Sunday, February 2, 2020

The antidote for everything is . . . ?

How's this for a novel's first sentence: "Most women did not begin their days by stabbing a man in the scrotum, but Georgia Brown was not most women"? Thus begins Kimmery Martin's second novel The Antidote for Everything, and continues in the operating room as Georgia operates an a patient's infected scrotum.

Georgia is a 36-year-old, single urologist who works in a Charleston, SC, clinic that is attached to a church-owned hospital. (This is significant.) Her very best friend is Jonah Tsukada, a 32-year-old primary care physician who works at the same clinic and who happens to be gay.

In the opening chapter, Georgia's cell phone receives a text as she's operating. The circulating nurse asks Georgia if wants to hear the messages. Georgia's beloved dog is at the vet's being operated on; of course she wants to hear. The circulator reads silently, then suggests Georgia look at the message privately. Georgia orders her to read it, so she reads:

"Dear Georgia, Don't take this the wrong way, but it's over. I'm guessing you don't want to see me, so I'll stop by for my board if you leave it on the porch. If you want my advice, in the future you might try to pretend you don't know more than everybody else. One more thing. You might also want to consider waxing. Or at least trimming." 

"Ouch," says someone in the operating room.

Kimmery Martin is an emergency medicine doctor-turned novelist. She grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, outside a small town called Berea. She completed her medical training at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. When she started writing her first novel, The Queen of Hearts, she worked in the emergency room full-time. She now lives with her husband and three children in Charlotte, and has a job that allows her more time to write.

As an emergency medicine doctor, Martin brings authority and conviction to her medical scenes. She's (as we say) writing from the inside. And the issue that Georgia and Jonah have to confront is both true and troubling. Jonah's patients have been leaving him, which is disturbing both because they need his care and there is no convenient—or in some cases possible—alternative and because Jonah needs money. He's staggering under hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans, costly in-home medical assistance for his grandmother, and "a self-inflicted credit card issue stemming from his days as an under financed medical student."

Jonah's patients are leaving him because the clinic has sent them letters it will no longer provide them medical services. And they turn out to be his transgender, nonbinary and gay patients. The clinic's director of HR tells Jonah "they'd been getting complaints about 'him' [one of Jonah's more flamboyant trans patients], that some of the other patients were finding the waiting room to be an uncomfortable environment when 'he' was there. He also said some of the clinic employees felt they were compromising their beliefs by taking care of 'him.'" And, "They're talking about a clinic policy allowing providers to stop providing birth control to female patients, because that also compromises the beliefs of these same employees."

Can this be legal? (Forget moral or the Hippocratic oath.) Apparently it is "perfectly legal in our state to refuse medical care to someone because they're transgender or gay. For that matter, it is perfectly legal to fire someone because they're gay." Because the hospital is owned by a church and does not receive federal money, it can do what it believes is Christian. So Jonah has to watch himself or he'll be out of a job.

The Antidote for Everything is wonderfully well-written. The banter between Georgia and Jonah early in the book made me laugh out loud. (The dialogue later in the book is not so jolly.) After being dumped, Georgia begins an affair with a man who seems almost too good to be true (tall, handsome, single, with.a hedge-fund expense account, and great in bed), but given everything else that happens in the novel, spending more time on Mark probably would not have added much. As it is Martin writes five chapters from Mark's point of view; the rest from Georgia's.

I'm not sure there is a single antidote for everything, but I agree with Martin that friendship is the antidote for a much of the world's pain. Reading her novel can be an antidote to the blahs; it was for me.

Friday, January 24, 2020

If we can't trust our memories, then what?

I had to read Peter Stamm's slim new novel The Sweet Indifference of the World twice to feel confident enough write about it cogently.

It starts straightforwardly enough: After an introductory chapter in which the narrator describes visits from a woman who may—or may not—be an old girlfriend (and may—or may not—be real), he tells us that he has arranged a meeting with a Magdalena (Lena) in Stockholm's Skogskyrkogården cemetery. Lena is in her late twenties; he is at least fifty, although in the first chapter he seems much older: "My wheezing alarms me, it's an old man's voice, a voice that's just as alien to me as the frail body that imprisons me . .  . In my haste I've forgotten my cane, and I'm torn between my fear of slipping on the ice and falling and my other fear of losing Magdalena from view . . ." But Lena he's meeting in Stockholm is not the one who visits him in chapter one (I don't think); it's another Magdalena.

In Stockholm the narrator introduces himself to Lena as Christopher. Lena tells him that coincidentally her boyfriend's name is Chris, and he would like to be a writer. Both Lena and Magdalena are actresses. In the cemetery Christopher tells Lena that he used to be a writer; he wrote a novel about a disillusioned author: "The book was a love story, it was supposed to be a portrait of my girlfriend, but while I was writing it, we broke up, and so it turned into an account of our breakup and the impossibility of love. For the first time in my writing, I had the feeling I was creating a living world. At the same time, I could feel reality slipping through my fingers, daily life was getting boring and shallow to me."

So we have Christopher and Magdalena (Christ and Mary Magdalen?) interacting the past and Chris and Lena interacting in the present as the narrator tells his story. His novel's sales had provided a respectable income but more importantly justified the narrator's efforts to write it. He never admitting at readings or in interviews how much of the story was about himself. Asked about that, "I dismissed the idea, and insisted on the separation between author and narrator."

Which of course immediately makes the reader wonder how much of The Sweet Indifference of the World is about Peter Stamm. According to Wikipedia, Stamm books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 for his entire body of work and his accomplishments in fiction. Stamm grew up in Weinfelden in the canton of Thurgau, the son of an accountant. He spent three years as an apprentice accountant and then five as an accountant. He then went to the University of Zurich, taking courses in English studies, business informatics, psychology, and psychopathology while he also worked as an intern at a psychiatric clinic. After living for a time in New York, Paris, and Scandinavia he settled down as a writer and freelance journalist in Zurich in 1990. He's written prose, radio drama, and plays. I was impressed by his last novel To the Back of Beyondwhich I reviewed in 2017. He's known for his cool and sparse writing style, all of which are represented in The Sweet Indifference of the World.

Which grows more murky. At the end of Chapter Three, the narrator is late returning to the hotel in the Swiss village in which he grew up. For a time he'd been the hotel's night porter himself. Because it's late he has to wait to be admitted. "Finally, I heard a door bang, and shortly afterwards saw movement in the corridor, the inner glass door opened, and a young man approached me. While he fiddled around with the lock, I saw his face next to the reflection of my own, but not until he held the door open for me did I realize that he was me."

When Lena in Stockholm questions the narrator, he says that looking at the night porter was like looking into a mirror. "Amazingly, he seemed to have no sense of the resemblance, of the identity. He gave me a perfectly ordinary greeting, and walked ahead of me to the reception desk, handed me my key, and said good night." The narrator sees his doppelgänger—who says his name is Chris—at least twice more over the years. Indeed, several years after the hotel meeting they visit the beach together in Barcelona where Christopher has been teaching German.

Stamm is playing with memory, reader expectations, and ideas about reality. In Barcelona doppelgänger Chris searches for Christopher's novel on his cell phone; it does not exist. Chris does a Google search for Magdalena's name and "actor." There is one entry on a drama school home page; nothing to confirm Christopher's memory of  Magdalena's successful career in a variety of productions. "Suddenly I felt an indescribable fury . . . There he was, imagining a quick Internet search was enough to rub out the whole of my life, as if only what was online existed."

As I said at the beginning, this is a slim novel, almost a novella (and when does a novella cross the line and become a novel? that's the kind of question reading Stamm provokes). It's not a difficult read; as Wikipedia says and as my quotations indicate the prose is cool and sparse  (the Michael Hofmann translation is impeccable). It evokes a profound question: If we can't trust our memories, what can we trust? Perhaps, as the publisher's promotional material says, Stamm is suggesting that our stories are not only already planned out, but wholly unoriginal as well, endlessly repeating themselves through different people. The Sweet Indifference of the World is a novel to read more than once for the pleasure it offers and the thought it stimulates.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Tragedy, love, family in a small Southern town

We meet Adeline (Delia) Green in August 1975 as she visits the Green Branch Town Cemetery where she meets the town historian who is leading a group of DAR ladies. Delia's family were founding members of Green Branch, the small South Carolina town in which Delia, 19, grew up. She is seven months older than her first cousin Ellison (Eli) Winfield who lives right across the street. Bells for Eli is the story of Delia and Eli's childhood and youth in Green Branch.

The author, Susan Beckham Zurenda, taught literature, composition, and creative writing to high school students for 33 years, which may explain the polish and authority of her first novel. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice). She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Converse College and now works as a book publicist managing media relations for Magic Time Literary Publicity.

Bells for Eli really begins when three-year-old Eli spots a Coke bottle in which his father has stored Red Devil Liquid Lye and drinks from it. The family's black gardener saves Eli's life, but Eli's throat and esophagus are horribly burned. He spends six months in a Boston hospital and when he comes home he has a hole in his neck so he can breath and a port to his stomach so he can be fed pureed mush.

Delia tells the story of growing up with Eli who, though terribly scarred internally, is eventually able to breath and eat normally. The author conveys what it was like to grow up in small town South Carolina during the 1960s and early 1970s given the the characters and their situation: Delia's uncle Gene, Eli's father, a Southern good-old-boy who wants a manly son . . . her aunt Mary Lily, who comes from the side of the family that kept their money . . . Eli's grandmother Mary Margaret who lives in a mansion Sherman's troops tried to burn down but was saved . . . plus Delia's parents, neighborhood bullies, boy friends, and more.

And running through the book is the love between Delia and Eli, an attraction that evolves from childhood playmate to something more adult. As first cousins, however, they know they cannot marry, and the author convincingly relates how the tension between desire and inhibition affects (distorts?) the decisions—choices—Delia and Eli make.

I was struck by how well Zurenda writes without drawing attention to the language. Here's Delia watching Eli being dragged into the house by his father after sassing his mother: "I had no concept of the beating that awaited Eli. the most I ever got was a couple of pops on the bottom with Mama's green hairbrush. My father's hand had spanked me only once. When I lied to him about emptying green peas from my plate—I detested them—being the kitchen door next to my seat at the dining table. I insisted Helen had pitched the peas. I was spanked for lying, for blaming my sister, not for hating peas." Five sentences that say volumes about the family dynamics.

And here is Delia's description of Mary Margaret's pre-war (pre-Civil War) house: "We stepped inside the entry hall, wider than any room in my house. I inhaled the rich, sweet, old wood smell. A leaded glass fixture overhead dimly illuminated dark furniture: the mahogany table, its ever-present candy dish filled to the top, the Regency side chairs and the hall tree. People long dead inside golden frames peered out straight-faced from the right wall—flanking the family shield and crossed swords—following us with their eyes. The stairs rose along the other side."

Bells for Eli is indeed, as one early reader says, "a memorable, atmospheric novel of love, friendship, and bonds that surpass all reason." I couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The contemporary West: It's not John Wayne country

We are in eastern Montana: "As the neighbor girl's SUV disappeared down the road, Wendell watched the tire-kicked dust bloom and sift through shades of gold, ochre, and high in the evening sky a pearling blue. Harvest light, late-August light—thin, slanted, granular. At his back the mountains already bruised and dark."

A social worker has dropped seven-year-old Rowdy Burns on twenty-one-year-old Wendell, the boy's only relative. Wendell is living in a trailer on what's left of the family's ranch land (the house remains, but it's unlivable), an orphan after his mother died a year earlier. Rowdy is "developmentally delayed," "variously involved," and, "hadn't said so much as a word since they'd found him" locked alone in an apartment on the south side of Billings for more than a week. His mother is Wendell's cousin on her way into prison for a drug bust.

Joe Wilkin's first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, is told from three points of view: Wendell's; Gillian's, a forty-nine assistant school principal, single mother, whose ranger husband had been murdered ten years earlier; and Verl's, who writes a writing a fragmentary diary/letter to his son as he evades federal marshals while he hides out in the Bull Mountains.

This is Cliven Bundy country rather than John Wayne's, where this land is my land; it's not your land; and it's sure as heck not the government's land, which can go stuff itself. A land where a pickup truck will proudly wear a "Global Warming: Another Liberal Tax Scam" bumper sticker. This is Bureau of Land Management land "that had once belonged to the Crow, to the grizzly bears and buffalo. A land homesteaded less than a hundred years ago and abandoned not long after, a wilderness now of collapsed coal mines and yawing shacks, ghost towns not even old-timers could recall the names of, where the dry arteries of forsaken train lines bled into cactus and grass. A land leased and grazed and logged every so often but in large part empty, home to elk and antelope and mule deer, bobcat and cougar and coyote, and, for the past dozen years, a seldom-seen pack of wolves."

This is a novel rich in description, character, and incident. We learn how to prepare traps and set them. We see Gillian doing her best to bring education (civilization?) to her public school, one with so few students that to lose one is to threaten its existence. Both Wendell, as his guardian, and Gillian, as his teacher, want the best for Rowdy. But what is the best? What is the best for the land? To cut all the BLM fence wire and let cattle roam where they will? To exterminate the wolves before they can kill any lambs?

Wilkins was born and raised north of the Bull Mountains, out on the Big Dry of eastern Montana. His The Mountain and the Fathers, "captures the lives of boys and men in that desolate country, a place that shapes the people who live there and rarely lets them go." He is also the author of three poetry collections, most recently When We Were Birds, winner of the 2017 Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Orion, TriQuarterly, Ecotone, The Sun, and High Country News.

According to his website, Wilkins spent two years teaching ninth grade pre-algebra in the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America after graduating from Gonzaga University with a degree in computer engineering, an experience on which he draws in Fall Back Down When I Die. He then went on to earn his MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho. He now lives with his family in the foothills of the Coast Range of western Oregon, where he directs the creative program at Linfield College.

With his background as a teacher, memoirist, and poet, Wilkins has written an exceptional first novel. It deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the modern West, outstanding writing, and other lives.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

How do you survive pain?

Ten years before Zeruna Shalev's novel Pain begins, Iris, the book's central character, was driving around stopped a bus in Jerusalem when a suicide bomber inside the bus set himself off. The blast literally blew Iris out of her car, and she spent months in hospital being stitched back together.

Today, inexplicably, pain has returned, first knocking her to the floor of the family apartment, then sending her to a pain clinic where a specialist alleviates her agony.

Iris is astounded to realize the specialist is Eitan, the boy—now a bearded man—who unceremoniously dumped her almost thirty years earlier when they were both seventeen. Does he recognize her as well? He makes no sign, but he must recall the two beauty marks on the left side of her navel. One kind of pain has been replaced by another.

I suspect many of us never recover entirely from our first love, the one we didn't marry. What would life had been like if we hadn't broken up? If she hadn't married someone else? If he hadn't been killed? Iris was devastated when Eitan dropped her; she spent two months in bed, virtually catatonic. Now forty-five, long recovered from the break-up trauma and the terrorist bomb, the wife of stolid, reliable Mickey, the mother of 21-year-old Alma and 17-year-old Omer, Iris is a school principal and a solid citizen. Or is until the brief meeting with Eitan in the pain clinic.

Eitan has retained his dead mother's apartment, a sanctuary in which to live after his second divorce. Because it was his mother's, Iris is able to track him to it. He is unencumbered; she is susceptible. Despite working exhaustively to rebuild her life and create a fulfilling and successful career, Iris's existence has been devoid of joy or passion since Eitan left her. Despite her guilt, they begin an affair.

One of Pain's many pleasures is Shalev's ability to convey Iris's physical ecstasy and her emotional joy in rediscovering Eitan's lovemaking. "There is no end to the words she yearns to say to him, and each word yearns to be said endlessly in a single sentence that is as long as her life. To her surprise he suddenly answers her, brings to speak as his body intertwines with hers, telling her of the first years after their parting, his voice growing hoarse, and she listens intently, devouring every whispered word until he can no longer speak."

It begins to appear that Iris will leave good old unexciting Mickey (who's more interested in playing computer chess than his wife anyway) for Eitan when she learns that Alma, who is living in Tel Aviv, has become a questionable guru's disciple. As Alma explains one of the man's teachings: "sex is a tool and you have to practice using it just like you practice using any tool, with no connection to love or physical need. For instance, last week, my exercise was to sleep with a different man every night in order to reach me." More pain for Iris.

That Shalev herself was wounded ten years ago in a terrorist bombing and is a talented writer gives Pain, her fifth novel, a certain authority. Shalev says about the apolitical themes she explores in the contemporary Israeli setting, "All the stories told in my books could have happened in other places too. They deal with universal themes of relations between parents and children, husbands and wives. My challenge is precisely to maintain sensitivity in a rough place, to depict nuance within an extroverted, aggressive situation, to describe the shadows rather than the glaring sunlight."

Because I do not read Hebrew, I cannot judge Sondra Silverston's translation other to say that it is smooth and convincing. I would not title a novel Pain for fear of putting off potential readers. The title is apt, however, and one can only hope that readers who are interested in a complex family tale of love, redemption, and disillusion are able to not put off. They will find pleasure in Pain.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Where is home when no one understands you?

Chia-Chia Lin, a graduate of Harvard College, has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize, an annual award of $10,000 to a graduate fiction writing student. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. 

Her novel, The Unpassingpublished in May 2019, is up for a First Novel Prize at the Center for Fiction in New York City. It is so superior it raises in my mind an impossible question: How will she be able to write a second novel of equal—or higher—quality? Rather than fret over the unanswerable, however, we can take pleasure in The Unpassing we have in hand.

Lin's first-person narrator is ten-year-old Gavin, the child of immigrant parents from Taiwan who speak Chinese and Taiwanese at home. He has an older sister Pei-Pei, a younger sister Ruby, and a younger brother Natty. They live thirty miles outside Anchorage, Alaska, in a decaying house that stands by itself at the end of a gravel drive. "We had lived briefly in Michigan," says Gavin, "but my father had lost his job as a wastewater engineer. He mistimed our move to Southcentral Alaska; we could prove only five months of residence instead of six, and so we missed the first and largest payout from the Permanent Fund . . . which would have meant five thousand dollars." 

The mistimed move is just one of their father's problematic decisions. The five thousand dollars would have been manna to the family which, in the course of the novel, is evicted from their house. (Two weeks later they return to squat in it). When the book begins, Gavin and his classmates have been following the goings-on of Christa McAuliffe. The Challenger launch would be broadcast in class, but the day before Gavin comes home from school feeling sick. At home he roughhouses with Ruby and Natty . . . and falls asleep. He wakes up a week later. He has recovered from meningitis; Ruby has not.

"What happens when young children grieve a sibling?" writes Ruth Lefave in a Rumpus blog. "How do bereaved parents nurture their surviving children? Where is home when no one understands you? Even as Lin’s book explores these devastating questions, her magnificent prose builds an unflinching and ultimately endearing portrait of each character."

Lin does it by showing the characters interacting with each other and with outsiders and with the landscape. It is clear from the first page Gavin is writing as an adult: "During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose, washed grapes. She collapsed." Gavin and his sister Pei-Pei who watch the grapes roll across the floor do nothing. When a minute later their mother sits up, she says angrily, "I was testing you. Why were you just sitting there? Why didn't you call for the ambulance? What kind of children have I raised? Tell me, do you want to be orphans?" It sets a tone for the entire book.

Gavin is trying to make sense of the world. Adults do things he does not understand although readers do. He makes the mistakes a ten-year-old would make. He loves his mother and father, Pei-Pei, Ruby, and Natty, even when he can be oblivious and when, to me at least, they are not lovable. The Unpassing's story at heart is simple: Ruby dies, the family struggles to stay afloat economically, the parents separate,  Gavin, Pei-Pei, Natty, and their mother leave Alaska. Lin, however, somehow manages to make this story engaging, dramatic, and compelling. 

She does this, of course, is through incident. detail, and language: "Ruby never stayed in her own bed; there was movement in these deep nigh hours. She drifted between our bed like a vagrant, favoring my parents' and Natty's. But once in a while she crawled under the covers with me. In the dark, she rooted in the folds of fabric; her fingers whittled upward. We held hands under my pillow, and within seconds we were out."

Here is Gavin holding Natty, "His fingers would not curl around mine, but he allowed me to hold his fist. For a long time I clutched it, the end of a livelier, the last tangible evidence I was not alone. I wiped my palms one at a time, transferring his fits between my hands. I felt like I was cradling a peeled egg. In the dark the stairs seemed steep, a tremendous way to fall."

When the Rumpus interviewer asked Lin what she's working on now, she said, "I can tell you what it’s not: narrated by a child, set in or near wilderness, a story about immigrants. I hope it will be funny. I’m also thinking about plot, for once. Basically, I want it to be as different from this book as possible." I look forward to it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

An actress in love and in trouble

Lucinda Yates is 28 years old, single, and a renowned Canadian actress at the beginning of The Indulgence, Leslie Hall Pinder's new novel. Cast as Hamlet, Lucinda is interviewed by Eva Ryder, a freelance journalist who happens to be lovely and seductive. They begin a passionate, obsessive affair. Lucinda would like Eva to leave her husband so they could revel in a less secret, less stressful liaison. Eva, however, is unwilling to  divorce Lance; the affair with Lucinda ends; and Lucinda begins a relationship with—and eventually marries—Jack, a therapist.

Thirteen years later, Lucinda, now even more renowned, remains childless and her marriage to Jack has hit a rough patch. Eva is now a world-traveling, successful writer and has a 13-year-old daughter Norma back in Vancouver, and is divorced. Norma, suffering from her mother's indifference and her father's emotional abuse, runs away repeatedly, ultimately hiding out for five days with Lucinda. Norma is reported kidnapped and when the police find her with Lucinda, Lucinda is accused of kidnapping and sexual abuse of a minor (she is, after all, immoral). The Crown prosecutor has a cause, and the press has fresh meat. The last section of the book covers Lucinda's trial for these crimes..

Pinder studied English at the University of Saskatchewan and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. She received her law degree from the University of British Columbia and began practiced law in Vancouver in 1977. She was a courtroom litigator for 28 years. In her first job at a large firm, she was told she had to enter the firm's exclusive men's club by way of the servants' entrance because she was a woman. She went through the front door. Her employment ended.

The Indulgence is Pinder's fourth novel, joining Under the House, On Double Tracks, and Bring Me One of Everything. Margaret Atwood no less said an earlier book was a "haunting . . . novel by a writer of great talent and sensitivity. It treats a difficult theme with humanity and admirable complexity." If Atwood hadn't said it first (and better) I would have sad the same about The Indulgence. Here's an example of the author's writing: "A law firm on a Saturday had the feeling of a place where something counterfeit was being produced to send into the market first thing Monday morning."

My two paragraphs at the beginning of this piece do the author and the novel a disservice. They do tell you the story, but they do not begin to suggest the richness and complexity of the characters and their emotional lives. Nor have I mentioned a major character, Judge Terrance Semple who presides over Lucinda's trial. "Maybe he hadn't always been portly. He had the thin legs and barrel chest of a man past middle-age who had gradually become top heavy. He'd be tough to push over, so long as he was expecting it; but if he were taken unaware, or was especially tired, even a slight nudge would topple him. He often wondered how would he get up again."

Here's an example from several possible that evokes Lucinda's existence as an actress: "Shedding herself for a new life each night on stage was thrilling and Lucinda flourished. The problem was the ordinary. The theater was so intense, having to notice everything, respond to what another was doing, whether scripted or not; it took all her power. At home, she didn't want to be in charge of anything; blindness set in, even before the cocktail hour. Part of Lucinda' myopia was she didn't see that Jack had become a bit flat and predictable, in service to the exhilaration and exhaustion required of Lucinda's high wire profession."

Presumably because Pinder is writing from the inside, her evocation of the judge's thoughts and her report of the trial are persuasive. The text jumps forward and back in time and from Lucinda's to the judge's to Eva's point of view but the reader (this reader, anyway) never becomes lost. I thought Pinder was writing herself into a corner, into a situation where a last minute witness would have to appear to set everything to rights. But no. The Indulgence ends plausibly and satisfactorily and without a surprise witness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

What would you do if you lost all your memories?

Although I've now read Burhan Sönmez's Labyrinth twice, I'm afraid I'm going to have to rely heavier than I would like on the press material that accompanied the review copy (and, like the book, forgo quotation marks), mostly because the publisher's description says clearly what the novel is about and does not get lost in the maze as I might well have.

Turkish blues singer Boratin has attempted suicide by jumping off Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge, which, crossing the Bosphorus Strait, links Asia to Europe. He has suffered a broken rib and almost complete loss of memory. The novel, translated by Ümit Hussein, is a stream-of-consciousness look inside a mind that doesn't know itself. Sönmez uses amnesia as a literary device to explore memory and identity, and what happens to a life when everything that makes up a person—his memories, opinions, thoughts—are stripped away.

The text switches between first- and third-person point-of-view as if Boratin is sometimes regarding himself as a figure independent of himself. As he does so he tries to reconcile who he might be (devoted son, responsible brother, popular musician, feckless lover) with the person people have known for years. In trying to rediscover himself—from how he likes his coffee to whose heart he's broken—he must rely on others to fill in the blank spaces. Trying to rebuild his life from the roots is more than difficult when his friends and family know much more about him than he does. Hearing snippets of his past, with no context or sense of how they fit into his life, is more frustrating that having nothing.

Wandering Istanbul's streets and exploring the crevices of a new (to him) home, Boratin wonders if it would be better to leave his past behind. He is afraid that if he were to recover old memories they will come with the feelings—knowledge? despair? anguish?—that led him to try to end his life. But without memories, what is he? Even as friends declare he was lucky—managing to escape whatever pain he'd been in, yet alive to create a new life and new memories—Boratin struggles to move forward in an unfamiliar life in a stranger's body.

The author, Burhan Sönmez, has written four novels; two others, Istanbul, Istanbul and Sins and Innocents have also been translated into clear English by Ümit Hussein (although I do not envy her chore in following Sönmez's Turkish). Sönmez was born in Turkey and grew up speaking Turkish and Kurdish. He worked as a lawyer in Istanbul before moving to England as a political exile. His Labyrinth explores the value of memories in how they form our identities, challenging whether it's our past or our future potential that forms its base.

Given the challenge Sönmez has set himself—to create a consciousness that is struggling to create a reality on a tabula rasa—the writing itself is clear and interesting. "Within the mute walls [of my apartment]. I wonder which of us has become forgetful, have I forgotten my house, or has my house forgotten me?"

A couple more examples: ". . . I regard even my own face in the mirror as a stranger. I'm like a blank sheet of paper. I have no inside and no outside. My east and west are hazy, as are my north and south. No matter where I step, I feel as though I am about to tumble into a void. I spend my days waiting for night to fall . . ."

". . . He remembers this taste, even though it's the first time he's eating simit [a small loaf of ring-shaped bread]. The brain works in strange ways. It's got me in the palm of its hand, without saying a single word to me. Who belongs to whom, do I own my brain, or does my brain own me?" (To that question I would ask: Who wants to know?)

Labyrinth raises more questions than it answers, which is not a criticism. It is worth, I believe, more than one reading. As a meditation on the meaning of life and the inevitable and cruel passing of time, it will not be to every reader's taste. But then, what is?

Monday, October 7, 2019

After this I want to read more Alice McDermott

The fall issue of the Paris Review has an interesting interview with Alice McDermott, a writer I'd never heard of, this despite the fact that she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy (l998), and her novel That Night (1987) was a finalist for another National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Her At Weddings and Wakes (1992) was also a Pulitzer finalist.

My ignorance would not, perhaps, surprise McDermott. Reportedly when she won the National Book Award, she settled her class of fiction-writing students by offering a hundred dollars to anyone who could name the previous year's winner. Not one of her M.F.A. fiction students could recall the book or the author. Such, such is fame.

Among the points that I found interesting is McDermott's remark that she always has two novels in progress, "in one stage or another. It's a terrible thing to do, don't do it. It just means it takes me twice as long to get one finished." She also remarks about sentence-making: "As soon as a sentence calls attention to itself, demonstrates how clever the author is, how astute, how talented, I know something's gone wrong." This is one of my complaints about much MFA writing; the sentences seek to dazzle rather than serve the story.

Now introduced to McDermott, I found her 2006 novel After This. It follows the ups and downs of John and Mary Keane, a Catholic working-class couple, from before they are married after WWII to the 1970s. They have four children, move to Long Island, John works, Mary has children and remains friends with a woman she'd known when she worked in an office in New York. During the course of the novel, the  family visits a Long Island beach. Mary and her daughter Annie go to the New York World's Fair. Jacob, the younger son, is drafted into the Army for the Vietnam war, and more, and more. It's a family saga in less than 300 pages.

Ordinarily I don't care for family sagas, so I'm trying to decide why I think I got sucked into After This and to explain why I think it's so excellent and certainly worth your time, especially if you are interested in writing yourself.

Ordinarily, I don't care for constant shifts in point of view, but McDermott does it and it did not bother me, but it added depth and diversity to the novel ( probably her point). She could not have told the story she tells without using multiple points of view, which is another way to say that the novel as it stands feels as if this is the only possible way it could have been told.

McDermott is able to use language to describe the world and the people in it in a way I find masterly. Here's the first paragraph in the book: "Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks--the slivered shards of mad sunlight in her eyes She paused, still on the granite steps, touched the brim of her hat and the flying hem of her skirt—and felt the wind rush up her cuffs and rattle her sleeves."

The."pinprick of pebble and grit . . ." The "slivered shards of mad sunlight . . ." The "rush up her cuffs and rattle her sleeves." It's not showy writing, sentences that say "Look at me! Look at me!" but tells us we are reading something special. And she's able to sustain it. Here's another sample paragraph I've taken from a random page toward the back of the book:

"In the vestibule after she left, there was the lingering scent of her perfume, a whiff of mothballs from her fur, and something else—the good wool of her skirt warmed by her hour on the upholstered dining-room chair? Annie, on her way upstairs to read Faulkner, said to herself 'the odor of aging female flesh,' and found some recompense in the phrase for the long, annoying dinner."

After This was a nominee for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, which Cormac McCarthy's The Road won. It had to be a a difficult choice for the committee. Me? I would have gone with the family saga over dystopia almost any day. McDermott's novel closes on a positive—although entirely earned and justified—note. I'm embarrassed it's taken me this long to find her, and I'll now read more of her work.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Trying to make sense of one's life (and a parent's)

Honor Moore has published three books of poetry: Red Shoes (2005), Darling (2001), and Memoir (1988). She is the editor of Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, of The New Women's Theater: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women, and co-editor of The Stray Dog Cabaret, A Book of Russian Poems, translated by Paul Schmidt. She teaches in the graduate writing programs at The New School and Columbia University's School of the Arts. She's also written a singular memoir, The Bishop's Daughter (2008).

Honor was born in October 1945, the first child (of nine) of Paul and Jenny Moore. Paul (1919 - 2003) was "the beneficiary of vast wealth." His grandfather had made a fortune in corporate mergers at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a founder of Bankers Trust and US Steel. Paul grew up on an estate with horses and golf and tennis. He was sent to private schools, including St. Paul's in New Hampshire where a visiting priest was instrumental in encouraging young Paul to become an Episcopal minister—High Church Episcopal ("Bells and Smells Episcopal") a form of the church that would be Catholic except for the Pope.

Paul became a Marine captain in WWII, was wounded on Guadalcanal, and met and married Jenny while still in the service. Once he was mustered out, he enrolled in General Theological Seminary and in time became a Father and a father. The family moved to Jersey City where Paul became the pastor of an inner city church that they lived beside. They did not live in voluntary poverty, however. Honor writes that "the life they made in Jersey City was modest compared to how they could have lived, and they made a commitment to try to share the lives of those they ministered to."

Paul was so successful in building the Jersey City parish, he was invited to become the dean of the cathedral in Indianapolis and eventually became the bishop of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At St. John's, as The New York Times obituary writer reported, "Bishop Moore spoke out against corporate greed, racism, military spending and for more assistance to the nation's poor, pursuing his political and social agenda in both the city and within the national Episcopal denomination. He was an early advocate of women's ordination and, in 1977, was the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a gay woman as an Episcopal priest."

Honor has a sure hand leading the reader through her family history so that we are never bored by the births, deaths, crises, and tensions within the family. It's an extraordinary story not simply because Paul Moore became an Episcopal priest rather than, as his family planned, a Wall Street banker or lawyer or because he had nine children. It's exceptional because he was gay. Or, if not gay, bisexual.

In The Bishop's Daughter, one senses Honor attempting to make sense of her father and her mother and herself as she writes. She is fairly candid about her own sex life: She was first sexually active with boys and men, then for twenty years with women, then she returned to men. As a child and girl she struggled, without saying as much, to obtain her mother's attention, but her mother had eight other children who also wanted their mother's attention, plus the usual responsibilities of being the minister's wife. Honor says in the memoir she spent years in weekly sessions on a psychiatrist's couch.

She write about her own discovery of Paul's homosexual desires and that her mother "became certain my father had lovers outside of marriage, and that the lovers were men. She made the discovery, I was told by a friend in whom she confided, not as the result of a single event, but from putting things together—a series of suspicions suddenly becoming in her mind enough of a certainty for her to consider leaving my father . . . " She did not, however, leave him; she died in 1973 and Paul remarried two years later.

For most of Paul's life, being gay was a stigma. The unanswerable question: How would his life had been different if he had not had to live much of it (a major part? an insignificant part) in the closet? Would Honor Moore and her siblings even exist? Unanswerable, and thankfully she does live on through her poetry and this remarkable memoir.