Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac won the Man Booker Prize in 1984. Hmmm. The other novels on the short list that year included J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and Peter Carey's Flaubert's Parrot (both of which I'd have chosen over Hotel du Lac), as well as novels that I've not yet read by Anita Desai, David Lodge and Penelope Lively. I didn't dislike this book, but I'd be fascinated to hear why the judges loved it so.  

The protagonist, Edith Hope, is the British author of romance novels, which she pens under a pseudonym. Early on, we get the sense that she has retreated to the classic Swiss hotel to escape some sort of scandal.  Not long after that, she begins a letter to her married lover. (As it turns out, these two things are not connected.)  Meanwhile, her intention to spend her days writing is disrupted by the attentions of her fellow guests, most of whom have their own tortuous romantic histories.  The writing, however, suits the tone of the hotel---"stolid and dignified".
The Hotel du Lac (Famille Huber) was a stolid and dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment. used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism...
...And of course it was an excellent hotel. And its situation on the lake was agreeable. The climate was not brilliant, but in comparison with other, similar, resorts, it was equable.
Yes, that's it -- I would describe this novel as agreeable, not brilliant, equable. I don't normally seek out reviews of books on Goodreads, much less quote them here, but this one was too good to pass up. Its author, Paul Bryant, gave Hotel du Lac two stars out of five. His synopsis is a gem.
A very slow, mournful novel set in an end-of-season hotel which may -- just may -- be a metaphor or sumpin. Everything happens in slowmo -- walks, meals, coffee, tea, cakes, clothes (pages of those), more walks, mothers, daughters, gloomy memories, walks, talks, a small dog, gauntness, autumnal colours, pallor, crepuscularity, more damned walks, more wretched meals, the god damned dog again, more clothes, and on p 143 this:
"my patience with this little comedy is wearing a bit thin".

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

This is one of those elegantly, intricately crafted novels with plot threads that intersect across great spans of time and place. Nao is a Japanese teen-ager with a troubled family life who sets out to learn about the history of her great, great grandmother, a Buddhist nun. On an island off the coast of Washington state, a novelist, Ruth, finds a small but intriguing collection of Japanese memorabilia that's washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, perhaps a remnant of the 2011 tsunami. Ruth and Nao set off on almost compulsive quests to unravel their respective mysteries on either side of the Pacific.

Nao lives with her idealistic but impractical father, who tries desperately to his his depression and lack of business acumen, and her mother, who is slowly, quietly, going mad.
Mom was almost never at home at the time. She was into her jellyfish phase, and she used to spend all day at the invertebrate tank in the city aquarium, where she would sit, clutching her old Gucci handbag, watching kurage through the glass. I know this because she took me there once. It was the only thing that relaxed her. She had read somewhere that watching kurage was beneficial to your health because it reduces stress levels, only the problem was that a lot of other housewives had read the same article, so it was always crowded in front of the tank, and the aquarium had to set out folding chairs, and you had to get there really early in order to get a good spot, all of which was very stressful. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure she was having a nervous breakdown at the time, but I remember how pale and beautiful she looked with her delicate profile against the watery blue tank, and her bloodshot eyes following the drift of the pink and yellow jellyfish as they floated by like pulsing pastel-colored moons, trailing their long tentacles behind them.
Nao's father's professional decline was triggered by his conscience, which kicked in, most inconveniently, when he took an IT job in the Silicon Valley and was assigned to a defense-related project.  His pacifist nature did not mesh with the company's mission or vision, either one.
He sat perfectly still, studying his hands in his lap. "I know it is a stupid idea to design a weapon that will refuse to kill," he said."But maybe I could make the killing not so much fun."
(He was sacked shortly thereafter, and the family returned to Japan in disgrace.)  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to decode some artefacts in the lunchbox that seemed to have belonged to a kamikaze pilot...

A glorious, quirky collection of history, philosophy and metaphysics, A Tale for the Time Being deserves attentive reading and re-reading, and I owe it both.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey wrote this collection of essays during and about the three seasons he spent as a lone park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah, in the southwestern US. The book earned 7th place in the list of NatGeo Extreme Classics: The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time, which I think odd, as I find it neither extreme nor particularly adventurous. I much prefer the blurb that describes Abbey as "our very own desert father, a hermit loading up on silence and austerity and the radical beauty of empty places." I've done some trekking in the desert southwest, so his paeans to the landscape and its inhabitants all resonate with me. Nature is sacred, no matter the topology, but there is something about the vastness of the Utah sky that gives this area the feeling of an endless cathedral. And Abbey was an ideal man to safeguard it for three seasons.    
Other considerations come to mind. Arches National Monument is meant to be among other things a sanctuary for wildlife -- for all forms of wildlife. It is my duty as a park ranger to protect, preserve and defend all living things within the park boundaries, making no exceptions. Even if this were not the case I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I'm a humanist; I'd rather kill a man than a snake.
Much of the text consists of Abbey's philosophical and spiritual ruminations, often sitting at a makeshift picnic table with a beer at dusk. I wish more people would go into the back of beyond and acquire his understanding of the interrelationships between all species (and stay there until they do so.)
All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.
Abbey is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a curmudgeon, and his prickly humour suits me just fine.
I check the garbage can for trapped chipmunks, pick up a few bottle caps, and inspect the "sanitary facilities," where all appears to be in good order: roll of paper, can of lime, black widow spiders dangling in their usual strategic corners. On the inside of the door someone has written a cautionary note: "Attention: Watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated."
Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968.  Abbey harrumphed about the decision to allow cars into national parks. Occasionally I see articles about federal agencies allowing the roundup and culling of wild horses and burros in national parks, or other forms of intrusion that would send Abbey right into his grave if he hadn't gone there on his own in 1989. Sacrilege, all of it.
No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs --anything -- but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly. 
I suppose some might compare being stuck alone in the middle of the Utah desert as a form of solitary confinement, from which madness must ensue. Abbey makes clear that the absence of confinement is the saving grace, allowing him to reap the benefits of his solitary retreat.
But how, you might ask, does living outdoors on the terrace enable me to escape that other form of isolation, the solitary confinement of the mind? For there are the bad moments, or were, especially at the beginning of my life here, when I would sit down at the table for supper inside the housetrailer and discover with a sudden shock that I was alone. There was nobody, nobody at all, on the other side of the table. Alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society. By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen (reach for your revolver!) or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman. Strange as it might seem, I found that eating my supper out back made a difference. Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had, for a season, left behind; the plywood walls and the dusty venetian blinds and the light bulbs and the smell of butane made me think of Albuquerque. But taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world -- an exhilarating feeling which leads to equanimity. Certainly I was still by myself, so to speak -- there were no other people around and there still are none -- but in the midst of such a grand tableau it was impossible to give full and serious consideration to Albuquerque. All that is human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel -- is it a paradox? -- that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself. 

Ratking, by Michael Dibdin

I typically try to read series of books in order, whether or not they're sequential, but with Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, I goofed, reading #8, And Then You Die, first. Dibdin is a British writer, but after teaching in Perugia for some years, he published the first mystery featuring Detective Aurelio Zen, Ratking, in 1988. It won the Gold Dagger Award for the Best Crime Novel of the year.

In this novel, Zen has run afoul of his superiors in Rome, and he is sent off to Perugia to work on a kidnapping case:  An elderly tycoon has been kidnapped. The problem? His adult children, each more outrageously dysfunctional than the other, seem little interested in retrieving their father. The father's secretary likens the situation to a "ratking"---a group of rats whose tails get hopelessly entangled. Needless to say, it rarely ends well.

Dibdin always makes sure his detective is well-fed, and the meals always have a sacramental ring to them. In this book, Zen's favourite restauranteur rants about the modern culinary blasphemy.
Ottavio outlined in pained tones his opinion that people were not eating enough these days. All they ever thought about was their figures, a selfish, short-sighted view contributing directly to the impoverishment of restaurateurs and the downfall of civilization as we know it. What the Goths, the Huns and the Turks had failed to do was now being achieved by a conspiracy of dietitians who were bringing the country to its knees with all this talk of cholesterols, calories and the evils of salt. Where were we getting to? Such were his general grievances.
I like a well-written, cleverly crafted detective story just fine, but Dibdin's lexicon is a bonus. Although 'wannabe' has earned its place in the dictionary, it's handy to have a more classic synonym on hand.
Like most police drivers, Luigi Palottino clearly considered himself a Formula One contender manqué...
Sad, dismal, dreary all get the point across, but nothing says morbidly depressing like lugubrious.
...the Miletti property, a lugubrious baroque monstrosity...
When he's finally managed to unsnarl the rats' tails in this case, he returns home to Rome to find that his long-time, live-in American girlfriend is returning to the United States. Like those of so many literary detectives, Zen's love life is a bit of a shambles.
"The thing is, I'm going home, Aurelio." But you are at home, he thought. Then he realized what she meant.
"For a holiday?"
She shook her head.
"You're joking," he said. She walked over to the glass jars where she kept rice and pulses, pulled out an envelope tucked under one and handed it to him.
"Whether you travel for business or pleasure, MONDITURIST!" it read. "Our business is to make travelling a pleasure!" Inside there was an airline ticket to New York in her name.
"I decided one night last week. For some reason I had woken up and then I couldn't get back to sleep. I just lay there and thought about this and that. And it suddenly struck me how foreign I feel here, and what that was doing to me." She paused, biting one fingernail. "People who have been exiles too long seem to end up as either zombies or vampires. I don't want that to happen to me."
I read that passage and wondered how long his girlfriend had lived in Italy when she made that statement. How long will I have been exiled in southeast Asia before I begin to feel the same? Some days I think I already have.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the first volume, and this book won it in 2012, making her one of only four writers to win the prize twice. (The others were J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and J. G. Farrell.)

As with Wolf Hall, some prior knowledge of Henry VIII and his court is very helpful if not prerequisite to fully appreciate the book. This volume tells the story of Cromwell's work to rid the King of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has become not only a political albatross round his royal neck but has also failed to bear him a male heir to the throne. I love the way Mantel reveals that Henry's already got his eye on Anne's successor (Jane Seymour) via a whispered conversation between Cromwell and Ambassador Chapuys, formerly a confidante of Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.
Light dawns in the ambassador's eye. "Ahh." He lets out a long breath. He grasps, in that single moment, why Henry has forced him to make a public reverence to a queen whom he no longer wants. Henry is tenacious of his will, he is stubborn. Now he has carried his point: his second marriage has been acknowledged. Now, if he likes, he can let it go. Chapuys draws his garments together, as if he feels a draught from the future. He whispers, "Must I really dine with her brother?"
"Oh yes. You will find him a charming host. After all," he raises a hand to hide his smile, "has he not just enjoyed a triumph? He and his whole family?"
Chapuys huddles closer."I am shocked to see her. I have not seen her so close. She looks like a thin old woman. Was that Mistress Seymour, in the halcyon sleeves? She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?"
"He thinks she's stupid. He finds it restful." 
Jane Rochford is also unhappily married, but to Anne Boleyn's brother, George. When Cromwell is sniffing around for a reason to get rid of the Queen, he finds a very willing accomplice in Lady Rochford, who is conveniently serving as one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. For her part, Lady Rochford sees the chance to kill two birds with one stone, and she avows that Anne and George have an incestuous relationship.  Her options are, after all, given her station in life, rather limited.
For what can a woman like Jane Rochford do when circumstances are against her? A widow well-provided can cut a figure in the world. A merchant's wife can with diligence and prudence take business matters into her hands, and squirrel away a store of gold. A labouring woman ill-used by a husband can enlist robust friends, who will stand outside her house all night and bang pans, till the unshaven churl tips out in his shirt to chase them off, and they pull up his shirt and mock his member. But a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master who spares the whip.
Cromwell doesn't stop there. He arrests a court musician and three other courtiers. In all, five men were tried and ultimately executed, although evidence suggests that all were framed. Cromwell, however, was clever enough to choose men who had the appearance of impropriety.
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
As the years pass, and the byzantine plots in Henry's court never cease, Cromwell finally shows some signs of strain. He's growing weary, or perhaps just hard.
He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of those books that someone recommends passionately, with italics and exclamation marks, "You have to read this!" Then you do read it, struggle for days or months with the book hangover and wish you could think of something more articulate to tell your other friends, but it's no use. "You have to read this!"

The book's title feels like a bad joke, because the characters are colossal, but not because they are extraordinary. Their lives are monumental because Hanya Yanagihara has written them that way. She has drawn them with the miniscule detail that a Flemish painter lavishes on intricate lace collars and cuffs. She has explored their everyday heroism and their private mortifications. I feel that I know these fictional characters better than I know my own siblings (which of course says something about my own family dynamics, but you get the point.)  Some clever soul designed tote bags bearing the names of the four main characters and probably sold them at book signings and what-not. I have no doubt one could walk around in a great many places with this tote bag and have strangers running up and exclaiming, "Omigod, was that not an amazing book?"

Some critics have compared A Little Life to Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children or Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Yes, it's a story of college friends and what becomes of them after graduation, but the superficial similarity ends there. (That's not to denigrate either of the two latter books; I admired them both.)

JB is a painter, the son of Haitian immigrants who had thrived in the US; he struggles with his ethnic background just as he struggles to accept his own success when it comes.
He liked to pretend he was one of them, but he knew he was not. Sometimes there would be Haitians on the train, and he---his hearing, suddenly wolflike, distinguishing from the murmur around him the slurpy, singy sound of their Creole---would find himself looking toward them, to the two men with round faces like his father's, or to the two women with soft snubbed noses like his mother's. He always hoped that he might be presented with a completely organic reason to speak to them---maybe they'd be arguing about directions somewhere, and he might be able to insert himself and provide the answer---but there never was. Sometimes they would let their eyes scan across the seats, still talking to each other, and he would tense, ready his face to smile, but they never seemed to recognize him as one of their own. Which he wasn't, of course. Even he knew he had more in common with Asian Henry Young, with Malcolm, with Willem, or even with Jude, than he had with them. Just look at him: at Court Square he disembarked and walked the three blocks to the former bottle factory where he now shared studio space with three other people. Did real Haitians have studio space? Would it even occur to real Haitians to leave their large rent-free apartment, where they could have theoretically carved out their own corner to paint and doodle, only to get on a subway and travel half an hour (think how much work could be accomplished in those thirty minutes!) to a sunny dirty space? No, of course not. To conceive of such a luxury, you needed an American mind.
Compared to the other three, JB had enjoyed a comfortable, even lavish childhood, which, he notes, has left him relatively jaded.
He had been to Paris with his mother in junior high, and again with his class in high school, and between his sophomore and junior years of college, but it wasn't until he had seen Jude's and Willem's faces that he was able to most vividly realize not just the beauty of the city but its promise of enchantments. He envied this in them, this ability they had (though he realized that in Jude's case at least, it was a reward for a long and punitive childhood) to still be awestruck, the faith they maintained that life, adulthood, would keep presenting them with astonishing experiences, that their marvelous years were not behind them. 
Jude, arguably the story's central character, is a walking wound, both physically and emotionally. When he pairs up with a man who proves to be an abuser, the author gives us an uncomfortably sharp look at the dynamic that draws them together.
There is a sort of symmetry to his pairing with Caleb that makes sense: they are the damaged and the damager, the sliding heap of garbage and the jackal sniffing through it. They exist only to themselves---he has met no one in Caleb's life, and he has not introduced Caleb to anyone in his.
In a letter to Harold and Julia, the friends who adopted Jude as an adult, Willem discusses the challenge of coping with Jude's Janus-like personality---self-loathing on one hand, and a competent, successful lawyer and beloved friend on the other.
Equally difficult was my (and your) attempts to get him to abandon certain ideas about himself: about how he looked, and what he deserved, and what he was worth, and who he was. I have still never met anyone as neatly or severely bifurcated as he: someone who could be so utterly confident in some realms and so utterly despondent in others.
Beneath his tailored suits, Jude's limbs bear the marks of razor blades; he compulsively self-harms. His friends try as gently as possible to help him. They ask him to hand over the razor blades; they beg him to promise to call them when the compulsion strikes. They ask him why he does it at all.
"Jude," I said, "why do you do this to yourself?" For a long time, he was quiet, and I was quiet too. I listened to the sea.
Finally, he said, "A few reasons."
"Like what?"
"Sometimes it's because I feel so awful, or ashamed, and I need to make physical what I feel," he began, and glanced at me before looking down again. "And sometimes it's because I feel so many things and I need to feel nothing at all---it helps clear them away. And sometimes it's because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn't."
In his relationship with Harold (his adoptive father and former law school professor) and Julia, Jude sees the workings of a loving, healthy, strong relationship. Much as they nurture him, they also present the image of something that seems purely unattainable.
He is always reminded of a visit to Harold and Julia's he'd made years ago, when he had come down with a terrible cold and had wound up spending most of the weekend on the living-room sofa, wrapped in a blanket and sliding in and out of sleep. That Saturday evening, they had watched a movie together, and at one point, Harold and Julia had begun talking about the Truro house's kitchen renovation. He half dozed, listening to their quiet talk, which had been so dull that he couldn't follow any of the details but had also filled him with a great sense of peace: it had seemed to him the ideal expression of an adult relationship, to have someone with whom you could discuss the mechanics of a shared existence.
Willem, who becomes a successful actor, becomes Jude's confidante and then lover over time. It's through him that we learn much of Jude's history. Willem reflects on couples, especially those who live with each other's psychic injuries.
As you got older, you realized that the qualities you valued in the people you slept with or dated weren't necessarily the ones you wanted to live with, or be with, or plod through your days with. If you were smart, and if you were lucky, you learned this and accepted this. You figured out what was most important to you and you looked for it, and you learned to be realistic. They all chose differently: Roman had chosen beauty, sweetness, pliability; Malcolm, he thought, had chosen reliability, and competence (Sophie was intimidatingly efficient), and aesthetic compatibility. And he? He had chosen friendship. Conversation. Kindness. Intelligence. When he was in his thirties, he had looked at certain people's relationships and asked the question that had (and continued to) fuel countless dinner-party conversations: What's going on there? Now, though, as an almost-forty-eight-year-old, he saw people's relationships as reflections of their keenest yet most inarticulable desires, their hopes and insecurities taking shape physically, in the form of another person. Now he looked at couples---in restaurants, on the street, at parties---and wondered: Why are you together? What did you identify as essential to you? What's missing in you that you want someone else to provide? He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.
I suppose some might suggest that this novel is unremittingly bleak, but I would disagree. Hanyagihara has done exactly what Willem mentioned:  recognized the best of what her characters have to offer (amidst their scars) and chosen to value it.  

Objects of Our Affection, by Lisa Tracy

The book's full title, Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time, attracted me, as did the synopsis, which described the efforts of the author and her sister, Jeanne, to cope with a few households full of family possessions after their mother's death.

My own mother died in 2000 (my father had died back in 1986), and I have a conflicting relationships with the objects that I inherited from their household. While I can't trace our family's antiques back to relatives who arrived on the Mayflower or fought heroically in the Revolution, they include some 18th-century gems, some of which have been in our family for a while, some of which my parents bought at auctions here and there.  Regardless, they were in my childhood home, and they hold sentimental value for me as well as intrinsic value as antiques.  Is that enough to justify shipping them from New England to Malaysia to Cambodia? I don't know, but if I sell them, I can't replace them. If I sell them, I have nothing left that ties me to my past, apart from memories. On the other hand, they lost some of their nostalgic power as time passed after my mother's death---once removed from our family home, they grew less numinous somehow. The big, pine sea-captain's trunk looks out of place in Phnom Penh, and the tropical climate is not treating it kindly. It's become incongruous, like the piña colada that hit the spot in the Bahamas but doesn't quite work in Boston.

Tracy captures perfectly our nostalgic clinging. We use our stuff as a means to construct our historical narrative, be it fictional or real.
Yet the ideal that we Americans cherish is some cozy picture-book town---like the Lexington of our childhoods, or some idealized New England village---where everyone knows his neighbors, and where the names on the street signs and in the cemetery are indeed your own. I think that's what makes Thomas Kinkade's paintings so popular. Seems like everyone craves that small-town fantasy, and Kinkade provides it, just as surely as Currier and Ives did in their day. The reality is that most of us have little enough idea of where our great-grandparents are buried and even less chance of ever seeing the place we originally "came from." This is about grief and loss, says Jeanne. As a people, we grieve because we don't get to close the circle. We don't know how so many of our families' stories ended. We move around so much, sometimes we don't even know what happened to our childhood friends, to the houses we lived in, to the people we worked with just ten years ago. As a country, she says, we don't realize that our anxiety and our greed are part of an effort to lay the ghosts to rest.
She also captures the wish to leave things unchanged, as they were before the family members died. We all know stories of siblings whose relationships were permanently rent by estate battles; she points out that it's not easy, even in the best of cases.
The process was nerve-racking, even for two sisters who had for most of our lives functioned as long-distance best friends. Put yourself in our place: You're dividing up treasures garnered over many lifetimes, which are also the essence of your childhood home. But actually, you don't want to divide it at all; you want it to stay exactly where it is. You don't ever want to see it any way other than the way it has always been. And you're doing this with your best friend. Scalpel, please!
When Tracy delved into the history of her family artefacts, my mind started to wander. I wouldn't go so far as to call it name-dropping, but I found that I didn't get the same thrill from her historical connections as she did. I think many of us construct our own histories around the pieces we love, and they're largely personal.
It was Harry, after all, who had fallen while leading the charge at San Juan Hill, but Teddy Roosevelt who had claimed the day and seized the credit. And there was William Maxwell Wood Sr., the uniformed naval officer in the portrait and Daddy's great-grandfather, for whom he was named.
These and other illustrious names lurked in our family's background, as did various heroic deeds that had certainly made headlines at the time---like Harry Egbert's death---but had since receded, most annoyingly, into the vast swamp of history without leaving a trace worth talking about---or trading upon, as we were hoping to do in this auction.
In the end, she seems to agree with me that the decisions are largely sentimental ones, part of a futile search for what is long gone.
Still others have said that it isn't really home we're all looking for but our childhoods; or that home is the place we leave and then spend our whole lives trying to get back to.

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I read this book in June 2016, not long before seeing the film adaptation, Into Thin Air: Death on
Everest, which engendered a certain amount of controversy concerning Krakauer's behaviour on the mountain, which he addresses in the afterword of the book. Regardless of he did (or didn't do), he paints a very realistic first-hand picture of what the mountain is like, and even more, what today's mountaineering industry has become, at least where Mt. Everest is concerned. Think less sport, more business.

To wit, this account includes Sandy Pittman, "a socialite and mountaineer" and whose presence invited criticism from those who feel that climbing Everest has become an endeavour for anyone who can afford it (whether qualified or not) and who hinted that she placed an unreasonable burden on Sherpas, both before and after the avalanche. Krakauer notes...
...her pile of luggage included stacks of press clippings about herself to hand out to the other denizens of Base Camp. Within a few days Sherpa runners began to arrive on a regular basis with packages for Pittman, shipped to Base Camp via DHL Worldwide Express; they included the latest issues of Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Allure. The Sherpas were fascinated by the lingerie ads and thought the perfume scent-strips were a hoot. 
As for himself, an experienced mountaineer, Krakauer is quick to skewer the perception of mountain-climbers as mere thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies.
People who don't climb mountains---the great majority of humankind, that is to say---tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour. Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace. Of course for some Everesters myriad other, less virtuous motives came into play as well: minor celebrity, career advancement, ego massage, ordinary bragging rights, filthy lucre. But such ignoble enticements were less a factor than many critics might presume. 
Regarding the criticism coming from all directions at the handling of the disaster, Krakauer reminds us that we're Monday-morning-quarterbacking from near sea level.
It can't be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia. In pondering how this disaster could have occurred, it is imperative to remember that lucid thought is all but impossible at 29,000 feet. 
To those who look at the business that's developed to guide climbers up Mt. Everest and shake their heads, he offers this point:  Look where Mt. Everest is located, folks.

But guiding Everest is a very loosely regulated business, administered by byzantine Third World bureaucracies spectacularly ill-equipped to assess qualifications of guides or clients.
Moreover, the two nations that control access to the peak---Nepal and China---are staggeringly poor. Desperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries have a vested interest in issuing as many expensive climbing permits as the market will support, and both are unlikely to enact any policies that significantly limit their revenues. 
Finally, in response to those who complain about the disaster of 1996, Krakauer provides some good, solid statistics about Everest's fatality rates.  I would add, who in his right mind would consider summiting the world's highest mountain to be a low-risk effort?
In fact, the murderous outcome of 1996 was in many ways simply business as usual. Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp---which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent. Or here's another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times---a ratio of one in four. Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit---a ratio of one in seven. Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year.
P.S.  Around the same time, I watched the film Meru (2015), about three climbers who made it up India's Mt. Meru---21,000 feet of nearly sheer wall. No sherpas involved, just heart-pounding expertise and courage. My advice:  Read Into Thin Air, but go see Meru.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, by James M. Tabor

Why did I ever pick up this book?  I have no particular interest in caving nor, I would have thought,
Beginning the descent into the Krubera cave,
Abkhazia, Georgia
in reading about caving. Yet here we are -- I rushed to finish other chores so I could curl up somewhere with Blind Descent. I shared it with a friend, and he too sat down in his shop at the end of his workday and read late into the night. Coincidentally, we are planning a trip to Georgia in the spring of 2017, but dropping into the Krubera cave in Abkhazia -- now acknowledged as the world's deepest cave -- won't be on our itinerary. We're both content to have read about it.  We'll toast the cavers with some good Georgian wine. They are remarkable men and women.

Tabor tells the story of the men and women who were in a race to reach the deepest point on earth. If you like reading stories of mountaineering, you'll love this book. If you're afraid of the dark or claustrophobic, it will give you an especial thrill. If you think your sport, whatever it might be, is risky, descending into "supercaves" will make it seem mundane. Who does this sort of lunatic thing?  And why? Blind Descent will introduce you to them.

Tabor gathered reams of information from interviews and exchanges with the two expedition leaders. American Bill Stone led several expeditions into the Cheve cave system in Mexico; Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk led as many into the Krubera cave in Georgia. Their personalities are as riveting as their caving exploits.
Caves invite juxtapositions of opposites: light and dark, surface and subterranean, safety and terror. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone are both in their fifties, but otherwise they are about as different as men can be, fitting nicely into that list of opposites. Klimchouk is short and slight. Stone is towering and muscular. Klimchouk is quiet, self-effacing, and avuncular. Stone is bold, brash, and commanding. Klimchouk has been happily married to the same woman for decades. Stone divorced in 1992 and has since had a series of relationships with strong, attractive, accomplished outdoorswomen. He is currently engaged to the cave explorer Vickie Siegel, with plans to marry in May 2010. They are alike, however, in two key ways: both are scientists and explorers in the classic tradition of Magellan, Amundsen, and Armstrong, willing to risk everything, including their lives ...
Limited by the seasons (winter rains flooded the caves), the two men led several years of expeditions into the caves. Some years met a dead end; others found "going" passages -- some wider than others -- that went. And went, and went. Always, though, is the thought that these cavers are very far below the earth's surface, and for every centimeter that they dig, scramble and dive, they have to turn around and go back through the same obstacles.
The 2004 expedition produced more frustration than discovery. After others declared the Aguacate cave (possibly connected to Cheve) dead-ended, Andi Hunter fought through this squeeze and discovered a new route. It paid off in Aguacate with the discovery of more than a mile of largely horizontal tunnels leading toward the presumed junction zone with Cheve. This expedition encountered more tight spaces than giant vertical drops, which prevailed in 2003. Squeezes present their own unique hazards. Sometimes the only way to rescue irretrievably stuck cavers is to break bones. 
Do you think climbing the world's 8,000-footers is dangerous? Of course it is, but the risks don't quite match up to those of descending 8,000 feet below the earth's surface. Mt. Everest (and other mountains of its ilk) are still littered with the corpses of mountaineers who have died there. Bill Stone's crew faced the decision of what to do when one of their team mates fell to his death in Cheve. Just as serious, and perhaps even more so, is the prospect of rescuing a caver who is seriously injured.
Supercaves present more hazards than any other extreme exploration environment. Just descending into and climbing out of them is exorbitantly dangerous. Recovering a body, dead or alive, from deep within any cave is even worse, increasing that danger by an order of magnitude. The same year Chris Yeager died, a caver named Emily Davis Mobley broke her leg only four hours and several hundred vertical feet from the entrance of a New Mexico cave called Lechuguilla—big but far less hazardous than Cheve. It took more than one hundred rescuers four days to bring her to the surface. One expert estimated that every hour of healthy-caver descent time equaled a day of ascent in rescue mode in Lechuguilla, which was noted for, as cave explorers put it, “extreme verticality.” “Extreme verticality” describes perfectly the part of Cheve through which Yeager’s body would have to be hauled. From its entrance, the cave drops like a steep staircase almost 3,000 vertical feet, over a total travel distance of 2.2 miles, before it begins to level off somewhat. It is not one smooth, continuous drop. Those 3,000 feet include innumerable features and formations, with the odd level stretch, but Cheve’s main thrust here is down. One giant shaft alone is 500 feet deep. Like rock climbers, cavers call such vertical drops “pitches.” There are also shorter pitches—many of them, in fact—as well as waterfalls, crawl spaces, walking passages, lakes, huge boulder fields, and many more formations, unique and almost impossible to describe except with a camera. 
If you want to read about Scott's and Amundsen's race to the South Pole, read Evan S. Connell's The White Lantern. I can't imagine a better book about the race to the center of the earth than this one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I've been a loyal admirer of Donna Tartt since I read her debut novel, The Secret History. I love that she is a Mississippian, a smoker and drinker, a stylish woman, a recluse who writes her books in longhand.

When I finished The Goldfinch, I lay back and thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had read The Great Gatsby both in high school and again in college, but only when I read it in my late 40s as part of a book group did I really see it clearly and objectively. I absolutely revelled in the elegance of Fitzgerald's style, reading and re-reading passages, silently and aloud, just marvelling at his choice of words. I also sat back and recognised that the plot is deeply flawed.

I wouldn't say that the plot of The Goldfinch is so flawed (critics were divided on this point -- it triggered a love-hate response amongst reviewers), but it didn't hold my attention as tenaciously as The Secret History. At 775 pages, give or take, there's a lot to love or hate, let's put it that way.

13 year-old Theo Decker is in trouble, and before his mother goes with him to school for a parent-teacher conference, they duck together into the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. As his mother stands immersed in "The Goldfinch," a miniature masterpiece by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, Theo watches a girl of his own age with an older man, presumably her grandfather. This passage gorgeously illustrates Tartt's gift for inner monologue.  She also captures the relentless people-watching proclivities of writers, painters, photographers and Theo.
The grandfather had drifted away, a few paintings over; but she was loitering a few steps behind, the girl, and kept casting glances back at my mother and me. Beautiful skin: milky white, arms like carved marble. Definitely she looked athletic, though too pale to be a tennis player; maybe she was a ballerina or a gymnast or even a high diver, practicing late in shadowy indoor pools, echoes and refractions, dark tile. Plunging with arched chest and pointed toes to the bottom of the pool, a silent pow, shiny black swimsuit, bubbles foaming and streaming off her small, tense frame. Why did I obsess over people like this? Was it normal to fixate on strangers in this particular vivid, fevered way? I didn't think so. It was impossible to imagine some random passer-by on the street forming quite such an interest in me. And yet it was the main reason I'd gone in those houses with Tom: I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus. Years had passed, and I still hadn't stopped thinking about the dark-haired children in Catholic school uniforms -- brother and sister -- I'd seen in Grand Central, literally trying to pull their father out the door of a seedy bar by the sleeves of his suit jacket. Nor had I forgotten the frail, gypsyish girl in a wheelchair out in front of the Carlyle Hotel, talking breathlessly in Italian to the fluffy dog in her lap, while a sharp character in sunglasses (father? bodyguard?) stood behind her chair, apparently conducting some sort of business deal on his phone. For years, I'd turned those strangers over in my mind, wondering who they were and what their lives were like, and I knew I would go home and wonder about this girl and her grandfather the same way. The old man had money; you could tell from how he was dressed. Why was it just the two of them? Where were they from? Maybe they were part of some big old complicated New York family -- music people, academics, one of those artsy West Side families that you saw up around Columbia or at Lincoln Center matinees. Or, maybe -- homely, civilized old creature that he was -- maybe he wasn't her grandfather at all. Maybe he was a music teacher, and she was the flute prodigy he had discovered in some small town and brought to play at Carnegie Hall. "Theo?" my mother said...
After his mother is killed in a mysterious explosion in the museum (a bomb? we're never sure), Theo turns up at the Park Avenue apartment of his friend Andy Barbour. Of all the literary portrayals of the rich, beautiful and utterly dysfunctional of upper-crust New York, this one ranks up there with Edith Wharton.
There -- by the baby grand, and a flower arrangement the size of a packing case -- stood Mrs. Barbour in a floor-sweeping housecoat, pouring coffee into cups on a silver tray. As she turned to greet us, I could feel the social workers taking in the apartment, and her. Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty -- a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room. Like a fashion drawing come to life, she turned heads wherever she went, gliding along obliviously without appearing to notice the turbulence she created in her wake; her eyes were spaced far apart, her ears were small, high-set, and very close to her head, and her body was long-waisted and thin, like an elegant weasel's. (Andy had these features as well, but in ungainly proportions, without her slinky ermine grace.) 
In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo also manages to connect with the elderly owner of an antique shop, Hobie, whose former partner, Welty, had been killed in the museum as he wandered through the gallery with the young girl. Besides being a brilliant portrait of Mrs. DeFrees, I love this passage for what it says about Welty and his skill. The important thing was finding the right object for each customer -- ironic when you consider what Theo gets up to when he takes over the shop, and also when you consider the role of the miniature, "The Goldfinch," in his own emotional life.
"It's so fitting if you knew Welty," said Hobie's great friend Mrs. DeFrees, a dealer in nineteenth-century watercolors who for all her stiff clothes and strong perfumes was a hugger and a cuddler, with the old-ladyish habit of liking to hold your arm or pat your hand as she talked. "Because, my dear, Welty was an agoramaniac. Loved people, you know, loved the marketplace. The to and the fro of it. Deals, goods, conversation, exchange. It was that eeny bit of Cairo from his boyhood, I always said he would have been perfectly happy padding around in slippers and showing carpets in the souk. He had the antiquaire's gift, you know -- he knew what belonged with whom. Someone would come in the shop never intending to buy a thing, ducking in out of the rain maybe, and he'd offer them a cup of tea and they'd end up having a dining room table shipped to Des Moines. Or a student would wander in to admire, and he'd bring out just the little inexpensive print. Everyone was happy, do you know. He knew everybody wasn't in the position to come in and buy some big important piece -- it was all about matchmaking, finding the right home."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the adult Theo does a fair amount of self-medication. As someone who has limited tolerance for time spent in NYC society, I feel his pain.
Only one or two pills a week, to get me through the very worst of the socializing, and only when I really really needed them. In lieu of the pharms I'd been drinking too much and that really wasn't working for me; with opiates I was relaxed, I was tolerant, I was up for anything, I could stand pleasantly for hours in unbearable situations listening to any old tiresome or ridiculous bullshit without wanting to go outside and shoot myself in the head.
My dear and astute friend Rose once said that she wanted to live a life with a narrative, or something to that effect. Don't we all? I thought but then realised that many of us couldn't care less. It all comes down, I suppose, to what the narrative turns out to be. And what happens when you realise that the narrative has turned out to be untrue? Can you stop yourself unravelling?
How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person, on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had. The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart.
If her publication frequency to date -- a novel a decade -- holds true, I've got another eight years or so to go back and read Ms. Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend before her next one appears. Two things to look forward to.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

When the film came out, an old friend from Connecticut gushed to me that I simply must see it -- she'd been engrossed, thinking of me the whole time. I was already familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, and I sat back in my chair and stared at her email. Great. She sees a movie about a reckless, feckless young man who meets his death of unpreparedness in Alaska, and all she can think of is me.  Years later, I got around to reading the book by Jon Krakauer, which he'd expanded from his initial article on McCandless' misadventures in Outside magazine (1993).

I admire Jon Krakauer as a writer, and with Into the Wild, as with his other books I've read, I find his research meticulous and his perspective balanced and fair. What's intriguing about this story in particular is the amount of fervor it's kicked up. People's reactions to it seem to run from one extreme to the other with precious little in the grey zone.
A surprising number of people have been affected by the story of Chris McCandless's life and death. In the weeks and months following the publication of the article in Outside, it generated more mail than any other article in the magazine's history. This correspondence, as one might expect, reflected sharply divergent points of view: Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity -- and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.
Krakauer opens with the two years after his college graduation that Chris McCandless (who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) spent tramping around the western US. He interviews people who had encountered and befriended the young man. Invariably, he touched them. They did not describe him as a foolhardy, wild-eyed dreamer. He seemed to them thoughtful, intense, principled and well-read. He appeared to be competent.

In 1992, Alex/Chris decided to move farther from society by heading into the back of beyond, Alaska. An Alaskan electrician, Jim Gallien, picked up the young hitchhiker and, on their drive to the trail head Alex was seeking, Gallien tried to convince him that he was woefully ill-prepared.
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station.
(Keep that roadmap in mind; it turned out to be significant.) As I read the passage above, my own alarm systems were going off. I've had enough experience in the New England forests in winter to know that this young man was not equipped for the environment. That was his ignorance. When Gallien questioned him about emergency contacts, his arrogance came out.
Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn't spoken to his family in nearly two years. "I'm absolutely positive," he assured Gallien,"I won't run into anything I can't deal with on my own." 
Like so many of us who have gone on big, far, fantastic journeys of one sort or another, McCandless was inspired by books. The works of Jack London, in particular, drew him to Alaska. Krakauer, an outdoorsy adventurer himself, reminds us how important it is to separate the romance from the realities. London may not have been the inspiration McCandless was really looking for.
He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London's romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he'd died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.
How many of us have survived one challenge in the outdoors only to extrapolate foolishly that we're now ready to survive another in a completely different environment? I managed to trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, so summiting Annapurna should be no problem, right? Wrong.
As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, his rifle slung over one shoulder, the only food McCandless carried was a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice -- and the two sandwiches and bag of corn chips that Gallien had contributed. A year earlier he'd subsisted for more than a month beside the Gulf of California on five pounds of rice and a bounty of fish caught with a cheap rod and reel, an experience that made him confident he could harvest enough food to survive an extended stay in the Alaska wilderness, too.
But even as many readers are about to write McCandless off as a fool, Krakauer draws us back to his sympathetic qualities, the things that even his most virulent critics will probably relate to -- even the Alaskans who were most vocal about the fiasco. They, too, probably mourn the days when Thoreau could get away from it all by retreating to a cabin on Walden Pond, which is now in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, all too accessible.
Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless's friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris "was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today's society gives people." In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map -- not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.
In the end, of course, Alexander Supertramp died in Alaska, starving to death after a failed attempt to cross a rain-swollen river to get out. The irony? If he'd had a topographical map and a compass, rather than that tattered roadmap from a gas station, he'd have seen a place to safely cross the river just a bit farther downstream from where he was. I've had some near misses in the outdoors, and I cringe when I look back on them. But for a friend's mini-mag flashlight with which we'd signalled for help, I'd have been a casualty, too. (Note, she had the flashlight. I didn't.) I lived to learn from my mistakes, and Chris McCandless didn't. That may be the biggest difference between us, and so I, like Jon Krakauer, find it very difficult to damn him. Or to idolise him.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

When I finished The Art of Memoir, there was more text highlighted than not. It strikes me as a book that would charm readers who have no especial interest in memoirs. It's simply a great read. Full stop. For anyone who's even toying with writing anything autobiographical, it's required reading.

Karr begins by asking the essential question:  Should you even try to write memoir? Maybe it's simply not your metier. The autobiographer, she maintains, is of a different species than the novelist.
I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them...
Unless you're a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That's the quality I've found most consistently in those life-story writers I've met. Truth is not their enemy. It's the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs...
"Writing is easy. You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein."  That quote (and variations upon it) have been attributed to several writers. Karr suggests that memoir is an especially torturous and bloody exercise.
But nobody I know who's written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there's suffering involved. When I'm trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He's leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, "Take the pain," till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.
As a skilled procrastinator in the names of research and perfectionism, I read this bit of insight as kick in the teeth. And the language with which Karr launched it -- fabulous writing!
You can do "research," i.e. postponing writing, till Jesus dons a nightie. But your memoir's real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night -- your ignorant ego and its myriad masks.
I found this quote insightful, poignant. Somewhat depressing.
We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. -- Louise Glück, "Nostos"
Karr dedicates one chapter to the concept of honesty, truthfulness when writing memoir, or any other form of ostensible non-fiction. Full disclosure is critical, she maintains. At least let readers know where things stand.
Novelist Pam Houston claimed her novels are 82 percent true and ascribes that same percentage to her nonfiction -- fair enough.
I marvelled at In Cold Blood, sensing intuitively that it wasn't 100% factual. I was willing to accept, though, that it might well be 100% true.
You can always hide behind the fiction label, as Truman Capote did (perhaps first) in 1966 with his "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood; or as Philip Roth did in 1993 with his roman-à-clef Operation Shylock, which he published as fiction, while claiming it was God's own truth.
When it comes to memoir, however, Mary Karr has little tolerance for even colouring the truth, never mind embroidering it.
It's as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, "I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn't notice it at all." To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.
Memory is, of course, imperfect and untrustworthy. One way to address this is to admit it freely, to write with a certain lack of authority.
Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Herr don't manufacture authoritative, third-person, I-am-a-camera views. Their books don't masquerade as fact. They let you in on how their own prejudices mold memory's sifter. By transcribing the mind so its edges show, a writer constantly reminds the reader that he's not watching crisp external events played from a digital archive. It's the speaker's truth alone. In this way, the form constantly disavows the rigors of objective truth.
Most memoirists (like most writers of all kinds) get stuck. They get stuck on how to tell something, or even whether to tell it. Here is some of Karr's excellent advice on getting over this particular species of writer's block, getting the memoirist back on a productive and honest track.
And here are some questions that might nudge you along. What were you trying to get, and how? Which ways worked? Which didn't? If it's a particularly awful memory for your character, you have to be sure not to make it more awful than it was. Many of us disassociate or check out during awful times, so maybe you want to convey that to the reader. The memoirist's job is not to add explosive whammies on every page, but to help the average person come in. Otherwise, the reader will gawk at you like somebody on Springer, or she'll pity you -- in both cases, you lose some authority. The book becomes too much about your feeling and not enough about the reader's. Finally, put it aside. Put it out of your head at least a week. You want it to set up like jello. And when you pick it back up, ask yourself, What haven't I said? How might someone else involved have seen it differently? And most of all, how am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could cut or correct or confess and make use of?
Ouch. Part of the deal is revealing one's shadow side.
You'll need both sides of yourself -- the beautiful and the beastly -- to hold a reader's attention. Sadly, without a writer's dark side on view -- the pettiness and vanity and schemes -- pages give off the whiff of bullshit. People may like you because you're warm, but you can also be quick to anger or too intense. Your gift for charm and confidence hides a gift for scheming and deceit. You're withdrawn and deep but also slightly scornful of others. A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else -- nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can't be the memoirist's ... We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is -- almost always -- a shallow person's lack of self-knowledge.
Blind spots? Me? What blind spots?
Trying to help students diagnose their own blind spots, I often ask the following questions: 1.What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages. 2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are? (Lovers/family yelling at you when they're mad have answered this one for you, btw.) 3. Is there any verbal signpost you can look for that suggests you're posturing? One kid I know started bringing in references to metal bands to show how cool he was. I might start yakking about philosophy.
Of course reality differs, both individually and regionally...
In Garcia Marquez, a dead man's dentures sprout yellow flowers in his toothglass, and butterflies appear in the presence of a great beauty. "Surreal?" Garcia Marquez once quipped. "That's how life is in South America."
Mary Karr seems to have an enviable font of material for memoir.
Still, our household had been the site of some flaming jackpots. Asked once how a bullet hole landed in a kitchen tile, Mother said, succinctly, "He moved." And that wasn't the only firearm incident. My sister once quipped to Mother as the tile guy fingered a bullet hole, "Isn't that where you shot at Daddy?" and Mother came back, "No, that's where I shot at Larry. Over there's where I shot at your daddy." (Which also tells you why memoir suited me. With characters this good, why make shit up?)
What about writing about others in your memoir? This is a terrific list of rules, regs and hints, number 6 especially -- "Give information in the form you received it."
For the record, here are my rules for dealing with others: 1.Notify subjects way in advance, detailing parts that might make them wince. So far, no one has ever winced. 2.On pain of death, don't show pages to anybody mid-process. You want them to see your best work, polished. 3.As Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, "If you're writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love." 4.Related to the above: I never speak with authority about how people feel or what their motives were. I may guess at it, but I always let the reader know that's speculative. I keep the focus on my own innards. 5.If somebody's opinion of what happened wholly opposes mine, I mention it in passing without feeling obliged to represent it. 6. Don't use jargon to describe people. It's both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it. 7.Let your friends choose their pseudonyms. 8.Try to consider the whole time you're working how your views -- especially the harsh ones -- may be wrong. Correct as needed. 9. With your closest compadres and touchy material, you might sit with them (same house or town, maybe not same room) while they read pages that may be painful for them. 10. I'd cut anything that someone just flat-out denies. Then again, in my family, all the worst stuff was long confessed to before I started writing the first tome. 11. Let the reader know how subjective your point of view is. This is in some way a form of respect to your subjects, who might disagree.
Speaking of mining your own history, don't forget the colloquialisms! It's a memoir, not a doctoral thesis.
The talk of my barroom aficionado daddy ran rich with figurative language. If a woman had an ample backside, he might say, "She had a butt like two bulldogs fighting in a bag," which -- believe it or not -- was a positive attribute. Instead of milking this current running naturally through my head, I'd tried in my novel to sound like some fluffy, ruffly Little Bo Peep.
But how to write about emotional trauma, especially that of childhood? Here, too, Karr returns to the show-don't-tell formula. Feel it in your body, not your brain.
If you trust that what you felt deeply warrants your emotional response, try to honor your past by writing it that way. Sometimes true agony is not even discernible to the human eye. As a kid, when I saw my mother's mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment. Rendering a small external stimulus inside a child's impotent body can provide a moving experience for a reader.
This image is pure gold.
In memoir the heart is the brain. It's the Geiger counter you run over memory's landscape looking for precious metals to light up.
It sounds like it should be so easy, such a straightforward project. You start at the beginning and write till its done. Then you start writing...
You think you know the story so well. It's a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I've ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it's like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.
Then comes the question of what are you required to reveal, and what may you hide? That to some extent may be subjective. I appreciate Karr's opinion in the example below, especially her acceptance of "drawing a curtain" across certain events "without seeming coy".  I think every memoirist will have to decide what is "too private". For Elizabeth Gilbert, clearly, talking openly about her finances was more comfortable than revealing the dissolution of her marriage.
Another divorce failure, I think, occurs in Elizabeth Gilbert's much-adored Eat, Pray, Love, which otherwise displays a nice mix of circumspection and candor. She overtly blames herself for the demise of her marriage, for instance, and for not wanting to have a baby. She claims the reasons for the divorce are too private -- drawing a curtain I respect across those events without seeming coy. But right after, she mulls over at considerable length the dickering details of her husband's settlement. Is that not too private? She first offers to sell everything, and then to split it fifty-fifty. "What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame? [He] was also asking for things I never even considered (a stake in the royalties of books I'd written during the marriage, a cut of possible future movie rights to my work, a share of my retirement accounts). . . . It would cost me dearly, but a fight in the courts would be infinitely more expensive and time-consuming, not to mention soul-corroding..."
Mary Karr asserts that one is temperamentally a novelist or a non-fiction writer. One or the other.
So for those who think a writer can flip a switch and go from nonfiction to novel based on social convenience, I've got some bad news. Your psychological proclivity determines which better fits your story. That decision grows from the nature of your character. Autonomy in such choices is a fairy tale.
A real novelist tells the greater truth with a mask on. I once suggested to Don DeLillo that he write a memoir, and he recoiled.
One of the most controversial memoirs in recent times was Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, which received both raves and brickbats. (It told the story of her four-year incestuous relationship with her father.) Her experience begs the question, why do this? Why write this memoir?
So many reviewers deemed her motives venal, but if you deduct the cost of mandatory therapy to get through the story in her heart before undertaking the book's writing, she'd have made more money working a deep-fat fryer, which might have also been more fun. But with such personal reasons for writing, why publish it at all? To understand, you'd have to marshal some empathy for any rape or incest survivor. It's through shame and silence that a perpetrator seeks to capture someone else's soul, sentencing her to lifetime collusion with him. "On top of everything else," Harrison told me, "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut forever." Either she published her story or remained complicit with her seducer, which meant actually being allied with him against herself. Publishing the book was a way to reclaim "what was left of me."
Karr shares plenty of her own experience drafting her own memoir(s), as well, and she's as unsparing with herself as she is with any other writer.
For Lit, I spent maybe two years writing about short stints in California and Mexico and the UK and some old boyfriends before I realized that those stories -- by then hundreds of pages -- lacked emotional gravitas. They were youthful years of drinking and frittering time away -- shallow, easy, sparkly, rather than the more tormented phases in my life, which were less glisteny on the surface and, ergo, harder to rout out. Plus they had zip to do with my mother, whom I'd vowed not to write about anymore. But -- surprise! -- that was exactly what I needed to write about -- how making peace with her legacy was something I had to do to become a mother myself. Still, those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

I stumbled across this book when I began focusing on memoirs. I'd just read Mary Karr's brilliant The
Art of Memoir, in which she talks about credibility and authenticity, why we believe one memoirist, and another sounds pompous and insincere. From beginning to end, Edmund de Waal won me with his insecurities. Given the man's history and pedigree, I might have expected a more name-dropping account of his family history.  The names dropped, but always in a casual way. I was deeply moved by his angst about how to write this story, using a set of inherited Japanese netsuke as the vehicle to describe a vast, international, multi-generational family history. I loved the ways he addressed his readers when he got stuck, wondering how to approach the whole thing.
And what there is to go on -- the number of manservants and the slightly stock story of the gift of a coin -- seems held in a sort of melancholic penumbra, though I quite like the detail of the Russian flag. I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss. And I certainly don't want to turn Iggie into an old great-uncle in his study, a figure like Bruce Chatwin's Utz, handing over the family story, telling me: Go, be careful. It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin. And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers -- hard and tricky and Japanese -- and where it has been. 
I struggle to say why the following passage affected me. I suppose I like the contrast of the vagueness of melancholy with the Japanese precision of the netsuke. Melancholy is a fog. I wonder if the people who carved or wore these netsuke pondered them as an antidote to this emotional muck.
Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return. 
I'll write soon about The Art of Memoir, but in it, Mary Karr says she knows she's gone pretentious when she hears herself spouting philosophy. Edmund de Waal also catches himself going off-track, and I love passages like this that violate the fourth wall but reveal so much about the writing process.
One evening I find myself at a dinner telling some academics what I know of the story, and feel slightly sickened by how poised it sounds. I hear myself entertaining them, and the story echoes back in their reactions. It isn't just getting smoother, it is getting thinner. I must sort it out now or it will disappear.
Another example, but a very evocative one.
I get particularly hooked by the listings of wedding-presents at society marriages, telling myself that this is all good research on cultures of gift-giving, and waste an embarrassing amount of time trying to work out who is being over-generous, who a cheapskate and who is just dull. My great-great-grandmother gives a set of golden serving dishes shaped as cockle shells at a society wedding in 1874. Vulgar, I think, with nothing to back this up.
I do love any book that boosts my vocabulary.
He is a mondain art historian with a secretary. 
1. a man who moves in fashionable society
2. characteristic of fashionable society; worldly

And again, the use of exactly the right word. Oh, to have a word like 'flâneur' at my fingertips. But somehow it fits someone who loafs at the opera so much better than 21st-century slackers.
Charles might be a flâneur, might take his time in the salons, be seen at the races and the Opera, but his 'vagabonding' is done with real intensity.
1. an idler or loafer

de Waal travels to Paris to investigate the ancestor who first began to collect the netsuke, Charles Ephrussi. Charles collected art avidly, and he had catholic tastes. Edmund admits to trying to create order in the narrative, to create a pattern where none exists.
I make the familiar trip to Paris and stand beneath Baudry's ceilings in the Opera and then rush over to the Musee d'Orsay to look at Charles's single asparagus stem by Manet and the pair of Moreau pictures they now own, to see if it all coheres, if it all sings, if I can see what his eye saw. And, of course, I cannot, for the simple reason that Charles buys what he likes. He is not buying art for the sake of coherence, or to fill gaps in his collection. He is buying pictures from his friends, with all the
complexities that brings with it. Charles has many friendships...
Edmund had imagined a somewhat precise itinerary around Europe, gathering data and impressions about this ancestor and then that one but quickly discovers that this sort of research takes on a life and a pace of its own.
I wonder if I should take my white netsuke of the hare with amber eyes in my pocket to reunite object and image. For the span of a cup of coffee I mull this over as a real possibility, a way of keeping moving. My timetable has disappeared.
The Ephrussi were originally a family of Jewish grain merchants from Odessa. The patriarch's sons migrated to Europe, Charles to France. As sentiments changed in Europe, of course, their vast wealth, opulent homes and extensive art collections drew unwelcome attention.
Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew -- one hand is larger than another -- and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France Juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1880. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State.
I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont's books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.
As Jews fell out of popular fashion in France, so too did Japonisme, the attraction to Japanese art and style, such as, for example, Charles' collection of netsuke.
"Everything," said Alexandre Dumas in 1887,"is Japanese now." Zola's house outside Paris, awash with Japanese objets, was considered slightly risible.
This memoir is a treasure trove of architectural and decorative vocabulary: a series of enfilade roomsgarnitures of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, Charles replaces his lit de parade with an Empire bed; it is a lit à la polonaise hung with silks...

enfilade:A suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other
garniture: A set of decorative accessories, in particular vases
lit de parade: Four-poster bed
lit à la polonaise:

(Ah, so that's what they call those things.)

Charles, however, had a reason for redecorating in an undeniably French style.
It was also a claim on an essential Frenchness, on belonging somewhere properly. And perhaps a way of putting more space between those first, jostlingly heterodox rooms and his authoritative life as an arbiter of taste. Empire is not le gout Rothschild, not Jewish. It is patrician, French. 
de Waal's vocabulary often catches the reader's eye, much like that yellow armchair.
His rooms in the rue de Monceau had not "learnt their optical catechism"; they were cut through by the note of the yellow armchair. They were congeries of different things to pick up and handle.
congeries:  a collection of items or parts in one mass; assemblage; aggregation; heap:

Charles Ephrussi, the collector of the netsuke, gave the collection to his nephew Viktor in Vienna as a wedding gift. There, too, anti-Semitism was bubbling.
In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna, it was possible for a Deputy in the Reichsrat to make speeches calling for Schussgeld -- bounties -- for shooting Jews. In Vienna the most outrageous statements were met with a feeling from the assimilated Jews that it was probably best not to make too much fuss.
Throughout the memoir, de Waal frets that the netsuke are an unreliable vehicle for his story. He catches himself meandering off-track (but not too soon, thankfully for those of us who relish his tangents). He makes me realise that non sequiturs can be charming if carefully chosen and handled. I love his self-awareness. Unlike Casaubon, I trust that he'll finish his book, and it will be a winner.
I realise at this point that I am beginning to obsess hopelessly about what is fast becoming my very special subject, the vitrines of the fin de siècle. On Freud's desk is a netsuke in the form of a shishi, a lion. My time-management skills are seriously awry.
I keep hoping that the netsuke will be a key that unlocks the whole of Viennese intellectual life. I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.
The hare with the amber eyes is a trinket that made its way through the family homes of a wealthy, historic European family alongside many other things both more glorious and more mundane. When the people are declared worthless (or worse yet, vermin), though, it all falls into a new category: stuff.
And it not just their art, not just the bibelots, all the gilded stuff from tables and mantelpieces, but their clothes, Emmy's winter coats, a crate of domestic china, a lamp, a bundle of umbrellas and walking-sticks. Everything that has taken decades to come into this house, settling in drawers and chests and vitrines and trunks, wedding-presents and birthday-presents and souvenirs, is now being carried out again. This is the strange undoing of a collection, of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure when grand things are taken and when family objects, known and handled and loved, become stuff.
I  am one person, not multiple generations of a family, and certainly not of a family along the lines of the Ephrussis, but I left my native country twelve years ago and haven't returned. At this point it's unlikely I ever will. I will probably spend the rest of my days in southeast Asia, moving from one country to the next when the visa requirements change or political shifts demand. I can't for a moment compare my circumstances to those of the Ephrussi -- it's not genocidal hatred driving me from one home to the next. I do, however, relate powerfully to this sentiment, my passport to hand, keeping much private.
It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.