Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William Gass

The privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately--not like the billboard which shouts at the street, or the movie whose image is so open we need darkness to cover the clad-ass and naked face that's settled in our seat.  A fictional text enters consciousness so discreetly it is never seen outdoors... from house to house it travels like a whore... so even on a common carrier I can quite safely fill my thoughts with obscene adjectives and dirty verbs although the place I occupy is thigh-sided by a parson.

William Gass' single-essay book, On Being Blue, isn't quite about the color blue.  Well, it is, I guess, but not quite in the way I expected when I got it as a Christmas present.  (From my mother no less-sorry, Mom; I'm not sure either of us knew what was really in here.)  In fact, On Being Blue vacillates between two poles: one, a meditation on the proliferation of the color blue in all its forms and habitations, and the other an investigation into one particular shade of the word "blue"--that is, the blue of blue films and working blue.  That is, obscenity and sex.

Gass' essay is diffident, without a clear purpose or center.  But his style, fluid and exuberant, is worth the price of admission in and of itself, as illustrated by his facility with repetition that ought to make the book's opening a dull sentence indeed:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep hole in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit--dumps, mopes, Mondays--all that's dismal--low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter,which is our signal for getting underway; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasingly absentness of heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that's empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for insurance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese... the pedantic, indecent and censorious... watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity.

Whew!  That was a beast to type.  But it's an incredible thing to see--Gass clearly takes his cues on how to deal with the repeated word from D. H. Lawrence, who gets special recognition in the essay for his failure to write about sex convincingly.

It's not just Lawrence, though his case is the most tragic--Gass thinks that no one can really write about sex sufficiently.  It's one of the few cogent points that emerge now and then from the essay.  We retreat from sex, literarily speaking, because our efforts to treat it directly are doomed to failure.  So we embrace terms that are emptied of signification because they are the best we can do.  ("When, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless," Gass writes, "I enjoin a small offensive fellow to 'fuck a duck,' I don't mean he should.")  Blue, a color Gass conceives of as taking an especially wide range of meanings and connotations, easily takes on the ineffable connotation of the sexual act.  That's what links the two poles together.

Around this idea, the essay meanders with only a modicum of purpose or organization.  Were Gass' prose itself not so captivating, it would hardly be tolerable.  In contrast, read Michael Gorra's laudatory introduction, which apes, or falls despite itself into an imitation of, Gass' style, but far less effectively.  And the central connection of the book suffers today because, forty years after the essay's writing, we don't really use the word in the same way.  Who calls porn "blue movies" now anyway?  I didn't close On Being Blue feeling especially enlightened, either on sex or the color wheel, but I enjoyed reading it anyhow.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Girl Code by Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser

A week later, I checked their website to make sure they had processed everything correctly.  They had... but they put my name under the "Parents" information and my father's under "Camper."  It was incredible--I must have sounded so grown-up they thought I was the parent.

...They were all boy, huddled around computers and talking to each other, playing video games on their DSs.  The room seemed like a totally different universe.  Anxiously, I scanned the room for people without a Y chromosome.  There were two... but they were staff members.  I had heard there weren't a lot of girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but I didn't understand how bad it was.  That's why they put my dad's name down as the camper--because he's the guy.  I sat down, a bit regretful about my decision to come here.  I felt out of place.

A few years ago, my student Annie made a video game for a project on The Odyssey.  It was a rudimentary side-scrolling game like I used to play on Nintendo, and you played as Odysseus, fending off the dangerous sexuality of wily seductresses.  (It was a statement about the gender politics of the epic, which are, like the book itself, three thousand years out of date.)  Years later, with a friend at a coding camp, she repurposed that game into one about the taboo against menstruation, called Tampon Run.  It went, as the kids say, "viral"--suddenly she and her partner were fielding interview requests from radio stations, blogs, Time Magazine, you name it.

Stoic yes, curt maybe--but howling?

Girl Code is the story of the game's creation, and the pair's subsequent fame.  It's part lighthearted memoir, with Annie and Sophie trading chapters about the bewildering experience of becoming famous.  Tampon Run brought invitations to hackathons and Silicon Valley startups, but also at least one sexist radio interview.  That's the other part: a treatise about the low visibility of women in tech fields, experienced through the eyes of two young coders experiencing it for the first time.  Annie talks about her desire to use coding to bring awareness to women's issues like the menstrual taboo, but how can that be possible in a world that doesn't yet know how to take women seriously?  The tone wavers between humorous (Annie's one of the funniest kids I've known, and it shows) and inspirational, but the stark realities of the tech worlds just that lurk at the edges of the book's perception are serious and real.  But more than humor and inspiration, the book provides practical assistance to attack the problems it identifies: an appendix about basic coding for young readers.

If Annie reads this review (if I wrote a book, I'm pretty sure I'd be googling it daily) I express, once again, my pride and admiration.  Girl Code is a testament to her and Sophie's intelligence, chutzpah, and character.  Can't wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Augustus by John Williams

The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality.  The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal.  But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy.  For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them.  Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.

Augustus Caesar is one of those figures, like Alexander or Genghis Khan or Napoleon, whose life seems to defy the idea of interiority.  How can one really know someone whose effect on the world was so outsized?  Even Julius Caesar, the man who brought the Roman world under his heel, is humanized by the tragedy of his death, and the simple betrayal of his beloved Brutus.  Augustus, on the other hand, lived to be an old man, and put in the long, hard political work of solidifying the Roman state that Julius never had a chance to.  He created a lasting peace and an empire that lasted a thousand years; what could be said about him as a human being?

John Williams' Augustus has an interesting strategy for dealing with this problem.  His fictional life of Augustus is written as an epistolary novel, so that it seems that everyone in Rome is talking to or about Augustus--but, until the last fifty pages or so of the novel, Augustus himself is silent.

The first section of the novel deals with the aftermath of Julius' death and the long civil war that ended with the young Octavian's defeat of Mark Antony and the assumption of the title Augustus Caesar.  Antony, as most depictions do, borrows from Shakespeare's image of a vain, proud, and bungling fool who can't even get his own suicide right, yet who somehow retains a measure of shrewdness with dealing with the Roman people.  Octavian is young, and frequently dismissed, but his calm intelligence is more than a match for Antony.

The second section deals with Augustus' years in power, and focus on his conflict with his beloved daughter Julia, who was caught up in a plot against her father's life with her lovers and banished under the very anti-fornication laws that Augustus himself had passed decades earlier.  This section is interspersed with Julia's diary entries from her exile on the tiny island of Pandetaria, where she lived out teh rest of her life, never speaking to her father again.  Julia's letters show a sad and quiet resignation for her fate; others write exultantly in their political triumph. 

But the last section, a long letter written by Augustus as he knows he is dying, is what makes Augustus a terrific book.  Is the real Augustus ruthless, shrewd, loving, foolish, lucky, adulterous, loyal?  As an old man (like his adoptive father never got to be) Augustus has come to understand that all these things are true, and that at the end of his life the certitude of his ego has begun to fall away.  Williams paints a picture of a man who has given his life, his identity, even his daughter to the service of Rome even as he understands that his achievements will only be temporary.  He wonders if these sacrifices were worth it, and then zen-like waves the question away with the gesture of his hand--worth it or not, they were.  The elegiac quality of this final section--interspersed with the dry, guarded words of Augustus' actual Res Gestae, his own account of his achievements--pushes the novel beyond the self-prepossessing political intrigue of a book like I, Claudius.

All the famous characters of the early Empire are here: Julius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Maecenas, Agrippa, Cleopatra, Antony, Lepidus, Tiberius.  But it's the voice of Augustus himself, kept hidden until the very end, that makes Augustus feel as if it has some real insight into the past, and into the riddle of the human self.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

"He is very good at chess," the girl snapped, and glared at Akhmed. Grammar was the only place the girl could keep her father alive, and after amending Akhmed's statement, she leaned back against the the wall and with small, certain breaths, said is is is. Her father was the face of her morning and night, he was everything, so saturating Havaa's world that she could no more describe him than she could the air. 

My first ever review for this blog was Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno; given how much I loved it, it's shocking it took me over a year to pick up his first novel. This one is more pervasively dark, but no less emotionally engaging. The novel spans the First and Second Chechen Wars and follows the lives of residents of a small village in the mountains of Chechnya. The narrative spirals through time, with objects (a pebble in a father's palm, a suitcase, a nutcracker) acting as threads to string chapters together and anchor vignettes in time. One of the consequences of this spiraling structure is that we know, almost from the start, who survives and who doesn't. Even minor characters' life spans are often casually laid out when we first meet them, like one woman's father:"He would be wearing that sweater two and a half years later, just north of the border, when a stolen cement mixer would slam into his lorry cabin." This gives the reader the luxury of certainty in stark contrast to the characters who not only are unsure of their own fate, but never know for sure whether a missing loved one is dead or just being tortured somewhere. It eliminates some of the normal suspense of a war novel, allowing you to focus instead on the internality of the characters. It also turns some characters into ghosts, and pushes your energy into hoping that they won't actually meet the fate already laid out for them.

Marra has a knack for haunting visual details: portraits of villagers "disappeared" by the rebels painted on wooden planks and mounted around town; a bombed out maternity ward covered in a painstaking mural of the buildings that used to surround the hospital. Art--as literature, portraiture, murals, and impressively sewn sutures--is the only repository of memory, and the only source of hope in an unbelievably bleak landscape punctuated with horrific violence.

The cadence of Marra's sentences is hypnotic, and he's the only writer I've encountered so far who is able to pull off page-long sentences without sounding pretentious or self indulgent. His writing is studded with visual and aural details that drive each scene home, and his descriptions of people and scenery crawl into your brain and stick there. He uses dialogue sparingly, but when he does he is able to capture tragicomic moments and pin them to the page expertly:
The girl held the stethoscope bell like a microphone and, while kicking a dropping tail of bedsheet, began interviewing Sonja. "What's it like being a surgeon?" she asked.
"Wonderful. Next question."
"Why don't you have kids?"
"They ask too many questions."
"Who did you bribe to get into medical school?"
"Surprisingly, no one at all."
"And are you the only woman surgeon in the world?"
"It feels like it"
"What's your favorite disease?"
"If they let you become a surgeon instead of a wife, would they let me become an arborist instead of a wife?"
"Who's 'they'?"
"You know."
In Chechnya, the "they" is hard to pinpoint. Russian soldiers and kontrakniki, muslim rebels trying to take back their land. There are complex webs of violent corruption connecting and splitting apart each side, and everyone seems hell bent on destroying the country while taking it over. The lives of the characters in this novel are constantly being wrenched back and forth by these various forces, and no one seems to have any control over their day to day life. That being said, Marra manages to find moments of peace and hopes amidst the chaos (while still describing the chaos in vivid detail).

I think I may have enjoyed this even more than The Tsar of Love and Techno. The scope is smaller, so you invest more in the characters, and as a result each victory and defeat is that much more impactful. I also really loved Havaa, the girl in the dialogue above. She's driven and layered in ways that secondary, young, female characters rarely get to be in adult novels.

Note: I knew a superficial amount about Chechnya going into this book, and I had to read a lot more to figure out what was going on (it's enjoyable as a work of fiction without that background, but the all the various aggressors are hard to keep straight without some research). I relied mostly on Wikipedia, so I imagine those with a deeper understanding of the context would get even more out of the book.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Spider's House by Paul Bowles

Under his breath he began to invent a long prayer to Allah, asking Him to see to it that every Frenchman, before he was dragged down to Hell, which was a foregone conclusion in any case, might suffer, at the hands of the Moslems, the most exquisite torture ever devised by man.  He prayed that Allah might help them discover new refinements in the matter of causing pain and despair, might show them the way to the imposing of hitherto undreamed-of humiliation, degradation and agony.  "And drop by drop their blood will be licked by dogs, and ants and beetles will crawl in and out of their shameful parts, and each day we will cut away one more centimeter from each Frenchman's entrails.  Only they must not die, ya rabi, ya rabi.  Never let them die.  At the corner of the street let us have one hung up in a little cage, so when the lepers come by they can use them as latrines.  And we will make soap of them, but only for washing the sheets of the brothels.  And one month before a woman is to give birth we will pull the child out and make a paste of it and mix it with the flesh of pigs and the excrement from the bellies of the Nazarenes' own dead, and feed their virgins with it."

Bowles' novel takes its title from a line of the Quran: "The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider's house, if they but knew."  The mid-century Morocco he writes about is certainly fragile, as decades of French rule are beginning to boil over into violence.  Bowles follows a young Muslim man and an older, American ex-pat in the city of Fez as both are caught up in this violence and thrust together.

Like in The Sheltering Sky, Bowles makes the reader wait a long time for what you might call "the good stuff."  Like that book, it takes a long time for the promised clash between white foreigner and Muslim native to come.  Bowles follows Amar, the Muslim, and Stenham, the ex-pat in parallel stories for almost 200 pages until they come upon each other in a cafe outside the city walls of Fez, where a sudden outpouring of violence means they are shut out of the city together.  Amar and Stenham like each other--on the one side, a kind of respect, and the other a paternalistic compassion--but Bowles shows how difficult it is for white colonials and Muslims to really speak to each other, so different are their worldviews:

"Do you hate them?" the man asked; he was leaning forward, looking at Amar with intensity.  There was no one there but the two of them; if the man turned out to be a spy he would at least have no witnesses.  But that was an extreme consideration: Amar was positive he was only an onlooker.  "Yes, I hate them," he said simply.  "That's written, too."

"You have to hate them, you mean?  You can't decide: I will or I won't hate them?"

Amar did not completely understand.  "But I hate them now," he explained.  "The day Allah wants me to stop hating them, He'll change my heart."

The man was smiling, as if to himself.  "If the world's really like that, it's very easy to be in it," he said.

"It will never be easy to be in the world," Amar said firmly.  "Er rabi mabrhach.  God doesn't want it easy."

Moments later, Amar thinks:

The Nazarene had understood nothing at all; Amar's spirits sank as he perceived the gap that lay between them.  If a Nazarene with so much good will and such a knowledge of Arabic was unable to grasp even the basic facts of such a simple state of affairs, then was there any hope that any Nazarene would ever aid any Moslem?

These conversations seem especially relevant today; I feel like I only have to scroll through Facebook for a few minutes to find someone coming to fundamentally backwards conclusions about Muslims or Islam.  Bowles understands how the image we have of the Other in our minds often says more about us than it does about them; even Stenham, who likes Morocco, is inerrantly condescending and racist toward Moroccans.  He laments the slow loss of the medieval quality of the city of Fez, even as he blames the locals for being trapped in the regressive attitudes of the past.  The principal female character, a woman named Lee, holds the opposite view: anti-colonial revolution will bring the people of Morocco into an idealistic, and specifically Communist, future.  These attitudes, Bowles shows us, have much to do with the private moral and ethical codes of whites and little to do with the people in Morocco whose future is actually in question

The third act of The Spider's House doesn't have the shocking or propulsive quality of The Sheltering Sky; it sort of peters out.  In the end, Amar and Stenham's lives intertwine only briefly, touching in oblique ways, without much consequence.  Probably that's the way that Bowles meant it to be.

Every Day by David Levithan

This is what love does: It makes you want to rewrite the world. It makes you want to choose the characters, build the scenery, guide the plot. The person you love sits across from you, and you want to do everything in your power to make it possible, endlessly possible. And when it's just the two of you, alone in a room, you can pretend that this is how it is, this is how it will be. 
It's hard to imagine the premise of David Levithan's Every Day working over the course of an entire novel. A, the main character, wakes up in a new body each morning. This has been happening every day since A was born, and the only continuity seems to be age and geographical location: the host bodies are roughly the same age as A, and are scattered in roughly the same area. Over the course of the forty days covered in the novel, A runs the gamut of genders, sexual identities, races, ethnicities, and every other variation possible. A doesn't seem to associate with a particular gender or sexuality (which is one of the more interesting undercurrents of the novel), so I'll refer to A as "they" throughout this review for lack of a better pronoun.

This is, on the surface, your average YA love story. On day one of the book (and day 5994 of A's life), A falls in love with Rhiannon, and the novel tracks their efforts to find her again and win her over (while each day inhabiting a newly problematic body). There is teenage angst (in more iterations than normal), loneliness (made sharper by A's daily abandonment of families and friends), and improbable connection. Levithan is able to touch on more layers of each of these components by incorporating a huge range of characters as hosts. He touches on transgender identity, drug addiction, poverty, mourning, LGBTQ sexuality, friendships, loving siblings, abusive siblings, present and absent parents, but each get only a chapter. Within those individual chapters, the hosts' identities and issues are a backdrop for A's own identity and issues, so even serious complications are given only a nod. While this obviously leans towards heavily towards the "breadth" end of the breadth vs. depth spectrum, the sheer volume of characters Levithan is able to move through do give a new feel of universality to the teenage experience, one that could feel forced but somehow doesn't. It's peppered with typical YA ruminations that seem to have more depth because they come from A's massive breadth of experience:
If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: We all want everything to be okay. We don't even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.
One of the more interesting components was which parts of the hosts' brains A had easy access to, and which were buried more deeply. A brings with them knowledge and information (the plot of Romeo and Juliet, an impressive ability to read other people, how to play soccer), but is missing others (how to speak or understand fluent Spanish, how to ski...). A is able to reach pieces of his hosts' lives like how to drive to school, or the names of friends and siblings, but often can't access information about relationships or actions that aren't deeply embedded as routines. It made me wish I knew more about the brain and where various memories and skills are stored.

There were a couple of creepy moments, particularly when things started to get steamy. It's a little bit unclear how consent works in this alternate universe, and while A tries to respect their hosts' bodies, things get a little questionable once A is pursuing Rhiannon. Is it okay for A to kiss Rhiannon in another person's body (Rhiannon gives consent, but the host isn't able to...)? For them to go further? The issue of what is and isn't appropriate is somewhat glazed over, and as A falls deeper in love, they become more willing to disrupt the hosts' routines to get closer to Rhiannon. While I appreciated the romance here, I was distracted by the ethics of forcing a person to cut school (not to mention get physical with a stranger) without their consent.

Overall, this was a really fun read. It touches, however briefly, on issues that I don't see much of in YA novels (although they're starting to appear more): gender identity, sexuality, the immigrant experience, etc. The premise made an old story new again, and even the more cliche aspects of the plot felt fresh. I picked this up because my seniors were reading it in Psychology, and I could see this being a great book to read in a book club (with kids or adults!) because each chapter raised a whole new subset of questions about identity and experience. Those questions aren't explored in much depth, but they're a good starting point for further thought and discussion.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Oh, Anna Aemelin, the only thing you care about is your own conscience.  That's what you cherish.  You're a charming little liar.  A child writes, "I love you, I'm saving my money to come and live with you and the bunnies," and you answer, "How lovely.  You'll be very welcome.  And it's a lie.  The promises made by a guilty conscience acknowledge and settle no debts... You can't hide.  In the long run, you can't even try to make it easier for yourself by not daring to say no, by kidding yourself that everyone in the final analysis is nice and can be kept at a distance with promises or money... You know nothing about fair play!  You're a difficult opponent.  The truth needs to be hammered in with spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress!

Tove Jansson's claim to fame was the Moominland series of children's books, which must have gotten her no end of fanmail from young kids.  (I imagine them mostly as blonde European children, wearing lederhosen.)  How much of her own experience did she draw on in creating Anna Aemelin, the sensitive, aloof, guarded children's book artist of The True Deceiver?  Anna lives in her big house on the edge of town, eating tinned peas and being a hermit.  In the summer, she draws fine portraits of the forest floor, which she debases with the bunny figures her young fans adore.  The rabbits pay the bills, but it's the forest floor she really sees.

Katri Kling lives in the same town as Anna with her simple-minded brother Mats.  Whereas Anna is all politesse, devoted to the small niceties that protect--or perhaps insulate her from--human discourse, Katri is honest to a fault.  She has no regard for what she calls "the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want."  But she wants something from Anna--namely her money, which she wants to use to buy Mats his own boat.

Katri slowly begins to look after Anna, starting by taking small packages and mail up to what the locals call the "rabbit house."  She ingratiates herself to Anna, becoming slowly indispensable, eventually moving in (with Mats in tow) and managing Anna's business affairs.  She's scrupulously honest, but still she thinks of her relationship with Anna as a kind of game.  Meanwhile, it's Anna, the gentle illustrator, who lies and cheats, but in a way that accords with her shyness and fear of conflict.

The question is in the title: who is the true deceiver?  Anna is the one who runs from the truth, but it's the high-minded Katri, no doubt, who uses Anna for her own needs.  These paradoxes are the terrific achievement of The True Deceiver, which wears its darkness and cynicism on its sleeve, unlike the oblique monstrosities of The Summer BookI liked that book a little bit better; ironically, it has the levity and light irony of a children's book whereas Anna Aemelin seems to occupy a vastly different universe from her rabbits with their flower-covered fur.

But I loved the way Jansson imagines these two slowly turning the screws into teach other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because they are such vastly different people.  It's not just Katri torturing Anna--more often, it's the other way around.  At one point in the novel, Katri takes it upon herself to drag all of Anna's extraneous possessions out onto the winter ice where, when spring comes, they'll finally be disposed of.  Is it a favor or an insult?  And what happens when the bottom finally drops out?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

Dawn at sea, a grey void emerging out of a vaster black one. "The earth was without form and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Whoever wrote that knew the sea--knew the pale emergence of the world every morning, a world that contained absolutely nothing, not one thing. 
I bought The Perfect Storm from a tiny bookstore on an island on the Outer Banks. I wanted a story about the sea, but also something that was going to be engaging. It was the perfect vacation read: immersive (no pun intended), fast paced, and more much more informative than anticipated. Junger puts his war reporting chops to good use and sets up The Perfect Storm as a battle. Each side is described in compelling detail; the crew of the Andrea Gail is captured with novelistic nuance, and the sea and storms are given a balance of sweeping description and scientific explanation.

I especially enjoyed the asides explaining the minutiae of how storms work. It felt reminiscent of the rambly digressions in Moby Dick about whale skeletons, but way more to the point and accessibly written. There is a massive amount of technical vocabulary around fishing and boating, so much of it that I had trouble visualizing some of the passages describing routines on the long-liners, but I actually enjoyed that struggle; I was engaged enough that I looked up the words I didn't know, and I learned a lot (do you know what a gangion is? a whaleback?). That being said, while Junger makes an effort to explain the meteorology and make it palatable to the average reader, a lot of his nautical descriptions, especially long, technical lists of boat parts, can be disorienting.

Junger does a decent job with a difficult task: recreating the final moments of a crew of people who clearly haven't left word about what they experienced. I often struggle with narrative nonfiction that recreates the inner life of historical figures--I get distracted by the fact that the author could not possibly know what anyone was actually thinking at any given moment--but Junger makes clear over and over that he is making educated guesses as to what happened and uses interviews and accounts from people who have been in similar situations to sketch out what the crew would have been experiencing. I had goosebumps throughout their final moments and was impressed with how convincingly Junger was able to portray what may have happened.

Having seen the movie, I had expected the story to end with the demise of the Andrea Gail (spoiler alert: everyone dies), but there are another 100 pages or so outlining the various other catastrophes brought on by the storm. Junger balances the hypothesizing he had to do with the Andrea Gail crew with accounts from other men and women who were out on the water--fishermen, rescue crews, and family members.

I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't particularly intellectual or lofty, but it was totally riveting in a way I don't usually expect nonfiction to be. It was emotionally engaging, had new and interesting science for me to sink my teeth into, and transported me somewhere else. Even basically knowing how everything turns out, I was totally hooked.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Loving by Henry Green

'Oho so that's the old game,' he laughed.  'Keeping me on a string is it, to leave me to picture this and that and the other to do with you and him?'

'If you can bring your imagination to such a level you're to be pitied,' she answered tart.

'All I did was to ask,' he objected.

'You're free to picture what you please,' she replied.  I've got no hold on your old imagination, not yet I haven't.'

'What d'you mean not yet?'

'I mean after we're married,' she whispered, her voice gone husky.  'After we're married I'll see to it that you don't have no imagination.  I'll make everything you want of me now so much more than you ever dreamed that you'll be quit imaginin' for the rest of your life.'

The natural comparison point for Loving is obviously Downton Abbey: like the show, Green's novel is about the contrast in the lives of the residents of an old castle and the lives of their servants.  But whereas Downton Abbey is all melodrama, made for people with the attention spans of lizards, Green's novel demands the utmost patience, and its drama is wrought from the finer details of human life.  It's set during the war, but the war is distant, threatening--the servants at the Irish castle fretfully wonder whether they should return to their homes in England, to their loved ones, before the "Jerries" use the island as a stepping stone.  (Not like on Downton Abbey, where they have to show the pressures of war by turning the castle into a flipping soldiers' hospital.)

The novel begins with the death of the longtime head butler, Eldon.  His replacement, Charley Raunce, is by turns irascible and jovial, but the other servants (and his employer, Mrs Tennant) can see how green he is.  He's anxious to assert his new authority, but also to skim a little off the top of what he charges the household for supplies, something his predecessor did expertly for decades but which he hasn't yet learned to handle with tact or grace.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with a younger maid named Edith.  The romance between Charley and Edith proceeds sweetly but prosaically, with the happy fatalism of two people who realize, seemingly simultaneously, that they are meant to be together.  It's convincing, and somehow more affecting than it would have been with what you might call more fireworks.

Fireworks aren't Green's style.  The drama in Loving involves a missing ring, a pet peacock strangled by a bitter child, a glove full of eggs, a mouse caught in the wheels of a mechanical weathervane, a finely captured game of Blind Man's Bluff.  The house is full of characters who Green refuses to introduce with any fullness; if most people are unknowable, especially when we meet them, why should he bother?  As if to underscore this point, he names two separate young men Albert.

The result is a masterpiece of minimalism.  It seems like hardly a word is spared in Loving, nothing is extraneous.  And yet Green's sentences, often shorn of punctuation, take you on surprising, miniature journeys:

Albert laid himself under a hedge all over which red fuchsia bells swung without a noise in the wind the sure travelling sea brought with its low heavy swell.  He could watch the light blue heave between their donkey Peter's legs and his ears were crowded with the thunder of the ocean.

How can something made of such simple parts demand such attention to be understood?  That first sentence is so simple, but I swear I had to read it three times to follow it.  Not because it's a sloppy sentence, but because of its impeccable design.  Green doesn't break into these prose moments often, but often enough to seem like showing off, as if saying, I can do this, if I choose to.  Mostly the book is in dialogue, which is Green's most renowned skill.  James Wood, in How Fiction Works, praises Green for refusing to stuff his dialogue with adverbs to tell us how the characters are feeling; as with real people, our words are not as clear as we would want them to be.  In Loving, characters speak to each other like people, which is rare.

This is one of those books that I feel I haven't done justice.  Not just in this review, but in reading it; I feel like I wasn't up to its demands.  (I read this book on vacation in North Carolina; last year on the same trip I zipped through all 700 pages of Argall in the same time it took me to plod through the 200 pages of Loving.)  It's not complex, but it is exacting, and often surprising--blink and you'll miss something valuable, or extraordinary.  It's a book that ends just when you feel like you're learning how to read it.