Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Nineteen: Losing Season by Jack Ridl

Yikes! A day late and I had written this several days ago.
Okay. Let me state up front that I'm hardly unbiased here. Jack was my poetry instructor oh so many years ago in college. The fact that I have yet to publish a single poem means this is my chance to take full revenge on him for failing to propel me to the Kinnellian heights of literature. The only problems with this idea are as follows: 1) He was/is an outstanding teacher who instilled in me a love of poetry that has lasted well over 20 years. 2) He also taught my son who is publishing some poetry, thus meaning the problem probably lies with me (as I know it does). 3) He is now a friend. 4) Losing Season is one incredible book.

In "Losing Season" Ridl has created a world which many of us know and the rest of us can enter. Here we follow the losing season of Wilson High School through the eyes of their coach, their players, the bus driver, the equipment manager's wife, the coaches' wife, the cheerleader, the ex-cheerleader, and more. Sport's fans (and everybody else) will love the conversational nature of Ridl's poetry, which has always been one of his strengths and why live readings by him are a never-miss opportunity. Ridl does not talk down to his readers, but lets his poetry speak with people. These characters are not abstract representations of some psychological angst; they are "real" people. Ridl knows that poetry is not so much created as found, and he has found poetry in the lives of people struggling through a losing season. Why losing? Because in the end we have another depressing, self-examination of a poet who finds writing cheaper than therapy? No. Ridl takes us through a losing season because such a season is what makes people pause and reflect on their roles in the game and in life.

The book reads like good records (the LP kind) used to be. Each poem can stand on its own, but as a whole we get an entire story which gets fuller and stronger as we move toward the end. Ridl divides the books into four quarters, putting the entire book in the context of a game. His main focus is the coach, the predominant voice in the book. He is a sympathetic character who seeks no sympathy. He can be tough on students, in awe of his daughter, overwhelmed by coaching, and bored by teaching. His emotions hit the range, yet he seems someone who is comfortable with himself if not his place in life. A history teacher, in the end he shocks his students. "'History is hell,'"/he says. The class/looks up. 'Go find a job.'" He notes that on his school mailbox he has gone from being "Mr. Daniels" to being "Coach." That role, that title, have now become his identity.

But Ridl shows the impact of that identity on everyone else around the coach. His daughter is the "coach's daughter" and his wife the "coach's wife." They are identified by him, suffer the losses and public humiliation with him, and dream alongside him of other alternatives in life. But here they are in the midst of a community, surrounded by an assistant coach who simply wants to be the head coach (a very funny character), a band director who has always been sidelines for sports, an an equipment manager's wife who eats alone instead of attending the games.

One student making several appearances is "Scrub," the eternal bench warmer who never gets in the game and whose main role is to play "tough defense" during practice. What emerges over several poems is a young man who goes home to a dad drinking beer and watching tv, but never goes the games. He dreams of injuries to gain him the sympathy of girls and ends up dancing to the "applause of the falling snow" in the light of a street lamp. When his little sister says she is "scared the sun will go out," he takes her hand but offers no argument as she notes "'But it's fire,' she said./ 'Fire goes out.'" Scrub is a person we want to reach out, but in the end we see that he will probably be fine in life even without our help.

The book is not all character studies, and Ridl has the master hand for the well turned phrase. The empty gym is warmed by "The furnace, reliable/as grace" and as the young cheerleader turns from the mirror "On the/way out, she turns and/looks over her shoulder." He manages the phrasing throughout so that it is never forced, arising naturally from his conversation with the reader.

Anyone familiar with Ridl's work, and it is all worthwhile, will hear a familiar voice. But this book strikes new ground in its overarching storyline and material. Ridl has written a book which is needed desperately in today's increasingly fragmented world of writing. This is a book of poetry for the poetry fans, but more importantly is a book that can bring people into poetry. Sports fans will recognize themselves and others and be able to interact with the poems. The non-sports people will also find plenty of characters to grab onto and a storyline to follow because in the end this is not a book about basketball, but about people. Ridl understands and expresses those other voices, allowing us insight into people we sometimes tend to see as two dimensional, whether it be the jock or the custodian. People are not two-dimensional to Ridl, and the book fills out because of his refusal to overlook anyone.

Ridl is well placed to write such a book. Not only is he a successful poet, he is the son of a basketball coach and played sports himself. He knows of whence he speaks and we all benefit as a result. Give this book to everyone you know and watch the world of poetry grow new followers.

Reading Challenges

Ha! None this week. I read the book twice and returned to parts at different times. This is great stuff and the reading was nothing but enjoyable.

Up Next
Dean Kuiper's non-fiction book: "Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado's War to Save American Wilderness." Sounded interesting and I've already started -- learning plenty of new information about environmentalists with an...uh...aggressive bent. Read a short review on my favorite web email, The Very Short List, so off I go.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Eighteen: Departing at Dawn by Gloria Lise

In an extremely well crafted first novel, Gloria Lisé has put a human face on the story of 30,000 "disappeared" people who lost their lives from 1976-1983 in Argentina. The military government which took over Isabel Peron's country proceeded to eliminate anyone felt to be a threat to their position. A lawyer and professor, Lisé must have been tempted to add yet another non-fiction account to a historical tragedy, but in this finely tuned work of fiction she manages to show the impact the government's hunting of dissenters has on one family and as a result show the human toll that numbers cannot reflect.

We follow the incidents surrounding Berta, a young woman studying to be a doctor who watches her lover thrown to his death from a balcony. A union organizer, he was rumored to have money set aside and government officials think Berta may have it and she is forced to flee her family and city to go to relatives she barely knows in the country. Where Lisé avoids another hero/heroine surviving the chaos of the times is by placing her main character in a serene, slow-paced setting. While all around her the country reels, in her ancestral home she finds safety and at times peace.

But of course, no family is without history either, and here Berta learns more of where she has come from and how she fits in her own tradition. She does not escape her own tainted past as she meets the Indians her family has forced into a small area of existence. She sees other current concerns as she travels with the Armenian midwife and learns of the miracle of birth in an area with little access to medicine. She learns of the personal failings and misfortunes of her own family, placing her own struggles in perspective.

Lisé's style is sparse, clean, and confident. She trusts her story enough to avoid creating judgments, instead letting the reader draw their own conclusions. At times the chapters seem to jump, but it becomes clear she is creating a backdrop for the world in which Berta finds herself. Early on we get a chapter entitled "This is My Family," and these are augmented later by character sketches in "Aunt Avelina," "Tristan Nepomuceno," "Lusaper Gregorian," and other chapters. Lisé brings to these characters a believable fullness which shows the lives of others trying to survive in a world turned upside down. Many of them survive quite well since they are comfortable with themselves and have seen other difficult times. Lusaper Gregorian, the midwife, is a refugee from the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, so her take on what is occurring is always influenced by what she has survived. These people also create a context for Berta and for how we view Berta.

The novel also succeeds because Berta is such an identifiable victim. She was not involved in any "subversive" activities herself, but the fact that her lover was makes her guilty. She does not face the government and become a martyr, but understandably runs for her life. Berta's time with her new family is slow and probably at times quite boring. While others may be looking for her, she is simply biding her time for approximately two years, waiting to know what to do next. But of course, this is the most important type of hero. An everyday person caught up in the midst of madness and making whatever rational decisions so she can to survive until another opportunity arises.

Lisé herself was 15 when the overthrow occurred, so she lived through this time and likely saw many such simple heroes. By creating a novel following the story of one person she has managed to make the tragedy of the government known while not letting us get lost in facts and numbers. In a similar vein Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien has taught more about the realities of the war through his fiction than many non-fiction books have ever succeeded in doing. One hopes the Lisé will continue to use the novel as a vehicle to express her knowledge, since she does so powerfully.

Reading Challenges

Truly, I thought this was the week of failure. In addition to this book I reread the final 2/3 of Zorba the Greek, and even worse, was waylaid by a bad spell of allergies (and possibly a sinus infection, but I'm avoiding the co-pay right now). Usually a late night reader, I found myself in bed before 10:30pm on three nights, and Friday night I worked a concert and came home exhausted. Fortunately, not only is Lisé's novel relatively short, it is very interesting so I was anxious to continue. However, I did realize that one good illness could not me off target, but with a note from my doctor my readers may excuse me if I ever fail momentarily in my goal.

Next Up

I have received Jack Ridl's new poetry collection, Losing Season, and have already read (and loved) about 1/3 of it. I may just focus on this for next week as I tend to read poetry through a couple of times anyway. If I get time I may turn to "Operation Biteback," a non-fiction account of a radical environmentalist, or Lara Vapnyar's collection of stories, "Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love." I really enjoyed her first collection of stories entitled "There are Jews in My House."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Seventeen: A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

The coming of age novel is a traditional and logical starting point for any aspiring novelist. In this time of many books and fewer readers, the challenge is to create a unique voice which can be heard above the din. In Randa Jarrar's debut, "A Map of Home," we find a voice which rises above the din to give us a modern and insightful look at how more young people come of age. Jarrar's own international upbringing lends support to her creation of Nidali, born in Boston to a Palestinian father and Egyptian/Greek mother, raised in Kuwait, chased by the Iraqi invasion into Egypt and eventually landing in Texas all on her way to turning 16. While hardly the resume of most teenagers, Nidali's unusual journey reflects the growing international background of the United States. Children are no longer simply immigrants from one country, but instead a biological and geographical mix of many places.

Nidali is an honest narrator and the reader feels at times drawn and at times embarrassed by the decisions and actions of this young girl. Her father (her Baba) hits on her a regular basis, but Nidali sees this as normal for her culture and Jarrar withholds judgment. This is Jarrar's strongest trait as a writer -- her ability to trust her story and her narrator without creating explanations. A coming of age story in which we learn too many "lessons" will cease to be a coming of age story, instead resembling a how-to book for parents and their adolescents. Here we see things as Nidali sees them, and her view is wider than that of her family, in part because she is the sum of different parts. She is forced to examine herself in the context of different nationalities and cultures in order to understand herself and her family.

Much of her young life is spent in Kuwait where she excels at school, explores her sexuality, and deals with the drama of family life. Baba is a frustrated poet who works as an architect, and mother is a frustrated concert pianist who finally obtains a piano and spends her days playing Chopin and ignoring her "wifely" duties. A thinly sketched younger brother hovers in the background, but Jarrar never really fleshes him out so he tends to simply serve as a foil to others. When Iraq invades Kuwait they eventually flee to their summer home in Egypt. Along the way one car burns up, Nidali's first period arrives, and Baba bribes guards with whiskey or selections from his collection of silk ties.

After the war is over Baba is told he cannot return to Kuwait since he is Palestinian, and he eventually lands a job in Texas. When the family joins him they end up in a trailer home, Nidali finds her way through school, and her mother puts up with being asked if she speaks Spanish. Jarrar does an excellent job of pointing out how difficult this transition can be. Even Nidali, who is usually two steps ahead of her family in figuring out the cultural landscape, has to be dressed by some new found friends. We also find the familiar immigrant struggles of which language is to be spoken, the clash of old and new cultures, and the quicker acclamation of the culture by the youngest in the family. The story culminates in Nidali's need to decide between staying with her family or moving into yet another landscape for college.

The title, "A Map of Home," fits well for an understanding of the book. She realizes that her map, like that of Palestine, is constantly shifting and is at times of her own creation and at other times created by outside forces. But for such a constant traveler her map of home is something she carries within and redraws as she moves forward in life.

Jarrar pulls this off with a fast moving narrative style which does not shrink from the realities of growing up in what at times are life threatening circumstances. This book came out of Jarrar's work in her Master of Fine Arts program and at times it betrays the overwriting of a writer who may yet be seeking to trust her own voice. It is one which should be trusted since Jarrar has the potential to add a fresh voice to the literary landscape.

Reading Challenges

Reality has hit! This week became much more difficult to maintain my goal. I worked at night on a couple of film showings and had a jazz concert (the excellent Brubeck Brothers Quartet) to oversee as well. In addition, I had a final report to finish for a public school committee I'm co-chairing and I'm back at Zorba the Greek since I'm teaching it in class. "A Map of Home" is a pretty quick read so I made it, but this coming week does not look much better. I'm tougher than I thought on my students so the reading for Zorba is heavy. Plus, I've not taught the novel before so I'm now reading it and taking notes with class in mind -- slow going. In the end I made it, but without my goal this would have been a week to back off.

Next Up

"Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War," by Gloria Lise. No idea how this will be, but it sounded interesting and I received a review copy so I'm ready to try it. Jarrar's book was also a review copy and I have another collection coming. Doing the reviews is helpful because even though I select which books to review, I'm still reading books I would not normally buy. As a result my reading is stretching out a bit and the reviews keep me focused on new writing. I expected to reread a few more classics by now, but I like the push for new writing. Lise's book also has an obvious advantage to me this coming week -- it is only 159 pages long!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Sixteen: Direct Red: A Surgeon's View of Her Life-Or-Death Profession

The beauty of internal organs sliced open, the obsession with neatness surrounding an operating room, and the hypnotic and amplified sounds of paramedics rushing into a hospital. These could be elements in a horror novel featuring a sadistic surgeon, or they could be Gabriel Weston's descriptions of her foray into the surgical world.

Weston is a British surgeon who now works part time as an ear, nose, and throat surgical specialist, and her book offers a fascinating look into a world seen by few. This is not a "tell all" book in which she destroys the reputations of fellow surgeons, in fact she beats herself up more than anyone else, but instead an honest look into the humanity behind the surgeons' masks. And humans are what we find. All intelligent, but some more skilled than others. There are the male chauvinists who chase young women, the older women who have passed on family life to focus on their career, and a range of young surgeons in training all trying to gain the confidence they seen in their older colleagues.

Weston is a gifted writer who actually studied literature before deciding on a medical career. The combination works as she breathes new life into the medical genre with her unique approach to what she learned. Of her time in the emergency room, she takes away more than medical knowledge. "I came to see the ER as a sort of departure lounge in which every patient had come to say goodbye to someone or something, often with no warning, usually with no time or peace or preparation."

The book is arranged by themes, including sections on death, voices, beauty, ambition, children, changes, and home. At times she is hilarious as in the section on sex where she describes her first unsuccessful attempt to put a catheter on a male while being watched by a number of operating room staff. But she balances the humor with a touching story of being attracted to one patient who eventually offered her to share his bed, a line she dared not crossed and which ended their mutual interest. It is dangerous for a doctor to admit they may have romantic feelings for a patient, but Weston is honest in facing her challenges as a young surgeon.

She even admits to a general distaste for the entire childbirth routine, but can wax eloquently about the beauty of a body as it is opened for surgery. In fact, her one failing in the book is the detail she gives to some of her surgical experiences. Her description of a tonsillectomy going wrong gets lost in details a fellow surgeon may appreciate, but are hard for the layman to follow. But these instances are rare and she does pause to explain medical terminology in a way most readers can understand.

Nor are the larger lessons in life missed during her time in the hospital. She reflects back on a visit to Ben, a quiet 10-year-old boy who dies of a rare brain tumor. She visited him earlier in the week because his headache was getting worse and she settled for prescribing more painkillers to get him through the night. Later, after the birth of her own children, Weston better understands what her role was as a doctor that night. "I know now that when a sick child cries in the night, medicine is the last thing on his or her mind, and that what Ben needed from me that night was to give him whatever small amount of my heart's warmth I could afford." It is this reflective side of Weston which gives the book its greatest strength as she does not shrink from an honest appraisal of what she could have done differently. "I still feel ashamed of how I behaved that night," she says, a startlingly honest admission from anyone.

In the end we see her decision to narrow her scope of work in order to become a part-time surgeon and spend more time with her children. She has a schedule which gets her home just before her children were off to bed, and she is content. But one minor encounter changes her direction. Visiting the children's intensive care unit she sees one baby curled up tight and small. "So compactly, completely sleeping that I had felt something deepen, as if a single thin note in me has warmed into a major chord...I had experienced that sharp parental craving for nearness with a child." And thus she beings her life beyond the hospital.

Weston gives us a touching, funny, and most importantly, human look at the world of surgery and the people who inhabit it. It is a story which impacts us all not just because most will eventually face a surgeon, but because we all constantly face life.

Reading Challenges

Again, another easy week. This is a short, easy-to-read book and I had no problem getting it finished. All that is about to change. I'm now rereading Zorba the Greek as a I begin to discuss it in class, I've had a few night performances to handle now that school is back in session, and I'm trying to fit in my "extra" reading. I'm confident I'll get it all done, but I know it will be a bit more challenging.

Next Up

"A Map of Home" by Randa Jarrar. This is another book I received to review (as was Direct Red) so I'm trying to keep up with those. I like this approach since I'm reading books I would not normally pick up, although I still get to choose what I want to review.

And...the big news is that Jack Ridl's new book is out so I hope to get that this week as well.