Monday, December 31, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by NC Weil

Michael Chabon is an engaging writer - he tells a good story in a listen-to-this-one style larded with history, specialized allusions to music, movies and food, and emotional tides. Truth is essential to fiction - a false statement jars the reader into losing faith in author and story both. But from doubleknit suits and musical knowledge, to the uneasy political correctness of white Berkeley (featuring a cameo by prospective US Senator Barack Obama), Chabon is right on. He polishes those details till they shine, their specifics putting us firmly in a place and time.

He structures the story so collisions loom: Gwen Shanks, pregnant midwife, in a foundering marriage with Archy Stallings; Archy's partner Nat Jaffe with whom he co-owns Brokeland Records, a used record store tended with love and knowledge in a struggling neighborhood on the edge where yuppie post-radical Berkeley meets dumped-upon poor cousin Oakland (Brokeland being a conflation of the two); Nat's wife Aviva who is Gwen's partner in a midwife practice; the Jaffes' fourteen-year-old son Julius ("Julie"); his friend and crush Titus, a refugee from familial chaos who has showed up in Oakland to be near his father Archy Stallings; Archy's martial-artist blaxploitation-flick absentee father Luther Stallings - all these characters need something from each other, owe something to each other, but live as though they don't have to change.

The collisions: race, money, generational failures, politics, ego.

Gwen, Archy, Luther and Titus are black. Nat, Aviva and Julie are white and Jewish. Archy fools around (hence Titus), including an affair in the midst of Gwen's pregnancy. Nat has bipolar tendencies: moody, volcanic and prickly, liable to regrettable outbursts. Gwen, who dreamed of bringing black babies into the world outside of the expense and hierarchy of the medical establishment, finds herself serving a wealthy, neurotic white clientele while black women shun her craft for the security of hospital deliveries. The tenuous rights of midwives keep Aviva and Gwen's practice marginal, and a birth emergency responded to by an arrogant white doctor triggers an outburst from Gwen, imperiling the women's hospital privileges. Meanwhile Gibson Goode, black sports hero and entrepreneur, is launching an investment with the support of local political figures: a megastore a couple of blocks from Brokeland Records, featuring among other things a quality vinyl section. Nat and Archy raise opposition to the project among the fringes, but their stand seems quixotic against Goode's deep pockets and political clout.

Meanwhile, Luther Stallings and his co-star Valletta, still a head-turner in her fifties, show up intending to raise the money to make one final film. Luther, for decades a drug user and lowlife, has cleaned up, but Archy cannot trust him. Titus and Julie however, cult film aficionados, discover Luther and fall in with the glow of his plans. The old kung fu master still has some moves, and amid the wreckage of his life, he puts them to good use.

Chabon's sentences have to be unpacked - you can't skim this book and have any idea what's going on. An example:
"In fact, Gwen disbelieved in qi and in 97 percent of the claims that people in the kung fu world made about it, those stories of people who could lift Acuras and avert bullets and bust the heads of mighty armies by virtue of their ability to control the magic flow. Ninety-seven percent was more or less the degree to which Gwen disbelieved in everything that people represented, attested to, or tried to put over on you. And despite midwives' latter-day reputation as a bunch of New Age witches, with their crystals and their alpha-state gong CDs and their tinctures of black and blue cohosh root, most midwives were skeptical by training, Gwen more skeptical than most. Nonetheless, she felt something coursing through her and around her, mapped by the flying beads [of the restaurant beaded-curtain divider she'd just torn down after seeing her husband sitting beyond it with his inamorata]. She glowered down at the bastard who had somehow managed  to conceal his bulk behind her 3 percent blind spot and sneak into her life."

The avalanche of detail overwhelms the story at times, but Chabon won't leave us in this chaos. His characters crash into each other, illusions shattering, and they have to chart new courses onward in life. He cares enough about them to invest each with her or his own dignity, purpose and hope, giving us ample reasons to trek along on their adventures. But he also crafts each with a fatal weakness - not fatal meaning "going to die" but signifying "of fate" - their own flaws which have made them who they are as well as setting them up for the struggles we witness. And these weaknesses, ultimately, are what make this a fine story - we understand these people, we sympathize. We want them to work it out.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Admiring writers

First I'm going to apologize to Ann Patchett, who is a lovely writer. I just finished Run, her novel about family and politics and race and religion and Boston, in which a group of related characters are thrown together into new combinations in the aftermath of an accident. I enjoyed the book: well-crafted sentences, insightful observations, a vivid sense of place.

"Don't move her," a voice above her said. It was an adult voice, but she did not regard it. One of the first rules of safety in scouting was not to move a person after an accident, but that knowledge came second to the fact that no one can breathe facedown in the snow. When she had turned her mother just enough, she brushed the snow out of her nose and eyes. There was blood beneath her head, a bright and shocking soak of red against the white, but the sight of her mother's face, the weight of her head in her hands, calmed her and she was able to stop making that noise.

Fine work, an excellent writer.
Patchett's characters are well-drawn but they are characters. The ways they interact show us universals of the Human Condition. She limns ambition, disappointment, determination and love, and these qualities define the characters as her words skein and float and accumulate.

But I also read a couple of chapters of Fall of the Rock Dove, a novella by A. Rooney. He too chooses words with care, but his observations hit a different set of synapses. My head is nodding while my brain is still sorting out exactly what he's said, let alone why.

As storms go this wasn't much but like most of our wet ones it came up from the Gulf, over the mountains, and picked up some cold along the way. The moisture in the air makes it easier to smell people on the bus - cigarettes, bacon, perfume and cologne, shampoo and conditioner, marijuana. It feels a little bit like we're spying on each other, crossing into each other's lives. 

Rooney's characters are people, living below and beyond the page, stuck in their struggles, small happy moments drowning in a sea of disability, disrespect and suicide. They are part ridiculous, part pathetic, part canny. Through their eyes we see a world that sneaks past us constantly, that we have trained ourselves to fail to notice. His words clang and hiss and startle.

[Trevino] also checks with Miss Cleo for her psychic predictions and except for Monday [when they all have to go to the Disability office to qualify for their weekly payment], he always asks her which days are best to go out. Bonifacio and Trevino got into it once when Bonifacio told him that Miss Cleo's psychic hotline was bullshit, that they busted her. I had to separate them but imagine a fight on a city bus between two disabled guys - one blind and the other with hooks.

You can't look away. This very short book is packed with pain and vitality, defensiveness and hope.

She never said it but I think my mother thought cars were messy, unpredictable, and expensive, and they could control you. I think not having one was mostly my mother's idea but because my dad was easygoing and had never driven before he went along with it. As a child, explaining to your friends that your family doesn't own a car takes some doing. They think you're either joking, lying, or really poor.

A. Rooney, I've got to hand it to you: the people you put on the page will stay with me. Sorry, Ann Patchett: I liked your novel but it never quite got its feet dirty. But Patchett has a reputable publisher and best-sellers to her credit; Rooney's work is self-published. Go figure.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review - The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Someone gave me The Dog Stars to read - not a book I would have chosen. But I'm glad I read it.
The fragmented sentences match the subject - a crippled world both strange and familiar, 9 years after a paired epidemic has wiped out most people, leaving the few survivors armed and hostile - and in unexpected partnerships.

Hig, a pilot and poet, widowed and numb, makes alliance with Bangley, a survivalist gun nut, at a rural airport on the plains of front-range Colorado. Hig in his 1956 Cessna surveys the surrounding area while Bangley makes their territory defensible. Their different skills form a bond that deepens as they save each other from marauders.

Heller doesn't dwell on the how or why of the diseases - flu and an AIDS-like blood disease - that swept the country. He turns more attention to land laid waste by its own malaise: global warming. Trout die off in creeks warmed by reduced snowpack and longer hotter summers; pine beetles run rampant, killing off forests; deer survive but there seem to be no elk. Songbirds have perished, though not birds of prey. But sprinkled in this tale of devastation is the author's deadpan humor:

"Why do I fly my eighty year old Cessna four seater?

Because the seats are side by side. So Jasper [his dog] can be my copilot. The real reason. The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen."

Bangley digs in but Hig is restless, hiking with Jasper on hunting and fishing trips into the nearby mountains and exploring aloft what lies within his plane's range. He makes his rounds: a semi full of cases of soda, to stock up; a Mennonite compound where everyone is weak from the blood disease but safe from raiders thanks to its contagion; another airfield, to obtain the additive that makes his aviation fuel viable.

The only electrical systems that work are solar-powered, but GPS also continues to function - the satellites are still signaling from geosynchronous orbit, and the instruments in his plane calibrate with them and provide true bearings. Hig's always on his radio, hoping to raise a signal, and one day he hears a crackle, the cut-off name of a western Colorado city. Someone is out there, a functioning airport or a pilot or maybe both. He blunts his curiosity for several years.

"Still I think of the pilot's voice. The competence and the yearning. To connect. I think I should have gone there. Pushed the fuel, backed off the throttle, flown slow, maybe eighteen square, picked my morning and gone. To see. What, I don't know. Still I don't come close. To going. Admit it: I was scared. Of finding the interrupted dead as I had and had and had again. Nothing but. And running out of fuel before I was even back to Seven Victor Two which is Paonia, the airstrip up high on the narrow flat butte like an aircraft carrier. Running out of fuel in the 'dobe flats east of Delta. Going down in the shadow of Grand Mesa."

Eventually he goes: it's too tantalizing. In a shoot-first world, Heller's quite realistic about how one assesses threats, communicates, survives. And maybe gains trust. He makes readers question our own resourcefulness, our will to live when all we love is gone. Well worth pondering.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review of Walter Mosley's Gone Fishin'

I read Gone Fishin' in about 3 hours last night. What Walter Mosley's tale lacks in length it more than compensates for in intensity. This 1997 novella follows young Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins and his best friend Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, on a quest. Mouse is engaged, but he and his EttaMae are stone broke. Mouse isn't willing to wed under those conditions, so he decides to visit his stepfather in the east Texas bayou to shake loose some of the old man's wealth. On the road from Houston in a borrowed car, they pick up a pair of teenage hitchhikers: a sexpot girl, Ernestine, and her jealous sullen boyfriend, Clifton, who may have killed a man in a bar fight.

Mouse, who uses any tools at hand to achieve his aims, sees possibilities in Clifton's anxiety to avoid the law. Exaggerating the danger the youth may be in, Mouse convinces the couple to accompany him and Easy. In the encounters that follow, we see Mouse's single-minded ruthlessness and Easy's illness (he comes down with the flu shortly after they arrive in the bayou, and spends most of the story in a weak and fevered haze, his revulsion at Mouse's methods intercut with memories of his own father, who to survive ran off from his family, never to reappear.). Mouse, it seems, has his own guilt to atone for, having pressed his mother to marry so he could have a daddy, then living in mutual loathing with the man she chose until her death. He blames his stepfather for her early demise, so when the old man will part with none of his money for Mouse's wedding, it's clear Reese is doomed.

The colorful cast of small-town and rural characters around Pariah, Texas is best explained by Sweet William, a blues musician:
"But you know folks is diff'rent from country than they is in the city.... In the city they all wear the same clothes and they get t'be like each other 'cause they live so close together. It's like trees; when they real close they all grow straight up to get they li'l bit'a sun. But out here you got room t'spread out. They ain't no two trees in a field look the same way. Maybe one is in the wind an' it grow on a slant or another one be next to a hill so one side is kinda shriveled from the afternoon shade."
Hence we have Mouse's near-feral stepfather Reese, living in the swamp with his dogs; Jo the witch; and her hunchback son Domaque who provides Mouse a voodoo doll to hex Reese. Domaque also studies with the white woman, Miss Dixon, who owns all the land under and around Pariah. Despite the segregationist code governing their interactions, Miss Dixon takes in Easy to convalesce, and at a suitable distance, coaches Domaque on Bible stories.

In under 160 pages Walter Mosley leads us into a dangerous world where a vivid cast work out their troubles, and brings us out with a sense of resolution if not relief. Mouse is every bit as amoral and heartless a friend as Easy let on early in the story, but Easy is transformed: his way out of this destructive life is literacy.

They're the sort of pair who ground a series: Mouse is trouble incarnate, and Easy his friend will have plenty of opportunities to get both of them out of fixes. A tale well-told, Mr. Mosley!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book  Review - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Why is this shelved in the Young Adult section? The Book Thief is a 550 page hammer. The protagonist being a girl does not make this a children's book.
Certainly War is Hell, and the Holocaust was Hell on Earth. There is no missing the point.
The narrator is Death - this is no spoiler: by page 15 it's obvious.
The hero is literacy.
Starting in 1939 we follow the life of a 9-year old girl who watches her little brother die on a train. As Liesel and her mother arrive at their destination, her mother sends her off to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich. Though they are Germans, Liesel's father was evidently a Communist - already she is an outsider. Fortunately, her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, are also outsiders, living in the poorest section of Molching.
Liesel is illiterate, a fact she tries to conceal at school. Hans Hubermann sits up with her at night, when nightmares of her brother's death prevent sleep, teaching her the alphabet, and to read. Her first book is The Grave Digger's Manual, which she seized at her brother's funeral. She and Hans read it together.

Even without the heavy-handed foreshadowing our narrator indulges in, we know what's coming:
In Germany from January 1939 through October 1943, we will be immersed in the solidification of Nazism and banishment of Jews;
Privations of wartime (scarcity of food, heating fuel, etc.);
Clashes between those who just want to live their lives and those who embrace Hitler's vision;
Men conscripted into the army while their families worry;
Proximity to Dachau;
Bombing raids.
In addition to these, we also see a girl growing up and battling her way to be the person she is: curious, tough, brave and resourceful. And literate. She forms a secret alliance with the forlorn wife of the mayor, who shares her library. She befriends a neighbor boy whose legendary feat, before her arrival, was to blacken his skin and race on the local track as Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy share many adventures, in the adversarial way of people who must maintain a certain emotional distance.
Eventually the Hubermanns harbor a Jew, the son of a fellow-soldier of Hans from WWI. Max and Liesel form a bond through words and images; it is her weather reports as much as anything that keep him alive during his months in their basement.
But the magic moments that make us smile are ground under the boot-heels of inevitability - the book goes on and on, long after we have begged for the mercy of an ending.
Sections are short and the words well-chosen, with frequent insertions by our narrator:
          "When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

*** A KEY WORD ***
Of course, she cannot read yet. Instead she recites a passage from The Grave Digger's Handbook, memorized from Hans Hubermann's voice reading it to her so many times.
Later she becomes an adept reader, and even a writer, but first she must be humiliated. This becomes a familiar pattern for the characters in The Book Thief: Hans cannot find work because he isn't a Nazi; Rudy and his friend Tommy are tormented by the Hitler Youth leader; the Jew Max staggers from one moment of suffering to the next; Rosa loses her clientele as a washerwoman, partly because money is tight but also because Hans is not a party member. And Liesel suffers for and with all of them.
It's a grim read.
It's 150-200 pages too long.
I have seen ugly fonts, but the page numbers in this book are beyond horrible.
Should you read it? 
It's a vivid means for contemplating war, and what it does to us all.
But if you've read Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman, or If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, I let you off the hook: you don't have to slog through The Book Thief.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hippie Days

As P.D. Ouspensky posited in A New Model of the Universe almost a hundred years ago, time has 3 dimensions, and moves in a spiral fashion. I'll leave it to you to read his argument.

But I believe his theorizing to be accurate because it matches my experience of life: while there is a mostly-linear continuum of events, there are also moments of transcendent presence, and there are the cycles, large and small, in which a turn of the spiral takes us back along a path in many ways familiar, but new. This cycling is a way of gauging one's progress (or lack of it) in life. 

This weekend, we came around a big circle, returning to a part of the world where the Fred & Marigold Odyssey became official in 1981, tying us into a world one might have thought vanished.

Hippie Days? Hippies don't exist any more -- do they?

As it turns out, and as one might have suspected, hippies have just found niches in off-the-beaten-track communities, where the cooperative spirit that animated this counterculture still thrives. Gardner, Colorado is one such place. Hippie Days isn't on the internet, but it is on the grapevine. And so we found out about it, months ago, and by some luck figured out when it was scheduled. We came down from Denver with optimism, copies of Karmafornia to hawk, and a 1970's era book about alternative communities, titled Shelter.

Fred's cousins lived at a commune in the vicinity of Gardner, where he visited them in maybe 1975. At the Hippie Days festival this historical artifact-book connected us with the denizens who shared space there, partied there, and in some cases still live nearby.

 The music was great: Middle Eastern, with belly dancing; a Grateful Dead tribute band; Cajun, with zydeco fun; and the guy in the green head-wrap is the impresario & drummer of the band Planet O which rocked the place with rock'n'roll, reggae and funk with his band: sax, trumpet, keyboards, vocals, lead guitar & bass.

 The festival rule was No Bad Vibes, and we encountered none. People of all descriptions, from gray and arthritic 60's flower children to toddlers, vaqueros to bikers, and even the cops, were having a fine time. The teenagers especially gave me hope for the future: these young-uns were cheery, dressing each with his or her personal flair without fear of the Style Police whose insistence on conformity is surely a major contributor to the typically dour & sour teenage state of mind.

Oh, and it was a good day for Karmafornia sales as well.
Fred and Marigold's big cycle tapped us back into the tribe, with a smile.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Call It Sleep

I picked up Call It Sleep at a used bookstore, knowing about it only that Henry Roth wrote it as a young man then didn't write again for forty years.

Set it New York in the 20's, it is an immigrant's tale - David, a 6-year-old boy, arrives with his mother, Genya, to join the father (Albert) he does not know, in Brooklyn then the Lower East Side. This is a Balkanized world - Jews crowd in here, Italians there, Irish over there, Poles in a different block. They don't mingle. David's fascination with images of crucified Christ is a response to novelty. He adores an older Polish Catholic boy not for his age nor ethnicity, but because he lives in a parent-free world and introduces David to the freedom of the rooftops where he flies his kite. That Leo uses and despises him is unimportant - this boy possesses roller skates, and his mobility and adventurousness are a welcome contrast to the cramped circumstances of David's days.

Freudian imagery abounds: David's obsessed association of cellars, closets and darkness with sex and animal urges recurs constantly. His mother is his safe haven from all he fears, beginning with his paranoid angry father but extending to his torment at the hands of bigger boys on the street. Certainly he longs for the Oedipal solution to his misery - for his father to be gone, never to come home, so he can have his mother all to himself. She, it would seem, feels the same way. She serves her husband as women did in a time when marriages were arranged and affection was incidental, but does she want to be with him? As a meal ticket Albert is erratic, getting fired from one job after another because his suspiciousness and volcanic moods alienate everyone around him.

A co-worker befriends Albert and shares tickets to the theater, and it seems this closed angry man will begin to enjoy his life. But Luter is more interested in David's mother, and while the novel never makes it explicit, we sense that Luter and Genya are having an affair. Later we learn that in Austria she had an extended affair with a goy organist, and was married off to Albert soon thereafter, almost as punishment for this transgression.

Her fragmented English traps her in their small Yiddish-speaking neighborhood, and so David is trapped as well. The few times he ventures further - once when he runs away, then cannot find his way back, another time when he wanders to the trash-piles by the trolley tracks and is manhandled by a couple of rough older boys - he senses freedom but is hemmed in by his fears. In the cheder he finds inspiration in a passage, and wants to know more, but cannot communicate his anguished curiosity to the rabbi.

Comic relief arrives in the person of his mother's sister Bertha, a loud aggressive red-head who matches Albert insult for insult, doing battle instead of meekly deferring. One day Bertha takes David to the Metropolitan Museum where, intimidated by the size of the place, they latch onto a pair of unsuspecting visitors they follow from room by room. Finally exhausted by this couple's seemingly endless trek among the exhibits, Bertha and David escape as from the jaws of death, dragging themselves home from the ordeal.

The inner being of a child is vividly evoked - David tries to fit in with other boys, insinuating himself into their games but hovering on the periphery, afraid to be rejected. When he is lost he longs to be in their midst despite their contempt, because they are the world he knows. And this world is a dangerous place: the electrical explosion on the trolley tracks where he drops a piece of metal that bridges one rail to the live wire, haunts his mind and needles him toward further experiment - which proves nearly fatal.

Much of the book is a gritty catalogue of sights, stenches, racket and rudeness - it is only after the halfway mark that a story arc emerges. This narrative builds in power, until in the end we have a very satisfying conclusion: David has survived his curiosity, Albert is humbled, and it seems life will improve in small ways. But the first half of the book is more an atmospheric memoir than a true novel in which character, plot, conflict and resolution play their parts.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Colorado is on fire this summer, a situation likely to worsen as light winter and early heat exacerbate our desert climate. This seems a good time to reflect on what wildfire does, good and bad.

This last week Fred and I went camping in an area where forest fires swept through ten years ago (2002 was as dry as 2012). Trappers Lake became popular in the 1930's and 40's with visitors escaping the summer heat of Texas and the Midwest. My parents started taking fishing vacations here in the 40's, and in 1999 celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a family trip to the lake.

I hadn't been back since, and my brother warned me the fire had changed everything.

Well, my first memory of Trappers is of the silvery sheen of dead trees, killed in the early 40's by the spruce beetle. Over time, live trees have greened up the area somewhat, but those dense stands of deadwood enabled the 2002 conflagration known as Big Fish Fire. Ten years later, what we see are bare trunks, standing or fallen, and among them new growth.

Few aspen grew around Trappers before, because the spruce formed what geographers call a "climax forest" - once certain vegetation dominate, they make an area inhospitable to other species by changing the soil acidity and forming a light-blocking overstory.
But now those spruce are out of the way. Oh sure, there are lots of dead trunks, but among them grow berry bushes, chaparral, abundant wildflowers - and aspen and Douglas fir are coming in. Birds are plentiful, along with mammals small and large. The plants thriving now will transform this forest into one which will over time be more beautiful, to many eyes.

Yes, those charred stands look like stubble, and it's difficult to walk through the burn areas where trees have fallen all directions. It's dangerous too, because any wind will knock down the standing trunks, and it's hot in the absence of shade. But in ten more years this will be a beautiful place again, a mixed forest. We'll see hillside meadows dappled with aspen, which in the autumn will shimmer gold against deep blue skies.

From that vantage, we may even be able to appreciate the fire.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Arthur Rex

I've long been a fan of tales about King Arthur, and I've read everything from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and T.H. White's magnificent The Once and Future King, to Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. In high school I wrote a research paper about Tintagel, the castle on the coast of Cornwall considered to be the model for Camelot.

So I'm pleased to report that Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex is a worthy addition to the pantheon. With a dash of humor (for example, telling us that the original name of Camelot was Cameliard) he spells out the philosophical and humanistic implications of Arthur's bold experiment of the Round Table, in which there is no hierarchy, and men-at-arms forswear combat for its own sake, adopting instead the rules of chivalry, setting aside blood-feuds. They pledge their lives and honor to defending the weak and upholding right, fighting fairly and holding no grudges.

Spoiler alert (if you know nothing of King Arthur and his knights): Here is a passage near the end, in which Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine fight each other to the death. Gawaine, having learned that Launcelot, defending Guinevere's honor, slew all his brothers, feels he must fight him:
  "And if Sir Gawaine was victorious, he had no brothers left but the vile Mordred, and the Round Table was shattered forever. And perhaps the best thing he could do for his sons was to give them an example by dying nobly. Now this was the first time that Sir Gawaine had ever thought in this fashion, for he had loved his life in all its phases.
  "Whereas Sir Launcelot, who had always hated life and wanted to die, now that he was bleeding to death he began to think otherwise, for actually dying is not so romantic as is thinking about death when one is invincible, and Launcelot had never been in real danger before in his life. Therefore he began to see himself in a new light, and he came to think that his invincibility might be a myth, and that he had previously overwhelmed his enemies because they were half-conquered by the myth before they met him."

Thus, even in the tragic circumstance of these two great knights battling to destroy one another, Berger makes tongue-in-cheek observations that set one to nodding over that most human of tendencies - to change one's mind.

Near the end of the battle against his bastard son Mordred, in which all his knights but one perish, Arthur laments to the Lady of the Lake:
  "I would ask why you attended me only in the beginning of my reign and thereafter no more? And methinks you led Merlin away as well, leaving me altogether without magical counsel. Lady, I could have used some! For 'twas reality that brought me down, and I had no defense against it."
  "King Arthur," said the Lady of the Lake, who was gleaming in white samite, "the passions are not real, but rather fantastic. Thou couldst not have done better than thou didst."
  "Yet," said King Arthur, "was I wise to tolerate the friendship between Launcelot and Guinevere for so many years? I know that I thereby connived in a Christian sin."
  "Address me not in Christian sentiments," said the Lady of the Lake, "the which I find too coarse for fine kings. Thine obligation was to maintain power in as decent a way as would be yet the most effective, and a Camelot without Guinevere, a Round Table without Launcelot, were inconceivable, as would be an Arthur who put to death his best friend and his queen. All human beings must perform according to their nature."
  Now King Arthur did wonder at this speech, and he said, "Then the will is not free? And can we not choose to be either good or evil, but are selected for whichever?"
  "This is the wrong question," said the Lady of the Lake, "being political and not concerned with the truth. And do not chide me for abandoning thee, my dear Arthur, for I am here now..." 

By upholding the traditions of otherworldly magic and all-too-worldly temptation and struggle, Berger has written a fair and humorous accounting of a beloved tale. Read and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Faulkner's "The Bear"

Faulkner's "The Bear"

This not-so-short story contains the major players, history, longing and roots of the American South: slavery with its corruption of slaveholders; war and its aftermaths; the Indian lineage which predated and outlasted slavery and yet vanished into the maw of modernity; and wilderness itself, shrunk and compromised by greed and settlement yet still potent, still the strongest of all forces and entities.

Isaac (Ike) McCaslin links these worlds, straddles them all. As a boy his spirit father is the solitary Indian Sam Fathers, obtained as a slave yet never answering to anyone except at will, who teaches him wood-lore then releases him into wilderness where his understanding surpasses all other white men's and black men's, matched only by Sam Fathers himself.

The bear itself is a totem, predator and prey, of wilderness. The men hunt it because conquest is in their nature. The bear eludes them because it is wild, and wildness is stronger than civilization. As a boy Ike encounters it only after he leaves his rifle back at the hunting camp, then finally abandons his compass and watch too - they meet only on the bear's terms.

As a man he argues the history of the South with his cousin McCaslin (Cass) Edmonds, his father in the ways of his white race though not his equal in understanding the guilt they bear toward those once enslaved. Even after 1865, that burden of bondage and debt owns the generations and governs their acts. The blood between races, both in spilling and begetting, holds them in tense inseparability, as does their labor: "...cotton - the two threads frail as truth and impalpable as equators yet cable-strong to bind for life them who made the cotton to the land their sweat fell on..." (p 279, Go Down, Moses; Vintage Books c 1942).

He spins in generality the upsurgence of the KKK to preserve "the Southern way of life"; in specifics he gives us Ike's white uncle who held for safekeeping the boy's inheritance till he'd turn 21, at which point Ike unwraps the silver cup filled with gold pieces to discover a snowfall of IOU's and a shiny tin coffeepot holding a few coppers, his fortune eroded by the old man's vices. The black son of this constellation refuses to touch the money left to him instead of paternity; the white son receives his - except that it's been squandered. Sam Fathers too, with his slave mother, has been betrayed by his father, to Carothers McCaslin (the white patriarch): "for both of whom he had swapped an underbred trotting gelding to old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief from whom he had likewise bought the land..." (p. 249, ibid.). Belief in the greater value of money has trammeled the old deep patrimony of the land itself, the pride and dignity of those who toil (greater than those who reap the fruits), and the lineage that in Faulkner's world is one's true strength (and lacking it, fatal weakness).

The story completes its arc, back to the wilderness, burial site of Sam Fathers and Lion, the dog finally capable of cornering the patriarch of bears, the one so fearsome that only the foolishly brave fyce (terrier) and the huge impassive blue dog would hunt it to confrontation. Ike finds traces of the dog's burial but not Sam Fathers': ..."the knoll... was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again..." (p. 312, ibid.). This, not the works of man, is Faulkner's bedrock of faith.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Reading Faulkner

Reading Faulkner

A year ago, Fred and I read Moby Dick for the first time. We enjoyed our class of mostly fifty- and sixty-somethings, who brought life experience and perspective to a complex work unfairly loathed by generations forced to read it too soon.

Now we're reading a Faulkner novel, Go Down Moses, in four class sessions, and gaining a similar impression. Though not a long book, it spans generations. Tonight as we read a portion of "The Bear" aloud to each other, I remarked that the writer has Hemingway's macho love of hunting and male bonding, spun out in sentences that have more in common with Henry James's style.
I always thought Henry James couldn't have conveyed much without the comma, which he relies on as he accretes meaning phrase by phrase, until he lands, having circled his meaning completely, at the point - and you know exactly where you are and what he's telling you.

Faulkner is James without the commas. He's harder to read - you really have to pay attention, and multiple readings of a chapter are useful - but he does arrive where he's going, and if you stick with him, you'll get there too. Like any storyteller in the oral tradition, he digresses. He's not going to tell you about the hunting camp without telling you who's there, how many years they've been coming, who cooks, which game they're eating, and especially how the wilderness looms about them, watching with a sort of hungry indifference - in a single sentence. Archetypal creatures live here: the buck with fourteen points, invisible to the men who would shoot him but passing the boy and old Sam Fathers, who admire but would not kill him though they too are hunters. Sam Fathers, whose lineage runs as deep in time as this land's, raises a palm in greeting as the stag appears near them then vanishes again.

So we come to the bear, old and cunning, a terror to the hunting dogs which bay so heartily after deer and coons but hang back when they pick up his scent. The boy wants to see the bear, to witness his wild dominant existence, and one day he decides he must convince the bear to let himself be seen. By being unarmed. So he leaves behind first his rifle, at the camp, then after some hours going deeper into the forest, abandons also his compass and watch. By making himself defenseless, he pledges to the bear that he will bring back nothing but the sight of his own eyes. He will not only not shoot, he will not blaze a trail for those who would. He will not himself know where he is or has been as he wanders in the bear's realm. And through this homage, he is given a glimpse of the creature. Here's how Faulkner builds suspense:

"When he realised he was lost, he did as Sam had coached and drilled him: made a cast to cross his backtrack. He had not been going very fast for the last two or three hours, and he had gone even less fast since he left the compass and watch on the bush. So he went slower still now, since the tree could not be very far; in fact, he found it before he really expected to and turned and went to it. But there was no bush beneath it, no compass nor watch, so he did next as Sam had coached and drilled him: made this next circle in the opposite direction and much larger, so that the pattern of the two of them would bisect his track somewhere, but crossing no trace nor mark anywhere of his feet or any feet, and now he was going faster though still not panicked, his heart beating a little more rapidly but strong and steady enough, and this time it was not even the tree because there was a down log beside it which he had never seen before and beyond the log a little swamp, a seepage of moisture somewhere between earth and water, and he did what Sam had coached and drilled him as the next and the last, seeing as he sat down on the log the crooked print, the warped indentation in the wet ground which while he looked at it continued to fill with water until it was level full and the water began to overflow and the sides of the print began to dissolve away. Even as he looked up he saw the next one, and, moving, the one beyond it; moving, not hurrying, running, but merely keeping pace with them as they appeared before him as though they were being shaped out of thin air just one constant pace short of where he would lose them forever and be lost forever himself, tireless, eager, without doubt or dread, panting a little above the strong rapid little hammer of his heart, emerging suddenly into a little glade and the wilderness coalesced. It rushed, soundless, and solidified - the tree, the bush, the compass and the watch glinting where a ray of sunlight touched them. Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him." [from "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses, Vintage Books c 1942, pp 197-8]

I was going to quote a shorter section but I couldn't start in the middle of a sentence. You see, what he's written makes sense. It has music and poetry, it has earth and blood. Faulkner's storytelling has a compelling life. You might wish his language was less convoluted but what would you have then? Hemingway.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What books make you happy?

We're approaching April Fools Day, the Taymes New Year, so I naturally turn to foolishness, silliness and laughter.
And I think about books I've read that have given me great delight - without the Angst!
Here's my list - send me yours:

Little, Big by John Crowley - I plug this book constantly. To me it has the perfect blend of wit, joie de vivre, magic and insight. If you haven't read it, you ought to, if you enjoy authors who take your hand and lead you places your mystic self remembers, that lighten your spirit.

Fame and Love in New York by Ed Sanders - I've read as much of Mr. Sanders' output as I can find, and this is his magnum opus. In his semi-mythic New York a group of writers recreate the conditions in which Balzac wrote so prolifically: they lock themselves in a room (accessed through the Duct Tape Boutique) with a gigantic coffee urn, and pound those typewriters. The book is replete with marginalia - what a fun read!

The Jamais Vu Papers by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin - a psychedelic excursion. Go find a copy!

A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan - in his melancholy way, Brautigan wrote many books that make me laugh. I cannot see a can of mackerel in the grocery store without recalling how, when there was nothing else to eat, his characters were unable to converse about philosophy. And the frogs drove them crazy.

A Graveyard for Lunatics by Ray Bradbury - in which this wizard of language romps through the special-effects movie creations of Ray Harryhausen. Bradbury has written many fine books and is one of our short story masters - who can fail to delight in "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair" in which a few people hear the comedic pair's ghosts moving a piano up a long flight of steps on certain LA nights?

Giant Bones and The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle - he shares with us a fully imagined world with its own peoples and animal species - very down-to-earth magic here.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding - the author's tongue-in-cheek asides to the reader are perfectly matched by the characters in Tony Richardson's movie addressing the camera - one April Fool's Day, Fred and I dined in swank at the Watergate then saw this fine movie - a stellar anniversary!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - I was in a book group that read this. Mostly older women, they were put off by the quantity of subplots. I told them it was just like a comic book: you get an installment of the cover story along with several one- or two-pagers and an extended lesser story or two. They liked it better after that. My only twinge of disappointment: alas, no pictures!

On the Road by Jack Kerouac - if you don't crack a smile reading this, you are taking life too seriously. Even if you've never driven somebody else's Cadillac across a cornfield, you can enjoy the ride of Sal Paradise, with Dean Moriarty at the wheel.

The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber - much of his writing hasn't aged well - his mocking of his black servants' language is jarring to the modern reader - but most of the stories in this collection are hilarious. His eccentric family stars in these short pieces, which may be fiction or what is now known as creative non-fiction. His other standout is "You Could Look it Up" - a midget is sent to pinch-hit in a major league baseball game. All he has to do is stand there with the bat on his shoulder while the pitcher misses his strike zone four times. But no, he has to swing. And make contact. And run on his short legs... For whatever reason, this piece seems to have evaded every Thurber anthology.

The California Book of the Dead by Tim Farrington - he has the ability to sketch a character in under a dozen words, which fills me with admiration.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe - this isn't a comedy but the writing is vivid and the punctuation trippy, and Kesey's Merry Band of Pranksters are a fun bunch to hang out with - at least, for a while.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols - absurdity tweaks normalcy every chance it gets in this small New Mexico community.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman - I laughed most of the way through this autobiography. Feynman could never manage orthodoxy. His fearless curiosity leavened with blazing intelligence made him a titan in the world of physics. If you're even mildly interested in the Manhattan Project, read this book.

Well, that's a start. I'm sure I've left out some good ones. What are yours?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Film Review

The Artist, Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Reviewed by NC Weil

This is a faithful film: faithful to the silents, faithful to the transitional era into talkies, faithful to the starry-eyed plots of those movies, faithful to the conceits of Hollywood. And it's faithful to older stars who could use some publicity. Malcolm McDowell, for example, gets high mention in the billing. His part consists of sitting on a bench awaiting his casting call, so the ingenue can show someone her Variety front-page photograph cheek-to-cheek with George Valentin, a matinee idol played by Jean Dujardin. That's it for Mr. McDowell. A more substantial role is given to James Cromwell as Valentin's faithful chauffeur, though he gets lower billing. Yes, it's faithful to Hollywood's conceits, all right.

Likewise, Valentin, a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is enamored principally of himself his favorite possession is an enormous painting of himself flashing his famous smile. And he does have a charming smile. The success of this picture is in large part thanks to its cast these vivacious people win us over with their beautiful smiles. Berenice Bejo is a fresh, energetic, delightful sylph, and her screen name Peppy Miller fits perfectly it fits the era, and it suits her. She's a face in the crowd when she drops her pocketbook, then bumping into Valentin, she trades on this momentary encounter and plenty of chutzpah to put herself in the studio and in front of John Goodman, who's perfect in his part as director.

The system moves only forward, and by staying in silents, Valentin consigns himself to obscurity. The technology change is heartless, but the people using it are anything but: we see smiles as Peppy works her way up, we see Goodman trying to convince Valentin to take speaking roles, we see cheer and bustle this is not a tale of a Louis B. Mayer of whom it was said that people came to his funeral to make sure he was dead.

There are some incongruities: after Valentin has witnessed the auction at which all his furnishings are sold off and the manager cheerfully informs him he has nothing left, the fallen star goes home to his apartment and screens a movie he has a projector and many cans of film-reels. What? In a previous scene he's pawned even his beloved tux so he can buy more booze and cigarettes. Then once he's watched the movie, he rages, flinging film-cans off the shelf, unspooling film then setting fire to the whole mess. It takes forever for his smart little dog to race blocks and get the attention of a cop, who then runs to save Valentin. That was already a big smoky fire by the time the dog left the apartment it strained my credulity that Valentin was still alive when his rescuer arrived, and also that the cop could make it through all that smoke. And later in the movie Valentin returns to live in that smoked-out apartment. Really? A man who set a fire in his room is allowed back there? It's still habitable?

But hey, that's part and parcel of silents cliffhangers were standard procedure, and melodrama trumped plausibility. We can forgive this silliness. Now, what about the film's title? Is The Artist an archetype, so that we can include both Valentin and Peppy? Or does it refer strictly to him? Or does Peppy, whose rise we witness, become The Artist? Not clear.

Seeing the preview twice, I had the impression Valentin's character evolves. Nope. He remains a narcissist, happy at last because the cameras are on him again. Peppy goes from a nobody to a star, but nothing essential in her changes she's the same good-hearted razzle-dazzle beauty at the end, that we first saw.

Hazanavicius trowels on the symbolism: when Peppy is well on her way to becoming a star, she encounters Valentin on an open stairwell at the studio. She's on a step above him, so she talks and looks down as they converse. When they part, she goes up, he goes down. (I get it! She's moving up in the world and he's sinking!) The titles of films set the mood of the scenes they're embedded in, cleverly but without much subtlety. Mirrors are used frequently. Peppy writes "thank you" on Valentin's dressing-room mirror; he tells her a great actress must have a beauty spot, and, seen in his mirror, applies her first one; when he's drunk and self-pitying he pours the rest of his drink on a tabletop mirror, and the pool of booze becomes yet another mirror. Mirrors are Valentin's only friend he loves to look at himself. Peppy vamps in hers too. For all that, the movie itself is curiously lacking reflection. We see the impact of the stock market crash on Valentin, but nothing about its larger effects, not even how that changed the movie fare studios put out. You would never know from The Artist that large numbers of people were thrown out of work.

I'd like to take this opportunity to speak out against film trailers (why are previews called trailers anyway? They don't trail the movie, they lead) several sweet moments are given away, which robs them of their charm when they occur in the story: Peppy finds Valentin's dressing room, empty, and snuggles up to his jacket on a coat-rack, puts one arm into a sleeve and pretends it's his arm, feeling her up then giving her a warm hug. Very sweet moment, and witty if you haven't seen it done before (I saw it in a Cirque du Soleil routine years ago) but it's in the preview. When the moment arrives, you sit there thinking "I've seen this." Likewise, Valentin in poverty stands in front of a shop window display of a tuxedo. His reflection and the tuxedo's are superimposed, in a very nice touch - except it's in the preview so it's no surprise. Indeed, their meet-cute moment, when she bumps him as she picks up her pocketbook off the sidewalk in front of a theater where he's just premiered a new movie, is also spoiled by the preview. If studios can't live without trailers, confine them instead to pictures of the stars in their film costumes, while a voice-over offers a brief synopsis. That way the movie can surprise and delight us.

So, as to awards. Should The Artist win Oscars? The movie is a love letter to an era, sweetly done but a trifle: NO. The costumes are wonderful! YES. Bernice Bejo has a face that's pretty in an enchanting way, and when she dances we admire her quickness and form, but how much of that was acting and how much just her? NO. Jean Dujardin doesn't act much mostly he smokes, drinks and smiles. We like him because those Errol-Flynn-quality smiles charm us to our marrow, but: NO. Supporting character James Cromwell looks after Valentin like a dutiful mother (NO), and John Goodman does a fine job as the cigar-chomping Director (he's had stronger roles):NO. I say give the gold statuette to Malcolm McDowell for his coup, getting second-star billing for his tiny part.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

War and Peace Wrap-up

I finished reading War & Peace a couple of weeks ago, but I've been stymied by the challenge of distilling this 1200 page tour-de-force into a manageable review. The work consists of a fictional story, with characters immersed in the challenges of war and love; views of battle bowing to both historical record and these characters; and philosophical ruminations on a range of subjects: history; war; power; genius; human searches for meaning; life and death; and Russia as a nation and its people.

Tolstoy places his characters at critical events to provide us eyewitness experience, and while these events are as historically accurate as any account can be, they are also beautifully written. The night before he is killed in battle, 16-year-old Petya Rostov, who has run off to immerse himself in the thrill of war as part of the Russian force pursuing the retreating French, has a reverie while listening to a man sharpen his saber: the youth directs a many-voiced hymn which becomes a march, and at his command it takes glorious form: "Ah, how lovely that is! As much as I like and however I like," Petya said to himself... "Softer, softer now, fade away." And the sounds obeyed him[...] and drops dripped, and bzhik, zhik, zhik... whistled the saber, and again the horses scuffled and neighed, not disrupting the chorus, but entering into it. (Vol IV, Part 3, Ch. X). A mere two pages later, "Running into the campfire smoldering in the morning light, the horse balked, and Petya fell heavily onto the wet ground. The Cossacks saw how his arms and legs jerked rapidly, though his head did not move. His head had been pierced by a bullet." (ibid, Ch. XI).

Tolstoy intersperses these vivid scenes with treatises on how wars come to be. He regards Napoleon as the inevitable consequence of myriad actions and movements - though the man is hailed by historians as a military genius, Tolstoy goes to considerable lengths to explain the chaos of battle, the involvement of myriad individuals in actions which create the whole, and generally discredits the "great man" theory of history. He finds it all, to some degree, preordained: this soldier will utter a valiant full-throated cry which inspires his regiment to unwonted bravery, while other regiments in the same battle retreat in confusion because the captains leading them are uncertain, disorganized or afraid. None of this occurs in response to orders from generals, who in an age of limited communication are not aware until afterwards what has actually happened, including even victory or defeat.

About the "rules of war" he has this to say, "Let us imagine two men who came with swords to fight a duel by all the rules of the art of fencing; the fighting went on for quite a long time; suddenly one of the adversaries, feeling himself wounded, realizing that it was not a joking matter, but something that concerned his life, threw down his sword and, picking up the first club he found, started brandishing it...
"The French were the fencer who demanded a fight by the rules of the art; the Russians were the adversary who dropped his sword and picked up a club; those who attempt to explain everything by the rules of fencing are the historians who have written about this event.
"From the time of the burning of Smolensk, a war began that did not fit any of the former traditions of war. The burning of towns and villages, the retreats after battles, the blow struck at Borodino and then another retreat, the abandoning and burning of Moscow, the hunt for marauders, the cutting off of transport, the partisan war - these were all deviations from the rules.
"Napoleon sensed that, and from the moment when he stopped in Moscow, in the correct position of a fencer, and instead of his adversary's sword, saw a club raised over him, he never ceased complaining to Kutuzov and the emperor Alexander that the war was being conducted against all the rules (as if there existed some sort of rules for killing people)."
(Vol IV, Part 3, Ch. II). Here is Tolstoy, heaping his scorn upon the pretensions to civilization of the brutish business of war.

Meanwhile, even as he repudiates the historians and tacticians for their orderly views of battle, he takes us into the mind and soul of a fatally injured man. Andrei Bolkonsky, severely wounded at Borodino, has been transported to and beyond Moscow with the Russian retreat. "But Prince Andrei's soul was not in a normal state in this respect. The forces of his soul were all clearer and more active than ever, but they acted outside his will. The most diverse thoughts and notions took hold of him simultaneously. Sometimes his thought suddenly began to work, and with such strength, clarity and depth as it had never been able to do in healthy conditions; but suddenly, in the middle of its work, it broke off and was replaced by some unexpected notion, and he was unable to return to it....
"And each time the fly touched his face, it made a burning sensation, and at the same time he was surprised that, hitting against the very area of his face where the edifice was being raised, the fly did not destroy it. But besides that, there was something else important. It was the white thing in the doorway, it was the statue of a sphinx, which also weighed on him." (Vol III, Part 3, Ch. XXXII). This "white thing in the doorway" is Natasha, lodging in the same inn, compelled to look at this wounded man to whom she had been in love and betrothed, but through the interference of others, had rejected. In the days that follow, the pair grow close, then Andrei puts aside all human affection as he faces his death:

"Prince Andrei not only knew that he would die, but felt that he was dying, that he was already half dead. He experienced an awareness of estrangement from everything earthly and a joyful and strange lightness of being. Without haste or worry, he waited for what lay ahead of him... Formerly he had been afraid of the end... The more he pondered the new principle of eternal love revealed to him, the more, though without feeling it himself, he renounced earthly life. To love everything, everybody, always to sacrifice oneself for love, meant to love no one, meant not to live this earthly life....
"Love? What is love?" he thought. "Love hinders death. Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is connected only by that... Love is God, and to die - means that I, a part of love, return to the common and eternal source." These thoughts seemed comforting to him. But they were only thoughts. Something was lacking in them, there was something one-sidedly personal, cerebral - there was no evidence."...
"But in the same instant that he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and in the same instant that he died, he made an effort with himself and woke up.
"Yes that was death. I died - I woke up. Yes, death is an awakening." Clarity suddenly came to his soul, and the curtain that until then had concealed the unknown was raised before his inner gaze. He felt the release of a force that previously had been as if bound in him and that strange lightness which from then on did not leave him." (Vol IV, Part 1, Ch. XVI)

I could not help feeling that Tolstoy himself must have experienced a moment close to death, to write about it with such convincing beauty. Even as he applies his intellect to it, he tells us that's what he's doing, and that it's false, failing to grasp the completeness of death.

Pierre, in a group of prisoners of war, witnesses the firing-squad execution of a number of his fellows. He expects to be shot next. "Another two were led up. In the same way, with the same eyes, these two also looked at everyone, in vain, with their eyes only, silently, begging for protection, and clearly not understanding and not believing what was going to happen. They could not believe it, because they alone knew what their life was for them, and therefore did not understand or believe that it could be taken from them....
"Pierre ... saw smoke, someone's blood, and the pale, frightened faces of the Frenchmen, who again were doing something by the post, pushing each other with trembling hands. Pierre, breathing hard, looked around as if asking, "What does it mean?" The same question was in all the gazes that met Pierre's gaze.

"On all the Russian faces, on the faces of the French soldiers and officers, on all without exception, he read the same fear, horror and struggle that were in his heart. "But who, finally, is doing this? They're all suffering just as I am. Who is it? Who?" flashed for a second in Pierre's soul." (Vol IV, Part 1, Ch. XI). Pierre is spared execution, but this confrontation with death has demolished the life he once prized. He becomes fully the earthy simple Russian who has lived unacknowledged beneath his wealth, idleness and comfort - being a prisoner has liberated him.

Do not be intimidated by the length of this book. Chapters are short, often only two or three pages, and once you settle in with the principal characters you enter a world so fully realized that it has the force of truth in all its particulars. Whether it's Tsar Alexander afraid to make his horse jump a ditch; or generals at a party ignoring the news that the French forces have crossed into Russia; or the burning of Moscow because a wooden city will inevitably have fires, and once the residents have fled, no one has the responsibility to quench them - we see simultaneously the broad sweep of war and the details of struggle. Tolstoy exposes the mundane actions that underlie events, and convinces us theory is a vain attempt to force order onto the chaos of life.

This writer has written not only a history that will stand alongside any other account of the Napoleonic wars, he has given us individuals in all their complexity: weak and brilliant, foolish and courageous, petty and joyful, brash and impressionable. He spares none of them the heights of glory and depths of human suffering, and we scramble to keep up, fascinated at this mirror held up to our own souls.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tonight I read a short story at the Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver. It's short - I'll share it with you here:

Seek Your Fortune

by NC Weil

"Out! You can't sit around this house any more! Leave!" She shoved the protesting books onto the porch. When she was done, nearly two hundred copies huddled together, shivering in the frosty morning air and sniveling.

"You can't do this," one whined.

"We're your children," said another.

"Yours, all yours," chorused a third.

Marigold closed the door on their complaints. She'd stumbled over their boxes long enough. No one was going to read them in her dining room time to make their way in the wide world, like younger sons in fairy tales.

Through the keyhole and the crack under the heavy door she could hear their collective plaint. Hardening her heart, she went back to the kitchen and put on the teakettle.

"You did what?!" Fred was shocked, if not alarmed. He'd actually read the book, claimed to like it.

"I gave up," she said. "Maybe they'll do some of the PR heavy lifting themselves, now that I'm finished."

"How are they supposed to do that? They're helpless."

She gave him a skeptical look. "Yeah, they had me convinced, for a while there. No more. This morning I heard them giggling, horsing around in my office. They sounded like teenagers older teenagers. They're just lazy."

He opened the front door and looked at the bare porch. "You put them out here?"

"Sure did."

"They're gone."

"All of them?"

"I don't see any books. Are you sure "

"Let me see," she elbowed past him. "Well I'll be durned." She laughed, flinging her arms around Fred. "It worked," she crowed.

"Pure fantasy," he muttered, sure she'd made up the whole story.

"That's what writers do," Marigold explained at dinner. "We make up stories." She speared a floret of fractal broccoli.

"You sure had me fooled." He shook his head.

"You misunderstand. I made up the story in the book. Kicking them out today? That's true."

"True stories are the best, if anyone believes them," he said.

She flattened a chunk of yam with her fork. "True stories are true whether anyone believes them or not."

He studied her a moment before he resumed eating. "The trash-man must've taken them."

She snorted. "Yeah, you know how diligent he is about looking for stuff to throw in his truck." She leveled her fork at him. "He doesn't even empty the can, if it's not in exactly the right place."

Fred nodded thoughtfully. "Well, a neighbor took them."

"Two hundred books. In a pile. Because " she couldn't keep the sneer from her voice "they're so popular. So desirable."

"All right, where did they go, miss smarty?"

"To seek their fortunes. They didn't leave a note so I don't know where they're headed."

Within a week rumors were circulating. A local art website posted a photo of three copies hitchhiking at a northbound Interstate on-ramp. They looked a little roughed-up but their covers were still glossy. She could swear the title, Karmafornia, was grinning.

Their friend Joe two blocks away reported seeing a gang of ten or a dozen, facing down a large stray dog. After winning the standoff they clustered in a front yard to celebrate, then went up to the porch. The big brick house was subdivided into half a dozen apartments, and they split up, ringing doorbells. As Joe watched, the broad front door opened and they all trooped inside. With the door closed and nothing more to see, he went on his way, but thought Marigold would want to know.

"Thanks," she laughed. It was working! They'd got the message. Those books had seemed so pitiful, lying around in cartons. What an act!

The local video store soon had a row of them in the window, below the movie posters. Fred mentioned them to the clerk, who didn't believe him. When he dragged him out to the sidewalk to see the new display, the clerk just shrugged.

"The owner musta put 'em there. Wanna buy one?"

"I have one already, but maybe you should."

"Aw, I don't really read."

"They want to be looked into, can't you tell?"

And as they watched, one of the books pulled open its cover to the title page.

"Hey, cool graphic," the clerk said.

"The story's good too." Fred gave the guy a friendly slap on the shoulder and walked away.

The clerk went in and pulled the enticing copy off the windowsill. He put it in his backpack, but didn't put money in the till: there were so many, who'd miss just one? He wanted to read it.

A bold foursome showed up at a sports bar, demanding coasters and napkins so they could watch the game without getting wet. Pretty soon the guys sitting next to them were asking them questions. One copy showed off its Part 2 title page: "Angels can fly 'cause they take themselves lightly," the elegant font superimposed on a ghost imprint of an unusual curlicue. The guy plucked up the book.

"Check this out," he showed his buddy the page.

The guy laughed. "Good joke. Never heard that one."

"Take it," the first guy said, handing over the copy. "There's more."

"Who do we pay?"

"We're free," the book in his hand said. "Everybody should be free, don't you think?"

"Hell yeah."

The books fared better in groups. One going it alone tumbled into a greasy puddle. Even after its pages had more or less dried out, its cover was curled and dirty. It took shelter in an alley, then was run over when the trash truck came by to empty the adjacent dumpster. Torn and aching, the book crawled into the weeds. But when a homeless woman came by with a big bag, scavenging aluminum cans, the copy came out. She picked it up, curious. She read a few sentences, then sitting with her back against the sun-warmed wall of a garage, settled in to read.

A month after Marigold had kicked them out, one of the books slipped through her mail slot.

"Just thought you'd like a progress report," it said.

"And ?"

"You were right. We were cozy here, and safe, but we might as well have been blank. Some of us are beat-up and dog-eared now, but your words are out there."

Marigold extended a hand to pick it up, but the book scurried out of range.

"I'm not staying," it said. "I just wanted to let you know we're doing all right." And before she could think of a response, it was wriggling back out the mail slot. She pulled the door open to look: it was already toddling down the street, erect and proud. Free.