Friday, December 31, 2010

"Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth"

Somehow in the midst of Christmas cooking, cleaning, shopping, gifting, and merriment I stole a few minutes to take down a book from my Pearl Buck collection, one that had avoided my attention for quite a few years. (I am very grateful to my mother-in-law Ruby who helped me assemble this collection from used book sales over many years.) "Once Upon a Christmas" looked to be a collection of sentimental, seasonal stories and I felt that a short peruse might satisfy like a seasonal glass of eggnog laced with bourbon.

I was pleased to discover among the various Christmas stories a few memories by Pearl Buck of some of the  Christmases she spent in China as a child and young woman. Their inclusion in this collection led me to think about the themes of home and family that recur in her books and writings. I was reminded that I had not yet written about Pearl Buck for Bookwagon and that an end-of-year posting was appropriate.

Pearl Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938 and was commended for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."  Her second novel, "The Good Earth" which describes the hard life of peasants and common people in twentieth-century China had been wildly popular in the United States and around the world upon its publication in 1931. Despite its popularity, the critical response to this novel and to subsequent novels by Pearl Buck was mixed. For a variety of political, cultural and literary reasons, the Nobel Prize award was controversial at the time and has remained so since. Pearl Buck wrote for thirty-five more years, and much of her work from this time is considered pedestrian and ordinary. The quality of so many of her later books has not helped her literary reputation. Still, her early writing, born of her life in China as a child and young woman, and rooted in the society and literature of China, is extraordinary and deserves to be read and regarded as literary treasure.

Pearl Buck was born in China to missionary parents from West Virginia. Her mother and father chose to spend their lives bringing Christianity to an alien and distant part of the world, living there and raising their children there. Of seven siblings, only Pearl, an older brother and a younger sister survived yto adulthood. They were raised in an impoverished household, steeped in Christianity and Western culture but speaking Chinese as early as they spoke English. She played with Chinese friends, and experienced first-hand the public and private lives of Chinese farmers and townspeople. She observed and was affected by dramatic, dangerous, and tumultuous times as China emerged from a longstanding traditional society and struggled to establish itself in a modern world dominated by Western powers, global forces and foreign ideas.

Pearl returned to the United States to attend college in Virgina but upon graduation returned to China where she taught, wrote, married, and raised a family of her own. She socialized with and befriended Chinese intellectuals and writers. Her life in China, from her birth and early childhood through her marriage and development as a writer is vividly described in Hilary Spurling's book, "Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth", one of the best books I read in 2010. I recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed a Pearl Buck novel and for others interested in China, the American experience with China, and twentieth century Chinese and American literature.

Reading Pearl Buck's novels of China is as close to reading modern Chinese literature in the vernacular as most of us English readers will experience. Pearl Buck was as fluent in Chinese as she was in English. Having lived her entire life to adulthood in China, she was as familiar with and shaped by its literature, politics, and history as other Chinese intellectuals and writers were and more familiar with China than she was with American society and literature. When we read "The Good Earth", we are almost reading a Chinese novel written in English, not one translated into English. It provides a very rare opprtunity for us Enlgish speaker/readers to enter another literary culture directly. I would inlcude "The Good Earth" and a few other Pearl Buck novels in an introductory course to modern Chinese literature.

Spurling's book illuminates the challenges of growing up within two culutres, the stresses of a childhood shaped by the missionary experience in an alien and mostly unwelcoming environment, and the toll of a difficult marriage and a special-needs child. She describes Pearl Buck's early works as derived from these experiences and as reflective of the Chinese world that Pearl lived in and acutely observed. Pearl moved back to the United States when war broke out between China and Japan. She was forty-two and never returned to China. As an adult, Pearl broke with the missionary movement that had embraced and motivated her parents and their generation of westerners in China. She recognized the contributions that Western missionaries had made in areas of education, women's rights, and health care but she was sensitive to and critical of the attitude of superiority that accompanies an evangelical movement.

Pearl opposed and resisted Western domination in Asia but did not adhere to the Communist Party doctrine. By the 1940s, she had alientated the Communist and leftist powers in China and was at the same time suspect to the gowing conservative, anti-communist forces in the United States. Consequently, her popularity suffered in both China and the United States.

I suspect that Pearl Buck was essentially a foreigner in the United States for the second half of her life and her writing about America reflects an alienation and a disconnection from American culture. Upon rereading her novels, I am struck by her attention to the details of home, family, and social relationships whether writing about Asia or America. These are all very important themes in Chinese literature and it is interesting to see them played out in her later writing about a very different society.

For many reasons, then, including her unique perspective on the world, her bicultural identity, her gifts of language and writing, and her expression of themes and concerns common to human society regardless of culture and history, she deserves attention. She has much to offer the contemporary reader. It isn't right to dismiss her writing based on how a Maoist regime in China labeled her or how a reactionary American political response to Chinese ideas and influences branded her. There probably is a real disparity in the quality of her total body of work. Some of that can be explained by her cultural displacement in the second part of her life and some of it by her need to write continuously, both for financial and for personal reasons. But among her many books are important treasures and you do yourself a disservice to ignore them.

Read a few of her books and determine for yourself what she has to describe, what she has to say, and how she serves to combine and merge her Chinese and American perspectives in her best novels. Begin with "The Good Earth (1931) and continue on to "Dragon Seed" (1942) about Chinese resistance to the Japanese invaders in the 1930s or "Pavilion of Women" (1946) about marriage and family in traditional Chinese society). If you enjoy what you read, and value the unusual opportunity to read in English a very Chinese experience of life, you might want to explore some of her other work written later when she could not return to China and settled permanently in the United States. You could read through "Once Upon a Christmas", perhaps in the middle of some busy Christmas week, and see that Pearl Buck continues to have much to share with us and to teach us. Best of all, she tells good stories!

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Berlin Noir

Philip Kerr is the author of The Berlin Noir trilogy, three novels featuring  detective Bernie Gunther whose work solving crimes and pursuing justice in Germany under the Nazis is projected through the lens of a government and society defined by evil and crime. What does it mean to track down a murderer of an individual within the context of pervasive and institutionalized murder of millions? In most matters personal and professional, Bernie seems decent enough and for the most part is trying to do the right thing. Does that even matter?

The first book takes place in 1934, the second in 1938. The third book of the Trilogy takes place in 1947 when Berlin is under Allied occupation and we see the dismal effects of defeat and reckoning on the city.

A Quiet Flame

In his most recent book, A Quiet Flame, a continuation of the trilogy, Bernie is essentially forced out of Germany in 1950 to seek refuge in Argentina where there are a number of Nazi war criminals hiding out (in plain sight). A kidnapping within the German community in Buenos Aires leads to Bernie being compelled by the Argentine police to take up his former profession and search for the guilty. Things aren't what they seem and Bernie's reluctant participation leads him to further reflection on his life, and times, and the nature of the Nazi experience.

A key plot element leads Kerr to flash back to Berlin in 1932 and the two stories (Berlin, 1932 and Buenos Aires, 1950) proceed on parallel tracks. The book continues the development of Bernie's story from the Berlin Noir series and the details of life in Germany and Argentina are vividly drawn. The mood is somber, of course, and one reads along with a growing fascination, and horror, at how one man can, and cannot, make a difference.

I was particularly taken with the descriptions of Germany in 1932, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was about to take control of the government and the future. The description of a society where unemployment is running at thirty three percent and inflation is devaluing whatever income people do have provides the background for a number of political decisions and actions that will result in worldwide devastation and ultimately, destruction of Germany. Kerr's book is good story and good history and added to my own understanding of Hitler's rise and ultimate domination.

Bernie's growing understanding of what happened both in 1930s Germany and in post-war Argentina leads to a poignant acceptance of his own responsibility and guilt as an individual who didn't speak up against what he saw happening, even if it would have made no difference.I really like Bernie and I am intrigued by how he makes decisions in the face of these challenges. The fact that he was once an SS officer (the novels make clear the circumstances) makes me feel guilty for liking him and that is just about how Bernie feels about himself.

Today in the United States we are currently experiencing real political and economic uncertainties that are not nearly as fearful as those that Germany, Europe and the world faced in the 1930s. Still, reading this book made me mindful of how humans make, and are led into, political decisions and how an atmosphere of fear can shape our choices.

Dark and dangerous but fascinating to read and think about. I dare you to read just one.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

River of Doubt

As a boy, I dreamed of becoming an adventurer. Sometimes, I saw myself canoing through North American forests. Others I envisioned myself traveling across remote deserts. You can see that my aspirations were very literary. I read tales of the explorers and novels of stranded travelers depending on their own ingenuity to survive.  I even read through two very large volumes of memoirs of Henry Stanley's expedition to rescue Dr. David Livingston in Africa.

My actual outdoor skills were in reality rather limited, I'm afraid, and I depended on my good friend Billy Wilson to take care of me whenever we entered "the woods." Even Billy couldn't help me when, as adults, we took my young daughters on a canoe expedition in Pennsylvania when I ended up dumping 10-year-old Gena in the cold river. He did make a fire to help her dry out. I think of Billy whenever I read about outdoor adventure and I think he will appreciate River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.

Teddy Roosevelt, an immensely popular president, chose to run for a third term in 1912, this time not as a Republican but as a third-party candidate representing the Progressive Party. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in a landslide and Roosevelt took the blame from his Republican supporters for putting a Democrat in the White House. Out of power, in disfavor with his own supporters, and facing the loss of activity and connection that losing the presidency meant,  Roosevelt retreated to his home at Sagamore Hill, Long Island and began to come to terms with his new reality. He was 54 years old.

Throughout his life, Teddy Roosevelt had faced adversity and challenges through determined activity, physical exertion, and adventure. As a youth who suffered from asthma, he had traveled out west to toughen himself up. He boxed in college and later, after the death of his first wife, he returned to the west for two years of ranching. During his presidency, he had participated in one long safari in Africa (traveling with his son  Kermit). It was in character that in the winter of 1913, Teddy Roosevelt decided to help lead an extraordinary adventure, mapping uncharted territory in the Amazon basin of Brazil. The conditions would be difficult and dangerous. The possible routes took them hundreds of miles away from known settlements. Climate and natural conditions could prove deadly. Tribes of Indians, some with little or no contact with Europeans even after four centuries of European settlement in South America, could be hostile. The goal of the expedition was to follow an unmapped tributary of the Amazon river called the River of Doubt from its source to wherever it met the main river. Kermit would again accompany him.

This book describes this expedition beginning with Roosevelt's electoral defeat, through the planning process and preparations and finally the journey itself.  In so doing, it shows us Teddy Roosevelt, post-presidency, continuing to assert his views on politics, humanity, and nature through action. In doing this, Millard also introduces us to descriptions of the Amazon jungle, and provides explanations for how it developed and how it functions that are scientifically and esthetically very satisfying. There is action, suspense, and vivid retelling of remarkable physical bravery and courage by Roosevelt, his son, and others on the expedition.

An important story in itself is the character of Candido Rondon, a Brazilian explorer who was co-leader of the exhibit, responsible for the safety of a former president of the United States. Rondon had special interest in and concern for the Amazon Indians and very likely it was his refusal to allow his team to inflict violence on the Indians, even in self-defence, that saved the expedition.

The special relationship that Roosevelt shared with his son Kermit is also a major theme. In some ways both father and son felt that they were on the expedition to look out for the other. Kermit suffers from unrelenting malaria and dreams of being reunited with his new fiance. Teddy is badly injured and becomes ill as well. He nearly dies in this adventure and Millard's description of his eventual return and recovery were suspenseful even if we do know how the story ends. Millard also succeeds in putting this entire episode of his life in a family and historical context.

This book is too good to overlook. It is a biography. It is a page-turning adventure story. It is a wondrous description of a beautiful and unfamiliar part of the world. It is also an exploration of the American spirit and worldview at the beginning of the twentieth century and an insightful look at teamwork, leadership, and determination. It is a thoughtful exploration of individual responses to challenge, failure, and redemption.

Reading River of Doubt led me to considerations of presidential politics, South American history and culture, and the challenges of extreme outdoor adventure. It also renewed my interest in Teddy Roosevelt and what his leadership meant to America. It made me wonder just how Billy Wilson and I would have managed. (I believe Billy would have been all right.)

Young Gena might be glad that her unfortunate dunking took place in relatively safe waters. If it had happened on the River of Doubt, there would have been piranha in the water and Indians with poisoned arrows on shore. I hesitate to recommend this book to Kathryn who was also on the infamous childhood canoe trip.  Given her enjoyment of outdoor adventure, she might just take off on her own trip down the River of Doubt. Emma would have much to say about the history of rubber trees and how they were exported to Malaysia from the Amazon leading to a worldwide economic and colonial dynamic. As for me, these are adventures best enjoyed in the pages of books.

River of Doubt had been a candidate for Best Book of the Year 2009 from Bonnie and David and was sent to me as the best "non-fiction" book of the year at Christmastime. It deserves the award and deserves to be read and discussed. I look forward to sharing it with Billy and Gena. Anyone else?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Help

PYZ, the writer of two interesting blogs, Zebra Shoes and Journey into Diversity, provided the initial impetus for the creation of Bookwagon. Here she reviews a book I received from my sister-in-law Annie for my birthday. She didn't put the book down (and I didn't see her face) for two days.  

The Help is a first novel for Kathryn Stockett, a writer who was born and raised in the South and who now lives with her husband and daughter in Atlanta. In this novel, inspired by her childhood memories of the family maid, Demetrie, Stockett explores life in the early 1960's in Mississippi from the viewpoints of several young white women and several black maids. Altogether their voices tell a rich and troubling story of privilege, discrimination, segregation, and rigid cultural norms. One white woman dares to challenge those norms and discovers the disparities between her life and those of her peers and the strength and power of the written word to reveal, acknowledge and share truths.

The story explores how people gain and control power using communication, emotional connection, and vantage point as tools. There is sadness in the pressure to conform in the the white women's experience; there is despair in the code of silence of the black women that driven by fear. There is hope in the many acts motivated by humanity.

The context of this story has changed, but the human condition has not. The story gives us a chance to consider the human condition one more time in the safety of the past.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Can the book possibly be as funny as this promotional trailer? Suddenly I am anxious for July 27th to arrive just to find out!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kiwi Kayaking

Crime fiction continues to satisfy wanderlust, both geographical and temporal. Curious about travel on a mysterious pilgrimage in medieval England? Pick up Karen Maitland's Company of Liars but watch out for wolves, and the plague! In the mood for a stroll along a canal in Venice? Donna Leon and her creation, Commissario Guido Brunetti, will be glad to accommodate. Stay for supper with Paola and the family.

I have referred before to the outstanding blog Detectives Beyond Borders by Peter Rozovsky. In a recent posting, he was offering, as a prize, a copy of a new New Zealand novel featuring a middle-aged woman who is a researcher for a law firm, the mother of a recovering meth addict, and the widow of a man who killed himself coming to terms with this tragedy and her new situation in life. This is a "first novel", at least for the pseudonymous author "Alix Bosco", and apparently has generated much interest in New Zealand. There are plans to turn it into a television serial. It seems that the book, Cut and Run:When the Truth is No Protection, is now available through Amazon.

I haven't been to New Zealand but it has become an important place for my family. My daughter Emma attended university for a year there, lived and worked there after college, and is engaged to a Kiwi. I have taken to cheering for New Zealand in sporting events. I wear my Blackcaps cricket jersey with pride and that  has led to at least one interesting conversation here in New York (I still know nothing about cricket but am loathe to admit as much, especially while wearing a Blackcaps jersey.)

My familiarity with the culture and place that is New Zealand is limited by my not having visited. I have pored over photographs, talked with my daughters about their trips, and have spent some time wondering if I should visit in the New Zealand summer or winter. I am ready for my trip.

So it was with some excitement that I noted the mention of this book in Detectives Beyond Borders. Emma was, in fact at that very time, spending time in New Zealand. I emailed her to request a copy of this book as my souvenir and now I have read it. I have had to construct my own interior geography of Auckland and environs to picture the scenes and settings and I can say that I have enjoyed both my literary sojourn and a thrilling mystery that seems very much a New Zealand experience.

There is much satisfaction in reading Cut and Run including a thoughtful, self-aware narrator who struggles to come to terms with uncertainty and ambiguity in her personal and professional life. She painfully processes the memory of her husband and the circumstances of his suicide even as she struggles with her love and support, and mistrust, of her recovering addict son. The contemporary urban Auckland setting, familiar to the Kiwi readers, was sufficiently exotic to this northern hemisphere reader.

Among English-speaking nations, strong similarities in language and culture can obscure significant differences in attitudes, behaviors, and outlook that are distinct. Reading Cut and Run reminded me that cross-cultural travel is not limited to cross-language travel.

Anna Markunis, the protagonist, loves nothing better than to kayak in the Auckland harbor. This gives Alix Bosco the canvas needed to describe the harbor, the wind, the waves, and the feel and light of a seaside location. From my limited (but memorable) experience in ocean kayaking, I was able to imagine how she felt on her early morning excursions.

I was especially delighted that late in the story there occurred a thrilling scene of conflict and danger set on Auckland harbor. It is enough to say here that it involves Anna alone in a kayak far off the shore fending off a helicopter intent on thoroughly slicing her up. Reading this kayak-helicopter duel was better than being at the movies, and I write this on a 103 degree day in New York when an air-conditioned movie theater and a box of popcorn is awfully attractive.

I appreciate an author who constructs a novel that entertains and sustains interest over the course of a well-developed story. It is an extra when such an author displays some narrative pyrotechnics that make me hold my breath, flip the pages, and wonder, "What next?" Cut and Run  by Alix Bosco did that for me. I hope the television series is good. I think I would enjoy seeing it. You can bet that when I get to New Zealand, I will seek out the setting of the kayak-helicopter duel. Maybe they will have Anna Markunis tours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ever-Present Bunny Menace

Note: Daisy Mae is a two-year old puppy, now resident in Ontario, Canada. She submits the occasional literary review to Bookwagon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

a garden

a garden is a very funny thing

sometimes you want to dig it up and then other times you do not want to dig it up

some things you want to make grow in it and other things you want to stop from growing in it

and then the plants that are "for eating" are the ones you are not allowed to eat

only my mama knows the exact rules

today after we gardened we read an exciting thriller full of suspense and intrigue

it is called The Tale of Peter Rabbit and it is about the ever-present bunny menace

stories are funny too because sometimes they confuse you about whose side you are on

imagination is when even though you do not want bunnies in your garden you do not really want Peter Rabbit to end up in a pie either

my mama says it is perfectly alright

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Under Heaven

Straightforward curiosity accounts for much of my interest in history. What happened? What really happened? What may have happened that we don't know about? Who was involved? What did they do? How did they react? What was it really like?

Another reason behind my attraction to history is my affinity for "story." Narratives grab me. I always want to know what happens next, how does the story continue?

At the juncture of these two passions (curiosity and narrative) is historical fiction and I have always enjoyed and learned from this genre. I know really passionate historians who disdain historical fiction. I believe there are many writers and readers of literary fiction who do not respect historical fiction. Some historians complain that  historical fiction presents "what-cannot-be-known" mixed with facts in ways that obscure or even deny the facts. The need for authors to sometimes distort time lines, blur details, blend real characters into fictional characters bothers historians. Readers of literary fiction, on the other hand, sometimes seem suspicious of the shaping of a narrative to accommodate historical events and characters. Perhaps they place a value on an author being able to create an entire world and not simply , in their view, place characters and action against an historic backdrop.

I am very comfortable with my appreciation for all three fields: history, historical fiction, and literary fiction. I am not exercised by those who for their own reasons don't fancy one, some, or any of these categories. I avoid disputes and arguments about them.

Now, however, I am challenged by another variant of history, or fiction, and I must come to terms with my feelings. Fantasy fiction has created narratives filled with adventure, conflict, characters that can transport the reader to worlds that seem more real than the one we live in. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," for example, or J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" are phenomenal, of course, and  books like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series  and anything by Neil Gaiman (I recommend American Gods) are among the best examples of what has become an entire section in bookstores.  I engage these books with relish and again, hold nothing against other readers who don't get the attraction of a mystical element driving story.

Now, HB has lent me a novel that seems to be an amalgam of fantasy narrative and historical fiction. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is actually the story of an important, well-known and fascinating period in China during the Tang Dynasty. The events presented include a famous rebellion, known as the An Lushan Rebellion, that resulted in perhaps the largest, most destructive war in human history until World War II. These events in the hands of a capable creator of fiction would create very satisfying and instructive narrative. This book, however, is not simply a fictional account of historical characters and events. In Under Heaven, Kay steps even further away from historical fiction by peopling his canvas with characters none of whom carry the exact identities of key historical figures and who are not assigned the names, the exact actions, or some of the known details of their lives. Even his geography is  created in a "fantasy fiction" mode, with maps and details that represent but don't depict the actual geographical details that are well-known. Finally, with mystical elements significantly incorporated into the narrative,  Kay takes creative history even further than conventional historical fiction can.

As I accepted the book, I worried that a book so removed from the facts of a period of Chinese history that I know well could prove dissatisfying or worse. You might guess, however, that as I began, I felt that the author was using a fresh approach to conveying real historical insights and understanding, even as he created a thrilling adventure with dynamic characters and much accurate detail. The emperor might have an assigned name, his concubine the same, the name of the capital might be changed and the supernatural comes to play, but the story is that of the aging Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong, his relationship with the beautiful courtesan Yang Guifei, and the fate of the empire as cultural, political and personal forces result in massive historical consequences.

The music and arts of the period are tightly woven into the story, as are the philosophy and mindset of the royalty, scholars, merchants, soldiers, and entertainers. One can read the history of all of this in great, and accurate detail, but reading this story brings these details to attention, and to life, in ways that breathe. One can read about the politics, sociology, and economics of this era elsewhere but by reading this story, the reader sees how these fields all come to bear and how individual lives reflected these dynamics. One can see ceramic horse sculptures from the Tang dynasty but in Under Heaven, one encounters the economic and military power of Sogdian horses and what it felt like to ride one. One can read real poems by real Tang Dynasty poets and come to appreciate their direct emotion and beauty. In Under Heaven, one will encounter fictional poets and fictional poetry that help make the reader feel how poets saw the world and how they expressed it to others.

This book reminded me of what this period of Chinese history has to offer us. I was inspired to review the actual history of the period. I realized how closely Kay actually follows real events even as he distances himself from "history." I am very impressed at his understanding of the period and he seems to resonate with the spirit of the times.  I read his afterword carefully to garner clues about why he is interested in this period of Chinese history and how he learned as much as he has. I also began to wonder how others who like history, or historical fiction, or both feel about this different approach. I can imagine the range of reactions I might get from historians and fictionistas.

Guy Gavriel Kay is apparently the author of other well-received books in the fantasy genre. I am interested in reading more of his work. I have resisted looking into his earlier work until I wrote this review so that I would not be distracted from my direct impressions of reading this, his latest, book just out in hardcover. I owe much to HB whose appreciation for history and fiction is broad and who anticipated that I might enjoy this book even as he cautioned that it took a different approach to storytelling but wasn't "too heavy" on the mystical stuff.

Recently, PYZ and I attended a piano recital by a graduating high-school student. Among the pieces he chose to play was Chopin's Polonaise-Fantaise. In his program notes, he explained that in this piece, Chopin combines the structure and formality of the traditional Polonaise dance with the freedom and creativity of a musical fantasy to create something entirely new to the musical world at the time. He said that from the moment he first heard the opening notes, he knew that he wanted to play this piece of music. It occurs that Kay's book has done something of the same thing for me and I look forward to learning what others think.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Barber of Piccadilly

The funniest author in the English language is P.G. Wodehouse, creator of many novels featuring hapless young man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his rational, calm, and protective valet Jeeves.

I don't make this statement lightly. I have read, and re-read Wooster and Jeeves novels for many decades now I am familiar with both those who appreciate Wodehouse's particular genius and those who find him amusing, perhaps, but also somehow trivial, superficial, or even worse, problematic. I understand that to discuss how funny these books are is also to open to scrutiny issues of class, history, entertainment, literature, and personal preference.

Over the years, I have had many conversations about why and how Wodehouse is just so funny to read, the latest at a New York bar where I was compelled to insert myself into a conversation going on next to me.  I try to respect the view of those who do not find the works engaging or of those who are gently entertained by Wodehouse but not moved, as I am, to audible laughter on almost every page.  Still,  whenever I  turn to a volume of his work to retreat from the world for a time, to relish the troubles that Bertie Wooster brings upon himself and to watch how Jeeves, through his keen intelligence and insight and with a few deft moves, resolves the problems for Bertie, I am quickly reconfirmed in my contention that the funniest author in the English language is P. G. Wodehouse.

There are those who care about either his sympathy for or his antipathy toward the gentry class of traditional English society. Some feel the unrealistic settings and vague time references interfere with enjoyment. There are those who feel that he doesn't draw realistic or sympathetic female characters. There are those who cannot follow, or are confused by the antic story lines and numerous plot twists.

A brief response on those issues: his stories are designed to be timeless and his success in attracting generations of readers speaks to his success in transcending time and era. The class conflict (or class consciousness or unconsciousness) that bothers some is only part of a stage set. The novels present themselves like a commedia dell'arte play, enjoyable precisely because the characters and scenarios are constant and recognizable and because the pleasure derives from each character playing out his or her individual role so exactly.

As to reality or dignity of female characters, I point out that none of the characters, including Wooster and Jeeves, is multidimensional and that some number of female characters bring admirable qualities of strength, intelligence and civilization to the stories. Bertie's formidable Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha are key characters and deliver as much power, strength and fear as the books (and reader) can handle. On the other hand, pompous, timid or ineffectual men, whether husbands, friends, business associates, or political figures, are clearly cartoonish and quickly sketched.  Again, they serve as props for irony, sarcasm, and mayhem.

The plots of these books are convoluted and confusing,  but essentially they are the same in in each book.  In the course of trying to enjoy life by going along the path of least resistance in just about everything, Bertie soon becomes tangled in a series of interlocking dilemmas that involve unwelcome romantic attention, broken friendships, and the threat of both social mortification and physical violence.  There is always some physical scrambling about at country estates.  Once you understand that you are anticipating everything that will happen, the story lines reveal themselves as excellent vehicles for the humor and insights Wodehouse delivers.

Amusing and effective though they are, it is not the plots that account for Wodehouse's genius. It is his language. Bertie Wooster, educated at Eton and Oxford, is somehow incapable of understanding the meaning of anything beyond a superficial level. Jeeves, on the other hand, seems to know and understand the motivations and inner workings of everyone with whom he is in contact. The less Wooster knows and understands, the more inclined he is to explain and comment. He is the narrator of the books and his language, ironically, is erudite, clever, complete with classical and contemporary cultural references, and a pleasure to read even though this eloquence only serves to highlight Wooster's ultimate opacity.  Jeeves with his powerful intellect and strong character is a man of few words but whose pared-down utterances only reinforce his superiority.

Perhaps that is why I find the stories so funny. Narrated by Wooster, we see events play out clearly that Wooster doesn't see at all. We see characters and events as they are really happening and as Wooster is misperceiving them. We are given a view of the Wodehousian world through mainly through Wooster's narration and an occasional quoted dialogue with or utterance by Jeeves.

We also get to watch the story unfold from a safe perspective. We are reminded throughout that we need not worry or be concerned about real danger to Wooster's serenity and bachelorhood because behind him stands Jeeves very much in control. We are exposed to chaos with the knowledge that it won't ultimately harm. We can be entertained by the dilemmas and laugh with the confidence that all will work out.

There may be a spiritual or even theological dimension to Wodehouse's art. Wooster is good-hearted and affable. His problems are mostly of his own doing, compounded by levels of misunderstanding and misdirection. His very existence seems threatened by his clumsiness and ignorance. I identify. He seems to represent the human condition of good, but flawed, and he is constantly in need of rescue if not redemption. Humanity can never escape the consequences of original sin.  Throughout it all Jeeves is present, like a guardian angel who finds it necessary or even amusing to allow situations and problems to snowball  to the limits of tolerance before stepping in to set things right. This is not just funny, it is very satisfying to read repeatedly. Perhaps it is reassuring for us readers to recognize our own personal capacity for bungling and mismanagement and also for the faith that all can be made right eventually.

Wodehouse has amused and entertained readers for nearly a century, readers from countries, cultures, and backgrounds very different from the stylized and exaggerated British society of Wooster's world. This was a portrayal of a society that was already out-of-date when the stories were written.  It is really a kind of "once-upon-a-time" that signals us to suspend any expectation for social reality and get right down to the business of laughing.

Wodehouse presents us with classic scenarios and highly stylized and recognizable character types who play out their roles exactly as we expect them to and want them to. I continue to compare the satisfaction of reading Wodehouse with watching commedia dell'arte or operatic productions. More than any other, the operas based on Beaumarchais stories that feature Count Almaviva, Rosine, and of course Figaro (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro) demonstrate how humor, satire, and a great respect for the foibles of humanity are combined to create art that elicits laughter. In the case of Rossini and Mozart, the music infuses the stories with life and elevates the production. In Wodehouse's novels, language and narration serve that same function.

Whenever I hear the first notes of the overtures to Barber or Marriage, I immediately begin to smile and settle in for a sublime experience. The first lines of  Wodehouse novel invariably do the same for me. They contain all of the familiarity, anticipation, and brilliance of the many sentences to follow and set the stage for a sublime reading experience.

I don't mind if you have read Wodehouse and feel differently than I do. If you agree with me, I do not expect you to risk a bar brawl by defending this position publicly. I do hope that if you are not familiar with Wodehouse and his iconic creations, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, that you get one of these books in your hands, read the first sentence and flip through the pages settling here and there for a descriptive phrase or portion of dialogue. Then I challenge you to put the book down.

I recommend Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit as as an excellent introduction but almost any Wooster and Jeeves novel will serve.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Fairy Tale

     Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth- floor window and vomited on the carpet.
     "Sorry," said one.
     "Don't worry," said the other. "Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans."
                    (From The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

New York City, early 1990s, Lower East Side, at that time still the gritty and dangerous neighborhood that nurtured the punk rock music scene in the US. Think Rent.

Heather MacKintosh and Morag MacPherson, thistle fairies from rival clans who have become bickering friends, have fled Scotland to escape a band of fairies from the MacLeod clan because they have somehow offended the MacLeods by unwittingly mutilating an historic banner. Expert fiddlers in the traditional Scottish tradition, both claim to be the best fiddler in Scotland and compete for bragging rights. New York City will allow them to stretch their boundaries. They befriend antisocial, overweight Dinnie (referenced above as the worst violinist in New York) and a young woman named Kerry and in well-meaning attempts to help each of these humans with some very real challenges, experience a series of mishaps and adventures.  They also manage to stir up local fairies including rival bands from Chinatown, Little Italy, and Harlem. 

Our protagonists antagonized fellow fairies in the old country by playing garage-punk versions of Scottish reels and wearing torn kilts. They are using their East Village sojourn to learn to play guitar solos by the Ramones and the New York Dolls on their fiddles. There is even a search for a lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top guitar on behalf of the ghost of Johnny Thunders.

They experience New York with all of its charm, eccentricity and color as well as its drug culture, poverty and underlying presence of violence. They drink plenty, offer illuminating observations on New York culture and behavior, and engage the contemporary music world even as they share  Scottish fiddle tunes and musical lore with their new friends. There is a threatening army of Cornish fairies led by the Tala, the Fairy King of Cornwall.  A community production of Midsummer Night's Dream presents an opportunity from some real fairy versus human fairy slapstick. A homeless woman named Magenta thinks she is leading a legion of ancient Greek hoplites in military maneuvers against the Persians as she wanders about the neighborhoods of New York.

If what I have described hear appeals or amuses, you are a good candidate for enjoying The Good Fairies of New York. If on the other hand, you are not the kind of reader who appreciates the suggestion that fairy vomit might be sweet-smelling to humans, or who does not see the wonderful congruity between Scottish reels and the Ramones, you will need to approach with caution or stay away entirely. 

The  2006 edition by Soft Skull Press, issued nearly fifteen years after the book was written, contains an introduction by Neil Gaiman that qualifies as a model for literary appreciation. This introduction is worth the price of the book itself.  Gaiman concludes:

     This is a book for every fiddler who has realised, half-way through playing an ancient Scottish air, that the Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is what folk music is all about, and gone straight into it. It's a book for every girl with home-dyed hair and fairy wings who can't honestly remember what happened last night. It's a book for people of whatever shape and size who like reading good books.

     I owned it for more than five years before reading it, then lent my copy to someone I thought should read it, and never got it back. Do not make either of my mistakes. Read it now and then make your friends buy their own copies. You'll thank me one day.

One more selection, this time by Heather MacIntosh in the way of a denouement:

     Meanwhile we are off for a few drams and a bit of serious fiddling. If the Irish and everyone else think they've heard Scottish music at its best just because Wee Maggie MacGowan managed to struggle through a few simple tunes without making any mistakes they have a lot to learn.

     Collum MacHardie has promised to make us some amplifiers. When our radical Celtic band gets going, the hills and glens will never be the same.

Note: this book deserves a soundtrack and perhaps I can enlist some help in creating one.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New York is Book Country

On a recent sunny Sunday, PYZ and I had finished a noonish brunch at the Indian Road Cafe in Inwood and a quick browse through the little antique cum used books shop next door before continuing on a walk through Inwood Park when an excited woman waving a hardcover book approached a couple nearby and exclaimed, "Have you seen my new book! It just came out!" As she stopped to show off her newly published creation, I glanced at the cover to note the title and author. Rude, perhaps, or perhaps a little impertinent to insert myself into their interaction but she had made something of a public announcement.

I scuttled to catch up with PYZ and explained to her that this woman had just had a book published and I had captured title and author and might research it just to see if her excitement was justified. This is called guerrilla reviewing.

PYZ, ever so much more commonsensible than I, asked why I hadn't just stayed and talked with her and with that slight breeze of encouragement, I turned around and walked back to the group and politeley inquired, "So, you just had a book published? What's it about?"

In that way, we found ourselves in an engaging conversation with Hyah Leah Molnar about her new memoir, Under a Red Sky, a memoir that shares her experience growing up in Communist Romania after World War II.    

The book is about her childhood and adolescence and her memory of her family experiences but was not written specifically for the "young adult" genre. Her editor and publishers help make a decision to market it as such (enhancing some marketing opportunities and shutting off some others) and our conversation turned to "young adult" literature and some of the artificiality of the distinction, something that has occupied my thoughts for some time.

If you haven't read Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian or Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I encourage you to do so to experience examples of books that may be marketed as "young adult" but that defy the label and deserve to be read simply for what they offer any reader lucky enough to be introduced to them. Should Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland be found only in the adolescent sections of libraries or in children's departments of bookstores? (This last question, by the way, is rhetorical.)

We continued our conversation on the significance of the development of individual, family and cultural identies, and the mechanics of writing and publishing, and left having exchanged emails and website information. Subsequent web research on her book suggests that it is worthy of her excitement that day and perhaps I will read it and report some time.

Later that evening, before settling in for Sunday evening showing of The Pacific, we ambled over to an  Irish pub in our neighborhood that features live Irish music on Sunday evenings. We settled in at the bar for Guinness and a view of the band. Sitting next to us was a woman nursing a beer, intent on reading a book opened up in front of her. Neither the beer, the bar conversation nor the lively music of an accordion, a fiddle, a guitar and drums seemed to intrude on her concentration.

Eventually she ordered a second beer and disappeared for some time outside where other customers were seated, but she had left the book at her place at the bar. I was curious but did not reach over to see the title. When some acquaintances spotted us at the bar, they moved to join us and eyed the empty seat. We explained that a patron had recently occupied that seat and still had her book there but whether that meant she had abandoned her space was unclear. Our friends temporarily took over the barstool and after some long time, the woman reappeared.

All necessary and appropriate words of apology and deferral were made by both parties, with the clear understanding that any barstool left unoccupied that long was actually fair territory, and she said that she had relocated outside but had only returned to reclaim her book. At that time, she showed us the book, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, and explained that she had become so enraptured that she couldn't resist reading it even in this social environment. We proceeded to have an interesting discussion about the book which some of us had read and she proceeded to read a passage aloud to share her enthusiasm for Ali's writing. We are huddled in a crowded bar, filled with happy, drinking and loud customers, with an Irish band going full tilt, unselfconsciously listening to a book reading by a woman standing next to us!

On the stroll home I shared both my wonder and my gratitude that I lived in a city where books are present, common, and important enough to be included in the fabric of everyday experience. I hadn't even browsed a bookstore and had still enjoyed a spontaneous and literary Sunday, complete with a walk in the park and Guinness!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Long for This World

I was introduced to Sonya Chung and her first novel, Long for this World, at a bookstore author appearance and I anticipated liking it. (See my post Author Readings, March 12th.) Still, I was really impressed by how good it is and how compelling the characters and the story are.

The story is that of the members of the Han family, some of whom have emigrated to the United States and some who have remained in Korea. Told from the perspective of Jane, an American-born daughter of immigrants, it develops the personal stories and the emotions of a handful of characters and in so doing, explores a number of themes including: the Korean-American experience; the immigrant experience; family and sibling relationships; friendship and attraction; and ultimately, on how the currents on which our lives float are formed by people and events around us, some close and some at some distance in time and place.

The portrait of Jane, the narrator, a photojournalist, is a real achievement. I was interested in her as soon as the story began and she just kept becoming more fascinating throughout the book. Making her a photojournalist and in fact a war correspondent was a very good artistic decision. It allows the author to describe events and characters visually within the media of a novel that is after all created of words and in that way, abstract. Jane views the world through a camera’s lens and we see it framed in ways that she chooses. It is a very effective device. At her presentation, Ms. Chung indicated that she had worked hard to render this character realistically despite the fact that she herself had little personal experience with photography or photojournalism before researching for the book.

There seems to be conversation at how this book speaks to female readers especially.  I would like to add that I find the portrayal of male characters especially engaging. As an older man, father of three grown daughters, I identified with the immigrant physician Han Hyun-kyu and understood deeply his need to return to Korea and take a different look at his life and his world. He is an especially silent man but his character is somehow eloquent at conveying an unidentified longing for something more. (Note the title).

In Korea, we are introduced to Chae Min-suk, a visual artist, who helps move the plot forward, but whose personal life and art are of great interest as well. I was especially impressed with the depiction of Jane’s younger brother Henry. His struggle with addiction and recovery, and his sister's sense of responsibility for him, is central to understanding her and her family. His is a different kind of “longing” and I was left thinking a lot about him and his relationship to his sister. I believe that Ms. Chung has succeeded wonderfully at writing a book about interesting men who deserve our attention and who have something to say to us, both male and female readers.

Jane’s mother, pointedly referred to as Dr. Lee by her own children, is a complicated and difficult character. The author has written honestly about her and the damage she inflicts on her family, but I still found the description of the character respectful and ultimately understanding. 

One reviewer comented that reading Ms. Chung’s exploration of the history of the Han family will make readers examine their own families  I had that same sense. In fact, I felt that if I could provide Ms. Chung with stories about my own immediate and extended family, she could develop an exciting, descriptive narrative to help make sense of it all.

Sonya Chung’s writing reminds me of Chekhov. I think it might be the development of character and family relationships through attention to small but significant details and events.

Another reviewer compares reading Long for this World to attending a photo display at a gallery, but in such a way that the reader is required to make the connections between the images displayed and any larger meaning of the book. I agree that we are treated to a number of very vivid images but I feel that the novel is also tightly structured and very effective in narrating a larger, comprehensive story.

The title is wonderful and promises what the book delivers. The cover photo of the hardcover edition is also perfect and this visual image conveys the tone precisely. I am sure it will entice some readers to the book.

Long for this World is a fascinating and compelling read. I am recommending this book to friends and I eagerly look forward to reading more of Sonya Chung’s work in the future. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Phoebe and Rachel in the 18th Century

I have learned from my daughter, a college English professor who specializes in the 18th century, that the period  has much to teach us about satire, blogging, coffee-shops, popular music, and popular culture of all kinds. And vice versa. Now, another English professor of 18th century literature introduces the concept that reading fiction (and following the story) has much to teach us about the evolution of human intelligence.

According to the NY Times article linked here, "the layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking - of mind reading - is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill." The article goes on to talk about the application of science not only to insights into individual texts but to fundamental questions about literature itself. "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?"

The article discusses Professor Zunshine's interest in the "theory of mind" which involves one person's ability to interpret another person's mental state and to pinpoint the sources of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.

Humans, apparently, are generally able to keep track of three different mental states at a time. Fiction can challenge us to do more than that, and provides a neurological and biological satisfaction in our ability to perceive and decode misinterpretations. Jane Austen's novels are cited as an example of the satisfaction of following and understanding misinterpretations through a story.

William Flesch, a researcher from Brandeis University, explains that this direction of research can help explain how altruism evolved despite our "selfish genes".  He call fictional heros "'altruistic punishers,'" people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain." Nature, he feels, gives us a pleasing sense of outrage at cheaters, and delight when they are punished. We enjoy fiction, he believes, because it is "teeming with altruistic punishers: Odyssus,Don Quixonte, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot."

Mr. Flesch concludes that "It's not that evolution gives us insight into fiction, but that fiction gives us insight into evolution."

The entire article is introduced by a plot summary of an episode of Friends involving Phoebe, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler and a series of understandings and misunderstandings of the various mental states.   At one point, Phoebe tells Rachel, "They don't know that we know they know we know."

The fact that we know exactly what she is saying, and enjoy it, speaks to the value of this argument. The fact that I occasionally watch Friends reruns and remember this episode and enjoyed it speaks to my deep commitment to the study of literature and the workings of the brain. The fact that it took a professor of 18th century English literature to bring this association of popular culture,  historic literature, and cognitive psychology together may be front-page news. It cannot come as  a surprise to my daughter who has been saying much the same thing since she was thirteen. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World

Alexander McCall Smith is the author who has given us Precious Ramotswe, the woman who  establishes herself as a private detective in Botswana by starting her own private detective agency, and whose exploits and relationships are shared in regular installments of the series The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The pleasure of reading these books lies less in the mysteries she solves and more in the world she inhabits. Smith is masterful at conveying settings, giving us the feel of the day, the colors and smells of the city or bush, the details of the homes and offices where action takes place, the need for, and refreshment of, a cup of "bush tea" at just the right time. He also creates vibrant characters whom we come to know, and like.  How they think, what they say, and especially, how they feel about things is written so well that they soon become friends and companions. We want to spend time with them.

In a recent stand-alone novel, Smith turns his attention to a very different time and place. The story takes place in war-time England and is not exactly a mystery. The plot and action are adequately entertaining but succeed especially at serving as a platform on which the author can construct and animate characters that exhibit the same wonderful traits traits that we have come to expect from his Number 1 Ladies series: good-heartedness, endearing flaws and frailties, uncertainty, determination, and ultimately, the warmth and kindness that reflect the best of humanity.

La (short for Lavender) Stone, Cambridge University graduate, finds herself widowed at a young age as the Second World War begins. As the Blitz (bombing of London by the Germans) begins, she moves from London to a remote village in Sussex to fix up a cottage, tend a garden and sort things out. Because of the presence of troops and airmen nearby, she starts an amateur orchestra to give everyone enduring this limbo something to do and some reason to congregate.

The presence in the village of a wounded Polish airman no longer able to fly with the Polish forces in the Battle of Britain provides the emotional ingredients and enough mystery to move the plot along. His work helping with pig farmers reinforces the earthiness of this story.

That's it. Not a mystery. A short book, perhaps a novella. A familiar setting. A cozy world, threatened by the terror that is war. A sympathetic main character whose very ordinary life is being lived out in a world that is out of control. Amusing and entertaining support characters who help make a good story.

Some books are meant to provide full and comprehensive reading experiences. They can dazzle us, or consume us. We rise to the expectations set by the author and share in a challenging reading experience.

Reading others, and La's Orchestra is one of them, is more like indulging in a really delicious pastry. A baked good focuses your satisfaction on a few simple combinations of the best ingredients, combined and cooked in a way that can create something so intense,  sweet, and gratifying that eating more than one at a time seems pointless. Crust and filling, sweet and spice, crisp and cream come together. Reading La's Orchestra is like consuming such a pastry. One cannot survive on a diet of pastry. We can reach our limit quickly. We will always seek out the full and satisfying meal. Still, the world is a better place because pastries are on the menu, and the day is a better day when one can indulge in such a treat.

La's Orchestra is that kind of treat. I found myself slowing down as I read, absorbing the details of the narrative. La's initial entry into her rural cottage, and her encounter with the wild and overgrown garden that she will shape and nurture, is in itself a masterpiece of descriptive writing. It is not overly dramatic. The house and garden are ordinary, even plain. Smith allows you to understand this and then, through La's thoughts and feelings, shows us the potential she sees in both cottage and garden. We, as La is, are consoled and invigorated with hope and life.

I gave this book to a friend in the hospital. I was looking for something beautiful and delicate, nothing too challenging but, for this reader especially, substantial enough to satisfy and transport. I wasn't thinking of this book as I roamed the bookstore but as soon as I saw it, I realized at once that bringing this book would be like bringing a box of chocolates, just right for the occasion.

If you are in need of such a treat, consider La's Orchestra Saves the World. Then, if you haven't yet met Precious Ramotswe, introduce yourself to The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. You will come back for more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Author Readings

Among my literary diversions are occasional attendance at author appearances at bookstores. Sometimes I meet an author with whom I am very familiar. Sometimes, I meet someone whom I have not yet read. Occasionally, a reading will introduce me to someone completely new. These opportunities to see and hear the writer talk about his or her work are very satisfying. I usually leave with a desire to read something new, or something again, and I almost always gain a renewed appreciation for the work and dedication that it takes to create literature.

Some time ago, I must have seen a reference to a blog by a writer named Sonya Chung, probably on a blog called The Millions. I enjoyed her commentary on writing and life in New York and began to follow her own blog, Sonya Chung. In recent months, Sonya's blog  began to describe the building momentum toward publication of her first novel, written over three years ago and just now becoming available to us, the reading public. When I saw that she would be doing a reading in March at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore on Prince Street that was new to me, I decided to go hear this writer  and scope out a new bookstore at the same time.

The event was a treat. Sonya's book, Long for this World, is described on its jacket about being the story of a family divided between contemporary America and a small Korean town. From the reading last night, I now know that the novel is also about mothers, daughters, and friends. A third intriguing theme revolves around the profession of the protagonist, a young woman photojournalist who has been covering wars around the globe.

I haven't read my autographed copy yet so I cannot review it right now. I can say that it was illuminating to have a young author speak so directly, and so articulately, about her vocation and her craft as a writer. She shared her own energy and commitment to the importance of story, and the importance of language and seemed to have great respect for the readers who are partners with the writers in creating and sustaining literature.

She revealed that it was upon reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she knew that she wanted to become and would become a writer. This is one of my favorite books and I remember sharing it with my oldest daughter many years ago as a model for observation and writing. I don't know exactly why Sonya's blog entries caught my attention, but no doubt there is something about her own understanding of writing that speaks to me and I was not surprised that we shared a favorite author in common.

Writers create and share stories through a very personal, solitary process. They are observers and thinkers and artists. Seldom are they performers. The arena of book readings, where they are required to repeatedly share their very personal work in a very public setting, and then answer a series of questions on why and how they do what they do cannot be all that easy or enjoyable. I can imagine that as the seven o'clock hour approaches,  and the folding chairs begin to fill up, they might wish that they could just wander through the store, anonymously, browsing books and watching people.

So I offer a word of appreciation to Sonya and to all the authors who participate in the ritual of the book tour, and give their time and attention to the reading public in this way. We know that it cannot be all that exciting to see us, the audience of readers, assembled, expecting to receive some special understanding, or even a special blessing from an author whom we have come to hear. You have already given us a book to read; isn't that sufficient? But we do want to meet you and see the person who created the book and learn something new about you and what you write.

I hope that these writers realize that the smiles and nods of approval, and even the clumsy questions that we offer at these gatherings are simply signs of appreciation that we individual readers feel while engaged in our own solitary activity of reading their creations.  We are  grateful for the rare opportunity to convey our enjoyment, our appreciation and our respect in person.  We are pleased to give something back to the author who has given us something good to read.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spider Skills

I see in the Daily News that Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, has just lost his job! Now I will have to compete with a superhero in my search for employment. As strong as my resume is, I am not able to shoot webs, climb walls, and swing from tall building to tall building. He has  "spider sense" that helps him anticipate danger. His skill set is just better than mine.  I can picture it now: I will be interviewing in some office building when I see, waiting for the next appointment, Spiderman, all spiffed up in a clean spider suit, dangling outside the window. He also has claim to a great tag line for his resume: "With great power comes great responsibility." How am I supposed to top that?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Serve Them All My Days

Twenty years ago, Heather, an English teacher in the independent school where I was working told me that one of her favorite books was To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield. I added it to my mental list of books I might read and within a few years I had obtained a used hardback copy of the book.  Since then, through a number of moves and changes, it has occupied a place of honor on the front shelf in my home library. Unread.

Why unread? It looked long.  I was working in schools and this novel about the career and life of a teacher/headmaster in a boys "public" (i.e. private) school in England between the two World Wars threatened to bring workaday problems into my private reading. The cover of my
 edition was a little stodgy (men in academic gowns perusing the cricket field in front of a curious red brick building.) Was it dated?

In a recent move to  cull my shelves, I considered removing it from view. Perhaps even discarding it. Permanently.

Then, I saw a reprinted edition of the book in Barnes and Noble. You should know that I am very influenced by marketing messages and tricks. In fact, my children joke that I am a marketers's dream customer as I travel down the shelves of a supermarket and I confess that book marketing may have the same effect on me. I am not proud of this but I am trying to be honest here.  I began to think that this book that I had been living with for twenty years was being reprinted for a reason. Did it speak to a new audience somehow? Had I neglected a gem, a classic?

I took the book from the shelf at home and placed it on my bookwagon. Then I read it.

David Powlett-Jones, twenty years old, has been seriously injured while fighting in the trenches in World War I. He has been in the army since the age of seventeen when, as a promising student in a small Welsh mining town, he was called to serve his country. Severely shell-shocked, he has spent months unconscious and much of a year in recovery. To survive, he must rebuild a sense of self and an ability to trust.  His doctor advises him to find a small community with enough but not not too much social interaction, preferably at a high altitude where the air quality will be of some benefit. 

P.J. travels to a remote, rural region in Devon, to interview with the headmaster of a lesser-known "public" (i.e. private) for boys located on the moors. The school, originally founded to educate the sons of local farmers now serves the sons of England's middle-class citizens, and is under the direction of Algie Herries, a kind man with liberal views of education. Despite his visible "shakes" during the inteview, P.J. is immediately hired as a teacher and the novel continues to describe his life and career teaching and caring about the boys and the community of Bamfylde and its lifelong effect on him. 

The remainder of the novel concerns P.J.'s gradual healing from the trauma of war, his development as a teacher,  his emotional growth, his personal loves and family, his political development, his daily routines and relationships with students and colleagues, and eventually his ascension to leading the school community that welcomed him and drew him in when he was in need of a healing community.

Delderfield writes in a direct, unadorned style. His plot is sufficient to move the story along and contains a mixture of drama and routine. Some of the plot is predictable but still compelling. The plot of the story is not the attraction of this book. Delderfield's real success is in drawing the reader into the interior life of P.J. and the flow of life in the school over many years. He describes sittuations, episodes, students, and teachers in such a way that over the course of the book the reader feels as if he is living at the school, experiencing these people and these challenges himself. 

This book captured me completely and I read nothing else until I finished it.

Delderfield actually sets up three dimensions in this story, or three tracks, and enables the reader to experience the dynamics and changes in each of these dimensions. There is P.J. himself, his upbringing in a worker's family in a Welsh mining town and his youthful experience of war setting the stage for his personal and political evolution through his life. There is England between the two world wars, both a nation and an empire, shaken and wary after a generation of loss and waste in the trenches of Europe and reluctant to resort to violence despite the rebirth of German militarism. This track also includes a very informative view of British politics from World War I, through prosperity and depression, and to the brink of World War II. Finally, there is the school itself, Bamfyld, and its role in the story as both a microcosm of Great Britain and an almost mystical source of teaching,  healing, and growth. These three dimensions of the story are smoothly, seamlessly, integrated. Success in any one of these spheres would make a good book. Success in all three makes this a great book.

I do not know why the book has been reprinted for the American market now. Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon has generated curiosity or familiarity with the traditional British school system. The book provides some of the same satisfaction as the Harry Potter novels, if those novels had been told from the perspective of Dumbledore and there were no visible magic happening. Perhaps its views on education and the challenges of developing character, values, and responsibility while instilling knowledge and skills add to our conversation about how and what to teach. What I do know is that I am very pleased that I was finally moved to pick up a book I had contemplated reading for so long only to find myself immediately and completely immersed in its world. Thank you Heather!