Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Tale of King Crab, a film

The Tale of King Crab, by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis 

This visually-stunning 2021 Italian film spins us a tale. In more-or-less present-time rural Italy, a group of old men sit around a table. One offers to tell a story, then we move into that story: in Part 1, in the 1800s, Luciano, drunkard son of the local doctor, stirs up trouble: the shepherds have been taking a shortcut to the river through the grounds of the Prince’s castle, and one day they find the entry barred. At the pub they complain – they’ve been using this route for countless years, and while acknowledging the land belongs to the Prince, they feel they have a historic right to passage with their flocks. Luciano reopens the gate – perhaps to be contrary, perhaps because one of the shepherds is father of his inamorata. With this act, he runs afoul of the Prince and his enforcers. 

From here we move into Part 2, in which Luciano is exiled to Argentina. In Tierra del Fuego, he learns of a Spanish galleon that ran aground in a storm. The ship’s captain took the cargo of gold and hid it somewhere on a large rugged island. Pirates and treasure hunters come seeking it, Luciano among them. Here a spaghetti-western interlude nearly upends the film; fortunately the through-line of the story, having to do with the crab of the title, keeps us on course to a wondrous finale. 

The landscapes are enfolding, characters have the weathered simple features of plain folk, dialog is laconic, action brusque and sometimes violent. We see peasants at their daily tasks – milking sheep, washing out clothes at the spring, filtering the sediment from wine. Allegorical imagery is there if we want to pursue it: twice Luciano is shot in the side, in the same place where Jesus was speared as he hung on the cross. Sin, redemption, the weight of the world, the power of love, all are here to be expounded on. Luciano also fits the nihilist loner archetype of Westerns: ravaged by his own emptiness, he drinks, defies, tries to find deeds worthy of his effort, all the while aware of the brevity of life and futility of death. 

I can’t say more about King Crab without spoilers, so I’ll just urge you to go see this lush film on a big screen.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

See No Stranger, by Valarie Kaur

Sometimes the voice in a book matches the voice in your head, manifesting not only ideas and stories but your deepest convictions and understanding of how the world truly works. Such a book, for me, is See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, by Valarie Kaur. Though she writes from the perspective of the American Sikh community, much reviled, attacked, and yet invisible victims after September 11th, 2001, her realizations about community, opposition, and ways to push through pain and rage, should resonate with anyone grappling with America’s upsurge in hatred, wondering what to do, how to protect targets of violence, and how to go to its sources, to do the hard work of reconciling. 

She teaches how to move past judgments into wonder, into hearing the stories of those who have wronged us. She’s clear: “Reconciliation mends what has been torn asunder, but it does not return us to a point before the harm happened. Perpetrators and survivors can just leave each other alone after that. Roshan acknowledged that, even after his apology, I still did not owe him a relationship.” 

Kaur’s life was a perfect storm of harrowing abuse, physical pain, disrespect, and self-doubt. And by pushing through, with the loving support of a community, she has used her experiences to inform the lessons she offers – we know she lives her ideas because we can see what it cost her to learn them. 

I’m not Sikh, I’m a person of privilege in this society, a well-off white woman whose upbringing was easy – a loving family, encouraging teachers, opportunities to expand the possibilities of mind and body – and yet, to live honestly in 2021 I am summoned to leave my comfort zone, to undertake the work of healing the world. Like any journey, it’s a process of steps, small movements from origin toward destination. My circumstances and my skills are different from Kaur’s, but each must use the tools we have. No one’s keeping score except the inner critic and the wise heart, the former saying, “you’ll never get there,” the latter noticing, “you’re further than you were. Don’t give up.” 

This book was my call to action – maybe it will be yours too!

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

In 2005, Nicole Krauss’s layered work The History of Love was published. As in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel The Shadow of the Wind, we have an intergenerational mystery of lives in danger, at its heart a love story. 

In The History of Love, the mystery is about a book of that title being translated by a girl’s mother. Who actually wrote it, why is our young heroine, Alma, named after the girl in the book, what happened to the girl in the book? 

Krauss fully captures the voices of her three narrators: 
Leo Gursky (an old Jewish man, WWII refugee living in New York. We see a boy from a village in Poland, in love with a girl whom, in the chaos of the buildup to war, he lost track of): “Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza. The afternoon passed, darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought: I didn’t live forever. A minute passed. Another minute. Another. I clawed at the floor, pulling myself along toward the phone.” 

Alma Singer: “I WAS SIX WHEN MY FATHER WAS DIAGNOSED WITH PANCREATIC CANCER. That year my mother and I were driving together in the car. She asked me to pass her bag. ‘I don’t have it,’ I said. ‘Maybe it’s in the back,’ she said. But it wasn’t in the back. She pulled over and searched the car, but the bag was nowhere to be found. She put her head in her hands and tried to remember where she’d left the bag. She was always losing things. ‘One of these days,’ she said, ‘I’m going to lose my head.’ I tried to picture what would happen if she lost her head. In the end, though, it was my father who lost everything: weight, his hair, various internal organs.” 

Bird Singer (Alma’s younger brother, who believes he is one of the 36 lamed vovniks, holy people on whom the existence of the world depends): “I have been a normal person for three days in a row. What this means is that I have not climbed on top of any buildings or written G-d’s name on anything that doesn’t belong to me or answered a perfectly normal question with a saying from the Torah. It also means I have not done anything where the answer would be NO to the question: WOULD A NORMAL PERSON DO THIS? So far it hasn’t been that hard.” 

Their stories are braided with misunderstandings and grief, resolving at last after many blind crossings. This novel is beautifully written, leavened with both humor and pathos as readers stumble alongside characters learning, being wrong, learning more, still wrong…

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Slowness, by Milan Kundera

This 1995 novel may seem lightweight, being only 150 pages of comfortably-spaced type. Nevertheless, Kundera’s observations are anything but slight. He interweaves three stories: a stand-in for the author, in first person, traveling with his wife and sojourning at a French chateau, a country house which has seen a few things over the centuries. The second story is from two hundred years before, being the tale best known as Les Liaisons Dangereuses in which a trio of lovers play at backstabbing in subtle and clever ways. The third is contemporaneous with our author character – a young man, Vincent, striving to win the favor of a philosopher he idolizes, does the foolish sorts of things one does when trying to impress those far above his capabilities. 

The lovers of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have a presence in this chateau, and various characters see and hear them. Vincent has come to the chateau to attend an entomologists’ conference, so he can witness his philosopher’s nemesis, Berck, staging a moment of importance by being granted an honorary degree in entomology. Vincent intends to steal Berck’s limelight, taking him down a peg. One of the entomologists is a Czech national attending his first conference since Soviet tanks rolled into Prague twenty years earlier, and in an emotional moment at the podium he recounts that story and his gratitude to be here, forgetting entirely the paper he is to present. 

Kundera moves his characters like chess pieces, giving and thwarting advantage in situations that provoke both superiority and ridicule:
"After his public performances, Berck always seems a little drunk; his voice firm, derisive, and loud, he interrupts the Czech scientist: “I know, my dear colleague, I know just as well as you do that Mickiewicz was not an entomologist. [although the Czech has been trying to say that Mickiewicz is not Czech but Polish] In fact, very rarely are poets entomologists. But despite this handicap, they are the pride of the entire human race, of which, if you’ll allow me, entomologists, yourself included, are a part.” 
A great liberating laugh bursts out like a head of steam too long confined; indeed, ever since they realized that this gentleman so moved by himself had forgotten to read his paper, the entomologists have all been dying to laugh. Berck’s impertinent remarks have finally freed them of their scruples, and they roar without bothering to hide their delight. The Czech scientist is taken aback: what has happened to the respect his colleagues were showing him only ten minutes earlier? How is it possible that they are laughing, that they are permitting themselves to laugh? Can people move so easily from veneration to contempt? (Oh yes, dear fellow, oh yes.) Is goodwill so fragile, so precarious a thing, then? (Of course, dear fellow, of course.)" 

Kundera is provocative and a bit sly, setting up people to knock them down. The reader is in on the joke, but the characters are introspective enough that the author is not scorning them so much as showing his familiarity with the ways we mistreat our fellows.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Waltzing the Cat, by Pam Houston

This 1998 novel-in-stories delves into the adventuresome love-challenged life of Lucy O’Rourke: mid-thirties, photographer, river guide, child of alcoholics, who doesn’t trust herself and finds untrustworthy men to practice her self-sabotage on. The writing is salty, frank, often funny, but also barbed. She knows (mostly) what she’s doing, that she can’t travel to the land of reliable lovers from where she lives on precipices – but that doesn’t stop her from her next fling. 

She has a handful of steadfast friends who keep trying to aim her better directions, but they can’t keep pace with her explorations heading all the wrong places. These are great stories – she can spin a yarn with such intensity, you know the dangerous parts have to be true: “[W]e were about to go straight down over the seven-story rock. We would fall through the air off the face of that rock, land at the bottom of a seven-story waterfall, where there would be nothing but rocks and tree limbs and sixty-some thousand feet per second of pounding white water which would shake us and crush us and hold us under until we drowned.” 

 She injects notes of mysticism as straightforward reportage: “ ‘I saw Carlos Castaneda in an airport last week,’ I said. ‘He tried to tell me some important things.’… I was getting closer to something then and I could feel it, like maybe I had jumped, for a moment, onto the wheel that makes everything turn, and at any second it might send me flying backwards, and I didn’t want to miss anything in the moment I was there.” 

That’s Houston in a nutshell: she’s flung, she’s in free-fall, but meanwhile the sight is amazing and all she can do is take it all in – thoughts about survival, personal well-being, are submerged. She cycles through men with fine qualities and deep failings, having thrills and fun and grief, but as each one fades into “that was never going to work” she bobs back to the surface, more exhilarated than chastened, unable to keep the next collision from pulling her down. As she claws her way through the Tenebrae of her disastrous upbringing, the reader realizes being sensible and steady is beyond her, so we just come along for a highly entertaining ride. You should too.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is among the finest living British novelists. She moves with ease from the grand sweep of events to the telling details of select lives, and in Moon Tiger she steps from an external view of a character, to her thoughts and reactions, and into the mind of her conversant, seeing an event from an omniscient view, then through each participant. For this novel the technique is fitting: Claudia Hampton is an historian though not a dry one – she stirs up controversy, not least because she is good-looking and unattached, but also because she never hesitates to take a contrarian view of “settled events” – Cortez and Montezuma, Napoleon, Marshal Tito, the Paleolithic era… 

During WWII she works as a journalist in Cairo; in her milieu women are vastly outnumbered by young men. Talking her way onto a transport, she travels into the desert where soldiers are mustering against Rommel’s forces. Somewhere out there is her young man, the one who will not come back, whose death frees her to live independently, to build a fulfilling life without partnership or parenthood. 

“Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once.” 

This book is also about the end of life. In the story’s present, Claudia lies in a hospital room, body failing and mind wandering. We are privy to her thoughts, as she writes “the history of the world” which coincides with her world of studies and experience. In flashbacks we meet the few people close to her, though she is coy, revealing slowly, almost reluctantly, her deepest secrets. For she is secretive. Her daughter knows nothing of the love of her life, not even his name, and as Claudia dies she tells the reader, perhaps because otherwise that love dies with her unknown. But she doesn’t tell Lisa. Little wonder the younger woman, raised by her grandmothers, feels so distant: all her life, Claudia has kept her further than arms-length even as she makes occasional nurturing gestures to others. 

The web of family scarcely exists, or is woven too tight. Claudia and her year-older brother Gordon are as close – and closed – as twins, shutting out even their mother. The bond continues through their lives – his marriage to a devoted supportive wife, her decade-long affair (resulting in Lisa) with a dashing half-Russian. Gordon works his way up in the Foreign Service while Claudia patches together books, a standing column in a respected paper, occasional professorships, living with as little compromise as seems possible. But finally, that makes no difference, or not enough: death awaits. And those secrets we carry, they die with us.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, paints a stunning portrait of Black communities. Her characters, shoved to the margins by white culture, nevertheless live robustly. We meet Macon Dead (the Third), known universally as Milkman; his father Macon Dead whose fortune came from his wife’s father, a doctor, and from his own pennypinching as a landlord; Milkman’s mother Ruth, daughter of the doctor, thoroughly unhappy in her circumstances; Milkman’s aunt Pilate, younger sister of Macon, who lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Macon is not on speaking terms with these women. But when he and Pilate were children, they watched white men shoot off their father’s head as he sat on the fence of his own prospering farm awaiting their attack. 

Milkman and his best friend Guitar explore the boundaries of their world as boys, as young men, as full-fledged adults. And as those limits pinch, they push further, Milkman into his family history, Guitar into acting on behalf of their race. The WWII vets at the barbershop share their experience. “And you not going to have no ship under your command, no train to run, and you can join the 332nd if you want to and shoot down a thousand German planes all by yourself and land in Hitler’s backyard and whip him with your own hands, but you never going to have four stars on your shirt front, or even three.” 

Pilate is a social outcast – after her umbilicus dropped off, she healed with no navel. “Even a traveling sideshow would have rejected her, since her freak quality lacked that important ingredient – the grotesque. There was really nothing to see. Her defect, frightening and exotic as it was, was also a theatrical failure… Finally Pilate began to take offense... she threw away every assumption she had learned and began at zero. First off, she cut her hair… Then she tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her. When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world?” 

The novel really sings when Milkman, in search of a fortune found and abandoned by Macon and Pilate on the run from their father’s killers, travels south from Michigan, eventually to a village in Virginia where he is invited on a coon hunt. After tramping through dark woods, falling behind his partner, he sits against a tree and just listens to the dogs and hunters off somewhere in the night. “.. the dogs spoke to the men… and the men agreed or told them to change direction or to come back. All those shrieks, those rapid tumbling barks, the long sustained yells, the tuba sounds, the drumbeat sounds, the low liquid howm howm, the reedy whistles, the thin eeeee’s of a cornet, the unh unh unh bass chords. It was all language… No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another, when a man could sit down with an ape and the two converse; when a tiger and a man could share the same tree, and each understood the other; when men ran with wolves, not from or after them."

This is a beautifully written story about remarkable people – take time to read it!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford

Ostensibly The Mountain Lion (1947) is a young adult novel, but although it is about children who become youths, it is not especially for children. Or maybe it is: the unblinkered viewpoints of Ralph and his younger sister Molly, third and fourth children of the widowed Mrs. Fawcett, are as unrestrained as the minds of children – their inner thoughts are often judgmental and hateful. Their older sisters, Leah and Rachel, are socially involved, vain, and in thrall to their fearful and overdramatic mother. 

Ralph and particularly Molly are steeped in contempt. We meet them at ages ten and eight, respectively, as they leave school together with nosebleeds resulting from a bout with scarlet fever. The fever seems not only to have shrunk and weakened their bodies, but perhaps the isolation together has also warped their minds, so that they will never manage the conformity of their mother’s father, Grandpa Bonney, a fat successful man (friend of Grover Cleveland!) or his lineage. Mrs. Fawcett’s stepfather, Grandpa Kenyon, a rancher and rough-hewn man-of-the-world, is Ralph and Molly’s ideal of an adult human; the rest they despise. 

Over the course of six years we watch the two change, grow up and apart, their alienation finally including each other. And yet, their spirits are simpatico in ways they will never be with anyone else. Stafford writes with an acid pen and this tale of childhood is harsh, though leavened with humor. In it are scraps of Molly’s compositions, for even at eight she knows she is a writer, composing poems such as Gravel:
 “Gravel, gravel on the ground 
Lying there so safe and sound, 
Why is it you look so dead? 
Is it because you have no head?” 

 And, at a dinner where their mother hosts the local preacher and his wife, we have this snippet of Ralph’s observation: “The horrible pastor looked at Ralph and for some reason winked his light green, reptilian eye. The boy trembled and looked away and this time glanced with ardent loathing at Mrs. Follansbee’s round puffy face whose vulgar snub nose complemented her husband’s downward curving one… Ralph wished both of them would get bubonic plague.” 

 If you think of children as kind and innocent, this book will appall you. All the same, it rings truer to their bloody-minded imaginings than sweeter stories. Reading this may rekindle memories of your own childhood: of wishing people dead or mutilated, of dividing human society into those few you can tolerate and the majority you despise, and dreading having to move among these adults as you become one yourself.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

If I Die in a Combat Zone, by Tim O'Brien

This 1975 memoir, companion to O’Brien’s masterful novel The Things They Carried, tells of a young man drafted, inducted, prepared to flee to Sweden but, in the end, going through combat training then shipping out to Vietnam. 

Most of the chapters are short and vivid, such as “Step Carefully” which describes types of land mines and other explosive devices used abundantly by both sides, and the types of injuries they tend to inflict. He writes about what an anti-war thinker and philosopher sees and does, and learns about himself and our species, in situations of kill and be killed: “We walked to other villages, and the phantom Forty-Eighth Viet Cong Battalion walked with us. When a booby-trapped artillery round blew two popular soldiers into a hedgerow, men put their fists into the faces of the nearest Vietnamese, two frightened women living in the guilty hamlet, and when the troops were through with them, they hacked off chunks of thick black hair. The men were crying, doing this. An officer used his pistol, hammering it against a prisoner’s skull. 
     Scraps of our friends were dropped in plastic body bags. Jet fighters were called in. The hamlet was leveled, and napalm was used… But Chip and Tom were on the way to Graves Registration in Chu Lai, and they were dead, and it was hard to be filled with pity.” 

What army-grunt story would be complete without a demonstration of lethal stupidity? Alpha Company, in which O’Brien serves, has been stuck in a terrible place. “Tracks” (large army vehicles designed for transport through mud) have been ordered in for support, but crossing a rice paddy, they hit mines. The company’s new officer, blustering and ignorant, orders his men out of the Tracks. The paddy mud is knee-deep, the water thigh-deep. The grunts don’t realize, as they pile out and struggle to move, that the drivers’ strategy under bombardment is to back up. Behind the vehicles, the grunts in the Tracks’ path cannot get out of the way. 

O’Brien meets one courageous officer and a lot of noisy fools, and writes about courage as only a soldier trying to stay alive in a world determined to kill him, can. Morality is the first casualty in a combat zone, though hardly the last. To philosophize is a luxury, only available after survival has been assured. The constant risk of maiming and death leaves no space in which a warrior can act bravely: only reaction, fed by fear and panic, is possible.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

1927. 2021. To the Lighthouse is as modern a novel as anything written now. Woolf gives us complete interiority of (some of) her characters, and as we watch them hesitate, yearn, bristle, struggle, we find each effort familiar, the ways our minds work too. The story takes place at a vacation house, an old manse growing shabby, on the Scottish coast, outside a small town. The Ramsays, Mr. and Mrs., their eight children, and their boarders – scholars, dreamers – spend their summers interacting and avoiding, gathered to dine at one long table but daily scattered.

Through Mrs. Ramsay we see a household run with conscious artistry, anchoring a social world in which every person is suitably paired-off, married and content. Through Mr. Ramsay we see scholarship honored, matters dealt with well, precisely, with thrift and consideration and inevitable though unrecognized success. Through Lily Briscoe, a painter, we see the tension between vision and execution, the moment of recognition followed by years of not bringing it to life. Through William Bankes, the older solicitor whom Mrs. Ramsay hopes to pair with Lily, we see a comfort in taking one’s time, in order, in details. Through Charles Tansley, one of the young scholars, we see the difficulty of relating with ordinary people, coupled with surges of admiration for Mrs. Ramsay. Through the Ramsay children we see expressions of pure freedom and joy, tamped down by their father’s rigid matter-of-factness that yields to enthusiasm only on his own behalf, never theirs. 

Woolf’s sentences are perfect expressions of how interiority is manifested in words: “But now – [William Bankes] turned, with his glasses raised to the scientific examination of [Lily Briscoe’s] canvas. The question being one of the relations of masses, of lights and shadows, which, to be honest, he had never considered before, he would like to have it explained – what then did she wish to make of it? And he indicated the scene before them. She looked. She could not show him what she wished to make of it, could not see it even herself, without a brush in her hand. She took up once more her old painting position with the dim eyes and the absent-minded manner, subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children – her picture.” 

Woolf is experiencing a comeback these days, and rightly so: her ability to parse into words the restless movement of the human mind, helps us to dive beneath the surfaces that surround us, to quest for satisfaction, creative expression, understanding. Beyond what we see lies what it might mean, the myriad possibilities of that search and conclusion. If you read Woolf in high school, as I did, you’d benefit from revisiting her insights in the light of life experience.