§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: June 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t expect to like this one. I expected the author to be a dabbler who was perhaps more stuck on herself than she had a right to be. I found her instead to be a seeker—a seeker after God and the best way to live her life. I liked the book because she was kind to and about everyone she met, because she recognized that belief was important, that God was God and was unlikely to be understood perfectly for all time by any of the religions that have defined him and prescribed how he should be worshiped. I also liked her because she was light-hearted and funny and because while she took her search for God and for balance in her life seriously, she didn’t take herself too seriously nor believe hers was the only path to religion.

After a nasty divorce which left the her feeling badly about herself and an intense love affair that didn’t work out, the author decided to take off a year and devote it to finding God and balance in her life. (She had the good fortune to be a writer who could sell the idea to a publisher and get an advance to finance the trip.) She had always wanted to learn Italian—because it was a beautiful language. She’d already found a Guru in New York and wanted to visit her Ashram as well as visit India and she’s been to Bali on a magazine assignment and met a medicine man who told her to come back. So she scheduled four months in Rome, four months in India and four months in Bali.

I hated the title of the book—made it sound exactly like the kind of frivolous book I expected it to be. It’s true she ate at lot in Italy, and prayer was the center of her life in India, where she didn’t travel at all but spent the whole time in the ashram, and she fell in love in Bali. That doesn’t make it a good title.

What I did like about this book was the journey of self discovery that was not totally focused on the self but acknowledged the God she could come closer to. I liked that she went into this not with the intention of retreating totally from the world but because she knew herself well enough to know that her place was in the world but that she needed to redefine that place, face her sorrows and shortcomings, learn to achieve harmony with God and balance in her own life. There was nothing magic in Italy, India and Indonesia (the “I” countries?) except that each represented some unfinished business and potential for growth for her.

I liked the India part the best because it seemed she did the most “work” there and achieved the most understanding there, but Italy allowed her to begin to like herself again after a bad couple of years and Bali showed her what she’d learned in the ashram could in fact be incorporated into her way of life. The book ends at the beginning of a vacation with her Brazilian lover without suggesting a fairy tale ending and outlining a happy-ever-after. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, June 24, 2006

In Pharoah's Army:Memoirs of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff

I’ve read several of the best Vietnam memoirs (Tim O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone…, 1973; Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1977; and Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, 1977). These were written relatively soon after the authors' war experiences. More recently I’ve read memoirs that were written much later. One was not really a memoir, but an exceptionally powerful fictional memoir by Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried). The other is In Pharoah’s Army which was published more than 20 years after the author’s experience.

One thing I’ve learned about personal Vietnam stories is that our collective memory of the Vietnam experience features platoons of American soldiers walking through the jungle, facing peril on literally from every side (including the tunnels the enemy often disappeared into). But we forget in the early years there were not so much platoons on patrol as individual advisors to the army of South Vietnam. That was Wolff’s experience as an advisor to a Vietnamese battalion in My Tho—a provincial capital of the former French Indochina where the small city gave Wolff, who had never been to Europe then, a feeling of what Europe was like. It was in the Mekong Delta. It was 1968.

Tone is crucial in this book. The writing is fine and Wolff is totally in control of tone. It is a retrospective tone—a blurb on the back of my copy says “piteously remembered”. Wolff is very good at keeping his ego out of this book. He portrays himself as something of an “accidental soldier” even though he was in the special forces, chosen for officer training and then for a year in Washington learning Vietnamese. In this book he is apolitical, self-effacing, mildly ironic, a tone that allows him to suggest the gut-wrenching emotions associated with living in danger and fear for his life, appearing the fool and seeing others as foolish, as well as interacting with an estranged father and a crazy girlfriend and other dealing with the death of a close friend from basic training.

The book begins with an adventure where Lt. Wolff and his sergeant go off to an American base where they plan to exchange a few Chicom rifles for a big color TV set on which to watch the Thanksgiving special of Bonanza. It introduces Sergeant Benet, “the biggest man in this part of the province and certainly the only black man”. Wolff respects Benet’s abilities and experience and positions him as the “brains” behind his boss. This opening anecdote is a marvelous introduction to the characters (not only Wolfe and Benet but the Vietnamese officers and the Americans on the base and those pulling the strings higher up), the landscape, the whole milieu of the war—from a physical and social but also from an emotional point of view. If you're looking for heroism in war, you know from the beginning, you'll not find it here.

Instead, Wolff describes a crazy mixed up world—“We were lied to, and knew it. Misinformed, innocently and by design. Confused. We couldn’t trust our own intelligence, in any sense of the word. Rumors festered in our uncertainty. Rumors, lies, apprehension, distant report, wishful thinking, such were the lenses through which we regarded this terra infirma and its maddeningly self-possessed, ungrateful people, whom we necessarily feared and therefore hated and could never understand.”

Subsequent sections move back and forth in time, focusing not only on what happened in Vietnam but before and after, almost like a novel where you’re introduced to a character and then skip around in his life to build up an understanding of him before returning to the present action. How Wolfe joined a Coast and Geodetic Survey ship at 18, after having screwed up a prep school career with bad grades and bad behavior. How he jumped ship because of a shipmate out to get him. But the army wasn’t just a last chance. It was a path he knew he would eventually take. He wanted to become a writer and admired those like Norman Mailer and James Jones and Hemingway for whom military service had become such a part of who they were and how they wrote.

The book is compelling (even if you’re read many other Vietnam memoirs) and surprising and emotionally understated (but nevertheless powerful). Posted by Picasa

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Hazzard's story is of two sisters, Grace and Caro, who lose their parents during WWII when a ferry sinks in Sidney Harbour. They live with an older half sister, Dora, whose goal in life is to feel she's a martyr while getting as much as possible from other people. Grown up, the sisters are taken by Dora to England where, with other colonials, they can patronized by the English who are sensitive about the place in the world they have lost. They scrape by, Caro passing the test to get a job in a government office where work is routine and discipline, rigid and sexist and Grace taking a job at Harrods. It is the 1950ies.

The novel begins with a storm near a country house where the sisters are guests of the family of Grace’s fiancé. The father is a renowned professor of astronomy and his prize student, Edmund (“Ted”) Tice, is also visiting. (It is not accidental that it is astronomers that study the transit of Venus.) A body was found that weekend where a bridge had been washed away in a flood caused by the storm. Mrs. Thrale’s (for that is the name of the professor) godson, a neighbor and a budding playwright, the son of the poet Rex Ivory, is also in attendance that week-end, thus establishing the novel’s primary characters. Caro, who unlike Grace, does not marry early and produce a family, is the main focus. Paul Ivory becomes her lover and Ted Tice falls in love with her that weekend. The reader will forget about the body that’s swept away until the end of the novel.

This is the best novel I have read in a long time. I was confused at the beginning—took awhile to get into it—same experience reading Hazzard’s The Great Fire. So I slowed down, began to look up the snippets of poetry quoted in the text (easy—in most cases, typing a line into Google will tell you where it’s from) and thinking more seriously about the language. The prose is not “poetic” in the usual sense of “gorgeous language” by which most people mean it “sounds beautiful”. But it’s poetic in the sense that meaning percales up from words and images and figures of speech and allusions. Metaphoric language, starting with the title. A “transit of Venus” is like an eclipse of the Sun, only it’s the planet Venus that passes in front of the Sun. It happens roughly twice a century. Those two times are referred to as a pair because they occur within a few years of each other and there’s a long time before the last and after the next transit. (If you’re curious, the last one was in June of 2004 and the next one is in 2012, which means we’re in the middle of one transit pair.) Now the question is what does Venus (love?) crossing in front of the sun suggest? Especially since, unlike a total eclipse of the Sun (by the moon) Venus crossing in front of the sun is not a big enough blot to obscure the sun? Hazzard plays with this figure in several places in the novel, at two points in Caro’s life which may stand for the pair of transits. The first is where Caro has been left by Paul because his wife, for whom he left Caro only to come back shortly after the honeymoon as lover, will soon bear him a son. Caro is heart-broken (for she loves Paul against all better judgment). Caro is also nearly destitute—with no money (inheritance given to Dora), a cold flat and a deadend job. She dreams of being crushed by the stones at Avebury (where she and Paul first made love) and muses on death in general and her own death. She hypothesizes that death must be enacted to achieve meaning—and then the meaning is total, as for nothing else in life. She calls the phenomena “the Black Drop” after the optical phenomena which plagued scientists trying to measure the distance from the earth to the sun at the time of the transit of Venus. The other transit—if that’s what these are metaphorically—comes at the dénouement of the novel where Caro understands the love she’s turned her back on her entire adult life. Posted by Picasa

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Accidental by Ali Smith

I started reading this one cold. I'd not read anything by Smith before and hadn't read any reviews of this book or commentary on any of her writing. I was lost in the first section, but by the time I got to the second section I understood that the structure was next generation of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury technique—four people, each viewing the world in his or her own terms. Actually 5 counting "the accidental", Amber, and she's the only one whose section is truly "stream of consciousness". The others are all third person, capturing not only what's going through the character's head but adding some interpretation by an observant outsider. More like the “Dilsey” section of Faulkner’s novel.

The plot is simple: a middle class British family rent a holiday cottage in Norfolk that turns out to be disappointing, hardly the idyllic rural cottage they imagined. Eve—wife, mother, and main breadwinner—has initiated this holiday because she thinks in a new setting she'll be able to get over her writer’s block. She's semi-well-known for a series called "Genuine Articles" in which she writes fictional biographies of real but ordinary people from the past. So far she's focused on people from the World War II period, but this time she's stuck—ends up lying on the floor of the shed she's appropriated for writing. Her husband is Michael, an English professor who's been seducing students for years. Magnus is 17 and Astrid is almost 13. Into their lives comes Amber in her Volvo. Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s students (she knows about his behavior with young girls) and Michael thinks her car broke down. Astrid thinks she’s a friend of her mother. Magnus is distracted by the recent suicide of a classmate which seems to have been precipitated by a practical joke in which he participated. Amber (short for Alhambra—she says she was born in a theatre of that name) is invited for dinner and retires to sleep in her car. Pretty soon she’s initiated herself into the household, providing what each needs but also finding out all their confidential information. But she’s also forward and sometimes insulting and eventually gets herself kicked out, leaving family members to reconfigure their lives without her.

The success of this novel does not depend on plot, however; but rather on the language and the turns of subject that occur in the minds of the characters. The narrative point of view is brilliant; told in the third person, each character’s section nevertheless preserves both the language and the thoughts of the character. We understand the histories, the preoccupations, the angsts of each member of the family as well as see their interactions with each other. It’s like seeing the household as an iceberg and recognizing that nine tenths of the “action” is going on internally beneath the family's surface, in the minds of the individual characters, and knowing that all of that under-the-surface mass is far more powerful than everyday interactions would suggest. Amber looks under the surface—that where lies the secret of her success in influencing them.

The plot resolves brilliantly—if by the end of the book you care much about the plot. I highly recommend this one. I intend to read it again. Posted by Picasa

Friday, June 02, 2006

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain

This is a book of short stories. I read it in an advanced readers' edition. It will be published by Harper in August.

I loved this book. My first reaction was total agreement with the author’s political sentiments. Most the stories take place in third world countries and focus on the displaced, the second class citizens, the poor and floundering who come out on top morally while the main character differs from his fellows in the first world by “getting it”. At first I wondered whether my sympathy for Fountain’s ideas overshadowed the literary quality of the stories, but when I looked a little more closely at the writing I was sure it had not. Fountain is simply a great storyteller. Within a paragraph or two every story hooks the reader into a compelling plot and eases her into a moral dilemma with frightening and uncomfortable dimensions. A PhD researcher goes to Columbia to study rare birds and is sure he’s the last person to be kidnapped by the rebels because he has nothing they want. Of course he is kidnapped but the story takes odd and morally significant turns when he finds the rebel captain intellectually and morally compatible and when rescue comes, it’s the result of such bizarre and amoral maneuvering on the part of fellow Americans that he actually begs to be allowed to stay. An aid worker in Haiti is persuaded to risk his job and his life by agreeing to smuggle Haitian art to Miami where he’ll meet an international dealer and bring back the money to a band of Haitians determined to make a start at improving conditions in that seemingly hopeless country. The director of an NGO who’s managed to put one-armed women to work sewing (one runs the machine while the other guides the cloth), faced with running out of funds and having to close her shop, agrees to use her usual run upcountry in Sierra Leone to bring out blood diamonds to her boyfriend/dealer. An aging golf pro with a mediocre record, needing college money for his kids, becomes a “golf ambassador” for a Myanmar resort only to discover not only how the rich prosper in third world counties but how foreigners like himself are eased into lucrative but corrupt situations. An elderly Haitian fisherman who finds a cocaine drop and turns the stash into authorities who then appropriate it for personal use, decides to try it himself—for the benefit of the people.

In the title story, a young boy is fascinated by a beautiful and sexy faculty wife (at the college where his father is president) who’s rumored to have stayed on in Cuba when her husband returned with other Americans after the Revolution. College legend had it that she was the mistress of Che Guevara. Other “encounters” with the Che legend occur in his life, including a meeting with the man who claims to have shot him and then, on orders from his superiors, cleaned him up for a picture to prove he was dead (see photo above) a picture that made him look, frankly, illuminated. When Che is dug up and returned to Cuba (not any of the other countries vying for his remains), the young man, now grown, muses—in what could easily to be the thesis of this book: “Poverty, injustice, oppression, suffering, those remain the basic conditions of most of the planet—whatever else has changed since his death, this hasn’t, but as life becomes more pleasurable and affluent for the rest of us, the poor seem more remote than ever, their appeal to our humanity even fainter.” Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

I found long stretches of this book tedious. I loved the beginning, where Barnes alternates short spurts on the lives of Arthur and George. It’s interesting, fast moving and well written. I’m intrigued that he’s taken real characters and a real interaction between them and researched it thoroughly as background for a work of the imagination.

As he switches from one to the other outlining their early lives, Barnes begins to paint the picture of the Edwardian world that is the book’s greatest achievement I think. Then the focus switches to George and follows his arrest, trial, conviction and imprisonment for crimes the readers never even considers he might have committed. I found it painful to read, at least in part because the outcome was so obvious right from the beginning, but also because there’s no way it can be suspenseful—what one expects of a mystery/crime story. There follows the story of Arthur’s chaste love affair with Jean during his wife’s illness and his involvement, shortly after his wife’s death, in efforts to prove that George—who has contacted him in desperation—is entirely innocent and deserves public exoneration and compensation. Again the novel gets boring, partly because it’s clear that Conan Doyle will be only partly successful in his attempt to exonerate George—i.e., in proving that George couldn’t have done it but that someone else did.

Part of the frustration I felt, though, was, I’m sure, intended by Barnes. We all read mystery books these days and watch detectives and trials on film and TV and so we bristle when it’s obvious that nothing is proved by the “evidence” used to convict George. We’re also well aware of racial prejudice and see how racial stereotyping works to satisfy the in-group and punish the out-group so we’re surprised that George doesn’t believe his persecution and ultimate conviction have anything to do with racism. We think Arthur is surely right about that, even though we’re likely to agree with George that Arthur’s “case” is as flawed as is the Staffordshire Constabulary’s. At that point the book gets interesting again, as George critiques the case brought by Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes is hardly a brilliant detective in real life—nor should he be necessarily.

I found the information about Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism in his later life interesting and in some ways the Epilogue was the most suspenseful part of the book, so that after being bored for many many pages, I really hated to see the book end.

I have not read anything else by Barnes, but considering his reputation for fiction, I’m assuming this is not one of his best. Still, what I take away from the reading is the really very believable recreation of the period—with all its warts as well as with its details meticulously researched. I was curious that two British reviewers focused on that recreation of time and place and then noted the book cover, got up to look like an old book. However, I’ve only seen that cover on the Internet—the cover of the American edition signals a book that takes place 100 years ago, but doesn’t remotely look like a book of that period. Posted by Picasa