Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Farm Dies Once a Year

Here is my review from Washington Independent Review of Books:

If you’ve ever shopped at a farmer’s market, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve never shopped at one, this account of life on a fruit and vegetable farm in Pennsylvania will make you want to try it. And if you regularly shop at the New Morning Farmmarket in Washington, D.C. — as I have for the past several years — Crawford’s intensely personal memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is a must-read.

Four decades ago, Crawford’s parents started New Morning Farm, and although the name came from a Bob Dylan album, the farm was not some hippy-ish return to nature. From the beginning, the project entailed the hard work and heartbreak that goes with working the land. Crawford’s father abandoned law school in the 1970s to take up farming, and over the years, his father turned New Morning Farm into a successful business that grosses half a million dollars a year — though after paying for wages, seed, equipment, and maintenance, the net proceeds make for a modest income.

At 31, Crawford, dissatisfied with his work at a museum in Cambridge, Mass., and the lack of direction in his life, returned to his family’s farm during the summer season. He joined the staff of apprentices in taking care of the myriad tasks on the farm: planting, trimming, staking, and harvesting the strawberries, squash, lettuce, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, and other crops. With vivid language, Crawford describes this work as hot, buggy, and dirty, stretching into 13- and 14-hour days at the height of the season. Unlike his previous job at the museum, where he worked on projects that “had a checklist, a clear set of milestones,” farming allowed him to immerse himself “in the summer, a wide, warm ocean with no shore in sight and no landmarks to swim toward.”

But A Farm Dies Once a Year is about more than vegetables or farming. It is about fathers and sons, childhood and trauma, roots and ambitions. It is about self-discovery and self-fulfillment — those elusive goals that may be permanently beyond our reach.

Much of the book deals with Crawford’s father, a man he clearly admires and respects despite being keenly aware of his father’s flaws — notably the emotional distance that his all-consuming passion for making a go of the farm sometimes created. When Crawford returned to the farm, he attempted to construct a primitive shelter for himself and his girlfriend, and his father pointed out that the posts for the platform weren’t “true,” so the whole structure would wobble and collapse. “Finding these kinds of mistakes was my father’s specialty,” Crawford mused in one of his many riffs on his father. His father’s business for 40 years required “tempering his enthusiasms with an obsessive attention to detail”: “He looked over a freshly plowed field and saw where the drainage would be bad, examined a truckload of ripe peaches and picked out the first ones to rot, looked at a new puppy and saw the dead chickens it would eventually drag into the yard.”

Crawford also returned to the farm to find out more about a dramatic incident that had marked his childhood — the murder of his father’s close friend who also had left the city to take up farming. The killing capped a banal argument over barking dogs that annoyed the horses of an alcoholic neighbor, who, Crawford concluded, harbored a deeper resentment of city folks invading the countryside. This violent act left Crawford insecure and worried about his parents’ safety.

Crawford’s fears resurfaced the summer he returned. He and his father had a tense encounter with some locals as his father showed him around the farm his father owned before New Morning. After the murder of his father’s friend, Crawford became aware that even minor tensions have the potential to explode in violence, and his unease about the murder prompted him to visit the murdered man’s farm and even to seek out his daughter in Maine. Dealing with this trauma was one facet of Crawford’s coming to terms with his roots.

A Farm Dies Once a Year reaches a climax (of sorts) when the author describes his trip to Washington, D.C., for the Saturday morning market in a schoolyard in Cleveland Park, the culmination of the week of farming and harvesting. His rendition of his father’s patter as he roamed around the market, touting this kohlrabi, that batch of corn, these green beans at the peak of perfection, is so spot-on that it vouches for the accuracy of all his other observations.

It is in fact the vividness and economy of the author’s narration — his attention to detail in a language that is lean and colorful — that makes this book, along with the subject itself, such compelling reading. Often earnest, A Farm Dies Once a Year is punctuated with a wry humor directed sometimes at Crawford, sometimes at his parents or others, but always good-natured.

Crawford makes it clear from the outset that he never saw farming as his life, and none of his epiphanies over the summer change his mind. Nonetheless, watching the apprentices’ late afternoon activities at the end of the summer, he vividly describes the tug this place has for him: “I suddenly wanted to find my mother and father and tell them that I loved them. I wanted to stay there forever in the hollow, closed off from the world, in the shelter I’d built, with a table and a chair, a bed and full bookshelf. I wanted my grave dug under the black walnut, with Sarah’s there beside it, our children to plant a forsythia there that would bloom in the spring, the first yellow flowers of March. I wanted our bones to molder and the stone to grow dim, the rain to seep into the box and the tree roots to grow down through it, and someday the creek to rise and wash us all away.”

But the antics of the apprentices in the barnyard break the spell of that moment, and Crawford acknowledges that the farm will not last forever. Eventually, Crawford leaves the farm, moves to San Francisco, and gets a job in a natural food store that specializes in produce, which, he notes, is much easier than working in the fields.

Crawford does not belabor the title of his memoir. Even though his return to the farm gave him some insight about himself, it did not resolve his questions about the direction of his life However, he leaves us with the implication that knowing ourselves, like life on the farm, is not a one-time event, but a succession of seasons, each with its own harvest.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt's long and compelling novel is a joy to read. While it appears at times to be a Dickensian romp through quirky characters and picaresque events, in the end it is a philosophical morality tale, articulating as well as anything else I've read what life is all about.

The plot has holes. Big one: After opening in the present day, most of the book is a long flashback to more than a decade before, and yet there are cellphones then, too, and texting, which would mean the "present" is in the future, because texting didn't exist 11 or 12 years ago. Small one: Theo despaired when told by the consulate in Amsterdam it would take 10 days to get a replacement passport, whereas these can be had in an afternoon.

In the meantime, though, there are so many delicious scenes of wonderfully observed detail. The writing, even a critical reviewer in the Washington Independent Review of Books conceded, is superb. As I wrote in a blog post in WIRoB: "For me, that superb writing, which seems to offer a surprise on every page, is what makes the book so compelling. There are flaws in the plot, in the characterization, and there is a whole lot of suspension of disbelief called for — it is, in part, a fantasy, really. But for some of us, it is the glittery prose itself that is the reward. Tartt’s ever-so-precise diction recalls Flaubert’s never-ending search for “le mot juste” — just the right word. It is not only because the book is 700+ pages long, but that every page is like a polished diamond of language that you can understand why it took 10 years to write."

I am not as enamored of Boris as some readers. He is the "bad boy" that women in particular seem sympathetic to. Theo's life could have taken a completely different course if he had never met Boris, so in a sense, this is really Boris's story. But in the author's hands, this is Theo's life and it is the life that he draws his very moving conclusions about in the last pages. Life is random, out of our control. It is an illusion that we have choices, beyond what we make of the life fate hands us.

There are other characters, all of them vivid, but none of them achieving the depth of these two. Hobie, Andy, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Theo's father. The two characters who die in the explosion, Theo's mother and Welty, are present long beyond their death.

The metaphor of the painting is effective as a symbol of Theo's life -- both the painting itself, cast among the waves of chance to survive, and the subject of the painting, that poor little chained bird. I personally found Theo, and particularly his drug use, often distasteful, yet he retained my sympathy. His hopeless love for Pippa is so much like Pip's love for Estella, and his great expectations are equally illusory. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a lovely read and a moving story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

I was captivated by Julian Barnes' elegant writing, his mordant wit, his wrestling with questions of memory and identity. I happily put up with his unreliable and ultimately unsympathetic narrator to see what twist or surprise he had in store next.

Our book group discussion somewhat deflated my admiration, however, as members took issue with anomalies in the plot, the narrowness of the narrator's view, the banality of his life. Presumably, however, Barnes crafted all of this intentionally; it's unlikely that anything was left to chance in so short a book.

What sticks with me still is that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives -- but that's all we have. We forget things, we remember things wrong, we come to consider as fact things that may never really have happened. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, was self-delusional, obsessive, narcissistic -- an extreme case, in short. Yet what he dramatizes as the tragedy of his life is a reasonably banal story of a relationship that went sour, an unstable friend with poor judgment, and, sadly, a child born with mental deficiencies.

The narrator's remorse -- Barnes makes a point of its linguistic root to bite again or bite back -- at the key misunderstanding and mis-communication in his life is something that may mark any of us, even if to a lesser extent. In all his efforts to smooth out his narrative, this is a central thing he cannot change and it leads, as the end of the book makes clear, to great unrest.

There are apparently websites speculating about hidden meanings in the book, and some of the book group members spent a good deal of time trolling through these. I'm not sure it needs all that and I didn't find the result of their research that helpful.

Did it deserve the Man Booker Prize? Who cares? Barnes hardly needs the distinction to be recognized as a great writer. I'm not sure this spare book will stand in my mind as much as Flaubert's Parrot or Arthur & George -- the two previous books of his that I've read. It does,  however, encourage me to keep reading him, perhaps picking up his History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, which I've had sitting on my shelf for eons.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding Camlann

It was the striking photograph of a Welsh landscape with dark mountains and lowering sky, punctuated by autumnal yellow and green pastures that drew me to this book with its odd title and unknown author. The back cover copy explained it is about an archaeologist (always a favorite of mine) who teams up with a Welsh linguist to find the real King Arthur. Who can resist?

In fact, Sean Pidgeon has produced a beautifully written esoteric mystery that falls into a sub-genre I'm tempted to call the intellectual thriller. The jacket copy compares it to Possession, though the obscure medieval works traced here are not as accessible as the Victorian poetry of A.S. Byatt's novel. The unfamiliar Welsh history and the baffling Welsh names threaten at times to tip from mysterious into overwhelming. But Pidgeon manages nonetheless to compel the reader to follow his hero and heroine as they track literary clues to the real Arthur's gravesite in a tightly plotted novel that involves a love triangle and betrayal at several levels.

Best of all, it has a penetrating sense of place as Pidgeon patiently takes his characters through the English and Welsh landscapes. The Arthurian legend has its origins in the borderlands between the two countries, so rarely separated in history despite the fervent nationalism on both sides. The novel gropes into a past of monasteries founded and dissolved, poets preserving history in a bardic tradition, coded descriptions that evolve with the language and must be deciphered to find the truth.

So it has as much of the Da Vinci Code as it does Possession, though considerably more sophisticated. Likewise, the romance is a genuine love affair and much more adult than anything in Dan Brown's books. It is not a murder mystery, though a fatal factory explosion lurks in the background and a death that appears to be an accident may be something else. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic -- even the less savory ones.

Who was Arthur? He was not the chivalrous king of the Round Table in Thomas Malory and certainly not the Roman soldier of the lame Clive Owen movie. The archaeologist and linguist, aided by the crotchety Oxford don, find a different explanation, along with the documentary evidence to support their thesis. The book is about their quest, and less about its achievement.

The Camlann of the title refers to the legend of Arthur's final battle, during which he was fatally wounded. The allusion was lost on me; though I've read Morte d'Arthur and other books about Arthur, the site of the final battle was not something I retained. The novel was supposedly selected by the Book of the Month Club and QPB, but you wonder if it would find a wider audience with a different title. I came across it only because it was on the display table at Politics & Prose. Like I say, the cover drew me in, and when I started reading it I finished it quickly.

The mystery and beauty of the landscape is evokes so effectively that I began looking up hiking tours in Wales to visit this terrain and see it for myself. I passed briefly through Wales on one of my research trips for Superregions, taking the ferry across the Irish Sea to northwest Wales. I acquired by slate tablet with a Celtic cross there. I've often felt an affinity for Wales and Celtic history -- one of the possible origins of the name Darrell is Celtic.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel upped her game from the already high level of Wolf Hall in this sequel chronicling the further career of Thomas Cromwell and the sad fate of Anne Boleyn. As she did with Thomas More, Mantel is at pains to demythologize "Anne of the Thousand Days" and portray her as a scheming, vindictive harridan while not actually pronouncing a verdict on her alleged adultery and incest.

But if Anne Boleyn is the object of the action in this new book, Cromwell is still the subject and Mantel continues to probe every nuance of this complex character -- who may or may not have anything to do with the historical figure -- in her mellifluous prose. It is tempting to quote passages where she veers so effortlessly from lyrical description to hard-nosed dialogue; the sly, witty asides; the breathtaking insights into mixed motives. Instead, I would just say: Read this book; it repays you on every page.

Mantel portrays Cromwell's relentless campaign against Anne Boleyn as a calculated if belated revenge for Wolsey's downfall. He implicates various court figures in the charges of treason and adultery on the basis of their role in cheering the fall from grace of his mentor. The workings of Cromwell's mind are described so gracefully you scarcely realize how genuinely vindictive he is. But the author also intimates how Cromwell's machinations bear the seeds of his own destruction. Harry Percy, hounded into perjury and disgrace by Cromwell, acutely observes that he must know what lies in store for him from a king who toppled Wolsey, beheaded More, and condemned the erstwhile love of his life to death.

Mantel also manages to maintain the reader's sympathy for the monstrous Henry VIII, even while portraying him as a narcissistic, psychopathic tyrant. His charm, his charisma beckon across the centuries in a re-creation that remains fresh despite all the books and movies that have already portrayed this historical giant.

The brief glimpses of a convulsed Europe, divided by religion and dynastic rivalries provide a colorful backdrop the drama in England. But doctrines and foreign dynasties both remain subordinated to the central issue of maintaining the Tudor succession -- the end that justifies all of Cromwell's and Henry's actions.

Not to be overlooked is the elemental barbarity of the age that produced Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Torture and beheading are bad enough, but the intimations of being hanged, drawn and quartered are unspeakably gross to modern sensibilities. The subjugation to tyranny in a land proud of the rule of law is another historical theme that offends our sense of democracy. But the hypocrisy of the case built against Anne Boleyn -- based on innuendo rather than evidence and hiding the real political motives behind fabricated conspiracies -- holds lessons for our own time and country, where one political party fueled by corporate funds works to create an alternative reality to dupe the public.

There is to be a third book and a third trip to the gallows to finish the Cromwell saga. Can't wait.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Humanoids

This book group selection of Jack Williamson's classic scifi depiction of a world ruled by robots took me back to a childhood (mis)spent immersed in science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, Andre Norton -- you name it, I read it. This book, which I may or may not have read, was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which I subscribed to. My first efforts at writing (age 10 or so) were science fiction stories that actually earned rejection slips at the magazines I submitted them to.

Unfortunately, our group felt that this book had been written by someone only slightly older, largely due to the clumsy narrative. Much of the actual language, I felt, was not that bad, but the story and characters are a bit of a jumble, making you feel the author neglected to read the earlier installments as he was writing the next one.

The main issue though -- is man better off coddled and protected from his own worst instincts or is individual freedom preferable even though it leads to unhappy and perhaps even fatal choices -- came through in spite of the writer's shortcomings. To my surprise, there were actually some in our group who thought maybe that Clay Forester at the end of the book, programmed now to accept the humanoids guarding him from actions that might make him unhappy, was indeed better off.

At least it shows the allure of that promise and explains the appeal of Frank Ironsmith, the character who from the beginning embraced the "salvation" brought by the humanoids. For myself, however, and I would have thought for anyone who cherishes free will and individuality, Forester's long resistance to the stifling solicitude of the robots is the more natural reaction.

The group discussed science fiction, robots and Asimov's three laws, and paraphysical phenomena (which plays a subordinate role in the novel). Again to my surprise no one but myself seemed to believe that telepathy, telekinesis or teleportation was really possible, saying there was no evidence that the human mind was capable of such feats.

Who needs evidence when you have imagination?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Earthly Delights

The first book in Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series was recommended by a friend as a good audiobook for a road trip. It fulfilled that purpose as a light, mildly humorous mystery featuring some good scenes in a bakery and a look at faraway Melbourne.

The main character was generally entertaining. Her apartment house, modeled quirkily on an old Roman building, was studded with equally quirky neighbors. The plot did not shy away from the seedier aspects of Melbourne's drug scene and, briefly, its S&M hangout.

Sound like fun? Not so much. Chapman is something of an anti-heroine -- she's fat, she terribly misses the smoking habit she gave up three years ago, she lives a dull life as a baker that makes her susceptible to a romance that seems so improbable you suspect the guy as the villain [*spoiler alert*] up to the moment the book ends and he's still a good guy.

The over-convoluted plot involves a series of junkie overdoses as someone intentionally or unintentionally is selling heroine too pure for consumption, parallel to an escalating harassment of the women in the apartment building that seems increasingly threatening. There is also the soup truck with Corinna's love interest, the junkie teenager who undergoes a remarkable conversion into an able baker's apprentice, and assorted red herrings from the local witch, a transvestite neighbor and retired wise old professor. If it all sounds a bit contrived, it's because it is.

Nonetheless, it helped pass the time for us on a long drive, and was easier to listen to than some more serious audiobooks we have tried.