Reviews and comments.

The following originally appeared in the late, lamented READERVILLE JOURNAL.

Alison, Jane – The Love-Artist
Benitez, Sandra – The Weight of All Things 
Burgess, Anthony – A Dead Man in Deptford 
Byatt, A.S. – Possession 
Cherry-Garrard, Apsley – The Worst Journey in the World
Crace, Jim – Genesis 
Erdrich, Louise – The Master Butcher’s Singing Club 
Ehrenreich, Barbara – Nickel & Dimed 
Harvey, Miles – The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime
Heaney, Seamus – Beowulf
Holm, Bill – Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary
Johnson, Denis- Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond 
Le Guin, Ursula K. – The Other Wind
Matthews, Anne – Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City
McMurtry, Larry – Paradise
McPhee, John – The Founding Fish
Miéville, China – Perdido Street Station
Mindlin, Betty – Barbecued Husbands: And Other Stories from the Amazon
Perkins, Robert – Talking to Angels: A Life Spent in High Latitudes
Proulx, Annie – That Old Ace in the Hole
Todd, Kim – Tinkering with Eden
Yalom, Marilyn – A History of the Wife



By Jim CraceA new book by Jim Crace is a literary event, especially since the National Book Critics Circle gave the nod to Being Dead, his idiosyncratic meditation on death. Over the course of his seven previous novels, he has carved out a distinctive niche in modern letters: complex, playful, political, serious in the center but not quite to be believed around the edges. Crace is a fabulist in literalist’s clothing.

Genesis is the story of Felix (Lix) Durn, a famous actor in the unnamed city and country that Crace so often visits in his fiction. This is a world both strange and jarringly familiar: a place of slightly odd brand and place names, but of cultural assumptions that are deeply our own; of political repressions that could, with a sideways step, focus on us. Crace’s world, here as in his other works, exists not so much to support itself as to mirror our own. Crace’s characters, storylines, and his famously inventive grace notes, have imbued his previous books with life and unexpectedness and texture, so that these fictional mirrors attain a great, almost symphonic depth.

The central conceit of his new novel is that every woman who has slept with Lix has conceived a child. “It is a curse,” Lix and Crace tell us, “to be so fertile,” although this curse is a fairly innocuous one for Lix: His fertility never causes him to change his lifestyle, derail his plans, take an unexpected turn. We follow Lix, in flashback and present narrative, from his first act of intercourse to his most recent, as he unwittingly impregnates Mouetta, his wife. We see Lix as student, young actor struggling to find work, sudden success, aging celebrity; we see him ruled by his sexual impulses and we see his deep timidity. This timidity is, in fact, Lix’s second most defining characteristic. Even in his sexual obsessions, he is more often the seduced than the seducer; his relationship with the lover who makes the greatest impact on him, the radical Freda, occurs entirely at her direction throughout the month of their relationship (and their singular act of full intercourse). Lix’s one non-timorous act, his betrayal of a young radical and consequent revenge against Freda, is done sotto voce, hidden from the people around him and rapidly hidden from himself, and is driven by his desire to have an anniversary fuck with his wife. This act, unprotected, has the usual consequence, but here again, Lix’s life is not particularly changed thereby (although Mouetta’s certainly is).

This lack of consequence illustrates the book’s central problem: Lix’s much-vaunted fertility is not credible. Even in this unnamed mirror city, conception must be easily circumvented; Lix’s fertility could be surgically changed, his bedmates could take their own precautions. But in this us-but-not-us world, women are uninvolved in contraception and the idea of a vasectomy never crosses Lix’s mind (although his second wife’s lover has had one: it’s one of the things that recommends him to her). Since this problem could be so easily avoided but isn’t, it takes on a heavy significance — indeed, it rather beats the reader over the head. “I am Symbolic,” it says. “Guess the object of my symbolism.” Additionally, because the curse of Lix’s fertility is never a curse on Lix, it has no grounding and no subsequence, and becomes a hollow at the center of the book.

Crace, who takes his politics seriously, has said that he is uncertain about the ability of fiction to make a difference. I suspect that this uncertainty has overcome the storyteller’s impulse, and as a result the narrative moves forward by increments, repeating and rehashing. The story feels unsure of itself, as if in search of a strong narrative flow that it achieves only on rare occasions.

Is Lix symbolic of Western Europe, living by taking and never suffering the consequences? Surely Crace is not so heavy-handed. I think, instead, that Lix Dern is intended to be Everyman, recapitulating the common human story of “love and love-making, … children, marriages and lives,” of choices made more from the urgency of the sexual moment than from social consciousness or political seriousness, the personal overcoming the social. But Durn is the Everyman of a cloistered literary world: Because he is more symbol than character, his heart is missing. His life happens to him at the direction of others; his bloodlessness brings forth a bloodless text, limp and passive and, in the end, unconvincing. Durn’s Everyman is a bore: self-involved, staggering under the burden of the symbols that he is made to carry, with none of the sparkle and wit that illuminate Crace’s other protagonists. Unlike the corpses of Being Dead, whose lives were complex and vivid and immediate, Lix Durn’s life is little but subtext, and when a subtext is so obvious, it fails its job.

The writing, word by word and line by line, is lovely, graceful, and true. The pity is that there is no heart for it to decorate.
review date: 11/17/2003

The Worst Journey in the World
by Apsley Cherry-GarrardI’ve been reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. In it, Cherry-Garrard describes Robert Falcon Scott’s last, fatal try to be the first to reach the South Pole (Roald Amundsen beat him by 35 days). Cherry was the youngest of the expedition’s members and almost wasn’t taken because his eyesight was so bad. But take him they did, finding in him a cheerful and willing worker both on the long, difficult voyage down, and during the years spent in Antarctica.

During their first winter, the party determined to gather eggs from Emperor penguins. The Emperor is the largest of the penguins and breeds only during the Antarctic winter: they build no nests, instead resting the eggs on the feet of the male penguin (the Scott party didn’t know that it was the males who did the incubation) on the ice, in the dead of winter. Scientists believed that a study of Emperor embryology would yield data about the moment when scales, in the reptile ancestors of birds, became feathers. The only Emperor rookery known to the men was at the far side of Ross Island, on which they were camped, where the sea ice met the slopes of Mount Terror. So three men set out to cross Ross Island at the end of June 1911, in the heart of the winter. Cherry was one of them.

It was dark all the time, except when there were no fogs or blizzards and the moon came through, but this happened rarely. They hauled two sledges carrying 757 pounds of food and gear; often they could not haul both sledges at the same time, so hauled one for a while, then came back and hauled the other. Some days they made a mile and a half by covering four and a half miles; other days they made three miles by covering six. The temperature started at -47° and went down from there, warming up only during blizzards. At times it dipped below -70°. Straps and lines and buckles had to be managed by hand, but an unprotected touch raised huge blisters along the lengths of the fingers, which filled with liquid and then the liquid froze. It took half an hour or more each night just to get into the sleeping bags, prying them open, inserting a bit of oneself, waiting for the bag to defrost a little, then pushing more of oneself into the bag. Cherry describes night after night of sleeplessness, shaking so hard with the cold that he thought his back would snap. Their body heat was enough to melt the ice but not to disperse it; they lay in their bags in ice water, and at the start of each day’s march they had to bend their bodies into the shape needed to pull the sledges, before their clothes froze them in a less useful position. It was so cold that Cherry couldn’t wear his glasses, and stumbled along blinded by dark, snow, and near-sightedness. By the end of June there was enough light at midday to see some of the crevasses into which they would periodically fall, to be hauled back up by the others. They were often lost. When they reached the nearest point to the Penguin rookery, they built a hut which was torn apart in a hurricane that nearly killed them all: Cherry reports thinking that he could easily and happily die, were he assured that the process would not be too painful. He did not, of course, discuss this with his mates.

They secured five penguin eggs, of which three broke. They put themselves at risk to help each other out; they suffered unimaginably, and did not complain. They sang when they could. They made it back.

As we began to gather our gear together to pack up for the last time, Bill [Wilson, the team leader] said quietly, “I want to thank you two for what you have done. I couldn’t have found two better companions – and what is more, I never shall.”

I am proud of that.

No more whining.

review date 05/18/03

A Dead Man in Deptford 
by Anthony BurgessGod, but I love Burgess. Here’s what I said about the book in a discussion at Post & Ripost, the website for The Atlantic magazine:

I loved this book, but I’m a major sucker for Burgess. I found it full of meaning and emotion and action, and toward the end kept putting it down because I didn’t want to watch what I knew was going to happen.Pat says, “Kit [Christopher Marlowe] never conforms except when it’s toward his aim, and even then it’s only in that Machiavellian way.” Except that I think Kit is driven to nonconformity: it is the overthrow of Kit’s common sense by his wit and his intelligence, that ultimately drives his tragedy at the book’s end.”A man can be identified with his creation. Create a villain and you become a villain.” Burgess is likely talking from experience here. There’s always a certain segment of the reading population (probably incapable of imagination themselves) who insist on believing that everything a writer’s character says is something that the writer him/herself believes. In a highly charged political atmosphere, such as that of Kit’s time and, increasingly, of our own, a writer could easily be hanged for his antagonist’s opinions.

“I may be jumping a bit, but I would like it if some members of the group would think about why theatre people and poets were sought after as spies.” WS, I suspect it’s because players (and the poets who wrote their plays) moved about quite a bit and so had unquestioned reason to enter new situations – and have historically been supposed to have squiffy morals and slender purses, so would be easily bought to spy. In addition, as others have pointed out, actors can assume a role: Kit’s role in Rheims foreshadows his playwrighting. It all ties together. Damn, that Burgess was good.

Cate says, “Burgess has a lot of fun in this book.” God, yes, drunk on language as usual, and found lolling about in the gutter with a grin on his face and the crumbs of verbs at the corners of his mouth. And so is his Kit, to the point where he seems too often to care more about the quip than the feelings of the quipee – which in the case of Poley and Skeres leads to their happy involvement with Kit’s own death (Frizer, I think, was just flat-out jealous of Kit’s relationship with Tom W). Drunk on the wine of words and spurning the meat of reason, that’s our Kit.

review date 03/22/03

Nickel & Dimed
by Barbara EhrenreichThis book is a quick read, and shallower than I would have wished. I have a lot of respect for Ehrenreich: God knows I wouldn’t have the stamina to join the working poor for three months and her heart is very much in the right place. Nonetheless I am bothered by what, back in college in the 60s, some of us called the Baby Bolshevik syndrome: back then it referred to kids from solidly middle-class or better families, who waved the flag of revolution and mouthed rhetoric while funded by Daddy back home. These were kids who went hungry or poorly clothed only by choice; who had extensive safety-nets cradling them from the worst of their own rhetorical excesses (for the most part. There were those who took their political opinions far enough to outgrow the Baby Bolshevik tag, but they were the minority. Most of these kids grew up and went to graduate school and became lawyers and teachers and doctors and etc., as solidly middle-class as the parents they used to curse). Those who came from backgrounds where hunger wasn’t a life-style choice weren’t Baby Bolsheviks.Ehrenreich’s father came out of the mines to become a union organizer, which might excuse her from the Baby Bolshevik tag. And it’s probably true that the working poor would be hard pressed to find a publishable voice, if only because publishers don’t seem to be really interested in the poor themselves, so much as they are in pop-sociology or scholastic examinations of the poor. You don’t expect amoeba to speak, do you? So it’s good that a well-published and economically comfortable writer takes the time to explore and deplore the lives of the working poor. I’m glad she did it, and I’m glad the book sold well, and I hope that it made people think a bit more deeply about the broader implications of, e.g., welfare reform (although I suspect that there is a fair amount of preaching to the choir in all of this). But the words “Baby Bolshevik” still whisper through my head.

review date 03/08/03

The Master Butchers Singing Club
By Louise ErdrichWilla Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” In her most recent outing, Louise Erdrich proves Cather’s point, plowing familiar ground, yet raising new fruit.

In The Master Butchers Singing Club, Erdrich returns, as she often does, to the flat and unforgiving landscape of North Dakota and the small town of Argus, peopled with characters familiar from Erdrich’s previous books. It is part of Erdrich’s talent that these characters remain interesting throughout the many iterations of their stories: strong women toughened by their lives and sometimes made mean by it; meek men locked into relationships they struggle to understand; the strength of friendships; the tensions within families; the redefinition of “family” itself to include those who share a soul, if not a bloodline; the strange routes children take on their way to adulthood.

In this book, the author introduces two very different men, both forged in the heat of World War I. The first, Fidelis Waldvogel, was a German sniper whose best friend died during the war, and who returned home after the war to marry the friend’s pregnant sweetheart, Eva. Fidelis, scion of a long line of master butchers, becomes an economic refugee, bringing his knives and a suitcase of sausages to the new world. He runs out of money in Argus and that’s where he stops, eventually opening a shop of his own and sending for his wife and sons, as well as his dour and difficult sister. Fidelis is so reserved that he remains, through much of the book, a pillar of both strength and silence.

The second man, Cyprian Lazarre, is an Ojibway whose scars, like Fidelis’, reach into his psyche. Cyprian fought a war for a country that does not even allow him to vote. He makes a dubious living as an acrobat whose specialty is balancing, but it’s tough to make ends meet with a traveling act, even when the highlight of your show is to sit on a pile of chairs balanced on the stomach of your partner, Delphine Watzka, a native of Argus and the heart of this book.

Here, again, Erdrich’s gaze is fixed on the women of the story. Cyprian and Delphine return to Argus for a short visit and end up staying, trapped by the needs of Delphine’s drunkard father, Roy, and by the mysterious circumstances leading to the death of a family in Roy’s basement. Delphine finds work with Eva Waldvogel, Fidelis’ wife; the two become heart-friends, bound even more closely than Delphine is bound to Cyprian. Cyprian, as is not uncommon with Erdrich’s characters, turns out to be a gay man who loves Delphine nonetheless, while essentially unable to have sex with her — except once; and that encounter illustrates the control Erdrich has over her characters and their stories.

Delphine and Cyprian make love by gazing so deeply into each other’s eyes that their bodies move beyond the physical and into the realm of the purely emotional. It’s a wonderful scene, and so well done that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter that the subtext is as obvious as the bones in a standing rib roast. Subtext generally is not, I think, one of Erdrich’s main concerns: there’s no game of “hide the meaning” in her stories, although the levels of meaning certainly are there. It is in part this accessibility that makes Erdrich the popular writer that she is.

Delphine’s relationship with Eva Waldvogel is uninterrupted by Eva’s death, as Delphine continues to deal with Fidelis, his sons and his wicked sister, Maria Theresa, known as Tante. Erdrich has always enjoyed her bad women, whom she divides, generally, into two distinct sets: women seen as bad by society — these often embody the true spirit of theeir communities, illustrating tenacity and strength; in this book, the rag-picker Step-and-a-Half fills the role very well — and women who are just plain mean and heartless. Tante is somewhat of a problem in this role. Unlike, say, Sita in The Beet Queen, Tante’s character never deepens enough to engage our sympathy. This is, I think, emblematic of a problem with many of the minor characters in this novel: they seem almost sketched in, as though Erdrich has visited these personae too often and has run low on the details and insight that might infuse them, again, with blood and meaning.

Cyprian becomes a bootlegger; Delphine’s old friend Clarisse, who has grown up to take over her family’s undertaking business, is unwillingly involved with the unsavory Sheriff and the mystery of the family’s death in Roy’s cellar; young Franz Waldvogel grows up in love with flying and a local girl, and it is uncertain whether he will survive either. The story lines weave together as they do in Erdrich’s other visits to Argus; part of the enjoyment for her fans is hearing, by way of a name dropped in passing, references to other characters in earlier books. It is to Erdrich’s great credit that she has, in effect, written a series of books in which each one stands sturdily alone, yet all blend together to form a richer tapestry.

Another of Erdrich’s themes is the slipperiness of individuals and emotions and even of history. People remain themselves yet blend into the lives of others. Delphine and Eva together become something composed of both yet more than simply the sum of the two. Cyprian merges his identity as a gay man and his identity as Delphine’s lover into something quite different; even Roy achieves a transformation. At the book’s end, when the mystery of the dead family and the surprising revelation regarding Delphine’s parentage are both set to rest, we have come once again full circle out of the small, intense community of Argus, the many-eyed, and into it again. The story has, once more, told itself as fiercely as if new.

review date 02/11/03
The Readerville Journal

by Larry McMurtryAnother flash reading, this time of Larry McMurtry’s Paradise,  which is supposed to be a combined travelogue about Tahiti and the Marquesas, and a rumination about his parents’ marriage. My foot. What this is, I think, is something spewed out in haste and briefly (the hardcover is 159 skinny pages long) in order to justify deducting a trip to Tahiti from his income taxes.The writing is just plain sloppy. Play “track the tenses” with this, from p.156 but typical of the rest of the book:

At about six the moon, very distinct and very white, appears above the cloud cover, as if to light our way home. I kept an eye out for the coastline. On Fatu Hiva our planet had seemed very large, but now it is beginning to seem small to me again. Sunset began to color the clouds below us gold, and then a pale rose, almost the color of the wine I had drunk aboard the Aranui. The moon is rapidly lifting itself out of the spread of sunset colors, but for a time, it became a little rosy too. We crossed the shoreline just north of Newport Beach and curved right into the incoming traffic, which was almost as intense as what was happening below us, on the 405.

He talks about his parents marriage early in the book, before he leaves Tahiti for a two-week cruise on a freighter. In the last line of the book, his mother dies. Between then there’s not a hell of a lot about his parents. He Pronounces on everything from the French administration to cannibalism, but nowhere in any depth. He makes passing reference to items of interest and never follows through on them. He goos and gaws about all the Europeans who have come to the South Pacific and makes much of the clips from two works by Gauguin on the front and back covers of his book, mentions (damn near every time the painter’s name crops up) that the painter tried to capture innocence on canvas, and that’s the art criticism segment. He mentions in passing that Paul Theroux covered the same territory in The Happy Isles of Oceania — and did so, I hasten to add, with wit and charm and depth and a wonderfully dyspeptic eye. McMurtry should not be allowed on the same ocean as Theroux.

So, why did I finish the thing? (1) Because I’m sick and have a hard time getting out of bed, even to get another book; (2) it’s short; and (3) I had a cat asleep on my shoulder.

review date 02/09/03

That Old Ace in the Hole: A Novel
By Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx writes with barbed concision. She stakes out her territory amid the peculiar people and heartbreaking events of North America, using her spare, precise style to paint characters and landscapes so real they breathe. Her stories carry the cadence of allegory: in the story you are in the story, but when you lift your head you see the world that Proulx has changed for you.

To start a new Proulx novel is to never know quite where you will end up, although you recognize many of the things you find along the way: the delightfully strange names, the bizarre and commonplace family histories (as family histories tend to be), the odd objects that follow her characters, illuminating and defining their lives. When she uses them in short fiction, they emanate a power beyond themselves; in her longer fiction, they tend to fade a little amid the more generous elbow room of her narrative. That’s OK, there’s enough power in her writing to carry us past these minor problems.

Bob Dollar, That Old Ace in the Hole‘s protagonist, was abandoned by his mother, Viola, on the step of her brother Tambourine Bapp’s secondhand store. (All the Bapps save Bob have musical names: Lutie, Banjie, Ket. And like all fine Proulx names, they are simply mentioned and never glossed.) As the book opens, Bob has graduated from Horace Greeley Junior University; he can’t afford to continue his education so he takes a job with Global Pork Rind scouting for hog-farm sites in the Texas Panhandle.

The job sounds squiffy from the get-go: Ribeye Cluke, Bob’s boss, tells him that hog farm scouts are usually run out of town and recommends that he come up with a cover story. Bob is told to look for doddering old folk willing to sell their land, and to nail down the sales before others can get wind of what he’s doing. Cluke recommends that, as part of Bob’s cover, he buy cowboy boots to replace the fine brown oxfords that Uncle Tam had found in the donation box of his thrift store.

Bob keeps his brown oxfords, though; the only sign, through much of the book, of his rebellion. Uncle Tam also gives Bob his most prized possession: a tie hand-painted by Bob’s vanished mother, showing the sinking of the Titanic. A third object, a gift from Tam’s ex-partner Bromo, is a copy of Expedition to the Southwest, an 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma by Lieutenant James William Abert. It’s a real book: Abert was commissioned in 1845 to explore the territory, including what later became the Texas Panhandle. As Bob moves more deeply into the land, Abert’s report opens for him, and for us, the history of the land.

Proulx evokes the bleak, seductive landscapes of the American West, the cadences of western speech, the interweaving of lives that have been scraped out for generations in small pockets of grudging fertility. These people are as tough and twisted as the barbed wire that the town of Woolybucket, Texas, celebrates at its annual Barbwire Festival. Bob’s involvement with the land and the people, and the business that threatens both, fittingly culminates in a festival devoted to a piece of fanged technology that simultaneously keeps things in and keeps things out. Before then, both Bob Dollar and the reader hear the stories of the Panhandle’s people; love and loss, murder and birth, longing and expectation, hilarity and grief — stories changing through time and through the speakers’ voices.

I don’t think there’s another American writer who handles this material as deftly as Proulx. The stories of Habakuk van Melkebeek the windmill man and his apprentice and eventual partner Ace Crouch; of Rope Butt the cowboy poet; of the Beautyrooms family and of others all ring clear and true, ranging from notes of tragedy through notes of farce without striking a single false chord. Her genius is the story told by indirection, almost offhandedly: in the story you are in the story, but when you raise your head …

Unfortunately, the stories are encased in something new in Proulx’s fiction: an urgent Point. That’s not the unfortunate part, though: there is a lot of great writing shaped by political or social vision. The unfortunate part is that Proulx’s Point — about the evils of corporate hog farming — is set out so clearly, passionately and convincingly in the early part of the book that her frequent returns to the Point stick out like a neon billboard on the plains.

This has two deleterious effects: the reader is converted so swiftly to Proulx’s view that as the material is reiterated, it loses both impact and the reader’s interest; and because the reader’s conviction comes so early in the book, Bob Dollar’s stubborn insistence on continuing to do his job makes him seem both less than what he is (in ethical terms) and more than what he is (in terms of villainy).

Bob’s underlying psychological motive comes too far into the book to prevent most of the damage, and he becomes less a breathing individual and more a prolocutor for the Point. So rather than moving with the deep and seamless velocity of Postcards, the book stutters between iterations of the Point and of the individual stories that Bob Dollar and the reader are privileged to hear.

The good news is that these stories are Proulx at her finest: proficient, compelling and moving. Even stuttering, Proulx is a master.

review date 12/03/02
The Readerville Journal

The Founding Fish
By John McPheeA new book by John McPhee is rather like a prize in a blind lottery, you never really know what you’ll find inside.

Over the years, I have followed McPhee into strange places and have met strange people. I know that South Pacific oranges are green (they need frost to color up) because McPhee told me so. I know the rivers of Alaska because McPhee took me there. I even know what diabase is and how it came to be. His subjects didn’t necessarily interest me before, but they became interesting because they interested McPhee, and he brought to them a bright curiosity, a tenacious mind and a seductive facility with language. Listen, for example, to this description of a river as heard through a hydrophone:

A 0-1,000-hertz hydrophone is so sensitive that it can hear sand grains in motion, even in very quietly moving water … A relaxing and soothing sound, not unlike the recorded surf played above the cribs of infants, it was audible geomorphology — you were listening to mountains on their way to the sea.

Many of McPhee’s elegant discourses were published in The New Yorker in its heyday. Finding his name in the Table of Contents always brought a jolt of pleasure, especially if the article’s title indicated that it was just part one of what was to come. In these lesser days his name has appeared infrequently: editorial styles have changed, the long, multipart nonfiction piece appears to have been put aside in favor of shorter, punchier articles. I thought perhaps McPhee had hung it up, retired from this traveling and writing business, and that no new McPhees would be forthcoming. I am delighted that I was wrong.

This time, it’s fish.

That McPhee is a fisherman is something I had gathered from his earlier writings. I did not know the extent of the malady until I opened the pages of The Founding Fish. In particular he fishes for shad, the subject that gives this book its name.

But wait a minute. In my youth I fished for trout in the cold, clear waters of the High Sierra, but was never very good at it. (What fish I caught sacrificed themselves to me more out of pity, I think, than through any skill of mine.) I like to eat fish. I keep tropical specimens and enjoy visiting aquaria. But that’s about it. My interest in reading about fishing for shad is just about nil. Still, I have learned over the years to trust John McPhee. My trust has not been misplaced.

McPhee is always present in his books. Perhaps because shad fishing is so close to his heart, he is even more present here. He’s good company, whether we’re losing shad off the hook on the Connecticut River or hobnobbing with maniacal shad fishermen like Willy Bemis, the ichthyologist who dreams of establishing a Massachusetts Museum of Natural History featuring a tremendous collection of fish skeletons (on behalf of which he paces the docks of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in shorts and sandals, cadging donations of tremendous fish from the competitors). We hang out with Boyd Kynard of the S.O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center (anadromous fish return to fresh water to breed — shad are anadromous fish). We see roe and milt collected by fish breeders who seed rivers for private and governmental agencies. We eat a lot of shad, part of whose Latin name, Alosa sapidissima, means “very, very tasty. Yes indeed.”

Anadromous fish have suffered at the hands of western Europeans in America, from the damming of their spawning rivers (as far back as the 18th century) to such fierce pollution that long sections of rivers have been effectively stripped of life. McPhee shows us that, along with the heartening effects of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the even more heartening push toward the destruction of dams in American rivers. We visit the Bay of Fundy, where young shad spend summers feasting on zooplankton; we spend time in Florida at the southern border of shad territory; and we visit the vigorous descendants of the shad who were lovingly hand-carried across the country and seeded in western waters in 1871 by Seth Green of the New York Fish Commission.

At the turn of the last century, shad were perhaps the most eaten fish in America. “It may safely be said that the veritable king of food fishes is a denizen of our waters, for there is probably no fish on earth that surpasses the shad in all the qualities that go to make up an ideal food fish,” said Charles Minor Blackford of Virginia in 1916. But the shad’s popularity, McPhee tells us, has fallen. He ascribes this, in part, to the fact that the shad is a particularly bony fish, and remembers his grandfather saying to his cousin Billy, who hated shad, “The density of thy ignorance is appalling, child. Don’t worry about the bones. Forget them. The fish is good.” But it appears that Billy’s dislike presaged a general downturn in American regard for the shad. This has not lessened my desire, next spring, to search out a shad and eat it.

Look, I’ll be honest with you: I am about 50 pages from the end of the book and reading with increasing slowness. I don’t want it to end.

I have, on my shelves, six books by John McPhee that I haven’t read and resist reading. They are my emergency fund, saved for that proverbial rainy day when life is bleak and American arts and letters have gone to hell in a handbasket. When that day comes, I will reach for one of those six, and sink into a vigorous and literate world that here on the outside, I don’t even know exists.

review date 10/29/02
The Readerville Journal

The Other Wind
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Other Wind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s most recent addition to her Earthsea novels; perhaps fittingly, its subject is death. If this sounds somber for a work in a series that is, after all, aimed at young adults, please know that Le Guin, who is not known for taking the easy path, is not interested in discussing death as a good thing or a bad thing, nor is she interested in reconciling us to our mortal lot. Her topic, here, is how we shape death to our own needs and desires, and how our shaping in turn shapes us. As usual, she knows that young adults are perfectly able to comprehend such an issue and she is not, I think, willing to or even capable of talking down to anyone.

Alder, a pot mender, grieves for his lost wife so completely that he dreams himself to the borders of the Dry Land, the land of death, where he sees his wife, and she kisses him, and although he does not see her again the dreams bring him back time and again to the stone wall separating the Dry Land from the living world. The dead gather at the wall, reaching for him; he wakes bruised from their touches and tormented by his inability to escape the dreams. Are the dead gathering to breach the walls and to invade the land of the living? He cannot escape these nightmares, but he cannot escape his body’s demand to sleep, and turns to the wizards of Roke for help.

The wizards send him to Ged, who was once Earthsea’s Archmage. Ged has no magic anymore, but he does realize that Alder can be kept from nightmares by the touch of something living, and helps him procure a kitten who sleeps on his chest and keeps the dreams away. Ged sends him on to the young king at Havenor, and to Ged’s own wife Tenar and and his daughter Tehanu, the burned child.

Dragons are returning to the lands of men; a young princess sent to Havenor by her barbarian father tells stories of the compact between dragons and men that the men of the west have broken; Ged and King Lebannen have traveled the Dry Lands before; a Pelnish wizard knows another piece to the puzzle; together they gather on the wizard’s island of Roke to pursue the mystery and, with luck, to mend the world while it can still be saved.

Through it all, “The Other Wind” meditates on the nature of death in a living world, on the breakdown that happens when the web that includes humans and the rest of creation is broken. Le Guin’s thesis is bound so completely into the warp and weft of her tale that to tell you her conclusions would be to spoil the ending for you, and I won’t do that.

I will remind you of this: Ursula Le Guin never writes with less than passion, an awesome intelligence, and such full attention to the worlds she creates that she commands our attention, too. Also this: she is so fiercely excellent a story teller that the full subtext of her story is part and parcel of the movement and action and characters of the story itself. She does not lecture the reader, because she does not need to. It is not, I think, possible to begin this story and to put it aside before the end.

One thing further: while it may deepen the reader’s enjoyment of this book to know the previous Earthsea books, it is not a requirement.

Now go read it.

review date 10/05/01

Barbecued Husbands: And Other Stories from the Amazon
By Betty Mindlin, Translated by Donald SlatoffIn this splendid collection, anthropologist Betty Mindlin brings us myths and folk tales from the indigenous tribes of Rondônia, in the Brazilian rainforests near the Bolivian border. Most of these tribes are on the verge of extinction, the result of slavery, forced migrations and western diseases. In recording the legends of these tribes (she collected over 300 hours of narratives), Mindlin has created an extraordinary collection of stories that paint a world and the cultures within it with greater precision and verve than any anthropological text could hope to achieve.

These tales deal with love, sex, family, children — society’s glue. Most were narrated by tribespeople in their own dying languages: in 1995 only about 180 people spoke Tupari, 70 spoke Macurap and 50 spoke Jabuti. And these are comparatively large populations: Mindlin found only seven speakers of Ajuru, five of Aruá, four of Arikapu, two or three of Kampé and only one of Kanoé. The stories were painstakingly translated into Portuguese; the original edition won the Associação Paulista de Criticos de Arte prize. This English translation is robust and convincing, letting the voices of the narrators shine through.

Some of these stories sound like variations on familiar European tales. A Macurap story, “The Women Without Men, the Amazons, the Kaledjaa-Ipeb, the Black Women,” includes a story very much like the Greek Psyche myth but with the sexes reversed. “The Offended Wife” concerns a man who disguises himself as an old woman in order to kill his estranged wife and reminded me in sections of Snow White, but also reminded me just how different these stories are from ours:

The husband was furious and decided to go after his escaped wife. Somehow he transformed himself into an old woman. I don’t know how he disguised his prick, it seems as if he used some wax. I don’t think he cut it off, but he became just like a woman. I really don’t know how, but he managed to disguise himself. He took an old marico [basket]. He really turned himself from a man into a woman.

There are, of course, other differences: these stories rise from a tropical rainforest culture, and their landscapes and icons are different from ours. Here, for example, snakes are not the evil beings of European folk tales; a number of stories tell of sisters who, transformed into boa constrictors, decorate their brothers by swallowing paint then swallowing the brothers. The sisters instruct the brothers to urinate when the painting is done, signaling the sisters to spit them out: the evil ones in these stories refuse to urinate (probably due to their greed for the decoration, rather than squeamishness) and become lunch.

Some of the evils depicted are familiar, though their expressions may seem strange. Here are the usual panoply of sins: greed, gluttony, inappropriate lust, infidelity, lying, stubbornness (The Stubborn One is a recurring character) and stealing. Where the heart of a story may be obscure it is illuminating to think about what the overall story illustrates. In all, though, the mix of orality, gluttony and sex runs like a river.

In the title story, a village’s women are seduced by the beautiful songs of an old woman in a lake. They go to the lake every day while the men are off hunting — in order to dance and learn the songs — even though the old woman demands that they must kill one of the men, cook him and eat him as daily payment. (There is a lot of cannibalism in these stories, enough to put Hansel and Gretel’s witch to shame.) The men, outraged, kill the women except for one young girl who never ate the barbecued husbands; her life guarantees the survival of the tribe. In another version, from the Arikapu tribe, the women leave because the men have killed a Tapir, their lover; in a third version, the women depart because they catch the men eating their own shit wrapped in corn cakes. One of the fascinations of the collection is precisely this repetition, with changes, of the elements of myth. Another is the fact that these tales, even when they resonate of European myths, are erotic, at times scatological, enthusiastically of the earth. The end matter, including histories of the tribes and the storytellers and an illuminating article on the folk tales themselves, is rich and satisfying.

According to Webster’s Revised Unabridged, a myth is a “story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience … a wonder story of prehistoric origin.”

We tend, I think, to look at the wonder stories of our own culture as distant from us, quaint and toothless. The Grimms, valuable as their work was, edited their stories through their own 19th century morality. Their tales came into English as stories for children. Other folk tales became the playthings of the French court before winding up in prettily illustrated kids’ books. Greek mythology filtered through Roman and Renaissance sensibilities before it reached us. In more modern times, the tales have suffered both from the censorious shears of Victorian sensibilities (even Aesop was bowdlerized) and the animated shears of Disneyfication. European myths and fairy tales arrive at our doorsteps trailing behind them centuries of cultural baggage.

In Barbecued Husbands, though, Mindlin brings us folk tales without the clouds of obscuring and changeable sensibilities: these are the raw stuff of myth, with their language and power and lustiness intact. It makes me wonder what, if we had a time machine and could slide back to the Europe of, say, 3000 B.C., we would find in our own cultural attic.

review date 09/30/02
The Readerville Journal

Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City
by Anne MatthewsAnne Matthews, a contributing editor for Preservation magazine and author of Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, loves New York. She brings to that love a clear, inquisitive mind and a splendid eye for detail. Of her first Manhattan visit, she says:

Three blocks from Penn Station, at Broadway and Herald Square, we clung together in a Macy’s doorway, stunned, disoriented, drowning … almost nothing is louder than midtown Manhattan …. The grey urban air smelled of sewers and diesel and burned pushcart chestnuts. The local signage was full of opinions … no matter which way I looked to find a horizon, I saw only faces — near, nearer, gone …. A band of city pigeons made a showy landing at the curb, barged over, and began to eat our shoelaces.

At least, they looked like pigeons: in truth, these were feral superdoves — immigrant New Yorkers descended from Old World rock doves and escaped racing birds, honed to urban perfection by urban pressures. New York City pigeons can breed year-round, eat meat, and see ultraviolet light. They perform alarmingly well on tests of symbolic logic. They produce droppings acid enough to snap the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It’s a good introduction to the book: witty, informative, eager to see beneath the surface. Matthews’ main topic is the nature/culture confrontation that increasingly defines the urban habitat: “Some encounters in this new wilderness charm us,” she says, “some we dread, others we badly misunderstand.” She tackles all of them.

We follow Rebekah Creshkoff, a communications officer with a degree in conservation biology, as she patrols the canyons of the financial district at dawn, rescuing live songbirds and collecting dead ones. Along the way Matthews talks about migrations and habitats, the effects of bright skyscraper lights on passing birds, finding scarlet tanagers caught in revolving doors. She detours through a description of watersheds (these digressions are among the joys of the book) and how scientists from various fields see the city; she opens for us the wilderness edges of New York (six natural habitats: estuary, salt marsh, woodland, beach, freshwater river, and prairie — who knew?). Christopher Nadareski, wearing a snowmobile suit and a crash helmet, crawls out to a cornice on the 26th floor of the New York Hospital and Cornell Medical Center, to band baby peregrine falcon chicks while their parents try to eat him alive. We learn of wild turkeys retaking Central Park, presumably by flying from the Bronx straight up Broadway. Porpoises in the Hudson. Snapping turtles apparently migrating across the Cross Bay Bridge. Coyotes in Brooklyn.

This isn’t a “cute” book. The wildlife migrates, survives or fails, impacts the city’s human population as much as the humans impact the creatures. She talks about sunlight and wind and water — there’s a living river, Minetta Water, occupying a transparent cylinder in the lobby of 2 Fifth Avenue. There are rats, in detail both comprehensive and fascinating, including their ability to navigate plumbing and pop out of 16th floor toilets. Viruses and bacilli inhabit the city; Washington Square is built over, among other things, the graves of yellow-fever victims from the early 19th century.

In a sink like New York, pathogens are democratic and Darwinian. Their random targets — the Wall Street analyst, the West Side private-school teacher, the Silicon Alley executive — are good at denial. “I floss, I kick-box, I pop down to Brazil, I buy my lamps in SoHo and my lunch at Balducci’s. I can’t have drug-resistant TB … malaria … the plague.” That’s medieval. You go home to your small expensive apartment, stare at the brick on your toilet, and brood.

Matthews’ brief includes the introduction of exotics, both plant and animal; bears; the mating rituals of horseshoe crabs (native New Yorkers); the Saint Francis liturgy at Saint John the Divine; the social history of New York City; looking for Penn Station in the Jersey Meadowlands; the lost city outside Madison, Wisconsin, where Matthews grew up; the lost private public spaces in midtown; global warming; the truth that “if the last fifty years are any guide, most of the stresses, dreams, disasters, and component parts of 2050 are already with us – unrecorded, overlooked, misinterpreted, buried on page D24.”

I recommend “Wild Nights” not only to those who know New York, but to those who care about our human impact on the planet — and the planet’s impact on us.

Are you a native? Can you point north? Describe where your garbage goes? Name three trees you pass on your way to work?

It’s a fine, fine book.

review date 06/12/01

Perdido Street Station
by China MiévilleChina Miéville thanks the memory of Mervyn Peake in the Acknowledgments here, and Peake’s fingerprints are certainly all over the book, from the architecture of New Crobuzon to its names: Rudgutter, Vermishank, Canker Wedge, Rescue, and more sound like bells from the halls of Ghormenghast. The griminess and decay of the city also echo Ghormenghast, but with an added edge: John Clute typified the book as “steampunk” and it strikes me that while New Crobuzon’s father is Peake, its uncles are Bruce Sterling and William Gibson,  particularly in the psychological flavor of the city. I don’t want this to sound as though I think the book is only derivative, but, like Miéville himself, I think it important to salute the roots.I agree with those who find the last 200 pages rather stiff; it’s tough to wrap up a book with this many threads in it and make it all come out smoothly, and it’s easy to fall into a kind of mechanical, list-ticking-off structure. And, it’s only his second book. I think he does a good enough job of it, although I was bothered by Jack Half-A-Prayer from the beginning — not present enough to be part of the story, but so insistently pointed out that I figured he’d be needed as a deus-ex-something by the end. As he was. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was introduced in second draft.The feel at the end of the book interests me considerably, and I am going to do Miéville the courtesy of treating the book as a stand-alone (even though I see so many dangling threads that I am convinced the next work we see from him will be Yag In the Magic City).

The story of the alien invasion that threatens things as they are, is an very old one (think  Beowulf, for example). In a traditional re-telling, we see the world before the menace, then the menace is introduced (monster from the deep, Martians, communist assassins, etc.), the heroes rally against it and are defeated three times, and finally overcome the menace and the world becomes not only what it was before, but a better place – lessons are learned, bonds are forged or deepened, understandings are cemented. But I think we lost this vision, oh, say sometime between 1956 and 1978. The dates are deliberate: they are the release dates for the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the desperate townspeople finally contact the authorities and are saved, and the remake, in which there is nobody left to contact. By ‘78 we had developed, as a society, a deep and possibly permanent distrust in our agencies of authority. Miéville takes it the logical step further: in the world he posits (and I suspect in the cyber- or steampunk world generally), not only are the authorities corrupt, they will punish heroism even when that heroism is exercised in their own behalf. Isaac and Derkhan and Lin must flee not in spite of their saving of the city, but in great part because of it. The menace of the slake-moths is something Rudgutter and Motley et alia could deal with (and I am convinced, by the way, that Motley’s backwards Remade would eventually have won the day, after hideous losses): what they cannot condone are the wild-cards, the unauthorized expressions, that Isaac and his colleagues embody. The heroes emerge broken, bereft, and hounded out of their home. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.

What’s the moral? All good fantasy has a moral. I think it is this: The Menace will enter the society, that is a given. The wise society will band together to expel the Menace and will reward those who work to that end, but the wise society no longer exists if, indeed, it ever did. Heroism will be punished, because those who care enough to act on their own stick out and, as the Japanese say, the nail that sticks out is hammered down.

review date 06/18/01

Tinkering with Eden
by Kim Todd
This is a lovely, thought-provoking book, right up there with Pollan’s Botany of Desire or Anne Matthews’ wonderful Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City.Specifically, Todd’s subject is exotics in America: the plants, animals, and insects that humans have (deliberately or otherwise) injected into this country and the way these exotics have shaped, and been shaped by, the New World. In a series of short, nimble essays she takes on creatures of the sky, land, and sea, and shows us something new and interesting about each one. The pigeon, for example: imported during colonial times as both a food source and, in its familiarity, a source of comfort to English folk far from home, it bred with the local product to produce the highly successful, not to say noxious, city bird we now know. The honeybee was another colonial introduction (a surprise, that: I thought they were native), as was the Hessian fly. Sailors, angry that missionaries kept them from bonking the native women in Hawaii, deliberately tipped kegs thick with stale water and mosquito larvae into Maui’s streams, introducing the pest into Paradise. (Of course, the mosquito isn’t the only unfortunate introduction to Hawaii: consider the sad tale of the rats who came ashore from sailing ships, and the mongooses introduced to eat them except that rats are nocturnal and mongoose are not.) The starling was introduced because it was mentioned in Shakespeare — not a flattering mention, but a mention nonetheless.Not all introductions have disastrous consequences: biological controls of unwanted pests came to us courtesy of Benjamin Walsh and his introduction of the ladybug now classified as Rodolia cardinalis, used to fight scale in turn-of-the-last-century orange groves in Southern California. Or, consider the brown trout, as Todd does in this lovely passage:

Trout offer endless seductions. The passions they inspire edge on ecstatic. Read any of the otherwise sane writers who would rather have a fly rod in hand but, lacking that, are trying to use a pencil to get the fish to rise, as if with enough rhythm, timing, and technique, the trout might break the surface of the page, shaking off commas and semicolons like so much spray, and arrive, flopping and gasping, into their laps. Maybe it’s the intimacy of the connection between angler and fish, the pull of the line, muscle contracting, muscle releasing. The escape plans, the strategies, the panic of the animal are tactile as they pass through the medium of the rod. Then the fish arrives. The connection grows, palm to fin.

Todd writes with spirit and energy, about reindeer in Alaska and mountain goats on the Olympic peninsula; monkeys in Florida, knapweed in Montana, parrots in Chicago, and many others. It’s a lovely, literate book, deserving of its place between Pollan and Matthews and other writers who see us featherless bipeds firmly in our places in the great natural world, and examine us with skeptical but affectionate eyes. Highly recommended.

review date 06/18/02

Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond
by Denis JohnsonDenis Johnson has always specialized in the strange, delivered in tones at once dispassionate and intimate. His new essay collection, subtitled “Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond”, is no exception.

He starts, and ends, in the civil war in Liberia. “The Civil War in Hell” is cool, distinct, and uncompromising: he points us at things we don’t want to see and holds our eyes open with writing as simple and addictive as cold water:

It’s late September and the Liberian civil war has been stalled, at its very climax, for nearly three weeks. The various factions simmer under heavy West African clouds. Charles Taylor and his rebels are over here; they control most of the country and the northern part of the capital, Monrovia — the part where the radio station is, and many nights Taylor harangues his corner of the universe with speeches about who he’s killed and who he’s going to kill, expectorating figures with a casual generosity that gets him known as a liar, referring to himself as “the President of this nation” and to his archrival as “the late Prince Johnson.” Meanwhile Prince Johnson, very much alive, holds most of the capital. Johnson’s titles are Field Marshal, Brigadier General, and Acting President of Liberia; “Prince” is just his name. Johnson’s men eliminated the president two weeks ago, and they’ve been roaming the city ever since, exterminating the dead president’s soldiers, piling their bodies on the streets — as many as two hundred one night — or scattering them along the beaches.

Johnson writes as though he is alone out there, pointing a finger, demanding that the world pay attention, knowing that to make it so, he must be clear, with a cool and perfect clarity that only occasionally lets you know the depth of his horror. It’s astoundingly effective.

In “Hippies” he bundles us along to a Rainbow Family Gathering in the Oregon woods, where his report of the chaos is hilarious and unsparing of everyone, perhaps most of all himself. “Down Hard Six Times” is the tale of his Alaskan honeymoon and of a pilot who makes a habit of crash landings. We attend a revival meeting of “Bikers for Jesus” with “the man from Idaho” (he often refers to himself in the third person, but with no real effort at disguise), who appears to be one of the saved. His “Three Deserts” are those of the Taliban, the American Southwest, and the Arabian desert of Desert Storm; “The Militia In Me” and “Run, Rudolph, Run” discuss Waco and Ruby Ridge and Eric Robert Rudolph. There is no condescension, no exploitation, no voyeurism — it’s never clear, at least to me, just where Johnson places himself on the scale of sympathy. Further along it, I suspect, than I am comfortable with.

He takes us to “The Lowest Bar in Montana”; in “An Anarchist’s Guide to Somalia” he sneaks into Somalia with the intention of becoming the last American in the country after the withdrawal of the United Nation troops:

In the Ogaden, life comes hard, but these have won through yet another day, unlike all the others they’ve lost to sickness, famine, massacres, battles. The villagers sit close together, everyone touching someone else, steeped in a contentment that seems, at this moment, perpetual. It occurs to the writer that the secret way to happiness is in knowing a lot of dead people.

The shortest and funniest essay in the book, “Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells” about an aborted Boy Scout overnighter in the Philippines when he was a child, segues into the last and longest essay “The Small Boys’ Unit”, Johnson’s Heart of Darkness. The New Yorker sent him to Liberia to profile Charles Taylor, supra. The trip is terrifying as Johnson falls so deeply into a world of such banal and unremitting evil that he must barter with his own soul to escape. If “The Civil War in Hell” at the book’s opening demands that the world pay attention, “The Small Boys’ Unit” promises that if we do, we too will be lost.

Many of these essays are funny. Many of them hurt. I wanted to feel confident about the trip that Johnson was taking me on, but each time he pulled the rug out from under me and made me watch, in lucid detail, places and people and events from a world more sinister and dangerous than the one I think I inhabit, and about which I may be wrong.

If I have a quibble, it is that I wish these essays were dated, as to publication if nothing else. Mulling it over, though, I’m not so sure that this would be a good idea: there is a timelessness to these stories that a date would diminish. In the long run, it really doesn’t matter when a man is running from a government, when a madman is piling the corpses of his enemies on a beach, when a country is steamrollering over another and withdrawing in something that may only linguistically be called “victory”.

I am profoundly disturbed, and profoundly grateful, to have read this book.

review date 05/30/01

The Love-Artist
by Jane Alison
There is, it seems, something of a mystery about the scandalous Roman poet Ovid. He produced a famous handful of works, including The Art of Love, which earned him a salacious reputation, and The Metamorphoses, which earned him immortality, and at the height of his career was banished from Rome to live out the rest of his life in the Black Sea city of Tomi. The reasons for this exile are tantalizing: the emperor Augustus, trying to return Rome to a state of republican morality, was not enchanted with “The Art of Love” and Ovid committed what he himself termed a “mistake” which was, he said, the result of having eyes. Speculation centers around the behavior of Augustus’ grand-daughter Julia and the possibility that Ovid, knowing of her licentiousness, didn’t report the same to the emperor. In any event, before leaving Rome Ovid burned the manuscript of his masterpiece and lived the last decade of his life in exile, petitioning in vain for forgiveness and permission to return. (It is, I think, both telling and endearing that Ovid burned his manuscript after copies were safely in the hands of friends.)

This, generally, forms the skeleton on which Jane Alison hangs The Love-Artist, her novel about Ovid’s last year or so in Rome and the reasons for his banishment. She begins the book by sending Ovid (just prior to the publication of “Metamorphoses”) on vacation to the Black Sea where he meets Xenia, a young witch and healer, and brings her back to Rome with him. While there is no requirement that the characters in a fiction be likeable (indeed, some of our favorite characters are most emphatically unpleasant), Ovid and Xenia are underhanded (good), ambitious (good), self-centered (good), in love (good), antithetical (good), and ultimately boring (not good). It appears that Ovid’s previous books were more than inspired by his love for the pseudonymous Corinna: they did in fact, in some mystical way, feed on her so that “The Art of Love” is not so much about or in praise of his lover, but a cold-blooded figurative metamorphosis of the woman into the work itself. He intends to work this same unpleasant “magic” on his semi-barbarian witch woman. Xenia, in turn, burns to solve an alchemical puzzle in which the search for the transmutation of base objects into gold becomes a search for a transmutation into light. The idea of changing love into art, or light, kept me going through what, I regret to say, was a fairly pedestrian plot, following with little variation or suspense from the quotation from Ovid’s lost play, “Medea,” which prefaces the book, through to the Epilogue.

And here I should say that I had problems with both Prologue and Epilogue -– the latter serving to soften an ending which was better unsoftened, and the former serving not only to whip up interest in a story which doesn’t need it (the opening of Part One works quite well without the flag-waving that precedes it) but to strip much of the tension from the end (hence, I think, the “softening” Epilogue which affords the only unexpected, but not particularly exciting, twist to the story).

Stylistically, Alison provides too many stage directions for my taste, so that almost each move a character makes, each thought, each utterance, is preceded by and in turn precedes an interpretation of that motion, thought, or bit of speech. It slows the proceedings down considerably. In addition, there is the occasional anachronistic clunker, as when Ovid “waltzes” around his room. Where are copy-editors when we need them?

In a book that is at heart about metamorphoses and the creation of art, I find it troubling that a central image in the book, that of Daedalus, rises and falls in Ovid’s thoughts without the accompaniment of Icarus, who in fact did the actual falling. The Daedalus story is a powerful one, speaking to issues of creation, change, the love of parent for child and child for parent (also a theme Alison raises) , and to see it handled sloppily further undercuts this book.

Finally, there appears to be a current general disregard for the biographies of the unwitting historical subjects of novels. So it probably doesn’t matter that Ovid had three wives, not one, and that his last marriage was apparently a happy one, or that the book that burned was “The Metamorphoses” rather than “Medea.” These disregarded biographical facts really don’t speak to the success or failure of this particular novel, in which Ovid’s story is used to limn a tale of change and creation and egoism, and which doesn’t, quite, succeed.

review date 04/13/01

A History of the Wife
by Marilyn Yalom
Marilyn Yalom has written a lively and entertaining survey of the history of the wife in the Western world, from Adam and Eve to the new millennium. It is a long, strange trip.The main roles of Western wives are embedded in the ancient Mediterranean cultures: wife as chattel, dependent, provider of legal offspring, childcare provider, cook, and housekeeper. For the greater part of the past two millennia marriage was more often an economic alliance than an emotional one: if the parties grew to like each other, so much the better. In classical Athens marriage was most often based on property decisions between a prospective groom and the girl’s father, a situation that held true in the West for centuries. For example, while an Athenian man was encouraged to have three women (wife, concubine, and hetaera), his wife was segregated from all men save him and could be divorced at any time (provided he returned her dowry), but she could not escape even the worst marriage. In fact, a special Athenian law “looked out for the woman who had been married only for her money and then ignored by her husband after she had produced an heir; she could compel him by law to have sexual relations with her at least three times a month.”By Roman times, women had gained a little more say in the arrangements, and functioned more as partners, although marriage was still based on economic, social, or political grounds. During the Medieval period, the Catholic church assumed jurisdiction and declared marriage to be a sacrament, a ceremony through which one obtained God’s grace, and therefore not to be undone by either party. The Church downplayed the need for parental consent, emphasizing the will of the spouses, but women were still considered the property of their husbands, who were their masters on religious and legal grounds both, and the motivations for most alliances remained unchanged. During much of the Middle Ages, the position of wife was viewed, spiritually, as beneath that of virgin and widow.

This is not to say that love didn’t ever enter into things, but it was often viewed as an inconvenience at best and, at worst, an assault against tradition. Even in the best of situations, catastrophe was just around the corner. Yalom repeats the story of Héloïse and Abelard, wherein we hear, for almost the first time, the voice of a woman describing her situation as a wife. Yalom makes the point, emphatically, that much of what we know of the status of wives comes to us through men, who pontificate, admonish, decry, legislate, celebrate — in fact, do just about everything save leet their women speak for themselves.

With so many interesting bits of information and lively quotes, it is tempting to spend this entire review discussing Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan (the first Western woman to earn her living with her pen), the arch-wimp Griselda (held up to medieval women as the very model of wifely behavior), or Katherina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. Yalom covers Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rosie the Riveter, and the mindlessly cheerful 1950s sit-com wife.

Through religious changes, emigrations and immigrations, political strife and the breaking of nations, women’s roles vary in their details but they remain, for the most part, their husband’s possessions, unable to retain ownership of the property that accompanied them into marriage, subject to the loss of their children upon the break-up of their marriages, while expected to provide childcare, housekeeping and cooking services, and the like. It is startling to be reminded of just how recent are many of the social traditions — birth control, the right to vote, even the right to own property — that we now take for granted.

It is understandable that a popular survey like A History of the Wife would be unable to go into great depth. There is enough here, though, to inform, amaze, amuse, and tickle one’s curiosity. I do wish that she had included a good long bibliography, but there is enough material in the notes and “Text Credits” sections to lead to further reading.

review date 03/06/01

The Weight of All Things
by Sandra Benitez

I will be frank: this is a splendid book and my main concern in this review is to compel you to read it.

It is the story of Nicolás de la Virgen Veras, a nine year old boy caught up in the murderous civil war of El Salvador. We first see him cowering under the body of his murdered mother at the riot that attended the burial of the assassinated Archbishop Arnulfo Romero on March 30, 1980; the story follows him to and just beyond May 14, 1980, when both Salvadoran and Honduran troops massacred Salvadoran citizens trying to flee the civil war into Honduras. If this sounds grim, it is both accurate and not accurate: Nicolàs is an amazing, resourceful, and entirely believable boy, and his world is brutal, beautiful, and imbued with a love of people and place that becomes part of the reader’s life.

Nicolás, convinced that his mother is alive but unable to find her in the chaos of the capital, returns by bus to his grandfather’s tiny, dry rancho, hoping to find his mother’s address. Before he can return, he must deal with both the guerrilleros in the band of Capitán Dolóres and the National Army, with refugees and collaborators and terrified campesinos. He must come to terms with his mother’s fate and his own, and discover his life’s work.

This is a world that has been torn apart and all the sense emptied from it, a world in which parents outlive their children and the children grow up orphaned, in which floods happen before the rainy season and the Virgin Mary appears in a glow of light and speaks and hands out cookies. This is a world in which the horrific, the miraculous, and the mundane meet on the same plane. Obviously, Benitez has a clear agenda here but she doesn’t preach or lecture or have her characters agonize at length over the personal results of a political event. The world at large and the world at small blend seamlessly; neither needs to be emphasized because they are parts of the same whole. Benitez doesn’t sermonize because her story does it for her, and does it without stepping outside of itself.

The language is both spare and heady; the images lucid and horrible and as homely as the slap of hands shaping a tortilla. And she doesn’t waste words:

Where others not from El Retorno, mere passersby, would surely note the inherent harshness of its terrain and the dreariness the place educed, Nicolás saw something different. Where no color greeted the visitor’s eye, but only the woeful tint of dust and soot, the indurate hue of stones pebbling the two intersecting streets, Nicolás saw a friendly palette of browns and duns and beiges. Because he had been born to this, because the view was his inheritance, it did not distress him. Nor did the sight of the buildings bordering the street. Humble houses and businesses shoring each other up and constructed of bahareque canes, mud packed in between and whitewashed in hopefulness. Over time, the walls of the buildings grew drab with grime, and soon the mud packing outlived its usefulness and chunks of it collapsed noiselessly into the street. The debris was never carted off; it remained there, to join the other evidence of how grim the times could be.

Or this, speaking of his mother’s death:

Years later, when he was much older and he truly understood, when he was called to give an account of what he had lived through, he would say, “Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me.”

If you don’t believe me about this book, believe Katharine Weber, who compares it to Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird.” Now go read it, before somebody slaps a “Reading Group” sticker on it.

review date 2/6/01

Talking to Angels: A Life Spent in High Latitudes
by Robert PerkinsSerendipity is defined as “the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.” It’s an appropriate word, here, because I would never have picked up this book on purpose. For one thing it has “angels” in the title –  my alarm system is immediately activated by such things. For another, the cover (which is actually better in real life than here) looks like it belongs on a book with “angels” in the title (the paperback cover is good, though). In fact, the only things the book had going for it, from my crabby perspective, was the phrase “high latitudes” in the subtitle, and the description at Daedalus. The “fortunate accident” of this discovery, then, is entirely accidental, and entirely fortunate.

This elegant, small book consists of three essays, all of them revolving around solitude. In the first, Perkins (who had, at the time of publication, made six wilderness films for PBS and written three other books) describes his 19th year, 1968, during which he suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized in an East Coast facility (I’m not a psychologist, so if I say that from the description it sounds like catatonic schizophrenia, don’t hold me to it). The “angels” are the ward attendants, who are angelic only in their cool, capricious power over the inmates of the ward.  There’s not an ounce of fat here, nor a shred of self-pity, but there is a clear-eyed remembrance of events and the kind of humor that comes from observation and understanding. The second essay describes his time as a solo canoeist in the Canadian north: Perkins spent the thaw reporting the weather by radio to Yellowknife from a converted meatlocker on the tundra, then paddled alone down the Baillie River. Along the way the tundra comes to life, wolves and birds and caribou and, at the last, the body of a dead musk ox which Perkins cannot leave until, after four days, he is brought to the understanding of death within nature, the Inuit belief in an immortality of the body through its cycling with and into the world.

The last essay speaks of the early death, by cancer, of his wife Rene. This is hugely charged material, but Perkins reports on her illness, her death, and his pain with the same lucid voice that enlightened the previous essays. The result is tremendously moving without a hint of the maudlin or sentimental.

Each essay speaks of the importance of paying attention, of paring away preconceptions so that one observes what exists, now, and can therefore see how what exists fits seamlessly into the web of the world. Lovely, moving, understated.

There are no angels in this book. Instead, and better, is the assurance that “You can’t fall out of the universe.”

I am ordering his other books, and await them eagerly.

review date 01/15/01

Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary
by Bill Holm

The best travel books show the reader something new or a new way of seeing or thinking about something known. In the best of travel books, you come away tasting the air, smelling the roadways, hearing strange languages — they take you, utterly, along on the trip. The best of travel books give you a companion with a keen eye for the unexpected, an appreciation of the strange, and a flare for language — a companion who is never monotonous and whose insights linger long after the book is done.

Of the essays here, none approach those Olympian heights.

Bill Holm is a poet, musician, and professor of English at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. “Holm” means “small island” or “inshore island” in Old Norse, a fact he emphasizes often in these essays on islands real and imaginary which he has, at one point or another, inhabited. The essays range in size from the short to the lengthy and like islands themselves, are a mixed bag.

“Isla Mujeres” is a quick trip from frozen wintertime Minnesota and warmer, too, with obligatory stops to decry the destruction wrought by the Spanish conquistadores and by modern Western tourists. “Molokai” concentrates on the admittedly inspiring story of Father Damien, who ministered to the lepers in Molokai’s lazaretto. Here too Holm condemns the destruction wrought by missionaries and colonists, and notes that we’re a long way from wintertime Minnesota. Also, it’s warmer. “Mallard,” an island in Lake Rainy, Canada, was inhabited by an interesting old fellow. Holm tells us quite a lot about what Holm thinks about the old man and the island, and what Holm did while Holm was there. It is not, however, a long way from wintertime Minnesota, and is probably colder.

Iceland comes to us in two essays, about visits in 1979 and in 1999. This island, and these essays, feel closest to Holm’s heart. His grandparents emigrated from a farm in Iceland, which he visits. He speaks of the land and its people with knowledge and affection. He does have the rather unnerving habit of referring to himself in the third person, for the most part, except when he suddenly blossoms into first person — sometimes within the same sentence. The effect, instead of being stylistically interesting, seems awkward and insistently “arty.” And, as he does throughout, he displays an unfortunate coquettishness with facts. He tells us, for example, that Icelandic sheep are “unlike any sheep you have ever seen, unless you have watched them in Iceland.” He says the same is true of the rest of the livestock. What he forgets to tell us, over and over again, is just what these beasts, mountains, people, artifacts look like, what makes them different.

I found the Madagascar essay both long and infuriating. The island is a geological, biological, and ethnographic oddity. Holm describes some of this, but throughout he is more interested in telling us about Holm: Holm’s seminars, Holm’s readings, Holm’s musical recitations, Holm’s regular encomiums on the nobility of poverty and Holm’s scorn heaped on crass prosperity. I have no doubt that Holm enjoyed and appreciated Madagascar and its people, but am left with a series of doubts about just what that land and those people are like. Oh, and it’s all very far away from wintertime Minnesota. Hotter, too.

The imaginary islands are no more surprising. Music can take you away from where you are; pain divorces you from the world and islands you within your own skin. He closes the book with a brief essay on the island of the imagination, which is, he tells us, a good thing as long as you don’t cut yourself off from the rest of humanity.

This is, first and foremost, a book of essays about the island called Bill Holm. He seems a nice enough guy, and can turn a phrase when called upon to do so. But I think I would have preferred him on a brief day-trip rather than a book-length voyage.

review date 12/6/00


Seamus Heaney translation

I am just floored by this book, starting with Heaney’s introduction. He is as drunk on words as we are:

…my first arts years at Queen’s University, Belfast, when we were lecture on the history of the English language by Professor John Braidwood. Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word “whiskey” is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some pre-political, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect on me.

Later, he says about translating:

It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work. Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator’s right-of-way into and through a text. I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father’s; people whom I had once described in a poem as “big voiced Scullions”.

This particular voice, which he describes as having a “weighty distinctness, phonetic unities as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf,” led him to a clarity and directness in the translation that never feels forced or self-conscious or “archaic.”

What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an awareness of the perilous nature of life and are yet capable of seeing it steadily and, when necessary, sternly. There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called “moralizing.”

This is all tremendous stuff, beautifully spoken, but it also promises an immense payoff from the translation itself. I turned to the work almost with trepidation, wondering if it could live up to what Heaney had led me to expect. I have struggled with Beowulf before and while I didn’t lose an arm and a shoulder to him, it sometimes felt as though I would. The language always stood between me and the story, regardless of whether I read a verse or a prose translation. You know the feeling: you can never shake the knowledge that you are reading one of The Basic Texts of English Literature and Thought.

What Heaney does is sit down across the fire from you, rest his forearms on his thighs, and talk:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

He takes us through Hrothgar’s building of Heorot Hall, and the coming of Grendel, the arrival of Beowulf, the whole story, in the same clear, strong, unambiguous verse, rolling the story along so that I, at least, forgot I was reading poetry and fell deeply into the story itself, as though the story was brand new and I had never heard it, or of it, before.

I want to quote one extended section, from near the end of the book. Here is the voice of a warrior, the last of his clan, who takes his clan’s treasure and hides it away in the earth. Later a dragon will nest upon it, and eventually die in Beowulf’s last great battle.

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
by honourable men. My own people
have been ruined in war; one by one
they went down to death, looked their last
on sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody
to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,
put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed.
The hard helmet, hasped in gold,
will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner
who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;
the coat of mail that came through all fights,
through shield-collapse and cut of sword,
decays with the warrior. Nor may webbed mail
range far and wide on the warlord’s back
beside his mustered troops. No trembling harp,
no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk
swerving through the hall, no swift horse
pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter
have emptied the earth of entire peoples.”
And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.

Something that this translation allowed me to see was the elliptical nature of the story. The poet shows an event, then the participants tell it, Beowulf to Hrothgar, Beowulf to his own lord Hygelac, and each time the story is different and yet the story is not changed with the passing of time, with the changing of voice.

This is beautiful, brutal, gorgeous, compelling stuff, as clean and bracing as a glass of cold, clear water. Read it. Read it.

review date 01/01/00

by A.S. ByattI finished Byatt’s Possession last night, and must report that I am deeply pleased with this book. I very much liked the flow of the story, and the way that it was told (particularly the story line about Randolph and Christabel (what perfect Victorian names)) in snippets of diaries, poems, fairy tales, letters, only where necessary in actual narrative. I am pleased by the way those moments of actual narrative fit so neatly into the technical structure of that particular storyline, and the way the Victorian storyline illuminated the modern-day storyline. I am pleased by the contrasts here, among them (perhaps foremost among them) the way society pulled the earlier set of lovers apart when they were desperate to come together, and the way modern society pushes people together when their need is to be apart.I am pleased that, looking back through the story, the elements in it knit together so seamlessly. I am pleased that the characters were so clear and three-dimensional (with the exception of some minor players, and I can forgive that). I am pleased with the way that the villain is a real, honest-to-God, dyed in the wool villain (I could almost hear him hissing and twirling his moustaches) in a great Dickensian way, but was modern, not Victorian.I will admit to having a bit of a struggle with the Victorian poetry – I have never been a great admirer of that particular style, but I’m glad I persevered. And although, reading the postscript, I was initially peeved at the contradiction it embodied, I came almost immediately to realize that it is simply another tale, a fairy story, that preserved the mournful but perfect ending of one storyline while ending on a note of clarity and light.

I like Possession more than I liked Angels and Insects, although I enjoyed that book also. I’m almost afraid to pluck Babel Tower off the shelf after this, and think that I’ll not do so for a couple of months. But I will re-read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.

I think I understand why Byatt dislikes Jim Crace’s writing. The territories they mine are similar, but their approach is radically different. I can’t imagine Jim Crace writing in the penumbrous, slightly overblown Victorian world that Byatt moves in with such grace. I equally cannot imagine Byatt being happy in that world of clear light and deceptive simplicity through which Crace moves with such elegance.

review date 11/30/00

The Island of Lost Maps
by Miles HarveyThis book is subtitled “A True Story of Cartographic Crime” but is actually much more than that.

In December of 1995, a man with the unlikely name of George Bland was caught stealing maps from the Peabody Library in Baltimore – maps which he had razored out of books in the Peabody’s rare books collection. In Island, Miles Harvey starts out to tell Bland’s story but soon wanders far afield, into the history of exploration and cartography; the pursuit of El Dorado and other imaginary places; the obsessive world of map collectors and dealers; and, not least of all, his own psyche. He writes well, too:

If the buried treasure is the forbidden fruit of these stories, the map is the serpent, prodding us to dream of a place beyond the borders of our innocence, pointing us to it, hissing, X marks the spot. Perhaps this explains why our culture uses cartographic and geographic language to express notions of sin and virtue. We speak of a moral compass. We describe good people as following the straight and narrow. We say sinners lost their way, lost their bearings. And in our fables of maps and money, characters are constantly torn between sticking to the path of righteousness and wandering into the wilderness of the soul, populated by all those wild animals.

He pays due attention to the great cartographic literature (Treasure Island, for example); to rare books, to libraries and librarians — in short, to a lot of the bees in our collective bonnet. It’s a long journey he takes us on, and he keeps it informative and entertaining each step of the way. This, for example, from an inscription at the library of the San Pedro monastery in Barcelona (the home, he tells us, of “the notorious Don Vincente, a bookseller and former monk whose malignant bibliomania led him to commit no fewer than eight murders” in the 19th century):

For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

And you thought library fines were strict!

Harvey writes for Outside Magazine (an article on this subject appeared there earlier) and his style is clear and breezy where appropriate. I especially liked his description of an engraved portrait of the 18th century mapmaker Johann Baptist Homann, who had “a tight-lipped expression every bit as pompous as his lace cravat and cuffs, and wore a Rococo-era wig so absurdly overblown that it looked like a sheep had crash-landed on his skull.” Or his characterization of certain African carvings as being carved out of “solid id.”

Interestingly, Bland himself refused to be interviewed at any point, and so among many, many other things, the book is about Harvey’s attempt to chart, to map, the character of a man who stubbornly insists on remaining terra incognita – and in the process, discovering something about his own interior landscape in addition to the world of maps, rare books, thieves, and exploration.

Did I say I like this book a lot? I like this book a lot. As soon as possible, I intend to add a copy in boards to my copy in galleys – not the least for all the maps which, the galleys promise, are coming up real soon now.

review date: 09/09/00

copyright 2000 – 2003 by Marta Randall