Spring arrived this morning. Late this afternoon, on the way home from a day spent working in another county, I stopped by the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. The temperature was about 75 degrees. I stood in the boxcar for a long while, alone and without interruption, lost in thought and emotion. In the distance I could hear the voices of children.


There is no title, only the sound of my laughter

For many reasons, it has taken me almost a month to read Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. Before sending it on to a friend or the resale shop, there are a few paragraphs so rich that I’m saving them here for a good laugh on those days when nothing works. I hope you enjoy this, too.

I smile to myself, remembering Bombafu. What brings him to mind, I do not know, but suddenly there he is. Bombafu means fool in Swahili; at Njoro it meant my father’s parrot.

Poor Bombafu! – one day he whistled for destruction, and it came. How sad, how naked, how disillusioned he was after the moment of his greatest triumph had shone upon him like a gleam of light, then abandoned him to the darkness of despair!

They were proud feathers Bombafu gave to the Cause of his Learning, pretty feathers, long and rich and stained with jungle colour. How proudly he wore them!

How proudly he clasped the perch in the square room outside my father’s study, day after day, looking with truculent, or bemused, or falsely philosophic eyes, on all who entered – on all the dogs of the motley pack my father fancied then!

And these were the undoing of Bombafu. Dogs were simple things, he saw, controlled by a single sound. A man would stand in the doorway of the house and make that sound with his lips – and the pack would come.

But who could make sounds if not Bombafu? Was he to remain a bird on a stick the whole of his long, long life? Was there to be nothing but seeds and water and water and seeds for a being as elegant as he? Who had such feathers? Who had such a beak? Who could not call a dog? Bombafu could. He did.

He practised week upon week, but so cleverly that we seldom heard him; he practised the abracadabra of calling dogs until he knew, as well as he knew the shape of the bar he clung to, that no dog that ever sought a flea could resist his summons. And he was not wrong. They came.

One morning when the house was empty, Bombafu slipped his perch and called the dogs. I heard it too. I heard the quick, urgent whistle that was my father’s whistle, though my father was a mile away. I looked across the courtyard and saw Bombafu, resplendent, confident, almost masterful as he trod the doorsill on hooked, impatient toes, his brilliant breast puffed and swelling, his green, and all too empty head cocked with insolence. ‘Come one, come all,’ his whistle said – ‘it is I, Bombafu, calling!’

And so they came – long dogs, short dogs, swift dogs, hungry dogs, running from the stables, from the huts, from the shade of the trees where they had dozed, while Bombafu danced under the portal of his doom and whistled louder.

I could run too in those days, but not so fast as that. Not fast enough to prevent the frustration of an anticipant dog from curdling to fury at the sight of this vain mop of gaudy feathers committing forgery of the master’s voice – insulting all of dogdom with the cheek of it, holding to ridicule the canine clan, promising even (what could be worse?) a scrap, or a bone, yet giving nothing! That was the rub’that was the injury heaped on insult.

Bombafu went down; he went under; he disappeared only to rise again, feather by feather. His blaze of glory was no abstract one. It floated on the air in crimson and chrome yellow, in green and blue and subtler shades – a burst, a galaxy, a comet’s tail of scraps and pieces.

Sad bird! Unhappy bird! He lived, he sat again upon his perch, his eyes half-closed and dull, a single tattered wing to hide his nakedness, a single moment to remember.

And the immortal line so rightly his, the only word he might have uttered, was stolen too. Surely this was tragedy – this was irony – that not Bombafu, but a dour and morbid raven, a creature of the printed page, a nightly nobody, had discovered first the dramatic power of those haunting tones, those significant syllables, that ultimate utterance – Never – Nevermore!




Lifestyle Hub, Trophy City

Last week when I reached to pull Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story from the squeezed edge of my crowded bookshelf, I was in search of something fun after weeks of lackluster reading. Since the winter’s highlight that was Moby Dick, it’s been downhill. I was in the mood for some fruition of Super Sad’s promising blurbs: “Devastatingly funny”, “snarkily funny”, “a wildly funny book…” I had no idea that the story took place in New York City, nor could I know that the hounds of serendipity had chased me to this title. Super Sad True Love Story is devastating alright, a darkly humorous and truly sad meditation on the fate of America’s greatest city and possibly the rest of us along with it.

Two weeks ago I was in New York for the first time. My five days there were relaxed and perfectly timed. I toured my son’s future college, took in a few sights, and enjoyed being with friends where we could play at fitting in while burnishing the thought of our quiet homes and the luxury of space and beauty that is life on the prairie. It seems a tiny bit unfair, flitting into a city to take pleasure from it and leaving only dollars in return. That’s tourism, but in a magnificent place like New York it somehow feels extra gratuitous knowing that many of the people who keep New York alive cannot afford to live there. As our happy little group (a psychology professor, an expert hospital consultant and me, a public health nurse) walked to dinner one night, the thought came to me that each of us is exactly the sort of person a big city can overwhelmingly benefit from. In New York there is seemingly no room for the norm, only those on the way up and those at the very top.

Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a future, scifi-like New York, one where the dollar is permanently pegged to the yuan and the real currency is youth, wealth, and sex appeal. The up-and-coming each wear a glistening, amulet-like “äppärät” that flashes their credit score, income, health, personality score, fuckability, all the data that allows them to FAC (Form A Community) with one another in the street. “Learn to rate everyone around you. Get your data in order,” are the instructions Lenny Abramov receives from his boss at Post-Human Services where he is a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator. Lenny’s job is to find high net worth individuals (HNWIs) and sell them his company’s line of concoctions and procedures to permanently reverse aging and thus live forever. Even as Lenny and his cohorts flash their high credit (if not always likeability or attractiveness) scores, the city services around them have been privatized and conglomerated into a network of shady mercenaries that protect only the few while brutalizing those who resist occupation.

Lenny embodies nostalgia for another New York, one that exists in movies and possibly never was real except for the people who should have been able to keep it – New Yorkers. He owns a 740 square foot apartment that holds his “Wall of Books”, cherished even though his co-workers sneer that books smell. Lenny is 39 and becomes smitten with a 24 year old Korean woman, Eunice Park, whose cold shoulder drives him to great lengths to win her. He woos Eunice with passion, sincerity, and some old fashioned goodness. Eunice spends her vacuous days scanning her äppärät for labels commanding the utmost prestige: JuicyPussy, AssLuxury, and Onionskins, a ubiquitously worn, transparent fabric designed to parade women’s clean shaven genitalia for inspection and ranking. Eunice barrages her friends and sister in texts about clothing and an obsession with her weight of eighty three pounds, her degree in Images and Assertiveness instantly clashing with Lenny’s hardscrabble NYU education and old world sensibilities. They are natural enemies in a relationship that is fraught and tired from the beginning and worth more than a few cringes for its age gap and differences.

Just as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was a wild throw-down of disparate types from all over the world, the love story Shteyngart writes is one of an almost violent mismatch that grinds together out of desperation and need. Lenny grovels while Eunice demands and withholds. Each presents as a stereotype of the culture from which they spring; Lenny is the son of incessantly worrying Russian Jewish immigrants and Eunice the daughter of a Korean family mired in a cycle of abuse from a tyrannical father and subservient mother. As the stories of the lovers’ families unfolded, I began to view Super Sad True Love Story as something other than a human love story, rather a love letter to the City. It’s possible to read the whole novel as an allegory, the yuch factor of the relationship emblematic of the discord with which New York exists.

As in the 17th century when the melding of like minded Puritans and Pilgrims begat the early symmetry of Boston, a genuine love story can unfold when two fairly well adjusted people meet and simply like one another. Lenny and Eunice can’t possess that luxury, even when they incessantly seek status and beauty. But this is New York, so they give it an uneasy and not completely unlovely try.

Last night I read a snippet about some asinine celebrity swearing by a process of alkalinization, or maybe it was de-alkalinization, who knows? “I thought of Eunice Park and her pH-balanced body, healthy and strong.” It was then that I really laughed at the novel I’d just finished. I can’t be a New Yorker, but as a reader I can recognize literature that is simply longing and nostalgia for something or someone who isn’t there anymore. Gary Shteyngart’s love for his city is the story here, and it’s a brilliant satire of how we all live now and what we stand to lose even more of. What Lenny wants is not Eunice.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home to the 740 square feet that used to be mine. I wanted to go home to what used to be New York City.

What Lenny has is something like her.

Welcome to America 2.0: A GLOBAL Partnership

THIS Is New York: Lifestyle Hub, Trophy City

New York from Ellis Island, May 21, 2015

David Esterly – The Lost Carving

In 1986 a major fire swept through the Hampton Court palace located southwest of London on the river Thames. Maybe I remember hearing about the fire at the time, though probably not, and my slight knowledge of the conflagration no doubt stems from some osmosis of history that occurs each time I visit England. When I think about Hampton Court, the main impression I’ve held until now is that of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Kathryn, screaming through the halls looking for her husband to beg his mercy while the king’s henchmen pursued her to lop off her head. Hampton Court is a dramatic site visually and historically, replete with all of the grandeur that an English palace so handily projects.

Among the many treasures to be found at Hampton Court are the intricate limewood carvings of Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons was a 17th century artist who occupied an almost singular niche until the Hampton Court disaster and the subsequent hiring of an American wood carver, David Esterly, to replicate a large Gibbons panel destroyed in the fire. The Lost Carving is Esterly’s 2012 meditation on his work twenty-five years ago, a spectacular piece of writing, and my favorite among the books I read last year. It’s the best sort of non-fiction, a fluidly descriptive account of the nuts and bolts of woodcarving mingled with Esterly’s observations on the politics, mystery, and meaning of his experience. I would not have imagined becoming so engrossed in the telling of such a particular story; indeed my awareness of the book is only thanks to the triple wonder that is Twitter, this best of 2013 list, and inter-library loan. My perception of the tedium of woodcarving is now forever swept clean by Esterly’s poetic tone and his lightly philosophical language that touched me with its musing on what it means to be part of making something beautiful in the wake of catastrophe.

In the opening pages Esterly writes about feeling removed from life’s immediacy after completing graduate school in the early 1970s. Educated at Harvard and as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, Esterly spent years studying philosophy and English only to find himself “exhausted with intellectual effort.”

I was retreating like a mollusk deep into its whorled shell. I grew tired even of beauty, almost. It was beginning to seem like little more than anything else that might enter your mind. Little more than another thought. I remembered Coleridge in his dejection, writing about seeing, not feeling, beauty.

This changes suddenly one day as Esterly and his future wife, Marietta, are walking to tea in London and she playfully pulls him into St James Church on Piccadilly where the work of Grinling Gibbons adorns the altar.

Altar, St James Church, Piccadilly, London

Altar, St James Church, Piccadilly, London

Have I made all this up? Marietta says not. We walked toward the altar. Floating on the reredos, the wall behind the altar, was a shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me. It seemed one of the wonders of the world. The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.

Thus does Esterly’s life elevate into one of careful craftsmanship, sublimity released from cast aside academia as simple tools fill his novice hands. Esterly begins from scratch, teaching himself the basics of woodcarving and patterning Gibbons’s use of the limewood medium, working out the kinks of his new career and knowing it to be so poorly paid that “carvers are starvers.”

Fast forward to 1986 and Hampton Court. Even though Esterly is a graduate of Cambridge University and has lived for many years in England, the man in charge of the Hampton Court restoration project fights Esterly’s hiring for the job and makes progress difficult because of anti-American bias. At this point, Esterly is one of only two or three master carvers capable of reproducing the thin limewood delicacy of Gibbons’s finest work, but the faction of Englishmen who work against him is united in its “caustic rejection” and “puzzling acerbity” in response to his ideas and processes. Esterly, thorough in his knowledge and understanding, not only of Gibbons’s work but also his life, channels the setbacks of Gibbons’s own career in order to meet the tiresome challenge of contending with petty, arrogant, and self-important people.

In 1671 Gibbons, a Dutchman by birth, was a 22 year old shipcarver at the Deptford dockyard. In his spare time he worked to perfect his limewood carving, a skill that he hoped would bring him favor as an artisan within higher circles. His discovery by an aristocrat, John Evelyn, seemed to place him in line for work on the multitude of projects designed by the architect Christopher Wren in the wake of London’s Great Fire of 1666. “But there’s a problem with this fast-forward and its smooth crescendo: it masks the reality of what actually happened. It leaves out a disaster, the debacle that shaped the rest of Gibbons’s career and generated the style that made him famous.” Wren patently rejected Gibbons and refused to hire him.

Sitting here in a sunny window, I recall the exhilaration I felt when I finally pieced together the origins of Gibbons’s style. It hadn’t come with his mother’s milk. The muses hadn’t paid a midnight visit to a genius in his studio. There was no annunciation. It was forged in bitter failure, made up out of rejected parts, probably in humiliation and confusion, by a man groping for a way forward. Gibbons had been pushed off the ladder he was climbing toward the high art of sculpture, and found himself where Yeats says all ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of an unsatisfied heart.

This is where we reach the “what happened next” part of The Lost Carving. It would be unfair and cruel of me to spoil it for you. As someone who relishes change in all of its mess and glory, it’s fair to state that Esterly’s writing about a woodcarving project is ultimately about the work of lifecarving. That’s trite, a banal play on words from a reader who found The Lost Carving so well written and important that I’m keeping a purchased copy close by for times when I need to read about ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, ‘The Use of Time is Fate’, and ‘The Thinking of the Body’. The Lost Carving is a small altar to approach again and again, to feel the joy in its making.

Carving had pressed some celestial Enhance button. Now that I was trying to add to it, I was haunted by the beauty of the world. I thought back to my academic days, when I’d stood on the hill overlooking the Fens and felt the world receding from me. Now it was rushing back, with colors and shapes that had a new savor to them. Rushing back, reenchanted.

It was as if the old dream were true, that some single Platonic form of beauty flowed through the human and natural world. And gave a camaraderie to those who chase after it, whose hands produce it and eyes are attuned to it. You didn’t need to be doing it for a living, either. It’s one of the best reasons for taking up the arts as an amateur: to hone your senses. Make their bevels finer, so that you can get a better angle on the beauty of the world.

Patrick Süskind – The Pigeon

Who hasn’t heard, spoken, or believed the big blanket, “People never change.” For it’s true, isn’t it? Except when it’s not. The moment when someone, real or fictional, gets to break free and move — whether in a big way or ever so slightly, towards something different — keeps me interested and, with any luck, brings the possibility of change home to rub into my life. Fiction can’t die as long as there are readers (and that’s a lot of us) who love the epiphanic moment. Even if it’s only a split second, the novella rather than a novel, traveling along with a character who changes ever so slightly can feel akin to going there, too.

So delightful is this emotional payoff that its promise can sustain me through the thicket of thousands of words. Imagine my satisfaction at hitting pay dirt within a little over one hundred small and widely spaced pages. Such is The Pigeon, a 1988 novella by German writer Patrick Süskind, his first effort after the success of his 1985 debut, Perfume. The first novel is famous, much talked about and loved, though I found it so wildly impressionistic that it felt thin. I couldn’t grab hold of anything within Perfume, and such was my disappointment at this that I’ve sought more of Süskind’s work to counter the effect. A few years back I read Mr. Summer’s Story, another novella that is unforgettable in its quiet horror.

The Pigeon is, alternatively, nothing if not a tale of redemption. “Ho hum”, you sigh. Haven’t we seen and done it all, read and considered everything? Shouldn’t literature wow us in its clever presentation, always showing and never telling, baffling and leading us astray before holding out some slim shred of hope for its protagonists? Better yet, a story ought to dash its characters and the reader to bits with what surely is the bleak and unrelenting truth, right? Sometimes, like a child in her cot, I just want a story. That this uplifting tale should come from a writer as skilled in dark method as Mr. Süskind is a winsome surprise.

The Pigeons Jonathan Noel is an unremarkable Parisian, a bank security guard whose life is changed one morning by the appearance of that famously dirty bird in his apartment hallway. The novella spans only 24 hours, yet Süskind deftly reveals Jonathan’s entire life story in the first few sentences. A child of wartime, Jonathan loses both parents and is hidden on a farm for his youth.  Jonathan is “shipped off to Indochina” where he is wounded and ill. His return home is accompanied by a humiliating marriage and abandonment.

Drawing on all these episodes, Jonathan Noel came to the conclusion that you cannot depend on people, and that you can live in peace only if you keep them at arm’s length.

Jonathan moves to Paris and begins the quiet lockdown of everything that could allow semblance of life. He shuns his neighbors, rebuffs the kindness of his apartment concierge, and exists only to await death.

For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life.

We meet him at the age of fifty-three, a time in life when the opportunity for change typically presents itself in less than dramatic fashion, if at all. As the morning of his day begins with its common ablutions, Jonathan opens the door of his rented room to find a pigeon sitting in the hallway at his doorstep. He’s terrified, “…a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably.”

The morning routine abandoned, Jonathan finds himself pissing in his washbasin and making plans to flee the room for a hotel where he might live in perfect peace away from the unexpected. The day becomes increasingly dark and complex as Jonathan’s disrupted equilibrium sends him off kilter at work. Fractious with his concierge and nervously missing the mark with his tasks, he finds himself on lunch break lost in observation of a homeless clochard sleeping on a park bench.

Jonathan watched him. And as he watched him, a strange disquiet came over him…(The clochard) ate and drank with the best of appetites, slept the sleep of the just and…gave the impression of a firmly grounded personality in finest harmony with the world and enjoying life…whereas he now saw himself, at age fifty-three, plunging head over heels into a crisis that confounded the life’s plan he had devised for himself and was making him crazy and confused and had him eating raisin rolls for the pure confusion of it, and for fright. Yes, he was frightened!

The day’s events become more distressing when Jonathan rips a hole in the leg of his trousers and is unable to persuade a seamstress to mend them immediately. At this point Süskind has written his man into such a state of anxiety and upset that the reader might surely begin to despair for the turmoil within this “sphinxlike” character. That would be a missed opportunity to go somewhere and to bring home something extraordinary.

In Süskind’s Mr Summer’s Story, an old man walks and walks in a seemingly pointless trajectory that brings him into the life of a young boy facing disappointment and dark aloneness. There is walking in The Pigeon as well. “Walking soothes. There is a healing power in walking.” That walk is yours to take when you read The Pigeon.

Philip Roth – When She Was Good

From May, 2007…

The year was 1967. In America, Roe vs. Wade and Title IX were still five years away, and a proliferation of the saucy-cum-insouciant heroine was unimaginable. A few women were dumping their bras in the trash, or even burning them, and yes, Philip Roth was writing. The title When She Was Good is reminiscent of 60s and 70s aftershave commercials where a sports hero might receive a facial massage from the sleekly scratching hands of a woman being, to his mind, very, very good. The notion of women being better when they are badly behaved is nothing new. But this is Philip Roth, and Roth’s idea of bad-as-good means “watch out”. Thinking of Lucy Nelson as a protagonist is difficult as there is nothing favorable about her. She’s born angry, vindictive, moralistic, and incurable. Only she doesn’t know it. In fact, she never has an inkling of insight and says, over and over, “but I’m good.”

Roth leads us into a sort of mixed sympathy for Lucy. She’s the daughter of a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and his passive wife. Her childhood is marred by the ousting of her father from the home after a drunken bout. But it is Lucy who does the ousting, Lucy who dials the police and breathes the sigh of relief when he is taken away. From that point, she wages war with men, chief among them her hapless husband, Roy, a WWII vet who loves her in a disheveled manner that she just can’t forgive. Philip Roth brings the reader into that mixed atmosphere of sympathy and frustration with Lucy, sympathy for her unplanned pregnancy and a waffling Roy, frustration with her blind spots, and finally an all out rivet as Lucy’s need to control wreaks havoc upon her family and self.

When She Was Good meanders through half the story; then, in Roth’s inimitable way, he strips the veneer and exposes the wolf. Written in realistic style and without any of his trademark humor, Roth struggles to find Lucy’s voice and motivation in much of the novel. She is somewhat weakly written until she begins to unravel, but then what an affair that is! The last third of the book holds fast and will not let go. As Lucy tries harder to get the square peg into the hole, her defenses smack of all their futility and uselessness. Her husband flees from her rages, taking their child and precipitating her shrieking downfall as she continues to demand their very lives. Only when she discovers that her father has been writing her mother all along, for years, is Lucy mortally undone. These simple lines shared by her imperfect parents place the final crack in her brittle casing, and she’s finished.

As years go by–with accelerated speed,
We find with us, an ever growing need
To recall to mind, and a wish to live,
In that glorious past–to re-have and re-give.

We bring to mind–the mistakes we made,
The aches and hurts–that we’ve caused, I’m afraid
Are brought in distinctly–with increasing pain
Till we wish, with all heart–to re-do it again.

Only to do it better–so that the pain is gone,
And make them all the good things, all along.
At least the great wish that would be really mine,
That I could just once more–be your Valentine.

No one does it gooder.

The Observations – Jane Harris

More thoughts from 2007:

The Observations by Jane Harris is many things, funny, gripping, tender and an overall delight. Beneath the skillful use of clever, vernacular dialogue and mysterious goings on are shades of complex relationships and a twinship of longing and belonging.

Bessy Buckley is a worldly fifteen year old, running from a sickly unsavory family member who drives her from 19th century Glasgow into the countryside where she happens upon a run down mansion with a mistress in want of a lady’s maid. She enlists and discovers that her employer, Arabella, is a writer- of sorts. Arabella’s literary secrets and the unknowns surrounding them form the top layer of the novel. This alone makes for an enjoyable read. But there’s more than meets the eye in every way for readers of The Observations. The friendship between Arabella and her young maid carries a whiff of sexual infatuation and the mix of chemistries that can only be awakened when women become close. Jealousies, slights, outright confrontations and misunderstandings pervade the relationship between Arabella and Bessy while they shape the household concoctions of both women.

My fondness for Bessy began as she goes to bed hungry on her first night at Castle Haivers, a handful of parma violets from her pocket meager repast as she falls asleep. She is both child and woman, her shortcomings equally charming as her strengths. Bessy and Arabella become ghost hunters, each searching for a loved friend, Bessy amidst the living and Arabella the dead. The supernatural slice – if it can be called such- of The Observations is more a peek into the power of longing as it casts about for someone who can’t be found, an apparition that might be recognizable to anyone. The device is written lightly and adds an exotic dimension to the story without derailing it. This novel brings to mind two other reads, Alias Grace and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Harris’ use of Glaswegian dialect brings Bessy to life with a cache of humor and dignity. And a knapsack of sorrow which she keeps hidden and only slowly reveals to the reader.

My read of The Observations coincided with a trip escorting my mother to homecoming at our shared alma mater. I was in the last pages by the time we crossed into memory land, and I’ll always associate that weekend with the book and its theme of friends loved and lost. At my mother’s class banquet, the salads contained dandelion greens and pansies; I thought of Bessy’s parma violets as I ate the flowers and watched my mother basking in the company of her friends. The next day I stepped from the warm October sunshine into the cool of the old college dormitory, emptied by a late afternoon football game. Standing in the silent hallway before the door to my old room, number 123, I listened for voices from the past, yearning for laughter that would dispel the years and gather old friends close by once more. Their ghosts were all around. Like Bessy and her mistress, I struggled to make them stay.