Meadowlands, by Louise Gluck

A few years ago, when we did our Niagara/Ontario winery tour, Kim arranged for us to get a VIP tour at one quite impressive outfit. Being a wine neophyte, I was surprised to learn what a high percentage of bottles are “corked”, their taste ruined by leakage through the traditional cork. “If you’ve tried a wine that everyone said was great and hated it, that bottle may have been corked. Instead of giving up on that wine, you should try another bottle—you might really like it,” our guide said.

I’d heard about wines needing to breathe, of course, but he let us taste the difference between a newly opened wine and the same wine that had been allowed to breathe. I became a convert. Even more astounding, for me, was the effect of the shape of the glass on the taste of the wine. Our guide hauled out an assortment of the truly expensive glasses and showed us how to pair a shape with a particular wine. We tried the same wines in a variety of glasses and the difference was very clear even to my undiscerning palate.

All this is to explain why I went back to Meadowlands after not liking it at all the first time I read it.

I’d read and enjoyed two of Gluck’s earlier collections, The House on Marshland and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, but it was Vita Nova that blew me out of the water. I read and reread it. For a year, I dipped into it almost daily. During that turbulent time, it became an anchor for me, a solid block of perception, of knowing that steadied me and helped me through.

So I came to Meadowlands with high expectations. I found the language, of course, to be both strong and lovely, but the subject matter simply didn’t resonate with me. The hull of the book is made up of poems featuring a couple whose marriage is falling apart, some of them recording dialogues of their arguments. Completing the structure are poems, parables ,and monologues based on The Odyssey and exploring marriage, distance, and licit and illicit loves from different perspectives.

Perhaps I was jaded from just having read too many books about marriages breaking up, mostly from the man’s perspective justifying why he simply HAD to have an affair with that cute young cookie. Yawn. I’d also just been reading way too much about the earlier period, not just rereading The Odyssey itself, but books such as Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad that left me feeling like I’d overdosed on the whole cycle.

Then recently I read Gluck’s later book, Averno, for one of my book clubs and fell in love all over again. One of the members of the book club, in response to a comment of mine about Meadowlands, said that it was his favorite of her books and encouraged me to look into it again.

Without pushing the metaphor too hard, I’ll just say that like wine, the content of a book can age well or poorly through no fault of its own, such as the controversy over Mark Twain’s use of language: true to its time but anathema to ours. Also, much of the enjoyment of a book is out of the author’s hands entirely, dependent on the reader’s filters of context, background knowledge, and preferences.

I did enjoy Meadowlands a lot more this time around. The subject of failing marriages still doesn’t much interest me, but the people in these poems came alive for me in a way they hadn’t on the first reading. I particularly liked the poems from Telemachus’ point of view, what he thought of his parents’ problems. And I snickered at Gluck’s sly bits of humor: I’m astounded by the way she can tear your heart up and then make you laugh, all in a few lines. I’ll write about Averno another time.

The Three-Cornered World (Kusa Makura), by Natsume Soseki

What a lovely book! The narrator is an artist—a painter and a poet—who has come to a remote mountain, an out-of-season (or out-of-style) resort, in order to immerse himself in his art, leaving the busy world of trains and social obligations behind. The world where war, in this case the Russo-Japanese War, is eating up young people and leaving a river of blood.

As the narrator wanders mountain paths, stands under a magnolia tree in the starlight, examines the pattern of bamboo outside the window of his room, and watches the steam rise from his bath, he muses on life and the role of art and the artist. He sees the artist as one who stands outside of life, one who must leave mundane cares and worries behind in order to create the art that speaks to us and changes our lives. Distance, he believes, is necessary for aesthetic appreciation.

He has come to this mountain retreat to achieve that distance. Art is to be his only concern. He finds himself filling his sketchbook with poetry, and the brief poems in the text are lovely and profound, particularly meaningful given the context. What he does not do is paint. He thinks about painting. He carries his painting box with him on his rambles. He tries to construct pictures in his head using the elements around him, but something is missing.

The original title means The Grass Pillow which is a convention in Japanese poetry signaling that poem is to be about a journey. Although the translator, Alan Turney, speaks in his introduction of the book as a wondrous example of an artist’s immersion in nature bringing out his ideas about life and art, similar to Wordsworth but different in critical ways, Turney’s choice of an English title tells another story. Taken from the text of the book, the three-cornered world is what Soseki says is the habitat of the artist, what is left when common sense is subtracted from the four-square world.

Common sense! Zing! As the book opens, the narrator is walking up a mountain track thinking big thoughts about art’s role in bringing tranquility and beauty to this busy world, when he trips on a stone and falls full-length. Zing again. Throughout the book, this pepper of self-mockery keeps the discourse from becoming too cloying.

The narrator starts to take an interest in the landlord’s daughter, a young woman whose tangled life appears to echo a local story, the legend of the maid of Nagara who was loved by two men and—torn—drowned herself in the Fuchi River. With the shimmer of this story behind her and thinking of Millais’s painting, the narrator wants to paint her as Ophelia in the camellia-strewn pond he has found in his rambles.

Yet he cannot begin. In the course of his rambles, he meets various people: a packhorse driver, the town barber, the abbot of the local monastery, a young man about to go off to war. In conversation with these people, as well as the landlord and his daughter, the narrator learns more about the secret stories of the people in this place. Near the end of the book he realises how hard it would be to look into the eyes of each person he encounters and see the “turmoil and confusion” there, understand “what this world can do to a man”.

This is a book I will come back to again and again. The painterly descriptions of early spring in the mountains drew me in, while at the same time the narrator’s explication of why particular scenes are pleasing made me look around with a new aesthetic appreciation. This summer, I took my paints and my poetry off to the woods in order to step outside of my life and its obligations for a while, hoping to immerse myself in nature and find new, more satisfying, rhythms for my life. However, like the narrator of this lovely and disturbing book, I found that nature can only take me so far.

The Mysteries of Glass, by Sue Gee

Saved this audio book for my long drive last week. As I set out, I listened to Kate Rusby singing “Botany Bay”: “Farewell to old England forever . . . “ Seemed appropriate. It's hard to say good-bye.

Then I settled down to this book, quickly becoming entranced by the voice of the narrator, Glen McCready. Many folks who listen to audio books have favorite narrators. I'm usually too caught up in the story to notice, but sometimes I'm just bowled over. For instance, Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter books is astounding. So many characters, so many voices—flawless. Or a man who has narrated some of the Nero Wolf books, who brought the individual characters to life to the point where I actually believed there were multiple actors narrating the story. When I looked to see who the narrator was, I had to laugh. I had seen him play Hamlet many, many years ago at Center Stage in Baltimore. His humor, intensity, and swordplay had sparked my sons' interest in Shakespeare, an interest that has lasted into adulthood.

In this book, it is not so much character voices that McReady has to keep straight and bring to life, for there are few characters. Rather, it is the mood, the atmosphere of a Hereford village, remote, rural. And he does it brilliantly. Listening to him, I remembered the early darkness of December in Yorkshire, the rustling hedgerows of June in Oxfordshire. Oh, it's not all the narrator, of course. It's the writing. I could see why this book was longlisted for the Orange Prize. The descriptions are so well-written; the story so absorbing.

Let's go back. This is the story of Richard Allen, a young man who has come to a remote village in Hereford to take up his first appointment as a curate in December of 1860. An idealistic young man, still mourning his father's recent death, nervous about being able to fulfill his new responsibilities. The bitter cold of his arrival, the bleak fields under the stars, made me shiver, despite the warmth of the car. Almost immediately Richard tangles with the vicar, Oliver Bowen, over an article refuting Darwin's monstrous theories.

Darwin is not the only catalyst shaking up the centuries-old village ways. Richard has arrived on the train, and there is much talk of the changes that the railroad has brought and will bring. Change. Stasis. Constancy. Growth.

There was quite a remarkable article in the New York Times on 29 July. Apparently, even now scientists don't really understand why glass acts as it does. It seems to be a liquid whose molecules have slowed until they are not moving at all, until they are neither liquid nor solid. Richard Allen's story plays out at a particular tipping point of the culture, when centuries of certainty began to give way to doubt, when the modern age began to change the pace of life, and the self began to be felt as something independent, something separate from the community.

I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of Carr's A Month in the Country which also captured so well what it is like to walk into an English village church and how people can touch each other's lives. Allen wrestles with his faith, his doubt. The main storyline, though, which was of somewhat less interest to me, involved his falling in love with the vicar's young wife. Oh, it was well done. Not overly sentimental. But I couldn't help but think his rhapsodies about his beloved sounded like what a romantic young woman would want a man to feel, to write in his journal, to avow in brief passionate encounters.

I'm just an old cynic, I guess. It's a lovely story, sad, of course, and difficult. But quite the perfect thing to listen to on a long drive.

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

Why do I dream of a city? Why don't I dream of the pond with its dark trees, its shifting surface?

I had to pick up someone at the train station in Kingston late one night. Arriving with time to spare, I stopped by the Borders, though I didn't really think it would be open so late. Imagine my surprise at finding it not only brightly lit, but full of pre-teens dressed in Goth attire. It turned out to be a midnight release party for some YA vampire book.

I took the opportunity, though, to pick up this book, which Moira had recommended when I told her about my dreams—that I often dream about being in this city, the same city, its streets and shopping malls as familiar to me as those of Towson or Kingston for that matter.

Yet it is a city that—waking—I have never seen.

Well, twice. Once in Lyons, France, when I went to visit Ilya and Jasmine. We were on our way to this restaurant on Presqu'Isle where we would sit at a long table with other patrons, sharing food and listening to music provided by the owner's Romany brother-in-law who just happened to drop by.

Anyway, Lyons was all lit up and we passed by this plaza a few steps above street level and surrounded by brilliant white buildings. In one corner, a young man was recklessly dancing to music only he could hear, and I recognised the plaza as one I had often passed while walking in my dream city.

The other time was in Yokohama, Japan, where our hotel, tall and foursquare with a connecting shopping mall snuggled against its feet was in fact the hotel and mall from my other life. Oddly, I seem to have frequented them much more often than I ever have such places in my waking life: late for a conference at the hotel's meeting room or stopping for coffee in one of the mall's shops. So to see the place standing there in the middle of Yokohama, to walk its corridors in this life, was eerie.

I don't know what to think about all this. Part of me doesn't believe in dreams and part wonders if the dreams led me to these places.

Note that I'm not talking about the book. It's remarkable. But I can't talk about it. You just have to experience it. Moira asked me which was my favorite of Calvino's cities. Maybe Euphemia where stories and memories are traded. Or Zobeide, the white city, which was laid out according to paths followed in dreams. Or Eusapia with its identical city of the dead. But really, all of them.

I love the inventiveness of these brief descriptions, like Ersilia where the houses have been removed leaving just the labyrinth of strings that once stretched between homes and offices to show relationships. I love the reversals or the turns at the end that add another layer of understanding.

Why do I dream of a city? I think because cities are where people come together. Where we have a chance at achieving the unity Forster wrote about. Where we knock off each other's rough edges and learn to get along. Where we tell each other our stories, even if it is only under dark suburban trees, their shadows holding us and keeping us separate from the silent, slumbering homes.

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard

Despite the laudatory comments on the covers and its self-proclaimed best-seller status, I found this book to be deeply flawed. It is a love story, the story of Lou and Toby Maytrees. The two meet in Provincetown in the 1930s, fall in love and marry, but that is just the beginning of their tale. I usually feel frustrated reading stories that end with marriage because the whole chasing-catching-marrying thing is much less interesting to me than what comes after the wedding. So I was pretty happy that Dillard concentrates on the long life after the cake is cut and the dishes washed.

However, I was less happy about the self-consciously poetic style of the book, jumping around in time, providing an impressionistic narrative that I sometimes found difficult to follow. The structure was quite odd: both a preface and a prologue that together constituted a third of the book, and then three uneven sections. I was also less happy with the labored attempts to come up with original imagery. Sentences like “Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over” would get a less-famous writer laughed out of the room.

I was astounded by Dillard's first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which seemed a whole new way of writing about the natural world, mixing humor, reflection, and emotion. The few of her later books that I've read haven't reached that acme, but have had moments of gorgeous writing. Here, too, are some lovely bits, especially about Provincetown and the way of life there in the middle of the 20th century.

Yet the story as a whole rings false to my ears. The young couple decides that free time is more important than possessions, so they choose not to work. It helps that they have inherited a big house in town and a shack on the beach. And somehow, with no money, they never seem to have a problem with taxes or food or heat or medical bills for the baby that soon arrives. Perhaps I am just not poetic enough, but I can't help wondering how the heck they get by.

In their later life, Toby does actually work and money becomes a bigger factor in his life. Lou, on the other hand, appears to be the epitome of a Zen monk, open to the world, unencumbered by self, desires, etc. Easy enough to free yourself from desires, I can't help but think, when you're getting a generous alimony check and free housing. It's hard to be open to the universe when you can't pay the heating bill.

Maybe I'm being too picky. I heard Dillard interviewed at the International Authors Festival in Toronto a few years ago and was appalled by her behavior. She refused to sit in the armchair provided, insisting on standing behind it. She deliberately upstaged the author interviewing her, forcing him to turn his back on the audience. When he tried to come level with her, she moved further upstage. She made fun of his questions and treated him with disdain. I don't know if she had a beef with that particular author or if she is that rude in all of her interviews, but I do know that I've never seen a grown person behave like such a brat. I try not to let what I know about the author influence my reading, but I'm not always successful.

In the end, despite the moments of lovely description, the story was simply too light and unrealistic to hold my interest for long.