Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Thirty-Two: The Storm by Frederick Buechner

It takes a lot of nerve to update Shakespeare and I'm sure there have been failed attempts in the past. But Frederick Buechner takes it one step further and not only updates The Tempest, but adds a Christian element to it as well. Well, what you do you expect from a Presbyterian minister who is as comfortable with fiction as he is theology and has a sense of humor to boot.

The Storm uses Shakespeare's play as the basis, but Buechner avoids trying to recreate the scenario item by item. Considering the fantastical nature of much of the play, this is a good idea and someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare could read the book, find an interesting story, and never the connection make (or need). [Anyone wishing for a quick refresher on The Tempest could read the BBC's humorous, tabloid, 60-second version.]

Buechner's story centers around Kenzie (Prospero) who has left New York in disgrace after fathering a child with a young woman he should have been caring for (this episode alone could keep us talking for some time). His brother, Dalton (Antonio), in an effort at clarity exposes and shames not only Kenzie, but the young woman who gave birth to daughter named Bree (Miranda). It is the shame for the mother that Kenzie cannot forgive his brother. Eventually Kenzie finds himself living on an island after marrying Willow (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) who shares the house with her 40-something, wind surfing Averill (Ariel) and served by Clavert (Caliban). Dalton is called to the island by Miss Sickert (Sycorax), who owns the island and oversees much of what happens. He calls on his semi-estranged stepson, Nandy (Ferdinand), to accompany him.

Thus with all the characters assembled we have simply the action to take place, and it does. Perhaps because we know the ending already Buechner rushes this section along to quickly. It is not often I wish for a book to be longer, but the meeting of the brothers and the subsequent tempest could have been expanded. The strength of the book lies in the outset where Kenzie's wandering life as an author is pulled into focus as he begins to work with the homeless. He throws himself into this new understanding of life, even losing friends and a wife with his commitment, until finally he becomes to close to what he is learning about.

Buechner is a Christian, but this no "Jesus-in-a-box" type story. Kenzie's religious leanings are mystical rather than dogmatic, and much of what he believes is inspired by the saints he studied in writing one of his books. His new life is clearly that of a conversion, although he himself does not understand it. But he senses a greater power when describing his time in the "rich people's chapel" he notes that "[e]ven on the warmest, most breathless Sundays he sometimes felt a stirring of cool air about his nostrils. He could not make it happen although he had tried...He was not prepared to say where it came from or to what purpose, but what he took it to mean was that the weather of the world is as distinct from true weather as the sultry stillness is from the coming storm." This Prospero is no sorcerer, but he is tied into something more powerful than he is. More importantly, in a life seeking forgiveness he realizes he is already forgiven and has the power to forgive others, namely his brother. This is certainly an interpretation Shakespeare could live with.

If you are not familiar with Buechner's work he is certainly worth the effort. I've read some of his novels, and his work has been a finalist for Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so he gets the critical acclaim as well. His output is varied, but visiting the Buechner Institute is as good of starting place as any. I've read more than once and given more than once one of his non-fiction works, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, which is hilarious, insightful, and thoughtful all at once. In looking into his life a bit lately I found that he studied at Union Theological Seminary with one of the most influential theologians in my life, Paul Tillich. This helps explains Buechner's confidence in God's message that he does not need to have an author screaming conversion every other page -- as Prospero would certainly know, God is not dependent on humanity.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, 4. 1

Shakespearian Updates to Recommend?

After reading this I'm curious about what other updates of Shakespeare's work people out there have read and enjoyed. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is a personal favorite. I read the book when it first came out and was into it quite a ways when suddenly I realized it was King Lear, one of my favorite plays. Let me know what other ones are out there and we'll all have a list to pursue.

Reading Challenges
It was Christmas just a few days ago (Merry Christmas!) so things were busy. I again chose well since The Storm  is a short book (199 pages) and I knew Buechner was a good writer. I actually read this in a few sittings -- it was tougher getting the time to sit down and write this!

Up Next
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji, and actually I'm a bit apprehensive. It is a coming of age story set in Iran during the 1973 revolution, and I'm hoping to get more out of the Iran part of things then a romantic story. Some reviewers warn men not to be scared off by the pinkish cover withe the rose at the forefront, so I'm taking their word that my macho sensibilities will not be offended.

Happy reading!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Thirty-One: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Books like this are really the reason I started this one book a week challenge; a highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories which has spent far too long sitting unread on my bookshelf. So with a busy week and the need for good reading I decided to grab something I should have read long ago. I wish I had since I now realize I've been missing a great writer.

Lahiri's first publication received almost too much success, but in reading this collection one can see what all the excitement is about. Lahiri examines the gulf for Indian/Bengali immigrants struggling to understand their new country (the U.S.), maintain a relationship with their place of birth or ancestral home, and find their place in life. What she is exploring is hardly new territory. In fact, she ends the collection with the narrator saying, "I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home and certainly I am not the first...As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Precisely in this "ordinariness" is where Lahiri manages to create a range of outstanding stories. There is simply not a weak link in the collection, although they refuse to follow any formulaic route. The title story actually takes place in India, but the immigrants in question are Indians who now live in the U.S. coming to the country as tourists. Lahiri sketches the characters quickly, but just when you think a flat, stereotypical character has emerged she shows a new depth to the person. Mr. Kapasi is driver taking them to their tourist destination, but he also makes money as an interpreter for a doctor (e.g. interpreter of maladies). It is this fact which awakens the mother/wife of the family he is taking along and she seeks to share her maladies in desperate search for a cure. Of course, her maladies are not physical, but symptomatic of the society in which she now resides.

But Lahiri is not by any means anti-American society -- it exists in so much as her characters interact with it. While it may give them freedoms that Indian society has not offered, we see that in the end it is up to the people to decide how that society will influence them. Some retreat into traditional lifestyles in which they find comfort, but little interaction. Others take to the new society and their new life reflects these choices.

In "This Blessed House" we see the conflicts with society in a humorous story surrounding the Indian owners of a house finding Christian artifacts in all parts of their house. The previous owners have left many small items behind which the wife finds fascinating and displays on their mantel, much to the surprise of her husband. But when a statue of Mary shows up when raking leaves, her insistence on displaying it goes against his concern of being thought Christian. A compromise is reached, but when they host a house warming party the husband realizes that his wife is also something that requires a new look as he begins to see her through the eyes of others.

No story is more moving than "A Temporary Matter" in which a couple deals with the loss of a stillborn son. As they attempt to move on with their lives they find themselves incapable of being honest with one another until a temporary evening blackout gives them the opportunity to face the truth. It is a touching story which completely skirts sentimentality and instead shows the pain such a loss brings to a young couple.

Overall the collection is outstanding for several reasons. Not only does Lahiri present the immigrant experience in a variety of interesting ways, she does so with respect to all the cultures involved. Her stories are about people and how life impacts them and how they respond, but she sees people as the driving force. In addition, the stories are incredibly well written without the clunky dialogue or plot shifts so common in first attempts.

The book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and since then Lahiri has published two novels, "The Namesake" (which was made into a movie) and "The Unaccustomed Earth" in 2008. She was born in London but raised in the U.S. and has dealt with many of the issues covered, although certainly not all given the range. You can read more about her at Jhumpa Lahiri's Website. A better bio and interesting story of her name is at The Asian Heroes Project.

Also, the Bengali culture is really at the heart of the collection. I will not claim to be familiar with the whole history here, so I visited the always reliable (?) Wikipedia and offer this summary (and the link to the site):  

Bengal (Bengali: বঙ্গ Bôngo, বাংলা Bangla, বঙ্গদেশ Bôngodesh or বাংলাদেশ Bangladesh), is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent. Today it is mainly divided between the sovereign state of the People's Republic of Bangladesh (previously East Bengal / East Pakistan) and West Bengal in India, although some regions of the previous kingdoms of Bengal (during local monarchical regimes and British rule) are now part of the neighboring Indian states of Bihar, Assam, Tripura and Orissa. The majority of Bengal is inhabited by Bengali people (বাঙালি Bangali) who speak the Bengali language (বাংলা Bangla).

Reading Challenges

Even though I knew this would be a tough week, this was a tough week! I had 17 research papers to grade, one meeting late at night, and just the hectic pace of pre-Christmas issues to address. Lately I've been finishing books midweek and writing a day or two ahead of time, but here I sit at 11:14pm finally finishing my blog. I did start a minor expansion this week by including some info/links on the author and other information I've found interesting. I usually look at this information anyway so I should be better about sharing it.

Coming Up
At the moment, I'm not sure. I could not find the version of The Christmas Carol I wanted and am now just thinking of grabbing another book off the bookshelf. Anne Tyler needs to make it on this blog sometime since I do not think she gets the critical acclaim she should, but I'm not sure where I will end up. It will be a surprise -- how exciting! 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Thirty: Assembling Georgia by Beth Carpel

Moving back into the world of book reviews this week I approached this novel with a bit of skepticism. A debut novel with little publicity swirling around it and clearly published by a small publisher (self publisher?) with little publicity. Like the big companies know what they are doing?

Beth Carpel's debut novel reminds us of what so many authors today seem to lack -- the gift of storytelling. Why is literary fiction afraid of the mysteries we encounter in life, instead engaging in the backward recitation of a plot we later piece together. Few writers can handle that style with success. Carpel apparently missed the class on how a novel is supposed to work and instead turned out a novel which runs as smoothly as the motorcycle around which the story centers.

Like the motorcycle, this book has some crashes and parts which need to be repaired, but overall Carpel has turned about a well-oiled story. Georgia is the central character and her life of underachievement is interrupted by the weekly arrival of motorcycle parts to her home. With no clue as to who is sending her the parts or why, Georgia's final package includes an instruction manual and the next step is obvious. Not a mechanically inclined person (or so she thinks) she gets the help of her Uncle Emery, one of more interesting characters to show up in a novel in recent memory. Emery lives up north in the woods of Minnesota digesting a range of books and fixing things up in return for what he needs. He takes Georgia in and together they work on building the motorcycle and rebuilding Georgia's life, or as Carpel puts it "Assembling Georgia."

Carpel holds the mystery of who sent the parts hidden for quite some time, although in the end the discovery is as anti-climatic as life usually is -- some poetic license here would be allowed. Along the way we meet Georgia's good friend Corrine, which shows that level of friendship in which the relationship is always strong no matter what the distance between times connecting with each other may be. A childhood acquaintance, Frank, also gets a starring role as we get caught up on his past troubles and current struggles, all of which are encased in a likable man who seems to be as adrift as Georgia.

Once the bike is built Georgia does the quintessential road trip, giving her time to learn more about herself than she realized she was missing. Characters come in and out and Carpel manages to create strong characters with a few deft strokes. Once the ride is done she is again faced with life, but we now see a woman who is ready for future challenges. The readiness is good as Carpel is not done throwing challenges at her, but at the risk of spoiling the plot we leave that to the reader.

Carpel is not subtle about her intentions, and whether that is the result of a first novel writer trying to make a point or simply an honest writer, the result is a story which invites the reader along rather than daring them to continue. In fact, the unanswered questions in this novel keep the reader moving quickly since the element of suspense works well. We want to know how Georgia turns out. We want to know who sent the motorcycle. We want to know what demons Frank is facing but will not share with anyone. Carpel tells a good story and we keep wanting the story to go on. She recognizes this by giving us an epilogue, which fast forwards us seven years, but she could have left it out because we knew where her characters were going.

Even when the story stutters, as with some faltering dialogue and a few too many touching moments, the result is still endearing in its open attempt to draw the reader in to another person's life. Carpel's characters are real and easy for readers to relate to. They are complex people who make good decisions and bad decisions and sometimes no decisions at all. At times you want to yell at them, and at other times you want to be on the back of their motorcycle. There are no angels or demons here, just ordinary people not only making the best of what life offers them, but learning to create something when they do not like what they have been handed. Call it a coming of age story for the middle aged -- or for people of any age who need renewal. How many novels can you say that about?

Carpel's website is worth checking out, especially after reading the book since she gives the photo version of Georgia's motorcycle trip.

Reading Challenges
I really thought his book was going to be a challenge, but it was a fast and enjoyable read. Whenever I look forward to getting some time to read I know I'm on the right track. Now next week...

Coming Up
I wanted to get in the Christmas spirit with A Christmas Carol, but cannot find the edition I have that I really want to read. Plus, I get to read 17 research papers in the next week. Yikes! I forgot about that challenge when coming up with this book a week idea. This could be tough! But I'm choosing a shorter book which has just a bit of praise (including a Pulitzer), Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" -- a collection of short stories. I already read and really liked the first story so it should all work out.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Tweny-Nine: A Mercy by Toni Morrison and 29(b) A Village Life by Louise Gluck

Toni Morrison has already cemented her place in the literary world (the Nobel prize helps) and although not a prolific writer, she rarely misses. Beloved has to rank as one of best novels of the 20th century and makes my all time short list. It is the type of book which reminds you of the power of a story to physically wear you down -- reading that novel is an interactive experience.

A Mercy, Morrison's ninth and latest novel, is a short work (167 pages) that reaffirms Morrison's gift for drawing a reader in and not allowing them to simply "read." While it lacks the final impact of Beloved, it is nevertheless a moving addition to her legacy. This time Morrison takes us back to America before the U.S., when slavery is beginning to take hold but the slaves may be African, Native American, or indentured white Europeans. It revolves around the family that Jacob Vaark creates. Vaark has inherited land he does not know how to farm, but he has an eye for making money. While refusing to be involved directly in the slave trading business, he does own a Native American slave, Lina, has taken on a girl rejected by others, Sorrow, and finally takes a girl as payment on a debt owned whose mother encourages the deal to improve her daughter's lot. With his wife Rebekka they form a small, unusual family. Vaark's boys all die in infancy, and his daughter is killed after being kicked by a horse.

Morrison's characters are strong. This is a book without saints and sinners, instead populated by humans with a tendency toward inconsistency -- in other words, normal people. Vaark is a compassionate owner with a strong moral sense of the indecency of slavery, but he ends up making money in the rum business which he knows is built on the muscle of slaves elsewhere. Lina is for some years his coworker and equal, but she is not above drowning a new born infant to save her from a mother she considers unfit. Florens, the young girl he takes on, is content with life until love enters and defeats her.

By creating such characters Morrison challenges the stereotypes of people and institutions with which we are too familiar. Lina, the Native American, knows she should understand the art of healing, but she was taken too soon from her mother. The quiet Rebekka comes from a life where family entertainment consisted of watching hangings and quarterings. These people are more complex than they appear. We learn about them slowly as Morrison forgoes the traditional narrative timeline and instead presents the tale in a Faulkneresque style of letting different characters tell the story and the use of flashbacks. Indeed, like Faulkner (I'm not sure Morrison will like being compared to a white, Southern male, but oh well) we see the story as the crumbling of paradise. It is not just a crumbling of Vaark's paradise (although the serpants engraved on the gate clearly mean something!) but of the soon-to-be-born United States.

Although not a central character, the story of Sorrow (who later gives herself a new name), turns out to offer the most hope in this dismal landscape. Once her story is told we understand her why she is given such a name, but it is she who is successful in reinventing herself and forging a new future. Florens seems to have the most chance of success, but when she does truly own herself she loses her own value. Lina appears as the strongest, but she is tied to the family she cannot be part of and lacks the courage to step away.

Morrison's greatest accomplishment here is perhaps creating a novel which has the potential to be only bleak, but she shows hope and goodness trying to get through. While in the end most of it fades, characters like Sorrow give the hope we need to make such stories bearable. It is not because we like make-believe stories; instead, it is because hope is part of our fabric and we are drawn to its reality in Morrison's work.

Louise Gluck's A Village Life will continue Gluck's leading role in American poetry, although it presents a more narrative style than her earlier work. We are presented with a unnamed, vaguely Mediterranean setting in an unclear time. In other words, the focus here is on the people.

The theme is familiar, but Gluck's presentation is unique. Here people, you and old, are faced with the reality that life moves forward whether they are ready or not. Indeed, our own choices may move the direction slightly, but finding our ultimate destination is clearly something we do not control. While we expect this in the older people facing death, Gluck knows that such experiences are not lost on the youth.

In "Noon" we find the tale of a "boy and girl" heading out into the meadow where they talk and picnic.

The rest--how two people can lie down on the blanket--
they know about it but they're not ready for it.
They know people who've done it, as a kind of game or trial--
then they say, no, wrong time, I think I'll just keep being a child.

But your body doesn't listen. It knows everything know,
it says you're not a child, you haven't been a child for a long time.

As the poems move on we see that many of these youth listen to their bodies and find their life now laid out for them. Some go away and come back, but they only suffer more.

To my mind, you're better off if you stay;
that way, dreams don't damage you.

This theme of longing for what we cannot have continues with age.

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young--

While all this starts to sound like another aging poet becoming depressed over life, Gluck is not complaining. Instead, even as seen in the stanzas above she finds those moments in life to enjoy and sees change, no matter how much we resist it, as a normal part of life. These changes in our lives are inevitable, but not to be mourned. But she is intentional about recognizing where we are and living in the moment we have.

In "Walking at Night" we see an older woman who takes advantage of the fact that men no longer desire her to take her walks at night where "her eyes that used never to leave the ground/are free now to go where they like." She is rejuvenated by her age and situation and seeks nor needs any pity.

This joy is seen best in "Abundance," a glorious ode to spring which celebrates its newness while recognizing its transience. A boy touches a girl "so he walks home a man, with a man's hungers." The fruit ripens, "baskets and baskets from a single tree/so some rots every year/ and for a few weeks there's too much." The mice scamper through the harvest, the moon is full, "Nobody dies, nobody goes hungry" and the only sound is "the roar of the wheat." Gluck calls on us to revel in these moments without fearing what has preceded and what is to come.

Much of Gluck's intent is seen in three poems all entitled "Burning Leaves." As the leaves burn we are left with little, but the burning is important in creating room for the new. We are offered no promise of anything more.

How fast it all goes, how fast the smoke clears.
And where the pile of leaves was,
an emptiness that suddenly seems vast.

But while the fire is burning, it has life.

And then, for an hour or so, it's really animated
blazing away like something alive.
death making room for life

Gluck has created a volume that will benefit from repeated readings, and her easy, unhurried rhythm makes the return that much easier. She has the gift of all great poets in seeing the commonplace, and finding in it a celebration of life as it is.

Reading Challenges
Okay, this is starting to get old, but really this is not much of challenge with a good book. Morrison's book was a two night read and well spent time. I read Gluck's work over three nights and reread much of it as well.

Up Next
Back to a review book. Actually, I posted my review of Gluck on Blogcritics, but I (unfortunately) was using a library edition instead of a free book. Next week I'm reading "Assembling Georgia" by Beth Carpel, a debut novel.

Happy reading!