The Opposing Shore, by Julien Gracq

9780231057899_p0_v1_s118x184

There’s an ongoing debate among book folks about literary versus genre fiction. Some people complain that literary fiction indulges a love of language at the expense of plot, leading to boring tomes with beautiful sentences and striking imagery but where nothing happens. Others complain that genre fiction is mindless entertainment, bound by strict genre rules, with little intelligent content.

Still others—people like me—really only want stories. Lists of books I’ve loved inevitably include both literary and genre fiction. I’ve loved books from most genres, primarily mystery, science fiction and fantasy. And I’ve loved plenty of literary novels, yes, even Henry James and William Faulkner with their sentences that go on forever.

My favorite books are set apart by their absorbing stories. What makes a story absorbing? As you can probably guess, the answer touches the basic elements of fiction: complex characters, good plot structure, a pleasing facility with language, and a well-integrated theme. I’ll abandon literary novels with gorgeous language but no plot just as fast as a genre novel with one-dimensional characters.

But there are exceptions.

Oh, there is a plot in Gracq’s award-winning novel. Aldo, scion of an elite family lives a life of heedless pleasure in the capital of the mythical island nation of Orsenna. The ancient culture has grown stale and tired, silted up with now-empty rituals. The aristocrats who run the nation are just going through the motions that previous generations have formalised. Years of peace and plenty mean that only the elderly attain posts in the government, leaving young people little to do once they finish school.

Aldo’s hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by a call to do his military service. He is sent to the ancient outpost of Syrtes as an observer. He finds a rundown naval base where the handful of officers spend their days hunting and the soldiers are rented out to nearby farmers. Although Syrtes is the first defense against Farghestan, the country on the mainland with whom Orsenna has been at war for three hundred years, the war has been dormant for so long that it seems only a rumor from the past.

Plunged into this damp miasma of empty days where everyone goes through the ancient rituals without believing that they are needed anymore, Aldo catches glimpses of ancient glory. And, as the observer, he begins to hear whispers. Strange encounters start to build a sense of impending action, action that calls to the young Aldo, whose impatience to do something, anything, is growing.

Marino, who commands the base, tells him, “‘Like you, I used to think something extraordinary had to happen to me. I believed it was my fate. You’ll grow old, just as I have, Aldo, and you’ll understand. Extraordinary things don’t happen. Nothing happens.’”

It’s an unusual and intriguing theme: transgression, even destruction, as a way of breaking out of stasis, a way to finally feel alive and that your life has meaning.

I should have been dismayed by how slowly this story, told through Aldo’s consciousness, develops. The inertia confining him and his culture is reflected in the story’s pace. It only begins to disperse further in. Yet far from being bored, I was captivated. Why? Because of the language.

Gracq’s sentences are packed with fresh and startling images that made me gasp with recognition and pleasure. The sometimes dense paragraphs reward close attention by vividly bringing to life not just the physical environment, but the feel of the place, as well as the twists and turns of Aldo’s thoughts and emotions and understanding. I felt that I lived this story, with an intensity I’ve rarely experienced.

Although published in 1986, the story has much to say to our current Western culture, where entertainment has pushed aside information in much of our media, as well as in other present-day cultures where young people are pushing aside the shell of the past and struggling to remake their worlds, for better or worse.

What book are you ending the year with?

Father Christmas, by Raymond Briggs

5180amONfbL._UY250_

My young friend brought this award-winning children’s book along on a recent overnight at my house. I hadn’t heard of it before and, reading it aloud at bedtime, was thoroughly enchanted.

In the format of a graphic novel, the story follows Father Christmas through his most demanding day: December 24. There are no elven worker bees, no Rudolph, no North Pole. Instead we have a seemingly ordinary man waking from a dream of sunning himself on a beach to find that it’s Christmas Eve. No wonder he’s rather grumpy!

We follow him through his morning chores: putting the kettle on, collecting eggs, bathing. The detail in the pictures is quite incredible; I had to hold back my friend’s quick fingers to give me time to glory in them. The houses Father Christmas visits with his sleigh and two reindeer are quite extraordinary: from a camper to an apartment to a glorious manor house and even, well, I don’t want to give it away.

Just an ordinary man doing a job of work. He grumbles a bit, but finally is able to go home and cook his Christmas dinner and pudding. Under all that grumbling is a sweetheart who takes good care of his reindeer and even pulls out presents for his cat and dog.

I love this book. Most of us want to work at jobs that are meaningful, that in some way benefit others. We can’t all dispense a sleigh-full of presents, but we can give a few toys to a charity like Toys for Tots or donate time or money to a food bank or kitchen. We can find a way in even the most menial jobs (and I’ve held some of the lowliest) to make someone else’s burden a little lighter. We can pay forward the gifts that we’ve been given. Then we can go home and put our feet up, maybe with a cat on our lap or a dog keeping our feet warm, and know that we’ve made a difference.

Happy holidays to all.

Playlist 2015

220px-The-melody-at-night-with-you

Songs, whether vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. I listen to a lot of classical music and–when I want calm and comfort–to Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You. The playlist below filled the rest of my musical hours; they are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Desperado, Johnny Cash
Marching Through Georgia Lament, Jacqueline Schwab
Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, Jacqueline Schwab
And Am I Born To Die, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
New South Africa, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bitter Boy, Kate Rusby
Times A-Getting Hard, Happy Traum
Shebeg An Sheemor, Happy Traum
Gypsy Davey, Happy Traum
Sail Away Ladies/A Roof for the Rain/Snake River Reel, Ken Kolodner & Brad Kolodner
Black Jack David, Sweet Felons All
Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Sweet Felons All
Cornish Lads, Sweet Felons All
Adieu Adieu, Sweet Felons All
The Star Of The County Down, Walt Michael & Company
Ruins by the Shore, The Paul McKenna Band
Flying Through Flanders, The Paul McKenna Band
Slängpolskor, Lydia & Andrea
Schottis till Tom, Lydia & Andrea
Sweet Thames Flow Softly, Ian Robb

51DSEQNPl-L._SS135_SL160_

I also have to add that I’ve been listening to Ryland Angel’s mostly a capella Christmas CD The New Voice of Christmas. His voice is quite lovely–I should say all his voices, since he sings multiple parts. What a range! I especially like an old favorite: In the Bleak Midwinter, and a hymn new to me: Be Thou My Vision.

What music have you been listening to?

At the Center, by Dorothy Van Soest

51UbU88ur6L._AA160_

In this electrifying mystery, Anthony Little Eagle is placed in a foster home. Two days later he is dead. The police think it’s a tragic accident, but Sylvia Jensen isn’t convinced. As the foster care supervisor, Sylvia ignores pressure from her manager to accept the accident ruling; she thinks they are placing the reputation of the child welfare office above concern for Anthony.

The only other person investigating the death is J.B. Harrell, a reporter. He has little faith in Sylvia’s motives or determination. A sixty-year-old white woman with a grey ponytail, a beaded necklace, and a problem with alcohol, Sylvia knows she is on dangerous ground. She is deeply engaged with the tribal communities, through her work but also her sympathies. Yet, at the same time, she fears being seen as a wanna-be Indian, a New Ager cherry-picking another culture. Harrell picks up on her ambivalence and guilt.

Woven in with the story of Anthony’s death and Sylvia’s pursuit of the truth is another story, of a Native American child fostered by a white couple for seven years. Mary struggles with discrimination against her son and lives in terror that he will be taken away from her.

As a former welfare mother, I’ve seen social workers from the other side of the desk. Most are compassionate, but some treat their clients as mentally or morally deficient. All are burnt-out by huge caseloads and funding cuts. Sylvia Jensen’s compassion is tempered by her knowledge of the system, its strengths and its faults. The author captures the realities and sometimes contradictory agendas of a child welfare office.

As she should. In addition to being a writer, Dorothy van Soest is a social worker, political and community activist, as well as a retired professor and university dean who holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and a Masters and Ph.D. in Social Work. She brings a comprehensive knowledge of the foster care system, adoption, and tribal culture to give depth and detail to this fascinating story. Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Dorothy.

I read a lot of mysteries and thoroughly enjoyed this one. While Sylvia and Harrell’s investigation into Anthony’s death captured my attention, and Mary and her son my concern, what I most liked was the glimpse into a world unfamiliar to me: the liminal space where Native Americans interact with white people. I’ve read Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, but this novel gives a different perspective.

I also appreciated the multi-faceted depiction of the different forces competing over the fate of a vulnerable child. Even when all involved have the best intentions, a solution may not be easy to find. We are but human, and every system has flaws. To me, the hope comes in seeing characters such as Sylvia and Harrell rise above their own weaknesses to try to do good in the world.

What book have you read recently that gave you hope?