Townie, by Andre Dubus III

This memoir recounts Dubus's life growing up poor in the 1970s in Haverill, an impoverished mill town on the Merrimack River, an environment I'm very familiar with from my years in Worcester. Dubus's father, a writer and professor at Bradford College across the river, left the family when Andre was 11. Burdened with the responsibility he's undertaken to protect his two sisters and younger brother while their embattled mother works to support the family, Andre struggles with what he believes to be his own cowardice.

There are all kinds of reasons for writing a memoir, such as to record your life for your children or to work through a difficult time in your past. A memoir for the general public, though, must be about more than “I had a hard life.” I've been surprised by how many people in some of my online writing groups are working on memoirs because of an unhappy divorce or a bout with cancer or a death in the family; they believe that an account of their experience will help others going through the same thing. I expect that was true of the first fifty divorce/cancer/death memoirs, but wonder how many more can find a readership. As writer Aleksandar Hemon said in an interview in The Writer's Chronicle, “the confessional memoir . . . genre is practically dead because it's always the same thing: addiction, despair, some kind of abuse. It has become a form unto itself. How many addiction memoirs can you read?”

To appeal to the general public, I see three possibilities: a memoir has to be written by a celebrity (or a ghostwriter pretending to be the celebrity), contain utterly amazing writing (see Angela's Ashes, The Glass Castle), or address some larger issue. Dubus became somewhat of a celebrity when his novel House of Sand and Fog was selected as an Oprah book. The writing here is good but not take-your-breath-away great. That leaves a larger theme.

One could make the case that the book is primarily about his relationship with his father. The book starts with his father deserting the family and ends with his father's death, in between recounting their difficult and often misunderstood reconnections. By itself, this might not lift the story out of the merely personal, though certainly the issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys is one that is of great consequence to our society.

It is a related theme that interests me more, though. Preyed upon my neighborhood bullies and without a father's protection, young Andre turns to violence, embracing weight training, street fighting and, eventually, boxing as the way to protect himself, his family, and anyone else he sees being bullied. The most moving part of the book for me recounts why and how he gradually turned away from this path.

I was also interested in how he turned to writing. With my writer's hat on, I have to admit to a couple of quibbles with the book. As writers we are told to include sensory details. However, stacking them up at the beginning of a scene, as Dubus often does, listing every smell and then every sound, etc., is not as effective as spreading them out a bit. I listened to the book on CD read by the author, which meant that the pronunciations and accents were correct. Unfortunately, though, the author's monotone voice tended to make me zone out; a professional actor would have held my attention better.

As a mom, I was disturbed by the concentration on the father with very little mention of the mother who did not abandon her son, who worked sometimes menial jobs to support him and his siblings, and who actually came to his rescue when he was bullied. She is just a shadowy figure, away at work too much to see the trouble Andre and his siblings are getting themselves into. I realise that would be a very different book, and that the great strength of this book comes from its examination of what it means to be a man in the United States. Still, my heart goes out to her, along with my respect, and I hope her children recognise the enormity of what she gave them.

There is a happy ending here. The four children do manage to grow out of the drugs and fighting and inappropriate sexual liaisons to become contented adults who are fulfilling the promise buried under the difficulties of a life of poverty. This, too, is a good lesson for me: to look at a teen-aged drug dealer or hooligan and know that it is not too late for the child within.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin

This collection of short stories set in Pakistan's cities and rural villages make up Mueenuddin's first book, a fact that perhaps influenced my reaction. I thought the book very good for a first effort, though perhaps not good enough to be a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, both of which distinctions are trumpeted on the cover. It's not the first time my opinion has differed from that of prize judges and surely won't be the last.

The characters in these eight stories range from servants to villagers to modern young people racing from party to party. Some characters turn up in multiple stories, helping to tie the collection together. Women do what they must to survive, such as Saleema who wherever she works takes the cook as her lover in order to get extra food. Love arrives as an unexpected bonus but doesn't last. The characters I enjoyed the most were the eccentrics, such as Rezak who carries his homemade shack, a little wooden box “faced with tin and mounted on thick legs”, to wherever his next job is located. Or Nawabdin who fixes electric motors by circling them, drinking tea next to them, and beating on them with hammers yet somehow manages to improvise a fix. He reminds me of my friend Jonah, who while working as a potwasher and faced with a particularly stubborn burnt patch took the pot for a ride in the EasyGo. It seemed to work.

Some members of my book club were surprised by the cheerful cheating and outright theft seemingly practiced by everyone while the patron, K. K. Harouni, the one character who appears in all the stories, believes that his people love him too much to steal from him. So bills are padded; things disappear, and judges must be bribed. Even the thieves, though, are outraged when someone steals from them. A couple of the stories were a bit too elliptical for us; even putting our heads together we could not figure out the significance of certain sentences nor why the characters reacted as they did.

Although I enjoyed the stories, I found them somewhat repetitive. As one person in my book club said, the stories all follow a similar pattern: the unhappy protagonist begins to find a place of safety and sometimes joy before descending into complete misery. Several people complained about the unvaryingly gloomy outcomes, but as one person pointed out perhaps that is simply the reality of life in this area. In his Author's Note Mueenuddin says the stories are based on the stories he lived through while managing his family's farm in Pakistan and on his childhood experiences in Lahore and on the farm. The descriptive details and rhythms of speech embedded in his memory lend authenticity to the stories. For example, in one story Nawabdin goes to beg Harouni for a motorcycle:

“Sir, as you know, your lands stretch from here to the Indus, and on these lands are fully seventeen tube wells, and to tend these seventeen tube wells there is but one man, me, your servant. In your service I have earned these gray hairs”—here he bowed his head to show the gray—“and now I cannot fulfill my duties as I should. Enough, sir, enough. I beg you, forgive me my weakness. Better a darkened house and proud hunger within than disgrace in the light of day. Release me, I ask you, I beg you”.

The old man, well accustomed to these sorts of speeches, though not usually this florid, filed away at his nails and waited for the breeze to stop.

“What's the matter, Nawabdin?”

Saddest to me were the characters who have simply given up, such as in the story where Murad takes his new fiancé to visit his father in his huge, dilapidated house in Lahore:

The house had been built in the twenties, with many dark passages, musty fraying carpets, enormous ugly sofas and armchairs poked here and there, arranged quite irrationally, as if they had of their own volition waddled in from a furniture graveyard and huffed down and settled in for a long wait . . . It's a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center.

Although I wouldn't go so far as some of the fulsome praise splashed across the back cover, I do think these stories are well-written and worth the time spent reading them. I agree with Tessa Hadley whose London Review of Books review is quoted: “Mueenuddin's achievement . . . is to hold open two perspectives at once: on the one hand, the long history that produces the individual profile and the individual plight; on the other, the sensation of the present, experienced on the skin and on the emotions.”

Italian Journeys, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Some ten or twenty years after the Society of the Dilettanti, whom I read about in the London Review of Books, began pushing the English cultural scene to look beyond the usual Grand Tour through Italy to the wonders of Greece. Members traveled to Greece and produced drawings and books about Greek sculpture and architecture which influenced English taste for architecture and interior decoration that can still be seen in London's National Gallery, the British Museum and the interior of the Spencer House in London, to name just a few.

While touring Italy may have become old hat in England, in Germany Goethe has seen almost none of the Italian treasures that make up the core of his aesthetic. Already famous as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and numerous plays, he had been invited to join the government. of Weimar and had served there in several important capacities for eleven years when he suddenly in 1786 takes a leave of absence and sets off for Italy to see with his own eyes the landscapes and art that he loves. He says, “. . . in Rome the history of art and the history of mankind confront us simultaneously.” At the same time, he wants to make a break with a life that, while it rescued and protected him from the overwhelming and hysterical fame from Werther and the innate artistic limitations of the spontaneity of emotions trumpeted by the Sturm und Drang movement, has itself become a limitation. Having outgrown his friends and life in Weimar and burdened with unfinished works such as Faust, Egmont and Iphigenie, Goethe travels to Italy to find solitude and inspiration.

. . . I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don't know where it will lead me.

Goethe wants to know everything and understand first-hand the principles underlying art and nature. Already interested in geology, he describes the minerals and stones he finds on his travels and how the underlying geology affects the lands through which he travels. Like my other solitary walker, Goethe adds botany to his list of interests, studying plants to discover what they might have in common, the ur-plant as it were. This is the time of the great amateur naturalists—the term “scientist” would not be created until some 50 years later.

This book is primarily a collection of his letters to his friends in Weimar, edited later and supplemented with some reflections. His method of description is interesting in that he avoids metaphor. He provides detailed sensory descriptions but rarely describes much of an emotional response, even when he is caught in an unexpected eruption while standing at the mouth of Vesuvius. In addition to descriptions of landscapes and artworks, many of his letters describe what he is learning and what he is working on, as though he still needs to justify his desertion.

I have reached an age when, if I still want to produce something, I must not lose any time. As you can imagine, I have hundreds of new ideas in my head, but the main thing is making, not thinking . . . Therefore, do not grudge me my time here, which for me is so strange and exciting, but give your loving approval to my stay in Rome.

He often describes his tricks for avoiding the demands of society, such as maintaining his incognito as long as possible. However, through the one person he knows in Rome, the painter Tischbein, he mingles with many artists and is invited to view private art collections. He meets Sir William and Emma Hamilton and becomes friends with Angelica Kauffman, who he says would prefer to paint what she pleases but is persuaded by her husband to accept the many lucrative commissions offered, even though the couple have plenty of money. “What's the use of talking about misery and misfortune when people who have enough of everything do not know how to use it or enjoy it?” However, he generously goes on to say, “One must look for what she does, not what she fails to do. How many artists would stand the test if they were judged only by their failings?” Throughout these pages he mentions often how hard she works and how much she accomplishes.

Goethe supplements his growing understanding of and appreciation for art with lessons in drawing and sculpture, traveling with his artist friends to nearby locations of interest such as Pompeii, Frascati, and the Palantine Marshes, and through their comments learning about perspective and color. He studies the Sistine Chapel assiduously, and sets out to learn anatomy for himself.

I enjoyed comparing his descriptions of Italy's relics, art, and music to my own more recent memories. I can also relate to his struggles as a writer. He says, “I am always hoping to do more than I actually manage to do.” Rejuvenated by his travels, Goethe did come home to complete such great works as Faust, the Wilhelm Meister books, Tasso. He also continued working on his scientific theories about biology, anatomy, and color.

Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.

The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Ordered by my doctor to take a day off and do nothing—best medical advice I've ever received!—I plunged into this book, the first of a series of four books about the Cazalet family. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, and apparently also televised by NPR though I missed it, the Cazalet Chronicle follows the members of a large family and their servants in and around the Home Place where William and Kitty collect their grown sons and their families during the summer holidays.

Patriarch William, known as the Brig to make up for his being too old to serve in the Great War, has handed over more and more of his timber business, importing specialty woods, to sons Edward and Hugh, both wounded in the war, Edward by gas and Hugh losing a hand. The third son, Rupert, was too young to serve. He is a painter who rarely has time to paint, busy teaching art and supporting his young wife and children. This book opens in the summer of 1937 as Europe rolls towards another war.

With each scene, some lasting only a page, some several pages, we change places, moving into the world of another character like a game of musical chairs. Howard uses a close third person point of view, letting us share the character's innermost thoughts and concerns. With subtle touches she makes each come alive, helping us keep straight who the different people are. A few times I had recourse to the character list and family tree in the front of the book, especially with the many children who take a little longer to come into their own, but mostly I could keep them all apart.

Howard has an especially deft hand with the children, managing to draw them without sentimental or hackneyed images; she reminds me of much I'd forgotten about being young. For instance, while confined to her bed with chicken pox young Clary decides to write seven stories, one for each of the deadly sins. She has no trouble finding examples of the first six within herself, but is stymied by lust. Not having any idea what it even means, she consults her cousin Polly who suggests that is might be like “‘a tiger lusting after its prey.'” Another cousin decides to run away from home and prepares by making out long lists of equipment he will need to live in the woods. Until I read that, I'd forgotten about the summer I decided to run away and live in a shallow cave I'd discovered near Lake Roland.

This is not a costume drama but a psychological one. So completely is each person realised that I found myself absorbed by even the most commonplace worries: a boy afraid of going off to school, a wife fearing that her husband is unfaithful, a teenaged girl revealing her first crush, an elderly governess counting over her meager resources. Trivial as they may seem compared to the threat of war, such worries are real enough to those suffering them, and it is a testament to the quality of the writing that they are to me as well. One amazing dinner scene late in the book gives us the family sitting around the table conversing but each one keeping silent about what is really on his or her mind, what worry, what fear. By that time we know them well enough to know what lies behind each small gesture.

I can't wait to read the next three books.