Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Salon June 23.

   Soft rain outside. A perfect reading day ---  but not for me.
Quick post. I work today.   
 Finished my review/response to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.  Powerful, vibrant book. Now reading The Man in the Wooden Hat.  I love Jane Gardam’s wit.  
May you all have wonderful reading Sundays, Sunday Saloners.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Vivid imagery, jagged puzzle pieces dominate Kevin Powers’ "The Yellow Birds"

The greater part of the untested men appeared quiet and absorbed. They were going to look at war, the red animal--war, the blood-swollen god.
--The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Ninevah and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
-- opening lines of  The Yellow Birds- Kevin Powers.

     Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds begins in a poem and ends as a novel. Private John Bartle recalls the 10 months he shared with Private Daniel Murphy from boot camp to combat in Al Tafar, Ninevah Province, Iraq, when he was 21 and Murphy just 18.  The story he tells spans the days from September 2004 to April 2009, and includes his personal war and its aftermath, what is clinically referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – the shattered self he brings when he returns home.
Lyrical lines (cited above) launch a fragmented meditation on war that sidles before settling into story. So melded, neither form completely cleaves to the other.
     That passage full with alliterative spill and shards of images from ancient epics evokes a stripped down version of primordial warrior tales like Gilgamesh or Beowulf.  Powers’ “War” contains fragments of beasts and fire-breathing dragons --in rib bones and white eyes. It involves primal activities: praying, eating, lovemaking, birthing and spreading through fire.  “War,” as used here, could apply to troops, the enemy or that vaguer nightmare beast men fight within themselves.
Bartle can’t make connections, can only cough up fragments.
So he sidles in and starts with images before settling into story, and even then images are unconnected.
     Parallel snowstorms, for example, hold no significance: “At one time you could have asked me if I thought the snow meant something and I would have said yes. I might have thought there was significance to the fact that there had been snow on the day Murph had come into my life and snow on the day I had willed myself into the one that had been taken from him.”   
    The story only comes in dislocated spurts: a letter sent to Murphy’s mother; boot camp where the violence-indulgent Sergeant Sterling assigns Murph to Bartle’s care:  “All right, little man,” he said, “I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and stay there.”; a drunken evening in a German brothel that ends somehow on a riverbank; a salt-sowing ritual from Judges (the book of the Bible) that turns up a body; removing a body bomb from a bridge; Murph showing signs of unraveling.
    How and why Murph comes apart drives the plot. The subtler story is how Bartle reconnects.  In a telling moment, a visiting reporter asks what war feels like. Murph responds: It’s like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car.  Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not. It’s kind of like that,” he continued “like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.”
     In the early chapters, Bartle only suggests outlines of the car wreck, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.
       What he does provide is an almost hallucinogenic swirl of imagery – colors of the sky, the orchard, the town, the fires;  smells – the stench of trash, sewage, cured lamb and the dead. Like Stephen Crane’s impressionistic vision of the Civil War, writer Powers gives his hyper-vigilant narrator heightened sensory imaging and imprinting along with lowered sensory processing.  A dizzying intensity results. Here’s a description of a orchard with a flock of birds: “When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling. The sunlight fell absently through the spaces in the treetops, here and there glistening as if on water from smudges of bird blood and citrus.”
       Chapters describing combat events give way to those describing the plane ride and the hero’s welcome, a welcome that only makes him feel like a sham. Home is near Richmond, Virginia, where it’s impossible to ever fit in again.  
       Finally more than half way through the book, the pieces start coming together like a jigsaw puzzle at last revealing its contours and subject. Rivers and bridges are used as motifs, and it is on a bridge that Bartle reveals a gush of guilt. Bartle who could not connect snowstorms somehow- maybe subconsciously - connects rivers. Once bridged, past and present gallop to the finish.  The last third is a rush to reveal the book’s secrets.  The jigsaw puzzle’s contours and picture emerge though still some content remains blurred and vague.
      Whew, is my response to the ending. I’m glad I stayed with this, though I almost didn’t.
     Bartle’s disjointed narrative disorients the reader.  What must have been hard to write at times proves hard to read; those early pages seemed tediously vibrant, as if they were going nowhere.
     Kevin Powers knows his material.  Like Murph, he as 17 when he enlisted and then served in served in the U.S. Army in 2005 and 2006 in Tal Afar, Iraq. After an honorary discharge, he attended college and then earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin.  
         I can not imagine what his own experience was. I assume he drew on some of it and that of those he knew to create this work of fiction.  If he, like so many veterans returning from Iraq and now Afghanistan, suffered even a smidgen of post-traumatic stress, he likely found writing the novel a way to make connections, to process, to heal.  Now, he has only to recover from the relative nurturing of his MFA program.  He’s already proved he’s a fine writer adding to and drawing from a long tradition of war stories, beginning with the most ancient (also from what is now Iraq), Gilgamesh.  As in Gilgamesh he writes of a lost warrior brother – complete with a parallel visit to a watery netherworld; like Crane he  mixes vivid impressionism with realism; like  Tim O’Brien, his themes include the things and people back home.
     I look forward to Powers’ next work, hoping it will spare me the necessary disjointedness of this one.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recovering from whirlwind grandchildren

Sunday Salon, June 16, 2013

 Didn’t post last week because I had a granddaughters day – 2 year old Stella Joy and 5 year old Anna Grace came to play for 2 days. We beached it and went to the library, read books, did play homework, made marble slide towers, made cookies, built houses, practiced handstands, walked the dog, jumped on the beds and had a dance party.

Whew! I do not know how young mothers get through the day. Let alone two.  The girls’ dad came and picked them up and I was relieved to go back to my part-time job  -- exhausted.
So needless to say, I didn’t read – except for dozens of old children’s classics – Suess books and the Little Engine that Could, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, etc.  And then later in the week I finished Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. I am in the midst of composing my review. One of the reasons I like writing about books is that I see them differently as I write; they change in the kaleidoscope vision of composing. What made little sense, now makes so much more. That’s particularly true of this book. It’s coming together more the more I consider it. Review to be posted soon.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What an elder leaves behind revealed in Jane Gardam's Old Filth

Many writers pen promising coming-of-age novels. Few master the parting-of-the-aged novel as Jane Gardam does in Old Filth.

            Gardam’s great skill is in making old age as perilous an adventure to navigate as adolescence. Compassionately and humorously she describes the gaffes and awkwardness of a man in his late 70s and early 80s, complete with emotional angst, impulsive actions, sexual moments, embarrassing predicaments, harrowing driving and self-discovery. Body and mind have regular surprises in store. In place of pimples, raging hormones and growth spurts, there are creaky bones, forgetfulness and memories flooding the mind. Like a 13-year old, this elder, Old Filth, is often out of place in the world.
Old Filth?
What kind of filth is old? And who might be old and filthy?
Certainly not the honorable retired Judge Edward Feathers, formerly of the Far East, now residing in Dorset, described as “spectacularly clean.”
On page one we learn Old Filth’s an acronym for “Failed In London Try Hong Kong,” said to have been invented by Feathers, who now bears it as a nickname.
 Old Filth has carefully established his stately persona. Few suspect what lurks beneath such distinguished exterior. Two peers talk:
“Remarkably well-preserved.”
“Pretty easy life. Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.”
  Some of that nothing:
·      Born in Malaya. His mother died in childbirth. His father ignored him.
·      Raised until age 5 by natives, then sent to Wales as  “a Raj orphan,” to be raised in foster care with two cousins, Babs and Claire as well as the unrelated Billy Cumberledge. The children suffer some unspeakable damage and are sent separate ways.
·      Boarding school where Edward undergoes a thorough and strict education under the direction of the headmaster, “Sir” and meets fellow student, Pat Ingoldsby, whose family impacts his life.
·      A life-changing, near deadly, ship voyage during WWII.
·       Edward enlists and passes the war holding knitting yarn for one of England’s celebrities.
·      Poor, he goes to Hong Kong where he makes a fortune and then retires to Dorset and the quiet life with Betty, his wife.
·      They determine to make their “Wills.” But who are they to leave all to?
·      Betty dies.  Her secret life, her secret wishes revealed.
·      Old Filth falls apart, revisits his cousins and his failures. He distributes Betty’s treasures.
·      A few years later he meets the one man he disliked most in his life, Terry Veneering, who becomes his best friend, an event called the beginning of “enlightenment.”
·      Enlightenment means coming to terms with his childless marriage, his childhood actions.
·      He takes another life-changing journey.

Old Filth’s story spans nearly a century and traverses continents. He and his acquaintances are impacted by two world wars, the end of the British Empire, even 9/11. Given span alone, Gardam’s work is edifying and extraordinary.
But it’s in describing the bumbling mind and gawky body, the ordinary challenges and odd preoccupations of old people that Gardam’s work truly gives pleasure with her gentle humor.
Filth ruminates in the bath, “idly watching his old greying pubic hair floating like fern on the delicious hot water.”
Followed by:  “He turned his lanky frame so that he was on all fours, facing the porcelain floor of the bath, balanced on his spread hands and his sharp knees (one of them none too excellent), and slithered his feet about to get some sort of purchase near the taps. Slowly the long length of his arose, feet squeaking a little.
 Images layer themselves.  Water in the drain becomes a former river. Filth’s mind often segues from the present to daydreams of the past. Later, past and present merge when Filth falls ill.
Filth drives his old Mercedes on a busy roadway he has not negotiated before. His mind speeds up and drifts as it observes the roadway, and two trucks fence him in: “Two dragons, Machiavellis, each carrying a dozen or so motor-cars on its back, like obscene, louse-laden animals…”  One toot and yer oot,” as the bishop said to the old girl with the ear-trumpet. Wherever did that come from? Too much litter in old brains.”
And it is on this journey he confirms he no longer fits in.
Having survived – just barely – the motorway, he goes to a small cafe where he sits at a plastic table.  “The waitress looked at his suit and tie with dislike. The man at the next table was wearing denim trousers with his knees protruding, and a vest. Brassy rings were clipped to all visible orifices.”
 Such contrast with youth is further underscored when Feathers meets a young lawyer Cousin Claire’s son’s romantic partner, Vanessa.  The chapter serves as a nexus on one of the book’s main themes – work and marriage. Two lawyers from different times, each insults the other. Vanessa makes assumptions about his career. Filth makes assumptions about her partnership.  Both also have chance encounters with the local vicar, who seems to have the uncanny ability to read their souls. For Filth the encounters offer moments of understanding his marriage with Betty; for the younger lawyer the meetings with Filth and the Vicar change the course of her “partnership.”
 Throughout Old Filth, old filth is revealed but we are offered only glimpses of Betty – though we often hear her voice in conversations Filth has with her after she’s gone.  The next book in Gardam’s trilogy, The Man with Wooden Hat,  (which I just bought) promises to reveal more.
 She’s already interesting.  Just before her death in the early pages of Filth, she fondles tulip bulbs and recalls the feel of a man’s scrotum.  Instead of planting bulbs, she drops the pearls she’s wearing – those she calls “the guilty ones,” as opposed to  “the famous ones” her husband gave her into the ground. Both sets, like seeds, pass on to a new generation in Old Filth– and are associated with children in different ways. Her voice and her actions provide plenty of intrigue to propel the reader into the next volume.
While a coming-of-age tale tells the story of becoming, this leave-taking one slowly reveals how Edward Feathers becomes what he becomes, and includes the unbecoming. Old Filth also leaves behind a lingering sweetness and sadness.  Only a writer with intimate knowledge of the aging process could write such a book.  Gardam, now 84, had this published in 2004, with the subsequent volumes, The Man with the Wooden Hat in 2009 and Last Friends just this year (2013).
  They are among the pearls she’ll someday leave behind.