Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What does it mean to be a friend?

Somewhere in all the storage boxes in my garage is a copy of Joan Walsh Anglund's A Friend is Someone Who Likes You that was given to me by a friend when we were both in college together. I guess it is considered a children's book but the search for a friend and trying to understand the meaning and obligations of friendship certainly do not stop in childhood. A more recent exploration can be found in The Spare Room, a novel by Helen Garner.

It is the story of two women Helen and Nicola. Both are in their mid 60s and they have been friends for about 15 years. Helen was married and at the time of the story lives next door to her daughter and grandchildren in Melbourne. Nicola was never married and is a self-described hippie living in Sydney. But the more significant difference is that Nicola is suffering from a virulent form of cancer and asks her friend Helen if she Nicola can stay with Helen at Helen's home for the three weeks required for an alternative therapy. "Alternative" in this case includes intravenous injections of massive doses of Vitamin C and ozone saunas. The Vit. C injections have extremely debilitating side effects but Nicola is undeterred. As Helen accompanies her friend to the treatments, Helen becomes increasing skeptical of the Theodore Institute...and physically exhausted from caring for her friend...and ultimately very angry at Nicola.

Helen wants to support her friend but also feels an obligation to bring Nicola to confront the reality of her illness even including the "D" word. Nicola makes the argument that she just can't give in or give up, Helen that there are other therapies (morphine, surgery, hospice) that would be of greater benefit. But they are friends...and friends don't give up on each other even if there must be moments of painful honesty.

This story should be required reading for all of us as we enter these later decades. Some of us will be the caregivers, some the cared for and some of us may be both over time. To have a friend with whom to share that journey will be very special. But we must take care what we ask of our friend.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Before Slavery

Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her acclaimed novels, "Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon" have dealt with the traumatic history of the black woman in the United States. Her latest novel "A Mercy" has been called a prequel to her other novels. "A Mercy" is set in the late 1600’s in Virginia. It was a time when the South passed laws that “separated and protected all whites from all others forever”. A time before slavery took its demonic hold on the South.

The novel begins when Jacob, a farmer and trader, attempts to collect a debt. In lieu of money he takes a young girl as payment for the debt. As the mother offered the child to the tall man who laughed at the child’s antics and saw her as a human and not as a piece of property, she thought to herself, “It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy.”

"A Mercy" is told in the voice of Florens, the child Jacob took home to his farm and his wife. It is a household of women, his wife, Rebekka, a mail order bride, Lina, a native American woman who was the sole survivor of a small pox epidemic, and Sorrow, the strange daughter of a sea captain, who literally washed ashore. They exist on Jacob’s profitable farm, surrounded by a strange cast of characters; the well-meaning priests, the witch hunters, the intolerant Protestants, and the self-indulgent Catholic slave holders.

"A Mercy" is a tragedy, where all the characters are damaged. They are a troubled man, slaves, indentured servants and a mail order bride, who all learn to live together and in some instances, find love. They all experience varying degrees of freedom. Morrison’s theme in this somewhat oblique novel is that “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing, to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing, to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing”.

Toni Morrison writes fiction that is very close to poetry. The good side of this is that her writing is lyrical and beautiful. The other side of this is that the reader often does not have a clue to what is happening. Often the reader is not sure who is speaking or where the character is at the time. If the reader is persistent he or she will eventually be able to put the story and the characters together. But I question if Toni Morrison understands how difficult it can be to traverse her narrative. "A Mercy" is an interesting story but it is not as strong or as memorable as "Beloved" or her other more satisfying works.

Friday, April 24, 2009

French Philosophers

You've probably seen the title on the bestseller lists – The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. And you may have heard the unusual story of its origin. First published in France with an initial run of only 4000, within a year it had sold over a million copies, and remained on the bestseller list in France for nearly two years. It was translated into English and published in paperback by Europa Editions, an independent press which specializes in translated works.

So what's all the fuss about? The story takes place almost exclusively at the elegant apartment building at 7 rue de Grenelle, Paris, and there are two main characters whose narratives alternate throughout the book. The first is Renée Michel, the uneducated fifty-something concierge, who plays the part of the ignorant, television-watching dullard her residents expect her to be, but who secretly is an autodidact (I've been dying to use that word) who reads voraciously and loves literature, philosophy, Dutch art, Japanese film and French pastries. The other is Paloma Josse, the precocious and intelligent twelve year old who lives with her parents and older sister in the fifth floor apartment, and who, already disillusioned with life, is planning to kill herself and burn down the apartment building on her thirteenth birthday. The two do not interact until late in the book, but in the meantime we learn a great deal about their lives and their opinions, of which they have plenty. What ultimately connects them is the wealthy, mysterious (note to self: do not say inscrutable) Japanese businessman Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, who values them both.

Renée's voice is a particularly amusing one, as she caustically dissects the pompous residents of her building. Paloma is a trifle too precocious to be believable, but she has some wonderfully funny descriptions of her well-to-do family. And they both enjoy talking about philosophy. Is that why the French love this book so much? To enjoy it you need to suspend disbelief and just let these quirky characters carry you along as they reveal more and more about themselves. It is by turns charming, satirical, heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I found this book entertaining, but it didn't live up to its hype for me. At times I was definitely aware that I was reading a translation – it sounded too literal and didn't flow naturally. But it's an interesting view of French life and of what the French love to read.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Art and War

Did you know: the Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege in the history of modern warfare (April 1992 - February 1996)? For a fictional look into this piece of history I can recommend The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Galloway follows four individuals as they go about their lives in the besieged city. Two of the individuals are based on real people: Arrow, a female sniper; and the cellist of the title. The other two characters are a young father trying to protect and care for his wife and three young children; and an older baker whose wife and son were able to escape the city at the beginning of the siege.

Initially I was frustrated that Galloway did not provide enough background to give me a better understanding of the Sarajevo situation. Then I realized that, while this story is set in a particular place and time, there are many other areas of ethnic conflict. I do not doubt that the experiences of this one are replicated in the others. I think it must be the randomness of the bombings and sniper fire that is most terrifying. The simple act of going for a loaf of bread or a jug of water in a city with many exposed bridges can take hours. Sarajevo had the particular disadvantage of being surrounded by hills from which the enemy snipers could attack and shoot with relative impunity, relative because of persons like Arrow whose experience on the university target-shooting team before the war made her a valuable defender. Whether one lived or died had nothing to do with bring careful or reasonable.

As the novel proceeds we watch each character struggle with matters of life and death - literally. There are acts of cowardice but also acts of courage and humanity. Each has to decide whether to stay or try to leave; whether to resist or to capitulate. Some fight for family; some for country; and some for themselves. Then there is the question of the manner of resistance: violent (Arrow with her rifle) or otherwise (the cellist with his art). Each of the four has personal demons with which to wrestle. As they look forward to the end of the conflict, an end which from their vantage points is not at all certain, they know they will have to answer the question: What did you do in the war? And answer in such a way that leaves their integrity and self-respect in tact. To the author's credit I felt drawn in to their individual struggles and rejoiced in their acts of quiet individual heroism. In the end I think that is what will save us in the face of such brutality.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Paris Mysteries

Since I'm soon heading for Paris, I'm exploring books set in that glorious city. Cara Black is a San Francisco writer who has a successful mystery series and I was delighted by her first book in the series. Murder in the Marais introduces Aimee Leduc, a half-French, half-American detective who is fearless and sometimes impulsive, which of course gets her into trouble. Her extraordinarily talented partner, Rene is a dwarf and computer genius who provides vital assistance. Aimee is approached by a rabbi to decipher an encrypted photo. As she enters an apartment to deliver it to an old woman in the old Jewish Quarter, she finds a corpse with a swastika carved on her forehead. From that point we move into an exploration of the SS, collaborators, neo-nazis, dark secrets and passions stemming from the German occupation. I found myself admiring a good story, deepening intrigue and strong physical actions and descriptions. This would make a good movie with it's strong physical sense of place, compelling characters, evil and good colliding, and a crescendo of action that keeps you reading late into the night.
I'm delighted to have discovered Aimee and look forward to following her exploits as I prepare to visit her city.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Next Chapter

Our March Book Club discussion of John Updike's “Rabbit, Run” produced strong opinions. Although we all admired Updike's prose, some were put off by Rabbit's immaturity and self-absorption. But I found him a fascinating character and I wanted to follow him. So I turned to the next chapter in his life – Rabbit Redux. Written in 1971 and set in 1969, this book returns to Brewer, Pennsylvania and rejoins Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's life 10 years after we left him running – towards something, away from something, we couldn't tell.

What I found in this book was a man who seemed diminished by the past ten years. He works with his father in a dead end job as a linotyper in a small printing plant. He has returned to his wife Janice and they now live in the suburban development in an apple-green aluminum clapboard house with their thirteen-year-old son Nelson. He has gained weight and lost muscle tone and he doesn't even run anymore. This time it is Janice who runs - she leaves Rabbit for Charlie Stavros, the smoothly handsome Greek car salesman at her father's lot, (not a spoiler – it happens early in the book). Rabbit, who evaded responsibility whenever possible in “Rabbit, Run”, becomes responsible for Nelson.

The events of 1969 seep into Rabbit's world. He supports the Viet Nam war, perhaps in part because he feels guilty at not having served in Korea. Oh yes, guilt still plays a big role in his life. And it is a mix of guilt, curiosity, and loneliness (plus sex, of course) that draws him into an unusual relationship with two characters who seem emblematic of the era. One is Skeeter, a black revolutionary wannabe on the lam, the other is Jill, a rich young runaway drug addict . That these two share a household with Rabbit and his teenage son produces some scenes of frightening intensity.

This book at times seems so rooted in its era that it feels dated. But for me the beauty and power of Updike's prose more than compensated for that. Once again I was fascinated by Rabbit, a hapless sex-driven guilt-ridden schmo stumbling through his life. Am I interested enough to follow him through yet another book? I am.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Classic Satire

Recently I re-watched the wonderful British television series “Brideshead Revisited” (Jeremy Irons was great but what ever happened to Anthony Andrews?), and it made me want to read more Evelyn Waugh. We read “Scoop” in Book Group in 1991 (thanks to our catalog I can track this sort of minutiae) but I honestly don't remember it. And I had read and enjoyed “The Loved One” when I was in college. So I decided to read the book most critics seem to feel is his best – A Handful of Dust.

Waugh was renowned as a satirist, and in this book there is little he doesn't satirize. It is set in England in the 1930s, and revolves around the breakdown of the marriage of the upper class couple Tony and Brenda Last. Tony prefers life at his inherited country estate, which gives Waugh ample material for satirizing the pretensions of country life, the bad architecture of Victorian Gothic homes, and the Church of England in the form of a country priest who still re-uses the sermons he preached to the troops overseas during the war.

Brenda, bored with country life, takes up with a social climbing cad named John Beaver and enjoys the vapid life of London society, while John's mother, an interior designer, manipulates her wealthy clients for her own financial gain. It's a bitter and pessimistic view of civilized society, and when Tony ends up in the jungles of South America it's hard to determine which of these societies Waugh thinks is the more barbarous.

Waugh is such a pleasure to read. In the early part of the book there was scarcely a page that didn't have me smiling over his scathingly funny descriptions. Even towards the end, when the story becomes darker and bleaker, Waugh's satire us still laced with humor. This book appears on Modern Library's list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century, and I certainly think it's a classic.