A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s always a bit dangerous to reread books you loved when young. Recently I reread A Wrinkle in Time and enjoyed it perhaps even more than I did back then. However, this third installment of the series featuring the Murry family dragged for me. Perhaps it was the weather or my mood, but I struggled to pay attention to it.

Thanksgiving has brought the Murry clan together. Ten years have passed since A Wind in the Door, the second book. Charles Wallace is fifteen and still in touch with his mysterious abilities. Meg is not only grown up and married to Calvin, she is expecting a baby. Calvin himself is away at a conference in Britain, but his mother has joined them, much to the Murry’s surprise. An inarticulate and apathetic woman, Mrs. O’Keefe has demonstrated only dislike for Meg and the Murrys and indifference to her son.

The somewhat overly idyllic (other than Meg’s mother-in-law) family get-together is interrupted by a phone call from the President, who often consults with Mr. Murry, warning that nuclear war is about to erupt thanks to a South American dictator, “Mad Dog” Branzillo. Mrs. O’Keeffe rouses herself to recite an ancient rune and insist that Charles Wallace must prevent the catastrophe.

Charles Wallace heads out to the star-watching rock, asking Meg to remain at home and kythe with him, i.e., communicate telepathically. Although he does not know what to expect, a unicorn appears who is able to put him “within” other people. The unicorn cautions him that he must become the other person, forgetting himself and his own thoughts so as not to confuse the person.

At this point, Meg and Charles Wallace essentially disappear from the story, which instead follows the succession of people whom Charles Wallace goes “within”. Most of these people are found at the rock itself; I loved thinking about the various people who have inhabited a small plot of land over the centuries. However, I found the similarity of names confusing and eventually tiresome. We meet Madoc, Madog, Maddux, and Mad Dog; Gwydder, Gedder, and Gwen; Zyllie, Zyllah, Zylle; plus two Branwens. I was also jerked out of the story late in the game when Mrs. Murry suddenly realizes that the names Madoc and Mad Dog may be related. She’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist. The whole family is supposed to be super intelligent. Yet no one thought of this before.

The idea that an individual and his or her choices can change the fate of the entire world inspires in me equal part happiness and fear. Since my choices have almost never turned out the way I expected, I tend to approach them with trepidation. But I did appreciate that the way to foster change is first to listen, as Charles Wallace is ordered to do.

I had some other issues with the story. One is the relegation of the women characters to a role that has no opportunities for intelligence and is limited to wife/girlfriend/mother. Another would be the racist implications of the constant injunction that you could tell the good guy because he has blue eyes, not to mention the whole South American thing.

The loss of Meg and Charles Wallace as characters leaves a huge empty space in the book, but there is still much to like. The unicorn is given a pretty good personality and escapes being treacly. And then there’s the whole business about the space-time continuum which I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my two favorite parts is the title, a quote from a Conrad Aiken poem. I just love the phrase and appreciate how it captures the essence of the story. The other is the emergence of an unexpected hero. I think the part in the Harry Potter series that moved me the most was when Neville Longbottom—well, no spoilers, though I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the story. Similarly, here my heart lifted and I forgave L’Engle everything when I came to that part.

Did you read Madeleine L’Engle’s books when young? Have you reread them recently?

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I have sometimes heard this book pronounced the only craft book that a fiction writer needs. Indeed, it has much to teach the writer. But it is even more valuable to the reader who wants to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the curtain: why some stories are more compelling than others, why some sentences bore you or take your breath away, why some characters seem as real as the person sitting across from you.

Have you ever wondered how in the world black letters on paper can make us feel as though we’ve lived through an intense experience? What makes us believe some characters are real and others are not? How do writers make us see what the character sees, feel fear when she is in danger and grief at her loss? Why do some books work and others don’t, and what do we mean by a book “working”.

Wood is a critic whose work I’ve enjoyed for years. The breadth of his reading is apparent in the number of diverse examples he gives to illustrate his ideas, using books ranging from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

He starts out talking about point of view:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking a speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for–‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

You can also see from this excerpt is what a joy it is to read his prose. Lucid yet intriguing. And it illustrates something he brings up later in the book: how a detail or a single word can open a space that excites a reader’s curiosity and interest, a technique Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity” in Will in the World, his 2004 study of Shakespeare that I learned a lot from. Look at that phrase: “narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character”. It is “bend” that is both surprising and so right; it is that image that draws us in.

Having long enjoyed James Wood’s reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Times, I was thrilled to immerse myself in this book. And I’ve reread it several times, not to mention dipping into it when struggling with some writing task. The more I write and read fiction, the more value I find in this book.

He has chapters on creating characters and how to make their dialogue work. He talks about how to make these characters engage our sympathies and ways to move back and forth in time effectively. Most delightfully for me as a poet, he examines how the very sound of words and phrases can intensify meaning. And all with an extravagance of examples.

But this is less a craft book than it is an analysis of how to read fiction. Yes, it is useful for writers, but even more so for readers. If you want your book club’s discussions to go a little deeper than I liked/disliked the book, then give them this book. It will give you the language and ideas to explore what causes those reactions.

Are you in a book club? What book prompted your most interesting discussion?

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Why not a novel written as a self-help book? In Hamid’s novel, the unnamed protagonist is presented as the prototype for achieving the title’s goal, suggesting that if the reader follows the same path, he too will achieve it. The Asian country where he lives is also unidentified.

The book is entirely in the second person (you), conflating you the reader with you the protagonist. It’s an interesting experiment. In some ways, this device works quite well. It reminds us that this in fact is exactly what good fiction does: it makes us feel as though we actually are the protagonist. Hamid does this with a nudge in the ribs, inviting us to laugh along. Also, we are intrigued by the tension of being both reader and protagonist, as well as the interplay of self-help language and the reality of the protagonist’s struggle. And tension is what keeps us reading, as we are reminded by Donald Maass, literary critic, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire.

In other ways, the device detracts from the story. One member of my book club, driven mad by what one reviewer calls the “extravagant use of the second person”, was unable to finish the book. For me, it had the effect of keeping me at a distance. I don’t know if it was the second person point of view (all those yous!), the lack of a name for the protagonist, the absence of much sense of the characters’ feelings, or my own analytical curiosity as to how this experiment would work, but I felt as though I were viewing the events of the novel from 20,000 feet. I could summon no emotion for any of the characters.

And because of that, I was bored. There seemed to be an empty space at the center of the novel, as another person in my book club said. An interesting experiment, often quite funny, but I didn’t find it compelling.

However, in yet another testament to the variety of tastes and reader experiences, many in my book club loved the book. They disagreed with me about the emotion, claiming to have felt the protagonist’s ambition, moral quandaries and griefs. One person was completely charmed by the protagonist’s romance with someone called only “the pretty girl”. Many found themselves laughing frequently, enjoying the little jokes, such as the chapter titles.

Other factors that kept me at a distance was the speed at which we zipped through the protagonist’s life and the banality of that life. To encompass a lifetime in a very small book means moving quickly, dipping in here and there to provide scenes and then pulling away again. And the arc of the protagonist’s life is mostly the boiled down stereotype of everyman in our capitalist world; it’s a story that’s been told a million times, with little to set it apart or make it new.

It’s as though Hamid is trying to see how far he can stretch the illusion of fiction, how much he can reveal its essential phoniness, without losing the reader. If he lost me and a couple of others, he certainly didn’t lose the majority of readers in my book club.

What book have you and your friends disagreed about?

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels, such as The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. I also was intrigued by his memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me, so I jumped at the chance to read this newest memoir by him. I was also lucky enough to hear him read from it at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore.

I really enjoy Norman’s voice. It is smart without being strident, perceptive without being pushy. He doesn’t shy away from his own failings, but tempers them with his appreciation of the people he encounters. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories.

Most memoirs are a single narrative, but this one is a bit different. It is made up of five discreet pieces. What they have in common is not theme–he says in the Introduction that he is “loathe to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not.” Instead each occurs in a place that is meaningful to him.

The pieces are arranged chronologically, starting with one set during the summer of 1964 when the teen-aged Norman worked in a bookmobile, and ending with one set in 2003 when he and his family were summering in Vermont while tragedy struck their home back in Washington, D.C.

Because we are viewing experiences through the mind of one man, we do begin to see patterns and associations. For instance, birds are a constant, from the ducks, gulls and swans at Reeds Lake where the fifteen-year-old finds refuge to the Western Oystercatcher that helps Norman heal in the final piece of the book.

And one thing leads to another. Books on birds and animals of the Arctic from the bookmobile later steer him to collecting folktales from Inuit people in the Northwest Territories. A girlfriend in London takes him to Saskatchewan. Seeing a Confederate soldier outside a Vermont cafe somehow prepares us for the dangers Norman encounters when he misjudges other people. Such subtle techniques give the book continuity.

All five pieces evoke particular places and experiences that Norman struggles to make sense of and fit into the life he is making for himself. Many are hilarious, such as the Inuit rock band that specialises in John Lennon’s songs:

Peter had a voice that made Bob Dylan seem like Pavarotti, but what did it matter? With desperate, joyful abandon he shouted, “I got my Eskimo freak on!” –wildly gyrating in classic rock-star style, wailing.

Other experiences go deep into what it means to feel your family is being threatened. Detail by detail Norman builds up each world, each experience. When a Quagmiriut Inuit shaman comes to heal and put protection on Norman’s violated home, we learn that he is wearing “blue jeans, a white shirt, shoes and socks, and a light brown sports jacket” and has somehow smuggled in a caribou shoulder bone. Norman feeds him “scrambled eggs with lox, potatoes, and black coffee.” These details fit seamlessly into the story and give it depth.

Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. We feel the urge to make the pieces fit together, to have it all make sense. The danger is in either losing some of our experiences or altering them to make them match. We are used to stories with an overall narrative arc. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

Have you read any of Howard Norman’s books? Which is your favorite?

Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders

The subtitle of this small book is An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet said. They can clarify or obfuscate.

This delightful book, a most welcome gift, gathers words from many languages that have no equivalent in English. Each is defined and illustrated and given a sentence or two of description. Some are words already familiar to me, such as hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning nostalgia for home, a home you’ve lost forever or perhaps one that you have not yet found.

Most, though, are new to me and are deliciously apt. One that I will use often is mangata, a Swedish word meaning “the road-like reflection of the moon in the water.” Another is meraki, a Greek adjective describing that feeling of being in the zone, of giving yourself over completely to some activity.

There are dozens of languages represented, common and obscure: German, Yiddish, Portuguese, Farsi, Inuit, Urdu, Wagaman. I love exploring these words and thinking about the experiences they embody.

In writing poetry, of course, I am always searching for just the right word, one with the right sound and the precise connotations to convey as much as possible. Each day I choose a word to roll around in the back of my mind, testing out the image it calls forth, the particular music of its pronunciation. It may be a common word, such as “lane”, or something more complex such as “palimpsest”. My reflections on many of these words and haiku using them can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #poetswords.

So this book is a treasure trove for me. I will continue to meditate on these words, giving each its due. However, I believe, given my predilection for Lagavulin, that the word I will use most often is one from the Gaelic: Sgriob, a noun that “Refers to the peculiar itchiness that settles on the upper lip before taking a sip of whiskey.”

What new word have you learned recently that interests or delights you?