Monday, December 27, 2010
Andrea Barrett's stories about passion and desire, longing and frustration are stirring at times, almost unbearably poignant at others, and always compelling. They are about people driven by curiosity, the need to discover and understand nature. They are scientists, mostly, trained or amateur, or, in "The Cure", healers and caregivers.
The title story is the most austere, told in part in the letters of Max Vigne to his wife, Clara. He cannot own up to her his fascination for the pursuit of plant life above the tree line in the mountains he is surveying, his willingness to forgo the comforts of hearth and home, his rejection, in effect, of her and their children. He is clearly an emotionally stunted man but possessed of his own incipient passion, which he is able to finally recognize in the isolation of the Himalayas.
The next stories are each enchanting in their own way. "The Forest" tells of an encounter between an aging Polish scientist and a young, failed science student, who nonetheless bond through their love of the forest. Both characters wrestle with the expectations put upon them -- the one an accomplished scientist ignored by a hostess too wrapped up in her own little world, the other a young woman who chooses not to follow her sister's path. A quiet drink (of bison-grass vodka!), an interlude in the woods amidst the deer with the old man extracting what pleasure he can from this glancing acquaintance with a young woman who sees him as -- an old man.
The heart of the book comes, though, in the two related stories, "Theories of the Rain," and "Two Rivers." They are the stories of two siblings separated at a young age (two and five) but who retain an abiding attachment to each other. Lavinia, who describes herself at one point as nothing but appetite, is consumed by passionate longings that remain unfulfilled, even as she chooses the rational path of a suitable marriage. Even more telling is the story of her brother, Caleb, who loses the love of his life, but gets a second chance at marriage and devotion to a cause -- educating the deaf -- that gives him a fulfilling life.
It is in the novella-length "Two Rivers" that Barrett demonstrates the full range of her virtuosity as a writer, shifting points of view, creating characters in a few sketches who possess an astonishing range of emotion, giving us in these characters -- Samuel, Caleb, Stuart, Miriam, Grace, and the absent Lavinia -- a generational saga, all in 50 pages.
"The Mysteries of Ubiquitin" tells the story of a young girl whose infatuation with her parents' entomologist friend leads to a career in biochemistry and ultimately, if improbably, a romantic interlude with this older man when she is a young woman. The Polish scientist may have been better off keeping his romance in the realm of fantasy. This story, more explicitly than the others, suggests that the passion driving scientists is a profoundly erotic one.
"The Cure" is an ambitious tale, the longest in the book, that reunites Max Vigne's wife and daughters with characters that, apparently, appear in Barrett's earlier novels, Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal. While Barrett is fond of these connections, it was for me in this story not particularly enlightening, since I haven't read these other books. It was almost disappointing, in fact, to learn the after-story of Max Vigne's decision to pursue a career as a botanist. The depiction of the Adirondacks and the ravages of tuberculosis, with all its echoes of The Magic Mountain, made for an entertaining story nonetheless.
I ordered this book because of my research into MacArthur grant authors and because I like maps. I'm curious now to see whether Barrett can maintain this wonderful balance between her elegant prose and her probing of the nature of passion through an entire novel. Watch this space.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
While this recent book by Jeanette Winterson made for compelling reading and there were flashes of feeling that stirred me, it left me puzzled in the end. The depictions of dying worlds made you feel the barrenness of physical existence, but in the end I think Winterson failed to master the genre well enough to make this work as a novel.
It reminded me strongly of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas -- so strongly that I felt obliged to look up the dates to see that Mitchell's 2004 book did indeed precede Winterson's 2007 novel. The wrapping of parallel stories through time, with the future worlds so strikingly similar in tone and sentiment, makes me wonder how much influence the Mitchell book had on Winterson, if any.
Winterson's style is simpler, more direct, less flashy and more lucid than Mitchell's, but Mitchell's work was somehow more coherent, with more of a punch. The interplanetary love affair between Billie and Spike in the end seemed too episodic to be moving in any way.
I have a good friend who swears by Jeanette Winterson, so I probably have not done her justice by starting with this later work, which I found on the remainder shelf at Politics & Prose. I have some of her earlier books, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion, on my shelf and will read those before coming to any judgment. Perhaps they will give me a new appreciation for this book.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
I feel ambivalent about this book by Aleksandar Hemon. The writing is dazzling, it is chockablock with insights, it is a compelling, layered novel -- and yet curiously unmoving.
The narrator, Vladimir Brik, who shares many biographical details with Hemon, is troubled, flawed, and ultimately, I think, not very sympathetic. While the wit and perception carry the reader along, Brik's ambivalence and what seems to be lack of character makes him someone it's hard to care for.
This may well be Hemon's intention. Brik, caught between cultures and a perennial victim like the historical Lazarus Averbruch that he wants to write about, suffers from being in this situation. He is precisely not the hero his American wife, Mary, might expect. He is rather the somewhat unsatisfying character you encounter in Bosnia or Moldova or Ukraine.
"I recalled Mary, her strained, half-assed Catholic innocence, her belief that people were evil due to errors in their upbringing and a shortage of love in their lives. She just could not comprehend evil, the way I could not comprehend the way the washing machine worked or the reason the universe expanded into infinity. For her, the prime mover of every action was a good intention, and evil occurred only if the good intention was inadvertently betrayed or forgotten. Humans could not be essentially evil, because they were always infused by God's infinite goodness and love. We had conducted long, unerotic discussions about all this."
That deadly American innocence, as R.W.B. Lewis wrote about in The American Adam and Herman Melville portrayed so well in Benito Cereno. The innocence that remained ignorant of evil -- the kind of evil Chicago authorities showed toward immigrants Lazarus and Olga Averbruch, no different than the vicious anti-Semitism that chased them out of their homeland.
Brik contrasts storytelling in Bosnia -- where listeners voluntarily suspended disbelief to enjoy a good story, expecting it to be embellished or fabricated -- with that in America. "It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth -- reality is the fastest American commodity."
Obviously, Brik's relationship with his neurosurgeon wife is not in good shape and seems to have come completely unraveled by the end of the novel -- though it's hard to tell because Mary is more of a cipher than a person. Olga Averbruch, whose point of view is the primary one in the parallel narrative of the events in 1910 Chicago, and even her brother, the dead Lazarus, are more alive than Mary.
There are, as one blurb promises, traces of Ragtime and Everything Is Illuminated, but both narratives in this novel skim the surface and are not as satisfying as the total immersion of the two earlier works. The real focus is Brik's problem in finding a cultural identity, one that will enable him to fulfill the same yearning that Lazarus and Olga had, of finding happiness and peace after being uprooted.
Brik resists Mary's desire for him to become more acceptable by becoming more American. She accepts his foreignness as long as he is willing to grow out of it. So Brik seeks refuge in his alter ego Rora, the enigmatic Bosnian photographer who accompanies him on his "research" trip back to Europe. That trip slowly slips into a fantasy-land. It is impossible for the reader to consider Rora's fate as real, or, if it is supposed to be real, to care. But if we adopt the Bosnian attitude toward storytelling, it doesn't matter.
We will never know what really happened to Lazarus. It is a mystery without a solution and still tantalizing when the book ends. But we get a glimpse into a little-known episode in American history, when hysteria about "anarchism" and hyper-prejudice about Emma Goldman and other radicals suppressed civil rights in a way uncomfortably similar to today's anti-Islam hysteria. It would be helpful to know more about this period and hopefully Jamie Morris will be able to translate his project for a Goldman biography into reality.
Hemon is another recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, like Yiyun Li. This book is more cerebral than The Vagrants and for that reason less satisfying, but stimulating and worthwhile nonetheless.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Jo Nesbo tries and largely succeeds in blurring the lines between crime fiction and literary fiction. There is murder and police and something like a procedural in The Redbreast, but this Norwegian writer is plumbing the depths of individual psyche and also political consciousness.
Most good crime fiction tries to do this, but some succeeds more than others. In a posting last year on Nordic crime fiction, I reported that I had gotten bogged down in Redbreast because the hero, Harry Hole, disappeared from the early pages as the author developed a back story set in 1944 on the Eastern Front.
So I started over in a more receptive frame of mind and let the back story play at its own rhythm. It is of course vital for understanding the action set in contemporary Oslo. It is something of a challenge to an English reader because the unusual Norwegian names, while not as bad as Russian, are difficult to hold onto. It is further complicated by the fact that characters have similar names, names similar to their birthplaces, nicknames, identity switches and, one begins to suspect, multiple personality disorders.
Nesbo lays out his plot in a leisurely but well-paced manner. Harry remains largely sympathetic, though he does rub you the wrong way sometimes. There are more murders, including a nasty philanderer who messed with the wrong woman at the wrong time and one victim whose murder is still left partly unsolved at the end of the novel -- a thread to be continued no doubt in the next installment in the series.
These Nordic crime novels do convey the curious charm of Scandinavia, these northern countries that are a fascinating blend of European culture and frontier ruggedness. Can spring feel so good without the rigors of a dark, cold winter? Oslo and Norway, more so than Stockholm and Sweden, carry those echoes of Vikings and Atlantic harshness.
Like Stieg Larsson in his Dragon Tattoo series set in Sweden, Nesbo is fascinated by Norway's Nazi past and neo-Nazi present. Dark undercurrents of fascism run through Norwegian society then, during the war, and now. Even Americans who know what Quisling means are probably unaware that he was a Norwegian official who headed the collaborationist government during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Norwegian resistance, in Nesbo's portrayal, was a feeble movement that gained mythic proportions only after the Nazi defeat.
All of this creates a rich environment of conspiracy and political betrayal that lends impetus to the narrative in Redbreast. A full cast of well-drawn characters, not one but two love stories, a villain who is evil but still arouses a touch of sympathy, some nail-biting suspense, murder and gore -- it's all here in a well-written and well-translated 521-page package.
Having sampled and enjoyed detective stories from in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, I suppose I should look for some Danish and Finnish detectives. I'm betting publishers have looked for and found equally talented authors in these countries to produce crime fiction that by now, given how trendy Nordic is, has found its way into English. Watch this space.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
I ordered this book the day I read that Yiyun Li had won a McArthur Foundation genius grant and found myself immersed in a mind-bending trip back to the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1970s.
Given the place of China in the world today, it is an amazing glimpse into a corrupt and regimented world, a 1984 for the Asian brand of totalitarian rule. It depicts the deracination of culture where people are firmly rooted in tradition and even superstition. The only people truly at home in this world are the rootless vagrants, Old Hua and his wife, who return to their wandering ways after the unfortunate events in Muddy River narrated in the novel.
It is an ensemble cast of characters, though the main narrative thread is the relationship between Nini, a young handicapped woman, and Bashi, a dangerously amoral outsider. It is framed by the executions of two idealistic young women who automatically become counterrevolutionaries when they become disillusioned with Mao's revolution.
These are small characters in a small provincial town and yet they embody the epic sweep of the Cultural Revolution, a hypocritical leap forward that marked the end of any socialist pretenses in China. It shows simple people who have been deprived of their moral compass through the oppression of the Communist regime -- whether the cynical depravity of Old Kwen, entrusted to bury the executed Shan Gu, or the innocent treachery of Tong, a six-year-old whose biggest concern is the disappearance of his dog Ear.
Shan Gu, a model revolutionary during her teens, has her execution for counterrevolutionary activities brought forward so that her kidneys can be harvested for a well-connected official in the provincial capital. It would be hard to find a more horrifying metaphor for the exploitation of a helpless populace by a corrupt regime. Shan Gu's subsequent further posthumous mutilation before her burial completes the picture of moral bankruptcy.
By an odd coincidence, The Vagrants is the second book in a row for me featuring a deformed and crippled young woman in a prominent role. Like Mikkelina in Arnaldur Indridason's Silence of the Grave, Nini lacks the looks and charms of a nubile young woman, but that does not stop her womanly yearnings. But if women in general are helpless and vulnerable in the two societies portrayed in these novels, this is especially true of a crippled woman. In both cases, they are the survivors, however, and a testimony to human resiliency. The portayal of Nini's modest longings is almost unbearably poignant at times and makes her in some ways the true heroine of this story.
Yiyun Li's other published work is a collection of short stories, and the interweaving strands in this novel owe much to her skill in depicting these small self-contained narratives. We come to know Teacher Gu and his wife, Tong and his drunken father and long-suffering mother, the odd Bashi and the sympathetic Nini, the news announcer Kai and her husband Han and platonic lover Jialin. The trajectory set in motion by the execution of Shan Gu is clear in advance and yet told with exquisite care. The naive and foolish hopes of the young and the vain efforts of the mature to remain indifferent all become enmeshed in an oppressive and stifling environment without honor or justice.
Oddly enough, the least visible characters in the novel are the vagrants of the title, the Huas. The childless couple moved around restlessly, taking care of unwanted infant girls, until they settled for a time in Muddy River. It turns out to be a brief respite before they feel compelled to resume their vagrant life.
The novel depicts a life of simplicity and extreme poverty that nonetheless has its own dignity to the extent it can escape the ravages of regime. A hungry Nini scrapes the flour paste off of posters for nourishment and Teacher Gu squirrels away a precious Parker pen for decades.
It is a heartbreaking work and so relevant for our times. Material conditions have improved in China but the fundamental injustice, and presumably corruption, of the system remain intact. The recognition for Li's fiction, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize for imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo keep us from forgetting that fact.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Channel surfing one evening I came upon the Icelandic film Jar City and was intrigued by the stark landscape and Nordic chill of what I learned was a film based on a novel by Arnaldur Indridason. This book continues the series.
As is the case with Wallander and other Nordic detectives, Indridason's Inspector Erlendur is a flawed, unhappy man who has a knack for solving crimes. The environment is bleak and intense, and in Iceland, there is a frontier element missing in the more prosperous Sweden, Denmark and Norway. It helped to have seen that landscape in Jar City -- hard to imagine how the American remake that is in production can match the Icelandic original.
What makes Silence of the Grave compelling as a novel, however, is not just atmosphere, but the deep-running psychology of a 60-year-old incident -- I hesitate to say crime -- that Erlendur tracks down when a skeleton is discovered on the outskirts of Reykjavik during construction of a new housing development. The portrayal of a wife-beating brute and the effect of his abuse on his family is intense and hard-hitting. The suspense is maintained by the painfully slow unearthing of the skeleton by an archeological team. After all, what hurry is there getting to the bottom of a death that clearly occurred decades ago.
I have the feeling it is not a great translation, but it's hard to know if a certain stylistic clumsiness is in the original or is due to the translator. The characters and atmosphere, the boldness of the plotting, more than compensate in any case, so the book is decidedly gritty.
The parallel development of Erlendur's character, his relationship with his daughter, the troubling secrets of his own past add another layer of psychological texture that makes the book very satisfying to read. Indridason takes a page out of Henning Mankell's book to make Erlendur's assistants mildly interesting in their own rights.
So Iceland is well represented in the new wave of Nordic crime writers. The harsh environment of these countries touching the Arctic Circle is anything but cozy, and strips society and the characters of the novel down to the essentials. It helps that the writers are not without talent and that we are now getting access to them in serviceable translations.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
This is not Jess Walter's best book, but it is nonetheless a fun read. Walter's dazzling writing and mordant wit carry the reader along, and if you're willing to look at it as a post-modernist satirical parable rather than a realistic novel, it works.
It falls short, I think, of the high mark set by Citizen Vince and The Zero, but it is entertaining and does make a point. I had a friend in Paris who said when a transport strike resulted in total gridlock throughout the city that he always thought the difference between civilization and barbarism was 10 hours -- and he was almost proven right. Similarly, here, Walter illustrates how thin the veneer of middle-class prosperity is in our society and how quickly a recession can wipe it out.
The premise of the book is blatantly preposterous. The narrator, Matt Prior, gives up his job as a business reporter to launch a Web site that would report financial news in verse. Nobody would ever do that. His subsequent adventures look like a parallel version of Weeds as written by T. Coraghessan Boyle and Elmore Leonard. The sequence of events and the moralistic conclusion are all overdrawn in deliberate satire. What is realistic is the portrayal of the death of newspapers, the hypocrisy of much of middle-class life, the tenuousness of relationships, the tenacity of family, the stupid desperation of criminals -- all portrayed compactly through the eyes of the narrator, who, though flawed, retains our sympathy throughout.
This is probably Walter's funniest book and should make you laugh out loud in parts. Some of the shtick -- the price of milk at 7/11, the demented father patting his pocket for his absent cigarettes -- is overworked, indicating that perhaps the novel needed one more pass by an editor. But the sheer exuberance of the writing makes this a quick and satisfying read.
Much as I like Jess Walter, though, I was glad I'd waited for the paperback version on this one. I'm sure his best book lies in the future.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
What a stupendous feat of historical imagination. The bestselling novel by Hilary Mantel brings an astonishing freshness to one of the best-known historical periods and some of its most familiar characters. As it paints its descriptions of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More in succeeding layers, we get a different look at these key historical figures and the significance of their interplay.
And yet, the reader is never clubbed over the head with any anachronistic hints at the import of what is happening. There are no distracting and superfluous details of life in the 16th century to demonstrate how well researched this book is. It is clearly well-researched, because every detail seems to vibrate with authenticity.
And the language. Clear, precise, and yet so vigorous. Then there's the wit, the charm, the subtleties of a master novelist who invests these characters and this world with a mesmerizing attraction.
Revisionist history is a literary gimmick, of course. We love it for a writer to tell us the other side of the story we think we know. There's John Gardner's Grendel and Gregory Maguire's Wicked -- neither of which I've read -- and Richard Kluger's Sheriff of Nottingham, which I read years ago. We are willing to suspend our disbelief and with a sense of fair play let a writer imagine for us the other side of the story. Beowulf's monster was not so bad, nor the Wicked Witch of the West, and the sheriff of Nottingham was just trying to catch a thief.
The historical Cromwell was most likely the cynical and ruthless manipulator that has been portrayed for us through the centuries. Mantel does not overdo her revisionism and turn him into a saint, but does try to understand how he rose from the bottom of society to become Henry VIII's right-hand man. Could he be the loyal, shrewd, witty paragon with a soft spot in his heart for the underprivileged as portrayed in Wolf Hall? Perhaps, but more likely not. Is he a sympathetic character to carry a reader through this history once again -- absolutely.
Mantel is not so gentle with Thomas More, whom she strips of his sainthood by portraying him as a pathetic, vain fanatic with many unsympathetic attributes, such as the sadistic pleasure he takes in torturing suspected heretics. It's impossible not to cast Paul Scofield in this role and to play this portrait of him as the "bad Superman" from Superman III. It was equally difficult for me not to see Leo McKern, the character actor who played Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, in the role of the protagonist. The Hans Holbein portrait even encourages this casting.
In the end, they met the same fate, though we have to wait for the sequel to get Mantel's take on Cromwell's fall from power.
The picture of Henry VIII -- that complex, seductive figure who so changed history -- is well drawn, but not different from the one most of us have at this point. Ann Boleyn comes in for particularly harsh treatment, but that, too, is not too much of surprise after other recent books.
The real hook remains Cromwell himself, with his facinating backstory as an abused blacksmith's son, soldier of fortune, merchant banker and unlikely courtier. The slow, natural tipping of Cromwell and England into Protestantism is particularly well drawn. Perhaps one of the most poignant threads of the novel is the martyrdom of John Frith for the Protestant cause, though the pragmatic Cromwell found it just as pointless as More's principled stand on the oath of succession. It will be interesting to see in the sequel what stand, if any, brings Cromwell to the Tower and his execution. Where can I pre-order the book?
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Now this is a powerful book. Harry Mulisch's tale of the assassination of a Nazi collaborator in wartime Holland and its effect on a 12-year-old whose family was executed in reprisal plumbs the depths of guilt and integrity in the face of adversity.
The Dutch author deftly sketches the incident and its aftermath in a translation so graceful you'd never guess it wasn't written originally in English. The evocation of sleepy Haarlem, the want and terror of the occupation, the frightening suddenness of the assault, the swiftness of the consequences -- all this sets the stage for the long denoument in the life of Anton Steenwijk.
As in a parable, Anton, who tries to put the horrible events of a single night into a forgotten past, is drawn into encounters that illuminate the full ambivalence of what actually happened -- with neighbors who witnessed his parents' execution, with the son of the collaborator who was assassinated, with the resistance fighter who took part in the assault, and finally with the neighbors who moved the body from in front of their house to Anton's house and unleashed the fury of the Nazis on his family.
He discovers the truth behind the mystery of the woman who provided succor to a traumatized boy on the night of the assault, transforming his life yet again. As the final piece of the puzzle falls into place, he realizes how right he was not to desire or seek revenge for the injustice that befell his family.
There are passages of limpid beauty and breathtaking insight in this compact book. As Anton pursues his medical career in postwar Holland, he feels a detachment from society as a result of this wartime trauma. He votes Social Democratic and then switches his affiliation to a party that claims there is no difference between left and right. "Still, national politics meant little to him: about as much as paper airplanes would mean to the survivor of a plane crash."
But he is not allowed to maintain this detachment. Anton is forced through the author's artifice to face his past in all its ambiguity and to come to terms with it if he is to have any chance at happiness. All of us, of course, though in much less dramatic fashion, face this same challenge.
This readable and entertaining novel by Aravind Adiga comes with an incredible amount of hype. Its portrayal of an Indian "entrepreneur" who launched his career by murdering his employer (this is not a spoiler, it is revealed early on) is described as "dark and unsettling."
Dark, yes, but as in dark comedy. It may be there is somewhere in India a prosperous entrepreneur who got his start through murder and robbery, just as there certainly were in the U.S., the UK and any other country built on the industry of entrepreneurs. But it would be silly to think that this is the rule and it's not likely that is what Adiga was trying to convey.
It is satire, an Indian Babbitt, in a way, but not, as one blurb would have it, a book as powerful as Native Son or Invisible Man. It won the Man Booker Prize and is written with dazzling wit and surprising grace. The construction of the book as a memo to the Chinese premier is clever, and allows the narrator, Balram Halwai, to declare that the age of the white man is over and the future belongs to the brown and yellow.
It's easy enough to swallow in view of the rapid economic growth in India and China, though personally I think the future of America is more like that of Western Europe and that white people will play a significant role in global affairs for some time to come.
The wonderful characterizations of Balram's family, his employers, his servant milieu carry the reader along on a fascinating journey into the micro-economy behind India's new-found economic success. The withering cynicism of Balram's description of Indian democracy makes the country at first seem uncivilized, though this rampant corruption is not totally unknown in the history of Western society, either.
Balram, the rebellious and murderous servant, is as rare as the white tiger, and as ferocious. His rise as the son of a rickshaw-puller and server in a tea shop to manager of a car service catering to the high-tech startups in Bangalore via a stint in Delhi as driver for the "landlords" of his hometown is an enlightening saga.
In the end, as with Babbitt, the reader is left with an insight into the hollowness of materialism, but also with a debunking of alternative ideals like family, socialism, or democracy. The optimist in me sees it as testimony to the robustness of India's economic awakening. In the normal course of events, India will grow out of the morass of injustice and corruption portrayed in the novel -- as the U.S. continues to evolve from Sinclair Lewis's grim description of early twentieth century life here -- hopefully without violence.
Monday, August 30, 2010
What a delight to read! This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Peter Taylor tells a story without any linguistic pyrotechnics or artificial "layering," but with the economy of a writer who made his reputation with short stories.
There are many layers, though, as the narrator, Philip Carver, casts back into the family history that culminates in a crisis when his widower father contemplates marriage to a younger woman and his spinster sisters connive to block it.
It is for the daughters a type of revenge, for their father at a critical point in time intervened to spoil marriages for both of them, as he did for his son. The arc of the novel is how the son, the only one to leave the family's Tennessee home to make a career in New York, comes to terms with his father's decision first to transplant the family from Nashville to Memphis, traumatizing all three children, and second to secretly visit the family of his son's girlfriend in Chattanooga to discourage any marriage.
The answer ultimately is that he does not come to terms with it. He speaks of forgiving and forgetting, but he remains emotionally damaged, living in a comfortable relationship with an equally damaged woman that has the narrowest of parameters and stifles any true happiness.
The daughters, who apparently are even less aware of the permanent damage to their emotional lives, succeed in taking their father captive and preventing his remarriage, safeguarding their inheritance but more importantly securing their revenge. But they have even less satisfaction from it than their brother.
The narrator skillfully portrays the father-worship of his three children, which neither the father's own tragedy of being duped by a close friend nor his selfish interference in the lives of his children can diminish. But the damage is plain to see in that none of his children then ever marry or have children.
So it is a story about fathers and daughters, and about fathers and sons, and the problems resulting from a dominating personality who is also narcissistic. There is something for virtually every reader to relate to. It is not uplifting because the narrator's disillusionment and disappointment end in resignation. By the end of the novel, it is the father -- despite the betrayal by his friend and the successful efforts of his children to block his marriage -- who triumphs. He is indomitable. But he dies and leaves a legacy of pain.
Taylor's lucid prose deftly unfolds the layers of emotion and history in this profoundly dysfunctional family. While the narrator retains the reader's sympathy, it is clear by the end of the book that he is not the best judge of what has happened.
It is a quick read, just over 200 pages. The depictions of Memphis and Nashville are entertaining -- I picked this up from my shelf because of our recent trip through Tennessee -- but they are less important than the universal emotions of the family relationships.
Monday, August 23, 2010
The charm is still there in Martin Walker's second French country cozy with Bruno, chief of police in a small Dordogne town. Walker wisely avoids a second dip into the dark history of French collaboration with the Nazis and constructs a new plot around very contemporary concerns about ecology, genetically modified crops and industrial production wine.
But the first rule of a murder mystery is to have a murder. The initial crime here is arson, so the suspense is hardly sufficient (not even Bruno seems to really care who set the fire) to help the reader along in the slowly developing plot. Walker's sparkling writing and his vivid descriptions of the quality of life in the Dordogne are sufficient for a Francophile, but the appeal of the series might be limited if it remains too low-key.
In the end a couple of deaths (maybe murder, maybe not) and the brutal killing of an aged dog add a little juice to the narrative.
One of the highlights is the meal Bruno prepares for some friends, featuring a game bird shot by Bruno, which Walker stubbornly and oddly refuses to translate (Wikipedia tells me becasse is woodcock). It's hard to imagine that English and American women would follow the example of the French men and actually slurp down the stomach and crunch the bird's skull as part of the meal, no matter how enamored they may be with lovable old Bruno, but it does give a sense of France's gustatory zeal.
The resolution is all a bit anti-climactic, perhaps because there's very little true villainy. The French characters are all just a bit too nice in the end -- Walker, unlike Peter Mayle, seems unwilling to offend his friends back in the Dordogne. But if you liked the first book, this one goes down easy, too.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Alan Furst is back creating another morally ambivalent, atmospheric thriller featuring a hard-bitten foreign protagonist. This time it is the Greek Costa Zannis, who is remarkably similar in his attitudes and cigarette smoking to the French, Hungarian and Dutch protagonists of Furst's earlier novels.
We listened to this on audiobooks during a road trip and it was entertaining enough, though Furst has clearly fallen into purely formula writing. Watch a few old movies (he even refers to one character as a real cinematic aviator), research a relatively obscure location (Salonika, Greece in this instance), insert above-mentioned hard-bitten protagonist, add a few lady friends, and wrap everything in a smoky nostalgia that makes it as blurry and comforting as the black-and-white movie you started with.
I happen to like a lot of this, particularly the obscure locations. Furst plays this one to the hilt, with Zannis shuttling off to Belgrade and Budapest, with a quick dash to Paris, and dispatching loved ones to Istanbul and Alexandria, while carrying on three love affairs in Salonika. Some of the romantic scenes were amazingly clumsy, bordering on the adolescent. And in an audiobook you don't have the freedom to skim over the embarrassing parts.
The reading by Daniel Gerroll was easy to listen to and follow. His comfortable pace was well-matched to Furst's unhurried narrative style and he was consistent in his characterization of Zannis and other main figures, so there was virtually no confusion in a book populated by people with names that are strange to our ears. No small feat.
Furst belabors the history a bit more in this book than he has in some earlier works, probably because this location and the action he describes (Greece girding for the Nazi assault) is so obscure to American readers. He is at his best describing the fin du monde atmosphere of a country coming under siege and the desperation that accompanies it. The story of an underground railroad smuggling Jews out of Germany to freedom, in Turkey of all places, was moving and rich in historical context.
Less successful was Furst's attempt to show a Gestapo officer at work, which seemed to owe too much to Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone to be called original.
We bought the audiobook at Books a Million in Tennessee because we inadvertently left behind the audiobooks we had bought for the trip in our hotel the first night. Out of the dozens of audiobooks on sale, it was the only one we felt both of us could enjoy and that proved to be the case.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
This book had a secret history for me -- apparently quite popular when it came out, but I missed it entirely. Donna Tartt's psychological thriller -- because it's more that than a mystery -- is so erudite you feel smarter when you're done.
Though narrated by Richard Papen, an ambivalent college student who has the patent dishonesty of a Tobias Wolff creation, the novel turns around the enigmatic Henry, a brainiac who by his own admission was dead inside until he killed a man during a bacchanalia he engineered with his fellow classics majors. When one of these students gently begins to blackmail them, Henry, clearly a psychopath, devises the plot to do away with him as well.
There's no mystery to it -- Bunny's death is disclosed on the first page. It is the subtle psychological interplay between this handful of students before and after the deed that propels the book forward.
There's much I love about this book -- the academic setting, the glimpses of the classic Greek and Roman authors, the wonderful literacy of the writing, which reverberates with intelligence. None of the characters are that sympathetic. The narrator's inferiority complex, his anxiety to please, his hopeless love for the only woman in the group, are rather more pathetic. Henry, to the end, remains a cipher. One wishes his fabulous learning would charm, but seeing how hollow the charm of Julian, the teacher, is in the end, it's just as well it doesn't. Bunny, the murder victim, begins to look the most human to Richard after his passing and the crumbling facades of the others, but he was in fact an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, self-absorbed moocher.
The reader nonetheless can relate to the narrator's gradual disillusionment as one by one the mythic heroes of his classics group display their clay feet. In the end, Richard returns to California, yes, wiser and sadder, after a coming-of-age saga that is novel in its twisted values and sardonic air. Because even after the fact, Richard identifies with the sense of superiority that carried his little band through their adventure. But it is Henry who stands as the existential anti-hero at the end of the novel, while Richard appears to be really just a bystander.
The book was published in 1992, based on the author's experiences even earlier at Bennington College in Vermont (called Hampden College in the novel). The students drink, do drugs and smoke in keeping with the period (perhaps it's still the same, though I wonder about the smoking). There are no cellphones, laptops or Internet, no iPods, iPhones or iPads -- making it almost an historical novel. The action skirts the borderline of the surreal -- whether the bacchanalia or murder, or even Richard's harrowing winter break in Hampden or Bunny's funereales. The very existence of Julian and his coterie is surreal. The reality of money intrudes in the plot with the baffling vagary of an East Coast private college with its subterranean seams of trust funds, rich aunts, and financial aid.
More real is the difficulty of discerning betrayal and trust among the friends. Did any of the group ever really like or accept Richard, the poor boy from Plano, California? Did Henry set him up as the patsy by manipulating his desperate need for acceptance or at least acknowledgment? Not least, the sexual undercurrents so important at that age keep the little band roiling in emotion.
The book was fascinating to read, though I wonder how substantial in the end. Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, set in a completely different time and place, came only 10 years later and earned only mixed reviews. A third novel is said to forthcoming ca. 2012. Safe to say, Secret History remains sui generis.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
This odd-duck title belongs to a charming book that creates a new genre one could dub the French country cozy. Bruno is an engaging municipal policeman in the village of St. Denis, equivalent to a country constable and firmly on the bottom rung of France's elaborate law enforcement hierarchy.
An easy familiarity with that complicated hierarchy as with all things French enables Martin Walker to transport the reader into the earthy, satisfying life of southern France. Despite the macabre murder that is the focus of the plot, the reader feels bathed in simple luxuries like a homemade paté or the ubiquitous vin de noix.
Walker's lucid, quietly eloquent prose carries the reader through Bruno's idyllic existence and through the mystery of why an elderly Algerian immigrant is brutally killed. The plot is well-drawn, taking the reader into an obscure corner of French collaboration during World War II that most of us never heard of.
Bruno sometimes borders on the too-perfect realization of some male fantasies, but a bachelor in a small town really is the cock of the walk, so we accept his simultaneous flirtation with a female police officer from Paris and an English expatriate -- not to mention his heroic prowess in singlehandedly taming a small riot.
It is a quick, entertaining read and a pleasant sojourn in God's own country.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
I don't read many nonfiction books and rarely get all the way through them. Not that I have anything against them -- I've written two myself and most of my writer friends write nonfiction. But you don't have to get to the end of a nonfiction book in the way you do with a novel. If you don't finish, you may miss something of the author's detail but you have probably absorbed the book's main thesis and much of the salient detail just by reading part of it.
Walter Ong, a prolific Jesuit scholar whose course I took at Saint Louis University, gave us long reading lists and told us he didn't expect us to read every word in every book, but to "read in" the books -- dip into them, sample them.
Instead of a list, I now have a stack, because even though I read few nonfiction books, that doesn't stop me from buying them. Many of them I want to read because they are related to my journalistic work, and I wanted to profile a few of those in this post.
Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of course has been a huge bestseller and came highly recommended to me by friends. It is entertaining and offers a gossipy, behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 campaign. It is a virtuoso piece of reporting, but I can't say that it has fundamentally altered any of my impressions about the candidates.
Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin has been surprisingly fun to read. I'm generally underwhelmed by Sorkin's journalism and often find him suspiciously in league with the financial institutions he covers -- almost to the point of being an apologist. But this book offers a lot of narrative, with fascinating profiles of some of the figures involved, such as Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers. So far, so good, but at 600 pages it may be, as a friend remarked when he picked it up the other day, "Too Big to Fail may be too big to read."
The Big Short by Michael Lewis is, well, shorter. In his usual deft style, Lewis focuses on a narrower group of participants in the financial markets, the shorts, who are, or were, by and large unknown to the general public. One has to marvel at Lewis's versatility, when you consider he also authored The Blind Side and other very successful non-financial books. While he is clearly comfortable with financial markets, I have found him in the past, as well as so far in this book, sometimes uncomfortably glib, too often willing to sacrifice precision or accuracy for a nice turn of phrase.
13 Bankers by Simon Johnson and James Kwak is the much-heralded book by one of my heroes, economist Johnson, and his co-blogger, Kwak, who plays Robin to his Batman as much as I can figure out. Johnson is passionate in his opposition to the big banks and has had an amazing impact through his endless flow of blogs -- two of his own, Huffington Post, you name it, he's blogged there -- op-eds, and his very controversial article last year in The Atlantic when he said the U.S. was in the grip of a financial oligopoly much like some Third World banana republics. As former chief economist of the IMF, he knows whereof he speaks. The 13 bankers of the title are those who met last year at the White House as the financial crisis was reaching its zenith. I mistakenly wrote at the time that they should "be very afraid" because they might share the fate of GM's Rick Wagoner, who was booted out when the government seized control of the auto maker. Well, hardly. The most amazing thing is that virtually all of these bankers, who undeniably fomented this dramatic financial crisis, are still in their positions and still enriching themselves in unimaginable fashion. Johnson's book, which I've only just begun, is to tell us what that means about the society we live in -- and it's not a pretty picture.
Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed is a book I jumped on when it came out because I have a weakness, oddly enough, for financial history. This chronicle of the four financial experts -- the Alan Greenspans of their time -- who midwifed the Great Depression is such a brilliantlycautionary tale that Ahamed eventually won a Pulitzer Prize in History for bringing this perspective to our current crisis. I would really like to finish this one.
Monday, April 26, 2010
I picked this up on a whim and it turned out to be a delight to read. The Post or Times recently ran a story about the last sardine cannery in the U.S. closing down – the end of a world, the reporter wrote, chronicled by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row.
The reporter neglected to mention that while it was set in a Monterey dominated by the canneries, the Steinbeck novel never ventures into the factories or factory life. Rather, it portrays a small Depression-era community on the other side of the tracks that includes a flophouse with a group of deadbeats, a whorehouse, a Chinese-operated grocery, and a “marine laboratory” that probably would be shut down by a dozen laws nowadays.
It is a series of vignettes about this community rather than a narrative, though events do move towards a climax of sorts with the second effort to host a party for Doc, who operates the laboratory. The main characters are Mack, the leader of the flophouse group, and Doc, though we get little inkling of their interior lives.
What moves the reader along are the wonderfully observed details of the life in Cannery Row, the character quirks of the individuals, and above all the delicious irony of the narrator. This is a very funny book, with touching moments of a broad tolerance for human failings and the small joys that all of us try to salvage from larger dreams gone awry.
Take this riff on the Model T Ford: “Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars…Most of the babies of the period were conceived in the Model T Fords and not a few were born in them….”
Steinbeck's style is spare, but still has soul – Hemingway with heart. For instance: “The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer its is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in….”
Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize largely on the strength of Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but his smaller books, this one and Of Mice and Men, also stay in print for a reason.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
There's many things I like about this book, though I wonder how long it will stick with me. I also wonder whether anybody will be talking about Junot Diaz 10 years from now.
I like the energy, exuberance even, of the language, harnessed to a truly original voice. The admixture of Spanish faithfully reflects the polyglot's tendency to use the best word to describe something, even if it means mixing languages.
I like the portrayal of Dominican life, both in Santo Domingo and New Jersey. The collage of Dominican history, the vivid description of the Trujillo terror, the insider look at another culture are all enriching.
I like the character of Oscar, his nerdiness, his life of comic books and video games. Diaz conveys all this with such authority that you feel like something of a nerd yourself reading it.
There are some things I don't like. I don't think we get inside Oscar enough. The narrator(s) remain detached really, and we have only vague notions of what's going on inside Oscar.
I don't like the author's glorification of the sexual prowess of Dominican men. For, make no mistake about it, while he seems to be making fun of it and couches many of his observations as ironic, there is more braggadocio here than satire. After all, the chief frustration of Oscar's brief life -- hardly wondrous -- is not getting laid, and this frustration arises in great part because of the unapologetic insistence of Yunior and everyone else in Oscar's life that this is the ultimate good in life. (Spoiler alert) So when we learn through a posthumous note that Oscar in fact does achieve this elusive goal -- in an impossibly contrived way -- we can indeed view his life now as wondrous.
There is in fact so little in the book in terms of moral choice -- all the characters are carried along by forces beyond their control, above all the tiresome fuku -- that I suspect it is in fact a superficial novel, dazzling in the virtuosity of its language but not destined for a long shelf life.
Yunior's priapism costs him the love of his life, but he seems to come to terms with it pretty easily. It's not so much that he learns any lessons or makes any choices, he just kind of runs out of energy after sowing his wild oats.
Oscar is pathetic, not tragic. His life is not wondrous, but sad. The other characters remain largely ciphers in a fable.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
It was the dream of every American of my generation -- to be a vagabond in Europe. Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople -- in 1933! His two-part memoir of that trip has been recently reissued with an introduction by Jan Morris, and it is an enchanting account of the Old World between the wars.
Leigh Fermor, of course, went on to become one of the great travel writers, and this memoir, written more than four decades after the trip based on the diaries he kept, is beautifully written. I'm reading the book as my "installment" reading (pun intended), so I've only begun it. I decided there's no rule I have to finish a book before I blog on it, and there's a couple of things I want to say already.
The trip, coming soon enough after the Great War that feelings were still pretty raw, in the very year Hitler came to power in Germany, and then written well after the horrors of World War II, offers a poignant picture of Europe. Arriving at the Hook of Holland to start his trip, Leigh Fermor spends a night in Rotterdam, evidently a picturesque city before it was destroyed in WWII. Leigh Fermor, writing in the mid-1970s, refers to this later destruction. "I would have lingered, had I known," he said.
Seven words that speak volumes. I would have lingered, had I known. How poignant, regretful. To me, it is something any of us might say about any happy, beautiful moment in our lives, moments we take for granted and then are surprised when they are gone. Moments about which we might also say with the distance of time, I would have lingered, had I known.
Leigh Fermor walks across Germany, where he encounters some animosity from the war and the current political situation, but his overwhelming impression is of the warmth and hospitality of a country he feels ambivalent about. He describes walking into a local inn in Heidelberg on Dec. 30 and having the proprietors insist that he stay with them rather than be wandering about on New Year's Eve. He is taken into the family for Silvester. He is given a room, the maid takes his laundry and he wonders, as he accepts this generous hospitality, "how a German would get on in Oxford if he turned up at The Mitre on a snowy December night."
There are so many glowing passages, as Leigh Fermor writes with such a flourish and such a command of vocabulary that you think perhaps it is all right to use adjectives after all. Through friends in England, he is able to stay with the mayor of Bruchsal, who lives in a baroque palace built in the 18th century for the prince-bishop of Spires.
"It was the first time I had seen such architecture," he writes. "The whole of next day I loitered about the building: hesitating halfway up shallow staircases balustraded by magnificent branching designs of wrought metal; wandering through double doors that led from state room to state room; and gazing with untutored and marvelling eyes down perspectives crossed by the diminishing slants of winter sunbeams. Pastoral scenes unfolded in light-hearted colours across ceilings that were enclosed in a studiously assymetrical icing of scrolls and sheaves; shells and garlands and foliage and ribands depicted myths extravagant enough to stop an unprepared observer in his tracks. The sensation of wintry but glowing interior space, the airiness of the snowy convolutions, the twirl of the metal foliage and the gilt of the arabesques were all made more buoyant still by reflections from the real snow that lay untrodden outside; it came glancing up through the panes, diffusing a still and muted luminosity: a northern variant (I thought years later) of the reflected flicker that canals, during Venetian siestas, send up across the cloud-born apotheoses and rapes that cover the ceilings. Only statues and skeleton trees broke the outdoor whiteness, and a colony of rooks."
Wow! Not every page is this beautiful, but many. A true delight to read.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
This is a funny mishmash of a book -- a thriller that doesn't thrill but keeps you turning the pages anyway. The barest bones of a fictional plot knit together a jumble of notions about how John Paul I was murdered. That real-life drama is sufficient to keep you reading, even though there was virtually nothing new in this for me.
The plot of lost documents and a villainous CIA collaborating with dark leftovers of P2 is, to put it mildly, preposterous. The characterizations are bland and hardly one-dimensional, the "action" consists of a couple of hackneyed chase scenes and some mild violence (the author, Luis Miguel Rocha, is identified as a sometime scriptwriter).
The warmed-over conspiracy theories about Albino Luciani and his 33 days as pope are nonetheless intriguing. Much as the realization that Kennedy's assassination wasn't the work of a lone gunman, the truth about the assassination of John Paul I -- and I have no trouble accepting this as fact at this point -- is leaking out through repetition and fiction and will almost certainly not be verified by any authority in our lifetime and probably never. Yet, to see Sindona, Calvi, Marcinkus, Gelli and the others all make their appearances again brought back this time for me. Because Rocha is Portuguese, he also throws in the third secret of Fatima as foretelling Luciani's death.
I had abandoned Raymond Khoury's book, The Sanctuary, because it was so plodding and dull. The Last Templar was not easy to finish, but Sanctuary just seemed like a pure waste of time. So how do all these poorly written, dull "thrillers" get into print? Are editors, and readers, so under the spell of Da Vinci Code that anything smacking of the occult or the church, especially if there's a lost document or code or insignia is fair game? Sadly, the answer is almost certainly yes.
I'm going to get back to a well-written thriller and tackle Night Soldiers, an early Alan Furst that I somehow missed, and try to find something with some real meat on the bones.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Read this book! It is a book about family and depression, food and friendship that is touching and searing and often just very moving. I've known Paula Butturini and her husband, John Tagliabue, for nearly 20 years, but Paula's account of John's depression and how they coped with it is so intimate and direct that these lovely personalities will come across to anyone who reads this book.
Paula, as her friends know, has a warmth and strength of character that is evident on every page of this book. She draws on memories of meals and family from her Italian-American childhood in Connecticut to show, not tell, how the culture instilled in each of us as children forms the foundation of the adults we become. For Paula, food is the cultural icon that links her to that emotional foundation.
She and John share that Italian-American background and love of food. That and the spirit of adventure turned them both into journalists and expatriates (after many years in Rome, Warsaw and Berlin, they now live in Paris). They also share a family predisposition to depression. Paula's mother suffered severely from depression -- something she has a child was only vaguely aware of -- and committed suicide at the age of 73, when Paula was living in Berlin. John had a previous bout of depression when he embarked as a young man on a life as a Trappist monk, which turned out to be not well-suited to his temperament.
The main narrative of the story concerns John's later depression after he was shot covering the 1989 Romanian revolution for the New York Times. That experience, life-threatening as it was, set the scene for a delayed post-traumatic stress syndrome that pushed John into severe depression two years later. Paula herself was badly beaten covering the so-called Velvet Revolution in Prague, and these two battered souls returned to Italy and Rome, where they had met and married, to deal with this crisis.
Paula opens her account with her daily trips to the market at Campo del Fiori, which supplied the ingredients for the three daily meals that knitted their shattered psyches back together. Or helped, at least, because it was a long healing process that involved time, therapy, the support of family and friends -- and John's employer, the Times -- and, as Paula shows, grace.
All of this is told in the simple, direct language that only a practiced writer can command. The slim volume benefits from an engaged editor who helped Paula ruthlessly strip the narrative to its essentials. But it is not bare bones. It is a rich, enveloping story of love and love of life that will inspire anyone who has feelings.
Paula describes the support of friends throughout the book, particularly some special friends who hosted them at their country home outside Rome. Others go unnamed or are only glimpsed -- such as John and Paula's good friend Lou, whose own sad fate would require another book.
But friendship is a two-way street and these friends not only provided support but benefited as well from the warmth, the grace, the humor, the intelligence, and, in the good times, the plain good fun of these two lovely people. All those qualities come across in this wonderful memoir, to reward all those who pick up this book and read it.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Jess Walter's first novel is a literary police procedural based apparently on a true story in his hometown of Spokane. The powerful prose, the delicious irony that characterizes his later work are present in this debut.
When detective Caroline Mabry, the protagonist, talks about her unsuccessful attempts at dating: "On their first date, they talked about leaving Spokane; she was waiting to hear from law school, he from an Alaskan fishing boat. That conversation had taken place on almost every date Caroline had in Spokane. Everyone was either in the process of leaving or apologizing for not leaving yet. Caroline found herself hoping it was the same in other mid-sized cities, that there were some places that could only be left, cities just barely boldfaced on road maps -- Dayton, Des Moines, and Decatur; Springfield, Stockton, and any city with 'Fort' in its name -- places that spark none of that romantic quality that young people believe will keep them from growing old."
When another detective, Alan Dupree, Caroline's mentor and would-be lover goes to a neighborhood on a call: "Dupree got off at the second exit and wound his way into a familiar neighborhood; they were all familiar if you'd been on the job anytime at all. He'd imagined starting a guided tour with retired cops, with starred maps of murder, theft, and perversion. His own map was no different from any other cop's: a rape in that house, a two-car fatal accident in front of that convenience store, a house where a biker had fenced stolen auto parts."
Mabry and Dupree are tracking a serial killer and the case, the conflict it brings, shatters both their careers. There are plot twists and surprises, but much more texture, more depth than you usually get in a procedural. Rich, literary characterization that makes you sympathize with the character's flaws more than their virtues.
Plus, Walter has his fun mocking FBI profiling and profilers, with the killer himself joining in the fun. But Walter also asks some serious and probing questions about murderers and tracking them down.
I like mysteries and and I really like Jess Walter, so this was a good book for me.
Monday, February 8, 2010
This is a transformative book. I long ago stopped buying meat at Safeway or Giant and now I know why. So much of what Michael Pollan has chronicled in this book has filtered down into the general consciousness. This book and his subsequent works have been bestsellers and his ideas were a big part of the documentary Food Inc.
It's not just that Pollan does some great reporting -- visiting the cattle feed lots and corn fields of modern industrial agriculture, reading a massive amount of literature on food production, and doing a George Plimpton by going to Joel Salatin's Polyface farm and hunting wild pig with a Sicilian emigre -- but he relentlessly analyzes, reasons, reflects. And he does so in a lucid, intelligent prose that is laced with rich humor.
In the key chapter that explains the title of the book, Pollan describes how eating many kinds of food as do omnivores like rats and human increases brain capacity because of the choices that must be made. He contrasts that with animals like the koala bear who eat only one thing, such as eucalyptus leaves. "Eating might be simpler as a thimble-brained monophage, but it's also a lot more precarious, which partly explains why there are so many more rats and humans in the world than koalas. Should a disease or drought strike the eucalyptus trees in your neck of the woods, that's it for you. But the rat and human can live just about anywhere on earth, and when their familiar foods are in short supply, there's always another they can try."
Fungi are apparently neither animal nor vegetable and this whole chapter is hilarious. Pollan describes why people find mushrooms mysterious and somewhat off-putting. "That the fungi are so steeped in death might account for much of their mystery and our mycophobia. They stand on the threshold between the living and the dead, breaking the dead down into food for the living, a process on which no one likes to dwell."
But of course the real meat of the book, so to speak, is Pollan's vivid and damning description of where the meat at McDonald's or Safeway comes from. His patient tracing of industrial food from subsidized corn through the CAFO to the terrible process that produces ground beef. E. coli, obesity, and a host of ills are traced back to bad food.
What struck me is how relatively recent the really bad stuff is. The misguided agricultural subsidies started under Earl Butz, Nixon's Agriculture secretary. I grew up in a different world and much of this pernicious development took place while I was in Europe. European agriculture has been industrialized as well, of course, but never to the same extent and the backlash started much earlier than here. England is a good 10 years ahead of us in food awareness, I know from my friend Sheila Dillon at the BBC Food Programme.
But the awareness is growing here. The Joel Salatin chapters are such an eye opener, as Pollan meticulously describes the genuinely organic loop at Polyface Farm, where it all starts with grass. Polyface is only a couple hours' drive from here, so it's easy to relate to. Not sure to what extent I'll jump on the locavore bandwagon, though I'm already on it to a much greater extent than I was a year ago. We'll see.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Where to start with this moving book about the creative impulse and the conflict between individuality and community. Chaim Potok's layered novel about a young Hasidic boy with an artistic gift, so redolent with Jewish arcana, is as universal as the parent-child relationship. The fictional Ladover community, with its Rebbe both menacing and wise, is more defined than most, but Asher Lev's conflict with its strictures would be much the same in a middle class Midwestern community.
How this conflict tears at Asher Lev's soul and how his response to it tears at his parents and his community provides enough dramatic tension for several novels. How Potok brings this to a point in the climax of the book, foreshadowed from the beginning but still so unexpected, makes this a masterpiece.
From an early age, Asher Lev drew things. I did, too, when I was little, though not as compulsively as Asher. "A million people can draw," his uncle told him, so I suppose I was one of those million. It quickly became clear that Asher's drawing was beyond the ordinary and that he truly possessed a gift. The question for his father and the Hasidic community was whether the gift came from the Lord or from the "other side." When young Asher evinced a passion for drawing the crucifixion of "that man" as well as nudes, the question was settled, at least for Asher's father.
In simple family scenes, Potok shows how hostility grew between father and son and how Asher's mother was caught in between, and what it cost them all. Asher refused to go to Vienna when the Rebbe dispatched his father to establish Ladover yeshivas throughout Europe because he needed his familiar neighborhood to nurture his gift. So the father went alone. The Rebbe in his wisdom apprenticed Asher to a Jewish artist, the fabulous Jacob Kahn, in the hopes his pursuit of art, which clearly could not be denied, would not lead him away from Judaism.
If there's anyone who can read how Jacob Kahn schooled Asher Lev in art without being moved, they should not be reading fiction. The summers together in Provincetown, painting and walking on the beach and talking, are as close to idyllic as real life can get.
Asher grows older, but we are so well acquainted with him by this time that we never lose sight of that wondering young boy. Nor does Potok let us get distracted. The action is totally focused on Asher's development as an artist. By the time the artist Asher Lev is ready for his climactic one-man show at a Madison Avenue gallery, your heart is in your throat as you see what inevitably must come to pass. The powerful forces Potok has unleashed -- creativity and religion, filial devotion and artistic integrity, individual and community -- come crashing together in a climax that almost literally takes your breath away.