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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

This book is probably better than my review will suggest. It seemed anticlimactic, though, after The Weather Makers which is a newer book. I’ve had this one around for a couple of years and, fired up by ways to support conservation efforts which I’m now convinced are absolutely necessary to preserve life on this planet, I picked it up to read.

It starts with a letter to Thoreau which I enjoyed—just having read a novel (March) in which Thoreau was a minor character. Wilson is a Harvard biologist whose academic focus is on tiny creatures and he goes to Walden Pond—as he evidently has many times—to formulate his message to American’s most famous spokesperson for the natural world—and to the rest of us. This book, written for the wider public, is not so much about Wilson’s work as about his love affair of nature and his confidence that global conservation problems can be solved if enough people understand and care.

Wilson is articulate—even elegant—and persuasive. He talks about how humans are uniquely adapted for the world we live in but how the majority of humans do not view environmentalism as a top priority. He thinks humans are innately hardwired to focus on relatively short term, not long term possibilities, on issues of staying alive, getting food, reproducing, prolonging life on the planet. But now, it is necessary not only to set short term goals for one’s own piece of the planet, but long terms goals to ensure that Earth as we know it survives. The current dilemma is reconciling the necessity of doing both, at least until we get through the bottleneck presented by crises brought about by the success of humans on this planet, crises like global warming and rapidly disappearing species.

Wilson ranges from huge ideas down to specifics about the yet undiscovered species that may become extinct before they are found and evaluated and pioneering programs of NGOs to pilot forest preservation projects in developing countries where otherwise the timber would shortly be sold off as timber. Posted by Picasa

Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare

I read this one because I’d enjoyed his earlier novel, The Dancer Upstairs, and a few days ago, having started at least 3 different books, I felt the need of a compelling novel. I think I picked the right one. Shakespeare is an energetic stylist and very good at creating the ambiance of a place. Like the earlier novel (which took place in an unidentified South American country that was clearly Peru and dealt with a terrorist organization that was clearly The Shining Path), this one mixes a personal obsession with a political and historical reality. The reviews say the plot is muddled, but I didn’t think so—or didn’t mind. I loved it.

Peter is 16 when the novel begins and his mother feels duty-bound to tell him that his father is not his father and that the man who sired him was an escaped political prisoner she had met briefly in Leipzig in 1960. Peter who adores his father more than his mother is thrown into a tailspin. He goes back to his boarding school—where’s he’s been obsessed with Englishness, including Arthur and his knights, particularly Sir Belvedere—and signs up for a German class. His friends tease him—they associate Germans with Nazis and losers and ignorant oafs. He takes a summer job as tutor to a young girl in Hamburg and then goes back—to the surprise of his friends and the consternation of his parents—to study medicine—pediatrics, which is what he is told his real father had wanted to do.

Driven to reconsider who he is, Peter becomes German, rarely visiting or contacting his parents, developing only superficial relationships. Until friends convince him to travel with them to Leipzig to help in their mime act. He goes, not admitting to himself that he will look for his father, which in any case will be difficult since he has no surname. In Leipzig he meets and is overwhelmed by a girl (Snowleg, actually Snjólaug: an Icelandic name her grandmother uses) and then denies her in a crucial moment, returning to Hamburg shaken and forever changed, not exactly realizing (as the reader does) that he has relived his mother's experience.
Shakespeare’s evocation of place is exquisite. East Germany is both brooding political menace—it is 1983 and Walter Ulbricht has morphed into Erich Honeker and the Stasi is everywhere—and nostalgia for a simpler, quieter world ("cobbled streets with no advertisements”). Peter’s life spins even further out of control as he conducts an affair with an artist 10 years his senior, begins injecting drugs to keep up the pace, and flunks his final exams. When he picks himself up he re-enters medical school, this time in gerontology (he’s good at his work, poor at his life). There are more and more women, none of whom reach him, all of whom he lets down.

At this point we’re halfway into the novel and the suspense has been perfect, but the reader knows Peter will have to resolve both the matter of his father and that of Snowleg. I almost quit reading there, knowing the unraveling would be far messier than the building up—as it was—but believe it or not, Shakespeare sustains it to the very last word. There are more twists and turns than your average plot and far more coincidence, but it worked for me. I literally could put it down. It works a political thriller and as a relatively conventional romance. If his language is sometimes over the top, I forgive him. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This one was on last year’s Booker short list. It has a clever structure which amalgamates three major plot elements: the adventures of the narrator’s widowed father in the present, a history of tractors the father is writing in Ukrainian, and the history of how the narrator’s immediate family originated in The Ukraine, was buffeted through WWII and landed at war’s end with other refuges in England as Poles (lucky since Ukrainians had to be returned to the USSR per an agreement with Stalin). The narrator is the younger of two daughters, born shortly after the family arrived in England, and no one has told her much of what happened to her parents and sister before her birth.

At first the plot appears to involve only the father, 84, who meets and marries a buxom and glamorous Ukrainian divorcee, aged 36. The father who is lonely thinks it’s true love; Valeria, the blond, wants to experience the Western life style with a rich husband. The father is not rich. The complication are numerous and very funny. Not the least of the humor is in Valentina’s butchered English in which “crap car” is the only vehicle her new husband can afford, and she taunts him with “squishy squashy flippy floppy” in the most embarrassing contexts. She talks constantly, knows all the top brand names, and never takes “no” for an answer whether it’s a superior person’s vacuum cleaner or a new brown cooker for a woman whose fanciest dish is boil-in-the-bag.

Nadezhda, the younger daughter, and Vera, the elder, have never been close but are forced to collaborate to save the father from misery—and possibly death since Valentina knocks him around a bit to express her frustration at the inferior lifestyle he provides. The adventures are hilarious—but go on a bit too long. In the process, Nadezhda, happily married to the easy going Mike, gradually gets to know her older sister who's divorced and cynical. They discover they have opposite worldviews: Vera sees human beings as inately evil—or at least foolish—while Nadezhda thinks the best of everyone—even Valentina now and then. She and Mike are the hands-on helpers; Vera kibitzes on the phone.

Nikolai, the father, was educated as an engineer and has several patents to his name. In his retirement he’s writing the tractor history which is sampled in the book. In the process he tells some of the history of Soviet industry and eventually gets to the rest of the world and explains why John Deere’s superior tractor design spelled disaster for the Great Plains of the US.

As Vera and Nadezhda interact and become closer, the latter learns more and more of the harrowing time the family had getting out of Ukraine and into Britain via work camps and even a prison in Germany. She learns that something awful happened to Vera involving cigarettes, something which has obviously influenced the course of both her life style and her world view. The new information melds with what family history Nadezhda already knew to strengthen family bonds with both father and sister.

The novel, like those of Jonathon Saffron Foer and Nichole Krauss in the US, reaches back to Eastern Europe before and during WWII to integrate the understanding of those family twigs nurtured in a freer atmosphere. Unlike Foer and Krauss, though, Lewycka does not use a child narrator, though the novel ends with a tale of “wartime baby” and “peacetime baby” that grew up to be Vera and Nadedezda.

And it all ends happily—like a good comedy should. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 21, 2006

March by Geraldine Brooks

I was bored by Little Women as a child and have never even watched the Katharine Hepburn film all the way through so I was not immediately attracted to a novel whose starting point is Louisa May Alcott’s famous book. Brooks' novel recounts the Civil War adventures of Mr. March, who is absent from home during Little Women.

Initially I didn’t like Mr. March much. He was passionate, sensitive and idealistic (pretty positive characteristics in my mind) but also condescending. I thought he was condescending when he talked his efforts to make Marmee, his wife, curb her temper and, in spite of the fact that the family had been an active station on the underground railroad for years, he was condescending to blacks too.

I ended up liking the book better in the second half than the first. The Marmee section was superb and caused me to wonder at first whether this female writer was not much better at creating female characters. For me Marmee burst on the scene with complete credibility. But my problem with March was not really that I didn't find him credible. I did find him shadowy compared with Marmee. That’s not really for lack of adequate characterization, but because he’s a complex man whose idealism puts him in some ways completely out of touch with both himself and the outside world.

My initial complaints that March was condescending to both women and blacks turned out to be quite justified. We first meet Marmee in the novel when she’s called to the hospital bedside of her husband, who was brought in on a boat full of injured soldiers. When Marmee exploded in anger at an officious nurse in the hospital, I felt like standing up and cheering. If that scene is any indication Marmee had learned not to curb her temper (as her husband advised) but to use it effectively.

The other female character who stands out is Grace Clement. She’s the black offspring of a Virginia plantation owner whom March meets on his travels as a Yankee peddler in the South in his youth. He’s attracted to her, and she helps him arrange an informal school for young slaves. Clement finds out and asks March to leave, but not before making sure that he witnesses Grace laid out for all the blacks to see and whipped so that strips of flesh fly off her back.

Grace appears twice more in the novel—when March is moved from chaplain duties to schoolteacher and sent to a plantation where he finds a Yankee in charge and Grace tending to the wreck of an aged parent—the one who had her whipped—and then again when she turns up as a nurse in the Washington hospital where March is taken. Coincidence? Certainly, but Brooks uses it very effectively.

I also liked Grace and applauded her final scene with March where she announces she’s going to join a regiment of freed slaves as nurse and March, frantic to make up for horrors that he takes blame for but could not have stopped, says he’ll go with her. The scene reminded me of Humphrey Bogart's speech to Ingrid Bergman as he pushes her onto the Lisbon plane with her husband: "Where I go you can't go and what I do you can't be any part of..." or something close. But there was a reprimand in Grace's speech to March too—that he was arrogant if he thought he personally was responsible for so much death and destruction and also if he thought he could "make up for" the horrors of war. She told him in no uncertain terms that she was going to help her people and his presence would add nothing. Like Bogart's speech in Casablanca, it was partly manipulating him for his own good, but it was also a statement of independence and personal commitment on Grace's part. She had clearly decided—now that she was in a position to decide freely—who her people were and how her talents could best be used.

Two strong women and one relatively weak man--that's what this novel is about.

The ending to the novel was abrupt, but not inappropriate. I don't believe that the author was bored with her story as some have suggested. March was a “broken man” and change for him would require a fundamental reorientation in his most basic beliefs and to have had that happen suddenly might have been dramatic but would have been pretty unbelievable. We leave him in a sort of daze, home with his family, delighted with his daughters, reconnecting with at least some of his core values. There's certainly hope for the rest of his life, but not certainty by any means.

But for the novelist to have followed him any further would have been anticlimactic. Posted by Picasa

Friday, September 08, 2006

Shakespeare: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is the only biographer I know of who picks his subjects because he loves them, not because he thinks they're timely, or not written about yet or he's intrigued with their ideas. He's a writer whose biographies are by and large about other writers and he doesn't pick the minor ones. So far I've read his biographies of Dickens, Blake, T. S. Eliot and now Shakespeare.

I suspect also that Ackroyd picks writers whose work he knows intimately. This book is lavish with commentary on the plays where Ackroyd often makes connections between the language of a play and the source of the image or metaphor, whether it's a wildflower that grows in the hedgerow or the smells of the tanner's trade. The best thing one can say about a biography of a famous writer is that it makes you want to read his work or read it again, and that's certainly how I left this biography, certain that Ackroyd had given me insights which would be valuable for future rereadings.

But Ackroyd doesn't analyze Shakespeare's life by interpreting the plays. He's done an enormous amount of research and one feels is likely to have ferreted out each deed, legal notice, church record or theatrical document that gives even a hint at where Shakespeare was and what he was doing at any given time. There are also no huge leaps of faith, no wild psychological theories. He sometimes goes through a catalog of the possible meanings of a detail and concludes that it's impossible to pin down with any certainty at all.

He sees Shakespeare as an ambitions and practical man. We may not know why he originally became an actor or left his family in Stratford for most of his adult life, but we do know that he was a good businessman and a solid craftsman of the theatre. In his lifetime he was not viewed as the foremost writer of his or any other time, but a theatre hack, one who worked with a company of actors, acted himself and took an ownership position in the company. Unlike Ben Jonson, who was considered a writer with a capital W and who wrote plays as he wrote poems but hadn't much otherwise to do with the theatre, Shakespeare did all the work of the theatre and for most of his career acted as well as wrote. He was anything but the bard in an ivory tower. He studied English translations of popular histories to find material for his dramas and often wrote plays on the subject of the hour as well as retold popular stories of the time.

Ackroyd sees Shakespeare as a taking the lives of kings and rulers as his primary subject. Pomp and protocol were important to him, and represented not only the subjects he wrote about but the values he held. He went out of his way to be granted a coat of arms and the designation of "gentleman", putting up with barbs and satires by fellow writers seeking to make fun of his social climbing. He may also have been a Catholic. There's no absolute evidence, but Shakespeare's family had numerous Catholic and recusant connections. [A recusant is an English Roman Catholic of the time from about 1570 to 1791 who refused to attend services of the Church of England and thereby committed a statutory offense and may even have requested extreme unction in what Ackroyd calls "the old religion".]

I doubt this book stakes out new territory for Shakespeare scholarship, but it's readable and enjoyable and absolutely chock full of explanations for those Shakespearian lines one is likely to find puzzling because we doesn't know much about the world Shakespeare lived in. Ackroyd does know that world, possibly as intimately as anyone writing in 2005. Posted by Picasa

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

This is one of those books I'd never have found except for an online bookgroup, though I think it's been featured in a national reading program in Canada. It was written in 1928 and republished recently with extensive notes.

It's about a small Nova Scotia fishing community on an island named Rockbound in the early 20th century. Two related but feuding families dominate the island. The novel opens when David, an orphan, comes back to the island to live in his mother's house and work for his kinsman, Uriah Jung. David brings a fishing boat, the Phoebe, that he's salvaged and joins the fleet with Uriah, a miser and a manipulator if there ever was one, and his sons, none of whom has the smarts, business acumen or sheer audacity of their father. David has sympathetic ties to the Krauses, in the person of Anapest, a Jung who married and became a Krauss (the other party to the feud). Anapest--how she got the name of a rhetorical figure I've no idea!--heads the Krause family. She's a strong woman--one had to be to survive the life on the island--and almost matches Uriah for audacity without having lost her humanity. Still women were inferior in that time and even she advises young women of spirit to follow their fathers' advice on decisions like marriage.

What's fine about the book is the picture of the lives of the fisherman--what and how they fished as well as how they preserved and marketed the fish, the dangers of the sea and of storms breaking over the rocky island, the isolation which is in part self-imposed as the community asserts its superiority over those who live on the mainland. It was a supremely hard life, and those who lived it recognized their own superiority in hard work and tough spirit.

The families on the island are descended from German immigrants of the last century who have lived in an isolation that is clearly on the verge of being breached by the modern world. The entrance of Mary Dauphiny as teacher in a local school promises access to the outside world to the young people who will grow up able to read and write (as many of the fisherman, including David the hero, can't) and to communicate effectively with more language tools than the locale patois.

David's story is mythical in proportion. He starts with nothing, becomes a sterling worker who is not rewarded but who retains the humanity his employer has forfeited. He's assigned the dirty tasks which he does cheerfully. He humbles himself to learn reading and writing as an adult. He's the sole survivor of a hurricane. He loses the love of his life and is generous in his sadness and unlike his friend, the lighthouse keeper, seeks no revenge. And, like Cinderella, wins both love and the place in life he craves in the end. Posted by Picasa