Thursday, March 26, 2009

Angels of Destruction

Author Keith Donohue's story gets off to a quick start -- a knock at a lonely old lady's door in the dead of a winter night, a small, threadbare child standing in the cold. The woman is Margaret Quinn, a widow who has never fully recovered from the loss of her own daughter who ran away to join a revolutionary cult -- the Angels of Destruction -- as a teenager a decade before. The strangely knowing nine-year-old is either a runaway herself, or perhaps an angel, born of the woman's prayer to have her own daughter returned. There is a bit of ambiguity introduced as to the role of the girl, who stays with Margaret to be passed off as her grandchild in an elaborate ruse. But the novel definitely favors the supernatural identity of Norah, the waif, who can perform miracles that amaze her fellow third-graders and her best friend, Sean. Another darker, more sinister presence hovers in the background, always watching, insinuating himself among Mrs. Quinn's acquaintances, asking pointed questions about the mysterious Norah Quinn.

There is one brief mention of the name Noriel, which the dark, watching presence inscribes on a snowy windshield early in the novel, suggesting a link with Norah. I did not read up on my angel lore while reading this, but according to, Noriel is the angel of the fourth month, which doesn't really shed any light on the plot, but maybe someone else knows more about this than I do.

Whether you think Donohue pulls off the supernatural part of the story or not, the novel is really about the unambiguously human characters -- awkward, fatherless Sean, lonely Margaret, and her wayward daughter Erica. The themes are familiar ones -- forgiveness, redemption, hope, faith. A novel like this, with one foot in the invisible and supernatural, invites comparison with someone like John Crowley, and it's sure to pale in that comparison. That's not really fair, of course -- it's like comparing every novel about a dysfunctional Southern family with Faulkner or every fishing tale with Moby Dick. My excuse is that I've actually been reading Crowley concurrently. That being said, I think Donohue has written a very engaging story with some minor flaws. I enjoyed it. I wanted to see how he wound it all up in the end, and how the characters fared. Here's a short quote to give you a little flavor of the story:

She was used to moving numbly through the desolation of her life. Like the survivors of momentous devastation, she patched her sorrow and moved on to some semblance of normalcy. And now the girl had come, and Margaret sensed the cracks in her will to abide nothing but the memory of her daughter. Everything, bad as it was, had been fine, bearable. But this morning, Norah had shattered the world.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Choosing one book among the thousands

Oh, what exciting blog posts I come up with. This one is just me thinking out loud about what I'm going to read next, as I just picked up a couple of requests from ye olde library. In addition to the books I have in my home stash just waiting for the right moment, I've also been thinking of going on a tear through the Victorians (again).

From the library, I just picked up a brand new title that I saw reviewed in last week's NYTimes, Angels of Destruction, by Keith Donohue, whom I haven't read before; and also, Brian Hall's novel about Lewis and Clark, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, mostly on the strength of how much I loved Hall's The Saskiad. I connected with that book in a way that I've done with very few novels. While I wasn't reared in a hippie commune like the protagonist Saskia, I did have the same freedom of movement growing up in the country with lots of time to myself and indulgent parents who just let me lay about reading and fiddling with words. Like her, I was totally immersed in mythology and lived in my imagination, feeling like an outsider most of the time. I thought Hall completely nailed the funny inner life of an awkwardish, teen girl with a balance of humor, seriousness, and poignancy. It's been several years ago that I read it, and I would have to resort to my old-timey, handwritten book journals to fill in more details.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about Dickens and the Victorians, in general, after reading Eminent Victorians last fall. It's one of my favorite literary periods, home to one in my triumvirate of writer-goddesses, George Eliot (the other two being Austen and Woolf). I've read quite a lot of that company, yet with some rather enormous gaps -- not much Dickens (only A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and no Trollope at all. So, first on my list is Bleak House, which I was assigned to read way back in a "rise of the English novel" class in college, but skipped out on -- I was just too overwhelmed at the time to plow past that first twenty odd pages about the fog in London. But when I finish it, I can say it took me twenty-five years to read Bleak House!

I really cleared the decks to read War and Peace over the winter and didn't get distracted, but like most serious readers, I always have so many candidates crowding their way to the front! I'm usually interested in about fourteen things at the same time, but I've learned that I don't really enjoy trying to read more than one book at a time. (I might make a teensy exception, since I'm currently re-reading Little, Big.) So, I think I'll try the Donohue, which will go fast if I like it, and might fall off the list if it doesn't grab me; then Hall and finally, Dickens.

And dear God, if you have any other recommendations, don't tell me about them!

(Just kidding.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dream houses

Last night before bed I was reading Crowley's Little, Big. One of the central images in the novel is the mysterious house at Edgewood, which depending on one's approach, has many different front's -- in effect, many different houses in one. They all connect on the inside, a rabbit warren of hallways, doors, stairs, and curious rooms that meet at odd angles. And last night I dreamed first of going down a long, tree-lined avenue and on both sides were all sizes and styles of houses, lining a very green and quintessentially American street. There were painted ladies and shotguns and Cape Cods, but as I was telling my companion in the dream, how strange to find such a street in the middle of desert in Saudi Arabia -- like a mirage!

And then the dream changed slightly and I was on another street with impossible-looking houses, Gothic looking structures and cathedrals, only these buildings were partially buried in the ground, up to their gabled roofs and domes -- one very like the dome of St. Paul's. They were not destroyed or harmed, just built into and underneath the ground, with trees and vegetation all around them, and one knew that they were massive and intact under the earth when you entered inside. I did go in one, and the floors were leaded glass, and you could see the shadowy floors plunging below.

Houses have always been a central image in my dreams ever since I can remember. Houses familiar and completely foreign -- I remember dreaming vividly of a house in Africa, hexagonal or octagonal, with windows from floor to ceiling, set down in a jungle so that I could see the wild outside, the birds and animals and exotic flora curling around the decks. And familiar houses, sometimes even my own, always have secret rooms or entire floors that I've forgotten; they are filled with things I've forgotten, treasures. Doors, attics, secret compartments, winding hallways, and staircases are everywhere in my dreams and whatever I think I'm about to find or could find remains just out of reach and often I can't find my way back in once I've left.

Of course the other thing I read before sleeping was Matthew Arnold's poem, "The Buried Life"; hence, the buried houses, I suppose.

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us--to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ryan Adams and the Cards

It's kind of funny how you have to approach a Ryan Adams show: Expectation (if he's "on," it has to be great), exasperation (I hope he's not freaking out this time), speculation (will this be the last show before he breaks up the band?). So I actually felt sort of relieved when I got to see a full set, he didn't do anything too weird, and his voice sounded fantastic. Success! I thought the best moment was when he broke loose with "Come Pick Me Up," not just because it's one of my favorites, but because it came pretty early and I thought it signaled a wide-ranging affair from his huge catalog. The only disappointment was that there weren't more rockin' songs like Magick thrown in. I totally agree with Jeffrey Lee Puckett's review that all of the songs were the same tempo -- very mellow. I would have liked more energy. But that feels a little nitpicky considering he really did perform well in that purple light. It wasn't as dark as the last time when he hid under the infamous hoodie, but I only saw the silhouette of Ryan. Man of Mystery.

I did have an insight into the mystery, however. When he finally engaged the audience in a little midset chit-chat and the lights came up just a bit, he said something like, okay, you've scared me enough, you can take the lights back down. And I thought, it's not just an act, he really is uncomfortable performing! Performance anxiety -- possibly debilitating? It kind of fits in with the drugs and alcohol, which might have been his way of controlling it, and now all clean and sober, he has do it differently -- practically in the dark, at a safe distance from the audience. See, speculation. Well, it's one theory. I know that he blames inner ear and hearing problems "on the record" as his reason for the rumored abandonment of music for his literary career. Who knows, but it would be a shame if stops recording, hard as that is to imagine.

Levi Stahl

When John Crowley links to anything on his livejournal page I feel compelled to check it out. That's how I found The Whole Five Feet and now, I'vebeenreadinglately, Levi Stahl's blog. Sometimes when I think I read a LOT, I run across someone who puts me to shame. Or maybe it's not so much that I don't read as much, I just don't read as well, as critically, and as deeply as others do. And I certainly don't write as well about reading. Reading the entries in Levi's blog makes me want to hang up my sad little tappety-tap keys and find a Harlequin romance.

His recent post about Penelope Fitzgerald will motivate me to finally read one or more of her novels. She's been on the radar for a long time, but somehow, I've just never got around to her. I just requested several books from the public library, and I will now have a few more to put on the list. Of course, I just started re-reading Crowley's Little, Big.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sport and a Pastime

I finished James Salter's novel, title above, having previously read The Light Years. I've heard many people gush about him, particularly other writers, but I have to say, I don't really get it. The writing is good, of course, frequently lovely and I enjoyed his wonderful evocation of the French countryside, describing the seasons, the light, the empty sidewalks and cafes. But the people -- the characters -- I don't connect to at all. He reminds me of Fitzgerald and of Hemingway in the kinds of people he writes about, the floaters on the waves of other people's money, angst-ridden adventurers, the sad, jaded rich, and beautiful virgins/whores that figure as enchantresses and victims and the left-behind. They never seem real to me, and in fact, they just get on my nerves. Is it a class thing? Those vaguely patrician, Ivy-league educated ne'er-do-wells and American women who go abroad to get a title and a villa? It's all just a little too precious for me.

I won't say I hated it, but I read it without much joy. In a better way it reminded me of William Maxwell's The Chateau, but mainly because both stories concern Americans (always cast as innocents -- a well-worn theme) abroad in post-war France, adrift in an alien, if alluring culture. Well, anyway, I think that does me for the Salter experience.

I've been thinking I might re-read (which I don't often do) Little, Big by Crowley. It definitely merits another reading, and I'm sure I'll soak up more the second time. It's so magical and mysterious and suggestive. A review on its 25th anniversary just appeared in the Guardian. He has a new novel in the works -- WWII era, I believe.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Holy the Firm

I re-read Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. An excerpt:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead--as if innocence had ever been--and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. (Harper and Row, 1977)

She is like Donne to me -- difficult, brilliant, stark, unafraid to plumb the depths and attempt a measure of the heights. She delights and scares the bejesus out of you at the same time. She makes you pick up the dictionary. Pay no attention to anything I write, but read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reading big, important books

I just finished War and Peace today; it took a couple of months, reading at a pretty leisurely pace. As I've already written, I fell in love with it from the beginning, and I didn't change my mind about it. What is amazing is that Tolstoy wrote such a beautiful, sprawling novel seemingly to illustrate his view of history and his critique of the great man theory. The Epilogue dealt mainly with his argument against the traditional view that watershed events -- particularly wars, revolutions, mass migrations -- are driven by heroes like Napoleon and Alexander -- that their will, genius, power-wielding carries the masses to do their bidding. His story, with its many characters, high and low, bad and virtuous, weak and strong, shows that this view is false; that causes and effects are impossibly complicated; that our perspectives are too limited; and it can only be the interacting masses of wills and relationships, along with a mysterious equation of constraints that he calls necessity and freedom, which actually makes "history." There is no way I can quickly boil down what he took about 1200 pages to get at and no guarantee either that I understood it perfectly as he meant it, so I'll leave it at that.

But here's one takeaway that I have from reading another of the Big Important books: it is nearly always the case that they are hyped to be much more dense, unapproachable, and difficult than they really are. Your reading pleasure will be maximized reading W&P if you are a student of history, particularly military history, but you can just as easily chuck all the theories of history and just read it as adventure and romance on a huge scale -- an epic family drama. The only difficulty is keeping the Russian names straight in the beginning, and of course the time commitment if you are a slow reader, but otherwise, it's great fun. I've had exactly the same experience with Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, and Ulysses, all of which I approached with a sense of intimidation, but which I found to be genuinely entertaining. (Okay, there was a long bit about the sperm whale industry in MD that made me want to poke Melville with a stick, but you can skip that; no one is going to call the lit police.) I was very nearly finished with Ulysses when I finally started to get the "big picture," but there are many charms along the way, even if you suspect you're missing a lot.

You can argue all you want about the dead, white guys dominating literature for so long, but it's not just a conspiracy -- the great books are really pretty great, and you can still enjoy the wonderful diversity of contemporary fiction -- men and women, white and black, the dead and the undead (vampires have had their voices silenced for far too long).

Perhaps, I'll test my theory further one day if I ever read Finnegan's Wake, which has always looked fairly incomprehensible to me. If you've read it, let me know.