Friday, March 16, 2018

A patriotic thriller

Thrillers don’t normally have themes. Their object is just to thrill, to entertain, not to make statements. But Susan Isaacs’s 1998 novel Red, White and Blue, with its title and from first sentence to last, does make a statement, a statement about America and about what it means to be an American. The question is, does her focus on her theme help or hinder her story?

Certainly it delays the story, or at least the main part of the story. Here Charlie Blair, a Wyoming rancher turned FBI agent, volunteers to work undercover in a racist, anti-Semitic group called Wrath that may have turned violent. Lauren Miller, an ambitious Jewish reporter from New York City, sees a Wyoming bombing as her opportunity to make a name for herself. True love, as well as true adventure, happens when the two of them meet.

What Charlie and Lauren don’t know, but Isaacs tells her readers, is that both of them share a common great-great-grandmother. She devotes the first half of the book to describing in great detail how one branch of the family ended up in Wyoming, becoming Protestant, while the rest stayed in New York. We get the stories of each link in the chains leading to Charlie and Lauren. Isaacs is a gifted writer and all this makes fine reading, yet it may feel like little more than an unusually long prologue to some readers. (The book actually does have a prologue, which Isaacs calls a preamble, in keeping with her theme.)

I, for one, am glad Isaacs chose to give her book its theme, making it less a thriller but more a serious novel.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Not too late

"The more I find out about your mother's remarkable life before me, the more it emphasizes that I've never done anything adventurous, or traveled, or met anyone that I might have had an impact on ..."

"But you are doing that now. It's not too late."
Phaedra Patrick, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

No, Phaedra Patrick's The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper cannot be considered great literature. It is too sentimental, too orchestrated for that. Still it makes great reading.

Her story tells of a 69-year-old man, widowed one year before, who decides the time has come to dispose of his wife's things. He finds something he doesn't remember ever seeing before, a charm bracelet that makes him wonder where Miriam collected those charms and what their significance could have been. Why did she never mention them in 40 years?

Arthur Pepper, a retired locksmith, has always been a quiet, colorless man, even more so in the year since his wife died. He rarely leaves the house, and Bernadette, a neighbor known for adopting lost causes, sometimes has to leave her food offerings at his doorstep because he won't answer her knock.

The charms, however, spur Arthur into action. One in the shape of an elephant has a telephone number on it. He dials that number and reaches a man in India who says Miriam cared for him when he was a small boy. Arthur never knew his wife had been in India. Other charms lead him to Paris, to London, to an art school where Miriam's image still hangs on the wall and even to an estate where tigers roam and where a former playboy still lives. What kind of life did Miriam lead before marrying Arthur? And why did she marry him, of all men, then never tell him about her earlier life? Was she really happy?

The man's journey of exploration, of course, brings him out of his shell and, more than that, affects his ability to relate to other people, including Bernadette and his grown children who, with problems of their own, have become distant. Neither of them even attended their mother's funeral.

Patrick, even when stretching belief, keeps all this not just interesting, but compelling. She answers all of Arthur's questions and leaves him, and her readers, satisfied.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Let's pretend

"Oh, I see."

Actually I don't see at all, but sometimes you have to pretend you do understand just to make people feel comfortable. Just as (much more often, in my experience) you sometimes have to pretend that you don't understand what someone has said or what's going on, otherwise things can get awkward.
Steff Penney, The Invisible Ones

To pretend, at least in the world of adults, is usually viewed negatively, as just another form of lying. Someone pretends to be a friend in order to get something from you. A salesman pretends to be looking out for your interests when his main objective is his own. However, one of the narrators in Steff Penney's novel, The Invisible Ones, makes the case that pretense in conversation can sometimes be the morally correct thing to do.

Can that be right? I think it can, at least sometimes.

Harold A. Mapes
Even in middle age my father enjoyed telling stories about his experiences, but as he aged, telling his stories became one of his few remaining pleasures, the others being eating, sleeping and taking long walks in the woods. On occasion he might tell a story I did not remember hearing before, but usually they were stories I had heard many times. He would often tell the same stories in the same order as before. Yet I listened, as if hearing them for the first time.

Late in life Dad admitted that he knew he was repeating himself, that he told his stories for his own benefit, because they helped him remember. But they were for my benefit as well, because their repetition helped me remember at least some of those stories as if they were my own.

When I was a newspaper reporter I can recall asking sources for information I already possessed. It was a way double-checking both the information and the source. That seemed like a good thing to me.

But what about normal conversation? This is what is being discussed in the novel. Is it morally OK to pretend to understand when we really don't or to pretend not to understand when we really do? The character offers his justification. In the first instance, it makes people feel comfortable. In the second, it avoids awkwardness. In social intercourse, each is a moral good.

Yet harm can be done, and that harm may be to yourself when you pretend to understand something, such as directions to a certain place, when you really don't. Pretending not to understand what the other person is saying, thus making repetition necessary, can cause awkwardness, or anxiety, rather than avoid it.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'The Grapes of Wrath' endures

In No Time to Spare, a collection of short essays from her blog, Ursula K. Le Guin twice addresses the subject of The Great American Novel, which she abbreviates to TGAN. Mostly she resists the notion, not just of designating one great American novel but also of making lists of the greatest novels. Such attempts, she writes, omit genre writing (she mostly wrote science fiction) and tend to favor male writers from the eastern half of the United States.

"But mostly because I didn't and don't think we have much idea of what's enduringly excellent until it's endured," she says. "Been around quite a long time. Five or six decades, to start with."

The passage of time is important not just for individual novels but for a nation's literature itself. For a long time after the colonies were settled and after the nation was founded, American literature was not regarded highly, not even by Americans. Americans who read mostly read books imported from Europe, mostly England. Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens and others were the writers that mattered, the ones taught in American schools and checked out of American libraries.

Gradually writers like Emerson, Poe, Twain and Melville raised the possibility that such a thing as a great American novel might exist, if not yet, then some day. Henry James, an American who spent most of his life in England and was respected on both sides of the Atlantic, helped raise the stature of American literature, as did a host of other writers who emerged in the 20th century. And so people started to talked about The Great American Novel, one piece of fiction that not just represented the nation and what it stands for but also can stand up proudly in comparison with the best Great Britain or France has produced.

Given what Le Guin writes about the very notion of TGAN, it is surprising that she actually nominates a contender for that title. Actually she nominates two, but she has little to say about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her main focus is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which she says she reread in her old age and was more wowed by it than she was when she read it in her youth.

Steinbeck, perhaps because of his popularity especially with young readers, is usually overlooked whenever critics write on the subject of the best American novelists. William Faulkner, less read and less understood, rates higher with the intelligentsia.

Interestingly, Le Guin refers to Steinbeck as "Uncle John." He was not her uncle but the uncle of a college friend of hers, and she got to spend time in his company. Even so, not until she returned to Steinbeck's Depression novel decades later did she appreciate the novel's power.

She writes, "So now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel ... a year ago I would have said -- for all its faults -- Huckleberry Finn. But now -- for all its faults -- I'd say The Grapes of Wrath."

After the passage of all those decades, it endures.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Hiding in a story

Ursula K. Le Guin
In her essays in No Time to Spare, Ursula K. Le Guin often turns to the subjects of writing, writers and language. As those are the very subjects this blog specializes in, let's examine some of what she says.

I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.

For an introvert, as Le Guin was (she died in January), conversing with strangers doesn't necessarily get easier when it isn't done face to face. Telephone conversations, letters and e-mail or texting can be nearly as difficult. She says she resisted starting her blog, from which these essays came, because she didn't like the idea that strangers could comment on what she wrote and then she would be obligated to reply. Even a gifted writer like Le Guin can find it difficult finding anything to say in a written conversation with a stranger. She prefers to say what she has to say in a story or poem (or essay).

To many people this may make no sense at all. To introverts, and I am a member of that tribe, it makes perfect sense.

Meaning in art isn't the same as meaning in science.

I wish I could quote everything Le Guin says about meaning in literature, but instead I will just focus on some key points. Readers, she says, often ask what a particular story of hers means. "But that's not my job, honey. That's your job," she says, or would like to say. Scientific meaning is the same in every place at every time with every person. Not so literature, where meaning is fluid, ever changing, sometimes crystal clear, other times a complete blur. "Art isn't explanation," she writes.

Words are my matter -- my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood.

Words Are My Matter is the title of an earlier collection of Ursula K. Le Guin essays, so I was interested to find the phrase here. I like the image of words, or language, as raw material. We all use this same raw material to communicate, but there are those who use it to create something special, perhaps even art.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Spare time?

Just a matter of days after acquiring Ursula K. Le Guin's No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, I saw that the author had died. She died on Jan. 22 at the age of 88. Truly she didn't have time to spare.

The author of more than a score of novels, mostly science fiction, and several books of poetry, Le Guin turned to blogging when she reached her 80s. It was a way to stay in the writing game, but with short essays rather than an exhausting book, a book she might never live to finish. This book collects the best of her blog.

Her book's title comes from the last line of its first essay, one called "In Your Spare Time." This was triggered by a questionnaire she received from Harvard for her 60th class reunion. (She actually graduated from Radcliffe in 1951, but Radcliffe was affiliated with Harvard.) One question asked what she did in her spare time.

Le Guin reflects on how the meaning of the phrase "spare time" changes as one ages. For younger people it means "leisure time," whatever time is left after work and after household chores and parenting and other responsibilities are taken care of. At some point, after retirement, virtually all time becomes leisure time, meaning people can use their time however they wish. At least this seems true in theory, however untrue it may be in practice. Yet because time grows short as we age, there really is none to spare.

From there Le Guin goes on to tackle a variety of subjects, some relating to aging, others to literature, nature, her cat and, in one of her most entertaining pieces, putting our soldiers in camouflage. "I find it not only degrading but disturbing that we dress our soldiers in clothes suitable to jail or the loony bin, setting them apart not by looking good, looking sharp, but by looking like clowns from a broken-down circus."

As for her cat, she writes about Pard more than any other topic: how she got him, how he misbehaves only when he has an audience, how he catches mice but doesn't know what to do with them, and so on. Another essay focuses on a much bigger cat, a captive lynx that captivates her.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Conflicting gospels

In Donald Ray Pollock's novel The Heavenly Table, Cane, Chimney and Cob Jewett don't have much after their father dies suddenly, but their meager possessions do include two books. One is their father's Bible, from which Pearl Jewett had assumed came his theology that by working hard and suffering one will one day sit at the heavenly table with all the other hard-working, suffering saints. Thus Pearl and his boys had worked hard for little reward. The reward, Pearl insisted, would come later.

When Pearl dies, Cane and Chimney decide they favor the gospel found in the second book, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket, an old dime novel about a former Confederate soldier who turns bank robber. Cane, the smartest of the brothers (which isn't saying much), argues that if they can rob a bank, then flee to Canada (they live in Georgia), they will have enough money to live comfortable and respectable lives.

They don't plan on hurting anyone, but things happen in robberies, and soon the Jewett Gang is wanted, dead or alive, for multiple robberies and murders. The year is 1917, but like desperadoes in the Old West, they head for the border on horseback.

Meanwhile Pollock introduces us to a variety of characters in Ohio, more characters than you might think he could possibly need. Yet skillfully he gives each of these people a purpose when the brothers finally reach Ohio.

The Heavenly Table, although a terrific novel, is the kind of book that once might have been sold under the counter. It is as full of sex, violence and vulgar language as any you might find anywhere. So be forewarned. Much of it is also hilarious.

Still the novel has a heart, and that heart belongs to Cob, the simplest and most innocent of the brothers. The question of whether he will ever sit at the heavenly table remains unanswered, but Pollock shows how, for him at least, a place at an earthly table might seem like heaven.