Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Salon update 2/26

  Dear Sunday Salon,

 This week I struggled and may have spent more time writing -- and not writing  -- my review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. How do I spend time not writing? Solitaire, Pinterest,  Facebook, the news.  I sit at the computer and do everything but write.  The Sense of an Ending.  What a good book. It was so tiny, so worthwhile and so hard to get my head around.  A book to think about. It won last year’s Man Booker prize.
So next up for review is Jussi-Adler Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes. I go back to page-turning mysteries after read-me-twice dense literary fiction.  I enjoyed Keeper, mostly for the interaction between the two crime solvers. Not so much for the plot, though I admired how it worked, and the way it played with themes of suicide and pressure.  But, this was another one of those thrillers where I felt the possible movie version hovering over my shoulder as I read. I’m not sure how I feel about books that seem to be written with a movie in mind. Sometimes it adds; sometimes it takes away. In Keeper, it’s a toss up.
Speaking of movies or at least television shows, I read an interview with one of my current favorite writers, Jo Nesbo, in The Millions. Here’s the link:

            No wonder I like his books. He loves what I love: Elmore Leonard’s works and the current television drama Justified.  I get gleeful reading Leonard – and have going back many years. The characters and dialogue of Justified make me laugh and smile. After reading Nesbo’s interview, I’m going to start watching early seasons of Breaking Bad.
As for reading, I received The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier from Amazon this week. It’s now out in paperback.  My friend Mike suggested I read it and write about it. Also in the stack of possibilities are Mr. g by Alan Lightman – but I will likely sandwich a mystery of some kind in before I take that on.
Finally, I’m feeling the need to reorganize my blog. I want to learn more about the mechanics of blogging – inserting pictures, ‘designing’ pages insofar as that is possible. I just changed the top picture and I while I’m fond of this photo, I’d rather it were about one quarter the size.  I don’t know how to do that.  I’m in desperate need of a gaggle of teenage geeks to serve as computer advisers for me. My brother-in-law is coming this week to visit and though he has gray streaks in his hair and doesn’t blog, tweet or text to my knowledge, he may serve as a good substitute for the teens – he has the computer skills we don’t. Welcome George.

For blog readers:  The Sunday Salon is a group site for book bloggers on Facebook.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Julian Barnes reverses a life's tide in "The Sense of An Ending"

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending begins with a sense of the beginnings.
Splashes of (mostly) watery images dapple the first page, before Tony Webster, the narrator, launches into a discussion about the wavelike malleability of time in a life – how it can slow down, speed up and even disappear.
Tony, in his waning years with most of a very ordinary life behind him, looks back. He says he will relate “a few incidents that have grown to anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.” And so he begins his personal history, part memoir, part coming of age story. His mythology will, in a mere 160 pages,  be challenged, debunked and reversed by unforeseen events so dramatic that the reader will be left reassessing, even recoiling from the self-serving explanations of this intellectual prig.
               But I am ahead of myself. Tony narrates his story, waxing on in an initially inviting voice about a band of schoolboys, chums full of themselves and ideas: “We were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic…  If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche. I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley; Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky.”  They wear their watches on the inside of their wrists as a symbol of their unity and call up the clique’s refrain, “That’s philosophically self-evident,” whenever applicable.
Tony is not without intellectual charm, but Adrian outshines them all stunning a teacher with his explanations of what is history. When a peer commits suicide after getting a girl pregnant, Adrian finds the event an occasion for philosophical analysis.  He quotes, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” He applies it, speculating on a note left behind by the deceased.  Adrian also cites Camus’ existential ideas about suicide and choice.
               Such theory of philosophy, history and literature full of “eros and thanatos” dominate the boys’ thoughts and delights, though when they look at their parents’ dull lives, they “fear that life wouldn’t turn out like literature.”   Intellectually cocksure and heady, they are virginal innocents with no experience, sexual or otherwise, to anchor their opinions.
The band dissolves. The boys become men and the high-brow discussions of their adolescence on love and death, literature and personal history play out in real, rather than theoretical, ways.
Tony starts “going out” (he explains what this meant in his day) with Veronica. He details the era’s bumbling and groping mutual sexual stimulation, far short of “full sex.” Most people, he tells us “didn’t experience ‘the sixties’ until the seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties – or in my case both decades side by side.”  His love life proceeds on track until he is invited to meet the parents. The disappointing and humiliating weekend – a beginning of the end --  is followed some time later by a nasty break up with recriminations over sex and love.
In the midst of the break-up that Tony inserts a seemingly unrelated description of the most powerful natural occurrence he witnessed during his school days – an image that will come to dominate his remembrance of that time. The Severn Bore, like the Bay of Fundy, displays a tidal river’s periodic dramatic reversal of the direction of water flow.  “It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.”

After the break up, time passes and Tony gets a letter from Adrian letting him know that he is seeing Veronica.  Tony responds in a letter he sums up and dismisses in a short paragraph.  And then because he thinks of himself as “peaceable” and given to “self-preservation” he “successfully puts Veronica out of his mind, out of his history.”  Career, marriage, a child, divorce, grandchildren and retirement ensue.

If Part One concludes with Tony leading a dull, less than literature-worthy existence, Part Two reverses the course of the novel when those formative events flood back into his life.  Tony is bequeathed a small sum along with some documents that bring him back to his mutual history with Veronica and Adrian.
Events will lead him to posit this question, a question fraught with irony given the outcome:

“For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions – resentment, a sense of injustice, relief –and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be a contradiction.  But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?”
             The Sense of an Ending is a small book that seems big.  plays against one of the major works of criticism of the book’s era, Frank Kermode’s The Sense of An Ending, a work published in  that discusses, like Barnes’ novel,  man’s relationship to time,  the concordance of beginnings and endings  and fiction’s role in history and mythology.
Though the novel examines themes of philosophy, history, and literary criticism, it may be most interesting as a tightly woven study of psychological change.  It calls to mind recent work by narrative psychologists, who explore the way narratives shape the self, as well as how the self shapes narrative in order to “self preserve.”
 And it serves as an example in the current psychological emphasis on emotional intelligence.  Though Tony seems an affable story teller at the start, as he proceeds, the reader’s distrust builds. Tony’s not just unreliable, he’s numb, smug and pushy. Repeatedly, Veronica tells him: “You just don’t get it.”
He doesn’t. Nor do we. For he is our filter.
And then he does – as do we. The sense we are left with is revulsion.  In Barnes’ book not only does the main character change over the course of the story, but the reader changes her relation to the narrator.   For all the intellectual arguing, it is sense we are left with at book’s end.
Julian Barnes has achieved a remarkable feat. Adolescence is regarded as the time when the core sense of self forms, one that’s often difficult to change.  Barnes has both illustrated and inverted this process. The final irony may be that by the telling’s end nothing about Tony’s self has changed – and everything has.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Salon: Toes wet

Good morning Sunday Salon,

                New to the waters of the Facebook group, Sunday Salon, I am wading –getting my toes wet.  I admire the ease with which others engage in casual book talk in the Salon, and find I am often more comfortable writing something a little more formal – not quite a full essay but a little more than conversation with friends. So I’m trying something a little more chatty.
               I am slow and getting slower it seems. It has taken me a little more than six months to figure out how to find blogs I like to read and I still don’t have it down.  Apart from loyal friends, family and a handful of new acquaintances, I haven’t a clue as to who reads mine. Audience. How do you know who your readers are? And how does that shape your writing?  It all seems so random.
               Years ago, I read a farewell letter from the publisher and founder of a great, issues-driven alternative newspaper. He was leaving the paper, he said, because he no longer knew who his readers were. That made sense to me. One of the first rules of writing, I had been taught, was know your audience.
                But when I began blogging I told myself audience didn’t matter. I would just write and see what happened. That hasn’t quite worked either. I’m still confused and tentative. It doesn’t help that on many days my stats tell me I have more hits from the Netherlands than from the U.S. Maybe it’s all the Nordic Noir I have been writing about.
     Last week I struggled with my writing. I completed a piece on Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, a book I very much liked.  I also finished Julian Barnes The Sense of An Ending, another great book that will likely take me some time to think and write about, my self-imposed assignment for this week. 
              So given that labor, I decided to switch from literary fiction, back to more page-turning Nordic Noir. I’ve just begun Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

In Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones Esch narrates with visceral vision

            Dirt poor, motherless and pregnant, 15- year-old Esch, tells the story of her family in the 12 days leading up to and through Hurricane Katrina, a storm that blasts her Mississippi home. Jesmyn Ward’s heroine in Salvage the Bones inhabits a vibrant, violent, ramshackle world.
Esch’s mother died in childbirth leaving her the lone female in a family of men full of desperation and desires. When Dad isn’t nursing the loss of his wife with alcohol, he focuses on natural disasters – last year it was tornados, this year it’s the storms brewing in the Gulf. He battens down the house and attends to his truck, hoping not just to survive but to make money using the truck to do odd jobs after the hurricane. As he hunkers down, his distracted boys hanker to save themselves each in his way. Athletic Randall focuses on an upcoming basketball game where he could earn a scholarship to basketball camp and then be noticed by scouts. Skeeter cares for his pitbull, China, a champion in local dog fights, and her litter of pups which Skeeter can sell for enough money to provide for everyone. Tagalong Junior alternately wants to be a part of the action or cling to family members like the life rafts they are.
And then there’s Esch whose currency is her body, a body she’s freely given to any of her brothers’ friends who’s wanted it until she fell deeply in love with Manny, the father of the child she discovers she’s carrying. Problem is 19-year-old Manny’s also got another love interest, the lovelier, lighter-skinned, less available Shaliyah.
Sex isn’t the only way Esch opens her body. She’s acutely attuned to what her world looks like, sounds like, feels like, tastes like and smells like. Jessmyn Ward precedes the novel with three quotes. One, from the poem “Now” by Gloria Fuertes reads:  

               For though I’m small, I know many things,

                              And my body is an endless eye

               Through which, unfortunately, I see everything.” 

Fortunately for the reader Esch’s body takes it all in –birthing; dogfights; man fights; farm accidents; thefts; skinny dipping; pregnancy; hunger; Vienna sausages and potted meat; roasted squirrel; the woods and the fields that surround her home; the scooped out pit full of husks of cars, appliances and an old RV; the skeleton of a nearby house where her grandparents once lived in better days, a house now reduced to scrap they salvage.
Esch describes her world with visceral vision, blending an artist’s eye and poet’s ear with gut responses, transforming what her body tells her into yearning, descriptive language. At times, the reader feels as if we are looking over her shoulder as she sketches line after line showing the muscles of her brothers, bodies in motion, hunger, sweat, and attitudes.
Her language lunges into metaphor, sometimes imperfectly, sometimes achingly beautifully. Wave after wave of sensual description flows, similes made of simple objects are rendered so forcefully that the reader’s mind may wander to beyond Esch’s reaching grasp to Ward’s careful crafting.
Some examples:

“Manny threw a basketball from hand to hand. Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.” (page 5)
“Manny’s face was smooth and only his body spoke: his muscles jabbered like chickens.”  (page 11)
“My eyes wanted to search for Manny so badly the want felt like an itch on my temple, but I kept walking.”  (page 14)
“I can’t remember exactly how I followed Mama because her skin was dark as the reaching oak trees, and she never wore bright colors: no fingernail pink, no forsythia blue, no banana yellow. P 22 (Just what color is forsythia blue?)” (page 22)
 “Randall lets Junior go, and Junior hangs on until he can’t anymore, until his legs turn to noodles and he is sliding down Randall like a pole.” (page 43)
“Junior folds his arms over his chest, his ribs like a small grill burnt black.” (page 44)
“I’m surprised that Daddy doesn’t have that sweet bread smell of morning beer on him.” (page 62)
“We fall into a pace. My face feels tight and hot, and the air coming into my nose feels like water. I am swimming through the air.” (page 66)
 “Daddy is wiggling from underneath the truck. It bulks over him like the rest of the detritus in the yard: refrigerators rusted so that they look like deviled eggs sprinkled with paprika, pieces of engines, a washing machine so old it has an arm that swished the clothes around and looks like a handheld cake mixer.”  (page 89)
“Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in. “(page 91) 

 If Esch seems precocious in her use of figurative language and vocabulary – using words such as desultory, indolently, opaque and detritus --   words beyond the average range of most 15 year-olds --, it may be because she reads. Her English teacher, Mrs. Dedeaux (who shares a last name with Jesmyn Ward’s brother Joshua to whom the book is dedicated) has assigned summer reading. Last year it was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. This year it’s Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Esch connects most directly to the story of Medea and Jason; their myth foils the multiple lover and mother roles she contemplates.
There’s her own lovers’ triangle with Manny choosing coy Shaliyah over Esch after Esch has given him everything.
China sets an example by resembling Medea when she’s fighting the father of her litter or tending to her pups. China’s also fiercely loved by Skeeter, who will do almost anything for her, defying, competing with Dad for resources and even stealing in order to provide for his dog and her pups. In turn, Skeeter, who often seems more attuned to his animals than humans, is closest to Esch and knows her best.
Esch also sees a likeness to Medea in one version of Mother Nature, the wrathful Katrina.
The remembered presence of her mother provides an alternative model of how to be female. Esch recalls the way she gathered eggs, attracted Dad, killed chickens, fished and cooked shark, danced and even gave birth.  These memory remnants reveal a happier, more stable and civilized past, particularly when her grandparents still lived on and farmed the land.
Ward’s book does not rest on character and description alone. Each chapter, each day, brings its own arc -- a crisis, a violent episode, an adventure or a revelation. There’s a lot of blood, several wounds – some only nicks, others requiring more healing.  When Katrina finally hits, the whole rises to a riveting climax followed by a sweet and hopeful denouement.
While Esch may compare her life to ancient Greek myths, my mind wanders to more American archtypes. Esch, the marginalized child of a struggling drunk, has a voice with echoes of an all-American literary hero. Like Huck Finn, she just a kid full of pluck, with a virtuous heart, gritty integrity  and  folksy narrative skills. Whereas his is a quintessentially American male adventure tale --  men and boys running away from mothers and wives,  hers is female, the domestic adventure of women and mothers settling and civilizing among men. Perhaps Mrs. Dedeaux will assign Mark Twain’s s great American novel for summer reading next year so Esch can find her own similarities. 

Note: This is the first book I have chosen to read because of a blog review.  Luke reviewed the book on Basso Profundo, in a shorter, pithier rave than this. Salvage the Bones also won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, an award that seems to most often parallel my literary fiction reading tastes. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On poetic faith

               Reading draws me closer to my most centered, sacred self. I read to escape. I read to connect.
               I open the book’s cover, turn a page and whoosh, I leave quotidian clutter –  dusty floors, dirty dishes,  bills and bank account balances. I don’t see laundry, clutter or what my husband calls my nest – the thatching of books, papers and blankets that surround me. I forget about politics, people who annoy me, things I said but  wish I didn’t, things I should have  said but didn’t  and stories that run through my head.  I barely hear the television, phone or my husband asking me how to spell a word. Like the girl in the bubble, I am (almost) impervious to infectious interruptions and real-life distractions.
               Like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, I watch a new world grow around me. I enter wholeheartedly. I bound off, take sail.
               In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes this as “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”  For me there is little willing; it just happens – and lasts more than moments.  Since adolescence, poetic faith has often come easier than religious faith.  Put another way, it is easier suspend disbelief in a good book than in many churches I’ve attended. There is often some niggling part of the canon or the doctrine that gets in the way of God. But a church isn’t God, and a book isn’t always fictive or non-fictive truth.
               Sometimes, doubt creeps in as I read. I speed ahead, move on or dwell on my unwillingness to go with the book’s flow. The last action sends me directly into my thinking head. I’m dwelling on a book, rather than a person or idea that annoys me. Same bad loop, different target.
                This happened recently. When asked “What do you want for Christmas?,” I thought book, then what book? I picked from a list of a best books, a book that was getting lots of hoopla and notable endorsements, a book I knew little about.
I read the whole thing. Now, I know too much.  I started to brood and write about all my reasons for disliking this book when I realized I had misplaced antagonism. It wasn’t the book that irritated me as much as the marketing. I took a page from a character in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, one of my new favorite books. Miss Lasqueti reads crime novels from the deck chair of an ocean liner and when she doesn’t care for them, she flings them overboard.  I love that gesture. And so I mentally tossed out this work of highly touted literary fiction and watched it sink into the deep blue sea.
               My ease in practicing poetic faith leads me to better understand the other kind, and I make those leaps too.  Reading is high up on the spiral inward as I imagine it, somewhere less drifty than daydreaming, but more active than the states described in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Pratyahara, a withdrawal/control the senses, Dharana – one pointed focus or concentration and Dhyana:  a state of meditation.
I wonder if neuroscientists stuck electrodes all over my head while I read what they might learn about my suspended state. In the last few days news out of UCC Berkeley describes how it’s possible to decode single heard words, news that has led to “mind-reading” headlines, headlines then cleverly debunked in the first paragraph as well, not really mind reading but getting closer.  I most like the LA Times description of it as mind listening or eavesdropping.
(For those interested in the science here’s a link to the paper by Brian Pasley, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the "Reconstructing Speech From Human Auditory Cortex,";jsessionid=F6204EAE7CA5D03F83C4BC791EBEEFDD) Google mind reading in news for various reports of the story.
So far, says the LA Times, “the researchers’ brain code allows them to translate only words that the brain actually hears, not words that the brain thinks up on its own.”
If journalists can imagine this as a step towards mind reading, it’s less of a leap for me to imagine scientists reading the story in my mind as I read it on the page. Questions: Would it be a different story?  Would it record backtracking, interpreting, connecting and niggling?  What would flinging the book overboard look like to electrode readers? Finally, would it record the kind of serenity described as a quality in another character in Ondaatje’s in The Cat’s Table?The narrator Michael describes a reader:

Mr. Fonseka seemed to draw forth an assurance of a calming quality from the books he read. He’d gaze into an unimaginable distance (one could almost see the dates flying off the calendar) and quote lines written in stone or papyrus. …..Mr. Fonseka would not be a wealthy man. And it would be a spare life he would be certain to lead as a schoolteacher in some urban location. But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.”
I surround myself with stacks. I helmet my head with words. I cover my heart with the armour of books.