So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and my reading log.
My most recent Friday Fugue was a string of T.G.I.F. posts on books which explore fictional workplaces, including Deryn Collier’s Fortin mysteries. (one of my MRE authors.)
There’s talk of new fiction, including Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa and Neil Smith’s Boo and new non-fiction, including Joseph Luzzi’s In a Dark Wood and Sally Mann’s Hold Still.
Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness began on June 20th, with chat about “Dimensions” and I expect it will continue with one story each Saturday. The schedule is here, and you’re welcome to join in, whether for a single story or for the whole collection. As for other reading projects, I’m also working through the books of Gabrielle Roy.
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
Is it something like a triangle? With happiness, unhappiness and love arranged with an equal distance between each point?
Perhaps. Certainly there are triangles in “Fiction”, shifting alliances and fractures.
Love triangles. Happiness triangles.
Just enough. Too much.
The kind of happiness discussed in “Fiction” is different from that which Doree/Fleur muses upon in “Dimensions”.
Doree/Fleur recognizes it in other people. She barely remembers what that was like: the happiness that comes from a sunny day or peonies in bloom or the smell of rolls fresh from the oven.
In “Fiction”, it doesn’t seem to be a light feeling, but a more solid – if not heavy – sensation.
Not something ethereal and fleeting, but something with a definite presence, something which provides a weight from which something might pull away.
Or, is that unhappiness?
Is that where the question of transformation worms in?
The weight of what has been sloughed off, left behind. The lightness of the freshly possible.
“She felt herself shedding the day’s work, which was harried and uncertain, filled with the dispensing of music to the indifferent as well as the responsive. How much better to work with wood and by yourself—she did not count the apprentice—than with the unpredictable human young.”
The rhythm of Joyce’s daily life is very different from Jon’s. She seems to believe that his woodworking affords the potential for something pure, unadulterated.
Jon does not need to peel parts of himself away and rebuild them nightly.
Instead, he spends time in solitude, predictable and consistent, or with Edie, the apprentice.
“Edie does not believe in evolution.” Edie does not shed her day’s work nor does she shed her skin.
Snakes belong in gardens, with temptresses, in Edie’s static and dependable world.
From Joyce’s perspective, Edie does not seem to be the sort of person poised for a fall.
“She [Joyce] should have understood, and at that moment, even if he [Jon] himself was nowhere close to knowing. He was falling in love.
Falling. That suggests some time span, a slipping under. But you can think of it as a speeding up, a moment or a second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is.”
And, yet, there is a fall. Whether from grace. Or from knowing. What was once a haven is no longer.
“At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly.”
Alice Munro invites readers to venture beyond these panes of glass. There is no patio to cross first; readers step immediately into Joyce’s perspective, her home.
Readers experience the slipping that caught Joyce unawares. What was once comforting and safe, artlessly replenishing, has fallen, out of reach.
“The first thing you had to wonder was whether her whole body had been transformed in the same way.
‘How amazing,’ said Joyce, as neutrally as possible.”
Joyce has tried to get some perspective on the situation. She seeks to appear neutral, distanced, controlled.
Even at the time. But now, when the story is told, time has ticked past. “Fiction” covers a swath of years.
The final segment presents Joyce-transformed. Once music teacher, but now a professional cellist. Once Jon’s beloved, now Matt’s third wife.
And perhaps because she is now attuned to the subtle (and dramatic) transformations that can occur, across a lifetime or overnight, she recognizes the potential in Edie’s daughter. Who, one night, is dressed in black, a sombre and mysterious figure at a party. And on another day she is rosy, pink, and all-a-bloom.
“Then she sees a young woman altogether different from the girl on the poster and the girl at the party. The black outfit is gone, also the black hat. Christie O’Dell wears a jacket of rosy-red silk brocade, with tiny gold beads sewn to its lapels. A delicate pink camisole is worn underneath. There is a fresh gold rinse in her hair, gold rings in her ears, and a gold chain fine as a hair around her neck. Her lips glisten like flower petals and her eyelids are shaded with umber.”
For Edie’s daughter, Christie, has a particularly powerful ability to transform.
In The View from Castle Rock, the young Alice remarks upon this capacity.
She has it too, this ability to write about things and fundamentally change them, to consume them, to pull forth their secret and plentiful messages.
“The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.”
Christie is a pained and tortured figure in one environment, but elsewhere, just a few days later, she is resurrected as a fiction writer.
“You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from—why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.”
The fiction writer can wriggle out of the genesis of a story and she can dispose of the distasteful parts on the grass behind her.
In story, one can transform. One can create a sense of gratitude for that which once caused great pain.
“Love. She was glad of it. It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness—however temporary, however flimsy—of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”
When Joyce admires the crowd at Matt’s birthday part, she calls attention to the number of people in attendance. Look, she says: “It’s positively a life story.’”
And Alice Munro does have a way of transforming full and complicated lives into short fictions, doesn’t she. And we, as readers, can wriggle our toes in the grass.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Wenlock Edge”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
A book-length demonstration of propulsive prose.
This is the word that I wrote in capital letters, in the margins of my reading diary about Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (2015), but then I wondered if I had subconsciously (deliberately, even!) lifted it from the cover.
It sounds like a word one might see in a blurb, doesn’t it? But, no. There, it is described as ‘incendiary’, ‘adroit’, ‘riotous’, ‘bittersweet’, and ‘rollicking’.
And, in such company ‘propulsive’ pales.
And, yet, I felt driven to read on.
Not turning pages in a ‘enjoying the ride, why step off’ kind of way.
But more out of fear that the constant motion would leave me dizzy if I tried to look away to make e a beeline for the exit.
This is appropriate, given the sense of dislocation which the central character feels through this collection of linked tales.
Consider this observation from “Pompeii Über Alles”:
“Memory seems random, the lobes of my brain seem to rule me, as if I am the sighing servant. Should it not be the other way around, shouldn’t I rule my own brain? Yet it doesn’t happen.”
Reader, like character, is dizzy with the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the strange intersection between desire and despair.
Even the moments of stillness/contentment/respite are troubled, as revealed in this passage from the final story, “Pompeii Book of the Dead”:
“Slightly dazed, I jump off the sweaty train at Pompeii and explore the raw ruins on foot and in the ruins I enter another tunnel, tunnel after tunnel, airports, trains, and now this underground forum. A dark passage leads at an angle into the earth and I follow this tunnel into the lower level of the forum complex, the Teatro, down into shade, hiding from the relentless sun for even a few rare moments.”
What makes the collection habitable, however, is the sense that the overarching desire is familiar, human, universal.
“I travel so large a world, but my favourite is the tiny world we create when two people are kind to each other.” [From “Hospital Island (Wild Thing)”]
Yet, regardless of whether the tenor of this collection is one which will appeal to readers, the prose is truly remarkable.
Not in a ‘showy, look what I can do’ kind of way.
More like ‘this is simply the way in which this tale exists to be told’.
This collection stood out amongst the others in my stack at that time — Alice Munro, Kathleen Winter, Julia Leggatt — but it wasn’t about the knife. I can think of at least two other knives in those other collections, without even glancing at the tables of contents. And, so, although a reader could certainly opt to read for excitement alone (there is a good deal of it in Knife Party at the Hotel Europa), it is the crafting which secured my interest.
The following passage was the first that I stopped to reread three times, and that was only a handful of pages into the work in “The Dark Brain of Prayer”.
“Write on my tombstone that I can’t make up my mind, write that I am murdered by night-riders, by mumblers and nitpickers, by fellow travelers and Roman gods, by cold staring statues, by Hermes, by Natasha chatting at a gas station. Write that, like everyone else, I am murdered by love, that I am nibbled to death by ducks, brought low by normal events.”
See what I mean?
It is propulsive, is it not?
And every interconnection, thematic link, motif, delicate echo of another story’s core: each only makes you want to read on, travel on, live on.
Contents: The Dark Brain of Prayer; Butterfly on a Mountain; Knife Party; Hospital Island (Wild Thing); The Petrified Florist; Pompeii Über Alles; Hallway Snowstorm; Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning; The Troubled English Bride; Party Barge; Exempt from the Fang (Aircraft Carrier); Pompeii Book of the Dead
There are “ways of making people into ghosts”. So Atticus say, to Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, about Boo (Arthur) Radley.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Neil Smith turned Oliver Dalrymple into a ghost in Boo. And, then, he named him Boo and gave him a Casper the Friendly Ghost wrist watch.
Whether or not Arthur Radley and Oliver Dalymple have anything more than a nickname in common is for readers to discover. (A trial does take centre stage in both novels, but matters of justice frequently feature in novels about teenagers, who are struggling to weigh their own truths.)
Much of the pleasure of Boo is derived from an unearthing of layers and interconnections, a gradual comprehension punctuated by a sly sense of humour viewed through the slats.
“Do you ever wonder, dear Mother and Father, what kind of toothpaste angels use in heaven? I will tell you. We use baking soda sprinkled on our toothbrushes. It tastes salty, which comes as no surprise because baking soda is a kind of salt known as sodium bicarbonate.”
Certainly, our narrator Boo is a curious and bookish sort: one of the first things he notices when he reaches the afterlife is what book the girl in a swivel chair is reading (Brown Girl, Brownstones).
[Our author, Neil Smith, is a bookish sort too; his allusions to works as diverse as Paula Danziger’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s novels make for many delightful moments of recognition for readers who will understand how perfectly these buildings and streets are named.]
While he was alive, Boo kept his copy of Lord of the Flies in his locker, #106. (The book design is clever, though the ’80s-child in me longed for cut-outs in the locker slats.)
But the spine of his schoolbook was uncreased; it seems he hadn’t yet read the tale of adolescent boys who exist separately for a period of time, developing their own rule-sets and hierarchies, which leads to extreme behaviours unforgettable for readers of all ages.
[Neil Smith must have read it; the afterlife of adolescents he constructs would make a fabulous compare/contrast question on a high-school English exam.]
Boo was memorizing all the elements in the periodic table in chronological order when he died on September 7, 1979.
In Boo’s time, there were 106 elements to memorize: 98 naturally occurring and 8 synthesized elements.
If he were to die today, there would be 114 confirmed elements and 118 in the chart. Scientists are still making discoveries; knowledge is not static, and the list of elements once memorized for science class becomes incomplete.
(Between the lines of Boo’s study notes, readers glimpse profound questions. On what can we depend? To whom do we direct our questions? What sticks and what changes? How do these answers evolve as we grow?)
“‘Father,’ I say aloud now, alone in my room ‘I’m stuck at age thirteen. I’m stuck here for a frigging lifetime.’”
Boo is stuck in the afterlife, which is called Town, with all the other American thirteen-year-olds who have died in the last fifty years. He has had a myriad of questions answered just as he discovered more to ask. (And readers, too, will have many questions about this afterlife, which is just as random a concept as those posited by contemporary religious systems, particularly in terms of access and structure.)
“The smarts I have – about amoebae and nebulae and formulae – are useless here. What I need is the kind of intelligence that helps me understand why a boy might walk into a school and start shooting a gun, why one victim might forgive this boy, and why another never will.”
Ironically, questions of identity and perspective are just as paramount in a novel about thirteen-year-old kids in the afterlife as in life itself. Questions of naming are significant, but even more haunting are the more profound matters that inform us, the everyday choices we make that affect how (and for how long) we inhabit our own lives.
“Go on a haunting and you can do some sleuthing. Find out if your killer’s down in America or up in heaven. Hell, you might even find out the kid’s real name. ‘Cause it sure ain’t ‘Gunboy’.'”
[One of the works alluded to is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, in which Ponyboy Curtis has to face some serious losses and weigh matters of justice. There are many references to stories about exploring and searching, facing and instigating destruction (even death), and a desire to connect (either with other people, particularly in powerful friendships or overwhelming loneliness, or a personal sense of meaning).]
“Death changes a child. We townies are not necessarily the same children we left behind in our previous lives.”
Boo was changed by his death, too, but it becomes clear that he does not recall all of the details, only the basics. His search for answers is not only removed from the average thirteen-year-old boy’s search, but different, too, from the average thirteen-year-old ghost’s search.
There are ordinary questions to answer and broader metaphysical and philosophical concerns too. What happened in front of locker #106? And “[w]hy has Zig himself not put a stop to this folly? Has he no shame? No wisdom? No superpowers? What is the use of a god without superpowers?” (Boo uses ‘Zig’ to denote ‘God’ in this document, which Boo envisions as a letter to his parents to keep them up-to-date on the happenings in the afterlife.)
Above all, Boo is an observer. This is true, too, of his living-life, although readers only come to understand that aspect of Boo’s character much later in the story, for residents of this afterlife remain there for 50 years, changing but not aging.
“Now, in the distance, a half dozen kids run screaming across the same field. Whether they are terrorizing one another or just playing I cannot tell. A robin lands a yard away. It stares at me, head tilted one way and then the other, as though I am a tricky puzzle it is trying to solve.”
Solving such matters is tricky indeed. Children are innocent and cruel; they terrorize and they play. Even from a short distance away, it can be challenging to differentiate between sensory details. These secrets and mysteries are more difficult to solve than anything the Hardy Boys faced in their long careers as investigators.
“Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to lay Town. ‘See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the poeple who live in it.” This is how it happens in Harriet the Spy, how Harriet makes sense of the act of writing for her friend.
Perhaps Boo is a very sophisticated game of playing and creating and inhabiting Town. If so, I hope Neil Smith has a stack of new notebooks even larger than the stack he’s already filled.
Things that you can slip between.
They are often ‘new’ in nature.
If I was playing $30,000 Pyramid, I might think such things, in response to the idea of ‘dimensions’.
At the heart of Alice Munro’s “Dimensions”: a woman who is fundamentally altered, facing a ‘new’ future, slipping between layers of meaning, transforming.
“And she went by her second name now: Fleur.”
And not only has she been actively changed, but she is seeking to change the world around her.
Rightly so, for the world which she now inhabits — now that she has a new haircut and a new shape and a new name — is not a happy place.
“There was a certain trick she had picked up to keep her mind occupied. She took the letters of whatever words her eyes lit on, and she tried to see how many new words she could make out of them.”
(Fleur: elf, rule, rue, lure, ref. I’m sure I have missed some, but I’m equally sure that the names in this story were carefully selected, less malleable than many.)
The tragedy behind her is the sort which soaks into daily life, rendering strange even the familiar and everyday.
It makes a certain kind of sense that Fleur would want it to be possible that things could be other than they are (or appear to be).
Lloyd’s life has changed dramatically as well (and death – the ultimate change – figures significantly in the tale too).
“His philosophy of life had changed as he got older—he believed now in marriage, constancy, and no birth control.”
Some changes hinge upon major events, but sometimes the root of a change can be traced to a seemingly insignifcant detail.
“She remembered perfectly how the argument had started. She had bought a tin of spaghetti that had a very slight dent in it.”
There is a journey involved and “Dimensions” begins with the literal path travelled but the story spins upon a psychological and emotional journey (Doree’s/Fleur’s primarily, although Lloyd’s transformations are also evident).
“He asked about her trip, what buses she’d had to take from Mildmay.
She told him that she wasn’t living there anymore. She told him where she lived, and about the three buses.”
The concept of transformation is central to this story, both in plot and character.
“I was crazy at one time but believe me I have shed all my old craziness like the bear that sheds his coat. Or maybe I should say the snake that sheds his skin.”
It’s interesting to consider that a shed snake skin also figures in the next story, “Fiction”, in reference to a different impetus for transformation. The stories in Too Much Happiness contain many subtle echoes, thematic and symbolic, and frequently comment overtly on the idea of ‘happiness’.
“For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery. She still did not have that spontaneous sense of happiness, exactly, but she had a reminder of what it was like. It had nothing to do with the weather or flowers. It was the idea that the children were in what he had called their Dimension that came sneaking up on her in this way, and for the first time brought a light feeling to her, not pain.”
But, also, in some ways it is as simple as can be.
“Well, it wasn’t like that now. It was not the same.”
How do you feel about this story?
Does it seem like “same ol’ same ol'” Alice Munro?
Or do you sense something changed in her storytelling in this collection’s opening story?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Fiction”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
A new Friday fugue, concluding this week, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories. (Previous weeks can be viewed here, here and here, if you’re keen.)
Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
“Her shift ends around the time yours begins, and since you live on adjacent streets you frequently pass each other on your ways to and from work. Sometimes you don’t, and then you walk your bicycle by the salon to catch a glimpse of her inside. For her part, she seems fascinated by the video shop, and stares with particular interest at the ever-changing posters and DVD covers. She does not stare at you, but when your eyes meet, she does not look away.”
You will read this unsure what to expect, because you know it is a novel but its title designates it a self-help book, and you will immediately be surprised to find that the story addresses you directly.
This is an unusual perspective to adopt, but Mohsin Hamid executes it consistently and dramatically; soon, you will think that this is the only way in which this story could have been told.
Containing many barbed observations about political and economic practices, you might think this is all about pretense and cleverness, but once the voice takes hold, you find yourself more engaged in this self-help book than you would have thought possible.
The tone is remarkable (I both read it and listened to the audio edition, which is narrated by the author) and if the reader responds to it (you will know almost immediately), this short novel, filled with detailed experiences of the working world alongside a handful of significant relationships, becomes a pageturner, as the momentum of one man’s life builds to the inevitable conclusion.
Free Press, 2008
Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008)
“My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.”
The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Prize. “Stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best stories, aren’t they?”
The novel poses the question: what does it take to get ahead in the Darkness?
“These days there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up.”
(It takes the ‘eating’ rather than the ‘getting eaten’ of course.)
This makes for bitter reading, but the narrative voice is sharply entertaining and resolute.
1954; M&S, 1990 Trans. Marie-Claire Blais
Gabrielle Roy’s The Cashier (1954)
“His well-pressed suit – this was the week for the grey Oxford – did not show too much wear. Who could have realized that Alexandre was at the end of his endurance? What attracts less attention than a small man installed in his niche?”
Readers meet Alexandre Chenevert in his grey Oxford week, immediately understanding that his life as a bank teller in the Savings Bank in Montreal is governed by regulation and order. But his character is enlivened by the unexpected, for instance the lengthy and spirited discussions at lunch, about subjects as varied as politics and the change in climate as scientists observe a trend of warming temperatures.
Those familiar with Gabrielle Roy’s other fiction will recognize her skill in recreating communities in story; whether the St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal in The Tin Flute or the Portage des Prés, Water Hen country of Manitoba, a strong sense of place permeates much of her prose.
Elsewhere, beyond the wicket, life is unpredictable and disordered. In the workplace, Alexandre can exert a framework of propriety, but beyond those boundaries, he must accept imperfections and more serious set-backs, this reticent and reserved man steps outside the familiar and challenges his own understanding of the meaning of life.
Perhaps inevitably, this process is sobering, disheartening even, but there is some joy in the monotonous tale, arguably all that any of us can hope for, whether on or off the page.
Have you read Gabrielle Roy or any other fiction which takes readers into workplaces?
Sally Mann’s Hold Still is a photographer’s memoir; although she has kept a journal since she was a girl, her love of imagery is deeply rooted, and it’s hard to imagine her memoir taking any other form.
Currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery, her CV is impressive and extensive, but even those who have never heard her name could find Hold Still an engaging work.
One of the reasons the work has such wide appeal is the author’s preoccupation with seeking a basic understanding — from whence things come and to whence they go — her circular musing upon the human condition.
Perhaps only other photographers will be interested in the technical aspect of the work. For instance, a discussion of an old rosewood 5 x 7 camera that her dad used to use, with its uncoated lens, which is susceptible to flare, and which barely covered her 8 x 10 inch film. The shutter, she observes, is sluggish and unpredictable, so she must always set a shorter time than the light meter suggests, and the recommended exposure time must be adjusted to accommodate the vagaries of the system.
This kind of detail might truly be appreciated by a small percentage of readers, but it is shared only occasionally and in accessible and everyday language. Ultimately it is her father himself, rather than the camera of his which she has used for years, whose presence lays a much broader claim to the memoir.
This man is described in one instance as her “no-gray-ever, all black or white, absolutely moral, never-an-inch-of-wiggle-room-for-equivocations-or-excuses, King of Perfect Rectitude and Repercussions, father” (when she is afraid that he will learn of her transgressions on the wrong side of the law). But he is also described in detail in terms of the relationships that he had with a variety of dogs in the family.
There is a great deal of family history shared in this volume, in prose and in pictures. Some of this history is entertaining, some is shocking. Much of it emphasizes the distinctly southern flavour of the work. (See “Family Pictures”, for example.)
Even if this is not a quality which can be readily surmised (particularly by someone who has never lived in the southern U.S.), it has a recognizable quality to it.
“It’s not that we southerners are exactly in love with death, but there is no question that, given our history, we’re on a first name basis with it. And such familiarity often lends southern art a tinge of sorrow, of finitude and mourning. Think of the blues, for example, or early jazz; think of Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, and others; think of the titanic trial of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Twombly in the visual arts.”
When Sally Mann considers being southern, she is referring as much to the people who inhabit the place as to the landscape itself. She tells stories about the apocryphal hospitality of southerners, both as observed and experienced.
“Total strangers. The kindness of total strangers: the sweet gestures of dumb trust and welcome, the common and miraculous somehow made one. It makes me weep. I weep for the great heart of the South, the flawed human heart.”
But the landscape itself is not only present in her artistic work (see “Southern Landscapes”, for instance) but in the philosophy underlying her approach to production.
“Do these fields, upon which unspeakable carnage occurred, where unknowable numbers of bodies are buried, bear witness in some way? And if they do, with what voice do they speak? Is there a numinous presence of death in these now placid battlefields, these places of stilled time?”
Sally Mann poses the kind of questions which haunt many poets and philosophers, embracing the land as witness, including Canadian writers Candace Savage and Sharon Butala, who have written powerfully about the landscape of memory. (I am reminded, too, of the haunting but beautiful image on the cover of M.G. Vassanji’s recent memoir, And Home Was Kariakoo.)
“And the story depicted in the irregular weave is of a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories.”
Now in her sixties, she has had many opportunities to reflect on the role and power and limitations of photography. Those who appreciate, let alone practice, the art form, will find her ideas of interest. Perhaps “photographs actually rob all of us of our memory”. Or, maybe: “Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time.”
It’s possible that discussing the meaning of photography is less effective than simply allowing it to speak for itself. Readers of Hold Still have plenty of opportunities to explore this possibility, whether by observing casual family photographs or carefully constructed artworks (this volume presents an abundance of both). At this point in her career, she is poised to compare and contrast different aspects of her life as an artist.
“In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little of both.”
And although she is at the stage where she understands herself to be a photographer first and a writer second, she does place an importance upon words. She also identifies specific words and concepts from other languages which have profoundly impacted her work and her life.
Take, for example, the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning ‘distance pain’, which is a “yearning for the lost places of our past” and “not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love” but, instead, a “word about the pain of loving a place”.
Or, consider, the Japanese phrase mono no aware, translated as “beauty tinged with sadness”. Mann writes: “For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.”
In most cases, it seems as though she has come across the word after she had experienced the desire to express the concept. Her life’s work embodies those ideas, so it’s clearly something which existed within even before she discovered the language which adequately represents it.
That spark of recognition is likely to await many of Hold Still‘s readers. The book sprawls across a wide variety of subjects and it’s unlikely that readers will be able to predict the intersection of fascination with content, for the memoir has an unconventional structure.
Although anecdotes rooted in Sally Mann’s childhood appear early in the book, photos snapped of her during childhood also appear near the end, in the context of a discussion about her father’s lifelong relationship with art, even though the bulk of the book’s family history settles somewhere near the middle of the book.
It would seem as though the manuscript of Hold Still is a written response to an imagined gallery showing of Sally Mann’s works of a lifetime.
One can imagine her laying prints across the floor, arranging and shuffling images, then assembling a series of essays reflecting these photographs’ content.
The reader who craves an orderly information sharing, more common in traditional written memoirs, will appreciate the outline of the young Sally Mann’s academic progress (and hiccups) and accompanying photographs which appears in the early chapters. But later, this reader who longs for structure may be frustrated to find that her childhood artwork is later included in a chapter which considers her father’s death (or, furthermore, that the letters he wrote to her in childhood are included in the appendices) .
Time slips and slides in Hold Still. Whereas a photo can arrest an image, the memories which accompany such an image are multi-faceted and, often, messy. Even so, by the time readers turn the final pages, one has a clear sense of Sally Mann’s work and way of being with the world.
Phyllis Rose took a year to read Proust and wrote her “memoir in real time”. More recently, Rebecca Mead revisited Middlemarch and she, too, wrote a memoir which examined her own life in that context. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina Sankovitch plunged into the classic Russian’s work as part of coping with her sister’s death.
Harper Collins, 2015
We readers turn to books in many moods but perhaps most significantly in times of struggle. Our reading can offer joy and entertainment, but it can also offer a way out of the darkness.
There is no question that Joseph Luzzi is a bookish sort. His car idles in a bookstore parking lot; he listens to an audiobook which features Ian McKellen as Odysseus; he compares an April day to a day in Wuthering Heights.
But his relationship with Dante’s work, and his reliance upon it while grieving, is remarkable: “For the first time in my life, I was inhabiting a book.”
Following his wife’s death in an accident, which precipitated the birth of their daughter, the author is forced to inhabit an intense intimacy and, simultaneously, an overwhelming sense of distance.
“I felt a rational love for the [infant] hand I held and stroked it, but nothing instinctual and visceral. I was a ghost haunting what had been my own life.”
In this state, he turns to literature.
“Long study and great love – the same words that would bring Dante to Virgil in the dark wood, and what would bring me to Dante in my time of greatest woe.”
There, on the page, Joseph Luzzi begins to reflect upon his loss, to reassemble his life and begin the long process of building a relationship with his new daughter.
Click for Author’s site
“In writing so movingly about Beatrice’s death in the Vita Nuova, Dante used poetry to reflect on all-too-common experience. He was filling the exquisite eliteness of Guido’s poetry with pressing human needs. That was Dante’s gift – to merge the beauty of poetry with the visceral experiences of life, love, and death.”
Readers need not have the same intense relationship with Dante’s work to appreciate the healing which is an integral part of Joseph Luzzi’s reading and writing. These are universal themes, immediately accessible to readers.
Nonetheless, throughout much of the work, readers will feel somewhat removed from the author’s experience, reflecting the sense of distance he felt, himself, as a ghost haunting his own life. The clarity of the prose is a wise choice, however, for the story’s content is overwhelmingly emotional and a more effusive tone would risk over-burdening the narrative.
For “there are things that cannot be shared, and grief is one thing that you must endure ultimately alone, whether you’re in the wood of the suicides or in a fancy country restaurant.”
Ultimately, the process of grieving requires an honest acknowledgement of the depth of the loss. The bulk of In a Dark Wood is preoccupied with this state.
“You can’t be reborn, Beatrice, Beatrice will teach Dante, unless you’re willing to let a part of yourself die.”
This process is not shared only from an interior perspective; some key relationships (particularly the author’s relationship with his mother who, with the assistance of other family members, accepts responsibility for the care of the baby girl who was born out of this tragedy) offer another slant on the author’s experience and alleviate some of the story’s weight for readers (just as this help would have offered respite to the author).
“If ever there were an index of how long it took to rebuild my life, it would be my mom’s unwavering presence at my side.I had made it out of the electric air of grief and was working my way through the uphill slog of mourning, and at each stage my mother was there to help me – a maternal version of Virgil, offering her profound wisdom on children and family life at a time when I desperately needed a guide to both.”
While the book is necessarily a meditation upon loss, ultimately part of the story is that of the rebirth which follows.
“Katherine’s death would bring with it endless chaos and flux, but there was one constant throughout the entire aftermath. My reading of Dante had always been deep, but when I found myself in the dark wood his words became a matter of life and death. He had taught me that you can love somebody without a body in a certain way, but that you must reserve your truest love for somebody whose breath you can hear and feel – your child’s, your wife’s – and that you may visit the Underworld but you cannot live there.”
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Certainly, the process of writing In a Dark Wood would have been an essential part of Joseph Luzzi’s journey through the Underworld, but its publication is a testament to his emergence from the darkness.
Other readers’ opinions appear in the following places: A Bookish Way of Life; BookNAround; Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews; Ms. Nose in a Book; Tina Says …; Imaginary Reads; Raven Haired Girl; A Book Geek; Worth Getting in Bed For; Create With Joy; From L.A. to LA; Jancee Reads; A Dream Within a Dream; Belle’s Beautiful Books; Emerald City Book Review.
Thanks to TLC for the invitation to participate in the reading and discussion of this memoir.
A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories. The first two weeks appear here and here.)
Tightrope Books, 2011
Kathryn Mockler’s Onion Man (2011)
“The first night, time went
by fast because it was new,
but since then, the hours
drag on the way I imagine
seconds do for kittens
drowning in a burlap bag.
When I’m at the factory
everything feels as if it’s
in slow motion, but when
I’m off work time moves
Kathryn Mockler presses the monotony of factory work between the pages of Onion Man; every aspect of the job, from the break room to the line, is presented for the reader’s consideration. The language is suitably ordinary, but the selection of details is remarkable, for the reader truly feels the stifling energy of that long, tedious summer.
Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2012
Deryn Collier’s Confined Space (2012)
“It was quiet today, Labor Day Monday, but even after only a month on the job, he already had a sense of the familiar rhythm of each machine when it was running – its role, its purpose in the larger system of making beer.”
As attentive to detail as this young brewery worker, Deryn Collier spins a compelling and complex story set in small-town British Columbia.
Evie Chapelle, Bugaboo Brewery’s safety manager, and Bern Fortin, who is adjusting to work as a coroner after work as a commander in the Canadian Forces, strive to unravel the circumstances surrounding a death inside the brewery’s bottle washer.
As with works by Linwood Barclay and Howard Shrier, relationships are key to understanding characters’ motivations; tensions are high, questions are pressing (not only about the crime, but about situations in Evie’s and Bert’s professional and personal lives, past and present), but an understanding of human responses to loss and love leads to credible and complicated resolutions.
Secondary elements of the novel (characters and supporting plots) are just as satisfying as the core mystery, and this ensures that readers who enjoy an ensemble cast and a focus on psychological motivations will return for the series’ second volume. (More on this and Open Secret here.)
Bev Editions, 2010
Blanche Howard’s Dreaming in a Digital Age (2010)
“A bit of lying is common office procedure Dad. Along with gossip, backstabbing, character assassination, outright thievery, and assorted minor crimes.”
It’s the 1980’s and Genevieve Varley is a computer scientist looking back on a critical period in her life.
Having found herself out of work, she listed the following as essential technological elements for her success: “a cacheable 32MB main memory and a 256KB cache memory, (that was a lot, back then) as well as a few MBs of expanded memory, pentium chip preferably, but at least the Intel 80486”.
But what she needed just as much was the support of another working woman, who recognized that women belonged in the digital age as much as men.
Much like the list of hardware, the novel feels one step removed and while the story takes a fable-like turn (which I liked), it might have found a wider readership if it had drawn parallels with the digital world today (which hasn’t changed as much as Genevieve would have hoped).
Nonetheless, those who first “met” the author via her writing with Carol Shields (their novel and letters), will be pleased to learn that she was still publishing in her 80s.
From factory floor to brewery basement, from writing safety manuals to writing code: these works put readers on the clock.
What works in your TBR stacks have put workplaces on the page?
It’s frightening, what happened to the author late one night travelling on a dark road after an exhausting studio session, forced to suddenly stop because of two shadowy figures ahead. (You can read about the event in an article on her UK publisher’s site, here.)
Simon & Schuster, 2015
Something of this soul-stirring fear remains in the opening pages of Miranda Sherry’s novel. Readers peek into a scene which appears ordinary, mugs being washed in a sink, then a shape viewed outside the window.
What happens next, readers do not observe directly (further into the story more information is provided indirectly) but it lurks beneath the remainder of the novel: violent, devastating, and disorienting.
Sally is thirty-eight-years old when she is killed; then, she begins to narrate Black Dog Summer.
A novel can be narrated by death (like Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief), a dog (as in Edward Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), or a drug (consider James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods).
So, the decision to have a ghost narrate a story isn’t fresh.
“Ghosts make great narrators. They tend to see everything,” explains Javier Marías, whose mystically-populated collection of stories While the Women Are Sleeping was published in Spain in 1990. (The interview is here, marking the English publication of the work in 2010.)
This is true of Black Dog Summer; Sally sees everything about her sister Adele’s life with husband Liam, daughter Bryony and son Tyler, and Sally’s surviving daughter, Gigi, who comes to live with them.
What could be better than an all-knowing ghost narrator who can observe and intuit what the average narrator might miss, who can seamlessly inhabit the experience of other characters?
But it is challenging to consistently maintain a credible narrative voice like Sally’s, which is rooted in experience (if 38 years of living experience wasn’t enough, she has experience being dead too) while aiming to naturally depict the inexperience and naïvete of younger characters being observed.
Much of Sally’s experience and perspective does present believably, while still affording the opportunity for the other characters to develop and present independently, but there are some awkward instances.
Some technical details could be adjusted just slightly so that readers would not ever question the credibility of the narrative voice. [Note: Please skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to get technical.]
For example, eleven-year-old Bryony’s announcement after Gigi’s arrival, that there is spaghetti Bolognese for dinner, feels off to her. The announcement is shared with readers in direct dialogue, and then, indirectly, readers learn that the girl immediately wishes that she hadn’t spoken. This is shared as though Sally is inside Bryony’s head, along with Bryony’s thought that it “seems like such a stupid thing to say to someone whom you haven’t seen in nine years and whose mom was just murdered”. That does seem like something an eleven-year-old might think, but the ‘whom’ inserts an element of polish which is out-of-place. From a King’s English perspective, the language is spot-on. But for readers to consistently inhabit Sally’s voice AND still believe wholly in Bryony’s character, an editor could suggest a change in what is presented directly and indirectly or suggest usage which might not be correct language-wise but which would fit an eleven-year-old’s voice.
The stories of the individual characters, however, are powerful enough that such details can be overlooked. Furthermore, the overt discussion of Sally’s relationships with individual characters’ stories offers a degree of stability. (Some of the novel’s most intriguing elements are rooted in the stories outside Sally’s immediate family: neighbour Lesedi’s relationship to “the other side” as a sangoma also offers a fascinating parallel to Sally’s experience.)
Sally is a highly imagistic narrator. Fright comes in chunks that need swallowing. and unasked questions fly up a child’s throat and smash into the back of her teeth. Fingers are hard and yellow like uncooked pasta, and eyes are dead-looking.
Metaphors circle around the themes of loss and dislocation and the South African setting is described vividly. (Pictures of the treescape are available on the author’s site, here.) From the “white frill of surf” on the Indian Ocean to “fossilized coats of red dust”, from “the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic” to a “memorable tipuana-tree-climbing occasion”, from “bright red baubles of the flame trees” to the “tightly tucked-in green blankets” of the school grounds: the scenic detail permeates the story perfectly.
When Javier Marías spoke of ghost narrators, he continued by saying that “it’s a terrible thing to have total knowledge. Ignorance can be a gift.”
This is true, too, in Black Dog Summer, a highly emotive story focusing on regrets and restoration. Terrible things do happen and both readers and characters will learn things they might rather not know. But Miranda Sherry’s novel leads readers out of the shadows.