Laughing Badly About My Neck

The day before the election I needed something funny and I found it in Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (published in 2008).  This woman is hysterical and right up my alley, with her love for the Upper West Side (Manhattan), and Wilkie Collins (one of my all-time favorite authors), and her utter mystification with the item known as “PURSE”.  I can totally identify with her purse problem: if only all my coats had such deep pockets that I never, ever needed a purse.  Or if I could have a personal valet to carry all my stuff (books, date book, chapsticks, tinted and plain, receipts for stuff bought two years ago and yet I cannot find the receipt for the shirt I bought yesterday for my son that was too small, what was I thinking?, train schedules, gum wrappers, pens without tops, broken pencils, and wallet), anyway, someone to drag all that stuff around and do the grocery shopping and of course cook all that stuff.. Now that I have my kids cleaning up after dinner I could finally relax if only I had a purse toter/shopper/cook.  (Let’s not talk about laundry  — I once wrote a poem claiming to enjoy the folding of laundry but those halcyon days are over).

The first three essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck are the best but they are all funny.  You don’t have to be a woman of any certain age to laugh out loud; you don’t have to be a woman at all to find this woman funny.  Enjoy and don’t forget to VOTE.

Love Letters: A Celibate Season

Yesterday I read A Celibate Season (published 2000) by Carol Shields (Republic of Love) and Blanche Howard, an epistolary tale of caution against spending too much time away from your spouse.  In the novel, a married couple with 2 teenage kids spend ten months apart with the whole of Canada between them; communicating almost wholly by letter they deal with financial strain, in-law angst, temptations, desires, and personal ambition.

This book is really funny and provoking.  It raises issues about the durability of marriage, now versus in previous generations; the pain of separation and the excitement of novelty; the desire for companionship and, ultimately, sex; and the need for connections of any kind as a buffer against loneliness.

The letters pass between husband and wife.  I won’t reveal whose side I was on in the marital battle than ensues.  I’ll leave it to you, readers, to decide which spouse was the more honorable during the separation.  Read the book and let me know what you think!

Despite A Celibate Season‘s basic hilarity,  there are some moments of genuine gravity, beautifully captured,  as quoted here:

“And if anyone were to ask him what is the meaning of life…he would have to say that it is bringing into consciousness those ancient and
primitive stirrings that are the building blocks of creativity.  By doing so one gradually realizes the self, and that is the purpose of life.”

This view of the meaning of the life,  to find oneself through one’s own internal ability to create, is very different from The Elegance of the Hedgehog,where it is the observation of beauty and the capturing of moments of beauty for internal safekeeping — an outward turning for inner sustenance — that is the meaning of life.  And we can contrast it again to The Emigrants where the meaning of life is life itself, our purpose being the span of our lifetime  within the gigantic history of mankind.

Dickens Does It Better: The Good Thief

Yesterday I read The Good Thief (published 2008) by Hannah Tinti. The story here is a tale to be told around a campfire, a New England fairy tale with orphans and a dwarf and a giant, betrayed lovers and vengeful brothers.  The story is fantastic (unbelievable) as are the characters in the story.  Ren, the one-handed, orphan hero is a re-imagined Pip but with none of Pip’s deeper humanity.  Ren is a character, not a real person; he is engaging and good and honorable, like Pip, but the reader is given no sense of his emotions or contradictory impulses through the very tumultuous ups and downs of this tale.

The Good Thief moves fast, never slowing down, always speeding up and twisting around, becoming even more unbelievable with every turn. Despite, or maybe because of, the constant propelling movement, I was not moved or engaged by this book.  The story is a good one but I need time to think and breathe and feel when I am reading and Hannah Tinti allows no time for that.  The story is rushed and flurried and in the end, rather insubstantial.

I read the book quickly, sucked it up like a milkshake but at the end I was unsatisfied.  For a great story about an orphan and his adventures, read Great Expectations or David Copperfield.  No one does it better than Dickens.

Victorians Do Terror

Yesterday I read Victorian Tales of Terror (published 1974), a collection edited by Hugh Lamb.  I was preparing for Halloween and the chills and thrills I got in reading these great old stories were perfect!  No one tells a ghost story better than the Victorians did; they did not resort to crude and graphic descriptions of blood and gore, they used words to create bone-chilling atmosphere and hair-raising situations of restless (and sometimes evil) souls and the bizarre phenomena the ghosts occasioned to demonstrate their unhappiness in the afterlife.

Great writers like Dickens and J.H. Riddell, and De Maupassant are included, as well as the American Ambrose Bierce (the only tale with sickening physical descriptions) and writers from throughout the British isles that I am not familiar with.  The writers all told very different stories (unlike many collections of ghost stories, which are so horribly repetitive) and all share the ability to tell a great story, create a chill in the soul, and yet also give hearty and satisfying resolution at the end (restless souls appeased), thereby allowing sleep to come when I finally finished up the book close to midnight, and was ready for bed.

Another great collection of ghost stories is The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, published by Scribner.

Homeless and Heading South: A Sun for the Dying

Yesterday I read A Sun for the Dying (published 2008) by Jean-Claude Izzo.  This novel tells the harrowing story of homelessness in France.  The story of middle-aged but already ancient Rico is told without sentimentality or horror, beyond the obvious horror of living without money or a home or any security at all. Rico is living in a Paris that is without romance or warmth, as demonstrated by the opening scene in which a homeless man dies alone and unnoticed in the metro stop of Menilmontant. (This neighborhood of Menilmontant was the setting for the beautiful 1956 movie, “The Red Balloon”; it was then and is now a working-class neighborhood).

The homeless people in this book range from the young (an Algerian kid burned to disfigurement by the steamer ship he stowed away on) to the middle-aged because no one makes it to old age when they are homeless. Some of the people are criminals but most are not; some are alcoholics and drug addicts and some weren’t before becoming homeless but are now because it is the easiest way to forget the misery.  Winter is coming and the cold and the damp are seeping in.  Rico knows that he is dying and he decides to return to Marseilles, where he is sure to find the sun.  He was happy once in Marseilles and wants to die there.

Through flashbacks and remembrances and changes in point of view, we discover the history of Rico and how he became homeless.  The plot moves back and forth, from happier times in Marseilles to the present time in Paris and the years in between. I wanted Rico to make it back to Marseilles in time, back to the lighthouse. I wanted him to be able to sit against its hard but warmed stone and look out over the huge, glittering expanse of the Mediterranean.

Izzo writes in short prose that catches both the harshness of Rico’s reality and the abrasive and fragmented quality of Rico’s thoughts.  Izzo’s staccato prose is also effective at capturing the briefness and intensity of those moments when Rico finds beauty and connection, and his interludes of escape from the truth that “we are nothing.”

There are no stereotypes in the novel, just realistic portrayals of what happens when fate twists horribly against you.  Despite the conditions to which they have been reduced, the characters in A Sun for the Dying are achingly human in their elastic and persevering desires, even when the desire is just to die in the sun.

Speaking of desire, there is an awful (and I use that word deliberately) lot of sexual desire in the book, although Rico is always claiming he is no longer interested.   He is fixated on his ex-wife’s behind and all he was allowed to enjoy there, and he rants on about how much he misses that special place.  In the end his ranting desire leads to violence, and it is not surprising.  Most of the sex in the book reeks of violence and violation and deceit, and women are not portrayed with any great affection (other than Rico’s first love, who is the only woman in the book who is neither whore nor hellion).

A Sun for the Dying was translated by Howard Curtis.

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

Yesterday I read The Emigrants (published in 1996) by W.G. Sebald.   Sebald tells us the stories of four men, all emigrants from Germany, two from Germany to England (one first from Lithuania to Germany and then  on to England), one went to France, and one came all the way to America.

Using artifacts such as photographs, journals, letters, and notes of his own imagined visits with the men, and embedding the facts within fiction, Sebald presents compelling stories and histories (how much is true, how much is not, we don’t know) of alienation and survival.

Through Sebald’s descriptions of devasted places and people, I felt overwhelmed by human history, by the realization – a profound and scary realization — of how many millions of people have lived and experienced daily adventures and trivial happenings, and misery.  We all experience misery.  We see the evidence of misery in in Sebald’s abandoned factories and warehouses and fields, in boarded up homes and decrepit hotels, and in long canals built for huge ships where no ships venture any more.  At one time in history, there was life, abundant and hopeful, in these now abandoned places; Sebald tells us the story of both the then and the now, of the beauty and of the misery.  Both exist, at different points in time, and humans and the landscape reflect the existence of both states of being.

Seabed writes of visits throughout the world, as he imagines tracking down the lives of the four emigrants.  Each man is very different but they share the same alienation: three of the men lost their sense of identity as a German, either through force or choice,  through the horrors of World War Two, and one lost his identity through sublimating his will to that of his employer.  All struggle to forge a new existence and identity in their new land; two finally choose suicide, another chooses to annihiliate himself through electroshock therapy, and a third is saved only by painting in an abandoned warehouse, the dust of which will eventually kill him through its toxicity.

This is not a happy book with its landscapes of abandonment and the personal histories of loss and alienation and a kind of dismemberment (torn from their country of identification). And yet the book is not miserable or pessimistic.  Ultimately, it is a portrayal of what humans do: they survive.  They are not happy all day long, ever, but they can and they do survive.  It is a characteristic of Americans to think that happiness is a birthright; perhaps Sebald is more realistic in his belief that this is not true.  The gift of life is existence itself; you get to be alive, for a brief time in history, and you do what you can to find what you can in your alloted time.  Connections are made and art is created and adventures are pursued, and all this to prove to ourselves that we are alive.

Sebald writes in long sentences, longer than any I have ever written, and sometimes they are hard to follow.  But this just plunged me deeper into the mind of Sebald; I was thinking along with him, observing along with him, and experiencing dreams of his (although I hate dream sequences in books unless summed up in five lines or less; this goes for dreams in books as well as those related to me by friends or family. And strangers for that matter).  I became as enthralled as Sebald was with the portrayed emigrants, caught by his brutally truthful and yet largely imagined portrayals of their lives far away from Germany.

The Emigrants was translated by Michael Hulse.

Finding a Reason to Live in The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a great book.  This beautiful, moving, and occasionally very funny novel tells the story of an amazing woman and a startling young girl, and their parallel and eventually joined paths to recognition of beauty, in the self and in the world.

Renee is the concierge of a very upscale building in Paris, a supremely intelligent and grammatically exacting woman, and Paloma is one of her tenants, a 12-year old girl already fed up with the falseness of the adults around her and doubtful about life’s possibilities. Renee is acutely aware and appreciative of life’s moments of beauty and yet is unable to grasp the absolute beauty within herself.  Paloma is a French, intelligent, and female prepubescent version of Holden Caulfield, a confused and disillusioned but still young and therefore reachable rebel.  Her thoughts are presented to us through her two thoroughly engaging and at times heartbreaking journals; from Renee we get her inner thoughts and observations through first person narration.

This book is about finding a reason to live but it is absolutely un-American in its prescription: there is no easy path, life is full of difficulties, and you are on your own.  But if you are honest and intelligent and exacting, you will find and appreciate the beauty that exists in relationships and music and nature and books.  The book is about the pure beauty that is possible in moments of genuine expression, the fleeting moments that can still last forever in our minds because of their beauty and truth.

If we are lucky, many such moments occur in our lives and we are mindful enough to grasp the beauty.  One rainy afternoon I spent in a Barcelona Art Museum over twenty-five years ago, I was stopped short by a painting. I will always remember the beauty of that painting (although I can remember neither author nor title), and the painting has its same power to bring peace to me now as it did then.  It is a simple landscape of a dawning sky over a dark hillside, with a hermit just coming out of his cave in the hill.  Apricot-orange lines had been painted in beyond the darkened hermit and his burrow to show the dawning of day;  looking at the painting I felt the thawing wind of spring, the precious beat of living, the gratitude for another day granted.  Memories of mornings I’d spent in the country entwined with the experience of seeing the painting, creating layers of time to be stored and later savored.  The moment of seeing that painting and the moments of experiencing what was presented in that painting are moments that, when brought back by remembering, have sustained and comforted me.

Renee is also aware of the threaded memories of life, and of the beauty that endures to sustain and inspire us to continue on with the sometimes heavy burden of living; she tries to pass that knowledge to Paloma, not through lessons or lectures, but through sharing of ideas and thoughts.  It is the joy of conversation, of realizing a shared observation or enthusiasm or dis-enthusiasm, that brings Paloma around to a new commitment to living, even when faced very suddenly with death.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog offers us Renee’s beautiful but thoroughly realistic appraisal of life. When she herself must re-examine what she thought she knew about herself, the forced examination does not undercut her appraisal but serves to support it even more: we understand, as she does, that by living fully observant and appreciative of the beauty that appears fleetingly in actual time but permanently in our minds, we can survive and surpass the mundane and trivial and superficial.  We can make connections and stave off alienation; each moment caught by our flourishing minds only makes all the moments to come better and better. Young Paloma commits herself to finding those “moments of always within never” as a reason to live and that reason is good enough for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated by Alison Anderson.