Monday, September 18, 2006

Late summer novels, music, and distractions

I've mostly worked through my obsession with the fall fashion magazines--particularly Vogue. I always feel like I'm indulging a particularly guilty pleasure. Why do I pore over shoe styles and skirt lengths and goofy trends? I think it must be the fun of observing a world that I SO do not inhabit (the same reason I'm attracted to military history and battlefield accounts? That's a weird parallel). I wish all I had to worry about was the chagrin of being caught out in last year's Prada. Horrors!

I have managed to read through a spate of novels while pondering the bubble skirt and patterned tights. I went back and read Cormac McCarthy's first novel as I await the new one coming later in the month. The Orchard Keeper belongs to his early set of novels, all set in the hills and towns of East Tennessee. He has been remarkably consistent in his style and themes from the very beginning. He has a great gift for dialect and manages to capture the subtle features of language that convey both the humor and the menace hovering under the surface of everyday speech. I think he is unparalleled in writing about the natural world and the life of animals. His descriptions are detailed and transcendent at the same time. There's always the lurid streak and the unthinking violence--man's destructive and greedy spirit aimed at both nature and other men. He is, therefore, always relevant, always instructive, and can't help being prophetic.

A good, old-fashioned novel is Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire set in occupation-era Japan. Hazzard worked for British Intelligence (she's an Australian by birth) in China during WWII, so she knows whereof she speaks in this story of a couple of war-scarred veterans, both involved in post-war duties and still dealing with the trauma of their service. One of them finds healing in the relationship he develops with a much younger woman (girl, really), but he's so gosh-darned honorable the situation is robbed of creepiness. I guess that's the old-fashioned part--the love story, the idealized young woman and her terminally ill brother. Also a little creepy is the fact that the protagonist and his famous-author father shared the same mistress (though not at the same time). Well, all of this sounds a bit pot-boilerish, but Hazzard's writing is so elegant and restrained, and her concerns so solemn, that the effect is more Laurence Durrell than Harold Robbins.

I just finished Monica Ali's Brick Lane. I thought it was well-written and an interesting look at immigrant London. Of course, as a novel about Muslims and identity in Britain in the post 9/11 world, it is intriguing apart from literary merit. They are already filming it and it's creating another round of hoopla from the residents of the real Brick Lane, some of whom find it racist and derogatory. My favorite quote from the protest faction spokesman is "It's not fiction--it's lies." Right. Hmmmm... That bit would be right at home in Ali's book!

Last, but not least, I saw Bruce Cockburn recently in concert. He was wonderfully soothing somehow--soothing in the way of people who are at least mad about the same things that you are and can articulate it in a finely crafted song--another of those voices crying out in the wilderness. Effortless-seeming guitar playing and good musicians playing with him.