Sunday, November 19, 2017

KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

The unheralded arrival of John Crowley's newest novel is itself a deep mystery to me. He is a writer of astonishing skill and imagination, able to weave the otherworldly into the historical and the everyday. He can make you believe in the unseen, make you wonder if, in fact, he has knowledge of other realms beyond our own through the power of his fictions.

You would think that writing an acknowledged masterpiece, Little Big, would put him more squarely in the center of the literary map, but his latest book seems to have dropped into the world with very little fanfare. It seems a shame on the one hand, but on the other, deliciously like his art -- a secret door to pass through that not everyone is able to see.

Ka is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, and the Ymr that is in ruin is our own world, the world of  People. The narrator of the novel is an old man, living on after the death of his wife in a brink-of-apocalypse future that seems depressingly familiar. The environment is poisoned, his own days are numbered, all seems ready to collapse. But he rescues a sick crow from his backyard and learns that this is no ordinary crow. Little by little, they learn to communicate, and the epic story that unwinds is Dar Oakley's -- an immortal creature who has witnessed human history from the time of Pre-Christian Europe to these last gasping days in which it seems possible that humans have almost managed to extinguish themselves.

Dar remembers when he first saw humans, back before crows had names (he is the first to have given himself a name, a custom that later crows eventually took up). He tells how he entered the realm of people, how he unwittingly stole the gift of immortality from them, and how he established special connections with only a few over his long life -- a span which brought him from the Old World to the New World of America. Dar is able to enter into the realm of the dead and return. He has died many deaths, but resurrects, and each time he carries with him the accrued memories of his former lives among Crows -- and People.

Crowley's novel is magical, but it isn't just entertaining fantasy. It is a story about the stories we tell ourselves -- how we bear to live and think to die. It's about the deep mystery of language. Dar is just alien enough from the human sphere to offer observations that are both disturbing and poignant.

In the aftermath of the Civil War (one of the Great Dyings he is witness to), Dar is able to see the struggling dead souls, still murmuring their last thoughts before dying, still wandering, unable to rest because they were never claimed or were buried unknown.

Pity. He felt it in his breast and in his hooded eyes when at dawn he roosted to sleep in hiding. He had no name for it because he was the first Crow ever to feel it within him. Pity for them in the awful complications of the lives they built for themselves, laboring as helplessly and ceaselessly as bees building their combs, but their combs held no honey, he thought. Useless, useless, and worse than useless, needless: the labor of their lives, the battles and deaths, and all their own doing. 

 I would recommend Crowley to any serious reader, but especially if you are a fan of Michael Chabon, who counts Crowley as an influence. I also think of George Saunders and Cormac McCarthy.

Ka is a book of wonders -- both funny and tragic, profoundly moving and deeply humane. And you'll never look at a crow in quite the same way after reading it.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

There's not much I can add to the critical acclaim this biography has already received. For pure reading enjoyment, it is one of the best books of its kind. You feel as if you're as close to an understanding of Thoreau as a 200-year gap makes possible. Walls gives us a well-rounded portrait of the man and the writer in all his genius and eccentricities.

Here, you see both the Thoreau who was socially awkward and prickly, who once accidentally set his beloved woods on fire, right beside the warm, energetic Concord citizen who cheerfully led the children out berrying and taught them about nature. If you needed a shed built, a house lot surveyed, a cellar stoned, or a plant identified, Thoreau was always there.

The dreaming Transcendentalist was the same man who figured out a better manufacturing process for the family's pencil business -- who could build his own boat, bed, chair, or house. He grew and entered prize-winning melons at the county fair, made a living as a surveyor, helped runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and stood up for John Brown, even as the fiery abolitionist was being hanged for treason after the raid at Harper's Ferry. But he was still always the dreamer and philosopher -- turning his minute observations of the natural world into ecstatic nature writing, poetry, scientific inquiry, and spiritual epiphany.

One of the most moving things about Thoreau was his continuing struggle to confront and respond to a world that was deeply troubling. His Walden years weren't about becoming a hermit and disengaging -- he was trying to learn how to live a different life, an honest one, that didn't lend support to a culture already turning to overconsumption and indifference to the environment and to a government exterminating Native Americans, making unnecessary wars of conquest, allowing slavery to exist and expand. Walden was a two-year experiment which Walls' book illuminates as only one part of his extraordinary American life.

Walls is often dazzling in her ability to describe the line of Thoreau's thought, as here, when he is contemplating the changing world in the face of industry and commerce.

As the raw wound of the railroad's "deep cut" thaws and flows, he sees in the flowing sands the canvas of creation, revealing the great truth that we live not on the surface of a dead planet but in and through a living earth, like a leaf unfolding.

 And after reading 500 pages of Thoreau's biography, you feel as if you're just embarking on a journey -- being led back into his writing, and ready to tackle the most primary source of all -- the Journals that Thoreau kept for almost all of his adult life.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Henry David Thoreau, July 12,1817

Walden Pond, 2013

Not by design, but reading new biography by Laura Dassow Walls. Thoreau: A Life

Happy 200th Birthday!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Peacock and Vine: Byatt on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

Peacock and Vine is a long, thoughtful, and loving essay by A.S. Byatt musing on two famous designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book itself is a beautiful object, with glossy pages and gorgeous prints and photographs.
Victoria & Albert Museum, "Trellis" wallpaper by William Morris.

Englishman William Morris was the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to traditional methods of producing textiles and decorative art. His designs feature intricate patterns of floral and animal prints and other folk motifs, hearkening back to Medieval and Renaissance styles. He was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sometimes the association was a little too close, considering Morris's wife Jane's relationship with Rossetti, who among other things, liked to paint her.

Byatt explains how she came to understand Morris in a kind of counterpoint to the southern aesthetic of the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny, who lived and worked in his 13th-century Venetian palazzo with his wife and artistic partner Henriette Negrin. Fortuny worked as a painter, photographer, etcher, theatrical designer, and couturier. One of his most famous designs is the Delphos dress.

Victoria & Albert Museum, "Delphos" by Fortuny
Fortuny was inspired by the simplicity of ancient Greek designs and the idea to "free" the female form from corsets and layers of undergarments.

Byatt's wonderful novel The Children's Book, focused on a community of artists during the same period (William Morris makes an appearance), and this book is another product of her interest in the question of how great art is made.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

General William Tecumseh Sherman, prose stylist

I spent November and December of last year reading the memoirs of General Sherman, reminding myself that the country had been through some pretty bad times before the election of 2016.

Sherman has a fascinating reputation. If you're from the south, he is a brute, inflicting needless cruelty on a civilian population on his March to the Sea. Otherwise, he is known as a brilliant strategist, a fighter, fiercely loyal, but perhaps a little unhinged. Reading his own words, I was struck by his intelligence and unrelenting belief in the rightness of the Union cause.

Sherman describes his early life in very light strokes. There is not much that is personal, only the highlights. He went to West Point, noting that he was not valued as much of a soldier, but he was a very good student. Unlike Grant, whose standing was at the bottom of his class, Sherman graduated number six in his class and would have been fourth had it not been for numerous demerits received in other areas (apparently tidiness was not among his strengths).

Sherman's early career took him to the Indian wars in Florida and service along the southern coastal forts. He spent the Mexican War in California, then a remote outpost, when San Francisco was a fledgling city. He wrote the report - sent by boat around Cape Horn to Washington - that announced the discovery of gold in 1848. He resigned from the army and went into banking for awhile. Then, he became the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary and Military Institute (later to become Louisiana State University), a post he held when the Civil War broke out. One of the things that recurs in his memoirs are the various meetings and correspondence he held during the war with people he formerly knew as friends at West Point and during his years in the south.

Admittedly, I am basing my view of the historical Sherman on what is the one-sided version of events he offers in his own memoirs. Still, I came away with a deep admiration of the man. From the beginning, he was reviled as "insane" when he offered his opinion on the number of troops it would require to hold the central theater of the war in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was basically a nobody - not expected to do well - but ended up, alongside Grant, as the savior of the Union - its most brilliant battlefield general. He was fiery and unforgiving, never shy about letting people have it when they questioned his prosecution of the war or his motives.
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. ... But you cannot have peace and a division of our country.
There is something wonderfully bracing in Sherman's vision of war, even as he acknowledges its inhumanity. To him, war was not grand, glorious, or heroic. It was cruelty and it was destruction, and he never pretended otherwise. You always see him taking the long view and weighing the logic of trying to fight a war of half-measures against an implacable enemy that would take "mercy" as weakness, and waging total war that would be the speediest and surest way to end it, possibly saving countless lives that would be lost in a prolonged struggle. Whatever else one may think of his March to the Sea, the boldness and success with which it was carried out are remarkable. Sherman's genius for the logistics of moving an army across enemy territory for many hundreds of miles with no supply line open behind him is probably unmatched in military history.
I considered this march as a means to an end, and not as an essential act of war. Still, then, as now, the march to the sea was generally regarded as something extraordinary, something anomalous, something out of the usual order of events; whereas, in fact, I simply moved from Atlanta to Savannah, as one step in the direction of Richmond, a movement that had to be met and defeated, or the war was necessarily at an end. 
One thing that is certain, Sherman was a superb writer. His descriptions and his correspondence snap with energy. He imposes order on chaos with words. And sometimes, he is sublime, as in this description of the morning his army departed Atlanta for the long, dangerous trip into the unknown. It approaches poetry.
We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard's column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond.
...Then we turned our horses heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem like the memory of a dream; and I have never seen the place since.