Saturday, May 19, 2018

Four lives, sixty years, an extraordinary novel

Let's start with two remarkable facts about Kia Corthron's The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter that have nothing to do with the characters or plot (or the book's quality):

(1) It is a first novel;

(2) It is 789 pages.

What publisher in 2015 would take a chance on such a manuscript? Fortunately for readers (and Kia Corthron) Seven Stories Press, 25-year-old independent New York publishing company, did.

It was not a total crap shoot. Corthron has an undergraduate degree in communications and film, spent a year in a playwriting workshop after graduation, then applied to Columbia University's MFA program. As a playwright she's won a number of honors for her stage work including the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Drama), at $150,000 one of the largest prizes of its kind in the world. And once The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter was published, it won the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel. The editor clearly saw value.

The novel traces the lives of brothers Randall and B.J., who are white, born in fictional small-town Prayer Ridge, Alabama, and who are 13 and 18 years old when the book opens in 1941. And the lives of brothers Elliot and Dwight, who are black, born in fictional small-town Humble, Maryland, and and who are 6 and 12 years old in 1941. The novel concludes in 2010.

Randall is exceptionally bright; B.J. is profoundly deaf, illiterate, and uncommunicative. Randall, impressed as a school child by the life of Helen Keller, teaches B.J. a sign language they can use with each other. Eventually B.J. learns American Sign Language and can communicate with others. Randall, for all his intelligence and promise, is trapped and emotionally/intellectually crippled by Jim Crow Alabama and during the book  Corthron dramatizes the cataclysmic effect on Southern whites and blacks by the Civil Rights movement.

Elliot and Dwight grow up in a stable working class family—their father is a Pullman porter—and live in racially mixed neighborhood. Elliot eventually becomes a lawyer, working out of an Indianapolis law firm and, at one point, defending two young black boys caught playing a kissing game with a white child on an elementary school Georgia playground.

Corthron is particularly strong showing the four boys, Randall, B.J., Elliot, and Dwight, as children at play. This is what it must have been like growing up in small-town Alabama and small-town Maryland in the 1940s. An accomplishment because Corthron herself, although she grew up in Maryland, was born in 1961.

Given her background as a playwright, she is also particularly skilled a creating dialogue that reveals character, age, class, and situation. Here is beginning of the section in which we are introduced to Elliot. The spelling and punctuation are Corthron's:

I got nine lives!
You ain't got no nine lives, cat got nine lives. Dwight don't even look up. Dwight always drawrin.
I'm a cat! I'm a cat! I'm a cat! Meow. Hahahaha!
Shut up.
Whatchu drawrin?
He don't answer. I go over. He settin on our bed. He settin on our bed drawrin.
He got wings! That man got wings!
It's Icarus, Dwight say. Dwight good at drawrin! Look! Fingernails!

Corthron found a way to write dialect that gives the impression of speech without trying to reproduce the sounds exactly (a la Mark Twain). It is so effective and so strong that I had to put the novel aside because I found my black characters talking like hers in the book I was writing.

As one might expect in a 789-page novel covering sixty years in the lives of four main characters a lot happens. But what happens grows out of the decisions/choices of the characters and the situations/circumstances in which they find themselves. The reader may begin to wonder how these four lives converge—will they?

They do. First in tragedy and horror, and finally in perhaps the best resolution possible under the circumstances. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is ultimately plausible and satisfying. It engaged me for all its bulk in the characters' lives and the places I know little about. I feel better for knowing for knowing them. I only hope Corthron writes another novel.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

How to read as a writer who wants to write better

If anyone is looking for a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them, Francine Prose has written Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. Because I love books and want to write better ones, I checked out.

When Prose published the guide in 2006, she'd taught literature and writing for more than twenty years and had published fourteen books of fiction. She's since published seven more. Her novel Blue Angel was a National Book Award finalist. So she's been around the block a couple times.

Prose begins Chapter One by asking, "Can creative writing be taught?" Because she'd been teaching writing off and on for twenty years she could hardly say that "any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time." Rather she tells people that a good teacher can show you how to edit your work, and the right class "can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you." But you don't learn to write by taking a class. "Like most—maybe all—I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books."

I have said that I read fiction on two levels: I skate along on the surface, following the story and the character(s) ups and downs. Simultaneously, I try to be conscious of what the author is doing with point of view, continuity, dialogue, and description. Prose is much more thorough. A list of chapter titles in order will give you an idea what else you can be sensitive to: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture.

She illustrates what she's talking about with examples from dozens of sources, from paragraphs to substantial passages, and for even more help she includes a list of "Books to be Read Immediately." The book may be more than dozen years old, but the advice is timeless. For example:

"In the hands of a master, even the shortest paragraphs can be enormously powerful, as are the last two paragraphs of Raymond Carver's story "Fat":
It is August.
My life is going to change. I feel it.
Consider how much less successful this passage would be if all three sentences appeared in the same paragraph. As is, the section seem nearly perfect, because every decision about paragraphing contributes to the strength of the story's ending."

This after she has pointed out that one sentence/one line paragraphs "should be used sparingly, if at all." If you're going to use a one sentence paragraph, the sentence had better have enough content to justify setting it off.

In other words, there are no hard, fast, immutable rules in writing fiction. The only question: Does it work? "Work" in the sense of providing a reader aesthetic satisfaction. And unfortunately for the writer, readers are different. What John finds aesthetically satisfying, Jane finds needlessly complex. What Jane finds aesthetically satisfying, Mary finds banal and formulaic. To see how this works, look up the one-star reviews of a book you loved or the five-star reviews of a book you wanted to throw across the room. Readers respond to different things. But I repeat myself.

I think that Reading Like a Writer should be on every serious fiction writer's bookshelf. I read it straight through for this review, but it is worth returning to periodically to be reminded—shown—how the masters have used narration, dialogue, gesture and more to make masterpieces. The rest of us may not be in the masterpiece class, but we can all do better. Reading like a writer can help.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A thought-provoking road into the Canadian Rockies

My on-screen dictionary defines "symbol" as "a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract: the limousine was another symbol of his wealth and authority." I've been thinking about this because the blurb on the back of Vic Cavalli's novel, The Road to Vermillion Lake, says that the "greatest strength of this work lies in the author's sure handling of the symbolic landscape." I'm not sure what that means, nor am I sure, having read the book, that there is "a highly suggestive internal movement, governed by a set of symbols linking the subjective and objective worlds." I've wondered about readers who find symbols in my writing. If I did not intend a landscape or a character to represent something abstract, is it really a symbol? Without asking the author what he/she intended, we're on our own. In any case, I found The Road to Vermillion Lake to be an interesting effort.

The story is narrated throughout by Tom Tems, who at the beginning of the novel is a blaster's helper and first-aid attendant. The company cuts a road through the Canadian Rockies to pristine Vermillion Lake where a developer is constructing a resort village designed by Ms. Johnny Nostal, an environmental architect from New York who turns out to be 25 years old and gorgeous—red hair, green eyes. Tom and Johnny meet when she visits the job site (she is, after all, responsible for the entire project) and on their second evening together she informs him she is a virgin and, "If we end up getting married, it will be in the Catholic Church and our kids will be raised Catholic. That's not negotiable."

There is a complication, however. Johnny has a sister Sally. Tom had exchanged some chaste kisses with Sally on the road to Vermillion Lake, but Sally has disappeared. Apparently, on her way to see Tom, she was killed in one of the blasts set off to build the road.

But no. She was injured and has lost her memory. She doesn't know who she is, that she has a sister, that she planned to spend quiet time in a convent after visiting Tom, or that she's been romanced by Tom's friend Dave. Once she's been identified, the best thing for her is to go to New York and live with Johnny, perhaps to recover her memory.

Tom suggests that Vermillion Lake Village could offer residents a shooting range. And not one range but three designed for international big-money competition. The money people agree this is a good idea and halfway through the book Tom buys a "Sako TRG 42 .338 Lupua Mag rifle (topped with a state of the art Mark 4 ER/T 8.5-25x50mm Leupold scope)" and all the equipment he needs to load his own cartridges with "Sierra 250 grain Hollow Point Boat Talk MatchKing" bullets. Out on the range he's able to put 20 shots into a pattern the size of an apple at 1,000 meters. (When he visits Johnny's mother in South Bend, Indian, for her approval of the wedding, she is delighted to learn that "You own and shoot a Sako TRG 42 .338 Lupua Mag rifle? . . . You have my blessing, Tom.")

Tom's friend Dave who had been chasing Sally switched his attentions to Carol, "around 24 or 25, maybe 5'6" tall, long blonde disheveled hair, very attractive face with heavy makeup, especially large eyelashes and bright red lipstick, firm natural breasts under a tiny pink tank top, and super-short blue jean cutoffs . . . " Dave however has apparently died from an overdose and when Tom breaks this news to Carol, she comes on to him, indeed comes close enough that he can read the heart-shaped medallion between her breasts: "I swallow."

Not only does he reject Carol's invitation to "a promise of certain pleasure," he introduces her to the woman he loves and Carol and Johnny become fast friends. Tom's fortitude in resisting Carol gives Johnny one more reason to trust and love him. He is someone who needs a good woman. He had a difficult childhood: "I remember sitting at our white, swirled veneer kitchen table, the fly tape hanging like an impotent noose over the sticky counter, the bare hot-white bulb swaying slightly on a chain cord above us, the vehicles below us on Plier Avenue growling by in clusters through the snow—leaving cylinders of silence—and my drunk mother explaining . . . " how his drunken father vanished from their lives.

We don't learn a lot about the landscape. Vermillion Lake is in the mountains and over the course of the novel seismic activity shakes down granite boulders disrupting work on the development. Toward the end of the book a volcano erupts to form an island in the lake, which, now that I think about it, might symbolize—or echo—Tom and Johnny's sexual activity. The Road to Vermillion Lake may not be for everyone, but it has provoked more thought than many of the novels I've read recently.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Want to find a job? Try this

Clark Finnical did what you're supposed to do as a self-publishing author: He looked up reviewers who had reviewed books similar to his book and asked for a review. I had reviewed a book similar to Job Hunting Secrets (from someone who's be there) . . . and many more tough questions answered! and, because I have hunted for a job and I have hired job hunters, I asked him to send me a copy.

Finnical says he has been in the job market five times, managed to find a job each time, and that experience gave him a basis for his book. He was downsized (found redundant, terminated, laid off, sacked) twice during the Great Recession. "At its core," he writes,"the principles behind landing a job, that is, how you win over the hiring manager, are relatively simple. The complexity lies in how you make that happen."

The principle, I believe, is to find an organization that has a problem your experience/knowledge/labor can solve and convince the decision-maker that you can do so. The challenges are: (1) identify the organization with a problem you can solve; (2) get in front of the decision-maker; and (3) convince him/her that you're the solution.

Finnical write that there are three implied questions a hiring manager asks to determine whether you are a viable candidate: Can you do the job? Will you like the job well enough to stay? Can we stand to work with you?

You can differentiate yourself from other candidates by answering one (or all) of these questions: Have you made money for your employers? Have you saved money for your employers? Have you increased the productivity of your employers? Have you made a positive difference at your employers?

From that it follows there are a bunch of things you should never say, like: "I'm not sure if I'm a good fit for this job, but . . ." or "I need  . . ." As Finnical says, "The interview is not a time to talk about your needs. It is your time to explain how you can address the hiring manager's needs."

When I was hiring, I put an ad in the newspaper and the resumes poured into the office. I took the stack and made three piles: the candidates, the possibles, the hopeless. These days, the process has been automated; big companies use an Applicant Tracking System that evaluates online applications. Reportedly, it does a good job of weeding out the hopeless candidates, not such a good job of identifying viable candidates. (Indeed, "a Vice-President of Human Resources decided to test his company's ATS system. He applied for a job at his own company and received an automated rejection letter from the ATS.")

Job Hunting Secrets offers suggestions on how to tailor your resume to improve the odds that it will make it through the ATS, but in a number of places Finnical points out that networking or having an introduction to the decision-maker is much more effective. Indeed, a solid contact within the company will get you past an ATS rejection. You still need a professional resume, but spraying an industry with 60 resumes is a waste of perfectly good bandwidth.

The book is filled with useful tips and information, plus references to other books and sources. Unfortunately, it is also written for someone like Finnical who has been downsized through no fault of his/her own and who can cite  to a background, can cite clear accomplishments, examples of making or saving money, increasing productivity, or making a positive different. It is less useful for someone who is seeking an entry-level position or who wants to move out of a dead-end job into one in which he/she can make a positive difference.

I also have a problem with the book's design. Because it is self-published, I believe Finnical did himself (and the book's sales) no favor by not hiring a graphic designer. The cover looks amateurish,  the pages cluttered, and there is an enormous amount of white space. I am afraid that someone simply leafing through the book will discount it because it doesn't appear to be a professional product. If the design is amateur, how good can the advice be?

Nevertheless, as I said, the book is filled with answers to a job hunter's questions. If you are looking for a job, looking for a better job, or know someone who's looking, check out Job Hunting Secrets.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Idaho" feels as if written from the inside

A friend of mine told me that Emily Ruskovich's first novel, Idaho, was the best book she'd read in a year. Because my friend reads widely and is a writer herself, I took that as high praise and read the book

I'm not sure Idaho is the best book I've read in a year (I'm still recovering from Rachel Cusk's Transit), but it is powerful and deserves to be read widely by thoughtful readers. And while I don't usually do this—I don't look at other reviews before I write my own—in this case I'm making an exception because the first one-start review on Amazon today is a good place to start this commentary.

The woman writes: "Dark, depressing, hopeless, grim, jumps from person to person without character development, long passages that you get lost in, no closure on anything. Impossible for me to see anything redeeming about this book." Consider yourself warned.

She is correct; Idaho is not a happy book. One main character, Ann, is married to Wade who has terminal Alzheimer's and the disease causes him to do—allows him the freedom to do—abusive acts. 

Wade's first wife, Jenny, is serving a life sentence in prison for killing 12-year-old May, their younger daughter. The day of the murder, 16-year-olds June, their older daughter disappeared. 

So we have an inexplicable death . . .  a man who has lost two children and his wife and is now losing his memories . . .  a woman who does not understand her act on a sunny summer afternoon when the family was gathering firewood for the winter . . . Jenny's cellmate who is damaged in her own way . . . and Ann, twenty years younger than Wade, someone who was born in Idaho but who grew up in England, a singer and music teacher, someone who falls in love with Wade and tells him:

      "I could take care you you," she said softly. She was very surprised to hear herself say this, but even so her voice was caml, as if she had been intending to say it all along. Bur really it was the only time that such a thing had occurred to her and the words escaped her to quietly that she wondered at first if he had even heard. As she waited to find out, dozens of blackbirds, startled at nothing, rose off the telephone wire at once. Ann and Wade watched them converge and scatter like a handful of black sand thrown against the sky.
     After a long time he said, "It wouldn't be right."

The Amazon critic is also correct that the narrative moves from character to character, but few readers will have trouble knowing whose point of view we're following at the moment. I don't understand or agree with her complaint that there is no character development. By the end of novel everyone has changed, although, to be fair, not every question has been answered or loose end tied off (a compliment).

Some readers complain about that the chronology is confusing. Ruskovich numbers the chapters by the year in which the main action takes place (there are also flashbacks within chapters): 2004, 2008, 1985-1986, 1995, 2006, 1999, 1971, 1995, 2007, 1995, 2008-2009, 2009, 1973, 2010-2011, 2009, 2012, 2012-2024, 1995, 2024, May 2025, 1995, July 2025, 1995, August 2025. In other words, the novel's story stretches from 1973 to August 2025. It strikes me as gutsy to play with time the way Ruskovich does (I can imagine an editor complaining, "Why can't you just tell a straightforward story?") and a tour de force to advance the action into 2025.

This is Ruskovich's first novel; her short stories have appeared in literary magazines and she was a 2015 O. Henry Award winner. She grew up in the mountains of northern Idaho so when she writes about the landscape, the small towns, the brutal winters, and the black flies of summer she's writing from the inside. I have only one nit to pick: In the prisons in which I've taught, the prisoners call solitary "Going into the shoo"—the SHU, segregated housing unit—not Lock. But maybe "Lock" is the term they would use in the fictional Sage Hill Women's Correctional Center.

I would not say Idaho is the best book I've read all year. I will say it is one of the best books I've read all year. Sophisticated readers who want a rewarding and moving experience will enjoy it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ordinary people making their way in the world

A tradition in Japanese fiction is the "I-novel," sort of  a fctionalized autobiography or memoir. Hiromi Kawakami's The Nakano Thrift Shop reads like an I-novel. The narrator, Hitomi Suganuma tells her story of working in the shop, her attraction to a younger co-worker Takeo, the advice she receives from her boss's older sister Masayo, the idiosyncrasies of the boss/owner Mr. Nakano, and the stories of certain of the shop's customers.

Mr. Nakano is a wheeler-dealer. He buys used items—not antiques—and sells them from the shop in a western Tokyo suburb where there are a lot of students. A man in his early fifties, he's on his third wife. He has a college-student son by the first wife, an elementary-school daughter by the second, and a six-month-old son by the third. Plus he has a mistress. When he says he's going to the bank in the afternoon, he's as likely to be meeting his mistress at a love hotel.

Hitomi, who seems to have no parents, no siblings, no friends, is attracted to Takeo, who is Mr. Reticent. At one point Hitomi asks Masayo for advice. Masayo is a woman in her early 50s, single, with a regular lover.

     "How does one go about having a carefree conversation with a boy?" I decided to ask Masayo one afternoon when Takeo wasn't around. Masayo was in the process of going over the receipt book, but she looked up and thought about it for a moment.
     "If you can get them into bed, they tend to relax a bit."
     I see, I said in response.

Hitomi manages to invite Takeo to her apartment for pizza and beer. After they chatted about the shop, eaten the pizza, and drank the beer Takeo smoked a cigarette:

     I didn't know you smoked, I said. Every once in a while, he replied. Without saying much to say, we just sat facing each other. We esch drank another can of beer. Takeo looked at the clock twice. I looked three times.
     Well, then, Takeo said and stood up. At the front door, he brought his lips near my ear. I thought he was going to kiss me, but I was wrong. With his lips close, he said, "I, uh, I'm not one for sex and all. Sorry."
     While I was standing there astonished, Takeo closed the door behind him as he left. After a few moments I snapped out of it. Thinking about it while I washed the glasses and plates, it occurred to me that Takeo had chosen to eat the pieces with the least amount of anchovies on them. I couldn't decide whether I should be angry or sad about it, or just laugh.

These two citations give you a sense of Allison Markin Powell's translation (with I presume the original's use or lack of quotation marks) and the tenor of the text. The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel in which nothing very dramatic happens. Rather, individual Japanese act and interact on one another. One has a sense that the author has not attempted to heighten the reality to engage the reader but to use the minutia of daily life to convey the reality of these individuals. It is a love story, but it's not a romance. It's the story of ordinary people trying to make their way in the world, and in this case the world is contemporary Tokyo and a shop filled with used goods.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A portrait of the author as a bounder

The four main characters in the cast of Clair Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons are Gil Coleman, the famous author of a best-selling and notorious novel; his younger, Norwegian wife Ingrid; and their daughters Nan and Flora. Supporting cast members include Louise, Ingrid's best friend in university; Jonathan, Gil's best friend, a travel writer; and Richard, Flora's boyfriend. Most of the action is set on a small island off the Dorset coast (actually the Isle of Purbeck), and the book covered is 1976 to the present.

Fuller's structure is interesting. After a brief present-day scene in which Gil, now in his 70s and for reasons that become clear in the course of the novel, falls off a sea-side promenade into the rocks below and ends up in the hospital, the rest of the book alternates between Flora's close third-person point of view and letters Ingrid writes to Gil in June 1992, the month before she disappears. Suicide? There's no note. (She hides the letters in the books with marginalia Gil collects.) Abandonment? Neither we nor the characters never know, which is fine. What's important is what drove her to swim to her death or simply walk away from her husband and daughters and the effect that has had—and continues to have—on them.

Flora hastens to the island followed by Richard and Nan. Tension between the sisters. Nan resents that she had to become in effect nine-year-old Flora when she was only fifteen. Flora is Daddy's Girl; Gil can do no wrong. Richard is impressed that he's able to have sex with a famous author's daughter.

The heart of the novel is the un-mailed correspondence Ingrid writes to Gil at 4:00 a.m. when she cannot sleep. They met at university in London. He was twelve years her senior, a charming, attractive man, her writing teacher who said things like. "Secret truths . . . are the lifeblood of a writer. Your memories and your secrets. Forget plot, character, structure; if you're going to call yourself a writer, you need to stick your hand in the mire up to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and drag out your darkest, most private truth." Gil invites shy, unworldly Ingrid to a riotous weekend party at his house on the island—lots of music, dancing, drink, pot, sex. Ingrid, disregarding all advice and a number of events that should have given her second thoughts, begins enjoy unprotected sex with her professor. She becomes pregnant. The university fires him and expels her.

Ingrid recounts their life together: Nan's birth, a miscarriage, Gil's betrayals, Flora's birth, and more. They scrape by on the island, literally watching the pennies until Gil writes A Man of Pleasure, a book so erotic they do not allow a copy in the house. Nevertheless or because it is so pornographic, it becomes a best-seller and the money and attention pour in—and give Gil new opportunities to fuck script girls and production assistants. Gil is, in large ways and small, a shit.

Ingrid feels helpless, a woman without education or skills, living a tiny life on a tiny island. Flora is not the easiest child (the jam has to be spread exactly to the edge of the toast). Nan is trying to be the Model Child and keep her parents happy. It apparently never occurs to Ingrid that, given the quality of the letters she writes and other significant moments in the book, that she might be a writer herself rather than simply abandon the family. It would not improve her relationship with Mr. Can't-Keep-It-In-His-Pants, but by her last letter she's acknowledged to herself she has no—and may never have had a—loving relationship with him anyway. (But if Ingrid becomes a writer, it would be another book, and my observation indicates how much I believe and am invested in the characters.)

Swimming Lessons is wonderfully well-written.We can see (or infer) why characters do things they themselves don't understand. It illustrates how we justify ourselves to ourselves. One might complain that none of the characters are sympathetic; I would disagree (and why do characters in fiction have to be sympathetic anyway). I do think Fuller tends to pile on at the end of the book, but I also agree the situation demands it. And a two-page envoi leaves the reader (this reader) cheered.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A wonderful novel in which nothing happens

This is what happens in Rachel Cusk's novel Transit: In the first chapter (they are not numbered) the narrator buys a dilapidated council flat in London. In the next chapter she meets Gerard a former lover and they talk. In the next chapter a builder visits to evaluate the flat's rehabilitation. In the next the narrator visits a beauty parlor to have her hair colored to cover the grey. In the next she participates in a one-night writer's conference at a rural college. In the next the narrator meets with one of her writing students. In the next, she and one of the builder's employees, an Albanian workman, go to pick up cement for the job on her flat. In the next, builders work on the flat and placate the downstairs neighbors who are as horrible as the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale. In the last chapter, the narrator drives to a Wiltshire village to attend a dinner party with her cousin and his new wife.

In other words, nothing happens.

There is no rising action; no climax, even within the chapters; no denouement. Events occur in the chapters, but not enough to call them linked short stories.

So why read it?

Because the writing, the observations, the intelligence are exceptional. Here's a description of the beauty salon in which the narrator is having her hair colored: "By now it was completely dark outside Inside the salon all the lights were on. There was music playing and the droning sound of passing traffic could be faintly heard from the street. There was a great bank of glass shelves against one wall where hair products stood for sale in pristine rows, and when a lorry passed too close outside it shuddered slightly and the jars and bottles rattled in their places. The room had become a dazzling chamber of reflecting surfaces while the world outside became opaque. Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there. Often I had walked past the salon in the dark and had glanced in through the windows. From the darkness of the street it was almost like a theater, with the characters moving around in the bright light of the stage."

It is not flashy writing, not sentences that call attention to themselves. But anyone who has been in a beauty salon or who has walked past a lighted shop in the dark can identify with this description.

Cusk is equally brilliant at describing people: "Amanda had a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied, as if, rather than growing older, she had merely been carelessly handled, like a crumpled photograph of a child. Her short, fleshy body seemed to exist in a state of constant animation through which an oceanic weariness could occasionally be glimpsed. Today the grey tint of fatigue lay just beneath her made-up skin: she glanced at me frequently, her face crinkled against the sun, as if looking for her own reflection."

Cusk has written three nonfiction memoirs and eight novels. Transit the "second book of a precise, short, yet epic cycle." The first was Outline, which I reviewed earlier. Cusk is taking ordinary events (see paragraph 1, above) and writing about them for what you or I would see them as—amazing, phenomenal, memorable if we had the insight to recognize and the art to record.

As a writer, I try to see how she does it. And I'm routinely struck by Cusk's observations about writing. Here she is at the writer's conference reporting another participants talk: "All writers, Julian went on, are attention seekers: why else would we be sitting up here on this stage? The fact is, he said, no one took enough notice of us when we were small and now we're making them pay for it. Any writer who denied the childish element of revenge in what they did was, as far as he was concerned, a liar. Writing was just a way of taking justice into your own hands. If you want the proof, all you had to do was look at the people who had something to fear from your honesty."

Cusk neither debunks nor endorses Julian's point. She says she simply read one of her short stories as her contribution to the evening. She observes, she records, she makes art.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Someone has crucified a Jew in Petticoat Lane

When Will Thomas began thinking about writing a mystery in the early 2000s, he felt that many Victorian mysteries were written by woman and could be classified as "cozies." "I wondered," he writes in an Author's Note in Some Danger Involved, which was published in 2004, "what it would be like to create a more dangerous detective, a shamus, a gumshoe, and to set him down in this world of Queen Victoria and Jack the Ripper."

His detective—or, as he prefers to be identified, enquiry agent—is Cyrus Barker, who speaks Chinese, Yiddish, (and probably more), fights like a ninja, maintains a Japanese-style bath on his London property, employs a French cook and a Jewish butler and general factotum, and offers Thomas Llewelyn a job as an assistant and personal secretary.

At the beginning of the book Llewelyn is just about at the end of his tether. He's a poor boy from a coal-mining town in Wales, but he is exceptional enough to attract the patronage of a lord and to be admitted to Magalen College, Oxford. He has made an unfortunate marriage, his wife of three months has died, and as a consequence of an unfortunate circumstance he has spent nine months in hard labor in Oxford Prison. In a final desperate act, he responds to Barker's advert: " . . . Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in the performance of duties . . . " With his next move suicide off Tower Bridge, Llewelyn, to his surprise, is hired.

The first several chapter of Some Danger Involved introduce us to Barker, his household, and his world. The assistant's position includes boarding in Barker's house; an entire new wardrobe; instruction in detecting, self-defense, and shooting; and studying the books Barker has chosen: Methods of Observation and Ratiocination, Implied Logic in Everyday Life, Understanding the Asiatic Mind, and Folk Tales of Old Edo. Llewelyn's predecessor had been killed. In Barker's world, there is always some danger involved.


The mystery proper begins in Chapter 4 when Barker and Llewelyn visit the morgue to inspect the body of a young Jewish scholar who has been murdered and crucified—hung up, in fact, in Petticoat Lane, right in the center of a Jewish market. From the morgue they call on Sir Moses Montefiore, an actual person. He was a British financier and banker. activist, philanthropist, and Sheriff of London. He was born to an Italian Jewish family and donated money to promote industry, business, economic development, education, and health in the Jewish community. In London, he was President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (thank you, Wikipedia) and—now back to fiction—he charges Barker with finding the scholar's killer.

Montefiore is concerned because at this time, the early 1880s, Ashkenazi Jews were flooding into London from the Pale of Settlement—now Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Molodova, and much of Ukraine. These are Jewish immigrants who don't speak English, who don't understand British ways, and who are taking jobs away from honest English and Irish working men need to be taught a good lesson. Sir Moses worries that someone or someones may be trying to provoke a pogrom. With no clues from the body or the scene of the crucifixion, Barker and Llewelyn set off to find the murderer.

While I am usually impatient with historical fiction, Thomas was able to engage me in Some Danger Involved. I spotted only one possible (and minor) error. Otherwise I was convinced this is the way London looked, sounded, and smelled in 1884. And Barker is such an interesting character, I was willing to overlook the villain's long speech at the end explaining how and why he did what he did. All in all an exceptionally credible debut mystery.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An engaging introduction to philosophy

Sophie's World is an interesting hybrid. The subtitle calls it "A Novel About the History of Philosophy." It was written by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian philosophy teacher, translated by Paulette Møller, and published in 1994. It begins, "Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school."

Sophie is almost fifteen years old, lives with her mother in Lillesand, a real small town on the south coast of Norway. Her father is an oil tanker captain and away for long periods of time. On page 4 Sophie receives a mysterious envelope that contains a slip of paper on which is written, "Who are you?" On page 6, another envelope, paper, and question: "Where does the world come from?" On page 8, she receives birthday greetings to a Hilde Møller Knag c/o Sophie. Sophie has no idea who has sent the questions or the greetings.

The questions were sent by Alberto Knox who begins a "Course in Philosophy" printed in separate sanserif typeface to set off the lectures on Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and the Existentialists. It would be possible to read only the sanserif sections for a decent, if limited, introduction to philosophy.

Because there are any number of decent, if limited, introductions to philosophy available, and because Gaarder wanted to sugar-coat the lessons, he embedded them in a story about Sophie and Hilde. We learn that Hilde also has a fifteenth birthday, lives in Lillesand, and her father is also absent. He is part of a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

Part of the book's pleasure is seeing how the author plays with philosophical concepts "outside" of the lectures. For example, a some point, the reader realizes that Sophie is a fiction that Hilde is reading about—but of course Hilde is a fiction we readers read about. The book's first question, "Who are you" becomes much more interesting. (It reminded me of the Chinese philosopher's question: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?")

If you know nothing about philosophy and want a relatively painless introduction to the major figures, the essence of their major theories, and how questions—and the theories—about truth, reality, and consciousness have changed over the centuries Sophie's World  is a good place to start.

If you took a couple semesters of introductory philosophy years ago, the book is a useful review.

If you want to trace the way Gaarder uses different philosophical ideas in novel in which the lessons are embedded, that could give certain readers pleasure.

If you want a couple hours' diversion, however, look elsewhere. Gaarder is a teacher and the point of Sophie's World is to teach. Readers who take the book seriously will learn something.