Wednesday, August 27, 2008

National Parks: Real and Imagined

Nevada Barr is a mystery writer. What sets her 14 novels apart is that each one is set in a different national park in the US. As of 2006, there were 58 officially-designated National Parks in the United States and its dependent areas so she has a long way to go. She herself is a former park ranger. So it seemed a natural when I was planning a recent return visit to Yosemite National Park that I pick up a copy of her High Country.

Four Yosemite park workers have disappeared, all on the same day; and it is the task of Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service ranger disguised in this case as a waitress at the Ahwahnee Hotel, to track them down. Anna is the principal character in each of the 14 novels. I haven’t spent much time in the park in the winter but I don’t imagine that the granite and trees change much – and Barr’s descriptions of the geography and topography of the park ring true. I did have a moment of doubt when she described Mendocino County as “outside of San Francisco.” Yes, that’s correct; but it’s also “outside of” Los Angeles. I guess I think of “outside” as somehow being adjacent to or at least closer than Mendocino is to SF. I would have been more comfortable with “north of”. It just made me wonder how familiar Barr really is with the region she describes. Then I read on her website that she was raised in the Sierras!

It’s hard to say much about a mystery story without giving away some of the suspense. There are some very amusing passages as Anna, approaching fifty, describes living in the employee dorm with her two twenty-something roommates whose ideas of neatness and order (and lack thereof) are just what you might expect.

The second half of the book is set around Lower Merced Pass Lake and along Illilouette Creek Trail. When I finished the book I thought what fun it would be next summer to visit that area. But then I went back and re-read the initial description: twelve miles from the Mono Meadows Trailhead with a total elevation gain of two thousand feet. Staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel with another Anna Pigeon novel sounds a lot better.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Burmese Odyssey

The tragedy of Burma has been much in the news in recent months, and I was drawn to pick up what turned out to be a remarkable memoir of struggle, luck and transformation. In 'from the land of green ghosts, A Burmese Odyssey', author Pascal Khoo Thwe tells his story. He grew up as a hill tribesman from the tiny remote Paduang tribe, famous for their "giraffe-necked" women. This Buddhist, animist culture was touched by Catholic missionaries who supported the education of young Pascal and eventually his interest in English literature. We follow his journey to seminary, university and then years as a guerrilla fighter in the jungle as the military dictatorship's regime becomes increasingly brutal. Ultimately, via coincidence, initiative, luck and commitment, Pascal is rescued and brought from the jungle to Cambridge. He's the first Burmese tribesman ever to study English there.

That's the story, amazing enough, but even better is how it speaks about the ease and difficulties of melding cultures, the pain of dislocation, and the universal way literature can speak to all peoples.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Stay or Leave a Dying Town

Richard Russo’s latest novel “Bridge of Sighs” is about a dying town in upstate New York, Thomaston. The town is located on the banks of a polluted river where the local Tannery dumped poisonous refuse until it finally closed. This poison would later be linked to the cancer that attacked many of the residents.

In an interview with Book Tour, Mr. Russo describes the book as one about two boys, one who stayed in the dying town and one who left. The author is from a very similar town in upstate New York, called Gloversville. He sees himself in reality, as the boy who left, but in his mind, as the boy who stayed. The protagonist, Lou C. Lynch, known as Lucy, is 60 years old and looking back on his life, remembering his boyhood friend, Bobby Marconi, who left Thomaston at age 18 and became an expatriate painter in Venice. Lucy’s wife, Sarah, also grew up in Thomaston and was in love with both Lucy and Bobby. Mr. Russo talked about the profound relationship that both boys had with their fathers. Lucy adored his easy going, optimistic father and Bobby loathed his mean-spirited, bully of a father.

Mr. Russo talked about his characters in relationship to how deeply people think. Were his characters capable of introspection? He believes that depth of feeling is common to all people whether or not they have the voice to express them. People do not have to be educated to have sophisticated thoughts.

“Bridge of Sighs” was also an exploration of the father and son relationship in some ways because Russo’s parents divorced when he was young. Like Lucy, Russo never wanted to leave Gloversville until he went away to college. Lucy was a timid boy who the town bullies locked in a truck and left on the banks of the river. That episode began strange “spells” that plagued Lucy his entire life.

Lucy, now the mayor, is writing a memoir of his life in Thomaston as he and his wife are planning a trip to Venice. But, Lucy never really wanted to go on the trip because he found a letter that Sarah had written to Bobby, who was now known as the famous painter, Robert Noonan. He replaced Sarah’s letter with a local newspaper article because he had always suspected that Sarah was in love with Bobby.

But why did the smart, savvy Sarah stay and marry Lucy? The book explores the extremes. She could stay with the safe and dull Lucy or leave with the dynamic, engaging Bobby. Sarah chose to stay. She loved the Lynch family, the safety of Thomaston and the stability of the Lynches, something she lacked in her life. Lucy and his father both choose smart, strong women.

The overall theme of the novel seemed to be, “What was the difference between those who stayed and those who left?” Lucy’s acerbic, mother, Tessa, said, “People don’t change. Don‘t confuse growing up with changing.” Things change around you but you don’t change. The Tannery closed, giant grocery stores came to the town, people moved away and men lost their jobs. The characters had to adapt, but whether they left or stayed, they didn‘t really change.

As the story is ending, Both Bobby and Sarah are painting the Bridge of Sighs. It is the bridge in Venice, where the prisoners walked across on their way to execution. They walked to the their known fate and their sighs were echoed in the walls of Venice. In some ways it is a depressing or sad book because Russo is saying the characters chose their own poison. Russo describes the dramas that occurred as the Lucy, Bobby and Sarah grew up and he shows how those dramas led them to a sad understanding of life as it really is. But, as Richard Russo tells us, he has learned from the great writers to use a large scope of characters, who go to dark places with humor and irreverence, to tell an interesting, engaging, small town epic.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Midwestern Memories

Recently I noticed a title on a bestseller list – Little Heathens:Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Since my in-laws Whitie and Becky also lived on an Iowa farm during the Depression I was intrigued. They were older than the author, a young married couple in their twenties rather than children. But the Depression hit them hard. My father-in-law, who had a degree in chemistry, lost his job in a lab when he developed pleurisy due to the lab's poor ventilation system. This was long before OSHA and state disability insurance, so they had to do whatever they could to make ends meet. They returned to Becky's father's farm in Olin, Iowa. We recently found a Household Allowance ledger that Whitie kept during that time. The ledger for May 1933 shows that they earned $14.61 from selling eggs and cream and spent $4.29 on groceries (most of what they ate came from the farm). The Depression left its mark on them for their rest of their lives. They were warm and generous people, but they were definitely thrifty.

Mildred Armstrong Kalish's experiences were even more difficult. She was five years old, the third of four children, when her maternal grandfather banished her father from their lives. His transgression? Even now, 70 years later, she doesn't know. But it left her mother in a precarious position. Kalish's grandparents owned four farms, but they were “land poor”, struggling to pay the taxes and keep the farms running. So Mildred and her family lived and worked from May through December on one of these farms. In January they moved in with their grandparents in the small town of Garrison, since the cold weather made it too difficult to walk to the rural school. In both households the mottoes were the same – “Willful waste makes woeful want” and “If you're looking for a helping hand you'll find one at the end of your arm”.

Kalish's grandparents were “hearty handshake” Methodists, meaning that they didn't consider it appropriate to show affection by hugging, kissing or even touching. When a departing guest exclaimed “Thanks for a great evening. Oh, I do so love you folks”, Kalish's grandmother remarked after the door closed “Well, we like her, too. But there's no need to say so”. They firmly believed in building character in their grandchildren through religion and hard work. But if you think this is a memoir in which the author bemoans her cold harsh childhood you are mistaken. Kalish's memories are not only clear as a bell, they are infused with affection and joy.

She has fond memories of her winters in Garrison but her most powerful stories are about her summers on the farm. There were countless chores and very little money, but her affection for “the high blue sky” of Iowa, for all the sights and smells that filled her childhood days, is present on every page. Not that she gushes – that would be totally out of character. In fact her prose style is ... prosaic – as matter-of-fact and practical as she is. She includes household hints (most involve vinegar, salt, peroxide or baking soda) and recipes for everything from corn oysters to carrot marmalade. Perhaps her most poetic musing concerns...bacon fat. In comparing her own experience to Proust's reminiscence on the madeleine she says that “the closest I come to Proust's experience is the joy that comes over me when I conjure up the taste of a sandwich made of homemade bread spread with smoked bacon drippings, topped with the thinnest slices of crisp red radishes freshly harvested from the garden, and sprinkled over with coarse salt”.

Much of her farm life was spent outdoors, so there are many stories about the farm animals, the vegetable garden, nut gathering, haying, even the hanging out the wash. All these stories are told in her practical Iowan prose, but you can't help but be touched by her description of “the dearest deep-down freshness of a crab apple tree in full bloom”, or the “pagan pleasure” she took in inhaling “the sweet fragrance emanating form the clean body of a colt, calf, lamb, puppy or kitten that had been sleeping on the grass and warmed by the sun”.

Kalish admits at the end of the book that not everyone who experienced a childhood like hers has such happy memories, including her own sister, who refused to discuss their lives in the thirties. But I recently reread my father-in-law's memoir, hand-written near the end of his life. Like Kalish he describes their depression era life in practical language, without a hint of self pity or pessimism. I think he and Becky would have enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Art History the Easy Way

Everyone to whom I have ever spoken who has visited the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) has spoken of it in the most glowing terms. I don’t expect that I will ever get there. So I was drawn to The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean as a way to visit vicariously.

The main character Marina was a docent at the Hermitage in 1941. In anticipation of an attack by the Germans, the museum director ordered that the paintings be removed from their frames and stored or shipped out of town for safekeeping. It is now decades later and Marina and her husband Dmitri are preparing for the wedding of their granddaughter in Washington State. The novel alternates between the two times and places. The current situation is complicated by Marina’s struggle with Alzheimer’s but her memory of the paintings and life in the shelter during the siege is unimpaired.

It’s one thing to read a description of the Leningrad blockade in Wikipedia: “The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest and most destructive sieges of major cities in modern history and it was the most lethal.” It lasted 872 days. But the true horror is conveyed in passages from the novel like this: “They were able to save their ration coupons for the rest of the month. Then two weeks ago, when there was nothing left, when Marina had begun fainting at the slightest exertion, a group of sailors on the Palace Embankment presented her with an armful of pine branches. She ate the entire branch on the way back to the shelter, gnawing on the bark. It tasted wonderful, sharp and spicy, like eating the forest.” There is an equally powerful description of melting down the joiner’s glue that was used to glue the picture frames together to make a jelly: the glue was made from sinews of beef.

I intentionally did most of the reading at home so that I could have a copy of Paintings in the Hermitage by Colin Eisler close by. It slows down the reading considerably to stop and look up the paintings mentioned but it is a painless way of getting acquainted with some of the world’s most well-regarded works of art. For some of the paintings there is a more detailed description of the history, the artist, the symbolism. The best part is knowing that there won’t be a quiz at the end…just the satisfaction of having spent some time with the Masters and learning a little bit of history as well.

PS: For those of us in our 6th and 7th decades (and beyond) we can lose no time in building our own “memory palaces” (page 68).

Interview with Debra Dean

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Price of Success

Ian McEwan has written some wonderful novels, among them my favorites, “Atonement”, “Saturday”, and “On Chisel Beach”. In 1998 he won The Booker Prize for “Amsterdam”. This short novel begins in London at the funeral of the lovely, free-spirited Molly Lane. Two of Molly's former lovers , Clive Linley, a famous classical symphony composer and Vernon Halliday, the editor in chief of a failing but renowned newspaper, are lamenting the horrible, debilitating disease that took Molly from them. They make a pact that if either one is ever so debilitated, the other will assist them in ending their lives. Enter Amsterdam, the city where one can legally commit euthanasia and where they could accomplish their pact.

Clive Linley has been commissioned to compose a Millennial symphony, but it has become almost impossible for him to complete. Vernon Halliday is the editor of a failing newspaper that he is trying desperately to resurrect.

Both men make moral choices to reach their goals. The choices involve doing “the right thing” or making a decision that will harm someone else. And, both decisions are ultimately made with selfish, heartless determination.

The results of these decisions are disastrous for both men. But, “Amsterdam’s” ending is also disingenuous. Clive and Vernon find themselves in Amsterdam with a pact to reckon with. The story itself is a page turner. Ian McEwan writes beautiful, simple and sometimes amusing prose. But, as interesting as the story is, with its strange turn of events, the ending is abrupt and not convincing. Ian McEwan has written a good novel but perhaps not as great as his other novels.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Neighborhood Crime

I have a guilty pleasure – cop shows. I love them all – Hill Street Blues, Law and Order, Homicide, NYPD Blue, even the dirty cops in The Shield. But my absolute favorite is The Wire, because of its wonderful actors and incredible writing. So when I began to hear interviews with Richard Price, one of the show's writers, I was immediately interested. And Price does a great interview. He sounds like one of his characters, with his New York accent, laconic style and street slang language. I've seen several of the movies for which he wrote the screenplays – my favorite is “Sea of Love” - but I'd never read any of his novels. I guess I always thought they might be a little too gritty for my tastes. But I decided to try his latest book – Lush Life.

I was hooked immediately. Yes, there are cops – Sergeant Matty Clark and his partner Detective Yolonda Bello. Also perps and vics and eyewits and the occasional innocent bystander. The action takes place on the Lower East Side and the geography is described so specifically you can find it on google maps. It's an area that combines housing projects and hipster hangouts. Clark is investigating a homicide that occurred when these two cultures collided. On one level it's the standard story of cops using old fashioned investigative procedures to solve a crime. But the story ripples out from the crime itself. Eric Cash, a restaurant manager with screenwriter aspirations, is a witness to the crime who becomes the cops' chief suspect when his account of his actions proves less than reliable. Price's description of Eric's interrogation helps you understand how innocent people sometimes end up confessing to crimes they didn't commit. The victim's father, Billy Marcus, seems to lurch in and out of scenes, careening from grief to anger to depression as he tries to make sense of his loss. Matty Clark, while dealing with the crime, the mourning family and the frustrations of police bureaucracy, also struggles with his own role as a father.

Price has a great ear for dialogue. You can open to almost any page and read sharp, raw and often very funny exchanges, all with perfect pitch. And his descriptions of various denizens of this Lower East Side neighborhood, from the Chinese immigrants to the hipster bartenders to the wannabe gangsters, are vivid and honest. So even if you don't share my love of cop stories, there's a lot you'll admire about Richard Price's terrific novel.

If you'd like to hear his Fresh Air interview click here and enjoy.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Feeling At Home

Reading an Anne Tyler novel is like visiting an old friend. I've read so many of her books that at this point her characters seem like people I know. They're are not larger than life; they're not heroic or passionate or despicable. They live ordinary lives in Baltimore and mostly try to do the best they can. They sometimes attempt to squirm out from under a smothering family or disappointing spouse, but they never stray too far. Not exactly Anna Karenina.

In Digging to America Tyler focuses on two families who are adopting baby girls from Korea. Their paths cross at the Baltimore airport as their babies arrive. The Donaldson parents, Bitsy and Brad, are accompanied by a noisy entourage of friends and family as they greet their new arrival. In contrast Sami and Ziba Yazdan hover in the background, joined only by Sami's imperious Iranian mother Maryam. As the story moves on the contrasts continue. The Donaldsons retain their baby's birth name of Jin-Ho and celebrate her Korean heritage every chance they get. The Yasdan's change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan. They are themselves the children of Iranian immigrants and, having learned to assimilate into the American culture, they want the same for their child. For special occasions Jin-Ho is dressed in a kimono while Susan is dressed in a party dress and Mary Janes.

The Donaldsons include the Yasdans in their lives, inviting them to an annual “Arrival Party” for the two girls and an autumn leaf-raking party (an event which mystifies the Yasdans). The Yasdans reciprocate with an Iranian celebration where Maryam and Ziba organize an astounding array of Persian dishes, although Maryam is less than enthusiastic ("Why should they have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the Smithsonian for that!"). Initially the purpose of these events is to ensure that the little girls become best friends. As the years go by it is clear that the two have little in common other than their place of birth. But the gatherings allow Tyler to subtly explore what it means to be American (typified by the pushy but good-hearted Bitsy), and how it feels to be an outsider. Maryam typifies this conflict; she takes pride in her otherness and her self sufficiency and is often appalled by the 'too much information' tendencies of the Donaldsons. But she slowly comes to realize that her stubborn insistence on remaining an outsider may be costing her too much.

Ann Tyler was married to the Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi (he died nearly 10 years ago), and this no doubt explains why her Iranian characters seem as real and complex as those from her native Baltimore. Although I wouldn't pick this as my favorite Tyler novel, I once again enjoyed getting to know her characters.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Physical Risk and Spiritual Reward

I recently took a Learn to Row class so it wasn’t long afterward until I dusted off Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill Fredston which had been sitting unread on my bookshelf. What do avalanche experts in Alaska do in the summer “off season”? At least two of them take to the water in very small boats. First, the boats. Jill uses a rowing shell which means she is always facing backwards to the direction of travel; and her husband, Doug Fesler, goes along in a kayak facing forward. It seems to work for them. Second, the water. - in this case, the Arctic. In 15 years, they have rowed more than 20,000 miles: from Seattle to Skagway; the lengths of the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers; the entire coast of Norway; the western coast of Greenland; the coast of Labrador; and around the island of Spitsbergen, among others. To appreciate fully the enormity of these undertakings you really need to look at a map (which is provided in the book).

And then there are the weather conditions. In Jill’s own words: “To appreciate the conditions, try spending the day lying fully clothed in a bathtub, under a steady shower of cold water. For realism, add a fan to simulate twenty-mile-per-hour winds.” But believe it or not, she writes so well that I found myself actually considering such an adventure as a possibility (never mind the physical strength required and the dangers from wind, water, icebergs and bears).

Jill informs us that the word “travel” comes from the French root “travail” meaning hard work or arduous effort. That is certainly true for these excursions. You might be asking yourself as I did: Why, if it is so bad, do they keep doing it? Jill has an answer but I’ll let her tell it.

Most of us will never take to the seas in a small boat but each of us will face challenges either for ourselves or those we love. So does a book like this have any lessons to offer us? Absolutely. “Don’t think about the icy surf, the cliffs, the ‘what-ifs.’ Take it one stroke, one mile, one hour at a time. Be patient, let events evolve, take things as they come…Breathe, find a rhythm, stay loose, balance the boat, keep pulling.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Never Argue with a Woman

One morning, the husband returns the boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out.
She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.
Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, “Good morning, Ma'am. What are you doing?”
“Reading a book,” she replies, (thinking, “Isn't that obvious?”).
“You're in a Restricted Fishing Area,” he informs her.
“I'm sorry, officer, but I'm not fishing. I'm reading.”
“Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up.”
“If you do that, I'll have to charge you with sexual assault,” says the woman.
“But I haven't even touched you,” says the Game Warden.
“That's true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment.”
“Have a nice day ma'am,” and he left.

MORAL: Never argue with a woman who reads. It's likely she can also think.

Note: Thank you to our faithful reader Diane who forwarded the above. I just couldn't resist posting it. I've also posted it on our bookclub4evr wikispace. Back to more serious reading matters tomorrow.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Art and Life

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers is the story of a psychological journey. The main portion of the novel is an extended session between psychologist David McBride and his suicidal patient Elizabeth Cruikshank. David, the narrator of the story, feels especially able to deal with the “suicidally disposed” because of an incident in his own childhood in which his beloved older brother was killed before his eyes in a traffic accident when he was five years old. He has a sort of survivor's guilt that makes him sensitive to those who choose to end their lives. But his early attempts to reach his uncommunicative patient are unsuccessful. Finally, her brief reference to Caravaggio draws him to view the painting The Supper at Emmaus in London and when he describes his reaction to her, Elizabeth opens up and begins to expose her other self.

Elizabeth's story of what led her to suicide forms the main portion of the book, and I don't want to give away too much of it. But her first words concerning her tragedy - “I was faithless” - are profoundly important. It's not just that she was unfaithful, but that she lacked the faith to embrace the love she was offered. As David gently questions her, he also begins to realize that his own life mirrors Elizabeth's. The trauma in his past has caused him to close himself off, to remain in a marriage with the self absorbed wife. When Elizabeth asks him “"Why do you do this? Is it love or damage?" he answers, "Possibly both."

Vickers invokes the image of the Caravaggio paintings frequently as the story progresses. If you've read St. Luke lately you'll remember that it tells the story of two of Jesus's followers traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion, mourning the death of their leader. They are joined by a mysterious stranger, and when he breaks bread with them at supper he reveals himself as the risen Christ and then disappears. David and Elizabeth are also travelers, and each helps the other to the revelation of the “other side” of themselves.

The title for Vickers's novel comes,from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland ("Who is the third who walks always beside you? . . . Who is that on the other side of you?"). Although some may find the language somewhat stilted at times, I thought it was beautifully poetic in capturing the human emotions of loss, regret and redemption.