Saturday, March 26, 2005

Faith

From The Geographer's Library. Paul's boss is telling him about what a priest taught him about faith:

"'he said anytime his faith was tested --which I imagine was pretty often-- he turned not to the Gospels or Revelation or promises of heaven or anything like that, but to this one verse from Ecclesiastes' --and here Art read from the scrap of paper: ''Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, wither thou goest.'' Art looked up at me. 'He said that it reminded him that faith came and went, even in priests --even we cannot believe all the time, he said-- and that actions, not pure belief, matter more. I remember he looked up at me --a practicing Catholic can always tell a lapsed one-- and said, 'You came for a bullet, but you would not have come for mass.' He was right." (p94-5)

Perhaps the reason this paragraph caught my attention is that I'm also a lapsed Catholic, like Art. I suppose I'm a lapsed believer, period. Still, it's conforting to think that what matters is actions, not intangibles like faith or belief. I wish believers felt that way, though -- maybe then they would concentrate on living well instead of converting/saving/damning the rest of us.

The decent but unmotivated student

From The Geographer's Library (a library that doesn't really contain books, just objects). Here's Paul's description of his academic life:

"It felt like a couple of years and another lifetime ago that I'd shuffled around this place as a decent but unmotivated student, one who wrote good essays out of habit and considered graduate school as a means of avoidance, but really could never make himself care quite enough about colonial American sock darning or gun barrels in czarist Russia. It wasn't a lack of curiosity as much as it was a lack of committed curiosity: I'd love to know about, say, hardtack production in Vermont or how the innovations of Catherine the Great's chief gunsmith prefigured the Kalashnikov, but I really didn't want to do much with the knowledge other than consider it, turn it around in my mind, imagine it into three dimensions. I certainly didn't want to spend decades poring through archives and nitpicking over secondary sources in order to dispute it." (p28)

When I was an undergraduate I was also a decent but unmotivated student -- until senior year, when I was a seriously depressed, just surviving until graduation student. Then I fell into law school -- cheap (state school), no essays in the application, high-school type atmosphere (small, cliquey, classes with the same group of people...). I knew early on lawyering wasn't for me, but changing tracks midway required more energy than I possessed. You shouldn't ever make important decisions in the midst of a depression -- career choices, mate selection, etc. Trust me on that; it was a tough lesson.

Friday, March 25, 2005

What do you do...

... when you're depressed? That's something I often ask myself. I have battled clinical depression for fifteen years. My lowest point was seven years ago, when I spent a month in a psychiatric hospital for ECT treatments. I haven't ever been as low as that. But the depression does come and go. Today it is visiting. I just feel heavy and drained and so so tired. It will pass, if only because I refuse to let myself sink into it -- it's so much harder to get out the longer you've been stuck there.

Yesterday I finished The Geographer's Library -- I recommend it. It's witty and fun, and the ending is realistic (except for the meeting between Paul and the dead prof's brother...).

I also started Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday. I'm about halfway through and I really like it so far. It's refreshing to have a middle-aged male protagonist who is in love and lust with his wife of 25 years...

I'm stuck in the middle of Saturday, in the midst of a multi-page racket ball game... I'm working on unsticking myself, without calling my family's attention to the fact that I'm feeling unwell. Their well-meaning attempts to cheer me up or monitor my moods just make me even more exhausted...

Exes (with an axe to grind?)

In the five years since I caught my ex-husband with another woman on my birthday (that's another post, trust me), I have seen him a handful of times: when he came to my parents' home to apologize for ruining my birthday (though notably not for cheating); in divorce court, when my attorney handed over the Baccarat bell he had requested as a condition for the divorce (another long story); in a local steakhouse, when he and his family were celebrating his engagement, sitting back to back with me... I have wondered (often, if idly) what we would say if we came face to face now. I suppose it would be a more charged encounter than that of Paul Tomm with his ex-girlfriend Mia, whose relationship petered out amicably enough, though perhaps not as quietly as Paul supposed. In this scene from The Geographer's Library, Paul and Mia meet by chance while he's visiting his alma mater during his investigation of an eccentric prof's death. Mia is commenting on why working as a reporter seems an appropriate career choice for Paul, explaining, at Paul's behest, why it's a good fit "for someone like you":

"'Someone curious, but without a strong personality. Politically moderate. Personally moderate. Moderately moderate. Sometimes I felt you were like a sponge, you know, just sitting there listening to me talk or vent, without giving anything back. I guess that quality would make you a good reporter. A rotten boyfriend, but a good reporter.' I thought we had finished with these kinds of conversations. Oh, well. She smiled sidelong at me to see whether I was offended. I wasn't." (p217)

Not only is Paul not offended, he thinks this encounter went well:

"It was an ideal conversation with an ex: flirtatious enough to produce residual little flutters, but noncommital enough to avoid trouble; long enough to end with an ellipsis, but not so long that either of us got any ideas; glib, but with a warm and serious turn at the end, but not so serious that either of us brought out the knives. I was feeling ticklish; she tickled, and I went home almost missing her." (p218)

Almost but not quite. He has now another girl in mind and halfway in heart: the prep-school music teacher Hannah Rowe, who was the dead professor's only known friend.

As for the perfection of Paul and Mia's encounter, it wouldn't be reproduced in my own life -- five years in I still have no desire to come face to face with my ex again. I wonder if I ever will.

On school offices

I went to a small private high school across the street from my house. I would hear the first warning bell and roll out of bed to make it to homeroom. My senior year I didn't even hurry -- I just strolled in through the school office, as if I owned the place. I was truly an obnoxious child! I never got into trouble either -- I even got an award for best student and a trip to the state's private school convention... I also had a miserable time dealing with my classmates... no need to wonder why, in retrospect.

The spark for all this self-revelatory school angst? A terrific passage from Jon Fasman's The Geographer's Library:

"The school office was a beehive of nonactivity. Three attenuated secretaries of indeterminate middle age sat at three identical desks equidistant from each other: the one on the left stared balefully at her empty desk; the one on the right talked quietly on her telephone; the one in the center looked up at me with a total absence of expression on her face. They looked as though they slept in mothballs and lived on weak lindenflower tea, Platonic forms of an ideal New England private-school secretary." (p265)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A reader's progress through Fasman's The Geographer's Library

I'm really enjoying Fasman's first novel, The Geographer's Library -- especially the twin narrative threads. One chapter is set in present day New England, where recent college grad turned small town reporter Paul Tomm is investigating the death of a reclusive, eccentric professor at his alma mater. What started out as a simple obit is turning out to be a more perplexing assignment for Paul, who's also battling his hormones and his common sense with a pretty music teacher who was the dead professor's only friend. The next chapter is always a mixed bag; some sort of narrative (can be a letter, an academic entry, or a novelistic story) related to an artifact, which is then described and catalogued. These two kinds of chapters alternate. You get a sense that at some point both narrative threads will collide, but I haven't gotten there.

I also thoroughly enjoy Fasman's writing style -- it's witty, as well as intelligent. I'll transcribe some of my favorite lines from the novel when I finish it -- Right now I just want to keep reading!

Now reading: The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman

I love being on vacation, especially when I'm ignoring two bulging bags full of exams and student journals to grade... I know I'll pay for it later, but right now I just want to read some of the books in my ever-growing TBR pile.

Today's pick is The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman.



I liked Angels and Demons, The Rule of Four, The DaVinci Code, The Shadow of the Wind (in the original Spanish, so I can't vouch for the translation), so when I saw an ad for this literary thriller I had to get it. Yes, I do like this kind of thrillers (I also like romances, mysteries, fantasy, erotica, 19th century novels, YA fiction, Harry Potter books, literary fiction, literary criticism... in short, I have very eclectic tastes!).

I'm on page 70 and so far I like it -- it delivers everything I want from a thriller: good plotting, interesting and likeable characters, clear writing, entertaining ideas...

It's also a wonderfully airy treat after the heftier fare provided by Duncan's Death of an Ordinary Man. A palate cleanser, if you will.

This is a very useful review of The Geographer's Library from The Washington Post (via Amazon):

"One of the more interesting trends in contemporary publishing is, for want of a better term, the arcane thriller. These are novels (Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, for instance, or Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's Rule of Four) in which an academic, or someone in an academic's circle, must race against time to uncover a mysterious truth held by secret societies and/or locked away in dense and foreboding tomes, accessible only to improbably dashing specialists. Naturally, many of these books owe their ISBN to the publishing phenomenon of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but the continued success of thrillers with academic heroes or intellectual cores points to an interesting contradiction. Intellectuals, after all, have never done well as American icons. We prefer our heroes to be people of action, not scholarship or contemplation, and we like our knowledge to have immediate and tangible use. Witness, for example, Hollywood's recent entry into the Dan Brown craze, "National Treasure," which rests on the premise that the value of the Declaration of Independence lies not in its provocative enlightenment philosophy -- now there's a silly notion -- but rather in a secret treasure map encoded within the physical document. The true worth of this seminal American text, in other words, is not the ideas it espouses, but rather the material wealth to which it can lead.

The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, absolutely falls into the category of the arcane thriller, but it is a much more interesting and creative book than many of those making up the marketing wave on which it will no doubt attempt to ride. Yes, the story features obscure books in forgotten tongues, secret brotherhoods, exotic locales and clever puzzles, but Fasman comes across as a novelist genuinely interested in unraveling the convention of the thriller, and he gives his tale a delightfully and successfully postmodern flavor. And rather than presenting obscure knowledge as valuable only because it gets you things, he is far more interested in showing how physical things lead to knowledge.

The book contains two primary narratives -- one conventional, the other far less so. The first revolves around Paul Tomm, a recent college graduate who has landed a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in a small and depressingly stagnant New England town. Tomm is clever and charismatic, though largely devoid of ambition until one of the locals, an elderly Estonian immigrant, dies and Tomm is charged with writing the obituary. The dead man turns out to be Jaan Pühapäev, an aloof professor from the same prestigious Connecticut university that Tomm himself attended. With the help of another former professor -- as polished, unhurried and generous with his time as only fictional academics can be -- and the professor's policeman nephew -- as wise-cracking, unhurried and generous with his time as only fictional policemen can be -- Tomm sets out to reveal the genuinely bizarre truth of Pühapäev's identity and the cause of his mysterious death. You know, after all, that when the town coroner announces that there's something strange about the body, but dies before he can tell anyone the specifics, there's something going on. As it happens, there's quite a lot going on, including a menacing Albanian, decayed body parts left hammered to doors and a beautiful woman with a secret, but in Fasman's capable hands these conventions have the kind of narrative power that keeps the story from feeling trite and contrived.

The other aspect of The Geographer's Library is a collection of interlinked tales that spans several centuries, beginning with medieval Iran and ending in more modern times and roaming through various parts of the former Soviet Union. Each of these sections, told with a variety of distinctive voices and tones, fixates on a particular artifact -- a key, a flute, a deck of cards -- with unique properties and sought by determined and ruthless agents. Fasman's method here approaches David Mitchell territory (Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten), and if he lacks Mitchell's powerful skill in hopping seamlessly from character to character, he does, ultimately, make clear how these different objects and stories come together.

Unlike most arcane thrillers, which are ultimately mundane thrillers gussied up with the occasional info dump, The Geographer's Library makes an effort to get readers off their intellectual duffs by presenting the artifacts in catalog format, separating them from the narrative and demanding that they be seen as elements of a puzzle rather than props in a set piece. The solution to the intellectual game may ultimately rankle with some readers, who might not feel that the rules have sufficiently prepared them for the conclusion, but maybe this discomfort is right too. The Geographer's Library, in other words, is not only a genuine celebration of intellectual effort, it is also jarring in all the right ways.

Reviewed by David Liss Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Writing and Glen Duncan's Death of an Ordinary Man

I am always attracted by descriptions/commentary about the writing process or its effects. In Death of an Ordinary Man, Cheryl, the protagonist's wife, is an aspiring novelist, who "wanted mystery and danger, passion and the sordid affair with language, to make something out of her life" (p163). She has been sending her novel to publishers, with predictable results. Then one day, she gets IT: an acceptance letter from a publisher. Nathan is concerned about the effects of publication on Cheryl's life, and on his own.

"Cheryl knows all this. It came with the publisher's letter, along with a disinterested voice that said: A lot of this will have to change. Novels don't come out of a husband and three kids. You and I both know you have been dreading this, the licence to live properly, by which you and I both know we mean dangerously, ravenously and with unstinted curiosity. Get out and hurt and beatify yourself, shove yourself through things. It won't come without damage and loss. Unless of course we're talking about a hobby." (p135)

Her life WILL change, but not because of her, and not because of her writing. The changes don't have the expected result; it seems novels flowed because of the husband and the three kids, not in spite of them... But they don't know this yet, and neither do we.

"It's incredible how unnatural [Nathan] feels with her. He kisses her on the cheek and she squeezes his arms. Then she backs and sits on the bottom stair, knees together, feet apart, still with the letter crushed like a flower under her nose. She's close to tears. He understands: all the years, all the bits of writing time snatched in lunch hours, docked from sleep, scraped from the edges of all the other things she's had to do. She's being given what she's waited for and it isn't how she's imagined it would be. Something else dawns on him: this won't be enough, either. He's relieved and therefore ashamed." (p137)

Moments like this are why I liked this novel -- ordinary moments that illuminate the uncomfortable, petty, flawed, and oh-so-human side of Duncan's characters, and by extension, of ourselves.

Monday, March 21, 2005

More on Duncan's Death of an Ordinary Man

From Andrew O'Hehir's review of Glen Duncan's Death of an Ordinary Man for salon.com (http://www.salon.com/books/review/2005/01/24/duncan/):

"Duncan is an ambitious but never showy prose stylist, and while critics across the Atlantic have compared him to such Brit-lit leading lights as Martin Amis and Will Self, he is more compassionate, and less terrified of domesticity, than either of them. Part of this book's brilliance is that Nathan essentially finds himself in the same position as the novelist: He sees everything and can change nothing, but is ideally placed to understand and to forgive -- to forgive even Cheryl's coldness and betrayal, Luke's darkest thoughts about his sisters, Frank's dreary self-pity, Gina's overwrought self-mythologizing."

"Most of all, Nathan's got to forgive himself for all the inevitable sins of marriage and fatherhood, and to figure out what he can do, from his side of the veil of tears, to make things easier on his survivors. Is this a story about an unexceptional family in suburban England afflicted by tragedy and haunted by a ghost? Not at all; it's really about how the vast, craggy landscape of family life is as scary and as thrilling as ascending Everest or traveling to the moon, and about the fact that love really can transcend death, even for agnostics. There's nothing ordinary, in the end, about the heroic and majestically sad Nathan Clark -- or about the book that contains him."

While I wouldn't call Nathan heroic nor 'majestically sad' --there's nothing majestic about him-- I would agree that this novel is not about a ghost haunting his survivors. Rather, it's about a man (granted, a dead man) who is trying to come to grips with his life (more than his death) and to recapture the closeness with his family that he had lost long before his death. The afterlife, in Duncan's novel, is a sort of limbo where the dead's consciousness grapples alone with the reconstruction of their life, plagued by amnesia and tempted by the 'signals' emanating from familiar objects in their former lives. While Nathan, and his readers, do ultimately figure out many of the facts of his life, their meaning remains unresolved, just as life is --messy, uncomfortable, disturbing... bearable for some but not others.

The burdens of grief: Glen Duncan's latest novel

Today I read the latest novel by British writer Glen Duncan: Death of an Ordinary Man (Grove Atlantic, 2004, $13). I hadn't read anything of his and in fact ordered this book through my local independent bookstore after I saw an ad in the New York Times Book Review. I'm glad I ordered it from an ad, because I would have never purchased it in a bookstore -- the cover and back information are okay, but the first paragraphs (and indeed, the first chapter) is a total turnoff. ("Everything's all right, Nathan thought. Those first mornings in foreign hotels you opened your eyes and knew nothing: where you were, how you'd got there, who you were, even. You could be anyone./Like that, but without the hotel." (p1)) I'm glad I hung in there, though. I think you'll be too.



Here's another version of the summary in the back, which I found through Google. This one is better than the one on the Grove Atlantic edition:

"Nathan's gravestone offers a short and hopeful summary: At rest. But Nathan is not at rest, and knows he won't be until he can find out how and why he died. A spectral spectator throughout the day of the wake, he listens to his wife, son, daughter, father and best friend, getting to know them like he has never known them before. But there are two things he can't understand: a strange young couple on the fringes of the wake, whose presence fills him with dread; and a room in his house he never knew existed, with a door he feels compelled to open. A door that he knows will lead to a terrifying secret. Part detective story, part family portrait, part tale of the unexpected, Death of an Ordinary Man is an unflinching look at the margins of human experience, where the boundaries of fundamental feelings - love, grief, desire, shame and hope - meet and mingle, and no motivation is as simple as it seems."

The italics are mine -- this is the part that doesn't appear on the back of the American edition, but which really does justice to what the novel is about (and what makes it a worthwhile read).

I admit that I couldn't get into Death of an Ordinary Man until about 70 pages in, when the story really got started, the narrative got a consistent voice, and the author/narrator finally abandoned trying to make sense of the after-death experience and started actually telling the story of the characters.

Talking about his afterlife (and finally deciding not to analyze it anymore -- fortunately for us!), Nathan says:

"Nor did he feel he'd discovered anything momentous. Suppose your death delivered neither Reality with a capital R nor Truth with a capital T, but was simply relative to your life? No God for you. Perhaps his mother had gone where there was one? Paradise, with prelapsarian animals and the lame walking straight" (p77).

And so begins an examination of Nathan's life, through his contact with his children, his wife, his father, and his best friend. The novel finally clicked for me during a scene where Cheryl, Nathan's widow, is talking to Frank, Nathan's father, whom she finds pathetic and narcissistic -- Nathan is observing and commenting on the scene, and his comments resonated with me, probably because my maternal grandmother is just like Nathan's father, concerned only with himself, the center of the universe, regardless of what else is going on around him.

What I liked most about this novel is its examination of grief and its effects. What happens when it goes underground? How does it fester? And when you add guilt to the mix, what happens? Is grief bearable? Is guilt? The characters are, if not exactly likeable, at least complex; they are also familiar in uncomfortable ways -- the frisson of sexual awareness at inappropriate times; the desire to laugh when a loved one dies; the knowledge that you could transgress, but do you want to?

This novel also has some good bits about writing and the writing life (something that always interests me). Cheryl is a novelist who has been shopping her novel around, getting many rejections, until one fateful day she gets a letter from a publisher who wants to buy her novel. Nathan is disturbed; will she outgrow him now? Or just immerse herself in "[h]er other life, her writing life, [which] is already like a succubus or extra-marital lover" (p107)...

I'll post more on this later! (Is this a teaser? A cliff-hanger? Or just an annoyance?)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Ignorance and... delusion? Saturday's NYT

Musings on Saturday's New York Times:

* How some IMAX theatres (notably in science museums in the South) are refusing to show any documentaries remotely related to evolution, geology, the Big Bang, or Darwin (among other 'controversial' topics), for fear of retribution from fanatical believers. Let's pander to the ignorance of the mobs, why don't we. Isn't it bad enough we can't get evolution in the textbooks without equal time to creationism?

* About equal time -- C-Span planned to air a segment by a guy who thinks the Holocaust didn't happen to balance their coverage of a new book by the woman who was sued by that guy for calling him (basically) a charlatan. She won in court, but now has to deal with C-Span's fairness rules. García Márquez is right; we live in Macondo!

* A fourteen-year-old child prodigy kills himself. His mother is proud of him, because he was so "spiritual" that he died to donate his organs to needy patients. Is she grief-stricken, deluded, or merely nuts? She claims he was well-adjusted and not depressed. Based on results, I would say not.

The end of Lyra's quest

Last night I finished The Amber Spyglass, the last volume of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. And what I felt was grief. Not that the story was over, although I thoroughly enjoyed these books, but the grief that comes from losing one of the few people who loves you unconditionally. Lyra and Will helped me tap into that vast underlying store of sadness that I still feel for my father, who died two and a half years ago. I said goodbye to them and sobbed for my dad. In fact, I cried myself to sleep. I hadn't done that in years.

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