The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

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In this new (2016) book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. After a brief prologue, we find ourselves next to the lift in his apartment building, a small suitcase at his feet. He debates bringing a chair from the apartment, but he’s too nervous to sit and anyway, “it would look decidedly eccentric, sitting down to wait for the lift.”

The year is 1936 and Shostakovich in undergoing the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect. When we learn why he is waiting by the lift, we understand that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Life for an artist under Stalin is a series of compromises. One could choose the heroic gesture, but probably only get one chance since it inevitably would lead to imprisonment and/or death. In a series of exquisitely calibrated musings, Shostakovich ponders cowardice and compromise, and his interactions with the powerful. We follow rabbit trails into his past and present, but always his thoughts center around his music. I want to go back and look more closely at how Barnes has constructed this story so effectively.

Shostakovich is trying to navigate a narrow path that will enable him to continue composing what he wants without getting himself and his family killed. This is not an easy task since those in power define not only what is good art but also the actual purpose of art.

The book is structured in three parts, corresponding to his three encounters with the head of the Soviet state, each twelve years apart. I was particularly struck by the inside view of what life is like under a tyrant. Sadly, this seems to be a preview of things to come in the U.S. and what is already happening in countries like Hungary.

I relished the inside view of this man who is quite ordinary and quite remarkable at the same time. I am endlessly fascinated by what it means to live a good life, what choices and compromises we are faced with and how we negotiate them. Shostakovich criticises others, second-guesses himself, wonders what music he might have written if he hadn’t been constrained by the Soviet state. He counts over his awards half-heartedly, turning his thoughts more often to his defenses and failures.

All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does.

In addition to considering the difficulty of leading a good life, Shostakovich also imagines what it is like to be one of the sycophants sucking up to Stalin or the tyrant himself. He declares that Shakespeare’s plays are no longer relevant: “for all that he was unparalleled in depicting tyrants knee-deep in blood, Shakespeare was a little naive. Because his monsters had doubts, bad dreams, pangs of conscience, guilt.” Shostakovich doubts that his tormenters ever see “the spirits of the dead rising to reproach them.”

As readers of this blog can probably deduce, Barnes is one of my favorite writers. I bought this book without even looking to see what it was about; I knew if it was by him I would be intrigued and challenged and ultimately changed. I have been, it’s true. And also chilled by this look at what seems to be coming to my country and too many others.

What books have you read about trying to work as an artist under a dictatorship?

Dodgers, by Bill Beverly

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This debut novel takes us into the world of East, a sixteen-year-old lookout for a drug gang in the Boxes, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. At first the story seems like the usual Wire replica, so much so that I hesitated to go on. But than Beverly takes us on a deep dive into the persona East has constructed for himself. This young man who “had never been a child” is good at his job, moving people along, tracking his crew. Yet there is much more to him.

He spent his days watching, keeping things from happening, and sometimes he could see things coming . . . Sometimes this watching wound East up. It was never finished . . .

Days began sharp and tuned themselves sharper, until about the time it was over, the world made a quivering sound, like a black string humming. He could barely stand to be near things.

After a massive police raid, East is sent across country with three other members of the crew on a task assigned by the head of the gang. They are going to Wisconsin to take out a witness in a case against their gang. They outfit themselves in Dodgers gear because, as one of the boys says, white people love baseball and will think them harmless. I like the title, with its echo of Dickens’ Artful Dodger.

The road trip is the best part of the book for me. Filtered through the awareness of a boy who has never been outside his neighborhood before, mountains and diners and even other drivers become something mysterious and alien. That the boy is black and negotiating in a world of white people (other than those who buy drugs) for the first time makes his journey more striking.

Mountains stood before them, above them like in LA. But in the Boxes, the mountains were only a thing, like a wall or a tree, a sun-baked ridge above the valley full of everything. Here the ground was nearly empty of buildings and the mountains were like people, huddled figures, blue and grey and while. So high. They were unmoving stone. But they tore East’s eyes from the boys in the van and the unidentifiable people motoring up the same road.

The interplay between the four boys, one of them East’s little brother, is fascinating too. However, the story peters out about halfway through, and the climax seems contrived. Some others in my book club disagreed about the climax, saying it was as shocking as the raid at the beginning, making it a suitable bookend.

Although East himself doesn’t seem to change much in the course of the book, our understanding of him deepens. He proves to be a truly original character, innocent and honorable in some ways, he can also be harsh and ruthless. It’s hard not to care about this young man as he tries to find a place for himself in the world.

Some members of my book club found the dialect hard to read. I was grateful that I’d gotten it as audio book. I find that I don’t have a lot of patience for reading dialect. I had to abandon one of our book club books a few years ago that was set in Ireland. It was just too hard to read.

As you can see from the excerpts above, the writing is amazing. A little more attention to story structure would have made this an outstanding novel.

Can you recommend a novel about a road trip (other than Kerouac’s books)?

Deep South, by Nevada Barr

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Looking to change up her life, Ranger Anna Pigeon accepts a promotion that takes her away from her beloved Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Driving deep into the tangled darkness, Anna finds her car sliding off the road. Then she learns that the directions she’d been following, provided by one of the rangers who will be working for her, had sent her down a little-used road that led nowhere. Is it a prank? Or something more ominous?

Anna struggles to adjust to her new role as chief in a culture where women are not expected to hold positions of authority. At the same time, the culture calls for men—even teenaged boys—to be respectful towards women. Anna stumbles across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a good introduction to Faulkner’s home state, the man who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then she stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder and it is up to her to solve it.

I’ve long been a fan of Barr’s series, that takes Pigeon to national parks around the country. I’d read this book a dozen years ago, but have been rereading—or rather listening to—the whole series. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few months, and these books make the miles fly by. It also seemed appropriate to reread these books starting last year, which was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service.

I remember hearing Barr speak, I think in 1998. She said that when she decided to write a mystery, she took a handful of her favorite mysteries and spent a long time studying and deconstructing them. Her process obviously worked well, because her first Anna Pigeon mystery, Track of the Cat, was a bestseller as have been the rest in the series.

As I’ve mentioned before, writers often debate about process. Is it better to plot out your story before starting to write or just start writing (known as “pantsing”, as in writing by the seat of your pants)? The answer is yes. Whatever works for you. And writers sometimes find that their process changes with each new writing project.

Another debate centers around training. Is it better to start by getting an MFA in creative writing or study the many craft books available? Or is it better to follow Barr’s path of reading intensively as a writer, studying books that have worked? Again, there are many paths to your goal. I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve taken a few workshops. I’ve learned a great deal from writing craft books as well as from reading as a writer (the original concept for this blog).

Perhaps most valuable of all has been engaging in critique groups. This involves not just reading a variety of work and having to think critically about it, but also hearing how other people think and react to the same work.

A friend recently said that she’d stopped reading Barr’s mysteries because they got too violent. I see what she means. As I’m proceeding through the series, it is not the violence of the murder, which is expected, but the violence Anna Pigeon encounters that strikes me.

Still, I love the descriptions of the parks, the complex characters both new and repeated, and Anna herself with all her doubts and strengths. She continues to hold my interest. And Barr does suspense well, so well that I find myself at the end of a roadtrip that seems to have taken no time at all.

Which national park–in the U.S. or another country–is your favorite?

Visions International, No.95, Spring 2017, edited by Bradley R. Strahan

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I first stumbled across this poetry magazine over a dozen years ago at the Baltimore Book Festival. What I love about it is the second word in the title. Visions solicits and publishes poems from all over the world. Strahan even travels to search out new poets.

It’s a small magazine, around 30 pages, but it packs a punch. This issue includes the work of poets from Slovenia, Dominican Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Chile, Macedonia, Iran, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.

Their homes are identified in the table of contents but not on the poems themselves. As a result, when I read the poems, I’m struck more with the universal elements than with trying to see aspects of another culture.

One of the things I like about this magazine is that the translators are credited equally with the original poets. I tried my hand at translation a few years ago. Before that, I’d always been grateful to have translations so I could read work that would otherwise be inaccessible to me. However, it seemed wrong for a translator to tamper too much with the original work.

Once I tried to do it myself, though, I changed my mind. I wanted to capture the music of the original, the sound as well as the sense. I wanted to hint at the nuances in the other language, the connotations and associations. It was hard. And I admit I couldn’t resist making it a little bit my own. Since then I have much more respect for the work translators do.

Each issue also has a featured poet, with several pages devoted to their work. In this issue the featured poet is J.S. Absher of Raleigh, NC. One of his poems, “The Past and Time to Come”, starts with a cow grazing in a meadow and moves through the lovely names of their four stomachs into a scene where a salesman is philosophising about time in a bar. Sounds odd perhaps, but the juxtaposition works.

Visions is closing in on its 100th issue, so they must be doing something right. Check it out.

Where do you encounter poetry? In song lyrics or books? In magazines or blogs?

By Cook or By Crook: A Five-Ingredient Mystery, by Maya Corrigan

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Mysteries are a genre in themselves, and there are numerous sub-genres. You can pick up a police procedural or a hard-boiled mystery. You might find a legal thriller, a paranormal, or a historical mystery. An extremely popular sub-genre is cozies, the sort of classic mysteries written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the puzzle is the important component and the grisly details are mostly off-stage.

This 2014 mystery is the first in a series and is both a cozy and a cooking mystery. Val has moved back to Bayport, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, ostensibly to persuade her grandfather to fix up and sell his large, old house and move to a retirement community. In reality, she’s hoping to make a new life for herself after a horrific car accident put an end to her career promoting cookbooks in New York City.

But there are plenty of snares for the uninitiated in a small town. Val is invited to the home of a new friend from the tennis club and finds her dead. Val gets ensnared in trying to solve the murder because the prime suspect is her cousin. Her investigation forces her to question her first impressions of the people she’s met in Bayport.

She herself becomes threatened when an SUV runs her off the road and there are mysterious sounds in the night. Some among the police suggest that it is just her imagination, but Val isn’t so sure.

I wanted a pleasant story to distract me during a challenging week and found it here, along with a few details of living on the Chesapeake Bay which is always nostalgic for me, but especially so just now.

The cooking aspect is quite fun, too, as Val tries to teach her grandfather to cook. As a bonus, several recipes are included in the book, one of which is for crab cakes. Well, like most Marylanders I have my own recipe for them, one that my mother jealously guarded, even if she did get it off an Old Bay tin.

I enjoyed the story, given the requirements I came in with. Yes, some of the clues were a bit broad, and I wished Val would have stood up for herself a bit more, but those are minor quibbles compared with the amiable diversion it gave me. The description of the town’s alliances and associations—and especially of teaching someone to eat hard crabs—were great fun.

What mystery sub-genres do you enjoy?

Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

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Chabon has become one of my favorite writers, ever since my book club persuaded me to pick up Kavalier & Clay. I like his essays even more than his novels. Their mix of personal experience, political and cultural trends, self-deprecating humor, and startling insight is fascinating. I find myself nodding in recognition as I read each one and am always moved by the time I get to the end.

In this 2009 collection, he delivers a multi-faceted portrait of a man, his dreams and fears, his joys and regrets. Many of the short pieces start from his experience as a father, as he questions what he himself has experienced as a brother, son and husband, and how that can inform his dealings with his sons and daughters.

In “William and I”, he recalls his father’s distrust of intimacy and resulting distance, both physical and emotional—typical of most fathers in the mid-twentieth century. Chabon considers the low bar set for being a good father and the “monumental open-endedness of the job” of being a mother, a double standard where he is praised for grocery shopping with his baby while such things are routine expectations of mothers. In striving to hold himself to the same standard as a mother would be judged by, he recognises that he, like they, will “fail every day in my ambition to do the work, to make it count, to think ahead and hang in there through the tedium and really see, really feel, all the pitfalls that threaten my children.”

Many of the essays take him back to his own childhood. He delves into his boyhood in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community halfway between Baltimore and Washington and an amazing place to be a child, especially in its early days. In his earlier essay collection, Maps and Legends, Chabon describes the thrill of being in at the creation of something entirely new and the creative impulses the experience unleashed in him. Here he looks at relationships, such as in “The Splendors of Crap” where he treats us to his relationship with the Megginson family and the creative adventures they got up to, many based on Planet of the Apes.

In these short pieces, Chabon often teases out some of the sources of his writing. In “The Story of Our Story” he reminds us of Scheherazade’s sister who was the one who actually asked for a story each night. He then goes on to describe the moment his brother Steve was brought home from the hospital. At five, Chabon had experiences under his belt, “But it was not until that morning, in early September 1968, that my story truly began. Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.”

Much of the joy I felt reading this collection came from the way Chabon takes common experiences and helps us see the depth and complexity within them. For example, in “Normal Time” he looks at the impulse to think of the chaos of daily life with its alarms and excursions as temporary, that things will get back to normal soon. There is some beautiful writing as he examines how time folds in on itself, much as each essay here does, before celebrating this life, this moment in all its glorious mess.

Even if you didn’t grow up, as I did, roaming the woods, reading comics, and watching Star Trek, you will find much to delight and intrigue you here.

Have you read an essay collection that enchanted and entertained you?

A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

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An au pair in Tunisia, involved in an affair with her employer, disappears leaving him heartbroken. Many years later, an elderly French couple on the vacation of a lifetime in Cairo are horribly murdered. Shortly after that, a man given the code name Holst is kidnapped off a Paris street.

While the reader is wondering how these In a seemingly unrelated incidents fit together, we are introduced to Thomas Kell.

A disgraced MI6 undercover agent, he has been out of work for eight months, mostly drinking and feeling sorry for himself when he gets a call from a former colleague. Jimmy Marquand brings Kell in from the cold in secret to find the newly appointed head of MI6 who has gone missing. Kell’s initial reluctance disappears when he learns that the person missing is Amelia Levene, someone he was close to.

This book is a great example of creating and maintaining suspense. Cumming demonstrates how to ask questions, answer some while asking more, and repeat again and again. This technique gives the reader moments of satisfaction along with a large helping of uncertainty. We are never completely satisfied until the end, when it all comes together in a tense burst of action.

Another brilliant aspect of this absorbing tale is the cast of characters Cumming assembles to assist—or challenge—Kell’s quest. In France, he is first put in touch with Bill and Barbara Knight, retired agents. The portrait of their marriage adds a touch of humor and wry recognition as first one and then the other show strengths and weaknesses through their actions and interactions with each other.

The team Kell puts together are also shown as full individuals, with their own quirks and background. Amelia herself is deftly portrayed as a woman who holds her secrets close. Her careful self-control makes her moments of revelation stand out. Even the villains of the piece and their henchmen are given full-length portraits. Having all these supporting characters fully characterised makes the story feel authentic. Even more importantly, ensuring we understand why they matter to our protagonist makes us interested in them.

One of the things that fascinated me was the characters’ relationship with their agencies. You would think that being part of a government bureaucratic organisation would be a binary matter: you either are or are not an employee. Yet many of these characters operate in a liminal area, balancing personal and professional motivations.

All in all, a good read. No surprise, since I’ve enjoyed other stories by this author. The immensely satisfactory ending gave me a rest from the ongoing suspense of today’s political situation. I look forward to checking out the later books in the Thomas Kell series.

What suspense novels have you enjoyed?

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

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Writers agonise over the first sentence of their novels, relentlessly reminded that it is critical to gaining the reader’s attention. The first sentence of this novel couldn’t be simpler:

Hi!

What better way to begin the dialogue between the characters and the reader, between ultimately the writer and the reader?

The speaker, whom we will later learn is a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, immediately launches the sort of questions one might ask any new acquaintance, interspersed with her own answers. The first question, though, is odd; she asks us if we know what a “time being” is.

Thus we know right off that we are immersed in a story where words and phrases hold multiple means and can change chameleon-like depending on their context. We get further proof when we learn the young woman’s name: Nao, pronounced “now”.

Her first-person narrative is interspersed with the third-person narrative of an older woman, who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach of the island in the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her husband Oliver. The woman, who is half-Japanese, is named Ruth, again a name with multiple meanings of her name not to mention the difficult pronunciation for speakers of Japanese.

The two stories intertwine as Ruth reads Nao’s journal, which is in the lunchbox along with some letters written in an outdated form of Japanese and another journal in French.

Nao’s voice is a stunning evocation of a teenaged girl’s idiom and headlong approach to handling her problems. The way she talks to her father, whom she blames for many of her problems, took me back to my own teen years and my fraught relationship with my parents. Ozeki manages to find a way to take us into Nao’s world and to make us care about her, despite what in other hands could be clichéd teen angst.

While I enjoyed Nao’s sections, I found myself most interested in Ruth’s story, perhaps because she is closer to me in age. Her tale is more nuanced, more complex. Ruth’s ways of dealing with her outsider status, her marriage, and her curiosity about Nao reveal a depth and care that I found irresistible. She sets out to learn about the letters and French journal, while also looking for proof that Nao is a real person.

Both stories are engaging and thought-provoking. This is a book about language and communication and ambiguity. Most of all it is a meditation about time. In the last third of the book, concepts of time and quantum theory begin to be reflected in the story, adding a further dimension of interest.

Everyone in my book club loved this book, a rare show of unanimity. We found much to discuss, particularly about the various parallels of character and plot, and about time itself.

Are you in a book club? Has your group read a book recently which everyone loved?

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, by Linda Schele and David Freidel

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Published in 1990, Schele and Freidel’s book draws on then-recent archeological and linguistic discoveries to paint a new portrait of the Mayan civilisation. While both emphasise that their work draws on past work and more recent collaborative efforts with others, their own experience and expertise adds authoritative weight to this book.

Then an art teacher, Schele first encountered the Mayan ruins as a tourist in 1970. Inspired by what she found there, she spent the next decades working with others to decipher the hieroglyphics on the remaining monuments. She says in the Prologue, “I had the understand how, why, when, and who had made these things.” The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings of the art, often with direct translations of the hieroglyphics.

Freidel brings an archeologist’s viewpoint. His first visit to the area was in 1971. He says, “I wanted to know what the relationship was between political power and religious belief among the ancient Maya.” This sociological approach, combined with the evidence derived from the translations, gives us factual descriptions interspersed with vignettes that enable us to participate in the daily life of these ancient peoples.

The Mayan civilisation lasted for thousands of years, starting from around 2,000 BC until the Spanish conquest in 1,697 CE. The account in this book takes us through the various phases of this civilisation, which was located in the Yucatan peninsula. The authors are careful to identify when they are speculating (and on what evidence) and when they are working from reliable information drawn both from the record left behind by the Mayans and from accounts left by other Mesoamerican peoples and the Spanish themselves.

Of course, there are still Mayan descendants, despite efforts by the Spanish to destroy their language and history and their subjugation by later groups. One of the most touching moments in the book comes when Schele gave a workshop to forty Maya men and women, helping them learn how to translate their own historical texts for the first time.

What I, as a reader and writer, loved most in this book was the extent to which the civilisation was built on literacy. I had not realised that these stone monuments were actually historical texts, nor how sophisticated the language, imagery, and ritual were.

When literacy began to fail, the civilisation faltered. While the near-simultaneous collapse of the Classic Mayan Civilisation in the 9th century CE continues to be an intriguing mystery, the authors are able to identify some factors. After that point, no more engravings were created. Literacy was “abandoned” along with the belief in their kings that had been their guiding philosophy. The authors see a strong correlation between the collapse and the failure of “historical kingship”, the long dynasties of kings memorialised in the monuments we see today.

One factor that resonated with me was income inequality. As the kingdoms prospered, a wealthy elite grew up who not only challenged the king’s power but hogged resources. In some kingdoms, where population growth exceeded the agricultural capacity, income inequality exacerbated the problem, with the elite building palaces on arable land and, based on physical evidence, having plenty to eat while everyone else starved.

Another factor that resonated was the endless warfare, with each kingdom trying to grab more territory. Proving himself a powerful warrior was essential to a king’s power.

After the collapse, a few small kingdoms rose in the southern regions who tried to claim kinship with the great kings of the past, as well as communities that “eschewed royal history”. In the north, there emerged “a cyclic form of government in which power became centralized at one regional capital, then dissolved to re-form elsewhere.” Small states continued to bicker amongst themselves until the Spanish arrived.

The lengthy footnotes, maps, glossary and bibliography testify to the amount of research that went into creating this clear and readable account of a vanished civilisation. This book is a great introduction to that world.

Have you ever visited the Mayan ruins or been curious about their civilisation?

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

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This was exactly the book I needed to read right now! I’ve tried to read it before and given up after twenty or so pages, bored by the lack of a story question and disliking the characters. Still, my friends persisted in telling me that it was a great book and I would love it. They were right.

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. His travails with the rough sailors and their captain are somewhat ameliorated by his friendship with a doctor who promises to cure him of his rare disease. From there we move to the story of an irresponsible young composer in 1931 Belgium, who has wasted his inheritance and tricked his way into the home of an aging and infirm yet still famous composer. Then we are on to others, moving forward in time to the present and beyond.

The structure reminds me of “Menelaiad”, a short story by John Barth. As we go further into the nested tales, the sequence of quotation marks increases. Then as we go back out they decrease. I once heard him read the story and he used a flip chart to show the growing series of quotations marks and then flipping back as we came out. I don’t want to pre-empt your own discovery of how Mitchell’s structure fits this story, so will not say more, only that you will not be disappointed.

Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing! Ian McEwan did something similar in Atonement, writing each section in a style that reflects a popular literary style of the period.

Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mitchell story takes things—ideas, trends, prejudices, movements—that we can see happening in our society today and carries them to a logical outcome, with an equally terrifying result. There was nothing in here that made me think, “That will never happen.”

I don’t want to give too much away. I can only tell you that I came away feeling both frightened and reinvigorated. More confident than ever in my path, I set aside discouragement and depression and put my shoulder to the wheel again. Thank you, David Mitchell. I will never forget what you have done here.

Is there a book—fiction or nonfiction—that you’ve read that gave you courage?