg, the “outrageously young” MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll, who dresses like so many male leaders of the Internet World. Alice observes, “In their Warby Parker glasses and Hugo Boss shirts, they looked like boys dressing up as businessmen.” In Cleveland, she learns that workers of MainStreet like to be “wacky” — there is even a special ID lanyard people get for passing a test for “wackiness,” and their language sounds exactly like Amazon-speak when they say things like. “We don’t just sell merchandise, we sell the future.”
Women’s jobs seem to support the male culture of Scroll. In the Cleveland division, “Most of the women wore tasteful blazers and blouses. The men wore hoodies, and 98 percent of them also had beards. Others had pony tails; many had both..” The language is boyish: People at MainStreet dove deep, drilled down, jumped on a call, opened their kimonos to each other, and explored topics from a 30,000 foot perspective.”
Their marketplace language has a certain comic-book feel, very much like
Jeff Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in which Amazon dictates, for example, just to give you a flavor of Bezos first two: 1. Be Stubborn and Flexible (“we are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details”) and 2. Stick with Two Pizzas (meaning that teams should be 5-7 people, small enough to feed with only two pizzas)
Similarly, Scroll has the Tenets of Winners: always used in acronyms, such as
WTF, which does not mean WHAT THE F–K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather, Winners Talk Frankly
WGIR Winners Get It Right
SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer
WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions … To this one, Alice adds: If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a “trouble ticket,” organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.
At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS — a mistake only an editorial type like Alice catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.
As the model for Scroll changes, Alice tries to bring the conversation back to Scroll’s basic philosophy about bringing good books to customers who want to read. Her boss Genevieve chastises Alice for not being a team player:
“Alice, try not to get too attached to your idea of how you thought things would be at Scroll,” says Genevieve. “Getting set in your ways is the first step toward mediocrity. You have to be nimble.”
Alice: Oh, the humiliation of getting a lecture like this from someone seven years your junior.
Then there is the repeated wisdom statement by Greg, the young founder of Scroll. This is: We have to ask ourselves which he brings up often to point out that the older generation always took a very limited approach. So they were wrong and we — meaning Greg and his brothers — are right.
For example, Greg looks at the stack of hardcovers on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from NY publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside publishing houses to see these books so early, but instead he says,
“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”
“Excuse me?” she says.
“No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….
When she tells him how exactly she’s “curating” the first list of recommended fiction titles to the Scroll customer, he says,
“All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”
“Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi=Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence. “Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”
“I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?
“I guess I’m not understanding your question.”
“I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”
“By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought –“
“Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.
“Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”
“Yes, the kids are older now but — “
“Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”
I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world — not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.
Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the founder when you serve his interests. And if he’s as flighty and self-serving as Greg, you just wait for him to leave so you can do the job he’s hired you for.
*About the Strand: Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. He’s oblivious to the fact that The Strand, 86 years old, is the legendary bookstore of NY — 18 miles of new, used and rare books — 2.5 million of them and bookstore clerks are knowledgeable about every one. It is NOT a “tinderbox,” but even if it were, this is another example of Internet righteousness bordering on the narcissistic, without a hint of curiosity, let alone respect, for institutions in the print-on-page world that continue to serve all our best interests.
I read A Window Opens for its insider look at Amazon, but I’m even more impressed that it’s a very good commercial novel with its own twists, many unexpectedly poignant moments and quite a number of intriguing subplots that don‘t involve an expose of Amazon.
Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s marriage suffering the strains of unemployment, Alice’s dad’s throat cancer, her kids’ adjustment to the constant pressures of her work even when she’s home (her first email arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday!). There is Alice’s running conflict with her best friend, who owns a great independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll. There is Alice’s relationship with her nature-loving brother, the other mothers (incredibly organized and efficient, yet incredibly superficial), the PTA chores, the 90-minute commute.
And most of all here is the story of yet another young mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so futuristic and sometimes insane that it’s unrecognizable.
This is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter who at 18 is leaving the family to start her career in business — but the advice applies to all of us:
…please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to “have it all.” Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.
This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what the book tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. We all get to have it all if we all pitch in. The emphasis of course is on husbands stepping up — not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom so that everyday expectations of family life are met and, most of all, those many unpredictable heart-stopping moments of joy when the kids do something that’s hilarious and important and in character can be fully experienced.
I think that’s what the book proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly willy-nilly fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change. And that’s no easy story to tell.
Doris: This is the book you excepted last time, Patty, and I’d like to bring it up again because the parts I’m going to read are examples of very good dialog.
The story is about three anthropologists who meet in the 1930s on the Sepik River in Papua, New Guinea. Anthropology is a young and unproven science at the time, so they’re right at the frontier, not only of discovering unknown jungle tribes but of understanding very different cultures — how tribe members raise children, who does the work, what kind of art and music emerge, whether religion or faith is practiced — that may not make sense to the Western mind.
The book is told in the first person by Bankson, a character who’s based on the veteran anthropologist Gregory Bateson; and partially through a diary by Nell (Margaret Mead), who’s married to her second husband Fen (based on Reo Fortune, Mead’s second husband at the time). The author was inspired by a famous meeting on the Sepik by Mead and Fen, and by Mead’s intimate relationship with an intellectually adventurous anthropologist named Helen (who’s based on Mead’s real-life lover and author, Ruth Benedict).
In this conversation, the three anthropologists — Nell, Fen, and Bankson — are talking about how hard it is to disengage from an anthropological project when you haven’t completed all the research needed to describe how the culture works. Bankson conveys this to us in the first person:
“[T]here’s always that one last piece to shove in place, even if it’s the wrong shape entirely.”
They laughed heavily, a sort of deeply sympathetic agreement that was like a salve on my shredded nerves. “It always feels like that in the field, doesn’t it?” Nell said. “Then you get back and it all fits.”
“Does it?” I said.
“If you’ve done the work it will.”
“Will it?” I needed to get the barmy edge out of my voice. “Let’s get more drinks. And food. Do you want food? Of course you must. Shall we sit?” My heart whapped in my throat and all I could think was how to keep them, how to keep them. I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter, and I wasn’t sure how to hide it from them.
Pat: This certainly rings home to anyone who’s tried to keep things light in conversation while inside “my hear whapped in my throat” and “I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter.”
Doris: And who’s so dependent on this couple, especially Nell, staying with him that we can feel it when he repeats “how to keep them, how to keep them …”
In his effort to keep Nell and Fen close, Bankson tells them there are different tribes they could meet that are nearby (about seven days’ travel worth) but separate from the one he’s studying, and they agree to accompany him on a sort of tour of these groups. It’s sort of like visiting colleges to see what appeals. They travel by boat, rejecting the first tribe because there’s no beach and not enough sunlight, and the second tribe because Fen thinks the houses hang too low to the ground.
Pat: So we see that anthropology isn’t that young, really. There’s something already too clinical, like picking through the leavings of others to make their research sound historic and important.
Doris: Bankson says,
I tried to point out the rise in the land—the Yarapat were set on a high hill—but (Fen) been flooded once in the Admiralty Islands, so we passed them by as well.
They didn’t like the looks of the next village, either.
‘Weak art,” Nell said.
“That face,” she said, meaning the enormous mask that hung over the entryway of the ceremonial house we could see from the water. “It’s crude. Not like what I’ve seen elsewhere.”
“We need art, Bankson,” Fen bellowed poshly from his seat in front of me. “We need art and theatre and the ballet, if it’s not too much bother.”
Doris: This is why I admire the author’s use of dialogue. Fen will prove to be a complicated character, always joking, but crudely, with an undercurrent of anger, sometimes of danger, often making fun of the very science they’ve all dedicated their lives to study.
Pat: This is also a novel about society’s biases. Fen is a working-class New Zealand adventurer who’s jealous not only of Nell but of Bankson’s privilege and family money. Again it’s mostly through dialogue that we see the first inkling of Fen’s mean-spirited side, which is meant to cover up his fear of upper-class entitlement in general and of Nell calling the shots, he feels, in their marriage.
I had to wonder why Nell accommodates Fen at almost every turn and seems to recede from conflict when the real Margaret Mead was a highly opinionated, charismatic and aggressive scholar who paved the way for feminist thinking by both men and women. One day I’d like to write ‘A Reader’s Bill of Rights,’ and up front, maybe around #3, would be the Reader’s Right to Ask the Author: WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THESE CHARACTERS? Especially here, since Lily King makes it apparent that Nell, Fen and Bankson are not simply inspired by real people — they represent ground-breaking scientists emblazoned in history — it seems criminal to take someone as tough-minded and brilliant as Margaret Mead and turn her into an introverted and often insecure character.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #13, September 5, 2015
Music for Chameleons
New American Library, 1975
Doris: Truman Capote spent many of his last years as an alcoholic celebrity not writing, and that’s the Truman Capote many remember. But he was a gifted, ground-breaking writer. In previous Bookmobile programs I’ve been reading excerpts from his early fiction, as well as quotes from the Preface to his collection, Music for Chameleons, as he looks back on the influences that made him a writer.
From the Preface:
By the time I was seventeen [the year was 1941], I was an accomplished writer. Had I been a pianist, it would have been the moment for my first public concert. As it was, I decided I was ready to publish. I sent off stories to the principal literary quarterlies, as well as to the national magazines, which in those days published the best so-called “quality” fiction— Story, The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Atlantic Monthly—and stories by me duly appeared in those publications.
Then, in 1948, I published a novel: Other Voices, Other Rooms. It was well received critically, and was a best seller. It was also, due to an exotic photograph of the author on the dust jacket, the start of a certain notoriety that has kept close step with me these many years. Indeed, many people attributed the commercial success of the novel to the photograph. Others dismissed the book as though it were a freakish accident: “Amazing that anyone so young can write that well.” Amazing? I’d only been writing day in and day out for fourteen years! Still the novel was a satisfying conclusion to the first cycle in my development.
Doris: So, reading this I naturally looked up Other Voices, Other Rooms to see the exotic photo of the author, and I found several photos of Capote very young—he would have been 24 when this book was published, and all were extremely seductive, nearly pornographic in their come-hitherness. All with the author staring into the eyes of the reader from the cover.
Capote goes on to explain the cycles of his career as a writer in this passage, again from the preface to Music for Chameleons:
A short novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, ended the second cycle in 1958. During the intervening ten years I experimented with almost every aspect of writing, attempting to conquer a variety of techniques, to achieve a technical virtuosity as strong and flexible as a fisherman’s net. Of course, I failed in several of the areas I invaded, but it is true that one learns more from a failure than one does from a success. I know I did, and later I was able to apply what I had learned to great advantage.
From “A Day’s Work” in Music for Chameleons:
Scene: A rainy April morning, 1979. I am walking along Second Avenue in New York City, carrying an oilcloth shopping satchel bulging with house-cleaning materials that belong to Mary Sanchez, who is beside me trying to keep an umbrella above the pair of us, which is not difficult as she is much taller than I am, a six-footer.
Mary Sanchez is a professional cleaning woman who works by the hour, at five dollars an hour, six days a week. She works approximately nine hours a day, and visits on the average twenty-four different domiciles between Monday and Saturday: generally her customers require her services just once a week.
Mary is fifty-seven years old, a native of a small South Carolina town who has “lived North” the past forty years. Her husband, a Puerto Rican, died last summer. She has a married daughter who lives in San Diego, and three sons, one of whom is a dentist, one who is serving a ten-year sentence for armed robbery, a third who is “just gone, God knows where….”
Mary Sanchez is muscular, but she has a pale round smooth pleasant face with a tiny upturned nose and a beauty mole high on her left cheek. She dislikes the term “black,” racially applied. “I’m not black. I’m brown. A light-brown colored woman. And I’ll tell you something else. I don’t know many other colored people that like being called blacks. Maybe some of the young people. And those radicals. But not folks my age, or even half as old. Even people who really are black, they don’t like it. What’s wrong with Negroes? I’m a Negro, and a Catholic, and proud to say it.”
I’ve known Mary Sanchez since 1968, and she has worked for me, periodically, all these years. She is conscientious, and takes far more than a casual interest in her clients, many of whom she has scarcely met, or not met at all, for many of them are unmarried working men and women who are not at home when she arrives to clean their apartments; she communicates with them, and they with her, via notes: “Mary, please water the geraniums and feed the cat. Hope this finds you well. Gloria Scotto.”
Once I suggested to her that I would like to follow her around during the course of a day’s work, and she said well, she didn’t see anything wrong with that and in fact, would enjoy the company: “This can be kind of lonely work sometimes.” Which is how we happen to be walking along together on this showery April morning. We’re off to her first job: a Mr. Andrew Trask, who lives on East Seventy-third Street.
Doris: The rest of the story is written as a play, so I can’t read it to its best advantage without two voices, that of Mary and of Capote—and I couldn’t easily imitate Capote’s voice. But this story/play is one of the best in this extraordinary book, in spite of—or maybe because of — the simplicity of the writing. Mary Sanchez is a professional cleaning woman … She is 57 years old…. Mary Sanchez is muscular, but she has a pale round smooth pleasant face…. We can see this woman so clearly from the beginning, looming over Capote — she is tall, he short. We get her personality when she straightens him out about “blacks” vs. Negroes.
Pat: It sounds like a nonfiction piece, a kind of slice-of-life vignette or “scene” as he starts it out, so I’m wondering if while you’re reading it a sense of story settles in as well.
Doris: Oh yes, something happens after they kind of settle into the apartment on East 73rd Street that turns the “scene” from anecdote to story. Whether Truman Capote has started this out as a character study and ended up with a short story told as a play — well, it doesn’t matter, really. The writing scoops you up, as a good work of fiction will do.
by Lily King
Pat: This is an ambitious novel, inspired by the true story of anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second husband, Rio Fortune, who met their famed colleague Gregory Bateson in 1933 on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. The story weaves in Mead’s intimate relationship with another anthropologist, Ruth Benedict.
The author, Lily King, both celebrates and challenges the model of anthropology as Mead developed it at the time. We learn that anthropology was a young science in the 1930s, when the world was still unmapped and faraway frontiers were rough, primitive and dangerous.
In the novel, which fictionalizes real life characters and places, the practices of hidden tribes in the jungles along the Sepik make no sense to Western anthropologists. We learn, for example, that mourning relatives of one tribe acknowledge their grief by cutting off a finger when a loved one dies; twins in another tribe are considered evil and tossed into the river to drown; men wear large gourds on their genitals and treat women horribly by Western standards.
At the start of the novel, Nell and her husband Fen (fictionalized versions of Mead and Fortune) are fleeing a warrior tribe. Soon they chance to meet Bankson (Gregory Bateson), who’s found the work of anthropology so lonely and futile that he’s attempted suicide. His doubts about his role as anthropologist — the white intruder who subjects tribes to the kind of biased scrutiny that in itself may “skew” his findings — are driving him newly insane, but he finds something fresh and hopeful about Nell:
I asked Nell if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested in is how we [anthropologists] believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civllization, right and wrong.
She said no one had more than one perspective, not even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl. The key is, she said, to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is “natural.”
Pat: So the question that plagues any good scientist, not just anthropologists, looms above these characters: Can their own biases be set aside as they attempt objective study? For Nell, Fen and Bankson, does the simple asking of questions and living in rebuilt huts not “skew results” in terms of the way tribes people give their answers?
Nell has just published, to international acclaim, The Children of KiraKira (a fictionalized version of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa), which shows adolescent girls “primitive” tribe having several sexual partners before choosing a husband. This has caused a huge controversy in the West, where critics accuse Nell of falling for a hoax. At the same time, Nell has become a much sought-after speaker and has developed her own opinions about many things, including psychologists who are just becoming famous, like Sigmund Freud.
In her diary, Nell writes:
Freud said that primitives are like Western children. I don’t believe that for a second, but most anthropologists don’t blink an eye at it. My argument is: Every child seeks meaning. When I was four I remember asking my quite pregnant mother: What’s the point of all this? Of all what? she asked. Of all this LIFE. I remember how she looked at me and I felt like I’d said something very bad. She came and sat beside me at the table and told me I’d just asked a very big question, and that I wouldn’t be able to answer it until I was an old, old woman. But she was wrong. Because she had that baby, and when she brought her home I knew I’d found the point. Her name was Katie but everyone called her Nell’s Baby.
[Here Nell recalls her horror when Katie dies and afterward, when the family inexplicably refuses to discuss Katie again, leaving Nell — sent away without even a goodbye — to grieve alone.]
I feel like I got most of life’s lessons before I turned six. For me, other people are the point, but other people can disappear.
As to the tribal members she’s studying on the Sepik River, whom the Western world consider primitive curiosities, Nell takes the then-controversial position that: They are human, with fully functioning human minds. If I didn’t believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn’t be here. I’m not interested in zoology.
So Bankson, the veteran and the wiser of the three, begins to listen to Nell when she says:
I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.
But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement and my role is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.
Here is another example of the title revealing us so much about the novel. When Bankson asks Nell to tell him her favorite part of field work,
She narrowed her grey eyes. ‘It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.’
Pat: I often got the feeling that this book, Euphoria, written by Lily King about anthropologists in the 1930s, has a message for people immersed in the Internet during the 21st century. For one thing, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson lived in a largely unmapped world in two ways. When they explored places like the Sepik River, they were creating geography as well as mapping a psychological world for the first time. Using a manuscript by Helen (the fictionalized Ruth Benedict), they worked out categories of human behavior calledThe Grid (based on Mead’s unpublished work on The Squares) that appeared to explain motivation and intention throughout history. No wonder they felt euphoric.
Today, though, we live in a world that is completely mapped, thanks in part to Google’s satellite cameras recording every inch of space on the planet, every second. In terms of explorers of any scientific field discovering anything new, those kinds of discovery are gone.
And yet in terms of Internet technology and what it can discover, there is so much to be unearthed in the 21st century that has the same insatiable allure. Take the field of healthcare, for example. Years ago, doctors told us about new diseases after they noticed trends in patient symptoms, which they described in medical journals and conferences over a long period of time. Today Google bypasses doctors entirely by monitoring patients seeking information on the Internet about new symptoms.
When Google can detect the spread of, say, anything from Avian flu to Ebola months if not years before doctors might notice and collect these symptoms, you have to say the Internet is not only mapping the world anew, it’s changing the future. That’s how Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others have lured many young engineers and marketers to the Internet, isn’t it? And that call — We are changing the future. You can be part of history — is just as euphoric as that motivated Margaret Mead or any fictional characters created by novelists like Lily King.
Doris: That’s an intriguing idea. It may be why Lily King’s Euphoria, set in the 1930s, seems to have this odd ring of familiarity.
The Days of Abandonment
Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005 (Copyright 2002)
Doris: Elena Ferrante is a reclusive Italian fiction writer who’s never given an interview and whose novels have been quietly translated and published in the United States years after their Italian copyright.
Four of her novels are available in English, each translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker: These titles are Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, and My Brilliant Friend. Each book is narrated by a woman: an academic in The Lost Daughter, and a writer in the novel I’d like to discuss here, The Days of Abandonment.
This book has very few characters and limited sets. Most of the 188 pages take place in the apartment of a woman named Olga, or in Olga’s mind, she who has been completely unprepared when her husband Mario dumped her after 15 years together. The characters are pretty much limited to Olga and her two children, with cameos by an upstairs neighbor; the husband, Mario; and his lover, a younger woman. Her narrative has been acclaimed by critics for her “blunt honesty,” which we can see when our heroine accepts a dinner invitation from a friend, as follows. (The reference to Otto is to Olga’s dog.)
I arrived at the Farracos’s too early. They tried to entertain me and I forced myself to be cordial. At a certain point I glanced at the set table, mechanically I counted the places, the chairs. There were six. I stiffened: two couples, then me, then a sixth person. I understood that Lea had decided to look after me—she had planned a meeting that might lead to an adventure, a temporary relationship, a permanent arrangement, who knows. Confirmation of this came when the Torreris arrived, a couple I had met at a dinner the year before in the role of Mario’s wife, and the vet, Dr. Morelli, whom I had asked about Otto’s death. Morelli, who was a good friend of Lea’s husband, congenial, up to date on the gossip of the Polytechnic, had clearly been invited to keep me amused.
The whole thing depressed me. This is what awaits me, I thought. Evenings like this. Appearing at the house of strangers, marked as a woman waiting to remake her life. At the mercy of other women who, unhappily married, struggle to propose to me men they consider fascinating. Having to accept the game, not to be able to confess that those men arouse only uneasiness in me, for their explicit goal, known to all present, is to seek contact with my cold body, to warm themselves by warming me, and then to crush me with their role of born seducers, men alone like me, like me frightened by strangers, worn out by failures and by empty years, separated, divorced, widowers, abandoned, betrayed.
I was silent all evening, I slipped an invisible sharp ring around myself, at every remark of the vet’s that called for a laugh or a smile I neither laughed nor smiled, once or twice I withdrew my knee from his, I stiffened when he touched my arm and tried to whisper in my ear with unjustified intimacy.
Never again, I thought, never again. Going to the houses of friends who, playing go-between, out of kindness make up occasions for meetings and spy on you to see if things come to a successful conclusion, if he does what he’s supposed to do, if you react the way you’re supposed to. A spectacle for those already coupled, an entertaining subject when the house is empty and only the remains of the meal are left on the table. I thanked Lea, her husband, and left early, abruptly, when they and their guests were sitting down in the living room to drink and talk.
Doris: This passage is so familiar to any single person. Glancing at the table, for example, to discover how many people are invited. And Olga weaves a sort of meanness into it: her hosts are going to gossip about her when she’s gone. She will be an entertaining subject for their speculation.
An interesting thing: the three books I’ve selected this time are all first-person accounts. It’s so interesting to see how first person means we only see what the narrator sees or knows. We don’t get Mario’s point of view, in this case, only what Olga believes his point of view must be. What if the first-person narrator is unreliable? Whom/how/what do you trust? Third-person gives the author much more leeway.
Pat: The New Yorker did a piece on Elena Ferrante’s belief as the author in staying out of the limelight and not promoting her books. It’s worth excerpting this part here:
[Ferrante] will do nothing for (her book), she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal, and the effortful prying of the Italian press—Why have you chosen this privacy? Are you hiding the autobiographical nature of your work? Is there any truth to the rumor that your work is really by Domenico Starnone [a male Italian writer, screenwriter and journalist]?—has about it the kind of repressed anger that attends a suicide.
Ferrante is probably right when she claims that an author who does publicity has accepted, “at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.” Our language betrays us: nowadays, you triumphantly sell a novel to a publisher; 30 years ago, a publisher simply accepted that novel.
Lark and Termite
By Jayne Anne Phillips
Alfred A. Knopf
Pat: This exquisite novel is told through two parallel stories, one about a soldier named Leavitt during the Korean War who’s on his way to a battle that turns into the massacre at No Gun Ri in 1950. The other is about Termite, an extremely disabled little boy who can’t walk or see very well, and who communicates by humming. We notice right away, though, that Termite seems to have an ingenious way of sensing colors and tastes and sounds, and that his older sister Lark pays special attention to him. She not only loves the person inside but feels an awareness of the world through him that is mystical and timeless. When they’re together, reality takes on an otherworldly presence that affects — seems to elevate – their impoverished circumstances in rural West Virginia.
The early pages show us in simple statements this special, intricate, miraculous relationship from both points of view. I can only excerpt glimpses of moments that rush by, but the overall effect is of falling into a dream state along with them. It’s a blissful, haunted state that follows you long after book’s end.
Termite looks outside and listens
The beetles are long and fat as thumbs. Termite hears one move its legs in smooth wild blurring clicks. Lark stops to look but she won’t let him touch. Termite hears it minutely lifted, swarmed by ants. The ants keen fast, piling into an edge that wants to pump and push.
Termite watches Lark ice a cake
Lark says the names of the tastes are in the colors, one drop and two drops, and she moves the knife fast, icing each layer, turning them round and round so the cakes turn too, like soft sweet wheels. Then she puts one cake on top of another, turning it careful like a special prize.
Lark puts a sea shell up to Termite’s ear
Oceans have waves like a pulse, Lark says, and she puts his fingers on her wrist to feel the tiny beat. The sound in her skin surges but the sound in the shells only circles, coming and going in one curled space.
Lark: I bring him to the basement on hot days
I can feel him listening while I walk back up the basement stairs to shut the kitchen door. He knows I’ll come back with pencils and sketchbook, and he sits so still that I can hear what he hears. The give of the stairs, like an easing. My footsteps across the broken basement floor to the storm cellar stairs, five stone slabs that open out into the yard. Even with the lilac bushes on one side, heat and light pour through like syrup.
Termite looks outside and listens before a storm hits
Most days the field is full of sounds. Bees and insects on the tall stalks buzz and click. The dragonflies and jumping hoppers do a kamikaze zing and flirl through our hair, past our ears. Not today. There’s silence. Everything alive is huddled at the roots of the plants, or burrowed into the earth a few protective inches.
Doris: I love that word “flirl.”
Lark closes the storm doors to the basement
(The) storm-cellar doors open wide as flat steel tongues under the dark green lilac leaves. (When they) clang shut, heat falls across them like an animal that can’t get up.
Termite watches Lark clean house
The vacuum roars in and out, working its billowy bag, blaring muffled wind and wrenching the rug taut. The whirling in the bag is like bees packed tight. The machine sucks air through its long neck and Lark holds the cord in one hand like a hard rat tail that whips and smacks.
I realize I’m never going to leave him, not in this life. He’s so quiet, listening. His open hands in my lap barely move, so faintly, like his thin fingers touch a current of air I’m too thick and gross to feel. The undersides of his fingers are white as alabaster, unlined between the knuckles, like he’s always just born.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #12, August 26, 2015
Pat: Today we’d like to spend the full hour on the latest edition of West Marin Review, a literary journal published out of Point Reyes that I’ve admired for many years.
It’s one of the few arts publications that continues to publish in print — most are only on websites now, due to prohibitive costs — and its production values are so high that you’ll find your fingers pausing over its rich paper texture, and your eyes feeling that wash of delight that comes with a certain crisp beauty in its paintings, photos and sketches, as well as algae pressings and even original sheet music.
Doris and Myn who are in the studio today are two hardworking editors who assist the acquisitions committees to make WMR quietly outstanding. For me dipping into its pages offers so many discoveries that I never want this lovely browsing experience to end. West Marin Review rises organically out of the rolling California hills and roiling surf along the coast of Northern California, and yet the diversity and timeless nature of these pieces take us to the whole world.
Let’s start with the first part of Stunts, a remembrance about movie-making that takes us behind the scenes of Hollywood magic-making. It’s a nice straightforwad piece that feels so workaday, at first.
WE SPENT the afternoon running power cables and placing lights all around the Bronson Caves, a dry, dusty canyon carved deep into the hills of Griffith Park. It was late summer of 1981, four years after I’d come to Hollywood, and I’d taken a call to day-play as a juicer on a low-budget feature film called The Sword and the Sorcerer. They’d be shooting a big night-exterior scene, and night work always means lots of lights and cable. At the time, I was still making the transition from the grind of low-budget feature films to the world
of television commercials, where the pay was better and the work considerably less time-consuming. But I wasn’t quite there yet, and day-playing, or working for a day on features, allowed me to work with old friends and occasionally make some new ones, all while earning a paycheck.
This promised to be a long night—“movies ’til dawn,” as the saying goes—but the beauty of day-playing is that it’s always a temporary gig, and you can put up with almost anything if it’s just for a day.
Besides, making movies was still fun back then.
As the sun dropped below the canyon rim, we took a break from laying cable to watch the filming of a stunt designed to simulate a man being thrown off a cliff to his death—a murder that would spark one of the central dramatic conflicts in the story. Stunts have long been an integral part of the cinematic experience, and in many ways represent the distilled essence of movie-making: using skill and artifice to create a convincing illusion. Watching a well-executed stunt is an education, the experience drawn into sharp focus by the element of danger and an undeniable frisson of excitement. Early on, one of the fun things about working on feature films was the chance to see a wide variety of stunts performed right before my eyes. It was like going to the circus as a kid to see the high-wire and trapeze artists toy with gravity under the Big Top, only now I was part of the circus.
Stunt men aren’t wide-eyed fools nursing a death wish, but professionals who want to do their job and drive home in one piece at the end of the day, just like everybody else. Although their liveli- hood often depends on skating along the thin edge of disaster, they work hard to minimize risks. Every aspect of a stunt is meticulously planned and rehearsed until the actual performance becomes almost automatic. Very little is left to chance—but if the element of risk can be minimized by such thorough preparation, it can’t be eliminated altogether. Proper execution of the stunt is crucial. When the cameras finally roll, the stuntman and his team must do everything exactly right to avoid serious injury, or worse.
I found a spot on the canyon floor with a clear view. High on the cliff above the caves stood a man dressed in a medieval costume, playing a character about to be thrown to his cinematic death by the henchmen of an evil tyrant. The stuntman stood there, staring down at his target 65 feet below, a fully inflated airbag surrounded by boul- ders. He stared for a very long time. The crew waited, cameras ready, watching that lonely figure up there on the cliff. A nervous quiet settled in over the set. The tension mounted. At last, the stuntman signaled a thumbs-up and stepped back from the edge, out of sight. The Assistant Director called for the cameras to roll, and once all were up to speed, he nodded at the director. “Action!” the director yelled. Nothing happened for a long moment, the tense silence broken only by the mechanical whir of film rolling through cameras.
I stared upward, forgetting to breathe, then watched that man run right off the cliff into thin air.
Pat: Something very big happens after this moment, but I want to stop here, where I’m completely in the moment, standing in that spot on the canyon floor looking up, “forgetting to breathe,” and imagining the stunt guy in midair. It’s so beautifully set up and executed….
Myn: And you know, this is one of the many pieces in West Marin Review that might not have been published if WMR didn’t exist. It came about because I asked Michael Taylor one day if he remembered any incidents worth telling from his experience working in films, and this is what he sent in.
By the way, here’s a small, lovely poem by Tobi Earnheart-Gold that starts things off in the front page of the Review:
Even the potatoes
Sprouting in the cellar’s dark
Seem to know
Pat: It’s a startling poem, so lovely, so tiny — a perfect poetic thought for the day.
I’m also very taken with this poem, which refers to the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park as a place where two beings — could be deer, could be human — confront what appears to be their last moment together.
Return to Sinkyone
—In memory of Graham
Had the rescuers known to leave him,
had the knowledge of deer prevailed,
he might have rested in the grass
as it moistened with fog that afternoon.
Had airlift not been by plane
but by dark birds circling, ones he said
he would someday gladly give his body,
becoming their eyes, their wings,
he could have died in this meadow,
this meeting of earth and sea and sky.
Had I carried the knowledge of deer
and been able to wait beside him,
close in the grass, my breath soft,
his breath slowing, quieting,
then there would have been no hands
on him, no metal pressing into him,
no sounds rushing through him
startling his injured brain.
There would have been sea wind,
sky wind, the dark birds calling.
Doris: I didn’t think these two beings could be anything other than human because, for one thing, the poem is dedicated to the “memory of Graham,” and Graham I assumed was a man who had been injured. But the consciousness of the poem does offer different options.
Pat: When the narrator says “Had I carried the knowledge of deer / and been able to wait beside him,” I pictured two deer together when “the knowledge of deer prevailed” before one has to run as the rescuers with their hands and metal transport come near. But that’s the joy of this poem — whoever the narrator may be, this consciousness about death being a passage of matter from one form to another is so poignant and rings so true, I think I’ll never forget it.
Doris: And the sense of merging with the surrounding environment is similar in a way to this next selection — though of course it’s much more playfully observant — about a daily commute along back roads and the often irreverent thoughts and engaging wordplay of the narrator.
We have time only to begin the piece, which I hope will whet your appetite to read the whole piece (about nine pages):
Commuting in the Valley of Shadows
MILE 0 Thinking not of the journey but of my destination, I cautiously creep my car out from under oaks mistdripping in midsummer fog and onto the raggedy country road.
Thursday begins. Neighbors rush-hour downhill while dog-walkers hike up, nosing newspapers as they wander, dogs zigzagging phone poles, aloofly observed by roosting raptor. Cyclist huffing on his morning constitutional. Daily I wave. Daily he scowls, huffs.
I proceed to the intersection. On autopilot; still snoozy. Stop, sip from a cup, contemplate, crack the window to bring in the day. Choice: freeway versus backroad. Thirty mins. versus thirty-five. Freeway a ratatat-race of citybound tradesmen. Back route the open road between golden hills rolling up to summer’s silver sky.
Decision: back road.
MILE 1.1 Licheny oaks layer away in the mist, paler and paler as they fade into redwoods on the ridgetops.
Seamlessly, I thread between potholes. Pavement worse than ever now. Intentionally untended rural roads decomposing to gravelly goatpaths, Western civ devolving. Future: dirt roads + broadband.
Radio on — krrchkle rsssch krrchkle — radio off. Thrush gurgles amid crowcaw now audible.
MILE 4.2 Rearview mirror. Get your snout out of my exhaust, asshole.
Flash of redwinged blackbird, song trailing. So pass me already, Mr. Mustang. Saw you Tuesday, too. Do we work the same shift?
Road a narrow corridor overhung by willows. Wildlife-watchful, I eyeball side-to-side. Tailgating Mustang whoopdedoos over potholes, while my car senses acorn under tire, princess-pealike. Six inches of clearance, hard suspension, teeth clackety-clacking. There, he passed. Double yellow so what. Asking for it.
MILE 5.9 A remembered feature photo—decades ago: young woman crushed in VW. Slender, smooth hand hanging out the window, fingers limp.
Zeroing in on a dangling hand through history’s loupe. Victim would have been my age now.
Old. I’m old. Strike that. Age ain’t nuttin’ but a numbah. Redtail: screeeee.
Bobcat crossed here one time. See bobcats oftener lately. Fog sluices up the canyon, roiling over the eucalyptus windbreak on the far side. Inland heat a colossal fog-suck.
Race through the radio pre-sets:
— take over control of the no-fly zone, krssssh krrchkle the effort to protect civilians through aggressive airstrikes —
— school lunch menu in the krrchkle —
— trains delayed by up to an hour and commuters are advised — — Krrchkle —
Hopeless. Off. Sip.
MILE 7.1 Slowdown for the village. Dory hoisting the flag over the P.O. Phoned our house once to remind me letter I mailed was two cents short. Postmistress sees all, knows all. I’m just passing through, honestly.
Hitched up in front of the store, a remuda of Ford F250s. Dairymen, sheepmen convened round the wateringhole for the morning gab. Trucks manure-splashed and battered, rusted: roan, palomino, sorrel. In a truck’s bed two restless collies.
Farmers thinking about commuters: hope they’re just passing through. Are there more like them coming from where those came from?
Village ends, open road just ahead. Last chance to pull over and let them pass: Camry, BMW, Subaru, Prius. Single-file streaming through the chicane, Le Mans acceleration, riding nose to tailpipe.
Freeway refugees. Sudden brake lights, smoking tires puff, diving Camry sped too soon into the blind curve. There go those turkeys again, crossing. Turkeys in a row, poking along beak to tailfeathers slowing traffic better than any sign. Locals thinking: What this town needs is more turkeys.
MILE 7.5 Skittering eucalyptus slash sweeps across road.
— day after NATO agreed to take over command of krssssh —
MILE 8.2 Trundling to hilltop ahead, school bus slows for coldquaking hooded kiddiehuddle. Yellowflashyellow. Skip past before outflips the stop sign.
— economy shrank krrchkle forecast —
MILE 9.3 Shrine on the gravelly roadbank. Oily stain on pavement remains, two years after teenagers torched. Sad scary. Pink-themed memorial constantly grows. Rose-hued portraits, pallid plastic flowers, ragged ribbons, trinkets, messages pile on, pile up, spill out, fluttershred. Seen at 60 mph.
MILE 9.9 Ahead, Camry briefly brakes, noticing piebald pattern in the shadows: covert cop. Cruisers common as ticks. But never around for Mr. Mustang.
MILE 10 Forsale sign flashes: roadhouse, closed years. ’Nother boondock business bites the dust. Some of my best clients went broke. Jinxed?
If your receivables are less than 10 percent uncollectable you’re probably being too cautious, my father told me.
Risk management, I utter aloud to self, addressing the road ahead.
Farmstand promising fresh veg. Squash for cash in slot. Mountain lion yonder is only a tawny treestump mirage. Fall for it every day, do a double-take, duh. Still looking for that mountain lion hubby saw near here in bottomlands’ dawnfog. Clearly a cat, bound-bound- ing across the highbeams, long tail lashing the light. Come back, cougar. I wanna be your witness….
Pat: This is so wonderful — every line has a surprise, from “mistdripping” and “licheny” to the way that Mustang “whoopdedoos over potholes” and thoughts flash by, as they do on the road, joining small details with giant concepts, such as: “Intentionally untended rural roads decomposing to gravelly goatpaths, Western civ devolving. Future: dirt roads + broadband.”
Then she offers all those “sad scary” observations that hit any rurual driver, where she combines turkeys crossing the road with “Forsale sign” on a “roadhouse, closed for years” leading to that personal stab of reality about office finances waiting at her desk (“If your receivables are less than 10 percent uncollectable…”).
Doris: The effect of the piece is so like a real commute — a thousand things happen you’ll probably forget, but so many of these moments could, if you remember them as this writer does, be worth reliving and picking over and carrying on through the rest of the day, and the next and the next. I’ve read it three times and am still discovering little bits of revelation that register deeply, as when the writer finally gets to the city, “impatiently, fingertappingly, waiting at a stoplight staring at a Victorian lamppost.”
Pat: Oh yes, her finale! Where she sees “Lashed to it a faded ragflapping pink plastic holiday bow at eye level, last remnant of Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas cutification. Why dedecorate now, anyway? Christmas in only six months?”
How I love coined words when they work! Like “cutification” and “dedecorate.” In some ways this journey on the page is like a maze tossed out on the page, and it’s up us to find the story and the message at any given line.
Myn: Then there are the much smaller pieces that define a moment so well, like this slice-of-life remembrance:
The Rancher Whispered
WHAT I remember most fondly is the Ramblin’ Jack Elliott perfor- mance in the tiny diner. Well, not so much the performance itself, although it was quite special, but the fabulously stout middle-aged rancher who sat behind us. I’d seen him around town, always sporting a big bold belt buckle and fine felt cowboy hat. Toward the end of the night, as Ramblin’ Jack described one of his last songs, Old Shep, about a favorite dog he’d taken on the road, the rancher whispered quietly to the woman beside him, “I love this song, but sometimes it makes me cry.”
Pat: You can almost feel as though you’re sitting in that tiny diner. And here is, too, a very funny and recognizable poem that could happen at the same place:
Madeleine S. Butcher
Awesome, has taken on a daily feel
as in—“I’ll have fries with that.”
Our waiter writes it down, nodding.
“Awesome,” he says looking up, “Anything else?”
as in feeling so small
before a thing so vastly greater than we,
a thing embodying a profound truth
which we can sense but not ever truly know,
…should be applied to an order of fries…
is a thing in itself of great wonder and incredulity,
which often but not always,
stands side by side with
laced with such sweetness
that one feels oddly and deliriously hopeful.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #11, August 12, 2015
Pat: Today Doris and Myn and I want to devote the full hour of The Bookmobile to a single book, and this is:
The People in the Trees
by Hanra Yanigihara
At first glance this novel appears to be about an old theme: Anthropologists travel to a forbidden island where they discover a lost tribe of people who seem to have found the secret to immortality. But soon the expedition both dazzling and despairing as the scientists confront questions of morality, jungle fever, colonization, white superiority and in the case of The People in the Trees, painful issues, such as pedophilia, the coming Alzheimers generation and the rise of the new Mad Scientist (which is to say, all of them) in the 21st century.
To put it another way:
On the one hand this is the story of Dr. Norton Perina, a brilliant scientist who’s based on the real-life Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Carlton Gadjusek, who discovered a link between cannibalism and brain disease in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. Gadjusek adopted over 50 children and was later convicted of sexual crimes that sent him to jail in 1998. In a documentary, Gajdusek openly admits to molesting the boys he adopted and voices his approval of incest.
The People in the Trees begins with Norton Perina already in prison for the same crime, writing his version of what happened as he rose from boring apprenticeships at a Harvard lab to traveling to Micronesian island of I’vu I’vu where his work won him the Nobel Prize — and his adoption of 43 I’vu I’vu children and his conviction for rape of boys that may or may not prove his downfall.
On the other hand, The People in the Trees is a brilliant, scathing sendup of Western science’s arrogance and tyranny, not only against “primitive” societies in darkest undiscovered jungles but against nature itself, against that need of men (not women, the author makes clear) to crush a much-feared wildness, both in the environment and within their own nature.
All of this is told to the reader in the early pages through news articles about Norton Perina, who becomes the kind of “unreliable narrator” we have come to expect from loathsome, pitiable yet humorous fiction characters like Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Eric Kennedy in Schroder.
A note just to catch us up: The need to set the record straight from prison while oh, so carefully reshaping the facts to convince readers of one’s innocence goes back to the 1860s and Cardinal John Newman, who tried to convince readers that he was right to leave the Anglican Church and become a Catholic. So the narrator’s point of view, however suspect, shades every word on the page of what is now a traditional form, the apologia-from-prison novel. And it challenges the reader to sift through the lies, the cover-ups, and the inner truths find the real story.
Here’s an example of Norton Perina’s description of the beautiful, pristine jungle of I’vu I’vu that he and his colleagues have discovered. There’s not a positive word about the natural world in this excerpt, or in the entire book, about the island paradise. The best he can do is to say the sky is “sticky with clouds,” or the sea is “anxious … with roiling energy.” Never gorgeous or awe-inspiring. In fact he’s so negative and resentful of nature’s wild beauty that even the trees turn into monsters.
As he journeys farther into the jungle:
The unsullied perfection of forest became wearying. Where I had once seen mystery, I now saw instead only perfection and repetition: the constant damp, the constant half-light, the constant pattern of trees and trees and trees, an unbroken grove of them reaching into eternity. I longed to see the sky above me, blue and sticky with clouds, or the sea, its anxious, roiling energy. Here we knew it had been raining only because the trees — so incessantly thirsty I thought of them as stands of throats, greedily swallowing every drop they could — sweated water, which disappeared into the pelts of moss that clumped around their bases, and because the ground grew squelchy and spongy.
So Norton grows to resent the jungle’s profligacy, as if it were an overdressed woman parading her entire cache of sparkly jewels….and for what? To prove the imperturbability of nature, I suppose — its unknowability, its fundamental lack of interest in humanity: a mockery. It was absurd, I knew, to wake each day and resent the jungle and my own insignificance in it. But I couldn’t help it.
The author’s gift is to make the narrative of nearly 500 pages as funny as it is appalling. Instead of beauty, Norton sees threat, exaggerating every gorgeous sight in the jungle as though it’s something out of a horror movie. When, for example, he describes a breathtaking, vividly colored orchid as a vicious-looking (flower) whose urinous blooms spat out two long, spiraling stamens the color of fresh blood.
Doris: This book would be difficult to read because Norton Perina is so extremely unpleasant, but our book group discussion at Pt. Reyes Books opened my eyes to its artistry. Even before that, though, I understood how extraordinary the writing is, and the two passages I’ve chosen for today demonstrate that lushness.
In this first segment, there are three characters mentioned, whose names are Uva and Fa’a, who are guides through the jungle, and Tallent, another scientist, with whom our narrator is traveling.
On and on the jungle went, so unceasing in its excesses that I eventually became numb to them. A creature, its malachite-dark back diamonded with scales, skittered across my feet, a wraithlike monkey shrieked from tree, and I did not stop or ask Uva or Tallent what they were. There were so many shades and tones of green—serpent, aphid, pear, emerald, sea, grass, jade, spinach, bile, pine, caterpillar, cucumber, steeped tea, raw tea: how inadequate is our vocabulary for color!—that I feared I would lose my ability to distinguish anything else Fa’a’s loincloth, a bright crimson, burned my eyes, and yet I found myself staring at it as much and for as long as I could bear, as if trying to fix its redness in my mind before it too began to be interpreted by my eye as yet another shade of green. At night I dreamed of green, great floating blobs of it, morphing gently from one shade to the next, and in the mornings I woke feeling beaten and exhausted. During the day my thoughts returned to visions of deserts, of cities, of hard surfaces: of glass and concrete and chips of mica glinting from asphalted streets.
[Then] the chief appeared, walking slowly toward the head of the rows. And although he, like the rest of the villagers, was wearing no clothes, he carried himself as if he were heavy with jewels and cloaks: his straight back might have supported a cape made of yards and yards of weighty crimson velvet; his long, thick neck might have been hung with twisted ropes of gold and slabs of diamond-studded metals. He did at least wear a crown, a double strand, about as thick as my thumb, of a gorgeous, shimmery marigold, in a soft material of such lambency that it gleamed even in the firelight. I had have thought of the chief as particularly handsome, but this night he was indisputably majestic: his skin had been piled to the same mirror-like gleam as his crown, and his hair had been brushed out somehow and oiled as well, so that it hung past his shoulder blades and flared around his face in an imitation of the fire: as he drew closer, I could smell the faint rancid odor of fat. His hog—and his hog was, not surprisingly, the biggest and cruelest and most dangerous-looking of the bunch—had been polished as well, and for once his mean little eyes, which were as shiny as lathed bullet shells, were outshone by his slicked, coarse hair and tusks, which seemed to have been honed and scrubbed especially for the occasion.
Pat: We should mention that in this tribe, hogs are domesticated like dogs in Western nations, and that male power is meant to be awe-inspiring, whether you’re chief of the village or winner of a Nobel Prize. The more we see of Norton Perina’s negativity about the jungle — I doubt the word for “green” I’d ever use deep in the forest would be “bile” — the more Yanagihara is saying that Western scientists resent nature for its refusal to bend to the needs of humanity.
It’s the old adage, “man against the elements.” Remember the question we all learned as kids: If a tree falls in the forest but there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a noise? The answer is no, because there are no human ears to hear it. Humanity arbitrates what should be valued in nature and what should be overpowered, lusted after, stripped, invaded, raped and plundered. “You beast. You little monster. You animal,” Norton mutters into the ear of a boy he abuses. He can’t stand purity or innocence in the natural world.
About the other boys, he says:
They were lovely, and I was a man who appreciated their loveliness, who taught them that it was their gift, their gift to bestow upon others…. (To one boy I whispered) that I would punish him, that I would break him, that I would force him to behave. And then after … I would find myself uttering words of love and longing …. But what I really thought was, “I have given him more than I have given anyone else. I have given him what I always yearned to give.”
What he yearned to pass on was his power to destroy.
The author’s own story is fascinating. Hanra Yanigihara grew up in Hawaii as the daughter of a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She must have been quite a prodigy. Ordinarily I don’t think about the author’s journey until after I’ve finished the book, and then only as a curiosity, but in this case, it’s easy to imagine her as a youngster on Take Your Daughters to Work day watching her father’s colleagues create fiefdoms of power while competing for their own slots of “greatness.” She has said that Carlton Gadjusek, the real-life pedophile and Nobel winner, was the subject of much discussion at home when she was growing up. By this time the family had moved to Hawaii where her father had left the labs to work with patients.
She recalled in an interview:
I grew up thinking of disease in a very specific way. My father was a research scientist until I was in high school, and for research scientists, it’s not the afflicted person who’s of most interest: It’s the infection itself. But then he went into private practice, [which] means addressing not the virus but the person before you. You see a virus very differently when it’s caught and suspended on a slab of glass than when you’re observing how it’s ravaged a fellow human being.
Woven through the novel is a parallel theme developed in footnotes by Norton Perina’s friend and (equally suspect) editor, Dr. Ronald Kubodera. This is an examination of the way scientists tend to absolve themselves of the abuses and dangers of scientific research because they’re not supposed to ask deeper questions of morality at any stage of, say, artificial intelligence, cloning, DNA, gene mapping, nuclear weapons, drones, genetic modification, etc.
In fact, states Kubodera, learning not to ask the bigger question is the scientist’s most noble enterprise:
This is the story of science. A man discovers something. He doesn’t know what it is or what it’s for or what it might solve, but he knows he has unearthed another piece of a puzzle whose entire shape and picture and form he can only guess. He spends the rest of his life trying to find that next piece, but because he doesn’t even know what he’s looking for, it is very hard work and he is unlikely to find a solution.
Then comes a man from the next generation. He sees the piece of the puzzle that has been found and he finds the next. So now there are two pieces. And then there are three, and four, and five. But at no point, no matter what how many pieces there are, is any one man ever able to say he knows what the puzzle’s ultimate shape will reveal.
When he thinks he is working toward a picture of a horse, he will suddenly find a fish’s fin and realize he’s been wrong all along. Then he thinks he’s trying to build an image of a fish, but the next piece that slots into place will be a bird’s wing lifted in flight.
To be a scientist is to learn to live all one’s life with questions that will never be answered, with the knowledge that one was too early or too late, with the anguish of not having been able to guess at the solution that, once presented, seems so obvious that one can only curse oneself for not seeing what one ought to have, if only one had looked in a slightly different direction.
Pat: This idea came to mind when news of Dolly, the cloned sheep, was first released. What a breakthrough in science! And yet: What a horror for the planet! If scientists can’t consider the consequences when they develop something like this, who will?
Yanagihara is one novelist who wants to. The wonder of The People in the Trees is that it doesn’t hit us over the head with heavy issues like this. In fact, Yanagihara has said she wanted to do something even heavier:
One of the things I wanted to do with this novel was write a compressed history of Hawaii, where I’m from, and the effects of colonization there. I don’t want to be reductive here and say that all Westernization is always bad in all ways. But I think there are patterns of the aftermath of colonization that you see echoed in cultures and communities across the world. What happens on Ivu’ivu in my novel is a much more grotesque, extreme version of what some might say happened on Hawaii.
More on Truman Capote
Music for Chameleons
New American Library 1975
Doris: As mentioned last time, it’s very exciting to pick up an older book that I had forgotten and discover again an author like Truman Capote. So let me again express my renewed fascination with this timeless and gifted author — in particular the wisdom I’ve found in Music for Chameleons (dedicated, by the way, to Tennessee Williams) — and my hope to share his Preface and excerpts from this book of stories.
Last week we learned that Capote began writing at the age of 8 and never stopped.
Now we learn, from the Preface:
As certain young people practice the piano or the violin four and five hours a day, so I played with my papers and pens. Yet I never discussed my writing with anyone; if someone asked what I was up to all those hours, I told them I was doing my school homework. Actually, I never did any homework. My literary tasks kept me fully occupied: my apprenticeship at the altar of technique, craft; the devilish intricacies of paragraphing, punctuation, dialogue placement. Not to mention the grand overall design, the great demanding arc of middle-beginning-end. One had to learn so much, and from so many sources; not only from books, but from music, from painting, and just plain everyday observation.
In fact the most interesting writing I did during those days was the plain everyday observations that I recorded in my journal. Descriptions of a neighbor. Long verbatim accounts of overheard conversations. Local gossip. A kind of reporting, a style of “seeing” and “hearing” that would later seriously influence me, though I was unaware of it the, for all my “formal” writing, the stuff that I polished and carefully typed, was more or less fictional.
From the title story, “Music for Chameleons”:
She is tall and slender, perhaps seventy, silver-haired, soigné, neither black nor white, a pale golden rum color. She is a Martinique aristocrat who lives in Fort de France but also has an apartment in Paris. We are sitting on the terrace of her house, an airy, elegant house that looks as if it was made of wooden lace: it reminds me of certain old New Orleans houses. We are drinking iced mint tea slightly flavored with absinthe.
Three green chameleons race one another across the terrace; one pauses at Madame’s feet, flicking its forked tongue, and she comments: “Chameleons. Such exceptional creatures. The way they change color. Red. Yellow. Lime. Pink. Lavender. And did you know they are very fond of music?” She regards me with her fine black eyes. “You don’t believe me?”
During the course of the afternoon she had told me many curious things. How at night her garden was filled with mammoth night-flying moths. That her chauffeur, a dignified figure who had driven me to her house in a dark green Mercedes, was a wife-poisoner who had escaped from Devil’s Island…
“Yes, of course I believe you.”
She tilts her head. “No, you don’t. But I shall prove it.”
So saying, she drifts into her cool Caribbean salon, a shadowy room with gradually turning ceiling fans, and poses herself at a well-tuned piano. I am still sitting on the terrace, but I can observer her, this chic, elderly woman, the product of varied bloods. She begins to perform a Mozart sonata.
Eventually the chameleons accumulated: a dozen, a dozen more, most of them green, some scarlet, lavender. They skittered across the terrace and scampered into the salon, a sensitive, absorbed audience for the music she played. And then not played, for suddenly my hostess stood and stamped her foot, and the chameleons scattered like sparks from an exploding star.
Now she regards me. “Et maintenant? C’est vrai?”
This passage demonstrates just what Capote describes in the Preface: his observation and careful description of this hostess, silver-haired, soigné [elegant], neither black nor white, a pale golden rum color; of her house, that looked as if it was made of wooden lace.
We not only “see” the woman and her house and the vary-colored chameleons, but also, if we know Mozart, we “hear” the music this elegant woman plays. There’s just enough dialog here to suggest their ease with one another, their playfulness: “You don’t believe me.” “Yes, of course I believe you.” “No you don’t. But I shall prove it.”
By the way, I’m not sure why, but the book’s spine uses the category of “Non-fiction” to describe this collection of fictional short stories.
Pat: That’s strange. Since Capote began writing, the term “creative nonfiction” has come into fashion, but that usually refers to memoirs that are told like novels becaus the author uses tools of fiction, such as characterization, dialogue and plotting. The term “nonfiction short stories” is used less frequently today because essays told like stories are still considered essays. (Editors have debated for years whether poetry should be listed as fiction or nonfiction. When a book of poems hits the bestseller list, it’s often a crap shoot as to which side of the list it’ll appear.) Maybe some editors believe a collection of anything should be called nonfiction, but that’s pretty arcane. I bet NAL years ago just made a mistake about this Music for Chameleons — Truman Capote’s short stories are masterful works of fiction.
The Husband’s Secret
Pat: Every once in a while commercial fiction gives us a glimpse of history that shows how personal connections with past events can be surprisingly significant many years later.
As we find in Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t automatically inspire great discoveries of Western freedoms by East Germans living under communism.
It’s true, many people had risked being arrested or shot when they attempted to cross communist borders without papers. But for many more, the first and most spectacular lure created by the Berlin Wall coming down was the material bounty of American capitalism — the vast displays of cheap baubles and buyable goods.
In The Husband’s Secret, Cecelia, the present-day mother of a preteen with whom she’s having communication problems, discovers her daughter’s fascination with the Berlin Wall and remembers a time in 1990 when she, Cecelia, was traveling through Europe with her friend Sarah after the Wall came down.
When they got to Berlin, they found tourists lined along the Wall trying to chip off pieces as souvenirs, using keys, rocks, anything they could find. The Wall was like the giant carcass of a dragon that had once terrorized the city, and the tourists were crows pecking away at its remains. Without any tools it was almost impossible to chip off a proper piece, so Cecelia and Sarah decided .. to buy their pieces from the enterprising locals, who had set out rugs and were selling off a variety of offerings. Capitalism really had triumphed: You could buy anything, from gray colored chips the size of marbles to giant boulder-sized chunks, complete with spray painted graffiti. Cecelia couldn’t remember how much she paid for the tiny gray stone that looked like it could have come from anyone’s garden. “It probably did,” said Sarah as they caught the train out of Berlin that night, and they’d laughed at their own gullibility. But at least they’d felt like they were a part of history.
I love Liane Moriarty — her novels are deliciously gossipy and full of family intrigue (three different husbands have secrets here) yet her writing takes us deep into human aspirations and fallibility.
In this case, without realizing it, we’re considering the way history can be manipulated without being cheapened. For one thing, it doesn’t matter, decades later, whether the rock Cecilia brought back is “real” or not. It’s the image of crows pecking away at a dragon’s carcass that rises up from the page with surprising power.
Perhaps that’s because (is this a word?) the “souvenirization” of real life is both familiar and meaningful to modern readers. Or maybe it’s because we’re all affected by the rise of the Internet today, and this is one example: Before, pieces of rock with unknown provenance held little interest to acquiring directors at museums and auctions. Today the question of “value” is set differently — somehow more personally — on places like eBay or Etsy. Oh, it’s kind of a flabby argument, I know — if Cecelia tried to sell her rock on eBay she’d probably be laughed off the site.
Grady Tripp is the star of this novel — middle-aged, overweight, pot smoking, alcohol swilling — who has been working on a novel for seven years. At the beginning of this book, Tripp reunites with his old friend and editor, Terry Crabtree, who asks, “How’s the book?” and the author proceeds as follows:
“It’s fine,” I said.
He was talking about my fourth novel, or what purported to be my fourth novel, Wonder Boys, which I had promised to Bartizan [his publisher] during the early stages of the previous presidential administration. My third novel, The Land Downstairs, had won a PEN award and, at twelve thousand copies, sold twice as well as both its predecessors combined, and in its aftermath Crabtree and his bosses at Bartizan had felt sanguine enough about my imminent attainment to the status of, at the least, cult favorite to advance me a ridiculous sum of money in exchange for nothing more than a fatuous smile from the thunderstruck author and a title invented out of air and brainsparkle while [peeing] into the aluminum trough of a men’s room at Three Rivers Stadium. Luckily for me an absolutely superb idea for a novel soon followed—three brothers in a haunted Pennsylvania small town are born, grow up, and die—and I’d started to work on it at once, and had been diligently hacking away at the thing ever since. Motivation, inspiration were not the problem; on the contrary I was always cheerful and workmanlike at the typewriter and had never suffered from what’s called writer’s block; I didn’t believe in it.
The problem, if anything was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible and genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trusts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses. It was about a single family and it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half dozen times. And yet for all of those years, and all of those words expended in charting the eccentric paths of my characters through the violent blue heavens I had set the to cross, they had not even reached their zeniths. I was nowhere near the end.
What’s great about this segment is that you get the idea that Michael Chabon might have this same “problem” as his character, if you can call it a problem—that his writing just flows, that he might not know when to stop.
I had the feeling reading this book that it was meant more for men than women, and young men at that. College guys maybe who smoke a lot of pot, drink a lot of alcohol, and sleep with a lot of women. And this is somewhat born out in another lovely paragraph I’d like to read to you:
I am not…going to say that it was never my intention to get involved with Sara Gaskell. I’m a man who falls in love so easily, and with such a reckless lack of consideration for the consequences of my actions, that from the very first instant of entering into a marriage I become, almost by definition, an adulterer. I’ve run through three marriages now, and each time the dissolution was my own fault, clearly and incontrovertibly. I intended to get involved with Sara Gaskill from the moment I saw her, to get involved with her articulate fingers, with the severe engineering of combs and barrettes that prevented her russet hair from falling to her hips, with her conversation that flowed in unnavigable oxbows between opposing shores of tenderness and ironical invective, with the smoke of her interminable cigarettes. We had an apartment we used, in East Oakland, that belonged to the college; Sara Gaskell was the Chancellor, and I met her on my very first day on the job. Our thing had been going on for almost five years now, according to no discernible progression other than the one leading from the crazed fumbling of two people’s hands with a key in an unfamiliar lock to the installation in the Guest Apartment of cable television so that Sara and I could lie on the bed in our underwear and watch old movies on Wednesday afternoons. Neither of us wanted to leave our spouses, or do anything to disturb the tranquil pattern of what was already an old love.
But of course, such a character is almost certain to disturb the tranquil pattern of his home life, and his lover’s, and so it comes to pass.
Pat: I think Michael Chabon’s writing is so dry and humorous that the appeal of Grady Tripp stretches across all categories. In one way Grady’s the product of an academic system that drains the creative juices right out of the visiting novelist’s bones as he tries to conform to social manners of faculty life. Remember that classic send-up of unctuous professorial talk in Lucky Jim many years ago? It’s Kingsley Amis’ most famous British novel, but we hear the similarly pompous ladder-climbing language here. Grady may ruin everything he aspires to do, but we root for him as he battles the system like the feisty and honest underdog he is.
By the way, the screen adaptation of Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand was one of the few movies that got the book right, I thought. I remember the audience starting to laugh with sympathy as Grady scrolls a fresh sheet of paper onto his electric typewriter while telling us in a voiceover that he’s worried that the manuscript is already too lengthy. When we see the page number “341” typed onto the right-hand corner, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think, Oh well, that’s not too long if he’s finishing it up. But then Grady turns to the manuscript to check the previous page and then back to the typewriter where he types a “2” on the same line, making the page number “2,341” — that’s when the audience exploded. It was a very droll scene.
A Critic’s Announcement
Ratatouille, the movie, 2007
Pat: These days I tend to read book reviews with one eye closed because so many critics, including consumers who write opinion reviews, give half the plot away, or ruin the ending, or indulge in mean-spirited humor, or in general tell us too much.
A form of chaos has descended on the Internet as readers shift from print to screen, so we’re finding out all over again what a critic does.
In the midst of that chaos in 2007, I was so surprised at the very wise and thoughtful remarks of a Parisian food reviewer in the touching animated movie Ratatouille that I wrote down exactly what he says about the nature of criticism.
This particular critic is a classic snob who believes he has risen above the riff-raff, and by that he means the kind of riff-raff thinking that creates cheap and phony art aimed at lowest-common-denominator consumption. He tells us his reason for being: “I don’t like food, I love it. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” He means he doesn’t swallow the badly cooked food in front of him, and he doesn’t swallow slick shortcuts in the kitchen and any marketing hype behind it.
And he hates the idea of popularizing art to the masses, as happens in this movie when a certain Chef Gasteau sells a lot of cookbooks by promising that anyone can cook gourmet food.
This can’t be true, the critic believes, when you uphold standards based on the quality of food. Then one night he’s kind of bamboozled by a simple dish that achieves a certain level of artisty, and this is what he concludes:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read….
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.
Last night I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.
In the past, I have made no secret about my disdain for Chef Gasteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook,” but I realize only now that I truly understand what [is] meant. Not everyone can become a great artist. But a great artist can come from anywhere.
It’s astonishing to me — here in the middle of a cartoon movie is the fundamental working vision of all critics: the idea that humble origins can be fertile ground for genius.
It’s why a critic must go through many mediocre and badly done efforts because you never know when the next one will break all the rules and teach us all a new definition of art.
By the way, when the reviewer says, “we thrive on negative criticism,” that is the big secret of critics: It’s much easier to write a negative, stinging, withering review making fun of the subject. The hard part comes when you love the work you’re reviewing so much, and want people to experience it with all your heart and soul, that you find yourself capapbe of creating the most maudlin, sentimental, uncritical and mawkish mush ever written on page or screen.
J. M. Coetzee
Doris: I read this book years ago and liked it. I used to have a policy of never rereading books (Lolita being the exception), because there are too many books I haven’t read yet and it seemed wasteful to read something twice and miss something once. I’m not sure why I picked up Disgrace to read again: maybe because it’s a short book, and I thought I could get through it quickly and pick up a great paragraph for this show. But this novel has taught me that it is not wasteful to reread a book. In fact, you can learn much that escaped you on a first reading done when you were much younger. That is certainly the case here.
Disgrace is set in Cape Town South Africa and David Lurie is a teacher of literature at a university there. This is how the book opens:
For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at 2PM he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. “Have you missed me?” she asks. “I miss you all the time,” he replies. He strokes her honey brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis….
Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him.
His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them.
For a 90-minute session he pays her R400, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escorts should get so much. But they own No. 113 and other flats in Windsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part of her, this function.
The “disgrace” of the title is nowhere suggested in this opening. It is when the perfectly satisfactory arrangement with Soraya ends that disgrace begins, as Lurie begins a sexual relationship with one of his students. It’s an unwanted relationship that causes unwanted consequences. Lurie may be disgraced, but he is not ashamed. Anything but. But at loose ends, he goes to visit his daughter who lives alone in a small holding in the rural town of Salem in the Eastern Cape, raising vegetables, keeping a dog kennel. Here is where disgrace becomes the bigger theme, along with violence. I don’t want to give away the story, but I do want to encourage readers to explore this brilliant and subtle author’s examination of the phenomenon that is disgrace in many forms.
The writing here is simple, spare, and stunningly emotional. Readers are pulled through a wide range of feeling, from astonishment, to horror. And we can’t help but judge everything: Lurie’s actions, the young woman’s, his colleagues’ at the university, Lurie’s ex-wife’s, his daughter’s, her friends’ and neighbors’.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #9, July 15, 2015
Go Set a Watchman
Pat: I’d just like to say that book publishers are not supposed to be a bunch of con artists making a fortune off elderly and infirm authors, or exploiting an unknowing public.
But this is what HarperCollins is doing in the case of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman.
The book is being presented (after 50 years locked away) as the “sequel” to Harper Lee’s long-running Pulitzer Prize classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s really a way for Rupert Murdoch (owner of HarperCollins) to pull off one of his stunts to make yet another fortune by exploiting the masses.
That fortune comes from the phenomenon of online preordering, which has allowed millions of copies to be sold before the world finds out that Atticus Finch, the beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, turns into an embittered racist who’s attended Ku Klux Klan meetings in Go Set a Watchman.
We know that Go Set a Watchman was in fact the first book that Harper Lee wrote and submitted to publishers in the late 1950s. It was rejected by most houses in New York, but an editor at Lippincott convinced Harper Lee to rewrite the novel with six-year-old Scout (only seen in flashbacks in Watchman) as the narrator. Having a magnificent ear for Alabama talk and manners, and giving Scout a “stereophonic voice” — both innocent and worldly wise at once — led Harper Lee to conceive To Kill a Mockingbird.
So Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird; it is rather the source, the origin, the first try that metapmorphosed into Mockingbird. I think the big question for us on Radio Bookmobile is to decide for ourselves if the writing in Go Set a Watchman is worth reading today.
Let me read a section from the first chapter, in which Scout, who’s now grown up and goes by Jean Louise, is going home by train from her life in New York to Maycomb Country, Alabama, where she grew up as the daughter of Atticus Finch.
The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.
The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her. There is something missing, she thought. Hotboxes, that’s it. A man goes along under the train with a crowbar. There is a clank and then s-sss-sss, white smoke comes up and you think you’re inside a chafing dish. These things run on oil now.
For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.
The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke: he would rush at Maycomb Junction like a bat out of hell and stop the train a quarter of a mile past the little station, then when he bade her goodbye he would say he was sorry, he almost forgot. Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who could predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be waiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation.
The immediate problem in these first pages, I think, is a tendency to skim across the surface of experience as Jean Louise travels to Maycomb County by train. We don’t know “why she never thought her country beautiful,” what “hotboxes” are on a train, whether her “ancient fear” has to do with a train swaying across a bridge or a trestle or a narrow track, how exactly one would define a “museum piece” we assume is an older train and what the meaning may be in this novel of conductors playing that joke on “young ladies.”
So much of the writing can be plodding and laborious, yet sketchy and unforthcoming, in these first paragraphs that I would have rejected the novel, too — and this long before reading about Atticus in his old age. Today of course it’s worth study as Harper Lee’s first try, and any honest publisher would have alerted fans of To Kill a Mockingbird that it’s not a sequel.
How easy it would have been to publish Go Set a Watchman with an Introduction and an Afterword by a writer we trust — say, Toni Morrison or Junot Diaz –who could describe the connections between the two in a literary context. And HarperCollins really should have sent out advance copies to reviewers so everybody would know that Atticus grows old differently than we may expect.
Of course, news like that might have killed the big blockbuster sale of millions of copies that HarperCollins wanted to extract from an unsuspecting public. Well, that’s “snake oil publishing,” and the guy selling it should be taken out and shot. Figuratively speaking.
“Dazzle,” from the short story collection, Music for Chameleons
New American Library 1975
Doris: I want to start with the Herbst Theater in San Francisco in 1982, on a night when I saw Truman Capote try to read from a story but was drunk or stoned, unable to focus and stumbling, finally helped off the stage. He died just a couple of years later.
So: 30+ years pass and recently I picked up Music for Chameleons, a collection of Capote’s beautiful short stories and nonfiction essays. The preface is as wonderful as the rest of the contents of this book because he talks about his life as a writer so intimately that for the next few installments of Radio Bookmobile, I’d like to read a bit from it, and then a segment from one or another of the stories in that book.
From the preface:
My life—as an artist, at least—can be charted as precisely as a fever: the highs and lows, the very definite cycles.
I started writing when I was eight—out of the blue, uninspired by any example. I’d never known anyone who wrote: indeed, I knew few people who read. But the fact was, the only four things that interested me were: reading books, going to the movies, tap dancing, and drawing pictures. Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.
But of course I didn’t know that. I wrote adventure stories, murder mysteries, comedy skits, tales that had been told me by former slaves and Civil War veterans. It was a lot of fun—at first. It stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad, and then made an even more alarming discovery: the difference between very good writing and true art; it is subtle, but savage. And after that, the whip came down!
One of the things I find so extraordinary about this passage is that most of us are familiar with Truman Capote’s voice as brash and a bit fey and extremely effeminate, as though he was always putting on an act. But this writing in Music for Chameleons is another voice entirely: straight as an arrow. Simple but also sophisticated. And in just a few words, we know this eight-year-old boy he describes as himself only wanted to read, go to movies, tap dance, and draw.
From the story, “Dazzle,” about a boy with a secret:
She fascinated me.
She fascinated everyone, but most people were ashamed of their fascination, especially the proud ladies who presided over some of the grander households of New Orleans’ Garden District, the neighborhood where the big plantation owners lived, the ship owners and oil operators, the richest professional men. The only persons not secretive about their fascination with Mrs. Ferguson were the servants to these Garden District families. And of course, some of the children, who were too young or guileless to conceal their interest.
I was one of those children, an eight-year-old boy temporarily living with Garden District relatives…. I had a secret, something that was bothering me, something that was really worrying me very much, something I was afraid to tell anybody, anybody—I couldn’t imagine what their reaction would be, it was such an odd thing that was worrying me, that had been worrying me for almost two years. I had never heard of anyone with a problem like the one that was troubling me. On the one hand it seemed maybe silly; on the other…
I wanted to tell my secret to Mrs. Ferguson. Not want to, but felt I had to. Because Mrs. Ferguson was said to have magical powers. It was said, and believed by many serious-minded people, that she could tame errant husbands, force proposals from reluctant suitors, restore lost hair, recoup squandered fortunes. In short, she was a witch who could make wishes come true. I had a wish.
Truman Capote was such an exotic personality, and yet the writing here is, again, as simple as can be. Of course now we all know what his secret was and what he wished for, but would we have known it when this book first came out in 1975? Maybe not.
The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach
Pat: Earlier on the Bookmobile, I mentioned how much I admire veteran sportswriters for the artful way they can describe the simple movement of a ball, and a player’s reaction to that ball, on a court or a field.
Sometimes sportswriting is so poetic you don’t need to be a fan to appreciate the sport itself that these guys are writing about. But in the case of an absorbing novel called The Art of Fielding, novices and baseball fans alike can sit back and let the images chisel themselves in your brain — they’re that memorable.
In this scene, nobody on a college baseball team in South Dakota thinks anything will come of the scrawny young shortstop who’s referred to as “the kid.” But on a dusty, brutally hot afternoon, the coach and two players take him onto the field for a tryout. So far, the kid has failed miserably at bat and been called an awful name — something like “sissy” — by the catcher, Schwartz, who’s the leader of the team. Now it’s time for fielding.
…the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield – up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone. After each ball he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat pouring down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were – whether he was having any thoughts at all behind that blank look – Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Again, you don’t need to know baseball terms, like “the hole” or “the diamond,” to fall into the trance this author creates in his surprisingly poetic writing.
He takes narrative risks, like mixing up the source of the pronoun “he,” such as: Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive. Here “he” refers not to Schwartz but to the kid playing shortstop. We don’t get confused because we’re so deep into that hot day and that unassuming choreography on the field that we know almost by osmosis who the author’s talking about.
By the way, “Expressionless, expresses God” is from a Robert Lowell poem, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, referring to a saint’s shrine in Section VI, Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk, England. Here a statue of Our Lady reminds me of the eternal lidded wisdom of the Buddha:
Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness
at all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
… Expressionless, expresses God:
…She knows what God knows …
Alfred A Knopf
Doris: This novel was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 (though none was awarded that year). I’m going to read the opening segment, which I think is just splendid.
Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stand a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.
Somewhere directly below Hilola Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water. The deep end—the black cone where Mom dove—was twenty-seven feet; at its shallowest point the water tapered to four inches of muck that lapped at coppery sand. A small spoil island rose out of the center of the Pit, a quarter acre of dredged limestone; during the day, thirty gators at a time crawled into a living mountain on the rocks to sun themselves….
The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept. At last, the Chief cued up the music. Trumpets tooted from our big, old-fashioned speakers, and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola. Just like that she ceased to be our mother. Fame settled on her like a film—“Hilola Bigtree, ladies and gentlemen!” my dad shouted into the microphone. Her shoulder blades pinched back like wings before she dove.
This is a book primarily about loss. We discover soon after this opening that Hilola Bigtree has died of cancer, leaving behind her three teenage children, Osceola, 15 or 16 years old; Ava, 13; and Kiwi, 17; and her husband, the Chief.
On top of this, a new amusement park, called “The World of Darkness” has just opened nearby, in direct competition with Swamplandia! Unless the Chief comes up with something, the family is likely to lose their livelihood. The danger and vivid imagery in the opening page of this book is amplified throughout the rest of the book.
In an effort to contact their mother, Osceola spends far too much time with a Ouija board—the occult becomes an important part of this novel, with Osceola’s reality merging at times with ghostly happenings. I don’t want to say much more about the story, only that I was entranced by it, even frightened.
Emma Donoghue wrote for the New York Times about this book: If Russell’s style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life’s nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned “Swamplandia!” into a credible world.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #8, July 1, 2015
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Quality Paperback Book Club
Doris: This is a book in which every word seems to have been chosen with great care. My copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which originally won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, is published along with two other of Annie Dillard’s books: An American Childhood and The Writing Life—and really all of them, in my opinion, are books about writing. Though you might criticize the density of her prose, you cannot help but admire her precision, as in this segment:
A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy “Yike!” and splashing into the water. Incredibly, this amused me, and, incredibly, it amuses me still. As I walked along the grassy edge of the island, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water. I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mudbank, water, grass, or frog. Frogs were flying all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.
He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like a bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog, then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.
I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. “Giant water bug” is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown beetle. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs—all but the skin—and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice. This event is quite common in warm fresh water. The frog I saw was being sucked by a giant water bug. I had been kneeling on the island grass; when the unrecognizable flap of frog skin settled on the creek bottom, swaying, I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants. I couldn’t catch my breath.
Doris: Readers can’t help but learn from such a description. Just as the author gets “better and better at seeing frogs,” it seems we do, too. This writing is so visual: the frogs “flying all around” — it put me in mind of that wonderful Disney movie, Song of the South, with all the animated birds and happy insects dashing about.
And when we get to the dying frog, the description is so vivid, we almost know what’s happening before she tells us. We certainly understand that the frog is dying, but not how or why, until Dillard educates us about the Giant water bug. This is nonfiction writing with all the liveliness and drama of fiction.
By the way, I looked up the Giant water bug, and found that it’s as big as the palm of a hand and looks like an enormous cockroach.
Pat: Heavens! Who would have thought anything so … so … truly predatory could be going on underwater and so routinely at that. It’s just everyday life at the pond!
You know, Dory, I’ve often thought that the reason horror movies and books are so popular is that children in modern times don’t have a chance to run around and play in nature, where they would come upon scenes like this that could scare the heck out of any human being no matter how young or old.
Doris: That’s certainly possible. Annie Dillard writes so well that for me, encountering the monster Giant water bug from the comfort of my couch was an experience of horror.
Beyond the Possible
Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani
Pat: One of the things that’s always worried me about American journalism is the “bad news is good news” rule, which is to say that a fight, robbery, murder, riot, protest, scandal, war or weird event boosts circulation and is therefore “better” than what we used to call “human interest stories,” which are considered soft and boring because they deal with the everydayness of life in a community or neighborhood — and that has no “hard news” value.
I thought of this recently as the media rushed from one police shooting of an African American man to another, without providing wider or deeper coverage. Yes, there are some stories about living with racism and “driving while black” and parents worrying about drug and gang cultures in black communities and so on, but most of these are reported as a quick sidebar so the story can return to its center — that is, outraged black communities always on the verge of terrible violence.
This made me remember a passage from Beyond the Possible, a truly eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.
The book takes us behind the scenes of Glide’s fantastic history, but what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that we see emerging in very different groups of people — and that the authors believe exists in all of us — as they work together.
For example, during the anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery that took place in 1965, the media kept reporting on the horribly brutal treatment by white police on the people who were marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That event of course required coverage, but the missing story was what happened within the African American community to prepare for the next march.
Of course we know that a call went out nationwide for more marchers, and thousands poured in. But people like Cecil were attracted as well to voting rights workers at the ground level, so to speak. He had just been hired the year before by Glide and saw the carnage on the Edmund Pettis Bridge march on television in his office in San Francisco. The next day he got on a plane and flew to Selma, where he knew nobody but found a struggling community of “clergy, teachers, health-care workers, food vendors and organizers working out of dilapidated buildings and with few supplies to sustain the effort until the march got started again.”
A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call for volunteers and contributions, after which he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash to divvy up among the workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.
And then something beautiful and everyday and behind the headlines happened, and this is what I’d like to read here: It’s his recollection of the little-known strategy within these early groups assembling in Selma before the march resumed. They knew the police wanted to stop the second march with more personnel and more brutality, because for one thing, as Cecil recalls,
…the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.
(So) even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get. When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayor’s home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city. About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayor’s wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.
“I’ve got six bullets!” she yelled. “I can take six of you niggers out!” We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayor’s property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didn’t seem to know how to unlock the safety. It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun. Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.
“You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, he’s the last person you’re gonna see.”
They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells — one for women and one for men … We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics. Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.
[The marchers are having too good a time, so the police decide to let them go. But nobody moves.]
We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along. To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance — we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.
“Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here,” the chief deputy said.
“Book us, then!” people called out. “We’re not moving.” As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) we’d tear the place up. Quite the contrary — our message was nonviolent. It said, We’re not going to fight you. We’re going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because that’s who we are, in the face of who you are. Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.
Pat: It’s too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere within diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality — and on celebrity. American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. as a gifted and charismatic leader of his time. But the spirit that really did move mountains and change the law a half-century ago came as well from millions of ancestors of active African Americans whose descendants to face more complex and in some way more volatile issues.
Myn: And I think that message of love and nonviolence that Cecil expresses from the African American community has been repeated just recently when the families of the people killed in the Charleston, South Carolina church faced the suspect after his arrest and said they forgave him. That was a very emotional scene.
[Note to reader: Use of the word “nigger” made our program manager at KWMR a bit nervous, although President Obama had just used it during his interview on Marc Maron’s podcast program, WTF (an acronym that itself is pretty dicey in terms of FTC regulations since it means What the Fuck). We feel that a radio program pulling excerpts from books should follow the author’s lead.]
The Little Drummer Girl
John Le Carre
Alfred A. Knopf
Doris: I have not read John LeCarre before, even though I remember his Smiley books having been so well praised. But they were too difficult for me. Too many characters, their plots too complex. Maybe I’ve grown up in my reading though, because this book, too, published in 1983, has many characters, and many of them have many different pseudonyms. The same character may pretend to be American, Israeli, or German, and the plot here is as intricate as anyone could want. The story is one of Israeli and Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s effort to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group with a young British actress who will lead them to the man who has successfully been planting and exploding bombs, killing various important Israeli targets. Though it was written in the early 80s, it is as current as can be.
The book opens in Germany on a street where many nationalities have their diplomatic residences, and where in just a few minutes, a bomb is about to explode. I’m going to read about a page’s worth, which is a long segment, but it’s so beautifully written, and gives us an idea of the author’s power. He can take all the time he wants in setting the scene. We will not want to hurry through. Every description makes the reader wonder and hope that the characters he paints will be ones we will get to know better. In fact, none of them are.
At twenty-five minutes past eight, the Drosselstrasse in Bad Godesberg had been just another leafy diplomatic backwater, about as far from the political turmoils of Bonn as you could reasonably get while staying within fifteen minutes’ drive of them. It was a new street but mature, with lush secretive gardens, and maids’ quarters over the garages, and Gothic security grilles over the bottle-glass windows. The Rhineland weather for most of the year has the warm wet drip of the jungle; its vegetation, like its diplomatic community, grows almost as fast as the Germans build their roads, and slightly faster than they make their maps. Thus the fronts of some of the houses were already half obscured by dense plantations of conifers, which, if they ever grow to proper size, will presumably one day plunge the whole area into a Grimm’s fairy-tale blackout. These trees turned out to be remarkably effective against blast, and within days of the explosion, one local garden center had made them a speciality….
With so much greenery, the bustle of the commuter traffic from the trunk road barely penetrated. The most audible sound until the explosion was the clamour of birds, including several plump doves that had taken a liking to the Australian Military Attachés mauve wisteria, his pride. A kilometer southward, unseen Rhine barges provided a throbbing, stately hum, but the residents grow deaf to it unless it stops. In short, it was a morning to assure you that whatever calamities you might be reading about in West Germany’s earnest, rather panicky newspapers—depression, inflation, insolvency, unemployment, all the usual and apparently incurable ailments of a massively prosperous capitalist economy—Bad Godesberg was a settled, decent place to be alive in, and Bonn was not half so bad as it is painted.
Depending on nationality and rank, some husbands had already left for work, but diplomats are nothing if not clichés of their kind. A melancholy Scandinavian Counsellor, for example, was still in bed, suffering from a hangover brought on by marital stress. A South American chargé clad in a hairnet and Chinese silk dressing-gown, the prize of a tour in Peking, was leaning out of the window giving shopping instructions to his Filipino chauffeur. The Italian Counsellor was shaving but naked. He like to shave after his bath but before his daily exercises. His wife, fully clothed, was already downstairs remonstrating with an unrepentant daughter for returning home late the night before, a dialogue they enjoyed most mornings of the week. An envoy from the Ivory Coast was speaking on the international telephone, advising his masters of his latest efforts to wring development aid out of an increasingly reluctant German exchequer. When the line went dead, they though he had hung up on them, and sent him an acid telegram enquiring whether he wished to resign. The Israeli Labour Attaché had left more than an hour ago. H was not at ease in Bonn and as best he could he liked to work Jerusalem hours, So it went, with a lot of rather cheap ethnic jokes finding a basis in reality and death.
Doris: The book left this reader almost shaking with the tension it built, page by page. It’s a spy novel and a psychological thriller that combines ideology and morality, a passionate love story, an extremely complex plot, and great characters. A wonderful read.
Pat: The buildup of suspense is even more chilling when we remember that Le Carre wrote this long before 9/11, cell-phone detonations of IEDs or suicide bombers. Today people are trying to go about their business throughout Europe and the Middle East knowing a bomb could go off in their midst at any time. Thanks to Le Carre, ample warning has long been available.
Doris: I never could figure out, though, where the title came from. Did I miss it?
Dancer from the Dance
Pat: The day after the Supreme Court’s decision about gay marriage, an article ran in the New York Times stating that gay people have become so assimilated so quickly, there might be a “twinge of loss” over the fading away of gay bars, gay neighborhoods, gay fashion — in other words, an identifiable gay community.
This reminded me that 30 years ago, when gay life was still in the shadows, very good full-length books were published that documented every step of what was then an outlaw culture — as for example the wildly exuberant gay disco scene that influenced so much popular music of the time (think of Madonna and Bette Midler, for example).
One book that has been referred to as classic novel of the period — some people call it The Gay Gatsby —is Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978. One image from that book that has stayed with me for nearly 30 years takes place when two gay men visit the site of a once popular gay bar on Fire Island that’s now closed.
Here the narrator looks out from the shadows of dusty fixtures to remember the frenzied post-Stonewall crowd dancing the night away, as stoned on their emerging civil rights as on anything alcoholic or chemical on the dance floor. And by the way his mention of “poppers” refers to amyl nitrate capsules that people would break open and sniff when they reached the height of ecstasy so they could extend the high.
The room was plunged into a gray-and-silvery gloom, the mirrors and chrome gleaming in an eerie light. We … sat down at a table and looked at the empty dance floor where we had spent so many sweaty, ecstatic nights in the past. That blond rectangle of polished wood that had seemed to be at one point the aesthetic center of the universe. It was here I had first seen Rick Hafner glistening with sweat like an idol around which people knelt in a drugged confusion, unconsciously adoring his beauty, assuming the pose of supplicants at some shrine. It was here Stanley Farnsworth would stop dancing with the boy he was seducing that night (for they all ended up with Stanley Farnsworth) in the middle of a song to embrace and kiss him with long, deep, searching kisses that gradually immobilized his prey, like the poison [that] sea corals inject into fish, while everyone whirled like dervishes around them, and the air grew stale with the odor of used poppers and we danced in our bare feet on their broken cylinders, as ladies had once danced on rose petals in silver slippers at Tea Dance years ago.
Some critics believe Holleran had a Gatsby-like hedonism in mind when he wrote sections like this, but I don’t remember anything in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as sexually ferocious or thrilling as the author’s image of the beautiful man paralyzing his dance partner with “long, deep, searching kisses that gradually immobilized his prey, like the poison [that] sea corals inject into fish.” I do remember that gay bars on Fire Island referred to afternoon parties as Tea Dances, so Holleran sounds both cynical and innocently dreamlike when he recalls gay men dancing on spent poppers “as ladies had once danced on rose petals in silver slippers at Tea Dance years ago.”
Doris: After reading the Annie Dillard excerpt about the giant water bug paralyzing its prey “with enzymes injected during a vicious bite” so that everything inside the frog is dissolved into a juice and sucked out, I’m stunned by the similarity in language.
Pat: Me, too! Although I think Holleran’s deliberate exaggeration is meant to be somewhat operatic in its imagery. Gay men for centuries had to hide their appreciation of male beauty, and suddenly the disco scene not only allowed but inspired other instincts to come forward. What followed was a huge cultural upheaval, as was seen in stage plays (Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy) and TV series (the British show Queer as Folk) at the time.
Doris: As I remember it — not from personal experience, mind you — amyl nitrate poppers were made of glass, so these revelers must have been delirious if they were dancing in bare feet on the broken cylinders.
Pat: Wow. I bet if he had seen rivulets of blood flowing on the dance floor, Holleran would have had quite a time describing it.
The Children Act
Doris: Fiona Maye is in her late 50s, a High Court judge in London for the Family Division. As such she sees cases that concern the welfare of children, often in situations where a family is splitting up. McEwan describes it this way: “The Family Division teemed with strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths, exotic accusation.”
The book, published in 2014, focuses on a family of Jehovah’s witnesses whose teenage son will surely die of a rare leukemia unless he is provided a transfusion, which both parents, and the young man himself, three months short of his maturity at 18, refuses. The hospital has brought this case to court to attempt to force the family to accept the transfusion, and this is the primary case Fiona must decide.
In the middle of this, however, Fiona’s husband Jack has asked her if she knows how long it has been since they’ve made love. When she doesn’t answer, he says, “I’ll tell you. It’s been seven weeks and a day. Are you honestly content with that?”
Fiona doesn’t answer that question either. And she knows that there is another woman, a young woman, in her late 20s, waiting in the wings. She asks Jack, “Are you already having this affair?… Because if you are I’d like you to pack a bag now and leave.”
Writes McEwan’s third person narrator: “A self-harming move, without premeditation, her rook for his knight, utter folly, and no way back. If he stayed, humiliation; if he left, the abyss.”
Their row accelerates and Jack does leave—though the reader is fairly confident that he has not begun an affair yet. What’s touching about all this is that Jack is asking his wife for permission, and in not responding, she grants it. So now it is the next morning at court, and McEwan writes:
After twenty minutes at her desk she went back across the landing, along a corridor to an alcove housing the coffee machine, with a glass image of hyper-real roasted beans spilling from a beaker, lit from the inside, brown and cream, as vivid in the gloom of the recess as an illuminated manuscript. A cappuccino with an extra shot perhaps two. Better to start drinking it right here, where, undisturbed she could nauseously picture Jack rising about now from an unfamiliar bed to prepare for work, the form beside him half asleep, well served in the small hours, stirring between sticky sheets, murmuring his name, calling him back. On a furious impulse, she pulled out her phone, scrolled through the numbers to their locksmith on the Gray’s Inn Road, gave her four-digit PIN, then instructions for a change of lock. Of course, madam, right away…. New keys to be delivered to the Strand today and nowhere else. Then, proceeding rapidly, hot plastic cup in her free hand, fearful of changing her mind, she called the deputy director of estates, a gruff good-natured fellow, to let him know to expect a locksmith. So, she was bad, and feeling good about being bad. There must be a price for leaving her and here it was, to be in exile, a supplicant to his previous life. She would not permit him the luxury of two addresses.
Coming back along the corridor with her cup, she was already wondering at her ridiculous transgression, obstructing her husband from rightful access one of the clichés of marital breakdown, one that an instructing solicitor would advise a client—generally the wife—against in the absence of a court order. A professional life spent above the affray, advising, then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide.
Doris: This is a very simple book. I read it in a day. Though it outlines several of the kinds of cases that come before Fiona, and weaves religion into her considerations: there’s the Jehovah’s Witness ideology, also a case involving an Orthodox Jewish family, a very Catholic family struggling with life and death issues, and Fiona’s own atheism—her analysis and decision-making is straightforward and easy to parse. Unlike the content of the segment I’ve just read in which complexity lies in the clash of emotions—and there’s much more of this as you keep reading. Here we have nausea, fury, shame, all tied up in a paragraph or two. Still to come is regret, the remembrance of what Fiona loves about Jack, and then again, anger, self-justification, denial. If you’ve ever broken up with a lover, these pages are painfully familiar—and even more stunning because Ian McEwan seems to understand perfectly his female character’s rollercoaster ride.
Pat: Oh dear, Dory, I’m not sure if I agree with you on that part. McEwan’s message seems to be that for all her admirable professionalism, several emotional confrontations are going to open Fiona’s heart and free her from a one-dimensional life, but they may endanger her objectivity as a judge. Had she been a man in this situation, I wonder if he would test her in this way.
Doris: But if Fiona were a man, I don’t think he would experience anywhere near the emotional roller coast that she does.
Myn: That raises the question of men writing in women’s voices. I’m just listening to Little Bee by Chris Cleave—at your suggestion, Pat, after we discussed this novel in Program #7 —and was amazed after listening to a couple of discs when I realized that the author was male. He captures the voices of the women in the immigration detention center so well.
Doris: That’s because he worked in an Immigration Detention Center for many years.
Pat: He did, and the reader can tell, because his portrayal of British women in the novel isn’t at all as thorough. For example, a mother makes a mistake that I could not believe would have happened, given the circumstances he sets up and the characterization he has built so far. The question immediately pops up whether a male novelist as conscientious as Chris Cleave is trying to be has it in him to demonstrate the huge responsibility mothers fulfill every moment of the day simply keeping track of their kids.
[Note: Today we’ve invited our engineer, Myn Adess, to join our conversation, since she’s winced every time The Goldfinch (see below) has been mentioned in our off-air discussions. Dissent is always good for critical discussion, but we welcome her comments on all the selections featured.]
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Doris: I couldn’t not read more than one paragraph on the Bookmobile from this book, winner of the Man Booker Prize last year and a novel that’s haunted me since I read it. This is a book about war and the horror of war, and it’s also a passionate love story.
It’s terribly sad, terrifyingly cruel, but impossible to put down.
[Note for the webpage: I’ve included this part that Doris deleted for the sake of time on the air. It’s just too good to keep out here. Plus the bookstore mentioned reminds me of City Lights Books in San Francisco, where the experience today is very similar to that of this character a half century ago in Adelaide, Australia. — Pat]
Doris: This first passage occurs early in the book, where the main character, Dorrigo Evans, has stopped into a little bookstore in the town of Adelaide, in South Australia, where he’s stationed with the Waradale army, about to be shipped off to World War II. It is late 1940. There’s a poetry reading or magazine launch going on downstairs, and the scene begins this way:
Blocked by the small crowd from browsing, he headed up some bare wooden stairs at the far end of the shop that seemed more promising. The second story was composed of two smaller rear offices, unoccupied, and a large room, also empty of people, floored with wide, rough-sawn boards that ran through to dormer windows that fronted the street. Everywhere were books he could browse; books in teetering piles, books in boxes, second-hand books jammed and leaning at contrary angles like ill-disciplined militia on floor-to-ceiling shelves that ran the length of the far side wall.
It was hot in the room, but it felt to him far less stifling that the poetry reading blow. He pulled out a book here and there, but what kept catching his attention were the diagonal tunnels of sunlight rolling in through the dormer windows. All around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light. He found several shelves full of old editions of classical writers and began vaguely browsing, hoping to find a cheap edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, which he had only ever read in a borrowed copy. It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books—an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.
Pat: It’s rare to find an author who’s so good at every telling detail. Picturing that jammed bookstore with dust motes “quivering in those shafts of roiling light” sent me to a spot near the window of the Strand Book Store in New York, or City Lights Books in San Francisco. I love the idea of second-hand books teetering and “leaning at contrary angles,” which of course they do — they’re full of radical thought, after all. Doesn’t everyone love the idea of “vaguely browsing” in a bookstore? You just want to nab a cheap copy of The Aeneid and find a place to dig in.
Doris: A hundred pages later, Evans is just about to learn that his regiment is soon to be shipped overseas—somewhere in the Pacific; he doesn’t yet know where. But first he receives a phone call:
On Monday morning Dorrigo Evans was about to lead a route march into the Adelaide Hills when he was called to regimental administration to take an urgent call from his family. The office was a large corrugated-iron Nissen hut in which staff officers worked in temperatures unknown outside of bakeries and pottery kilns. The infernal heat was trapped and further stifled by the hut’s partition into unworkable offices delineated by single-sheet Masonite walls painted a grimy mustard. Out of frustration everyone seemed to smoke more, and the air had a haze about it that was only rivaled by its odour—compounded of tobacco smoke, sweat and the stale, ammoniacal scent of overcrowded animals—that left everyone coughing incessantly.
The phone where Dorrigo’s call waited was mounted on a wall opposite the duty officer’s front desk, past which flowed all those seeking to get outside on any pretext. Offsetting this insurmountable lack of privacy was a crazed cacophony of typewriter keys being pounded and typewriter carriages returning, phones ringing, men yelling and coughing, electric fans here and there droning as they hacked the unbearable heat into intolerable hot tufts.
Pat: I see that Flanagan’s book has just this week popped up on national bestseller lists, and no wonder — the writing is so dense and rich. Who does not feel in their bones that “crazed cacophony” of pounding typewriters (how I miss them) or electric fans that “hacked the unbearable heat into intolerable hot tufts.”
Doris: Less than 20 pages later, we are in a POW camp in Thailand, where Evans and 60,000 other men are building the Death Railway, also known as the Burma-Siam Railway, which would link Bankok to Rangoon.
An aspect of this story was told previously in the book and movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, but the horror of Flanagan’s story rivals the worst possible atrocities we’ve seen described anywhere, and this is what Evans, who’s also the camp doctor, must deal with. There are photographs on Wikipedia of some of the starving Australian POWs, and to say they looked like skeletons doesn’t nearly describe these emaciated men. How they continued to work, starving, suffering with cholera, malaria, beri-beri, pellagra, dysentery is impossible to understand.
One by one, Dorrigo Evans examined the strangely aged and shriveled husks, the barked skin, mud-toned and black-shadowed, clutching twisted bones. Bodies, Dorrigo Evans thought, like mangrove roots. And for a moment the whole cholera tent swam in the kerosene flame before him. All he could see was a stinking mangrove swamp full of writhing, moaning mangrove roots, seeking mud forever after to live in. Dorrigo Evans blinked once, twice, worried it might be a hallucination brought on in the early stages of dengue fever. He wiped his running nose with the back of his hand, and got on with it.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a remarkable book, and based on the author’s father’s experience as a POW. I know I’ll never forget it. It’s imprinted now in my mind, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. One warning: if you’re the kind of person who can’t watch very violent movies, don’t read it.
Pat: I’m not sure The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It’s way too long (771 pages), and the pace mires down way too often. Early promises aren’t fulfilled, the characters are more adored than developed, and parts of the narrative turn preachy and patronizing.
Yet I loved the reading of it for the most part. Observations and insights are so rich that I don’t really care what the story is about, especially when it comes to themes about art and the flow of people’s lives around art objects.
Take the narrator’s mother, a self-taught art buff who’s rushing Theo, her 13-year-old son, through an exhibit of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters — ripeness sliding into rot,” she says gaily as they move toward the Rembrandt painting at the heart of the show, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, where doctors of the 17th century watch a surgeon operate on a dead man’s arm.
Theo has viewed this image on the exhibit poster so many times that he now sees only “the same old corpse with the flayed arm,” but his mother reveals much more as they slow down before it.
The men in the painting are “very naturalistic,” she says. “But then — she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger — “the body isn’t painted in a very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it — make it jump out at us.”
The novel itself never shows us a picture of anything, but we end up sharing her fascination with the flayed arm because Tartt articulates the mother’s excitement about it so perfectly.
“See how (the artist) calls attention to the flayed arm by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand — we see it immediately, something very wrong — but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”
Okay, a trick, but why would the artist do that? we wonder, waiting for Theo to ask this very question. He doesn’t get a chance because his mother moves on to The Goldfinch of the novel’s title where we see this tiny yellow finch “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”
It doesn’t register at first, but that small looping chain and that “twig of an ankle” will return to our memory in a subliminal way for the next 700 pages. In fact I would say that “subliminal” is the key to this novel. Big, violent, physical things happen; hearts are broken; deaths occur, but the mind can’t take it all in, not directly.
But we see how deeply the world before us is affected when, for example, Theo walks down a positively vibrant Lexington Avenue in a deeply morbid sense of mind, and this is all he sees:
… weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like a stone.
Tartt doesn’t allow many lengthy sentences in The Goldfinch and seems to dismiss stream-of-consciousness as cheap, so this passage is a rare surprise. It’s risky and wordy and malaise-ridden — and for some readers who’ve felt the way Theo does, incredibly true.
Doris: I have to say that I loved about half this book. It’s hugely readable. But at a certain point I was worn out. It may have been Boris, the Russian character, who did me in, or maybe the book was just too long—though I mostly love long books if they’re well done, dramatic, suspenseful, colorful, as this one is for the first half. If I’m really enjoying a book, I hate for it to end. But I flagged with this one. I don’t even think Myn got half-way through…
Myn: I got about 400 pages into it and then gave up. It just went on and on and on, I felt I was drowning as the author indulged her every fantasy and digression.
Pat: Just goes to show you how subjective fiction can be.
Doris: First, let me list the many accolades critics have given this novel. I don’t understand why they did, or what they were thinking, but here they are:
New York Times Notable book of 2014,
Christian Science Monitor Top 10 books of 2014
People Top Ten of 2014
NPR Best Books of 2014
Washington Post Top Fiction Books of 2014
Shortlisted for the Costa Book Award
This novel, set in Ireland in the late 1960s, is the story of Nora Webster, whose beloved husband has just died, leaving her financially vulnerable in her 40s, with four children, ages from 10 to 18. She immediately sells the family’s country cottage, but that’s not going to be enough, and she considers going back to work in the office of the Gibney flour mill, where she had worked more than 20 years earlier.
For eleven years…Nora had worked five and a half days a week in Gibney’s barely tolerating her mother at home and at work operating with an efficiency that was still remembered. In the years when she was married and had children she had never dreamed that she would have to go back; the job there seemed like the distant past. She had only one friend from that time, and she, too, had married well; she and her husband had moved away. Both Nora and her friend viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.
She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom, once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street and Vinegar Hill across the valley or the clouds in the sky, letting her mind be idle, gong back to the kitchen, or to attend to the children when they came home from school but as part of a life of ease which included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her. Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her. Her only hope was that the Gibneys, when they met her, would not, in fact, have a job for her. Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged. She knew though that she would not be able to turn the Gibney’s down if they offered her something. Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.
Doris: That’s about as exciting as this book gets. This author’s way of moving the story along is as subtle and slow as I’ve ever read. Over the course of 375 pages, we watch Nora move from the flattest grief to a kind of acceptance that is equally flat. There’s little more to the book than this. Politics enter in, but basically this is one long character study, and the character is extremely bland.
I looked at several reviews of this book, trying to discover why it is so revered, and found this comment from Tessa Hadley of the Guardian: “Nothing could be plainer than this prose, whose plainness is familiar from the rest of Toíbín’s writing. Someone said to me once – not uncritically – that reading Toíbín was like drinking a glass of water.”
So I’ve brought you this mini-review in case you like books that read like a glass of water. My preference is for books that get my heart pounding, that move me, or surprise me, or keep me guessing.
Pat: Sometimes a plain glass of water can be a refreshing experience, but I see what you mean. The excerpt you read doesn’t sound like previous Colm Toibin books, such as The Master, which is also very slow and focused on the mind’s interior, but syrupy and delicious in that way of Henry James, on whom it’s based, after all. The Nora Webster excerpt I bet is meant to be a bit vinegary by comparison. It’s set at the end of the 1960s and might be an homage to prefeminist days when staying at home to raise four kids can now be acknowledged, at least by this author, as the full-time job mothers know it is. In a big family, everybody wants a piece of Mom, and she spreads herself as thin as possible, so the result may be that when the kids are in school and there’s peace in the house, just a walk into the front room to look out the window has a freedom all its own. I’d like to know more about her …
Doris: Well, you never get to! That’s part of the problem. We’re not even able to see Nora Webster. She colors her hair at one point, so we know she’s brunette, but that’s about all we learn of what she looks like. And she is the opposite of expressive. She doesn’t feel comfortable showing her feelings, nor is she comfortable prying into how other people, including her children, might be feeling.
Pat: It could be that this is one of Toibin’s lesser novels, but he’s written seven, most of them astonishingly good, and critics do fall into that bandwagon syndrome of praising someone for so long that they’ll never say a negative word about anything. If he’s being given a free ride on former acclaim, that’s not good.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Pat: When I was little, I used to sneak up behind my father while he read the newspaper so I could watch what happened when his eyes met the page. The letters in front of him made no sense to me, and I thought whatever he did to decode the mystery would be visible if I got close enough.
Of course as soon as he sensed me lurking, his eyes left the text and broke the connection as he turned around to ask what I was doing. But again, when I asked him to go back to the article and read it aloud for me, I couldn’t figure how squiggles on the paper became the sentences coming out of his mouth.
The whole reading thing had to be magical. Or it was a big trick.
Well, I wish my dad had been reading a novel like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, because then, if I asked, How does reading work, exactly? he could have pointed to a brief passage that explains all.
In this scene, a baby named Edgar is lying quietly in his crib, suddenly aware of the new family dog, a curious little puppy named Almondine, approaching. From previous paragraphs, we’ve learned so far that Edgar’s crib is near a window with lacy, billowing curtains and that he’s lying under a cotton quilt that’s illustrated with farmyard animals. We start with the baby’s awareness of the dog approaching, but soon the point of view will switch to the puppy, alternate referred to as “it” or “her.”
Lazy toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.
The nose quivers. The velvet snout dimples.
All the house is quiet. Be still. Stay still.
Fine, dark muzzle fur. Black nose, leather of lacework creases, comma of nostrils flexing with each breath. A breeze shushes up the field and pillows the curtains inward…As slowly as he can, (the baby) exhales, feigning sleep, but despite himself his breath hitches. At once, the muzzle knows he is awake. It snorts. Angles right and left. Withdraws…comes hunting…tunnels beneath his blanket, below the farmers and pigs and chicks and cows dyed into that cotton world.
His hand rises on fingers and spider-walks across the surprised farmyard residents to challenge the intruder. It becomes a bird, hovering before their eyes. Thumb and index finger squeeze the crinkled black nose. The pink of her tongue darts out but the bird flies away …
[H]e forgets and presses his face against the rails to see her, all of her, take her inside him with his eyes, and before he can move, she smears her tongue across his nose and forehead! He claps a hand to his face but it’s too late – she’s away, spinning, biting her tail, dancing in the moted sunlight that spills through the window glass.
Doris: Well, I was transported to that room and loved the writing until, I’m afraid, the author uses the word “spider-walks,” as though a baby that young knows what the word means, let alone decides to move his index finger and thumb across the bedcover to sneak up on the dog’s nose. Babies don’t have that kind of manual dexterity. They can slap or grab or clutch, but spider-walking is going way too far.
Pat: Right, but this is the author’s challenge. He’s going to shift point-of-view not only between baby and dog, but between both of them and us, the readers. For example, the baby doesn’t know his hand looks like a “hovering bird,” or that the farm animals on the cotton quilt will be “surprised,” or that his fingers might resemble the way a spider walks. Those references are for readers to enjoy, as though we are the baby. And we can be when the author writes like this! If the dog’s muzzle is stretched on either side because she’s pushing between the slats of the crib, that “ridiculous grin” is for us to savor, because we have the imagination for it, and somehow, in the magic of reading, we’re in the author’s head as well.
Simon & Schuster
Doris: On the back cover of this book, a warning appears:
We don’t want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK. It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don’t want to spoil it. NEVERTHELESS, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there…
Once you have read it you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.
It’s a pretty self-serving statement, but actually fairly accurate—so I won’t give too much away in my comments. The book opens with the release of several young African girls from a detention center outside London. The girls stand in line waiting to phone for a taxi to take them away. The first girl to reach the phone is stymied when asked where she is, and our heroine, whose name is Little Bee, tells her:
The name of this place is the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre. The girl stared at me. Yu kiddin wid me, she said. What kine of a name is dat? So I pointed at the little metal plate that was screwed on the wall above the telephone. The girl looked at it and then she looked back to me and she said, Sorry darling, I can not ridd it. So I read it out to her, and I pointed to the words one at a time. BLACK HILL IMMIGRATION REMOVAL CENTRE, HIGH EASTER, CHELMSFORD, ESSEX. Thank you precious, the first girl said, and she lifted up the telephone receiver.
She said into the receiver: All right now listen mister, the place I is right now is called Black Hill Immigration Removal. Then she said, No, please, wait. Then she looked sad and she put the telephone receiver back down on the telephone. I said, What is wrong? The first girl sighed and she said, Taxi man say he no pick up from dis place. Then he say, You people are scum. You know dis word?
I said no, because I did not know for sure, so I took my Collins Gem Pocket English Dictionary out of my see-through bag and I looked up the word. I said to the first girl, You are a film of impurities or vegetation that can form on the surface of a liquid. She looked at me and I looked at her and we giggled because we did not understand what to do with the information. This was always my trouble when I was learning to speak your language.
Pat: I think Little Bee has a significant audience in Young Adult readers, which may be the reason for that very personal challenge on the back cover. In any case it’s lively and direct and fun approach to calling in readers, and I hope publishers make more use of it for adult and younger readers alike.
Doris: I chose this segment to read because the character Little Bee is so charming and her voice so particular. While in detention, she learned English and learned how to read, all in an effort to succeed in Great Britain. But hers isn’t the only voice in this book. Chapters alternate between Little Bee’s point of view and story, and the story of a British magazine writer named Sarah. Sarah and her husband have taken a vacation to Nigeria—it was a free trip, offered in an effort to encourage tourism, even though there was great conflict over oil in the Niger Delta at the time, with whole villages being turned into oil fields, and village inhabitants being murdered. Little Bee’s village was one of these.
The novel examines the treatment of refugees by the asylum system, as well as issues of British colonialism, globalization, political violence and personal accountability. It’s a frightening, fast paced, shocking, and wonderful book, with surprises at every turn. The opposite of Nora Webster.
Pat: I listened to the recording of Little Bee a few years ago and remember how effortlessly the reader shifted her voice among British, Nigerian and other accents to expose just the right tone of playfulness, anger, desperation, entitlement or gruffness in each character. I remember questioning several characters’ decisions, so to me it’s a book with credibility problems, but the listening experience almost made up for it.
Myn: I like to listen to audiobooks. They carry me along if I have a long—or even a short—drive. But the act of listening is different from the act of reading—something about the brain, I think—so I will often get the physical book and dip into it from time to time, to get that other sensory experience. Also, I often want to flip back in a physical book to remember a name or an event, which is hard to do with an audio book, or with reading a book on a device, I imagine.
from Death on a High Floor
Thomas & Mercer
Pat: I’m always looking for reasons behind the “publishing revolution,” that Internet phenomenon that’s drying up print businesses like traditional newspapers and book publishers. As we know, the technology of personal computers long ago inspired millions to leave the paper scene and create their own blogs, websites, podcasts, e-books, and social media identities by the million.
But what interests me is the outrage and resentment that continues to fuel this revolution. In earlier programs we’ve looked at authors like Brooke Shields and Iyanla Vanzant, who, perhaps because they’re celebrities openly criticize what they see as self-serving media titans and book publishers who shut out, exploit or dismiss the very public they’re supposed to serve.
In a humorous way, a corollary concern has emerged called “The Blob,” as seen in a courtroom thriller called Death on a High Floor by Charles Rosenberg. It’s another example of an aspect of the media that was once respected — well, maybe feared more than respected –but whose every appearance proves silly and annoying.
“The Blob” is the hero’s name for that familiar cluster of crazed reporters and photographers usually seen rushing alongside some famous individual. Of course you never see The Blob without its many microphones, cameras, radio booms and video cams sticking out every which way as the reporters wildly shout out questions and drown in their own frenzy.
In this novel, Robert, the senior partner of a prestigious law firm, has become a high-profile murder suspect, so he is surrounded by The Blob wherever he goes. At his home, Robert realizes these journalists and TV crews have brought their vans and plumbing and kitchen supplies, so they’re going to be camping outside for some time. That’s why he begins to matter-of-factly refer to them in the collective: The Blob, surrounding him, seems to have a personality and needs of its own.
For example, Robert learns that he can keep The Blob quieter if he “feeds” it with a more-or-less regular diet of delicious fare — news items, press conferences, photo ops and at least a few rumors tossed out now and again. Soon he gets accustomed to living with the Blob always outside, its daily mutterings and murmurings kind of comforting, despite its tendency toward frenzy and panic if he happens to walk a little too fast, or answer his cellphone without telling them who’s calling.
Rosenberg keeps turning up the humor as this aspect of great American media begins to resemble the family dog. It’s as though each time Robert goes out, he wonders, Has The Blob been fed today? If not, they’ll never let him get the car out of the garage. It’s like living with a feral but strangely respectful monster. If you don’t make it mad or feed it too much of the wrong thing, The Blob will let you live.
Reading this novel, I remembered that security guard in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic whom The Blob accused of planting a bomb. This was real life, so it wasn’t funny. First celebrated as hero, then suspect, then terrorist, he never learned how to manipulate The Blob to his benefit. Instead he had to endure the now-famous “trial by media,” and lost everything.
Just recently I noticed a reference to The Blob in a novel called The People in the Trees (Anchor) by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor), in which reporters outside the home of a notorious suspect are observed “eating and chatting in the buzzy, insect-thick summer air as if at a picnic.”
The point is that if you wonder why the “publishing revolution” continues to be fueled by outrage and distrust toward traditional media, one reason is The Blob. Today many — maybe most — movies, books, TV shows and magazines portray harried clusters of reporters as some kind of truth-seeking device that ends up reporting on facts they can verify and events they can prove.
But we, the readers and viewers, know this group is just a Blob! It hires out, and it will say or do anything to increase its audience. This means it will always sensationalize events and celebrate scandal at at the expense of legitimate news.
I also think The Blob is the reason people increasingly turn to social media. Sure, you have scroll past your friends’ testimonials to ham sandwiches and cute cat photos, but that’s worth it if you can find news recommendations from people you trust. And you always do.
Doris: I don’t know, Pat. Doesn’t assuaging the Blob take something more than most of us have? The fellow who was wrongfully accused of planting the bomb in Atlanta wasn’t media savvy, and sadly he was a sort of nerdy fellow. He didn’t have a chance against those cameras and reporters. Maybe the fictional senior partner in a prestigious law firm could pull it off, maybe a celebrity like Brooke Shields or Iyanla Vanzant can score some points against it, or if not, at least keep it fed, but the rest of us would be taking our lives in our hands to even step outside. I think of Princess Diana, devoured by The Blob, in spite of all she fed them.
Pat: Absolutely true. I remember that documentary showing Princess Diana trying to walk across through an airport against a phalanx of reporters who would not get out of her way. She had to put her head down like a bull to push through, and there was nothing humorous about it. Of course they didn’t even call themselves reporters, now that I think of it. They were paparazzi insisting she give them something — a quote or a pose they could sell — because they thought it was their job to stop her until she obeyed. I remember wondering why nobody protected Princess Diana from such attackers but I guess all we can hope for now is that Princess Diana and the Atlanta security guard were early victims. Today, if these recent novels are an indication, an art has emerged in the strategic leaking of news to keep The Blob at bay.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #6, June 3, 2015
W. W. Norton
Doris: This wonderful nonfiction book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 2011. It’s the story of Poggio Bracciolini’s quest for a lost manuscript, a long poem consisting of six books called On the Nature of Things, composed by the Latin scholar Lucretius in 55 B.C.
It is the thesis of Stephen Greenblatt and others that this extraordinary text changed history, caused the understanding of the universe to shift, or swerve, from the early Roman theory of divinity having created life and directing it to the theory of Epicurean physics, that science, or natural causes are at the heart of things. On the Nature of Things is considered the first humanist document.
I’m not a great nonfiction reader, but this book is written so much like a novel, with vivid characters, mystery, a real plot, a great deal of tension—really the only thing missing is dialog—I was completely taken in by it. (One reviewer called it “An intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller.” [Boston Globe—The DaVinci Code] But I think it’s an insult to compare The Swerve to that awful book.)
Here is a perfect scene-setting paragraph:
In the winter of 1417, Poggio Bracciolini rode through the wooded hills and valleys of southern Germany toward his destination, a monastery reputed to have a cache of old manuscripts. As must have been immediately apparent to the villagers looking out at him from the doors of their huts, the man was a stranger. Slight of build and clean-shaven, he would probably have been modestly dressed in a well-made but simple tunic and cloak. That he was not country-bred was clear, and yet he did not resemble any of the city and court dwellers whom the locals would have been accustomed to glimpse from time to time. Unarmed and unprotected by a clanging suit of armor, he was certainly not a Teutonic knight—one stout blow from a raw-boned yokel’s club would have easily felled him. Though he did not seem to be poor, he had none of the familiar signs of wealth and status: he was not a courtier, with gorgeous clothes and perfumed hair worn in long lovelocks, nor was he a nobleman out hunting and hawking. And, was plain from his clothes and the cut of his hair, he was not a priest or a monk.
Pat: It’s astounding to see how much information about class and culture one could gather from a “simple tunic and cloak.” Everybody instantly deduces what the stranger isn’t — neither a poor nor wealthy traveler, nor a city dweller, hunter, knight, courtier, nobleman or priest. But it’s the fun of noticing details that are pertinent like “perfumed hair worn in long lovelocks” and the “raw-boned yokel’s club” that make this paragraph so vivid.
Doris: This paragraph is the opening of Chapter One, after a Preface that tells the reader how Stephen Greenblatt got interested in this story. I find the first paragraphs of many books to be ideal for our program because they don’t require anything of the reader other than to jump in. No knowledge is needed of what comes before the first paragraph. And this one, which gives us a sense of how our main character looked, compared to how others of different status would look during this time, gives us a sense of the period.
So we have a stranger, who would arouse the curiosity of those who saw him, and who has aroused our own curiosity. What manuscript is it that Poggia Bracciolini is looking for in the monastery he is approaching?
The volumes that Romans piled up in their libraries were smaller than most modern books: they were for the most part written on scrolls of papyrus. … Rolls of papyrus—the plant from which we get our word “paper”—were produced from tall reeds that grew in the marshy delta region of the Nile in Lower Egypt. The reeds were harvested; their stalks cut open and sliced into very thin strips. The strips were laid side by side, slightly overlapping one another; another layer was placed on top, at right angles to the one below; and then the sheet was gently pounded with a mallet. The natural sap that was released allowed the fibers to adhere smoothly to each other, and the individual sheets were then glued into rolls. … Wooden sticks attached to one or both of the ends of the roll and slightly projecting from the top and bottom edges, made it easier to scroll through as one read along: to read a book in the ancient worlds was to unwind it.
Doris: Later, when there was very little papyrus left, animal skins were used to write on, and the first pages were given over to be tables of contents. This made finding a particular page much easier. It’s only now in the age of computers that we scroll again.
And by the way, it turns out that our word “volume” comes from the Latin word for “a thing that is rolled up,” volumen. Greenblatt adds,
(The first sheet, on which the contents of the roll could be noted, was called in Greek the protokollon, literally, “first glued”—the origin of our world “protocol.”) The Romans called the stick attached to the roll the umbilicus, and to read a book cover-to-cover was “to unroll to the umbilicus.”
Pat: Umbilicus as a “stick”? The first image that comes to my mind is the umbilical cord attaching the foetus to the uterus. But I see by the dictionary’s third definition that “umbilical” can refer to “a pipe, cable, etc.,” anything that connects “someone or something to a source of essential supplies.” I remember seeing a motion picture scene showing a library made up of cubbyholes containing rolls of papyrus — the “essential supplies” of information wrapped around those sturdy sticks, so “umbilicus” makes sense.
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams
Pat: Today we see a lot of memoirs such as H is For Hawk, which you featured a few programs ago, Doris, in which a personal story takes us into the natural world to examine environmental crises with a new lens.
Refuge, a classic in this field since its publication in 1991, is about the spring of 1983 when the Great Salt Lake was rising to unprecedented levels, threatening devastation of highways and towns and bird refuges all around it.
Terry Tempest Williams, a scientist working at the Utah Museum of Natural History, describes engineers hurrying to find a way to “harness” the lake by staunching, bombing, digging, covering, even dying its waters (certain colors evaporate faster). At the same time Terry’s mother, suffering from Stage III ovarian cancer, is promised a variety of medical treatments that sound similar, since they’re aimed at poisoning, radiating, or cutting out the enemy tissue.
Between the scientists and her family of devout Mormons who pray for a cure, Terry’s mother believes they’re all missing the point. Then Terry begins see the surrounding landscape as the mother body, and something clicks into place. She writes:
What is it about the relationship of a mother that can heal or hurt us? Her womb is the first landscape we inhabit. It is here we learn to respond — to move, to listen, to be nourished and grow. In her body we grow to be human as our tails disappear and our gills turn to lungs. Our maternal environment is perfectly safe — dark, warm, and wet. It is a residency inside the Feminine.
When we outgrow our mother’s body, our cramps become her own. We move. She labors. Our body turns upside down in hers as we journey through the birth canal. She pushes in pain. We emerge, a head. She pushes one more time, and we slide out like a fish. Slapped on the back by the doctor, we breathe. The umbilical cord is cut — not at our request. Separation is immediate. A mother reclaims her body, for her own life. Not ours. Minutes old, our first death is our own birth.
Doris: I’m pretty sure I read Refuge when it came out but not sure of timing — Terry Tempest Williams has been to West Marin a few times, and one of them back in the ’80s when the book was published. I have to admit the paragraph you read is a little graphic for me….
Pat: Yes, I noticed while I was reading you looked a little pained. But so much happens in Refuge: A family’s story with several strange and surprising twists; thoughts about Morman and feminist thought mixing together (not quietly); the calm wisdom as well as ferocious anger of the author; and the everyday cycles of birds, described with rare you-are-there eloquence. I was deeply and frequently affect by Terry Tempest Williams’ attempt to understand the process of death as part of our own nature, and our nature as part of a vast wild we can never control.
When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death …. We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us …. I want to see the lake as Woman, as myself, in her refusal to be tamed. The State of Utah may try to dike her, divert her waters, build roads across her shores, but ultimately, it won’t matter. She will survive us. I recognize her as a wilderness, raw and self-defined.
Pat: Refuge teaches us that other options exist than finding a “cure” or a “fix” for environmental crises like California’s drought. It’s true that cutting back on water consumption is something we should all do, but afterward, will we go back to a life of overusing and polluting our resources? Or will we stop thinking our job is to control the environment and listen harder to what the environment can tell to us?
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (hardcover); Picador (paperback)
Doris: Caliope Stephanides [Steph-an’-i-dees] narrates the story of Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. This passage begins before she is conceived, when her father presents her mother with a basil thermometer, in an effort to predict her ovulation and guarantee a girl child. The mother is offended by the science of the time, not by the idea of a girl, which she wants as much as he does.
Mother hands the thermometer, which she has not used, back to the father, and he says:
“Okay…. Fine. Suit yourself. We may get another boy. Number two. If that’s the way you want it, that’s the way it’ll be.”
“I’m not so sure we’re going to have anything at the moment,” replied my mother.
Meanwhile, in the greenroom to the world, I waited. Not even a gleam in my father’s eye yet (he was staring gloomily at the thermometer case in his lap). Now my mother gets up from the so-called love seat. She heads for the stairway, holding a hand to her forehead, and the likelihood of my ever coming to be seems more and more remote. Now my father gets up to make his rounds, turning out lights, locking doors. As he climbs the stairway, there’s hope for me again. The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection. My conception was still weeks away, but already my parents had begun their slow collision into each other. In our upstairs hallway, the Acropolis night-light is burning, a gift from Jackie Halas, who owns a souvenir shop. My mother is at her vanity when my father enters the bedroom. With two fingers she rubs Noxzema into her face, wiping it off with a tissue. My father had only to say an affectionate word and she would have forgiven him. Not me but somebody like me might have been made that night. An infinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold, me among them but with no guaranteed ticket, the hours moving slowly, the planets in the heavens circling at their usual pace, weather coming into it, too, because my mother was afraid of thunderstorms and would have cuddled against my father had it rained that night. But, no, clear skies held out, as did my parents’ stubbornness. The bedroom light went out. They stayed on their own sides of the bed. At last, from my Mother, “Night.” and from my father, “See you in the morning.” The moments that led up to me fell into place as though decreed. Which, I guess, is why I think about them so much.
Doris: I had forgotten all about this terrific book, an immigrant family saga spanning three generations, which seems even more interesting and engaging now that gender identity issues are so much more easily talked about than more than a decade ago. It’s based on a memoir entitled Herculine Barbin, the diary of a 19th century French convent schoolgirl.
It was very hard to pick out just one paragraph for today’s show, because any paragraph from this book is rich, visual, real. No fancy language. Do you remember Noxema? I can picture my mother applying it before bedtime.
Pat: We won’t give anything away (it comes out early in the novel) that Calliope is born with male and female sex organs, so she’s regarded as “intersex” or as the title indicates, “middlesex” at birth, and that things change at puberty when she becomes Cal, a male person. The author uses this story as a way to think deeply about, poke fun at, clarify and mess around with our confusion about sex vs. gender (or is it the other way around). Eugenides is also master at historical fiction. I read this book years ago and remember being riveted by events like the fall of Smyrna, which nobody teaches in school but you’ll never forget when Cal’s grandparents barely escape it.
Peace from Broken Pieces
SB Books/Hay House
Pat: I first discovered Iyanla Vanzant in the ’90s through tape recordings of talks she was giving to African American audiences in what sounded like packed churches across the country. She was inspirational, funny, mesmerizing and compassionate.
So of course Oprah Winfrey discovered Iyanla, who wow’d audiences as a great crossover guest: wonderfully African American in her sense of humor and her prayers and her ebullience and empathy, and like Oprah a charismatic figure with a fantastic way of relating and helping people stand up for themselves.
So of course Barbara Walters also discovered Iyanla and, representing Disney’s Buena Vista production company, offered her own show, to be produced by Walters’ partner Bill Geddie (The View). Iyanla knew this would mean leaving Oprah, who felt she wasn’t ready for her own show. In her confusion Iyanla told Oprah about the Barbara Walters offer and asked Oprah’s advice which was a big mistake. Oprah thought she was being played and ended their relationship.
To make a long story short, Iyanla accepted the Walters deal and moved to New York, where everything about her life turned grand: “I had an assistant, a hairdresser, a make-up artist, an apartment and a chauffeur-driven car on call,” she writes.
And because her salary was huge, she bought a million-dollar building to create her long-hoped-for spiritual center. At that point she needed big-time entertainment lawyers and accountants but didn’t know it. “I had a millionaire budget and a welfare mentality,” she tells us.
In any case, here again we come to the roots of the kind of corporate arrogance and media bullying that I think has brought about the “publishing revolution” on the Internet we’ve discussed earlier. The deal was that Iyanla would have her own office, hire her own producers, select her own guests and generally just be Iyanla. None of that happened.
I’ve done a bit of thinning and rearranging to bring this part of the story down to four paragraphs, but certain things I wouldn’t touch, such as Iyanla’s characteristic and to me charming outburst (in italics) when shocked. Here’s what happened:
The six producers had been hired before I arrived and several could not pronounce my name, while only one of the six had ever read one of my books. Somebody shut the front door! This show was supposed to be based on my books. .. Bill Geddie’s best idea always won over. My job was to read the teleprompter to deliver the message.
I was constantly reminded that daytime television was geared for housewives in Middle America … they wanted to see makeovers, learn about parenting issues and have their secret questions about relationships answered. ..We would not be showing my books on television — people might think I was being too black.
“Please trust my instincts.” I said to Bill Geddie. Standing over me, cigar in hand, he whispered in the hissing way he had: “That’s just it. I don’t trust your instincts. They seem sort of off to me.” A decision was made to hire actors to fill the audience … it was necessary to diversify the audience, because my core audience was black. … At a meeting Bill said he didn’t like the expert guests I had chosen. “They are boring, and they sound like you with all of their psychobabble. We need to get somebody else, that’s it. “
I said, “Bill, this really isn’t about what you want, it’s about what works for the show. I think this team of experts works, and I want to move forward with them.” Bill leaned over me, all six feet, four inches of him, and hissed: “Let me tell you how this works. I am the executive producer. I am the one who gets to say who and what goes on this show, and I am saying that we don’t want them back.” Looking up into the face of the large white male leaning over me as he sputtered his command, I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I can now identify it as a Middle Passage experience. It was a fight for survival. This was another man using his size and position to bully me into doing what he wanted me to do.
Doris: You want to hug her for gettin gup the courage to talk back to him this way. But what does she mean by a “Middle Passage experience”?
Pat: The term “Middle Passage” refers to that aspect of the slave trade in which kidnapped Africans were crammed into ships that brought them to the New World where they would be sold as slaves. Conditions on those ships were so horrible that many died along the way.
But Iyanla, too, is talking about her “Middle Passage experience,” meaning she had survived her own horrors in childhood which are explained in the book and that made her vulnerable to a man like Geddie when he leaned over her chair to explain “how this works” So the narrative here is not the kind of building outrage we found with Brooke Shields a few weeks ago when she felt manipulated by the New York Times.
Iyanla is more angry with herself for not confronting the likes of Bill Geddie, but finally, when she does, the price is way too high: Her show is canceled, the building she purchased for a spiritual center is lost, her book contracts and her lecture tour are terminated; even her husband of many years leaves her for separate but connected reasons.
Eventually Iyanla declares bankruptcy. Her fantastic daughter Gemmia, whom readers have met as a very savvy production manager, booker, administrator and adviser for Iyanla, dies of colon cancer. The book follows the author to the absolute bottom, during which, by the way, she has the capacity to be humorous and upbeat, even when she considers suicide and stays in bed for 6 months.
Then Oprah, in a stunning act of reconciliation reaches out and brings Iyanla back into her fold, the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), where Iyanla does get her own show, does make all the decisions, does stay as black as she wants to be. And this show, Iyanla: Fix My Life, turns out to have the highest ratings OWN has drawn.
(You can see Oprah’s poignant, sometimes angry, often funny interview with Iyanla about all of this on YouTube.)
All to say this is what I mean about finding the origins of the “publishing revolution” in surprising places. Peace from Broken Pieces is a very personal story, but along the way Iyanla gives us a rare glimpse of that inbred, corporate-owned media tyranny run by power-obsessed people who’ll do anything to keep out anybody who’s different, who thinks independently, who has separate experiences from those in the white mainstream.
For some reason all these power obsessed people all remind me of Dick Cheney. The blood boils as we see what they get away with, not only with Iyanla but so many programs aimed at women. How dare they infantilize the audience that way? Granted, it’s TV, and that’s what TV does, but perhaps this is the point. No wonder people are leaving in droves to find their own way online.
Doris: This is why I don’t watch commercial television any more. You’re brave to do it.
The Buddha in the Attic
Doris: This book, the PEN/Faulkner Award winner for 2011, describes the lives of a boatload of Japanese “picture brides” in the 1920s who travel in steerage to San Francisco. The book is written in the first-person plural. It begins, “On the boat we were mostly virgins….” And almost every paragraph in Part One of the book begins “On the boat…” or with a variation, like this one:
Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kogoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not then know it. The youngest of us was twelve, and from the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, and had not yet begun to bleed. My parents married me off for the betrothal money. The oldest of us was thirty-seven, and from Niigata, and had spent her entire life taking care of her invalid father, whose recent death made her both happy and sad. I knew I could marry only if he died….
On the boat we often stood on the deck for hours with the wind in our hair, watching the other passengers go by…. [One was] a tall, ruddy Englishman named Charles, who appeared at the railing every afternoon at quarter past three and walked several brisk lengths of the deck. Charles was traveling in first class, and had dark green eyes and a sharp, pointy nose, and spoke perfect Japanese, and was the first white person many of us had ever seen. He was a professor of foreign languages at the university in Osaka, and had a Japanese wife, and a child, and had been to America many times, and was endlessly patient with our questions. Was it true that Americans had a strong animal odor? (Charles laughed and said, “Well, do I?” and let us lean in close for a sniff.) And just how hairy were they? (“About as hairy as I am,” Charles replied, and then he rolled up his sleeves to show us his arms, which were covered with dark brown hairs that made us shiver.) And did they really grow hair on their chests? (Charles blushed and said he could not show us his chest, and we blushed and explained that we had not asked him to.) And were there still savage tribes of Red Indians wandering all over the prairies? (Charles told us that all the Red Indians had been taken away, and we breathed a sigh of relief.) And was it true that the women in America did not have to kneel down before their husbands or cover their mouths when they laughed? (Charles stared at a passing ship on the horizon and then sighed and said, “Sadly, yes.”)
Doris: This novel is really quite extraordinary, first for being written in the first person plural, which makes every woman’s story every other woman’s. The effect is of a chorus, which makes the story seem like a stage play. It’s a very small book—130 pages— but so rich in the collective that it feels like a much longer book.
There are eight chapters that take the reader from the Japanese women’s arrival to the first night with their husbands, to how they understand/or don’t understand their Caucasian bosses, to their giving birth, raising children, being called traitors, taken away to Internment camps before World War II, and then simply being gone. And each of these segments is written in the same style as in Part One. So the chapter called Babies reads: “We gave birth secretly, in the woods…; We gave birth in a boardinghouse in Petaluma…; We gave birth with the help of the foreman’s wife…; We gave birth during the Year of the Monkey…; during the Year of the Rooster…, during the Year of the Dog and the Dragon and the Rat….”
Pat: I love the idea of this rhythmic, fluid narrative kind of washing over us in an eloquent plural voice, as you say, because it sounds like history moving in waves, carrying people along in categories, for better or worse. And what you read in this excerpt presents a poetically repetitive style that’s very affecting, even in the questions the brides ask the English character named Charles. But I wonder how the author sustains this collective “we” without the story turning plodding or lecturish. Even in a short novel, that could become a huge problem, but I bet Otsuka never lets the style turn rigid or overly formal in that way.
Doris: I know what you mean. The same construction throughout could be tedious—but in this book it never is. It’s almost magic. You get a sense of a whole population of women—it never seems repetitive because each woman’s experience is her own, and finally ours.
Pat: I’m not a big fan of sports, but I love reading New York Times sportswriters because they bring a certain eloquence to the way balls are thrown or struck and a poetic sensibility to athletic competition.
So it is, too, with British novelist Ian McEwan, who in the midst of his masterful novel, Saturday, about a gifted neurosurgeon named Henry Perown, pauses for a game of squash between Henry and with his friend and colleague, an anesthesiologist named Jay Strauss.
But what could have been a few paragraphs extends to a very dense eight pages of this squash game, described as explicitly as surgery — or combat or modern ballet. But just as veteran sportswriters bring a different sense of rhythm and articulation to athletic reporting, so does Ian McEwan drop little bombs of emotion throughout this game.
We come in when Henry Perowne is losing, until,
…at six-love, Strauss finally makes an unforced error. Perowne serves the same high lob, but this time it falls nicely off the back wall. Strauss does well to hook it out, but the ball sits up on the short line and Perowne amazes himself with a perfect dying-length drive. With that little swoon of euphoria comes the ability to concentrate. Even as he thinks this, Henry makes a careless cross-court shot which Strauss pounces on and, with a neat slice, drops into the corner. Perowne manages to resist the lure of self-hatred as the ball rolls insultingly over his foot.
It’s at moments like these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid – and morally so. The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. Every error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself. He hears his pulse knocking in his ears, sweat is dribbling down his spine, his face and feet are burning. There’s only one thing in life he wants. Everything else has dropped away. He has to beat Strauss.
They play in hard straight drives, dancing in and out of each other’s path, then they’re chasing shots all over the court, with the advantage passing between them. Soon Jay has lost six points, and Perowne wants to laugh wildly – an impulse he disguises as a cough. He isn’t gloating, or triumphant. Henry is too well acquainted with the downward spiral of irritation and ineptitude, the little ecstasies of self-loathing. It’s hilarious to recognize how completely another person resembles your imperfect self.
Pat: This is one of McEwan’s gifts: He takes a nothing incident and makes it riveting; then he goes on to something else, and something else, all equally engrossing until we realize that the little things we notice about everyday life can be more meaningful than the huge events.
Doris: I read this book some years ago. I mostly love Ian McEwan — especially his novel, Enduring Love, an amazing book. And I loved Saturday, too, except when McEwan thought it was necessary to terrify readers with a truly unnecessary plot twit. And I have to admit that I found eight pages of this minute-by-minute description of the squash game to be over the top. These few paragraphs that you’ve condensed in the excerpt here would have satisfied me.
Pat: I’m glad for the opportunity to witness the birth of that “killer instinct” that apparently develops cell by cell and ends up overwhelming body and mind. The big champions in pro sports talk about it all the time, and having read these eight pages from Saturday, I think I can see it taking over someone like Serena Williams in tennis or Stephan Curry in basketball. You see them losing badly and the expressions on their faces show they’re just killing themselves for messing up on the court, but then that need to win starts percolating up from the depths, and they turn into absolute winning machines.
Doris: This is the story of Harrison Shepherd, beginning with his childhood in Mexico during the 1930s. His parents are separated, so he travels back and forth between the United States, to live with his father, and Mexico with his mother. In Mexico he works as a plaster mixer for the muralist Diego Rivera, then as a cook for Rivera and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, and he becomes very close with them, and soon with the Marxist Leon Trotsky, who hides out at Rivera’s home after being exiled from the soviet union by Stalin.
Later in life, living in North Carolina, Shepherd becomes a successful novelist of adventure novels until he’s investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his past associations. He returns to Mexico, instructing his secretary to burn his papers. But she saves his diaries and letters, and it is from these papers that this novel is created.
These are the first two paragraphs of the book (note: “howlers” are monkeys):
In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.
The boy and his mother believed it was saucer-eyed devils screaming in those trees, fighting over the territorial right to consume human flesh. The first year after moving to Mexico to stay at Enrique’s house, they woke up terrified at every day’s dawn to the howling. Sometimes she ran down the tiled hallway to her son’s bedroom, appearing in the doorway with her hair loose, her feet like iced fish in the bed, pulling the crocheted bedspread tight as a web around the two of them, listening.
Doris: The Lacuna is my favorite of all Kingsolver’s books. In finding these paragraphs for this show, I had to force myself not to begin reading the whole thing again. This paragraph is complete sensuality: sound everywhere. It even has a color, maroon!
Pat: It’s a stunning paragraph that plunges us into the Mexican jungle as harshly as Harrison and his mother find themselves thrown into Enrique’s crazy and dangerous life. But you know, Dory, these opening paragraphs are misleading. While I admire Barbara Kingsolver’s bravery for taking on this unusual (for her) form of diary entries, clippings, historical notes, etc., I ended up disliking much of this novel as well. Unlike her other fiction, which usually takes us inside characters’ minds with great insight, warmth and humor, the narrative voice in The Lacuna sounds cool, remote and wooden. I think Kingsolver created this novel as an experiment, and good for her. But I hope she doesn’t do it again.
Doris: Oh, gosh, Patty! I couldn’t disagree more! To my mind, The Lacuna is so wise and knowing, and we learn so much about American history — much of it hidden from us before — that her other books are childlike in comparison. Have you read Flight Behavior? Awful! To our radio audience, don’t listen to my dear friend on this one!
Pat: Ditto back to you, former dear friend! Fight Behavior is wonderful: Barbara Kingsolver back on track.
Ecco (hardcover); Harper (paperback)
Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile, I read two gorgeous but very different passages about a real-life landslide that wiped out a town high in the mountains of Alberta, Canada. Today I’d like to look more closely at the author’s way of handling detail.
The Outlander is about a woman named Mary who’s called The Widow because she kills her husband and escapes to the mountains, followed by her husband’s murderous brothers. She knows nothing about living in the wild and is pursued to such high altitudes that she almost dies by weather alone.
The writing is incredibly beautiful, for one thing because the author’s vocabulary is especially nimble everywhere you turn. I love it when a single word nails down a scene without standing out in a show-offy way. Here are a few examples that still amaze me (I’ve put them in boldface for the webpage):
— From his breast pocket he produced a little wadge of papers.
–Their footprints had mackled the uneven ground.
–A perfume in the air, the ground around them poxed with fallen fruit that lay in layers of years, squelching beneath the horses’ hooves.
–The rotting apples seethed with drunken wasps.
In the sentence below, the author adds a “w” to the word “gape” because, you know, humans gape while horses with their long faces and huge eyes probably gawp, especially in the pitch black of the night when Mary can’t stand it — she has to see where her escape is taking her:
— Soon she found a match and in its flare she glimpsed the forest floor, a strange and wicked-looking topography. She saw her own skirts and the horse gawping over at her, its pupils contracting, before the match stuttered and it was black again.
I use a code in the margin for new things we learn in fiction that are expressed so perfectly we’ll probably never forget them. Since I know nothing about riding horses, these sentences earned that “WWL” notation, but I bet readers who’ve known horses all their lives will appreciate how cleanly the author describes the eveyday tricks horse-tenders know so well:
–For a horse that won’t take the bit: She slipped a thumb into the mare’s mouth, along the gums, back where there were no teeth, and pressed down till the mouth opened and she could slip the bit in.
–Why a saddle may be slipping: She found the horse had held its breath (so) the strap was tight…Repeated upward thumps with a knee into the mare’s belly would cause it to puff, and the strap could be cinched tight.
—how to properly hobble a horse: she intuited how to tie the reins to one foreleg.
—This image will stay with me for a lifetime: Mary and her friend Helen are astride their horses when a sudden wind sweeps over them: Her dark hair whipped about her face and Helen’s about hers, as if the two women were underwater plants, waving in a river’s anxious current.
–Here’s an example of an unexpected, unlikely image that works, when Mary walks through a cluster of horses: She cut laterally across them all, and in response the group of horses moved organically, reconstituting like mixing dough.
–How it feels above the tree line: His altitude was so high now that flame and man alike struggled to breathe…As the air had thinned, food had become scarce, the trees had shriveled, and he himself moved ever more slowly – the very engine of life was on the verge of stalling.
Arbor House (hardcover), Plume (paperback)
Doris: I’m a big fan of San Francisco novelist Herb Gold and have read many of his books, but somehow this one, which the New York Times called his “best and most deeply felt” book, written in 1966, escaped me until now. I started reading it in the late morning on a recent Friday, and finished it that night. The book starts out in Russia, in a small village called Kamenets-Podolsk, where at the end of the 19th century, Gold’s grandfather raised his family. This “old-country grandfather” was “a silent old man with a long white beard, a horse, a cart, a cow, a mud-and-log house,” a wife, three sons, and a daughter. “Life was hard and dark for everyone,” Gold writes, “but harder and darker for Jews,” and Gold’s father, still a boy, has decided he wants to get out.
Usually I choose paragraphs for their sensuality: their visual power, what they show us, what we see in them — like those you just read, Pat. This is a different kind of paragraph that takes us into a world we modern Americans have probably not experienced.
Before I read this paragraph, be aware that we are talking about three generations here. We have Herb Gold’s father, Sam, twelve years old at the beginning of the book; Sam’s father; and Sam’s one-eyed grandfather.
Herb Gold writes:
My father, aged twelve, one year short of being a man, was already a socialist, a freethinker, a revolutionist, and he wanted to ride away to America and pick up the gold in the streets of New York. He would carry a sack with him. The Czar’s barbarous army or the golden freedom of America—is that a choice? His father knew that to stay in Russia meant conscription and death, but America was godless, a living death. He preferred the death he knew. My father’s one-eyed grandfather threatened his son with a beating and a curse if he let the boy flee his fate. My father’s father believed in the ancient maledictions and promises. This silent man sought to pass the remainder of his days with his children nearby, his wife, his cart, his horse, his cow, his hut, his fish on holidays. My twelve-year-old father clung to the idea that he would go to America to be a man, another man, another sort of man, inventing his own curses and his own fate…
Doris: So Gold’s father and his father go to consult the wonder-working rabbi in a nearby village, and put the question to him: Should the boy go or stay? And Gold’s father secretly resolves that he will obey the rabbi’s decision only if it is the correct decision.
Lucky for the boy, the rabbi makes the right decision. Later Gold writes:
In after-years my father used to tell his friends in the steam room of the Russian Bath in Cleveland, Ohio…that he was descended from rabbis and came over on the Mayflower. But this was a joke; his father was a Chassid, a believer in miracles, and not a rabbi; and the only Mayflower he came on was the Mayflower Moving & Storage, which carried him once from Indianapolis to Cleveland.
Doris: This book is filled with this kind of humor, but more than that, it is a classic immigrant story—Sam Gold (yes, he took this name for himself when he arrived in New York, and was very disappointed that there was no gold in the streets) is a Jewish Everyman, his story is one of hardship, hard work, and hard times. And of success. Another thing, it is about maleness, fatherhood. I have the impression that we have lots of books about mothers, few about fathers. Do you think that’s true, Pat? Certainly very few this touching, this real.
Pat: Well, to be a little dogmatic, I think just about all books published before the mid-1980s were about fathers and sons, meaning that publishing as an industry and the books selected for publication were part of the — excuse me, loaded word coming up — patriarchy.
So you’d see authors like Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, etc. etc. always dominating Sunday book review sections until suddenly there was this explosion of women of color (Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison and many others) who hit the book scene just after Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
That’s an aside, though: I do agree with you, Dory, that in general more women write about their mothers than men about their fathers, and few men ever wrote with such tenderness and humor about their fathers as Herb Gold. And imagine: He’s been a fixture on the Bay Area literary scene for nearly half a century (Fathers first came out in 1966) and respected worldwide as well.
Pat: I’m fascinated by this novel, more for the translator’s “issue of fidelity” at its center — meaning the different ways books in foreign languages can be (or shouldn’t be) translated into English — than the story that’s followed here. Despite weaknesses in characterization and plot, some passages in The Translator have an original beauty all their own and almost demand to be shared.
This is the story of Hanne, a German-born translator who’s lived in San Francisco for many years. She speaks and can translate about four languages. From her apartment (I think it’s on Nob Hill), she looks out at the Golden Gate and the busy sea lines of international commerce. Behind her a huge custom-built blackboard fills the entire wall, and it’s here that Hanne tries out different translations of every sentence in a Japanese novel she’s been hired to translate.
Then we come to this novel-within-the novel, because the story has come to affect her deeply. In it, the main character, Jiro, cares for his beloved wife, who inexplicably grows more remote, silent and suicidal by the day. After her last attempt to kill herself, Jiro must place her in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. This is Hanne’s translation of what follows:
The next day, Jiro wakes. The house feels bigger, relieved of heaviness and gloom. There is no need to reach over and touch his fingers to her neck to find a pulse. No need to run downstairs to see if she’s plunged a knife into her heart. Or overdosed on pills or stepped outside and thrown herself in front of a car. He read somewhere that each culture has its preferred way of committing suicide. His wife, however, considered all ways. But now (that he’s placed her in the hospital where she’ll be safe), he can luxuriate in a pool of calmness and ease his way into the day.
Sunlight streams in through the bedroom window and he becomes aware of vast acreage in his mind that is wonderfully uninhabited. Where just yesterday it was populated by worry, anxiety, and vigilance, there is now a small country of nothingness. He wasn’t even conscious of how much of his mind was devoted to, no, obsessed with her well-being. He feels a funny little smile on his face. He is, finally, a free man.
Pat: I loved the references to that “vast acreage” of the mind, once “populated” with fear and concern, now reduced to “a small country of nothingness.” Or is it? The reader of this novel-within, like Hanne herself, waits for Jiro’s relief to be replaced by guilt (he sent her away, after all), combined with grief and loss, and these emotions seem to come later, when Jiro “weeps uncontrollably.”
However, by this time, Hanne’s feelings for Jiro are so entwined with her own loneliness in real life that she can’t leave the sentence alone. It feels too harsh, too punishing to her, so she makes an addition: “He weeps uncontrollably, feeling a serenity he didn’t know he was missing.” Here is that “issue of fidelity” every translator faces.
Did the author intend to get that point across, or has Hanne gone too far? She does ponder this question but concludes in an oh-well kind of way that “much of translation is intuition and insight gained through living a life,” and leaves the sentence as she rewrote it. As the story follows Hanne to Japan to find the source for Jiro, the “issue of fidelity” is explored more deeply. We come to understand how dedicated translators like Hanne may believe their role is “akin to the author” rather than as a channel for the author.
Doris: Last night during the book group you facilitate at Point Reyes Books, Pat, we discussed this novel, The Translator, and I do have a greater appreciation for what translators do. But that’s about it. The novel was for me a disappointment, though it does bring up several controversies like the one you raise about the poets who declare themselves translators, as Robert Bly famously did a few decades ago.
Pat: I used to refer to it as “the Robert Bly Syndrome,” in fact. I never knew how many foreign languages Bly actually spoke or if he was simply taking each word in a poem and looking up the literal translation, then deciding what he thought it should mean for readers of English.
[For the webpage, here’s what Bly said about his approach to translation:]
When you translate, the poems come deep inside you, the images come deep inside you, and you no longer say, “Well, this man is a wonderful poet,” or “This is very fresh.” You don’t say that. You feel yourself, because of the work you’ve done on the image, invaded by the image. You feel that it has become a part of your house like someone who’s moved into your house, and your house is changed then. Your house has changed because these images have come in. So that’s the way I feel about translation. It’s a blessing.
Pat: Of course we should all admire Robert Bly for bringing many otherwise obscure poets to the West, but it did seem that when he got through “translating,” all the poems sounded like Robert Bly poems. And he seemed to think this was fine. It was his emotional process being “invaded” by these poets’ images, and he was, after all, Robert Bly.
[For the webpage, compare Bly’s approach to that of the respected poet and translator, Jane Hirshfield:]
Discovering that I could make eight radically different translations of one poem, with each reflecting some part of what was held in the original, freed me from having an anchored idea of what a poem is.
That part of the process taught me to value a greater openness and playfulness of mind in meeting a poem, and also liberated me from the idea that there is only one right response to anything — perhaps from the idea that there is a “right” response at all.
It also brought me to a much greater freedom in revising my own work. I understood more fully that there may be a core, inchoate experience you’re reaching for, but that there can be many different ways to reach it. And it freed me from the idea that a first draft is something you need to be tied to. It’s not — it’s a gift with which you can then work, without dishonoring the initial form.
This is more respectful to the poet who’s being translated than saying, as Hanne does, that being a translator is “akin to being the author.”
The weaknesses of The Translator sent me searching for answers to questions the novel raises but never fully explores. For example, Jane Hirshfield translated the great Japanese poet, Ono no Komachi, in The Ink Dark Moon (co-translated with Mariko Aratani). Hanne in the novel wants to write a play about no Komachi, who was heralded during Japan’s Heian era of 794-1185, when women, not men, were considered the masters of poetry, as Hanne tells us.
Hanne, however, never explores Komachi’s artistry and never writes the play. Perhaps that’s because the author of The Translator sees Komachi’s story only as a convenient parallel. In real life, Komachi was expelled from the Heian court: “No one ever learned why, exactly,” Hanne says, so she, Hanne, decides that she “will have to make it up. Literary license.” This is the “issue of fidelity” the author doesn’t really develop in The Translator, but I’m glad I read the novel because the issue is so important but rarely discussed in the United States.
Doris: It’s surprising for a book that neither of us liked very much that certain aspects are immensely quotable. Perhaps that’s one reason the San Francisco
Chronicle called it the best book of 2013. To go back to the story for a moment, Hanne Schubert, one of the most unappealing heroines ever, has just finished translating a novel from its original Japanese into English, when she falls down a flight of stairs and suffers a brain injury that leaves her with Japanese as her only language. Somewhat recovered, but feeling disconnected from everyone, she accepts a speaking engagement in Japan, where the author of her recently translated book confronts her in public, saying she butchered the job of translation. Humiliated, Hanne goes to find the actor, Moto, on whom the author based his novel, to try to determine whether there might be some truth to his accusation.
This scene takes place in the actor’s home that he shares with his brother, Renzo.
Then [Moto] is right beside her, his long fingers approaching her face, his breathing near her ear, steady, loud, low. And now he’s so close she sees the filigree of intricate red veins that make up his birthmark. She freezes. What is he doing? From her shoulder, he plucks a single strand of her newly blackened hair and holds it in front of him as if it’s the most enchanting thing he’s ever seen. He twists it this way and that before he lets it go. They watch it slowly fall. And it keeps falling, it’s taking forever to fall, as if he has thrown it into a world where time operates differently, if at all. Her strand of hair is still falling through space when the front door opens. The loud creak of the door hinges breaks the spell, then Renzo’s chipper voice. Her first thought: Why did he have to come back? The black hair lies on the wood floor, a scribbled pencil mark on an otherwise pristine canvas.
Doris: Again, even in a tedious book, one finds paragraphs that can transport a reader, as this one does. Seductive, frightening (“She freezes. What is he doing?”), and told in slow motion, it does seem to cast a spell, broken only when those door hinges creak and the brother’s “chipper” voice interrupts whatever was happening here.
Pat: It’s as though Moto and Hanne are the last to know what’s really going on because they’re trapped in that moment of exquisite desire that neither has yet admitted to, so they turn their complete attention to the falling strand of hair. And then with Renzo’s entrance the hair that had them so enwrapped becomes nothing more than “a scribbled pencil mark” on the floor.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #4, May 6, 2015
Note to readers who’ve asked about the significance of underlines in the red parts below: Since they’re used for spoken emphasis when we read these quotes on the air, I’ve kept them in the transcript to bring a flavor of the radio experience to the page. — Pat
I Love a Cop
Pat: Sometimes we like to feature a good piece of writing with a surprise twist by someone who’s not a writer but has discovered a natural talent within, let’s say. This is the case with our first selection from Ellen Kirschman, a police department psychologist for many years, not only here in the Bay Area but much in demand these days all over the U.S. and in Eastern Europe, along with such faraway cities as Hong Kong and Singapore.
But I discovered Kirschman as a fiction writer a few years ago when I picked up a murder mystery called Burying Ben from a very small publisher, Aakenbaaken & Kent.
Doris: Which is now out of business, by the way. But her book will be republished by Oceanview Publishing with the second in the series this fall.
Pat: Great, I’m looking forward to #2 and I hope many more. In Burying Ben, a cop psychologist named Dot Meyerhoff (who’s very much like Ellen Kirschman) is hired by a police department where a troubled rookie commits suicide — and leaves a note blaming her.
Suddenly Dot Meyerhoff must solve the mystery before getting fired, gain the trust of cops who aren’t speaking to her, survive a painful divorce and at her mature age endure one sodden hot flash after the other. All this is deftly set out in the first 10 pages.
So I thought, bravo, Ellen K’s first novel may be a rookie effort but it’s fun and engrossing, and aren’t we all tired of every movie and TV show since The Sopranos sticking a lady shrink in front of every star? In this book, we learn what happens behind the scenes of detective work, and it’s just as fascinating as the mystery.
Plus: Especially now with police departments under scrutiny all over the country, readers want authenticity, not voyeurism in crime fiction and that’s what I admire in Burying Ben.
But the joyful part of this story is that Ellen Kirschman discovered her writing talent as a nonfiction author long before this series when she published two books for spouses: I Love a Cop, and (after 9/11), I Love a Fire Fighter.
Even here, in manuals that could be very dry and dogmatic, she surprises us on every page by weaving humor and surprise throughout her absolutely engrossing delivery.
These books are hugely successful in this field (100,000 copies sold of I Love a Cop alone!) and I wouldn’t have known about them if I hadn’t mentioned my admiration for the author to you, Dory, one day at breakfast when your husband Richard, who’s with us in the studio today, and whose last name happens to be Kirschman, as in Ellen Kirschman (he’s her brother!), got up from the table and said, “Well, if you want to hear good writing, listen to this,” and he came back with his dog-eared copy of Ellen’s I Love a Cop, turned to page 85, and read the following, as he will do now on The Bookmobile:
This is the story of two good friends, a police officer and a dispatcher. They had spent the day together at a conference, had a leisurely dinner, and then walked back to the garage where they were both parked a short distance from one another. They said their goodbyes and were standing by their respective cars preparing to leave when a stranger appeared from around the corner, shoved a gun up under the dispatcher’s chin, and demanded money. The officer froze at the sound of the commotion. There was only a split second to decide whether to run for help and safety or stay and risk death. Abandoning a friend was out of the question. The officer pulled out a gun and screamed, “Police!” noticing how “police” sounds like “please” when you have no saliva and your mouth is dry as cotton. The robber did not move. The officer, eyes focused on the suspect’s gun, took a breath, and shot the suspect through the heart. The entire event, which seemed to take hours, was over in less than two minutes. The consequences, however, would take years to resolve.
Was this just another confrontation in the daily skirmishes of urban warfare? Not exactly. This is a modern tale. The dispatcher, the cop, and the suspect all were women.
Pat: I thought I knew what this would be — touching advice for spouses worrying about the police officers they love, the awful shifts cops are assigned to, the tension they carry around, the guns in the house, and so forth. The book does all of that but you don’t have to love a cop to find yourself riveted by a passage like this one, where Kirschman goes right to the heart of a Worst Possible Scenario in any cop’s life. She makes it both thrilling and dreadful, and she completely surprises us — well, at least she did me — by disclosing at the end that these two cops and the suspect are all women.
Richard: I think that 10 percent of most police departments are women, which seems low, but it’s a big leap from only a few years ago.
Pat: It seems that on every page, Ellen Kirschman reveals something like this — some unknown twist in the life of police personnel that really affects the family at home in ways people like me never think about.
Doris: Ellen is a superb writer of these perfect little scenes, and so her nonfiction books are chock full of real life people with real life problems, and she offers real solutions based on her experience working with cops and their families. The truth of these situations and the empathy she evokes in her readers is quite stunning.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Doris: I love this novel for its sheer exuberance — author Junot Diaz throws Spanish and slang English-Spanish words at us without explanation throughout, and amazingly, we English-speaking readers can absorb everything with great attention and pleasure. (I can only imagine the depth of meaning in each chapter if you do know Spanish!)
I apologize for my limited Spanish pronunciation, but before beginning I want to point out to listeners that Cigüapas (pronounced see-GWAH-pahs) are mythological creatures of Dominican folklore. They are commonly described as having human female form with brown or dark blue skin, backward-facing feet, and a very long mane of smooth, glossy hair that covers their otherwise naked bodies. They supposedly inhabit the high mountains of the Dominican Republic.
The Oscar of the title is an obese, nerdy, virginal young man from the Dominican Republic who embarrasses everyone in his immigrant neighborhood of Bergan County, New Jersey, but is perhaps the only honest person in the novel. His friend, Yunior, is the narrator who tells Oscar’s story by celebrating and railing against Oscar’s situation with barely controlled Spanish-English hysteria throughout the novel. Here is an example, which, by the way, skips over certain words we can’t use on the radio :
[Oscar] wasn’t safe even in his own house, his sister’s girlfriends were always hanging out, permanent guests. When they were around he didn’t need no Penthouses. Her girls were not too smart but they were fine…: the sort of hot… Latinas who only dated weight-lifting morenos or Latino cats with guns in their cribs. They were all on the volleyball team together and tall and fit as colts and when they went for runs it was what the track team might have looked like in terrorist heaven. Bergen County’s very own cigüapas: la primera was Gladys, who complained endlessly about her chest being too big, that maybe she’d find normal boyfriends if she’d had a smaller pair; Marisol, who’d end up at MIT and hated Oscar but whom Oscar liked most of all; Leticia, just off the boat, half Haitian half Dominican, that special blend the Dominican government swears no existe, who spoke with the deepest accent, a girl so good she refused to sleep with three consecutive boyfriends! It wouldn’t have been so bad if these chickies hadn’t treated Oscar like some deaf-mute harem guard, ordering him around, having him run their errands, making fun of his games and his looks; … even worse, they blithely went on about the particulars of their sex lives with no regard for him, while he sat in the kitchen, clutching the latest issue of Dragon. Hey, he would yell, in case you’re wondering, there’s a male unit in here.
Doris: There’s a deliberate rhythm to this writing that puts you in mind of the Caribbean and possibly mocks you for feeling that way, and it’s so funny you don’t see how meticulously the author has carved out the many complicated themes of family and history around Oscar’s story.
Pat: There’s really no one writing today with the fire and artistry — and really, the hilarity — of Junot Diaz. He exploded on the fiction scene with a book of short stories called Drown in the late ’90s, and a decade later came roaring back with this incredible novel that’s paved the way for many other books mixing foreign words into an English narration without explanation. He also introduced digressive and bombastic footnotes — imagine! — that excoriate and pound the table for pages creating parallel subplots and twists that keep you laughing and learning.
Doris: I didn’t know it before you mentioned it, Patty, that this style of using another language throughout an otherwise English-written book is called “immersion fiction.”
There Was a Little Girl
Pat: This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir about what happened following the death of her mother Teri, a well-known “stage mother” who had been criticized for allowing Brooke at an early age to appear in sexually charged ads and movies.
I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.
They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?
The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.
“I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.”
“Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.”
[More insistence by Times reporter; Shields pushes back; Times gets one question answered (about location of a city) and that’s it. She thinks it’s over.]
A few days later, I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.
The first line read, “Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.” What an opener!
The obituary’s author highlighted—completely out of context—the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse—“Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.” This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.
Who the [“heck” used for radio] fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.
Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. Why are they so cruel? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.
Pat: What I saw in Brooke Sheilds’ astonishment at being exploited by such an august body as the New York Times is a classic example of the outrage and resentment that is still paving the way for the “publishing revolution.”
It’s true that huge changes in computer technology were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry, so we’d see this phenomenon of millions self-publishing their own blogs and books and websites.
But the motivation that fueled a revolution rather than simply a transformation from print to Internet is this very sense of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.
So when even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the lowly status of being outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of so many people furious with media arrogance.
I grant you that Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon.
Nevertheless, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone, especially on the obituary page, where facts of a person’s life are sacred at that time.
Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to a juicy scandalous story that will sell papers. I agree with her.
Doris: I remember years ago being convinced by the gossip about Shields’s mother, that she was a manipulative, even evil stage mother. Hearing this painful account by the daughter makes me embarrassed that I fell for that.
The Story of a New Name: Book II in The Neapolitan Novels
Doris: This is the story of a friendship between two women, Elena and Lila. Book I is their childhood, and Book II covers their young womanhood. Book III takes place when they are mature women. They love one another, but there is also jealousy, and competition. One reviewer writes about the author, “Ferrante writes with such aggression and unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship that the real world can drop away when you’re reading her.”
Yes, it is Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.
Doris: This sounds like a passage about these women’s friendship, but it’s really a paragraph about writing: how facts have to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies. And how “unreliable is the measuring device of words.” We try to make our use of words reliable, but annoyance, jealousy, love and other emotions all affect what we write, and can turn what we think of as true into something untrue.
Pat: It’s been inspiring to watch the Italian-based publisher, Europa Editions, bring a host of original writers from something like 26 countries to the United States. Without much fanfare but terrific word-of-mouth from independent booksellers, authors like Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years), Alina Bronsky (Broken Glass, a brave and tough novel), Jane Gardam (Old Filth) and these wonderful Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante you bring to us today, Doris, have found a hungry and admiring audience in the U.S.
Twelve Books / Hatchett Publishing Group
Pat: This is a very sly and funny novel about a disturbing, even terrifying event: A divorced dad kidnaps his 5-year-old daughter, bringing her adventure but placing her in danger. This book is his letter from prison, written in his own defense. We don’t know for hundreds of pages whether he’s a psychopathic nut or a doting but very misguided father.
But we do know the writing can leap out with quick, caustic hits about things Erik observes in everyday American life. They all have the ring of truth that barely disguises his need to defend himself, but they also get a little dig in at the same time.
For example, Eric writes to his estranged wife about the year he spent as a stay-at-home dad while she worked as a school teacher:
You were jealous that I got to be with (our daughter) Meadow while you had to content yourself with other people’s children. This realization softened me. I felt bad for you, and for what seemed like the Pyrrhic victory of being a working mother.
A “Pyrrhic victory” occurs when you win something at terrible cost to yourself. I used to think it refers to the kind of triumph that lands you on the funeral pyre, but that’s just a helpful way to remember the word “Pyrrhic.” In fact it comes from 280 B.C. when the kind of Epirus invaded Italy and defeated the Romans only after extremely heavy to his army. In other words, he won but nearly killed himself in the meantime. Like a poisoned pill defense.
So Eric the dad has sent this barbed comment not only to his wife but to all working mothers. We sense that he hates feminists because they make self-entitled men like Eric feel robbed of their power. In one way, the whole book could be a Pyrrhic victory for Eric, since we learn early on that he has no entitlement at all, and since every one of his apologias from prison are so defensive that he only condemns himself further. Like the character of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, to which many critics compared this novel, Eric is paranoid, narcissistic, victimized and scheming. Yet he’s often so astute and funny in his observations that we can’t help it — he endears himself to us, though we’re always glad he’s still in prison.
Eric even exploits the weather to make himself sound like the world’s most victimized good guy, for one thing because he’s had to live in Albany, New York:
In Albany, the cats grow wet and skinny, and the rain grows hard and bitter, as if it is not rain but the liquid redistribution of collective conflict; it’s a frigid rain, a rain that pricks the skin of any upturned face, a damning rain that makes men eke corks from bottles. O February, you turn our hearts to stone.
The possibility of waxing poetic is supposed to make Eric appear to the reader (his wife, the court, and us) as a leader of men, a great thinker, as when he looks at his small daughter and thinks, “O tiny imitator! Compact mirror!” But that phrase about rain being “the liquid distribution of collective conflict” reveals his need to be the most innocent sufferer of all — witness (as he would say) his prison sentence.
And as that most innocent sufferer, he wants to remove the cobwebs from the eyes of everybody else — you know, average Americans who have fallen for propaganda like our national pastime.
About baseball, Eric tells us: The sport makes me antsy, with its suspicious lack of action surrounded by tense silence, the occasional foul ball concussing someone in the bleachers.
I love it when a single word changes the perspective of an otherwise benign sentence:
— Erik as young immigrant in America: I remember the electronic swallowing sound of a quarter by the slot of my first video-game machine.
–Lying in bed, he notices the underwater light particular to roadside motel rooms.
—In the hospital, Eric hears the squeegee of officious shoes when doctors and nurses approach to throw him out.
Doris: You use the term “sly and funny” to describe the novel, but I have to admit I never found the story the least bit amusing and I worried about the fate of this little girl in the hands of her whacko father every mile of their trip.
It does have the kind of caustic humor that can be amusing on the page, but as a longtime fan of Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant novel, Lolita, I can’t imagine why any critic would hold Schroder up to that high standard.
Pat: Well, these critics noticed many plot and character similarities — for example, the road trip, the question of kidnap, a rush to hospital, the entrance of Fate, the written defense from prison, and the change of names both for the protagonists and the objects of their obsession (Dolores becomes Lolita; Meadow becomes Chrissy).
More important, I think, is that both Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Eric in Schroder use social conventions to fake their way into acceptance and are overcome with paranoia along the way. That tension between getting caught and acting out leads to an obsession with the male psyche and a blistering commentary on American manners and foibles.
Critics have also said that Schroder can be read as an homage to Lolita all along, so the narcissism, the vitriol, the who, me? apologia and the insistence on righteousness for its own sake all have a double edge.
Doris: Not a very effective one, I felt. I get the parallels, but Humbert is cautious to the point of paranoia, as well he should be—while Schroder is so incautious that his daughter is in constant danger with him. Also, Lolita is no innocent herself, whereas Meadow is completely trusting, even if occasionally skeptical.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Doris: This is a 1925 novel following a cast of characters in the fictional town of West Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. The story is mainly that of the young and mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and his obsession for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. The book explores themes of decadence and idealism, and is a portrait of the Roaring Twenties.
The book received mixed reviews and sold poorly. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself to be a failure. But the novel experienced a revival during World War II, and became a part of American high school curricula and numerous stage and film adaptations in the following decades. Today it’s considered a literary classic. In 1998 the Modern Library editorial board voted it the 20th century’s best American novel.
Here’s the set up: Narrator Nick Carroway has rented a house in West Egg for the summer. And here he arrives:
Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
Doris: I felt this paragraph, more than any in the book, reveals F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to place us squarely in the time and setting of his story, yet there’s a mysterious nature to Gatsby’s arrival that invites you in.
Those “new red gas-pumps” sitting out in their “pools of light” make you think of a painting by Edward Hopper. Of course, unlike Hopper’s locations, we’re not at a diner or bar late at night but among the grand estates of Long Island in the 1920s. Tension builds when “Mr. Gatsby himself” shows up with all his money and power to “determine what share was his of our local heavens.”
Pat: I love the writing in this passage, especially when “the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.” But I’m sorry to say I’ve never liked this novel, never believed the characters (especially the dumb-downed women), always felt the dialogue was dated (if Gatsby refers to his neighbor as “old sport” one more time, I was going to throw that book out the window) and could not abide the mawkish drama. We remember Fitzgerald’s breathtaking powers of description, I think, and are assailed every decade or so by yet another bad remake of The Great Gatsby, and that’s probably why we remember him.
Doris: I’m so disappointed to hear this. It’s the believability of the story that makes The Great Gatsby so timely today, as are the questions Fitzgerald poses about class, greed and obsession. That’s why it’s still taught in middle and high schools across the country — even teenagers can’t put it down, they see themselves in it even today. And besides, Patty, it’s the 20th century’s best American novel!
In a Strange Room
Pat: The great travel and fiction writer Jan Morris said of this book: “I doubt if any book in 2010 will contain more memorable evocations of place than In a Strange Room.” It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize that year.
Here we have a traveler who’s taking long, lonely walks across parts of Africa. Like a character in a Tennessee Williams play, something is smoldering inside – anger and longing seem to be warring within him — so he observes life with a dark and offbeat insight that can be uncannily accurate.
For example, every traveler knows how odd notions can suddenly emerge in a mind that’s far from home. In this story, the traveler experiences that other-sightedness in a glass-bottomed boat on a lake in Malawi, Africa:
Through the glass, the bottom of the lake is the surface of an alien planet; huge boulders are piled on each other in the sunlit depth, glowing fish float and dart like birds.
That’s not so weird, right? We’ve all seen something like that — Lake Tahoe is famous for it. Sometimes you look into the water and feel like you’re seeing another Earth where fish dart around with the speed of hummingbirds in “real life” above ground.
But travel also helps you notice things that have been there all along. Sometimes the experience of what we’re standing on is altered when we’re far from a city, simply because the light is so different when we look up at night. As the traveler puts it:
The stars are seeding themselves in bright beds overhead; the Earth is huge and old and black.
This very succinct sentence gives me the shivers because it’s such a comment on modern life — the stars appear so new, so light, so fresh, while you’re standing on a planet that’s running out of resources and has been so abused, now feels so heavy, so weary, so old.
In any case, Galgut’s traveler is very brooding and alone, and sometimes his tendency toward introspection turns him a little paranoid as he treks across the African desert. By the time he gets on a bus in a crowded city, looking out the window while surrounded by strangers, a twisted perspective — which to me is a delight — overcomes him.
The complicated shop fronts with their myriad steps and tiny windows put him in mind of the innards of some enormous animal, through which they’re creeping like a germ.
This is the kind of sentence I admit is risky to pull out of context, yet the writing here is so minimal that even without knowing this character, you can see the image as he does: Your mind’s eye pulls up and above, looking down at the city streets from enough distance to see it all morph into something alive and visceral.
It’s like watching the hospital TV screen during your own colonoscopy, wouldn’t you say, Doris? The doctor’s microscopic camera could be a tiny astronaut snaking its way through your utterly clean gut. That’s the kind of out-of-the-blue thought that comes to the traveler’s mind throughout In a Strange Room.
Doris: Forgive me for not wanting to discuss my own last colonoscopy, Patty. And that last quote sort of creeps me out. But I’m with you on the other vivid descriptions, and I especially love the comparison of fish flitting about in water to birds darting about in the sky.
Note: We’re now listing the hardcover and paperback publisher of each title mentioned, not only to help readers find these books and other sources but to celebrate the origin of great writing. – Pat
Radio Bookmobile, Program #3, April 22, 2015
Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate
Doris: This is a glimpse from Wendy Johnson’s life as a meditator and gardener at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center just a few miles from Stinson Beach. There she’s part of the team of Zen gardeners who raise the produce for San Francisco’s famous Greens restaurant.This is an early story that takes us by surprise, adding humor and a little twist to an otherwise serious celebration of the art of working in nature:
“When I was a brand-new gardener, I planted my first bed of sweet corn at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, San Francisco Zen Center’s training monastery deep in the Ventana wilderness east of Big Sur in central California. I was working by myself in the upper garden, rapt with concentration. I stretched a string line the full length of the sixty-five-foot row where I was planting the corn, and just under this line I scratched out a three-inch-deep furrow. The string showed me where to plant and kept me straight. I filled my fist with dry, shriveled kernels of ‘Bantam’ sweet corn, and every two inches or so I dropped a kernel of corn into the furrow. I wasn’t sure that I would have enough seed so I left the furrow uncovered until the entire line was planted. I was working on my hands and knees. Head down and deep under the spell of the ancient ritual of planting seed, I imagined green blades of corn rising up out of the black skirt of the ground.“Finally the line was sown and I looked up from my supplicant’s crouch. A rotund Steller’s jay was at the bottom of my corn furrow, hopping fearlessly down the line, gobbling up each of my carefully sown kernels of sweet corn. The bold, zaftig bird paused for a moment, fixed me with her bright eye, and continued to feast. And my life as a gardener cracked open and took root.”
Doris: As with the other paragraphs we choose for the Bookmobile, this one paints a scene so clearly, I feel I’m right there. I’ve heard from friends who garden that it is a meditative task, and Wendy Johnson is well known as a teacher of meditation. My one quibble is her use of a single word, zaftig, as in “the zaftig bird,” meaning “plump” or in terms of a woman’s figure, “full and rounded.” Maybe because I’m Jewish, I wish she hadn’t thrown that Jewishism in there.
Pat: It’s not only an amusing story about gardening, it’s an inviting lesson in mindfulness that we can all put into practice. Perhaps that’s the point of Wendy Johnson’s book — to show us that meditation helps one notice aspects of nature we might otherwise not see. By the way, although I’m a shiksa writer, I agree with you about the word “zaftig” — it’s a Yiddish word that shouldn’t be tossed into everyday use like just another adjective. Feels disrespectful.
Doris: I looked up “zaftig” on Google, where there’s a chart that shows “use over time” for this word, beginning in 1800 and showing a huge spike at around year 2010. What could this mean?
Pat: I see the chart ends at 2010 so if the trend continues five years later, it means “zaftig” is assimilating! That jay bird Wendy Johnson mentions was plump and round and heavy, period. A “zaftig bird” would have had ethnic qualities.
All the Light We Cannot See
Scribner, Fourth Estate
Pat: Critics and even the author of this “knotty and baroque” literary WWII novel are stumped that it’s been a huge bestseller since publication in hardcover for a year or so, even before it won the Pulitzer Prize this week.
Granted, the book is so dense and chops up the chronology in such jigsaw-puzzle fashion that observers guess its top sale might have been 80,000 copies. Instead it’s way over a million and still selling at a fast clip even in expensive hardcover. The publisher won’t release a paperback edition until next year.
I think the reason for its runaway success is simple: This novel is what we call in the trade a “bon bon book.” With short chapters about alternating characters (adorable children in France during WWII) with encountering suspense and twists and surprises on every page, it’s as addictive as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Page after page, you say to yourself, I’ll just read one more chapter and that’s it … and all of a sudden you’ve finished the whole box.
Of course, a second reason is that the writing is exquisite. In this excerpt, Marie, a blind girl in hiding from the Nazis in the coastal town of Saint Malo, is taken to the beach for the first time.
The ocean. The ocean! Right in front of her! So close all this time. It sucks and booms and splashes and rumbles; it shifts and dilates and falls over itself; the labyrinth of Saint Malo has opened onto a portal of sound larger than anything she has ever experienced. She did not imagine it properly. She did not comprehend the scale. When she raises her face to the sky, she can feel a thousand tiny spines of raindrops melt onto her cheeks, her forehead. Why didn’t they tell her it would be like this?
Pat: Then too, nobody can tell you about the ocean. You have to “see” it yourself with all your senses. Doris, you noted on our last show that even Chekhov was so knocked out by the power and immensity of the ocean that the only word he could use to describe is was “BIG.”
Doris: One of the other things I like about this paragraph is the author’s placement of “big” against those “tiny” spines of raindrops. And in describing this blind girl’s refined other senses: the feeling of sharp “spines” of raindrops melting. The sound of booming and splashing and rumbling. In fact, it’s this very sensitivity that made me annoyed later in the book when she’s unaware of being followed by someone closely behind.
“Assisted Living,” a story from Honeydew
Doris: Edith Pearlman is a skillful short-story writer who won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. I read a rave review of Honeydew in the New Yorker and was completely taken by a quote from her short story, “Assisted Living.” Most of the narrative in that story takes place in an antique store called Forget Me Not, where the proprietress, Rennie, reigns. She has several regular customers, most of them elderly.
Muffy and Stu Willis slid into the store at least twice a week. Like many long-married people they looked like siblings—both short, both with fine thin hair the color of Vaseline, both with a wardrobe of ancient tweeds and sand-colored cashmere sweaters. An inch of pale shirt showed at the neck of Stu’s sweater. Pearls adorned Muffy’s. The rims of their glasses were so thin that the spectacles seemed penciled onto their old and yet unwrinkled faces. Together they weighed less than two hundred pounds…. Stu was quiet, Muffy quieter…. And Muffy’s voice—there was nothing to it. It was as if she had once been almost smothered and then allowed to live only if she limited her vocabulary and breathed hardly at all.
Doris: I love this paragraph for its visuals. The color of Vaseline dominates: The couples’ hair is that color, their sweaters are that color, and so is Stu’s shirt. We see them both as pale, colorless. They “slide” into Rennie’s store the way Vaseline slides onto your skin. And their voices: Muffy’s is as if she’d been “smothered.” It makes you think of what would happen if you were smeared or coated with Vaseline. You wouldn’t be able to breathe, your voice would be smothered.
None of this is attractive, it may even strike the reader as creepy, but it’s so clear. You really see this couple.
Pat: That is both its curse and its blessing, I feel: The Vaseline metaphor works so well that I felt a little pounded by a baseball bat throughout the paragraph. Isn’t it the job of the author to see past the obvious — the elderly couple whose time on earth is erasing or blurring them out of existence; the increasingly impotent and “colorless” couple whose voices are “smothered” by age?
Doris: The next paragraphs go deeper into character so we see a fully fleshed-out picture of two individuals. But they are aging, and whether you like it or not, Patty, like many older couples, they do look like siblings. The Vaseline image may make you uncomfortable, but the author describes it so well that we see with absolute clarity their life right now. And, too, time does tend to erase us in the eyes of other people.
Pat: Well, here again is the risk we take by pulling excerpts out of context — a paragraph like this can seem more limited and shallow than it is in the full story. Of course it’s beautifully written for what the author wants to accomplish — in fact, it’s so vivid that Vaseline image is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.
Doris: And you who love metaphor so much!
Answer to Query
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Time Magazine (and all over the place)
Pat: One reason Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been called “the Thurgood Marshall for women” is that she expresses very bold, no-nonsense statements like the following, which I found in Time magazine but really is all over the Internet. No wonder. Despite how many times people read it, they always comment on how it stops them in their tracks:
People ask me sometimes, “When — when do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” And my answer is, “when there are nine.”
Doris: It’s such a surprise! We think she’s going to deliver a politically correct message that there will be “enough” women on the Supreme Court when we have close to an equal number, in other words four or five. She bowls us over when she says the whole Court should be run by women.
Pat: For those of us who were around when the Equal Rights Amendment failed, the lesson at the time, and forever after it seemed, was never push women’s rights too hard — just ask for equality like 50 women in the Senate, let’s say, because men aren’t ready for anything more. But here in one sentence, Ginsburg reminds us that nine men ruled the Supreme Court for centuries. It’s fine to want women to occupy all the seats for the rest of their lives.
Doris: In the opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel, “Hard Times,” the character of Thomas Gradgrind is the superintendent of the school in a small mill town in England called Coketown. Here he is speaking to one of the school’s teachers:
“Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.
Doris: There’s no one like Dickens. Still! And here is what is meant by a “Dickensian character,” someone who’s almost a caricature, almost a cartoon, with exaggerated features and exaggerated language. Dickens wrote this shortest of all his novels to be serialized weekly, and he was paid by the word, so he packed as many words into every scene as possible. Repetition, often in the form of parallel construction, drove the word count up, all to his benefit—and ours.
So instead of writing “The emphasis was helped by the square wall of a forehead, by the speaker’s mouth, by the speaker’s vice, by his hair,” and so forth, Dickens deliberately repeats himself by writing, “The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead … The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth … The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice … ” and on and on. And we are charmed.
Pat: Yes, rather than sounding redundant to make a little more money, these repeated phrases bring a delicious comic timing to the paragraph. And each “The emphasis was helped by … ” becomes more amusing because it’s a repetition.
Plus for me Dickens had a gift for making his characters come alive with simple, visual words — that “square forefinger,” for example, or that “square wall of a forehead,” or those deep-set eyes that “found commodious cellarage in two dark caves.” The word “cellarage” is worth twice the price he was paid! This is why Charles Dickens’ books are classics — they’re as riveting today as they were when he wrote them in the 1850s.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Simon & Schuster
Pat: Former Bay Area writer Chitra Divakaruni broke new ground in the ’80s and ’90s by writing popular stories and novels about young Indian wives in arranged marriages who find themselves transported to lives of isolation and loneliness when their husbands bring them to the United States. As the years went by, similar characters in Divakaruni’s books developed into independent-minded young women from India who attend college, find jobs, open their own businesses and raise families. Meanwhile Divakaruni carved out a sizeable and very loyal audience that last year brought increasing acclaim to her latest novel, Oleander Girl.
In it, Korobi, a 19-year-old girl from Kolkata, India, comes to New York City in 2002, a year after 9/11. Remembering how it felt to view the attack on the twin towers from their home in India, Korobi seems to typify the way people in other countries perceive the United States, sometimes with deeper insight than native-born Americans. Here is Korobi’s dream about the twin towers:
When I’d seen the disaster on Indian TV, sitting beside Grandfather in our living room in Kolkata, I’d felt only a mild sorrow. The twin towers had been icons of another world, tiny and distant and beheaded already. But [now that I’m] in New York [the following year], their absence saturates the air I breathe. In my dream they loom, bigger and bigger still, unharmed and shining in the midst of a perfect autumn day. The jaunty silver clouds are reflected on their thousand glass windows. I know I’m about to witness their destruction. I try to wake up, but though I thrash and moan, I can’t.
Pat: What stopped me in my tracks is that word “beheaded,” which she so casually applies to the twin towers before the 9/11 attacks. I was working on Wall Street when those buildings were under construction, and even then they seemed so tall and imposing they represented the worst of “American imperialism,” as we used to call it in the 70s. So to read here that halfway across the world, people saw the twin towers as “tiny and distant and beheaded already” just knocks me over.
There is also a ring of truth to the idea that New York’s skyline felt intact a year after 9/11, even though something terribly foreboding seemed to hang in the air, as though we were all about to witness the destruction of the towers again and again, but couldn’t do anything about it. That gnawing suspicion that Americans haven’t yet faced or understood their country’s reputation for belligerence around the world is what precipitates Karobi’s dream and American readers’ anxiety about their own national identity.
Doris: Not one of my favorite books, by any means, but you’re right about this paragraph. I especially like those “jaunty silver clouds,” which makes me think of those silver airplanes we all saw plow into the buildings. I shiver even to think of it.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #2, April 8, 2015
H Is for Hawk
Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when the author is battling grief after her father died, and she begins dreaming of hawks. This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:
The birds she studied with a team of scholars…
“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.
Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”
Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.
Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime. This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.
One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again. In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.
It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.
You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold? Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.
Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.
It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance; there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s, again, “not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”
Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book—those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular—the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.
This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.
Pat: It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.
It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen, the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.
The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
West Marin Review, Volume 4
Doris: Susan Trott is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.
How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….
But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.
He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?
Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.
Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony. So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.
Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov—what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….
The Orphan Master’s Son
Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember? This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.
I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.
That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.
For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans. But they’re also more pointed and humorous when you consider they’re all true in a way.
[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.
The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as the instrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.
When an American athlete leaves after a visit, her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.
Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity—all of which the reader absolutely believes— are stunning. How the author could know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world causes us to constantly be shaking our heads in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the parts where they talk about “canines”?
Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times, because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable. The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated, we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using indolent phrases from capitalism. Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal. As one North Korean expert on the matter says,
You must never hurt a dog in America. Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.
The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets. “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”
What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.
Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a cliché, no manipulation of the reader by the writer — which is something I’d like to talk about another time.
Doris: Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.
The captain told us, “When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.”
Captain Dillon called this maneuver “marching fire.”
When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.
Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.
Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed. No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures. And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”
Doris: We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.
Radio Bookmobile, Program #1: March 25, 2015
Well, we lurched around a bit ourselves for the first Radio Bookmobile, just to get the kinks out, but the passages we read from the books quoted below have so much power and authority we simply needed to get out of the way. Here they are, with a brief word here and there about context:
Henry Holt, Picador
Doris: In spite of many strange and difficult aspects, I count this as the best book I’ve ever read.
The scene is this: It is an autumn day in the late 16th century during hunting season, and King Henry engages in target practice. On this day, Henry invites Cromwell to accompany him, saying, Here we will be alone, and I will be free to open my mind to you.
Thomas wonders whether Henry is ever really alone. “Alone” on this day means just with Henry’s yeoman of the bow and his menials. Cromwell knows that the king doesn’t even sleep alone. If he’s not with the queen, two men sleep at the foot of his bed.
When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now he is royal. At home or abroad, in wartime or peacetime, happy or aggrieved, the king likes to practice several times in the week, as an Englishman should; using his height, the beautiful trained muscles of his arms, shoulders and chest, he sends his arrows snapping straight to the eye of the target. The he holds out his arm, for someone to unstrap and restrap the royal armguard; for someone to change his bow, and bring him a choice. A cringing slave hands a napkin, to mop his forehead, and picks it up from where the king has dropped it; and then, exasperated, one shot or two falling wide, the King of England snaps his fingers, for God to change the wind.
Pat: What a knockout paragraph! I thought I knew the meaning of “the divine right of kings,” but until Henry snaps his fingers at God “to change the wind,” I didn’t realize the unbelievable power people believed (and Henry himself believes) deity has given to royalty.
Doris: What makes this a great paragraph is that history has left us with an image of Henry VIII as a big fat man, but in this scene he’s tall and muscular—beautiful, even. There’s a sort of intimacy learning about one of his great pleasures, practicing with bow and arrow several times a week, no matter what—and he’s good at it. (Obama plays basketball and golf. Picture him drawn with Hilary Mantel’s pen.)
Pat: I’m not a fan of historical fiction usually, especially novels about British royalty, but this passage changes all that. When you read it, Doris, I didn’t want to leave that scene, didn’t care that every other character is named Thomas, stopped worrying I’d lose track of the chronology. It’s so heady and lush and surprising, I just want to keep reading, even if the book has another 600 pages to go.
Doris: Let’s take a look, too, at the author’s deliberately weird use of pronouns.
The scene is this: Cromwell takes Rafe, 7 years old, into his own household to raise and educate. Rafe will become like a son to Cromwell, and eventually his chief clerk. As the two journey through a wild rainstorm, Rafe asks in a distinct, polite tone:
“What place is this?”
“London,” he said. “Fenchurch Street. Home.“
He took a linen towel and gently blotted from his face the journey just passed. He rubbed his head. Rafe’s hair stood up in spikes. Liz [Cromwell’s wife] came in.
“Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?” Rafe turned his face to her. He smiled. He slept on his feet.
Doris: In the underlined part above, who is “he,” and why would Hilary Mantel deliberately mix up the references? An editor seems to have persuaded Mantel write more clearly in the sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” but here it may be that Mantel wants the reader to feel so deeply immersed in events that we’ll just know by instinct who’s doing what.
Pat: This a mesmerizing novel in which Julius, a psychiatrist in residence at a New York hospital, has taken to walking the streets between shifts, noticing things. He refers to entering “dark rooms” — meaning the minds of his patients — and we see him interpreting scenes in the city from his own “dark room,” as in this paragraph, when he decides to take the subway during rush hour. As the crowds ahead of him swarm down the steps, this thought occurs:
The subway stations served as recurring motives in my aimless progress. The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Above ground I was with thousands of others in their solitude; but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified.
There’s nothing new about feeling alone in the midst of the crowds, but here the narrator takes us quite a bit further — maybe into his own gloom, sure, but something rings universally true about his idea of rush hour as a “counterinstinctive death drive.”
I remember taking the subway in New York every day with thousands of commuters and thinking this is insane; what are we all doing, living like this? But I couldn’t articulate the feeling, not the way this author does. And those sooty screeching subway cars packed to the windows with bodies that never, ever make eye contact– well, no wonder he uses the term “movable catacombs.” That really nailed it for me.
Doris: I tend to picture this scene in the summer, since I grew up in New York and remember how hot and humid it can get in already suffocating conditions. Down in the subway where everybody’s sweating profusely, the more packed the cars get, the more chance for something awful to happen.
Pat: We don’t have time to pursue his reference to “reenacting unacknowledged traumas,” except to say this: His sense of the mood of New York since the attacks on 9/11 attunes Julius’ eye, makes it sharp and peculiarly sensitive to choices about death that have already been made. He sees something off, in a foreboding way — something anxious and worrisome — about everything from the Statue of Liberty to the way birds migrate to midtown museums to an “anxiety that cloaked the city” long before 9/11.
But you know, there’s something liberating in this moment, too. Over and over, books remind us that we don’t have to think like everybody else — our minds are free to explore every kind of thought, especially those that are forbidden or seen as kind of ghoulish, even when New York commuters are described as lemmings rushing off the cliff. It’s disturbing, but if there’s a kernel of truth to his observation, our own perceptions are deepened and enriched.
Doris: This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but also ironic and funny. It takes place between the mid-1920s and early ’40s in Kansas City, and describes a marriage, an upper-middle class lifestyle, and a woman whose life is constrained by what she’s been raised to know is “right.” Hers is a Father-knows-best world.
I’d like to read you the very first paragraph in the book, as an introduction to the book’s main character. It’s very short:
Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.
After this introduction, the author takes us fast forward through courtship and marriage, and on page 2, we read:
For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when [her husband] fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.
This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.
Doris: The leading line here: “She was in such demand…” suggests celebrity, someone booked well in advance. We think of supply and demand, of popularity on a grand scale, but the author doesn’t mean that here. He’s talking about sex. Sex between two inexperienced people. We gather in this paragraph, without the author saying so, that before their marriage, Walter and India were not intimate. We are surprised at India even being able to speak to her husband about her desire. In fact, I stopped to try to imagine what words she used…
And then for Walter to fall asleep! Maybe he misunderstood her, maybe he was sleeping while she “spoke of her own desire” and so missed her request. It’s sadly funny and so true, and then we see what Mrs. Bridge learned from the experience: marriage might be equitable, but love isn’t. And this made me really wonder in what way she found marriage equitable, because what we think of as equitable today is not what people thought about relationships back then.
Pat: I first thought that Mrs. Bridge’s ability to express her desire for physical intimacy is just astonishing for her time. But so little about women’s sexual wanting in marriage has been described in literature that we can’t conclude anything about her plea to him. Maybe women over the centuries often indicate their needs in bed while husbands respond with amiable but colossal indifference. We do know that Mrs. Bridge accepts a future without sexual satisfaction and will look for fulfillment elsewhere — that’s an “equitable” marriage to her mind. What remains in the reader’s mind, I think, is how succinctly the author has summed up the entire disposition of her discovery, and we’re only on page 2.
The Garden of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng
Myrmidon (UK), Weinstein/Perseus
Pat: People who study literature often say that vocabulary is half the battle in writing fiction. So here’s a not-very-good novel in which the author shows a gift for transporting us by a single word — and this word is so unexpected that it changes our whole idea of what’s going on.
The novel is set in the jungles of Malaysia in the 30s and 40s, but much of the writing describes a world of nature that could occur anywhere. I’ve put the single-word phenomenon in bold below:
The lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.
A willow grew a few feet away, its branches sipping from the pond.
A character sees the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops.
In a flashback, a Japanese pilot watches his close friend start to take off in a kamekaze warplane. The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.
(Side note re kamikaze – the novel tells us that Japanese pilots were originally referred to as Cherry Blossoms, “blooming for just a brief moment of time before they fell.” In fact, research reveals, the image of “beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor” was so compelling that on aircraft carriers, “young girls would line the runway and wave branches of cherry blossoms as the pilots took off on their attacks.” See http://greggchadwick.blogspot.com/2005/05/cherry-blossoms-and-kamikaze.html )
From the quiet of a mountaintop: A pair of storks, their wings edged with a singe of gray, sprang off from the treetops and flew over a hill, heading for valleys hidden from our sight. It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.
At the waterfall, the spray opened its net of whispers over us, rinsing the air with moisture that had traveled all the way from the mountain peaks, carrying with it the tang of trees and mulch and earth
An early morning view: The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.
Above the trees, the line of the mountains serrated the sky.
When the main character opens up rooms that have been closed for decades, she notices: Cobwebs muffle the rafters, the husks of consumed insects hanging in them like tiny, primitive bells.
A waterfall pours over the outcrop of a cliff, the water broadening into a white feather as it fell, to be swept away by the wind before it could reach the earth.
After watching a meteor shower: The torrent of falling stars dried up, but the sky continued to exhale a luminance, as though it had retained the light from the meteors. Perhaps the illumination was trapped not in the sky but in our eyes, in our memory.
Here are some sentences that stun us not because of a single word but a phrase that freeze-frames the image:
In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.
The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing.
How it feels to be an Alzheimer’s patient: I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void
At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s lightbulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.
Pat: I’m especially taken by the quote above. It shows how effortlessly the author places us inside the mind of the moth, which has confused the light bulb with the sun … and we agree with the moth! From its point of view and its span of life, the light globe is “the heart of the sun.”
Here’s another point-of-view image, looking at the increasing use of barbed wire wound around houses as a security measure: In the last light of sunset, the drops of dew clinging to the barbs glinted like venom on the tips of a serpent’s fangs
Doris: I also admire these excerpts, but I notice how much more you’re attracted to the use of metaphor than I am. So many uses of “like” to project imagery makes me a bit wary.
Pat: You’re right, I love metaphors (when used well!) to the point of swooning because the truths they reveal go very deep in the reader’s psyche without ever being held to the scrutiny of scientific fact. They have the power of dreams in that way. Sometimes it’s that glimpse of one’s subconscious upon waking that follows you around for hours, affecting everything you do because it feels so true. To me that’s what metaphor does on the printed page.
Doris: Well, it shows you how subjective fiction can be. Different people warm to the many gifts of storytelling in different ways.
Doris: John Gardner was a wonderful teacher of writing as well as an acclaimed novelist, and in this excerpt he’s talking as much about the way fiction can transport us as about the character who makes that discovery.
Here’s the scene: An elderly brother and sister live together. He’s a very irritable old man, maybe a little crazy, and has just chased his sister upstairs and locked her in her room. There she notices, on the floor and under the table, a dog-eared paperback, torn half to pieces, the binding glue weakened so that pages are loose, and great chunks of the story are fallen away. She begins reading.
Sally Abbot read without commitment at first, just a hint of curiosity and a tentative willingness to perhaps be amused. But quite imperceptibly the real world lost weight and the print on the page gave way to images, an alternative reality more charged than mere life, more ghostly yet nearer, suffused with a curious importance and manageability. She began to fall in with the book’s snappy rhythms, becoming herself more wry, more wearily disgusted with the world—not only with her own but with the whole “universe,” as the book kept saying—a word that hadn’t entered Sally’s thoughts in years. Life became larger, in vibration to such words, and she, the observer and container of this universe, became necessarily more vast than its space, became indeed (though she would not have said so) godlike. By degrees, without knowing she was doing it, she gave in to the illusion, the comforting security of her vantage point, until whenever she looked up from the page to rest her eyes, it seemed that the door, the walls, the dresser, the heavy onyx clock had no more substance than a plate-glass reflection; what was real and enduring was the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.
Doris: I chose this excerpt because it describes so exactly the magic of reading. In a paragraph like this, the real world loses weight, words become images and the reality we enter is of a different quality than outside a book — more charged, Gardner shows us, more ghostly yet nearer.
Pat: And the wondrous “reveal,” if I may use a popular term, is that Sally has been imprisoned in that room, but the moment the words cease to be coded little symbols and the story takes hold in her mind, she is liberated. She is gone from that room, that horrible brother, and lives to pursue only “the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.“ It’s just a sensational adventure, the act of reading.
Choose Your Own Autobiography
Neil Patrick Harris
Crown, Three Rivers
Pat: I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Neil Patrick Harris’s memoir and laughing out loud every few minutes.. He’s an actor you may remember who started out years ago as a teen prodigy in the TV series Dougie Houser MD and most recently a sitcom I’ve found very boring but who cares called How I Met Your Mother. He’s infused enormous vitality into hosting the Tony Awards on Broadway and won a Tony himself in a complicated role as Hedwig in the stage adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Writing his autobiography he decided not to go the conventional route. He tells us that growing up as a young reader he fell in love with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of Young Adult novels in which you, the reader, can decide to leave, say, the current astronaut plot and flip to another page where you can become a detective, or another to become a cowboy, and so forth.
So he’s now written this memoir entirely in the 2nd person himself: You the reader get to BE Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s cut his own story into several parts so that on any given page, you can go off into another direction of your choosing — you can be the star of Dougie Houser MD or the idealistic young character he once played in Rent or the rising real-life singer/acrobat/gay dad/magician he’s become in real life. I listened to him narrate this book and it’s a lot of fun; but sorry to say the actual physical copy has been so larded with bad cartoons that it looks like a junkyard between covers.
Still, the fun is that Neil Patrick Harris loves being a magician so much that he provides actual do-it-yourself magic tricks in this book where you take a deck of cards, for example, go through simple instructions he lays out and end up with, voila! the very card you held up in Step #1. “If I were there, I’d take a bow,” he says amusingly, and I’d sure applaud.
But what I like best about Harris are behind-the-scenes glimpses he provides at the way show business really works, which is to say insanely and strangely, and actors who turn out to be particularly, well, nuts. You don’t expect that from a celebrity biography because people in Hollywood worry about getting sued, which is why what he says about the actor Anne Heche is so intriguing.
Anne Heche is a pretty good actor who had that headline-making affair with Ellen Degeneres and then wandered off talking in a foreign tongue of her own making, ostensibly because she was on prescription drugs, after which she wrote a book called Call Me Crazy. Her career got a little rocky soon after, but she’s now starring in a TV series called Dig and seems to be doing well.
So: What knocked me out in Neil Patrick Harris’s book is his description of working with Anne Heche, in 2002, when the two appeared on Broadway in a play called Proof. He writes that at the first rehearsal, Anne Heche announced, “Wow, how do you theater people do the same thing every night? I just don’t get it. I don’t work that way.”
She meant it. For the duration of the show’s run, he says, the crew and cast discovered that “Anne Heche is the kind of costar who decides one night, for no reason whatsoever, to shout all her lines. And on another night not to pause for the entire performance. One night you watch as she delivers all her lines as single rapid fire eruptions, as if every monologue is one unimaginably long German compound word.
Well, I love that kind of — okay, I want to say deliciously telltale backstage stuff but I also mean that kind of you-are-there honesty that puts readers in the author/actor’s shoes trying to remember lines while the star throws the whole play off balance by going bananas.
One night, Harris says, Heche played the role entirely offstage. Other times when his character was supposed to kiss her passionately, she made it appear that he was disgusting, just to see how it would feel. She also doodled on her outfits in permanent marker so the wardrobe department was forced to create different costumes for her every night..
I bring this up not because it’s exceptionally written — the writing is fine and workmanlike — and not because Neil Patrick Harris is gossipy or mean, either. Rather he has a point to make about live theater as a collaborative effort in which director, cast, crew and wardrobe must block out every word to achieve the kind of deliberate spontaneity that makes live theater work.
After all, as he says, In the world of the play, any particular night is the same night it always is.
That’s the intriguing contradiction that stopped me. He wants us to know that in live theater, every aspect is invented, rehearsed and choreographed so it looks impulsive and unrehearsed. And this slavish devotion to doing the same thing every night, as if it happened only once, has to be maintained so exactly that the audience remains completely in the thrall of the playwright’s creation.
So Harris is saying that Anne Heche wasn’t just messing around on the stage of Proof; she was crippling “the world of the play,” and the cast was lucky that some critics bought it. The New York Times critic said Heche turned Proof into “quite a snappy show” due to her rapid-fire delivery that night. “Boy, she talks fast,” wrote admiringly, “sometimes accelerating into chipmunk territory.”
The World Rushed In
Simon & Schuster
Doris: This is a book about the California gold rush, published in 1981. The author had been given William Swain’s extraordinary gold rush diary and had promised his mentor that he would write Swain’s story. But Holliday’s vision was bigger than one man’s experience. He wanted a book that would be an authentic, vicarious experience for the modern reader.
So when Swain wrote entries that were brief or repetitive, when he concentrated on himself to the exclusion of the larger scene around him, Holliday would quote other diarists and letter writers who were at the same place at the same time, and who wrote more descriptively, observantly, or factually. These accounts enrich and balance the Swain record.
Holliday also collected the letters William sent home, and the letters he received from his wife and brother. The diaries and letters follow this 27-year-old gold seeker from his peach farm in Youngstown, New York, to the diggings north of San Francisco, in three parts: the overland journey, life in the mining camps, and the homeward journey—and they allow us to see the other side of the story: the story of families left behind.
That latter aspect is what I’d like to read a bit of, from William’s wife Sabrina. He’d been gone about a month when she wrote this, and she has received one letter from him so far. She refers to a neighbor, Mrs. Bailey, in the following. Mr. Bailey is traveling with William:
June 26, 1849:
After getting your letters, I took them and went down to see Mrs. Bailey, and I read some parts of them to her. She said Mr. Bailey had mentioned some sickness amongst them, but from what she said, I took it to be nothing serious. I hope you will not keep anything back, let it be ever so bad. Nothing could make me feel worse than I do now. I am all the time framing up something that will befall you. I do not place that confidence in God that I ought to; still, I feel that His arm is able to protect you in your absence. But the loss of your society is great, and the longer you are gone the less reconciled I feel. My dear, I feel sometimes as though I should sink under it. I am confident that it wears on me. You know, William that I am of a very nervous temperament and for that reason I cannot get along with it as well as I could were I not.
I assure you of one thing, and that is, if God spares you to get home again, I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left. However, my dear, I never have been sorry that I acted the part I did in letting you go, but I think I should act otherwise were it to be done again. This may, as I hope and trust, be a good lesson for us both. It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together. I, however, have one thing to comfort me, that we always did live agreeably when together, and often does my mind revert to the times and places that we have been and enjoyed ourselves together. Yet with all this, we cannot realize our attachments and fondness for one another until we are deprived of the society of those fond ones.
Pat: Most stunning to me about this letter is how eloquently she writes, especially when we remember there were no computers or typewriters or White-Out, heaven knows, in those days, and she had to write in indelible ink, hoping the pages would survive what must have been a four- or five-month-long journey. He had the adventure, but for his wife, the waiting was excruciating.
Doris: And she has this conflict that couldn’t have been easy to express: She urges him not to hold anything back by way of bad news because she can’t feel worse than she already does. She doesn’t completely trust God, but she’s trying. And let’s not forget her nature: she’s of a very nervous temperament!
Pat: Yes, at first that seems wholly true, but her voice is so direct and uncompromising that she begins to sound like a big solid oak tree back there at home, waiting for as long as it takes.
Doris: That sentence that describes her love — “I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left” — is about as ferociously explicit as letter-writing got for their time. Although she assures him she’s not sorry she let him go, the letter makes it clear she wouldn’t do it again. That steadfast nature leads her to the only positive lesson she can find in their separation: “It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together.”
Pat: A great lesson for any age. And the title of Holliday’s book is so apt for us in 2015. The world most certainly did rush into Northern California when gold was discovered in 1848, and historians said that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Yet today the “tech migration” is rushing into San Francisco once again, looking not for gold but Internet startups. (Plus the streets are lined with soaring property values.)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Pat: We certainly don’t expect humor from two exhausted doctors standing in the rubble of war, but here in 2004 during the 2nd Chechen war, one doctor, Sonya, speaking of a friend who lives in London and knows what’s going on in the world, tells her colleague Akhmed:
“Last month he told me that George Bush had been reelected.”
“Who’s that?” said Akhmed.
“The American president,” Sonja said, looking away.
“I thought Ronald McDonald was president,” Akhmed said.
“You can’t be serious.”…
“Wasn’t it Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall?”
Pat: It’s very funny, probably accurate, and of course for some readers, this doctor is right: Americans did have a clown for a president who talked like Ronald McDonald at the time. But that’s not the reason I loved this novel. It’s full of the kind of casual details, quietly tossed into descriptive paragraphs, that surprise us with images we will never forget.
For example, when bombs destroy a village in Chechnya, not all of them explode, and thelocal doctors end up performing thousands of amputations because people step on them and they do explode. Here’s what happens when villagers figure out what to do, as explained from the point of view of a young Chechen girl named Havaa:
No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded bombshells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa’s parents, among other villagers, pried toilet bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and, dragging them upside down and two by two, gently set them over the unexploded bombs. Havaa would never forget the sight. So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn’t pass for weeks, and in that time she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke.
Doris: I loved reading that novel, but I didn’t remember this amazing scene about the upended toilets until you read that passage. It just goes to show how fast I was turning the pages to find out what happens in Marra’s riveting story.
Pat: Yes, the story just pulls us in from page on. In fact, I think I would have avoided a novel about Chechnya because the history of the country is so bleak, but thanks to Marra’s spellbinding characterizations and his ability to fracture chronology in a way that doesn’t confuse but actually clarifies the story, I got hooked before I knew it.
Here’s another quote that stopped me for its word selection alone– it’s about what happens to two starving people in wartime who fall in love and finally decide to become intimate:
They undressed by degree, a button here, a shirtsleeve there making a show of their shortcomings, their bodies androgynous with deprivation.
Doris: Wow. Here’s a sentence that’s so condensed and succinct, with every word invaluable and not a comma wasted, that it truly befits characters in wartime who are down to nothing — until they find each other.