Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wishes for 2012

On the last night of 2011, Bookface is at home with a bottle of Riesling, a heap of books, and her two cats. Pondering what she might wish for the coming year, she concludes, Just more of the same, please.

Books and cats are such complementary luxuries. Many of my favourite authors have or had feline muses. There is a spectacular on-line photo collection, Writers and Kitties, "where literature has whiskers and pointy ears."  It includes...

... Borges, lounging in his library with one of his seeing eye cats. As someone who lives with a black cat and spends a lot of time trying to bring literature to Malaysia's blind people, this image especially grabbed my heart.

I'm a huge fan of Hermann Hesse, although I haven't read one of his books in the year I've been keeping this blog. I had no idea he loved cats, but clearly he did.

We all know Haruki Murakami loves cats, but this photograph of Yukio Mishima captivated me even more. How handsome he was! Well, they were, both of them (he and the cat). I hope he made arrangements for his pet before he publicly committed seppuku in 1970. I should make a resolution to read some of Mishima's work in the coming year.

And finally, a photo of Werner Aspenstrom and his cat.
Who is Werner Aspenstrom? Well, according to Google, he is a Swedish poet and essayist. It's possible I will never read a word this man has written, but I just adore this photograph.

Maybe I should make an effort to find some of his work. Any man who would sit for a portrait like this must write things that I want to read.

If I have one suggestion for the coming year, it is this: Read. Read critically. Read books by friends and foes; a book you hate has as much to teach you as one you love. Dare to pick up books on wacky subjects like volcanoes and salt and peat bogs  -- you will learn more about humanity than you might have imagined. Read fiction from Japan and Argentina and Kansas. You will learn about those places and their people, and even a hard-cover copy will cost less than airfare. Read judiciously selected historical fiction -- if the authors are scrupulous, you can get a lush and vibrant image of life in Tudor England or WWII Malaya from their novels. Read history, too, of course, and remember that every writer has a unique perspective, which may be quite different from others who witnessed the same thing. Read serendipitously. Go ahead -- find a book by a Swedish author because you love the photo of him with his cat! It may leave you cold, or it might change your life.

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light & Death, by Mark Essig

2011 brought two major storms to the northeastern United States, and thousands of homes were without electricity, some for nearly two weeks. These events give us all pause as we look around and give thanks for the current that feeds our heating and cooling, computers and other gadgets, appliances, and of course our lights. Here in Malaysia, life without my refrigerator and ceiling fans would be wretched. Thank you very much, Thomas Alva Edison.

Sheila Terry, Science Photo Library
Engraving of Wm. Kemmler in Electric Chair

And thank you, Mark Essig, for taking us back to the beginning of commercial electricity and reminding us how astonished people were to see electric lights.The gas lighting they were using was exceedingly dirty and caused thousands of fatal fires. Electricity, though, can also be deadly if mishandled. Edison knew this and feared that accidental deaths would discourage people from adopting the new technology. He insisted that all his cables be run underground. His competitors, however, had no such scruples, and regulations were not in place. A few deaths from fallen overhead wires caused public furor. One of Edison's greatest competitors was George Westinghouse, who initially supported alternating current (Edison backed direct current) and who did not share Edison's belief in burying cables.

Thomas Edison was morally opposed to capital punishment, yet he energetically promoted electrocution as a more humane, "civilised" form of execution than any other. Why? Essig posits that the commercial competition between Edison and Westinghouse was the motivation: Edison wanted the public to associate his rival's alternating current with death, and his own direct current with light. Westinghouse fought in court to block the adoption of this scheme, but he failed. It was a Westinghouse dynamo that powered New York's first electric chairs, including the one that killed William Kemmler, the first convict to die by this means.

Edison himself sounds like an early 20th-century admixture of Steve Jobs and P. T. Barnum -- an almost manically driven inventor, highly intuitive, with innate business sense. He seems an unlikely man to sway Supreme Court justices debating legality and ethics.
"Teachers told us to keep him in the streets, for he would never make a scholar," Edison's father reported. "Some folks thought he was a little addled." Edison's mother taught him to read at home... When reporters flocked to Menlo Park to interview the creator of this marvelous machine, they were surprised to encounter not a solemn man of science but a beaming, boyish inventor. Pants baggy and unpressed, vest flying open, coat stained with grease, hands discolored by acid, Edison "looked like nothing so much as a country store keeper hurrying to fill an order of prunes." ... Newspapers described a man who rarely slept and who appeared to subsist entirely on pie, coffee, chewing tobacco, and cigars.

The story of electric light is interesting in its own right, but the tale of the electric chair illuminates (pardon the pun) the culture's changing attitudes toward capital punishment and indeed pain and suffering in general, and the power of commerce to sway the American legal system. Essig begins with the early days when convicts were hanged in the public square. The hanging was meant to be a morality lesson: The convicted man would proceed through the streets and deliver from the gallows a speech of apology and remorse, acknowledging his sin against God and his fellow man.
The crime of murder destroyed families, sowed distrust among neighbors, and ripped communities apart; the execution ceremony brought them together again. A public hanging was intended to serve as a civic ritual of retribution and reconciliation.
As the decades passed, however, the gap between rich and poor Americans widened, and it didn't take long for the have-nots to realise that they more often dangled at end of a noose than the haves. Public hangings became rebellious, indecorous, drunken riots, so the authorities gradually shifted gallows to the more secure yards of county jails.

At the end of the 19th century, Essig notes that a trend toward compassion began to grow in the US. Before this, life was brutish and short for everyone, so the thought of limiting pain rarely came up. Suffering was ubiquitous, the status quo.
Those who did not succumb to violence fell victim to accident and disease: Women died during childbirth; illness routinely felled infants and children; men were maimed and killed in warfare and farm accidents; plague and famine killed indiscriminately. Pain provided the texture of everyday life, and people accepted it as inevitable. Christians saw it as punishment for sin, or even as on opportunity to draw closer to the divine by sharing the suffering of Christ. Physical suffering was routine, and compassion was a precious resource, easily exhausted and grudgingly dispensed.
In the late 1800s America, however, humane societies began to speak out in animals' defense. Medical anesthetics showed people that pain could be alleviated or eliminated altogether. Compassion was coming into vogue, being considered an element of modernity, of civilisation.
By the end of the nineteenth century the situation had changed. William James, the great psychologist and brother to Henry, noted in 1901 that in the past century a "moral transformation" had "swept over our Western world. We no longer think that we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity." Compassion was now extended to all of humanity, and cruelty became the worst of sins. An 1891 advertisement for a laxative expressed the new mood in rhyme: "What higher aim can man attain than conquest over human pain?"
As electricity began to illuminate New York City, law-makers started to question whether it might also provide a more sophisticated and merciful way to execute criminals. Essig details the progression from the initial question to legislative hearings and numerous legal appeals reaching the US Supreme Court. New York was the first state to adopt electrocution (the word a combination of 'electricity' and 'execution') in favour of hanging, although at the time they passed the law, no one knew precisely how to kill a man with electricity. Ghastly numbers of experiments followed with dogs, calves and horses before convicted murderer William Kemmler was strapped into the chair in Auburn Prison. There were technical glitches, and it took two attempts before he finally died. Witnesses fainted and vomited. The supporters reported to the press that it was a success, that he died instantly and painlessly. Edison continued to promote electrocution as a very humane form of death, rarely failing to mention that his competitor's dynamo was the fatal tool. (When the public was reaching for a term for this new execution method, some Edison employees recommended turning their rival's name into a verb, as in "The convict was westinghoused.")

The electric chair has killed over 4,000 men and women in the US, but it's fallen very short of dealing instant, painless death. (No state uses electrocution as its sole execution method today, but a number of the southern states continue to offer it as an option.)
The controversy surrounding electrocution never disappeared. There was evidence that, in some cases, electrocution killed fairly quickly But throughout the century electrocutions often went horribly wrong, causing prisoners to suffer the extreme pain that accompanies cardiac arrest, tetanic muscle contraction, asphyxiation, boiling body fluids, and severe burns.

In the end, Edison's obsession with commercial electrical safety paid off:  all electrical companies were required to bury their cables. He later conceded that alternating current had its uses and adopted it for some of his own applications. And finally, thanks to commercial rivalry and misdirected compassion, Edison helped to perpetuate an atrocious method of execution.
The opposition to electrocution never got a fair hearing, because any objections could be dismissed out of hand as the cynical machinations of George Westinghouse. Few appeared troubled that Thomas Edison's motives for defending electrocution were equally suspect...  No one exemplified this engineering mentality better than Thomas Edison, the opponent of capital punishment who helped invent a killing machine. Like many death penalty foes, Edison believed that making killing more humane was a sign of progress, a step down the road to complete abolition. The strategy backfired. By making executions appear painless, Edison helped the death penalty survive. The electric chair—and the later scientific methods it inspired—masked the barbarity of killing in the civilization of the machine.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eating for Good Health, by Lim Hin Fui, PhD

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. Dr. Lim is a social anthropologist working at FRIM (the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia). He immersed himself in the study of health foods when his father-in-law underwent surgery for prostate cancer. This book is part of his effort to share his experience and belief in the power of a healthy diet.

As I read aloud in the recording booth, I alternately nodded, cringed, and paused to blurt out, "Whoa, really?" I do enjoy those moments when a book reminds me that not everyone thinks and behaves as I do. Let's start with them.

I avoid going to doctors as long as I can, but I'm not a martyr. Before he finally capitulated and went to a clinic, Lim's father-in-law reached the point at which he awakened every hour during the night with a burning urgency to urinate and would then stand at the toilet struggling to pass a drop. The combination of urinary distress and sleep deprivation became a torment. His experience at the local Ipoh clinic is even more astonishing.
He was informed that it is normal for a man after 50 years of age to have urinary problems. When one is aging, such problems are normal. It was assumed that the bothersome urinary problem he was experiencing was simply a part of growing old. He was given medicines to improve his urinary system.
His family intervened and brought him to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur. There the doctor diagnosed and surgically removed his very palpable prostate tumour. This occurred in 1996. I wonder if the doctors in Ipoh today would do a prostate exam on a patient with these symptoms, rather than simply shrugging it off as old age and writing a prescription.

The surgeon in KL recommended a course of post-operative chemotherapy, but the patient was reluctant, in part because he'd heard of the side-effects and in part because of the cost.
My father-in-law told the doctor that he needed a few weeks to decide on the proposed western medicine [chemotherapy]. The treatment cost of RM400 a month was not a small amount and could be a burden to the family.
Lim plunged into research on the subject of food as medicine. The family decided to make a radical change in their diets, relying upon health foods to battle any remaining cancer cells. They shifted to a mostly organic vegan diet (no meat, eggs or dairy). Interestingly, they elected not to tell the doctor of their decision; they simply declined the chemotherapy. Again, I wonder if a Malaysian doctor today would look askance at patients who opt for alternative or complementary treatments, especially a transition to a healthy diet.  (Actually, when Lim finally disclosed their programme to the doctor, he was far more supportive than Lim had predicted.)

Malaysian awareness of the connection between food and health is growing, but Lim acknowledges that it lags behind that of the more developed countries. People have grown noticeably rounder in the 8 years I've been here; sugar and fat consumption are taking their toll. The Ministry of Health issues advisories as diabetes and hypertension figures soar. Yet, Lim says, Malaysians love "our nice foods" and see no reason to change eating habits when doctors give pills to control blood pressure and sugar. He mentions one Malaysian who hadn't quite caught on to the notion that food and health are interrelated.
While working part-time as a general worker in the USA, he drank 4-5 litres of soft drinks a day and took fast food during lunch and dinner breaks. He later went to the UK, where he ate a lot of chocolates and potato fries to fight the cold weather. [Back in Malaysia, he took five different medications multiple times a day to control his sugar and cholesterol levels, blood pressure, plus an anti-coagulant.] His kidneys showed signs of weakness.
Well, I should think they would! It astounds me that so many people pay closer attention to the quality of the fuel they pump into their cars than to the stuff they put into their bodies.

Now for the cringing bits. Lim fervently believes that their health food diet is responsible for the fact that his father-in-law is still living today. He may be right, but without knowing more about the precise nature and stage of the prostate cancer, it's hard to say. It's indisputable that people would be healthier in general if they followed his prescription. I get edgy, though, when Lim speaks of 'cancer' as if it's one disease and says that a healthy diet is an effective way to prevent or combat it. He states at the end of the book that health food is not a panacea and that people may want to seek doctors' advice for some things, but his own faith in his regimen seems nearly total.

Lim devotes one chapter to the subject of detoxification. Forgive me for being cynical, but at the end of the chapter, it seemed to me that after changing to the vegan diet, Lim's family has continued to suffer the same minor health issues as before, but instead of calling them 'disease' he now refers to them as 'signs of detoxification.' In the past, they would have gone to a clinic and gotten medication for their flu symptoms -- fever, cough, sneezing, etc. Now he cheerfully avers that these same symptoms are not flu but rather the body's way of expelling toxins. Instead of medication, they rest, drink plenty of fluids, or in the mother-in-law's case, Lim suggests to her that going out and sweating in the garden might help. People who eat junk food have flu (bad); vegans have detoxification symptoms (good).

As I said, I don't rush off to a doctor or take medication if I can avoid it. I'm a fan of rest and fluids when I'm feverish, too. As I read Lim's description of his father-in-law's "detox process", though, I was stunned at Lim's confidence that his new health food scheme precludes illness. When suffering from radiating chest pains, the older man worried about possible recurrence of the cancer. I would have immediately feared heart failure. Lim steadfastly chalks it up to detoxification. He talks his relative out of going to the doctor for three months! 
In October 2006 he had chest pain again and the chest showed signs of swelling. The pain started on the left central portion of the chest, moved to the right and then to the left. This caused alarm. He was worried that the tumour was coming back and spreading. I told him to be patient as it was likely to be another detox process again. Since he is on health food since 1996, he has managed to regain health. There is no reason for the tumour to return when potassium rich foods are taken... This chest pain, a challenge indeed, lasted about 3 months.
Now to the nods, and they are vigorous nods. I wholeheartedly agree with Lim's advocacy of organic growing methods as being better not only for the health of the consumer but also for the health of the planet and its soil. I equally embrace his view that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and plant proteins is generally much better for the health than one loaded with fats, salts, and sugars. Three cheers to him for pushing brown rice, as opposed to the polished white rice so many Malaysians favour! I share his hope that this book will encourage more people to consider the impact of what they eat.

Sad to say, most of my blind friends find it hard to cook at home. Shopping for ingredients can be difficult for them. They are on limited budgets. Many of them eat most meals at low-cost food stalls, and this food falls far outside Lim's prescription. I would be happy if at least a few of them listened to this book and found a way to a healthier diet.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett

This classic was on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was probably on a majority of the bookshelves in Maine, collecting dust on most of them. My parents had read it and spoke of it affectionately, but as a young reader, I wasn't interested in some quaint, fusty old novel set in my own backyard.

Port Clyde, Maine
by N. C. Wyeth
And as I sit here in my Malaysian home, on the cusp of 50, I realise that this book came to me at precisely the right time and place. When I was in my early teens, living in rural mid-coast Maine, my friend and I groused about all the summer tourists. "You should be thankful," her father drawled, "to live in a place that's so beautiful other people will spend their hard-earned money just to come see it." It was an excellent point, of course, and totally wasted on two girls who were bored silly of rocky coastlines dotted with conifers. Some of my schoolmates coveted my peanut butter or egg salad sandwiches. Their fathers were lobstermen, and they were sick to death of lobster salad rolls in their lunch sacks, day in, day out. We just aren't wired to appreciate what we see every day. After 32 years and a move to Kuala Lumpur, I'm finally ready to marvel at the beauty of coastal Maine.  The Country of the Pointed Firs feels to me today like a nostalgic journey back to my roots and simultaneously an almost exotic bit of armchair travel. Maine is a unique place. I don't think I fully realised that until I'd left it. And Sarah Orne Jewett led me to realise something quite new about the place, something I wouldn't have spotted on my own. It's all about perspective.

The book hasn't much of a plot. The narrator is a middle-aged lady who arrives in June in the fictional mid-coast town of Dunnet Landing. She rents a room in the home of Mrs. Todd, a slightly older widow and the town's herbalist. We don't know the narrator's name, where she's come from, or why she's come -- either at the beginning of the story or the end of it -- but we tag along with her as she socialises with the locals at tea and family gatherings. At the end of summer (like most tourists), she sadly boards the boat and departs. The book was published in 1910, so every aspect of this lady's rambling was leisurely: She strolls about collecting herbs with Mrs. Todd, they row and sail a dory to Green Island to visit Mrs. Todd's mother, an elderly white horse draws them to a family reunion. Basically, the story is a slightly animated version of N.C. Wyeth's painting. Today I can embrace the idea that places and novels can be profoundly beautiful in the absence of dramatic action.

Jewett had a fine ear for the Maine dialect. Mainers aren't a loquacious lot. Few words, oblique references and understatements galore are their trademarks.  "Breakfast is served" might pass muster in Boston, but it's a tad abrupt in Maine. Mrs. Todd mentions to her boarder, "I guess what breakfast you'll want's about ready now."  One can read into this, I wouldn't presume to say what breakfast you might want, nor exactly when you might want it, but my best effort should be ready sometime shortly if it suits you.

Whether it's breakfast or death, Mainers are even-keeled. The narrator timidly mentions the recent funeral of much-loved Mrs. Begg. Her companion, a retired sea captain, speaks of his neighbour's demise as if she'd simply sneaked out early from a church supper. "She has gone," said the captain,—"very easy at the last, I was informed; she slipped away as if she were glad of the opportunity."

Jewett also portrays well the cooperation and interdependence among the villagers. They barter, share, trade, give and receive. They garden, fish, and forage. Mrs. Todd's knowledge of herbs is such that the local doctor treats her as a colleague, and she is for all intents and purposes the village pharmacist. Throughout the book she harvests barks, leaves, berries and roots; she knows where the all the best specimens grow.
With most remedies the purchaser was allowed to depart unadmonished from the kitchen, Mrs. Todd being a wise saver of steps; but with certain vials she gave cautions, standing in the doorway, and there were other doses which had to be accompanied on their healing way as far as the gate, while she muttered long chapters of directions, and kept up an air of secrecy and importance to the last. It may not have been only the common aids of humanity with which she tried to cope; it seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd's garden.

Mainers divide people into two categories:  A local is a person born in the state; all others are said to be from away. Whether you were born in New Hampshire or Nepal is of no matter. You are from away, and you will never be a local, even if your parents settled in Maine two weeks after your birth. Many locals don't stray far from their hometowns; there were people in my village who viewed a trip to Portland, 60 miles away, as an expedition, so you can understand why someone from Vermont might seem alien. I was from away, and even as a child I found the xenophobia suffocating. Thanks to Sarah Orne Jewett, I now grasp that it wasn't always this way. Coastal Mainers got stuck in the mudflats when the glory days of shipping came to an end. My own town was famous for building five-masted schooners, but that industry died out over half a century before I arrived, and the locals' horizons seem to have contracted to their own county after that.

Perspective is what they've lost. Jewett's old sea-captain grumbles that one can't have much of a world-view if one never leaves home.
He waved his hand toward the village below. "In that handful of houses they fancy that they comprehend the universe... I view it, in addition, that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper.
In the old days, a good part o' the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them. They saw the world for themselves, and like's not their wives and children saw it with them. They may not have had the best of knowledge to carry with 'em sight-seein', but they were some acquainted with foreign lands an' their laws, an' could see outside the battle for town clerk here in Dunnet; they got some sense o' proportion. Yes, they lived more dignified, and their houses were better within an' without."
It's tempting to say that living in Malaysia has allowed me the perspective to love Maine as unabashedly as the lady visitor to Dunnet, but I haven't lost sight of the fact that this is fiction. The narrator is, after all, a summer tourist with all that implies. On the other hand, when it comes to being bowled over by the beauty of a place, the tourist's perspective is the one to have.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

Having only recently grumbled about Tolstoy rambling like a drunken muzhik around his enormous novel, Anna Karenina, how could I resist this book? You see, I have this nagging sense that I should love these Russian mega-novels, or that in a past life I did love them, or that I might love them properly in this life if someone would just badger me enough. I thought Elif Batuman might be that someone.

I just finished The Possessed, and while I don't think I'm any more inclined to wallow through War and Peace, I ardently share Batuman's assertion that literature is one of our greatest achievements and consolations, and its study not a frivolous pastime. She does admit, though, that the great Russian authors tended to prolixity...
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale.
Batuman is an American of Turkish descent, and her relatives wonder why she is pursuing a PhD in Russian literature. They aren't the only ones.
Some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature. I still remember the passport control officer who stamped my first student visa. He suggested to me that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.”
Batuman, however, feels that the world's finest literature has universal appeal. Sharing that view are the Shanghai film-makers who have just done a Chinese adaptation of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. You can always find a bit of common ground, if you look hard enough.
In the Chinese Red Cavalry, the screenwriter told us, Cossacks would be transformed into “barbarians from the north of China”; the Jewish narrator would be represented by a Chinese intellectual. “There are not so many differences between Jews and Chinese,” he explained. “They give their children violin lessons, and they worry about money.

After beginning an undergraduate degree in Linguistics (my own field of study), Batuman acknowledges that she can't feign academic interest in language in general; the emotional pull toward Russian is too strong. Anyone who has received advice from older relatives and other mentors to pursue a practical or lucrative line of study will know this battle. To whom do you listen, your mother ("But you'll always have work if you're a dentist...")? Or your heart, as verbalised by Joseph Campbell ("Follow your bliss")?
Didn’t that mean all languages were, objectively speaking, equally interesting? And I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia. Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. 
After living in Turkey, I truly appreciate Batuman's resistance to suggestions that she study the literature of her ancestral country. (She confesses that she did read the Orhan Pamuk novel or two and was bored witless.)
The thing that immediately struck one about the Turkish novel was that nobody read it, not even Turkish people. I often noticed this when I was in Turkey. Most people just weren’t into novels at all. They liked funny short stories, funny fables, serious fables, essays, letters, short poems, long poems, newspapers, crossword puzzles—they liked practically any kind of printed matter better than novels.
It's odd that there isn't more of a literary culture in Turkey, because the Turks speak with enormous pride of their language. I think it's tied to that sense of nostalgia for the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Turks ruled much more of the planet than they do today. Of course, not everyone shares that bit of nostalgia.
Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language. Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on. When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all. “Of course we have some Turkish words in our language,” they would say. “For example, handcuffs. But that’s because you occupied our country for four hundred years.”
So enough of Turkish. Ms. Batuman throws herself into Russian language and literature, including a respectably deep immersion in contemporary culture. Modern Moscow is nothing if not fodder for literature.
In Moscow, for the first and last time in my life, I dated bankers. Things didn’t work out with the first banker, but I still remember the second banker fondly. His name was Rustem, he had remarkable yellowish brown eyes, and he had until recently been an engineer at an explosives factory in Yekaterinburg, designing bombs that were named after flowers. Now he was working for Bank Menatep, which the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky used to manage the state funds for Chernobyl victims, and also to commit alleged embezzlement and tax fraud for which he is, at the time of this writing, serving a prison sentence. Rustem was saving up money to pay for parachuting lessons.
She goes to a Tolstoy conference on the author's estate. Alas, Aeroflot loses her suitcase, so she must attend the conference in the pajama-like clothes she'd worn on the plane. She takes some solace in the fact that the devotees of Tolstoy when he was still alive were a motley crew. She might have fit in rather well with them, sartorially speaking.
As is often the case, Tolstoy’s enemies were no more alarming than his so-called friends, for instance, the pilgrims who swarmed Yasnaya Polyana: a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and desperados, collectively referred to by the domestic staff as “the Dark Ones.” These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity; a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial “simplicity” and who eventually had to be driven away “because he was beginning to be indecent”; and a blind Old Believer who pursued the sound of Tolstoy’s footsteps, shouting, “Liar! Hypocrite!”
The other academics at the conference are an eccentric and tolerant lot, and even the Aeroflot clerk delivers a succinct speech on Russian philosophy.
Together, between talks on Tolstoy, we wandered through Tolstoy’s house and Tolstoy’s garden, sat on Tolstoy’s favorite bench, admired Tolstoy’s beehives, marveled at Tolstoy’s favorite hut, and avoided the vitiated descendants of Tolstoy’s favorite geese: one of these almost feral creatures had bitten a cultural semiotician. Every morning I called Aeroflot to ask about my suitcase. “Oh, it’s you,” sighed the clerk. “Yes, I have your request right here. Address: Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?”
I saw a number of very enthusiastic reviews for this book, but one in particular convinced me that I would relish it.  Ian Sansom, writing for The Guardian, drew the perfect line in the sand:  "... if you liked Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, you'll hate The Possessed."  

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Body, by William Sansom

I stumbled across this novel in Anthony Burgess' list of his 99 most admired novels. I'd never before heard of William Sansom (English novelist, 1912-1976), and when I Googled it, I found a few synopses that described it as a brilliant if uncomfortable novel of obsessive jealousy. Thank you, Anthony Burgess! Without your recommendation, I'd probably never have spotted this little gem of a book.

Henry Bishop is puttering about in his garden, minding his own business, as a suburban Londoner in the 1950s was wont to do on a weekend. Through the leaves of a shrub, however, he spots a large-boned, ginger-haired man with an almost menacing mustache entering his yard from the one next-door. To compound this trespass, the man appears to pause and leer up at Henry's wife through the foggy bathroom window. The intruder is Charley Diver, a boisterous, extroverted new tenant in the boarding house next-door, and he's popped over to borrow a screwdriver. Madge, fully dressed after her bath, appears to find Mr. Diver's effusive good nature charming. Henry is appalled and begins his trip into his private, self-fueled hell.

Sansom excels at minutely detailed descriptions of settings, both internal and external. Henry reflects on this first incident -- he is not incapable of introspection, but he is clearly thrown off balance by the passions it aroused.
I think I am at most times a quiet man—indeed usually I am sure I would have been levelheaded enough to dismiss objectively the whole episode as a contemptible small impertinence. But that afternoon for some reason I was flustered by a confusion beyond my control. A sudden onrush of strong emotions; self-pity, envy, guilt and common anger rose at this affront. Pity for myself, for being excluded from what concerned Madge, from what was rightfully mine; envy, I am sure, of this mustached intruder's virile appearance; guilt that I had failed to assert myself and attack him; anger at such a successful breaching of dignity and position. And I remember one other curious feeling—I had no thought of sympathy for Madge, no sympathy for her privacy outraged: instead, surprisingly, I assumed her collaboration. Yet never before in our twenty years of marriage can I remember seriously distrusting her.
We readers don't know whether or not Madge is having a dalliance with Charley Diver, but it seems unlikely. Henry is steadily convincing himself that she is. He pauses periodically to question his reasoning, but then reassures himself that his suspicions are justified. It's an uncomfortable spot for a middle-aged London barber, all rather undignified stuff, really.
Yet that is perhaps a little strong—it suggests the anger of an obsessed introvert always indulging in pains and ills of his own exaggeration. I do not think—even after all that has since passed —that I am that. In fact I would say the opposite—a man of very small passion. Ordinary, from ordinary middle-class beginnings, and if at all extraordinary then in the mildest and safest way—I am what is called a little 'old-fashioned.'
He fantasises several times about confronting his nemesis, issuing ominous warnings, good-natured lectures and statesman-like oratories, but none of these ever makes its way outside his own head.

I'll have to speak to the fellow—tell him who's who. Politely, as man to man. Or ... with dignity, cold dignity. Before dinner? Take him aside afterwards? One could begin casually, hands in pockets. 'Er—Diver, a little matter I've been wanting to have a chat about.' And then something impersonal, said gravely, with at the end a sudden cock of the eyes straight at him, 'My wife and I have been married now for twenty years. A fine woman, Mrs. Bishop. Popular with everybody—and respected. Good company, good fun. But what I will say is, she knows where to draw the line. Never exceeds herself like some: never a word out of place. No man respects her more than I—no woman respects her more than she respects herself.'
But then, is Diver his nemesis? Isn't Madge equally culpable? It does, after all, seem to Henry that they're both involved in this duplicity. Everything -- even the most banal contact between them -- convinces Henry further.
Madge rang out a sudden peal of high laughter— I could not help staring at her, it came so suddenly. It was as if a row of metal bells, verdigrised but game, had suddenly become galvanized behind her nose. And in the same moment she tossed her head back, pointed a shoulder at Diver, and set her mouth wide in a great frozen smile that exposed every tooth. All she said was:       —Good _evening__, Mr. Diver.

As we follow Henry, listening to his increasingly fraught reasoning, we observe his perception growing more distorted, almost as if he were drunk. He is of course highly attuned to Madge and Diver, but the rest of the world also begins to warp through his stressed lens.

My eyes selected from the general view isolated objects which stood out and addressed me with unusual significance. Thus I saw instantly that along this particular terrace cats sat at the open summer windows, many cats. They sat quietly musing the evening air, each a separate heraldic figure—separate, but so many that they seemed to sit in silent colloquy. So many cats I had never seen before. And as I looked up at all those windows, there sprang out distinctly from the façades those pipes again, gutter pipes and drainpipes winding fantastically over the otherwise ordered house fronts of gray plaster: many had been picked out in bright paint, others darker took on a depth of shadow cast by the lowering evening sun.
Like Josephine Hart's novel, Damage, The Body gives us an ordinary man caught completely off-guard by an overpowering emotion. Both seem like swimmers caught in a rip-tide. They understand the perilous situation they're in, but they also see the futility of trying to swim against it. Getting to shore by trying to reason with their passions is unlikely to succeed. We read these two novels and feel relieved that we're not their protagonists, but then we perceive that we might well be, at any moment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Now You See It, by Cathy N. Davidson

I began this book tentatively, ready to set it down at the first sign of boredom. Given that it's a book about the science of attention, this preconception already amused me. My attention, however, never wavered. In fact, if I'd been reading a paper copy rather than the e-book, the pages would have been drenched with highlighter ink and margin scribbles.

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University, opens the book by citing a famous experiment which took place some years ago. I vaguely remembered reading about it at the time, but I didn't quite get the impact until she elucidated. Researchers asked subjects to watch a videotape of people in dark and light shirts throwing basketballs back & forth between them. How many basketballs do the white-shirts throw? asked the researchers. The subjects focused all their attention on the basketballs flying hither, thither and yon. Almost none of them noticed the gorilla that walked onto the court, beating its chest and doing a little dance. It sounds incredible, but as Davidson explains, when we're intensely focused on one thing, we can overlook a gorilla. And, unless someone else spots it and mentions it, we won't ever know that we overlooked it. 

Now You See It examines why we pay attention to the things we do, why that may not be such a great idea in the present age, and how we might re-learn to pay attention to give ourselves more of a chance to see the gorilla as well as the basketballs. An unnoticed gorilla, after all, might be a very dangerous thing.  We need to learn new ways of seeing: "For over a hundred years, we’ve been training people to see in a particularly individual, deliberative way. No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else. It’s hard for us to believe we’re not seeing all there is to see."

Davidson's specialty is education, and she immediately pounces upon the oft-heard criticism that children today are being ruined by the internet and electronic games. Look at our current standard education system, she insists: Everything about it, including classroom design, is set up to crank out graduates ready for life in the industrial society. The problem? We no longer live in an industrial society. 
Think about our kids’ schools. My grandmother came to this country in steerage, by steamship, but when I look at the photograph of her standing tall and proud in her eighth-grade class in Chicago, surrounded by immigrants from other places, the schoolroom itself looks entirely familiar. Her classroom could be plopped down almost unchanged in any large, urban public school today. What’s more, many features of that classroom and what she learned there were structured to help her adjust to the new industrial, manufacturing-based economy she was entering. That economy, as we all know, has been transformed irrevocably by globalization and the changes wrought by the information age. If kids must face the challenges of this new, global, distributed information economy, what are we doing to structure the classroom of the twenty-first century to help them? In this time of massive change, we’re giving our kids the tests and lesson plans designed for their great-great-grandparents.
As our environment changes, Davidson maintains, our brain adapts. New technologies have always made us anxious, but over time, we learn to manage. The internet is not necessarily fatal to young brains.
A chief concern is speed. Trains, bicycles, and especially the automobile (the “horseless carriage”) all seemed to push humans beyond their natural, God-given, biological limits. Early critics of the car, for example, simply refused to believe they could be safe because, after all, human attention and reflexes were not created to handle so much information flying past the windshield. That debate reached a crescendo in 1904, when the Hollywood film director Harry Myers received the world’s first speeding ticket, when he was clocked rushing down the streets of Dayton, Ohio, at the death-defying speed of twelve miles per hour... 
What this line of argument overlooks is that the brain is not static. It is built for learning and is changed by what it encounters and what operations it performs. Retooled by the tools we use, our brain adjusts and adapts...
We have heard many times that the contemporary era’s distractions are bad for us, but are they? All we really know is that our digital age demands a different form of attention than we’ve needed before.
For those Luddites among us, this is but one of Davidson's eye-opening statistics:  "By one estimate, 65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet." In other words, training for specific trades or skills is a thing of the past. Children today need to learn how to learn, and like it or not, the internet plays largely in today's world.
In addition to the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, kids should be learning critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and problem solving, all of the skills one can build upon and mesh with the skills of others. We need to test students on how critically they think about the issues of the digital age—privacy, security, or credibility. We could write algorithms to test how well kids sort the information that comes at them, how wisely they decide what is or is not reliable information. It would also be easy to assess the effectiveness of their use of new technologies and all the multimedia tools not only at their disposal but more and more necessary for their future employment. If you can’t get on Twitter, you haven’t passed that test.
In one engrossing section, Davidson focuses on an infant and how "Baby Andy" learns, almost from the day of his birth, what warrants his attention. 
Not only is attention learned behavior, but it is shaped by what we value, and values are a key part of cultural transmission, one generation to another. The absorption of those values into our habitual behavior is also biological. We change brain pathways, and we make neural efficiencies when we learn. That is the physiology of attention blindness. Of course those values change with time and circumstances. We are constantly disrupting previous patterns and forming new ones...
In the nursery that we learned that the world is far, far too vast to be mastered one bit at a time. We need to organize all the stuff of the world around us. We need priorities and categories that make navigating through life easier and more efficient. And that’s exactly where we get into trouble...
[Baby Andy's mother uses] a high, lilting voice that she doesn’t use with anyone else. Linguists call that voice, with its special sounds, inflections, vocabulary, and syntax, Motherese. It turns out that American mothers use Motherese statistically more often than just about anyone else on the planet. Asking babies questions and then answering them also turns out to be how you build a specifically Western baby. That question-and-answer structure is foundational for a lot of Western linguistic, philosophical, and even personality structures, extending, basically, from Socrates to The Paper Chase to Hogwarts. We want to build an Andy who asks questions and demands answers. When his mother coos at him, we can call it love. Or we can call it being an American. Love may be natural, but how we express it is entirely learned and culturally distinctive...
 Ethnographic studies of preschoolers using picture cards and other games show that they develop a remarkably accurate map of the subtle socioeconomic, racial, and gender hierarchies implicit (and often not explicitly articulated) in a society. Even before they can talk, infants are able to understand the dynamics of fear in their society. Babies being walked down a city street can be seen to bristle more when they pass adults of a different race, although in America, tragically, black babies, like white babies, are more likely to be frightened by an encounter with a black male stranger than a white one.
But the brain is, of course, plastic. Just as we can learn, we can un-learn and re-learn. And, Davidson says, we must re-examine how we learn. Rote memorisation is a relic of that industrial age of the past. It doesn't give kids any significant problem-solving skills, nor do anything to nourish creative thinking. She makes a compelling case for educational games. The older readers among us might stiffen as we read this, but deep down we know that it is possible to learn and have fun at the same time. She responds to the tired allegation that the Columbine shooters played violent video games, ergo video games produce mass murderers.
Of course some video games are appalling in their violence. And of course there are horrific school shooters who play video games. If 97 percent of teens are now playing games, there is likely to be, among them, someone seriously disturbed enough to perpetrate a tragedy. Or to win eight Gold Medals in swimming at the 2008 Olympics. Or to do just about anything else. If nearly everyone is playing video games, we’re not talking about a social problem anymore. We’re talking about a changed environment.
Not only does Davidson recommend re-tooling our school systems, she says we're long overdo to revisit how we work. Few of us clock in and out anymore; the borders between work and leisure are blurred. In fact nearly every border in the workplace is blurred. She mentions a team of software engineers -- 1 in the US, 1 in the UK, and 1 in India, all women. Despite the differences in culture and geography, they've worked together fabulously, and one remarked, "It would be a shame to separate us." That comment would have been nonsensical in the pre-Internet days. It's remarkable now.

Another man has founded a hugely successful software testing firm. Such companies are infamous for high employee turn-over and erratic work results. Simply put, few people want to sit in a cubicle, day in and day out, staring at computer code, looking for inconsistencies and bugs. The company's founder realised, after watching his autistic son, that this would in fact be the dream job for someone with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. So that's who he hires. A windowless cubicle with no human distractions, spending hours looking at patterns and numerical sequences -- these folks love their jobs. What was once considered a handicap is now their greatest strength in the workplace.

Davidson also profiles that historically stodgy conservative company, Big Blue. I was dumbstruck to read that IBM now conducts many of its international brain-storming meetings on-line.  Teleconferencing? No, that's too 20th-century. They are meeting -- or more precisely, their avatars are meeting -- in Second Life, the virtual reality environment.

IBM has its own “islands,” or virtual meeting spaces in Second Life, for its employees. And it’s not the only company there. About thirteen hundred organizations and businesses now hold meetings in Second Life.
Tony O'Driscoll, an HR expert, attends a meeting using an avatar named Lawanda, an overweight black woman. "Lawanda" is on a mission to show her co-workers their own biases in a way they won't forget.

As an HR expert, she knows why she’s being ignored. She’s read all the research on weight bias, especially against women—how college students would rather have a heroin addict for a roommate than an obese person, how being even fifteen pounds overweight means doctors take you less seriously and are more likely to misdiagnose and undertreat you, and how, in business, being overweight lowers your chances of being hired or promoted. She also is familiar with the research on how women executives are paid less, promoted less, and given less credit for their ideas than their male counterparts. And she knows the even more depressing studies about African Americans in the workplace, including one conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT. They sent out the exact same résumés, changing only the names—such as switching a name like Lisa to Lawanda—and found that applicants with black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to be contacted for a job interview.
After a few minutes of the meeting, seeing that the other avatars were not treating Lawanda equitably, O'Driscoll suggested they all switch to an alternate view that Second Life provides -- it's a view from above, allowing all the participants to view the whole transaction from a distance. Immediately, nearly everyone spotted that they were all excluding Lawanda from their conversations.
“That moment,” O’Driscoll says, “is almost impossible to duplicate in real life. The ability to see yourself as others see you.” What’s equally important, he says, is then deciding, if you don’t like what you see, to make a correction on the spot and do it better the next time.

Now You See It is loaded with examples of educational and workplace innovation. Davidson makes sure that you see it, and see it, and see it again. She backs up her success stories with brain science. This book should be on the curriculum of every teaching college in the world, and I wish politicians would take the time to read it before passing benighted legislation like "No Child Left Behind", which is devised to prepare American students for life in the 19th century. This is an exciting, optimistic, inspiring book. It gave me the sense that I could not only see but maybe even befriend that gorilla.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

An acquaintance once told me that the Man Booker Prize was the kiss of death for any novel he'd been thinking of reading. Without exception, he despised all the winners that he'd read, and now he assiduously avoids them. I don't give it much weight either way, but having just finished The Sense of an Ending, I have to cheer the committee for their 2011 selection. What an extraordinary book!

Barnes builds a compact, compelling little novel around some of my favourite themes: Memory and perception (flawed vs. accurate), nostalgia and history. Anthony Webster, now in his later decades, reflects upon his earlier years. At the outset, he makes clear that no one can trust memory implicitly. Impressions are all we have left.
I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.
Tony doesn't try to buff out the unflattering bits. He looks back on his adolescent self and school friends with all their pretensions, naughtiness and melodrama.
We knew from our reading of great literature that Love involved Suffering, and would happily have got in some practice at Suffering if there was an implicit, perhaps even logical, promise that Love might be on its way. This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature?
Throughout the novel, Tony collides repeatedly with the challenges of the historian. What were the actual facts and events? Moreover, how did one person perceive them as opposed to another? He takes care to give the reader as much accuracy as he can manage. He wouldn't want us, for instance, to conclude that everyone was rampantly promiscuous in the 60s, despite the stereotypes of the decade.
After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
One of Tony's school friends, Adrian, dies an early death. Some 30 years later, Tony learns that someone has bequeathed Adrian's last diary to him. Unfortunately, the diary is presently in the possession of Veronica, a woman who had dated both Tony and Adrian. In his efforts to collect the diary, Tony revisits the tangled and messy relationships between them.  

As Tony practically falls over himself to admit narrative fallability, Veronica tells him several times (as she had when they were dating), "You just don't get it. You never did, and you never will." But the difference between supposed opposites -- success vs. failure, insight vs. cluelessness, love vs. loathing -- are often less than one might think. Sometimes it's just a matter of perspective. Undeterred by Veronica's scathing comments, Tony tries to be a good historian, a humble, plodding, retrospective detective, picking through whatever material he's got. And he's not always as far off the mark as she thinks he is.
Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
His persistence (and a certain amount of dumb luck) produce the shocking bit of history that had eluded him. The sense of regret for some of his past actions, the sense of "If I'd only known..." is palpable. But that's life, and that's history. Our vision is never complete; we never act with full knowledge. Nonetheless, some of us act in more decisive and dramatic ways than others.  Do we consciously add to our life stories, or simply let them accrete?
We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase. Had my life increased, or merely added to itself?
I felt enormous compassion for Tony, especially as he tangled with his regrets. You're only human, I wanted to tell him; we all make mistakes. I wish I could show myself as much compassion as Julian Barnes evoked on Tony's behalf.

This blog, as I've said before, is my personal diary; I don't intend it to be a source of book reviews. In reading what I've written above, though, I feel I've done this book a disservice. I've jotted down some aspects of it that especially resonated with me, but they probably won't inspire anyone else to pick it up. So here is what Justine Jordan, writing for The Guardian, has to say. Succinct, and dead on.
A meditation on memory and regret slyly conveyed through the unreliable voice of a complacent man whose past gives him a nasty surprise, it's slim enough to gobble at a sitting and slips down with deceptive ease, but leaves plenty to ponder in its wake. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro

I've been reading exalted reviews of Alice Munro's short stories for years and have finally gotten around to reading one of her collections. I would certainly have done it sooner, but the short story has never been one of my favourite genres. And much as I appreciated Munro's work, that hasn't changed. Short stories are, well... just too short for my taste. I can be content with a novella, like those of Thomas Mann, but I nearly always finish a short story with a sense of being dumped out of a bus before reaching my destination.  I can think of a few exceptions -- some of Saki's short stories and Shirley Jackson's classic, "The Lottery", for instance.

I did love Alice Munro's good women. I only wanted to spend more time with them than she allowed me. I want her to weave whole, rich novels around them. I don't mean to suggest that her short stories are lacking in substance, depth or atmosphere.  She puts her women in brilliantly detailed settings, and she takes them from Point A to Point B, sometimes over the course of their lifetimes. I don't finish these stories and feel that Munro has left anything undone. Rather, she draws me into a world that has all the makings of a delicious novel, and I'm not ready to leave it after such a brief visit.

In the title story, a trio of young boys goes out along a dirt track to a river in the early Canadian spring. The river is swollen with melt-water, and in it they spot the light blue Mini belonging to the local optometrist, Dr. Willens. The car is mostly submerged, but they crowd as close as they can to look inside, openly curious as only children can be.
They could picture Mr. Willens' face as they knew it -- a big square face which often wore a theatrical sort of frown but was never seriously intimidating. His thin crinkly hair was reddish or brassy on top, and combed diagonally over his forehead. His eyebrows were darker than his hair, thick and fuzzy like caterpillars stuck above his eyes. This was a face already grotesque to them, in the way that many adult faces were, and they were not afraid to see it drowned. But all they got to see was that arm and his pale hand. They could see the hand quite plain once they got used to looking through the water. It rode there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And as ordinary, once you got used to its being there at all. The fingernails were all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday look of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances.
"Son of a gun," these boys said. With gathering energy and a tone of deepening respect, even of gratitude. "Son of a gun."
An adult might be too squeamish to look, or would at least scold himself that he should try to disguise his fascination. I'd almost forgotten how matter-of-factly I reacted to death when I was a child. Alice Munro clearly hasn't. I picture her right there, leaning over the bank, all agog and peering into the Mini with the boys.

Many of these stories take place in small towns, where urban people might assume nothing much happens. Well, life happens. For someone who enjoys observing people, a bustling city provides only quantity. Munro immerses us in the faces and speech of rural Canadians.
Like her brother Rupert, she had a round-snub nosed, agreeably wrinkled face -- the kind that Enid's mother called "potato Irish". But behind Rupert's good-humoured expression there was wariness and withholding. And behind Mrs. Green's there was yearning. Enid did not know for what. To the simplest conversation Mrs. Green brought a huge demand. Maybe it was just a yearning for news. News of something momentous. An event. 
In another story, two young women meet to spend the day at a beach in British Columbia. Although both are married and one has a baby, they aren't comfortable with the wife and mother labels, nor any of the accoutrements that seem to go along with them. They sit far removed and observe the pack of women they've dubbed "the Monicas", since that happens to be the name of the only one to whom they've actually spoken.
These women aren't so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they've reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath feels their threat particularly, since she's a mother now herself. When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal function. 
Alice Munro's women are quirky and unpredictable, but each is, at her core, very strong. Maybe like those cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. And it's better, I have to concede, to have met them briefly than never to have met them at all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Damage, by Josephine Hart

I read this novel a about 20 years ago, not long after it came out (1991), and I thought then it packed an enormous punch for such a short book. I've been keeping an eye out for another copy of it ever since. I got a used paperback copy recently with gratifyingly musty yellowed pages, and I was equally pleased to find that the book is no less powerful the second time around. Perhaps it's more so, as I feel a bit more fragile than I did two decades ago. That is Amy Tan's definition of a 'classic' -- a book you can read once a decade and respond to differently each time.

The bare plot outline might be that of any steamy pot-boiler: Middle-aged man falls obsessively in love with son's fiancee; tragedy ensues. What Hart does with this plot, though, is insightful, moving, terse and deft. The year after the novel came out, David Hare wrote a screenplay, which followed the book very closely. Louis Malle directed the film; Jeremy Irons, Natasha Richardson and Juliette Binoche played the lead roles. Quite the roll-call, there. I did see the film, and I remember thinking the casting was close to perfect, but the book still had the greater impact.

The narrator is an English man of middle age, a doctor turned politician, faithfully married to a lovely wife, father of two fine adult children. He is by all objective standards a success. He himself feels almost nothing -- he also views his life objectively, reporting it in an almost clinical tone.
My wife is beautiful. For that, I have the evidence of my own eyes, and the reaction of those who meet her.  Hers is a beauty of pleasing proportions, a felicitous blending of eyes, skin, and hair. She is complete. She was complete before I met her. It was to her picture of life that I contributed my being. And I was happy to do so. 
She was twenty when I met her, conventionally, correctly at a friend's house. There was nothing about her that jarred or caused me pain. She possessed in great measure that powerful seductiveness of serenity. Ingrid took my initial admiration, and later love, as a treasured gift, but a deserved one. I, who had feared love, feared some wildness it might unleash in me, was soothed.
And so the doctor proceeds bloodlessly through all aspects of his life. He goes through his medical training without great empathy for those he treats. He allows his father-in-law to persuade him to try his hand at politics, and the voters find him appealing. His fellow Parliamentarians grow to like and respect him because he does not compete with them. Success just falls into this man's lap. In his own detached fashion, he appreciates his good fortune, and he muses that doing everything correctly has served him well.
What man was luckier? I had obeyed the rules. I had been rewarded. Clear direction, some luck, and here I was, fifty and fully realised. 
Enter Anna Barton, the 33 year-old woman with whom his 25 year-old son, Martyn, has fallen in love. Hart, with enormous skill, avoids anything trite as she draws this obsession-at-first-sight scene. In Anna, the doctor recognises himself, or perhaps another of his own species. For what may be the first time in his life, he experiences passionate emotions. Not just lust but a whole panoply of heightened states. He knows at once that his life has commenced and, should Anna disappear, it would end.

He knows also, of course, that he is on the road to ruin. If their affair were uncovered, it would demolish his career and everyone in his family, but he is for once nearly out of control. Anna sees his obsession and responds to it, but she does warn him: "Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive."

Later, after a dinner with Martyn, Anna, and Martyn's parents, Anna's step-father offers the doctor an even more chilling warning.
"Anna has brought a great deal of pain to a number of people. She is completely blameless, in my opinion. But she is a catalyst for disaster. Martyn may be different. He seems to let her be. That is vital with Anna. Try to hold her, and she will fight. You can't break Anna. She's already broken, you see. She must be free. That way, she will always return home. Of course this is the advice I should be giving to the groom, and not to his father. But Martyn doesn't seem to need it. So you, my friend, should heed what I say. It's clearly too late for the only advice that could save you. Stay away from Anna."
His illicit affair with Anna is madness, he's fully aware of that, but this Englishman coolly observes his own progress toward disaster. He just cannot bring himself to alter or stop it. Although Anna predictably escapes with minor injury, no one is completely spared the horror. Including me. I'm still nursing my reader's bruises. Give it another decade or two, though, and I'll reach for Damage again.

The House of Stairs, by Barbara Vine

I picked up this novel at a warehouse sale despite its dreadfully illustrated dust-jacket. I was on the verge of judging the book by its cover when my friend ambled over and said, "You should buy that one."  At the top of the dust jacket appeared the words, "Ruth Rendell writing as BARBARA VINE". I told my friend that I'd read another of Rendell's novels and was only moderately enthusiastic about it. He was just as adamant:  "But her books as Barbara Vine are so much better!"

I've just finished reading The House of Stairs (recording it for M'sian Association for the Blind), so now I've read one novel by Ruth Rendell as herself (The Water's Lovely) and one by Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine. Although the first isn't a bad book, the second is notably better. My friend and I are not the only people to hold this opinion -- late British crime writer Julian Symons admired the works of Ruth Rendell but felt "the Barbara Vine novels are her finest work."

 Writers use pseudonyms for a whole host of reasons, but when one's real name is printed on the cover alongside the adopted one, the only mystery is... why? Anonymity is obviously out of the question. She's not an author who wants to try out a different genre under an alias -- both Vine and Rendell write crime-mystery fiction. She doesn't want to see if her books might sell better if readers thought her a man, as the Bronte sisters had. Maybe I've just been reading too much of this genre lately, but I start wondering about multiple personalities. Does Ruth Rendell don a Barbara Vine mask and assume a new persona when she sits down to work on a book by her alter-ego?  Who is Barbara Vine, and why does she exist? Well, regardless, I'm glad she does, and I'm thrilled that she wrote The House of Stairs.

The mystery in this novel is not whodunnit. We know who committed the murder in the first chapter, but only in the final one do we know the victim. It's a fascinating twist on the crime drama, and it gives the book a very different shade of suspense. Only the reader is in the dark; the characters all know the whole story, but Vine is very cautious, allowing them to leak this hint or that bit of foreshadowing now and again.

Elizabeth, the book's narrator, has once again met Bell, who just finished serving her prison sentence for murder. Elizabeth clearly has a complex emotional connection to Bell, ranging from fascination to fury over the years. Mutual friends initially describe Bell as bluntly honest, but Elizabeth learns -- too late, unfortunately -- that she is merely blunt. She is altogether too capable of fabricating stories about her past and her family. If she's tactlessly insensitive of others' feelings, she appears to have few of her own. Still, people are drawn to Bell, fascinated by her, wary of her, protective toward her. She remains largely indifferent to what anyone else thinks or does.  Or so she would have people think.

At the opposite end of the social skills spectrum is Cosette, Elizabeth's adored aunt. Widowed and wealthy, vivacious and generous, Cosette buys 'the house of stairs', an oddly vertical residence in London's Notting Hill, with the idea that it will be her salon. The many rooms off the 106-step central staircase can house the shifting cast of characters who will surround her with sparkling activity and conversation. Elizabeth moves in, and after a time, so does Bell. As with any group of people, tensions flare, and alliances shift. Love and lust come into play. The house is a character in its own right. Vine puts us solidly there, climbing the stairs, sitting in the 'grey garden', in which everything -- the eucalypt tree, other leafy plants, and even the flowers -- are all in shades of grey, gazing out the French windows, sitting with Cosette in the drawing room as the phone or doorbell rings to announce another guest.

I did want to know who died, but I was happy to savour this book and spend time with all its characters.  I was content to sip wine with Cosette and her entourage, watching the eucalypt shedding its grey leaves, wondering -- as Elizabeth and Bell were wont to do -- why Gary and Fay did this, or why Ivor said that. People are interesting. Some of them are greedy, others gracious, or stolid or brilliant, and some of them kill others, believing it justifiable.  All very interesting.

Afterword:  In this Guardian interview on 1 March 2013, Ms. Rendell discusses the very distinct voices of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine.