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A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev.  It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself.  And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center.  But to begin at the beginning:

“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.”  As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body.  The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs.  As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,”  but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it.  It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.”  From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy.  His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.

One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills.  Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky.  He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause.  This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled.  He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone.  It has a price, however:  even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate.  Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift.  He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones.  At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.

The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again.  Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.

From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady.  Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people.  The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya.  And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together.  Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family.  Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel.  At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.

Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.”  This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be.  It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel:  Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension.  It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names.  Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s).  Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations.  Then comes Part Three.

Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko.  The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him.  But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends.  Another compositional enigma!

Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four.  The subject is of two parts:  one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death.  Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her.  Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times.  So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for.  The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth.  The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby.  Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.

I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did.  It is a fine novel.  The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections.  Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.

All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize.  Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon.  And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea.  It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world.  This novel is such a novel.

 

 

 

 

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The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

Today, I’m writing about a song which is my favorite popular song of all time, and one about which there is not only a lot of concord (that it is a great song), but also a lot of disagreement (that it is spiritual, that it is full of primal sexuality, that one artist or another has done a better job of conveying its “basic” meaning, that one version or another is the best, etc.).  I don’t know which artist I first heard sing it, because I turned the television on in the middle of a performance just in time to catch the lyric lines “She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” and somehow, the incongruity of the notions of a throne and having one’s hair cut by a woman at home (or perhaps the collision inherent in the idea of a kitchen chair being like a throne) caught my attention in a very primary way.  I fell in love with the song immediately, but in spite of this book’s insistence about the ubiquity of the song, when I went to a local DVD and CD store to obtain a copy of the media form it was on, I only encountered absolute blankness from the clerks.  I did not know at the time that it was by Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian composer and songster also responsible for such songs as “Bird on a Wire.”  I had seen the song performed by a much younger man, a very soulful character also, however, but not one whose name I remembered hearing.

My next encounter with it was on Bon Jovi’s 2008 DVD “Live at Madison Square Garden” (which, however, I did not get a copy of until about 2012 or so, or certainly a few years after its first production, anyway).  It has remained my favorite rendition of the song except for Leonard Cohen’s, and that’s because it has at least five of the now current seven stanzas (I would really love to see the original 80 stanzas just to read, but that remains for another time).  The only thing I did not like about Leonard Cohen’s own version was that he was in London at the time, and he stuck the name of his performance locale in the song when he performed, which he apparently did in other places as well.  I don’t like it particularly not because of any resentment towards London, but because I like the song the way it is, and don’t like it much when any artist or artiste kowtows to a local audience instead of during a “pure” version of the song.  But that’s just my own obsession with completeness and purity speaking; I understand that the local audiences of the various places went wild when he did it.

And now, to the ostensible subject of my post, the book itself.  The book is uneven, in that it offers a wealth of interesting detail about the song, its development, and history of production and reproduction, but also throws a bunch of famous and not-so-famous names at you, which gives a feeling of “I guess you had to have been there.”  It sometimes descends to the level of “he-said-she-said” or gossip, but for the most part, it is well worth an attentive read.  It contrasts the way the different artists performing the song have seen it, because each artist seems to have wanted to make it his or her own, even to the extreme (in my view) of leaving words and stanzas out.  The frontispiece quotes are from Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, in that order, and thus offer the two most famous attitudes and artists’ views of the song.  Cohen said, “‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist.  I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value.  It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”  Perhaps the song’s most popularly famous performer (somewhat possibly because of his own later and untimely demise), Jeff Buckley, said “Whoever listens to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.  The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.  It’s an ode to life and love.”

One particular thing that this book did for me, however, was to encourage me to reach beyond my own limits:  because I tend to prefer songs by their original composers or first singers (or both), because I tend to prefer to get all the lyrics and not just half or the mere repetition of a few words and a chorus, and because I get distracted when there is more than one key interpretation to a song, I found this book a challenge.  It forced me to see that the song does indeed belong not only to Leonard Cohen, but to the world, and while that’s entirely a good thing, because it seems to communicate a sort of togetherness and community spirit, I do still feel the right of my own preferences:  I, too, am in the world!  And perhaps that realization, for each person who hears the song or reads the book, is the single most valuable thing about either.

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The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.

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“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”–or, Incitement, the Turn Against Repression, and Outright Rebellion

Once again, a younger person has been instrumental in getting me to read a fiction he has enjoyed, and once again, the person is my nephew, Charles.  In this case, it was a slightly longer proceeding, because from the time I continually saw him sitting around engrossed in The Hunger Games trilogy to the time when I could pry the books from his fingers to read them was longer.  I’m just joking, though, about his reluctance:  he was quite enthusiastic about having me read the series.  And as I read and let him know over the phone what book exactly I was on, he eagerly asked each time “How do you like it?”  I was able to be just as happily engaged with the books as he expected, though I did point out that in this book as in others I’ve read in the YA category from time to time, the author has neglected to observe some grammar rules, such as the difference between “who” and “whom.”  It happens to everyone from time to time, because our society has become so casual in its observance of some parts of grammatical precision that even quite well-read and literate people have been known to slip up.  And of course, his rejoinder was to remind me of the last book he had me reading, The Wide Window from the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, in which a character named “Aunt Josephine” continually corrects grammar (I also reviewed that book for this site).  So now, on to the review of the events of the books themselves, which will probably be shorter, however, due to the fact that I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts, but instead want to leave those who have not yet read the books or seen the movies to their own discoveries.

The first thing I noticed about the books, even early on, and which I was surprised about and would highly commend is that in them, Suzanne Collins didn’t pull her punches.  Tragedies were not just things which took place in the past, well-drawn and well-liked characters die and suffer in the present as well, and even though there are repairs which can be made surgically to the competitors in the games, or to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, more and more the sense grows in the books that some things can’t be changed, some misfortunes must be lived with, some bad things will have to be lived through again and again and again in the memories and sorrow-filled dreams of the main characters, those who survive, that is.  This is a series of books which, with a few changes, a very few indeed, could easily be marketed to an adult audience.  And yet, the difficulties approached by the characters are ones easily understandable and accessible to a youth audience:  it’s just that the book makes no attempt, fortunately, to “dumb down” or “soft-pedal” suffering, no matter whose it is.  There is no condescension in these books, and I can see why they have easily won a loyal following among parents and young people alike.

Next, I appreciated the slight amount of retelling that was necessary in the later two books in order to link them with the first.  Often, authors make the mistake of retelling large swatches of the plot or of characters’ histories in series, in order to play to the market either of people who were not paying attention in the earlier parts or to pick up new readers who are too indifferent to begin at the beginning.  Collins has clearly chosen to regard her audience as both intelligent and energetic enough to start with the first book and keep on going, and trusts herself to maintain their interest.  That her trust is not misplaced is I think obvious in the great enthusiasm with which people discuss the series.

Finally, what people these days call “the story’s arc” is both very accomplished and very insightful about the nature of slavery, rebellions, and resolutions of conflicts.  I have said the story begins with the “incitement” that the Capitol offers the known-to-exist twelve districts by forcing them to participate in the Hunger Games; follows this up with “the turn against repression,” which draws in some of those originally with the Capitol and aligns them with the gradually more and more rebellious people in the districts, which begin to revolt; and concludes with the picture of a whole society as it experiences “outright rebellion,” including quite intelligent assessments of both sides in the combat as first of all run by individuals with conflicting aims and desires, whatever their side.  Among the thanks which Suzanne Collins includes to her colleagues, friends, and family in the back of the third volume, are these tributes:  “Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick)….”  Certainly, these dedications are quite apt, as the force of them shows everywhere in the books (even in the playful tweaking of the nose of the “fashion police” who appear in the series).  I would gladly recommend these books for their teaching abilities and their warmth of heart, their ability to educate young people in both their methods of forming allegiances and their gradual and growing awareness of when something isn’t as it should be.  These books, like the folk song taken from Scripture, proclaim “to everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  Only, having read them, young people may well emerge with a stronger sense of the right time for each and every purpose which confronts them.  These books, far from being just for entertainment, are for the mind and the spirit as well, and I can think of nothing better to advise than that adults as well as young people read them, not just to keep an eye on what their children are reading, but to keep an eye on their own strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and impulses as well.  This is a family book in the best sense of the term.

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The Astonishing and Predictive in the Everyday–Alix Ohlin’s “Signs and Wonders”

When someone entitles a book Signs and Wonders–a phrase which I recently discovered comes from Passover, and is in Elie Wiesel’s A Passover Haggadah–we think we are prepared ahead of time for unusual events and mysterious happenings.  But the fact of the matter is that Alix Ohlin illuminates the everyday event and ordinary life by showing the connection between them and the astonishing and predictive, the almost magical traces that we often call “coincidence” because we are afraid to call them “fate.”  There are sixteen different fairly short stories in this book, and in every one of them we see people engaged in lives that are like those we know from our own experience or witness around us.  But when we retell these sorts of events at parties, or gatherings, or coffee klatches with our friends, what obsesses us often is the magical trace, the thing that makes us feel “I should have known,” “It now looks so obvious,” “Of course, that was what had to happen.”

The title story, “Signs and Wonders,” has preeminent place in the book, coming at the very first possibly because of its thematic content.  Just as one place of emphasis is the very last (and Alice Munro’s book Too Much Happiness, which I recently reviewed, had its title story in that ultimate position), so Alix Ohlin, another Canadian writer of note, puts her title story at the first.  Briefly, the story is about an academic marriage which has run its course; but the wife cannot divorce the husband immediately because he is in an accident, and in all charity she cannot end things while he is in a coma.  When their adult son, who has problems of his own, is informed of their decision to divorce after the husband returns to health, he becomes hysterical, and only the prayer intervention of a woman whom the wife has always hated and whose pet bird she tried to release into hostile surroundings helps him.  As we are told in the last few sentences of the story, as the wife ponders in amazement at the fact of prayer come into their lives, “She couldn’t decipher [the signs and wonders]; she couldn’t read her life that way….But she could feel them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring clearly through the air, and she could only wonder how it was that she had never felt them before.”

As we continue throughout the book, we see other lives suddenly taken at a moment of attentive arrest in which “the beating of wings” of key or significant happenings can be witnessed.  There’s a doctor dating a nurse, who “helps” her returned vet brother out of his addictive life, and who later witnesses something, a moment in time, which reminds him forcibly of the brother’s perspective, and his words, too late.  There’s a stepmother who has a vision of one of her stepchildren dying, which she follows up on in spite of all pressure to the contrary, with astounding results.  Two women in a park, superficially alike and dressed similarly, experience a moment of fate when one of them is mistaken for the other, and shot.  Former assistants and interns of various businesses in New York hear of the death of a friend, and realize abruptly what their former life was like.  And so on through the rest of the sixteen deceptively simple stories.  Though death is sometimes the end or a major event in these stories, it is not really death in a depressing sense that these stories are “about”:  Ohlin wants us to pay attention to other things as well.

As I think I’ve made obvious, the lives described in the book are those of people anyone might know, well-polished surfaces in which anyone might recognize his or her own face.  What is crucial to each story, however, is the sudden intrusion of what Bob Dylan called “a simple twist of fate,” a funny or poignant or simply “there” little incident or fact which proves decisive in the lives of those depicted.

I said these stories are “deceptively simple,” and I think this is the mot juste for the author’s perspective and voice as well.  It would take much longer than I have here, I think, to penetrate thoroughly all the rhetorical tactics and narrative ploys and gambits she uses to get her points across.  But I think at least one point she makes is quite clear and lucid, and that is that we can never see the shape our lives are taking or the conclusion they are likely to have if we are too caught up in the moment or the quarrel or the obsession to take a look.  And if we do look, and really see, what we observe may indeed be a sign, and a wonder.

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Having a Good Nattering, Chin-Wag, or Gossip with a Book–Maeve Binchy’s “Circle of Friends”

I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine.  She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.”  I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key.  No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.”  So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.

But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else.  This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).

True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum.  No Pulitzer or Nobel there.  Then I started to read.  I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s.  This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.

What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments.  Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader.  It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven.  Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice.  This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read.  After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about:  not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.

Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for:  she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects.  Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main.  I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor.  Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.

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The Learning Curve of Life and Death–Richard Gilbert’s fine memoir “Shepherd”

Today, I am sitting inside a comfortable beachside  condo, enjoying a precious tea that a Russian friend kindly provided me with, taking in both its nearly indescribable aroma and its delicate perfumed taste.  It’s a Basilur family tea imported from Sri Lanka, flavored with “natural cornflower, jasmine buds, blue malva, and flavor roasted almond.”  The whiff seems at first to be that of an expensive chocolate, and then one thinks “No, not chocolate exactly–what is that delicious smell?”  I have had the luxury of consuming the tea not only as a wonderful gift, but as something I didn’t have to question or think about much, except that I do sometimes after having a tea from Sri Lanka wonder about how they ever got their crops back in order after that frightful tsunami a number of years ago.

I’ve usually had lamb in the same way, especially enjoying having it with my brother, because he appreciates the visceral element in eating meat from the bone, possibly a holdover from our more carnivorous forebears, but when you see the two of us nibbling along the bones held aloft at a private family dinner (one where our company can’t judge us savages), you know we must be kin.  And as I say, I’ve not usually given a thought to where the sheep come from, how they are raised, how deprived of life, not much in fact beyond what cut I’m eating and how much it costs.  A standard consumer, then.  And this in spite of the fact that we are only two generations away from Appalachian small-time farmers ourselves on our father’s side, though I don’t think they had sheep.

Since I’m trying to be as honest as the book I’m reviewing today is, I will confess that my word picture of the tea above is an attempt to make tea lovers (at least) salivate and want to know more.  And it’s the very word pictures of the Appalachian countryside, scattered from beginning to end of Richard Gilbert’s book Shepherd, the gorgeous imagery and word poetry which demonstrate not only his love itself of the land, his accomodation to its demands that change with where it’s located in the country, but which also in a literary manner justify that love and draw in the eager reader for more.  There is a price to be paid, of course, and that is the price of empathizing with both sheep and shepherd as they suffer as well as glory in life; still, the book itself is true as true can be to living especially in this sense:  despite the pain endured and the trials encountered, one can imagine few who would rather go without it.

A general statement from a little past the middle of the book itself which expresses the author’s feel for his subject is this home truth:  “Something is always going awry, getting out of control, and otherwise cheating one’s fantasies on a farm.”  This might almost be juxtaposed with the statement of a friendly elderly neighbor from another section of the memoir, from a time when the author lived in Bloomington, Indiana in a more residential community before the farm in Athens, Ohio was even thought of except as a remote dream:  “You’re happier than you know.”  Yet, as one reads forward in the book but back and forth in time in the memoir structure of past juxtaposed to present and then retroactively again, one sees a man and his family going through a much-desired learning experience.  One begins to appreciate that it’s the price in lives and lifetime which gives one the right to speak in tropes and epigrams, which are scattered throughout the book, both from the author’s own words and those of the many farmers and breeders whom he acknowledges as his teachers.

One famous epigram I can recall from our own neck of the Appalachian countryside, and which I also found when I went to college for the first time at a school that was located in the midst of an agrarian community, was this punning one:  one seems to praise someone by saying “He’s outstanding in his field,” but a sly grin changes this into “He’s out standing in his field,” idly, of course, not a desirable condition for a farmer or an academic.  And Richard Gilbert has worn many hats during his lifetime, among others those of both an academic and a sheep farmer, while keeping his sense of humor and his modesty intact as if he were constantly mindful of this very epigram.  I first encountered him as a blogger not too long after I signed onto my own site in summer of 2012, and I’ve read his many excellent posts on narrative, memoir and memoir writers, teaching creative non-fiction to students, music, featured guest bloggers, and more (see Richard Gilbert).  And this summer, I was finally able to read his memoir Shepherd, which I recommend not just for anyone who has an interest in farming or raising livestock, but for those with a sincere interest in memoir or even narrative fiction:  the whole aggravated question of pacing, whether of restraining oneself when one desperately wants to go ahead with a treasured project or of knowing how to pace a memoir or fiction and make it suspenseful and fulfilling and true-to-life is at stake, and Richard Gilbert satisfies, even though he himself is constantly questioning and re-evaluating his own motives.

Like Socrates, the wise man knows only that he knows not, and Gilbert allows us to follow him along in his path across the farming scene, and lets us watch him make mistakes, celebrate successes, and confront the long learning curve of life and death that attends upon even the canniest farmer.  He shows us himself in his most soul-searching, depressed, angry, and perhaps even unjust moments, a man willing to learn and seeking answers. He asks at one point, “Was I really just starting to see, so late, that having strong feelings didn’t make me special?  That they certainly didn’t make me good?”  Again and again, he evaluates himself (even to his genetic inheritance of a weak back) against his father’s plans, disabilities, desires, and accomplishments, and those of other farmers he knows.  He describes his struggle to fit into an agrarian community that has its own traditions, suspicions, and ways of doing things, the most innocuous of which perhaps is what he calls “Appalachian Zen”: his friend and employee Sam’s advice to get to work, “Let’s do something even if it is wrong.”  And of his imitation of his father, he finally concludes, after a visionary dream which comes to him near the end of his farming venture, “I’ve never seen that while I tried to emulate him, I also tried to outdo him.”

His farming wisdom and advice?  As he says, “Many of my breeding-stock customers had [a] broader perspective from the beginning.  They didn’t aim to make money.  They came to farming seeking aesthetic pleasure and solace from an angry world.  And a word had arisen to honor food produced with less control but more craft:  artisanal.  The goal wasn’t high production per acre, but food infused with love and time.  Like art….For the highest quality, nothing beats small, slow, and inefficient.”

His philosophy?  His philosophy is not of the cut-and-dried kind which can be communicated in one heartbeat, but of that learning curve, there is certainly at least one wise lesson to be taken in by all of us, and it can be found by tracing an arc from his first sentence (“Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life”) through to the very last paragraph of his book, when he describes a “sacred moment” which comes back to him as he gets ready to depart his sheep farm for yet another home elsewhere.  He remembers his Georgia boyhood on a farm, when he was four or five and was surrounded on a hillside by butterflies which “infuse[d] me with wonder and joy.  Because I’m so young, I can’t name, but only receive, their gift:  a revelation of life’s unfolding daily abundance:  a miracle.”  And in that word “miracle” is after all the solution to the vexed question of the learning curve of life and death, given us by an articulate, gifted, and knowledgeable memoirist who, while not mincing words about the negatives, avers that they are only the other side of the positives we prefer to see.  But this is to anticipate the reader’s travels with Gilbert, which must be experienced as a whole and followed from beginning to end to fully appreciate such a grand American adventure, and to place the right value on such an inestimable gift to the reading community.  Though it may not lead you to adopt a lamb, it will certainly lead you to ponder, laugh, cry, and dream dreams with at least one academic who has earned his agrarian stripes, and that human shepherd is Richard Gilbert.

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