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Winter Reading 2016

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Reviewed here:

  • Not That Kind of Girl (Essays)
  • Laughing at My Nightmare (Memoir)
  • The Power of Silence (Ideas)
  • A God in Ruins (Novel) 
  • Nora Webster (Novel)
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking (Short Stories)

Not That Kind of Girl (Essays) by Lena Dunham, 2014

A geezer like me picks up this sort of book to try to get some sense of what’s going on in the world of young people. Is this really what life’s like for a smart young woman who’s made a big splash in showbiz? Not being a tv watcher, I’ve never seen Lena Dunham’s Girls, but I remember the shock among viewers when it first appeared. At last – or so the buzz went – somebody was daring to tell the truth about young women’s attitudes to their sexuality and their careers.

Occasionally during my reading of Not That Kind of Girl, I found myself asking: would any of us be reading any of this if it weren’t so sexually explicit? Perhaps not. But maybe that’s no indictment of the book. We’re reading it – and viewing her tv show – precisely because she is saying things that we haven’t heard before. Like any good writer, she’s taking us into areas that are new to us. The fact that her subject matter includes lots of sex shouldn’t automatically make it something that we high-minded elders would disdain.

No question, though, that some of Ms. Dunham’s frankness makes me squirm. You would not want to imagine your daughter – or your granddaughter – in some of the situations she describes. For the most part, though, she’s not revealing anything especially outr. It’s just that she talks about sex – the casual kind and the kind that comes with various boyfriends – without any of the reticence that somebody of my generation might expect. It seems inevitable to me, then, that a sly joke is intended in the title of the book. While that phrase is usually intended to mean that someone isn’t promiscuous or loose in her morals, Ms. Dunham appears to be challenging me to protest that she is that kind of girl. And yet, by the time you’ve heard everything she has to say, you might find yourself thinking that maybe Ms. Dunham wants you to see that, in ways that matter most, she isn’t that kind of girl.

Ms. Dunham communicates so effectively that you can readily see why she’s a successful scriptwriter. Not this this text is loaded with punch lines. Her humour sneaks up on you. Much of it is self-deprecating, as in this reference to a boyfriend who "made me ask some larger questions about the universe that I had been ignoring in favor of buying US Weekly the moment it hit the stands every Wednesday." Talking about one of the lowest points of her life, she says she "gained weight like it was a viable profession." At the age of fourteen, she says, "I had recently colored my hair and bought a satin tube top, a transition I considered to be evidence of irreversible maturity." And sometimes the humour comes in a mode that might be called the reverse of self-deprecating. Remembering herself as something of a loner, an outsider in grade school, she rejoiced when one teacher saw her as she felt she was: "achingly brilliant, misunderstood, full of novellas and poems and well-timed jokes."

About the origins of Girls, Ms. Dunham says the network told her they wanted to see the members of her age group and their concerns in graphic detail. "If I was going to write honestly about twenty-something life, sex was a topic I’d have to address head-on." The sex she’d seen in movies and on tv up to that point, she says, always struck her as some gooey, mushy business that took place in some warmly lit haven where two people achieved mutual orgasm "by breathing on each other’s faces." The sex in her show, she tells us, had to reflect the less glamorous reality.

That leads her to comment on what it’s like to be naked and simulate sexual intercourse with a crew of people standing around. Actors who do that typically tend to shuck it off, claiming it’s just an ordinary job. No it’s not, insists Ms. Dunham. "It’s fucking weird. Yes, it’s just a job, but most people’s jobs don’t consist of slamming your vagina against the flaccid nylon-wrapped penis of a guy wearing massive amounts of foundation to conceal his assne [sic]." And off-screen sex isn’t always a lot better, she admits: "Every sexual encounter has felt like a first visit with a new general practitioner. Awkward, burdensome, a little chilly."

All that flippancy about sex notwithstanding, Ms. Dunham is capable of showing a kind of wisdom that you might have expected from somebody as conventional as Ann Landers. Here she’s reflecting – ruefully – on the fact that she once liked a guy who treated her badly: "When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself." Two of the best items in a list of "Things I’ve Learned from My Mother" are: #11 "Respect isn’t something you command through intimidation and intellectual bullying. It’s something you build through a long life of treating people how you want to be treated and focusing on your mission." and #15: "Family first. Work second. Revenge third."

In an age where there can be a lot of mixed-messages about gender in the media, Ms. Dunham’s telling the straight facts about her own attitude has a bracing effect. She admits that she’s jealous of many male characteristics, if not of the men themselves. What she envies, mostly, is the way they seem so free of the people-pleasing instincts that she sees as a curse on her own female nature. This enables men to pursue their goals without always bending over backwards to try to make sure they’re not offending anybody. "But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it."

As for that re-defining, Ms. Dunham has a beef against certain kinds of feminists. In an imaginary email, one of a series never sent, she says: "I understand that you come from a generation of women who had to work hard to be heard, but for you to impugn my feminism and act as though I’m a scourge upon women everywhere, just because I refuse to spread your particular agenda? That’s dark, and it’s not what you fought for."

In one of the most touching sections of the book, Ms. Dunham tells about her reaction when her younger sister, Grace, came out as gay. Just as a parent or a sibling might have generations ago, Ms. Dunham experienced confusion, sadness, dismay at Grace’s revelation. It’s sobering to be reminded that someone as open-minded as Ms. Dunham, someone so plugged into the current scene, could be thrown by such a thing. However, she quickly moved on to a mood of acceptance and compassion, perhaps more quickly than some old fogies might.

Probably the best chapter in the book – certainly the most vehement one – is Ms. Dunham’s take on the way a talented young woman gets treated by the showbiz moguls. While she has a lot of rage to unload, she does it in a way that makes it both amusing and less abrasive than it would be if she went for a direct attack. Instead, she imagines what she’s going to say in her memoir when she’s eighty. That gives her a licence to say things that might otherwise be unsayable. Her main point is that the Big Shots are pleasant and condescending to you, as long as they think they can manipulate you, as long as you can contribute in your own small way to their own hugely important careers. As soon as you begin to look anything like a threat to their prestige, you become a pushy bitch whose ambitions far exceed your talent -- as they see it.

What strikes almost an incongruously poignant note in Ms. Dunham’s tirade is that, even though she’s pretending to tell us this from the perspective of an eighty-year-old who doesn’t give a damn, you can see that she’s still struggling. Knowing full well how unfair and degrading the system is, in order to be true to her creative self, she has to do all the kow-towing required. The title of this chapter, though, implies that she doesn’t go all the way: "I Didn’t Fuck Them but They Yelled at Me."

It would be unfair to Ms. Dunham, if a person reviewing her book didn’t note, that in addition to her wit and her wisdom, she can serve up some fine writing:

I can never be who I was. I can simply watch her with sympathy, understanding, and some measure of awe. There she goes, backpack on, headed for the subway or the airport. She did her best with her eyeliner. She learned a new word she wants to try out on you. She is ambling along. She is looking for it.

Not all of the sections of the book, however, are as engaging as some others. I skipped about ten pages where she gives her menus for dieting. Presumably, there are some good jokes in there for people who like to pour over that kind of thing. Reminiscences about summer camps don’t offer a lot more than you’d find in almost any sensitive kid’s memories about all that. A chapter on therapy reports on some strange incidents but it’s mainly interesting as a look into what therapy is like for a child and a teen, in case you happen to be wondering about that.

In one chapter, Ms. Dunham talks about her on-going neuroses – mainly thoughts about death. It’s not that she has anything particularly startling to say about the subject. I suppose the point is that it’s unusual that a woman in her twenties would think about it so much. She admits that if she lives long enough to read the chapter when she’s old, "I’ll probably be appalled at my own audacity to think that I have any sense of what death means, what it brings to light, what it feels like to live with the knowledge that it is coming."

If you’ve twigged to the common sense underlying Ms. Dunham’s smart-ass remarks, you might not be surprised by the book’s ending. It looks at various ways that a young woman might try to escape herself – like arriving home at 6 a.m. in a haze of pills and remembering she’s left her valuables at the home of some guy who’s dead to the world in his narcotic sleep. After enough fiascos like that, she says, you start learning not to put yourself in situations you’d like to run away from. "At work you’ll realize that you’ve spent the entire day in your body, really in it, not imagining what you look like to the people who surround you but just being who you are." If you do find yourself in situations where you have to run, "...run back to yourself, like that bunny in Runaway Bunny runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud."

 

Laughing at My Nightmare (Memoir) by Shane Burcaw, 2014

The media are filled with sob stories these days. Everybody wants to tell us how difficult their life is, how heroically they have triumphed over their disadvantages, how deserving of our sympathy they are. Everybody wants to portray themselves as a victim of some kind. It would be hard, though, to think of anybody whose life is more difficult and who is more courageous – in his unique way – than Shane Burcaw.

In the first year after his birth in the early 1990s, Shane was diagnosed as having spinal muscular atrophy. This means that, over the span of his life, his muscles are getting progressively weaker and wasting away. Nothing can be done to strengthen them. There is no cure. At the point of the publication of this book, Mr. Burcaw can do hardly anything, in the physical sense, for himself. He cannot turn over in bed; he needs help with toilet functions. In one chapter he describes the moment when he discovered that his jaws were getting so weak that he had to start using his hands to help his jaws with the chewing process. Since his eating uses up more calories than he can take in that way, it’s impossible for him to gain weight. He has had to agree, then, to having a feeding tube inserted through his nose during the nights, so that nourishment can be introduced directly into his stomach.

And yet, Mr. Burcaw is such a lively, personable, funny young man, that over half a million fans follow his blog. He has started a non-profit organization to spread a message about meeting adversity with humour and to help provide equipment for people with muscular dystrophy. These initiatives have made him the subject of several documentaries and he frequently heads out from his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on speaking tours.

No matter what the title implies, though, Mr. Burcaw’s life is not a barrel of chuckles. Some of the reading is difficult. Take your pick of which chapter would be the toughest for you. The one about the excruciating pain following spinal surgery to correct his scoliosis? The time when he drove his wheelchair too fast in an "adaptive" phys ed class, with the result that it crashed, fell over on him and broke his femur? The time when a ruthless physiotherapist ignored Mr. Burcaw’s protests and stretched his leg to the point that his hamstring was badly torn?

For me, the most painful chapter was less about injury and more about the profound horror of his body’s simply not being able to continue with one of the basic functions of living. He’d been dealing with bronchitis and Mr. Burcaw woke up early one morning, unable to breathe because his lungs were too weak to expel the phlegm that blocked his airways. His parents came running in response to his strangled cries and performed all the necessary procedures, but it wasn’t until after several minutes of panic – and a sense of imminent death on Mr. Burcaw’s part – that the phlegm finally cleared and he was again able to breathe easily.

In must be emphasized, though, that the point of Mr. Burcaw’s book is not to make you feel sorry for him. In that regard, it seems significant to me that the first place where the book brought on my tears was the section where Mr. Burcaw was talking about somebody else’s plight. When, as a kid, he was in hospital for surgery on his spine, young Shane’s room was filled with gifts and balloons from family and friends. While practising driving his wheelchair in the hospital corridor, he passed a dark room where a little boy lay alone, attached to wires that were keeping him alive. When the nurse told Shane that the boy had no family to visit him, Shane asked her to take some of his balloons to the other kid. "Even at that naive age, I knew the balloons would not solve his problems, but I hoped that they would at least make him smile."

It’s not tears for himself that Mr. Burcaw wants to elicit, though, it’s laughter. One of the funniest sections of the book is the one where Mr. Burcaw and a pal tried to connect with some attractive young female in one of those Internet chat rooms. Mr. Burcaw knew that it wasn’t easy to make friends when you look "like a starving Ethiopian child with a balloon head who basically drives a robot," so he remained offscreen while his buddy established initial contact with a girl. When it came time to introduce Mr. Burcaw, he wasn’t prepared for his friend’s telling the girl that Shane was mentally disabled. There was nothing for him to do but gawk at the camera with a vacant expression, even when his pal persuaded the girl to show her breasts to this poor jerk who might otherwise never see any. When the girl complied, the flabbergasted boys quickly shut off the computer:

We sat there stunned for a lengthy amount of time. Then we decided we were the worst people on earth and promised never to tell anyone.

Typically, hilarity is Mr. Burcaw’s reaction when some fiasco has left him physically discombobulated and completely stripped of his dignity. While attending a college talk by Michelle Obama, Mr. Burcaw was accompanied by a friend named Lily, but she was inclined to accept the officials’ veto on her sitting with Mr. Burcaw in the section reserved for handicapped people. He tells us that he "promised Lily that if she didn’t do everything in her power to sit with me, I would tell the secret service that she was planning an assassination and have her removed from the venue. That’s what friends are for." At the end of the talk, people keen to meet the First Lady swarmed over the area at the front of the hall where the handicapped people were seated. Unable to fend for himself, Mr. Burcaw was nearly crushed to death. HIs feeling on looking back:

I didn’t die, which is a plus! And let’s be honest, if I had died in the chaos, it would’ve made an awesome story and the Obamas probably would’ve called my family to offer condolences, which is something not many people can say has happened to them.

On top of his other accomplishments, Mr. Burcaw shows himself to be a good writer. Here’s the sentence he crafts on the subject of his screams of pain when he was lifted and moved after breaking his femur: "I can’t even describe the sound I made in human words because the letters needed to create them have not been invented yet." One of the ways that Mr. Burcaw’s writing prowess shows up most notably is in the chapter-based structure of the book. Each chapter is short and snappy, focussing on one incident or one aspect of his life. He jumps right into each subject in a direct, breezy way. There’s no build-up to drama or sentimentality. He just "tells it like it is." Mind you, there’s the occasional sentence that strikes me as a bit awkward. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that sounds ok when spoken but doesn’t work as well on the page.

Which raises the question of precisely how Mr. Burcaw does his writing. Since he has so little use of his hands, I assume some sort of dictation is involved, possibly using one of those machines that transcribes the spoken word into printed text; I kept waiting for Mr. Burcaw to explain just how he does it.

Among the many subjects he covers, there’s more than you might expect about his sex life and his romances with a couple of girlfriends. And about toileting and bathroom functions, which require the assistance of friends and family. Mr. Burcaw readily admits that he depends on other people for a lot. In school he has usually managed to have a friend nearby to help him. As for his parents and his younger brother, he’s unstinting in his praise of them and his thanks for, not just their constant efforts on his behalf, but, more importantly, their encouraging him to live his life to the full.

Like every human being, though, he has his down times and his grudges. He’ll occasionally voice a complaint, as, for instance, when it comes to choosing a new wheelchair: the professionals always feel they know what’s best for him, no matter how persistently he tries to enlighten them about his needs. Usually, Mr. Burcaw’s comments about his low points lead to some sobering insights for the rest of us. He once joined a baseball league for handicapped kids and it came to him as a shock that he was allowed to make the tour of the bases in his wheelchair while everybody shouted encouragement, nobody making the slightest effort to get him out. "It was the most degrading and unrewarding feeling I had ever felt up to that point in my life."

In a section that I found even more thought-provoking, Mr. Burcaw tells about the time at a summer camp for handicapped kids where another kid had exactly the same disease as he. It seemed to Shane that the niceness the counsellors were showing to that obnoxious kid was completely phony. But that led Shane to wonder if he was duped in thinking that the kindness people showed to him was always authentic. Now he had to face the unpleasant thought that maybe it was "the fake ‘you’re in a wheelchair, so I’m being nice to you’ type of inter-action."

One of his worst times was when he had to submit to the feeding tube. That, he says, "was the ultimate symbol of losing my fight against the disease, at least in my mind." But Mr. Burcaw doesn’t spend long on those moods. He’s all about celebrating the good things in this life. One of the most important lessons that he’s learned is that it’s pointless trying to fake "normalcy." Indeed, it’s by revealing who he truly is and allowing people into the privacy of his life with all its drawbacks and humiliations – as well as its joys and achievements – that he has had such a positive effect on so many people.

If any of us ever needed a reminder that a worthwhile and enjoyable life is totally possible for someone who seems extremely disadvantaged, and unlucky – this is the book that will do it.

 

The Power of Silence (Ideas) by Graham Turner, 2012

We live in a noisy world. Muzak in stores and elevators. Video advertising blaring at us everywhere we go. Announcements on public transit. TVs clamouring for our attention in restaurants. Constant pinging and buzzing from our various communication devices.

You tend to forget that there still are places in this world where quiet reigns.

Graham Turner, a British journalist, set out to find some of them. Not surprisingly, he visited monasteries, convents and retreat centres. In that context, a lot of the big names noted for meditation in current Roman Catholic circles turn up: Lawrence Freeman, Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating. Mr. Turner made a pilgrimage to the hermitage of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, famous for introducing the wisdom of the East into Western Christianity in the 20th century. But Mr. Turner shows that the Catholics don’t have a monopoly on silence. He discusses its meaning with Anglicans and Quakers. As well, there are visits to Zen communities, Transcendental Meditation centres and establishments run by mystics in the Hindu and Muslim traditions.

Mr. Turner’s consultations with these many experts establish convincingly that silence forces us to come face to face with our true natures. Although speech is a valuable and necessary means of the communication that’s an important a part of our human lives, words can often – paradoxically – become a sort of carapace within which we hide. We can build walls of defence around ourselves by means of words, thus preventing not only others, but even ourselves from accessing our inner truths. Hence the need for retreats and such to enable us to discover how powerful silence can be.

So powerful, even, as to bring about profound personal transformation. Mr. Turner talks to a convicted murderer who, through his meditation in prison, has undergone a remarkable conversion. In Lebanon, Mr. Turner met two men who had been arch enemies during the civil war but have since achieved peace and reconciliation through participation in a group of spiritual seekers whose meetings include long periods of silence.

The parts of the book that I found most intriguing, though, are the ones where Mr. Turner explores situations and circumstances where you might not think silence rated highly. Making music, for instance. Mr. Turner’s conversations with several faculty members and students at the Royal College of Music, in London, England, provide impressive evidence that silent pauses in performances are extremely important in conveying a composer’s intentions. Then, there’s theatre. Granted, the works of playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett have shown us the importance of gaps in the flow of talk, but who ever stopped to think that some of the most dramatic moments on stage occur when nobody is saying anything? Mr. Turner presents many examples of productions where that has happened. As the staff at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art explain, it’s crucial for young actors to learn how to show an audience what’s happening in a character’s thoughts without the actor’s having to say anything.

Maybe the place where one would be least likely to see the value of silence is the office of the psychotherapist. We tend to think of psychotherapy as a lot of talk. Don’t we, in fact, refer often to the process as talk therapy? But Mr. Turner cites several therapists who insist that the most important moments in the process are the silent ones. That’s when the unexpected is hatching. It’s often after a moment of waiting silently that a patient will blurt out something that wasn’t anticipated, that wasn’t previously thought to be part of the agenda but which will turn out to be crucial.

Much as I like the subject of this book and appreciate the many applications of silence that Mr. Turner explores – after all, I consider myself something of a devotee of the art of silence – the book, as a whole, leaves me somewhat dissatisfied. I’m not sure why.

Maybe it has something to do with the limitations of journalism. In each chapter, Mr. Turner approaches his interviewees with the earnest mein of the professional scribe. He elicits interesting quotes and revealing insights. But there’s something slick about it all. Let’s say Mr. Turner is interviewing somebody who leads a life mostly in silence: he comes away with three or four pages of material, and I’m thinking: can he actually probe to the essence of such a subject in a few pages? On the other hand, Mr. Turner may interview a denizen of our frantic world who has just come back from a silent retreat. This person will tell him that he or she feels refreshed, has a new slant on life, feels much calmer, more at peace. Fine! But how significant, in an overall study of silence, is that person’s immediate response to the experience? Might it not be very short-lived? Wouldn’t it mean more if we could find out how long that person’s peace of mind lasted?

Because of content like that, a lot of the chapters strike me as writing that would work well enough as light reading in a newspaper or magazine but it's somewhat lacking in the kind of depth one expects from a book. We feel a bit like tourists being taken on visits to various oases of silence. An enjoyable exercise, but so what? The book might have more impact if it conveyed the impression of a burning quest on the part of the author. That element does emerge in the final chapter, which explains Mr. Turner’s initial interest in the subject. But a sense of his being personally engaged isn’t strong enough to carry us through the book and make us care about his search.

On the other hand, it could be that the fundamental problem with the book is that Mr. Turner is forced to use words to try to explain the meaning of something that is essentially wordless.

Still, the sense of the book as being superficial is at least partly due to Mr. Turner’s writing style. He resorts to journalistic ticks that become annoying through over-use. For instance, in long quotes from some person, he’ll provide, as a link between paragraphs in the quotes, "he [or she] went on." This sounds affected, as compared to the much simpler and perfectly acceptable, "he [or she] said." Also, sometimes when Mr. Turner has concluded a section of long quotes from some source, he’ll move to quotes from another source with the introductory statement "she [or he] agreed." This makes it sound as though the two speakers were in dialogue. But they clearly weren’t. The device looks phony, a too obvious attempt by a writer to impose a continuous flow on his material. These techniques tend to make you think of him as just another hack cobbling together a lot of information, not a profound thinker. And your confidence in a writer isn’t much enhanced by the appearance of cumbersome sentences – such as the following – that a more careful writer would have tried to arrange in a more effective way:

Anyone who still believes that silence is a complete waste of time might be given pause by what a small and unusual group of people who live in and around Beirut have been trying to do for their troubled country on the basis of what comes to them in silence.

And then there’s the look of the book. I don’t often have occasion to make a complaint like this, but there’s something off-putting about the appearance of the text on the pages of this one. The print is too dark, the pages are too white and there’s too much space between the lines. You can’t help wondering if this is the result of some computer technology that has skipped the more careful stages of design that go into the publication of most books. The publisher in this case is Bloomsbury, and you’d think they’d be a reputable firm that would produce elegant products. Why is it, then, that this one looks as if it was done on the cheap?

Note: George Prochnick's In Pursuit of Silence, reviewed on DD page Summer Reading 2011, might also interest devotees of this subject.

 

A God in Ruins (Novel) by Kate Atkinson, 2015

If you're one of those people -- like me -- who avoids the dust cover copy on books, and if you haven’t read any of the blurbs about this one, it can take you a while to figure out what the story’s about. You’ve got a young air force pilot in the Second World War. Then you’ve got a little boy traipsing about the countryside with his aunt, a novelist who’s writing children’s fiction featuring a character based on the nephew. Then you’ve got some upperclass parents: the mother taking off for an adulterous fling in a hotel, the father flirting with an arty woman who lives on the adjoining estate. Then a bad-tempered mother at the beach with two unruly kids and a flighty husband. Whose story is this? Who are we supposed to be following? How are all these people linked?

On the other hand, if you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (which I haven’t), you’re probably quite familiar with this gang. They’re the members of the Todd family. One of the daughters, Ursula, was, apparently, the centre of attention in that book. Now we’re focussing mostly on Teddy, her brother, the RCAF pilot. The story flips back and forth in time, covering in a sort of hop-scotch style the whole of his life: his adventures as a little boy, his ramblings in Europe as a young man, his attempts to be a writer, his RCAF experience, his marriage, life as a teacher, a widower, then as a grandfather, finally old age and death. (No Spoiler Alert required here, as the general outlines of the story are known early on, given the jumbled chronology of the narration.) The leaping back and forth in time seems quite appropriate for dealing with the memories of an older person.

My impression of Ms. Atkinson’s novels that I’ve read is that some are good and some not so good. This one is good if what you want is a sprawling, leisurely read through the span of some inter-mingled British lives. The different eras are well represented, as is the ambiance of the various settings. Teddy’s character is engaging. We almost always find his thoughts interesting; in a way that makes us feel empathy with him, he seems rather puzzled and amazed at the way life unfolds around him. Teddy has, of course, the stoic courage that we associate with the classic war hero but it’s tinged with enough self-doubt and curiosity about life that he doesn’t come off as the typical stiff-lipped military man. The sense of his life as a journey leading constantly into unknown territory is conveyed. The adventure and suspense of bombing missions is felt. Ms. Atkinson is capable of writing an especially touching scene, as in Teddy’s visit to the family of a fallen comrade. And the situation of a person facing a fatal illness is conveyed with realism and compassion.

However, many aspects of the book tried my patience, leading me, therefore, to consign it to the less good category of Ms. Atkinson’s writings.

To begin with, the book exhibits what I call a lazy style of narration. For instance, the narrator resorts to brackets far too often, giving the impression of a chatty person who’s dying to pass on some little tidbit but who can’t be bothered to find a place to put it within the text. 

And, then, there are the instances where the narrator jumps in to tell us what we should know about a character, rather than letting us discern it for ourselves. This is what I call the "Too Much Information" tick.

  • In one case, the author tells us a person spoke in order to mask "the shame and remorse she felt at her own deplorable behaviour."
  • We’re told that some girls were "enormously fond" of their father.
  • An ornery housekeeper is described as a "bottomless source of information, most of it false or misleading, unfortunately." But we’re getting that scene from the point of view of a little boy. How would he know that the info was false?
  • Another scene depicts the same little boy with his father who’s tripping out on drugs. The scene is written as if the kid knows what’s up with the dad, but how could he?

Another thing that bothers me about the book is what I would call the melodramatic element. Ms. Atkinson frequently has Teddy noting that whatever’s going on around him, no matter how momentous, pales in comparison to his war experience. Ok, fine. I can well imagine that that would be the reaction of a war survivor. But we begin to become a bit impatient with Teddy when he keeps making that sort of observation. Or, to put it more accurately, we’re too aware of the writer pulling Teddy’s strings. In a similar vein, the author far too often refers to all the deaths that have occurred in the war. Teddy keeps thinking of comrades in the war: dead, all dead! Yes, we know they died. Yes, we know war is terrible. To keep harping on that begins to seem like a cheap ploy for effect. There’s something similar about the title of the book. Granted, it strikes a note that catches your attention, but what does it really mean? In my reading of the book, it never did come clear that any particular "God" (or "god"?) was being referred to.

That ringing title raises the issue of the self-consciously literary quality of the book. Ms. Atkinson frequently has her characters thinking of poetic allusions. We get Blake, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Milton and others. Ms. Atkinson’s characters might well be thinking spontaneously of these lines of poetry but, somehow or other, the inclusion of so many of them seems to me to show that the writer is trying to sprinkle her book with poetic glitter. Teddy and his sister get into philosophical discussions about war that are stagey. The supposedly profound – but far too predictable – question is raised: how could this enemy, Germany, be the country of Bach and Beethoven? Towards the end of the book, the impending death of Teddy is treated with tremendous literary flourish. This could be considered wonderfully creative writing or, as it seemed to me, fatuous nonsense about something that is essentially dismal and depressing.

In an author’s note, Ms. Atkinson says that the work is about fiction and how it functions. I suppose this is why there’s considerable ambiguity thrown in at the last minute about some of the main points of the story. Ms. Atkinson seems to be raising the question: do we construct stories to try to make sense of our lives? What if the stories had different resolutions? I gather that this playing with opposing narratives was one of the main features of Life After Life. I can see that that could be a worthwhile literary exercise, but the device comes so late in the day in A God in Ruins that it seems like a gratuitous afterthought, meaningful only to people who are familiar with the previous novel which dealt with some of the same people.

A more damaging fault with the book is the character of Viola, Teddy’s daughter. She is a spiteful, odious person; there is never any pleasure in reading about her. Ms. Atkinson tries to offer some explanation for Viola’s vindictiveness in the fact that her mother died when Viola was about twelve years old. Ok, most of us would be willing to cut Viola a bit of slack on that score but it doesn’t come anywhere near excusing the extent of her narcissism as an adult. In one instance, her behaviour towards a demented senior is irresponsible and unconscionable. Ms. Atkinson tries to offer Viola a sort of finishing-line redemption but why would we believe any such thing of such an awful person?

In some ways, though, Viola is just the most striking example of the worst thing about the book: the British class-consciousness that permeates the whole story. It’s the old problem with so much British writing: there’s us and there’s them. A nursing home where Teddy ends up is vile. The residence is smelly, the food is ghastly, the staff members are inept and most of the residents are idiots. Clearly, this is not any place that a person should be forced to endure. Granted, we’re seeing this place from Viola’s point of view and it goes without saying that she would find it despicable, but the snobbishness towards the place is symptomatic of a tone that runs through the book.

  • In the rural school where Teddy teaches for a time, there is, necessarily, the smell of the "unwashed necks" of the kids. Couldn’t anything nice be said about those pupils?
  • A town near the rural school is shoddy and soot-soiled.
  • A commune that Viola lives in for a while is absurdly horrible, as is everybody in it. Maybe a touch of satire is intended here but it’s more like a sledgehammer blow.
  • An office at an adoption agency has cheap and uncomfortable furniture.
  • An old woman, we’re told, wears "a handful of diamond rings, grey and cloudy with dirt." A few pages later, we learn that the cheap ring Teddy had bought his wife (for a hotel tryst before they were married) sometimes left "an unattractive circle of black" on her finger.

It’s as though these people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

One way to illustrate the problem with this kind of writing might be to compare it with another writer’s work. Take Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. His narrator encounters lots of people he doesn’t like, people who are irritating in many ways. But you never get the feeling that he dismisses them as beneath his consideration. He always sees them as individuals who have something interesting about them, no matter how much they annoy him. With Ms. Atkinson, however, you get the impression that she is simply falling back on an accepted British attitude: there are huge swaths of the unwashed public that are simply unacceptable to any decent person like us. The syndrome seems to be so deeply imbedded in much of the literature of British culture that good writers like Ms. Atkinson don’t even notice that they’re buying into it.

 

Nora Webster (Novel) by Colm Tibn, 2014

We first encounter our eponymous heroine at the door of her house as she’s saying goodbye to people who have come to express their condolences on the death of her husband. A neighbour of Nora’s is commiserating with her about the steady stream of mourners. It must be annoying, the neighbour opines. But Nora says she knows that these callers mean well.

A widow in her mid-forties, Nora is left with four children: two girls in their teens who are away at school and two prepubescent boys who are still at home. Through the subsequent 373 pages, we accompany Nora in the months and years, as she adjusts to life without her husband. The time period isn’t clearly established at the outset, at least not for me. But I did eventually deduce that we were in the 1960s. That was more or less confirmed when one of Nora’s sons expressed interest in a "moon mission," which I took to be a reference to the Apollo landing of 1969.

Mr. Tibn’s re-creation of that era brims with the life of a town in County Wexford, Ireland. This is apparently the same place where Mr. Tibn’s novel, Brooklyn, starts. In fact, one of the townspeople in Nora Webster recounts the local lore that is more or less the outline of Brooklyn. But that’s just a footnote to Nora’s story, which includes things like taking singing lessons, hoping to join a choir, dealing with problems regarding the schooling of her sons, worrying about the political activism of one of her daughters, and consuming many cups of tea with folk who drop in on her.

Occasionally, we get short passages that convey her unique take on things. As here, where she’s reflecting on her sons:

She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her way of watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years.

And this, on her own state:

So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.

Apart from passages like these, Nora’s not an easy person to get to know. In spite of her comment, at the opening of the book, about the kindness of people who have come to express their sympathy, Nora tends to stand back and view people with a cold, critical eye. She seems to find that most people have ulterior motives for their apparent benevolence; she views people, on the whole, as scheming and self-seeking. You could see her as something of a contrarian. Much of the time she listens to what people are saying without offering any response and when she does, it’s often a dissenting opinion. You get the impression of her as an intelligent, strong-willed person. It doesn’t bother her to be aware of the fact that people often preferred her husband to her. It’s hard, then, to understand why such a sensible woman, in a discussion about her daughter’s new clothes, insists that a certain outfit is not acceptable for mass in the parish church. It also seems odd when our noble Nora tells a blatant lie to discomfit a man who appears to be two-timing a friend of hers.

Nora, with all her contradictions, is interesting. It’s probably thanks to my curiosity about her that I did finish the book. But reading about her kids didn’t give me the kind of pleasure that comes when you’re getting to know real individuals. The two girls are practically indistinguishable, except for their different names and occupations. The boys are slightly more distinct from each other, but only in so far as the author tells us about their interests and their problems. They never stand forth on their own as recognizable persons. When these children speak, none of them has a unique, characteristic sound.

On the other hand, some people in the book jump out as being overdrawn. A gorgon who supervises an office where Nora gets a job comes across as something of a caricature of the boss from hell. It’s hard to imagine such a person’s antics being tolerated in any real business setting. Some of the melodrama surrounding this woman seems ridiculous. A tale about a disgruntled employee’s filling the woman’s coat pockets with dog dirt seems to belong in some farcical work by a writer like Maeve Binchey. In another storyline, a friend of Nora’s, who runs a quiz game – it seems to be something like those Trivial Pursuit competitions in pubs – is weirdly strict and officious about her job. On top of which, her manner provokes hostility from spectators at an event which, one would think, was meant to encourage conviviality.

Much as I wanted to love this book, it never did gel for me. The problem isn’t necessarily that we often have to sit through chit-chat and backstory regarding local affairs. Or that Nora’s story is too quiet, too quotidian. That sort of thing can work excellently in little gems like those by Anita Brookner. And there were times when Nora Webster felt like it might turn out to be something like Virginia Woolf’s sublime Mrs. Dalloway, in which we get a woman’s teeming thoughts about the life around her. But there isn’t enough focus on Nora’s inner life; we get too few of the passages that take us into her soul. And many parts of the book lack narrative urgency. Things move in a slow, leisurely way; there’s no compelling momentum. Often, the author doesn’t bother to create scenes and dialogue with a sense of immediacy, but takes a rather detached tone, that involves formulations like "The following Sunday was her last day of freedom before she began work...." and "For a few hours that afternoon she watched the boys...." Rather than experiencing these scenes as if you were present at them, you’re aware of the author telling you about them.

Even if a reader were willing to endure this style for the sake of finding out what happens (after all, that’s one of the primary lures of fiction), other aspects of the story make the reading somewhat dissatisfying. Many scenes have no pay-off. A trip that Nora takes to Spain with her aunt amounts to nothing, other than that a hotel employee offers Nora a little bedroom in the basement of the hotel so that she can escape her aunt’s snoring. That same aunt had taken care of Nora’s boys during the months when their dad was dying and there’s some suggestion that something traumatic may have happened to one of them at that time. But there’s no follow-up to that hint; we never find out about anything dastardly that might have gone down. At one point, there’s a lot of worry about one of Nora’s daughters. The family hasn’t been able to contact her for several days and the fear is that she might have been hurt or arrested in a violent demonstration in Dublin. But no, it turns out that she was merely staying with a friend. Almost at the very end of the novel, Nora has a surrealistic encounter with a messenger who seems to indicate that there is some trouble in store for one of her sons. Again, there’s no follow-up. (Are we supposed to be waiting for the sequel?) Even more annoying, the messenger keeps making ominous references to "the other one" but we have no idea what that’s about. Neither, apparently, does Nora.

Granting that Colm Tibn is a gifted and acclaimed writer, one has to wonder what’s going on with this novel. Is it an attempt to fly in the face of our expectations of fiction? Is it meant as a novel that doesn’t adhere to the customary fictional standards? Is Mr. Tibn trying to show us that life is really just a bunch of stuff that happens and that our trying to make it conform to literary norms amounts to falsehood? I could accept that unresolved quality of the story as a legitimate experiment, if it weren’t for other problematic aspects of the book. It makes you wonder about the publishing of a book like this. Could it be that, when a writer has achieved such fame and distinction as Mr. Tibn has, a book of his appears in public whether or not it’s ready?

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking (Short Stories) by Colum McCann, 2015

This one came home from the library more or less by accident; I’d thought it was a novel. I don’t usually select collections of short stories. Short fiction is fine for sporadic reading – on subways, in doctors’ offices and such. For my evenings, I prefer longer works that can keep me engaged for several nights in a row.

However, the first story in this collection, the one that gives the book its title, is, at 143 pages, a novella. It opens with an elderly man’s struggle to get out of bed in the morning. A retired lawyer, he is going to have lunch with his son at a Manhattan restaurant. As he struggles through the very effortful preparations, we get his thoughts about a lot of things: his life and his career, his beloved wife who died suddenly, his ambivalence about his two kids, his disgruntlement about many aspects of contemporary life. There’s a nice touch of social commentary in the man’s scathing opinion of his son’s twelve-bedroom house: "The baldness, the bigness, the stupidity, in a house designed to bore the living daylights out of visitors, no character at all, all blond wood and fluorescent lighting and clean white machinery...." There’s no denying that our man is something of a curmudgeon but he does show a kind of begrudging graciousness, as in the way, for instance, he accepts his need for help from his kindly housekeeper.

His musings throng with echoes of literature, music and art (some of which I caught and some of which I probably missed). And he’s capable of breath-taking comments, as in this one about his marriage: "The roof over our love has been torn off and is open now to the endless sky." What makes him especially likeable is that he can cut through his own flights of high-mindedness with remarkable candour. Here, thinking about himself in the third person, he’s reviewing the memory of his rapturous first meeting with his wife: "....if we’re telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it must be said that very little is ever truly idyllic, except in retrospect, and, to be honest now, he was just a tiny bit disappointed by Eileen Daly when he saw her first...."

Also, the man’s philosophizing can be rewarding for a reader:

Funny thing, the present tense. Technically it cannot exist at all. Once we’re aware of it, it’s gone, no longer present. We dwell, then, in the constant past, even when we’re dreaming of the future. Surely that’s a theme of some Shakespearean sonnet or other, though I can hardly remember them, waves coming towards the shore, our hastening minutes, our secret toil.

In the third chapter we encounter some police detectives studying video, from various cameras about town, that show the old man’s movements throughout the morning. It turns out that he was attacked in the street by an unknown assailant, shortly after he left the restaurant where he’d been lunching with his son. Why would anybody want to hurt this distinguished old gent? What enemies could he possibly have? The solution to the mystery turns out not to be particularly amazing, at least not in terms of the typical whodunnit, but it is reasonable and believable, although the occurrence of the crime did depend on the somewhat coincidental convergence of several factors in one place at one time.

The appeal of the writing, though, isn’t so much the solving of the case as the binary nature of the story-telling. It’s fascinating to experience the man’s movements through the day from his point of view, to accompany him on every step as it were, and then to see how his actions appear on camera and how the visual images can lead to different interpretations of what’s going on. It makes you realize how differently our lives can look from the outside, as compared to the way they feel to us on the inside.

And Mr. McCann invests the investigation of the crime with the same finesse with which he described the old man’s life. A comparison of the detectives’ work to poetry leads to this lyrical passage:

Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn’t occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning.

The metaphor carries on, many pages later, with this lovely observation:

In the hands of the detectives, the past never stops happening. They dive backward, with their spiral notepads, into the early verses of their work.

In one bravura piece of writing, Mr. McCann gives two or three pages of interrogation of a suspect by the detectives. There are no paragraph breaks, no identification of the different speakers, no quotation marks – none of the conventions of fictional dialogue. This shouldn’t work and yet it does – beautifully – because the author has captured the qualities of the different voices so well.

I especially like the fact that Mr. McCann doesn’t give us the trial and the conviction of the suspect who is pretty obviously the culprit. Instead, he ends the book with a scenario that gives the proceedings an existential spin, suggesting that our craving for definite conclusions may have more to do with fiction than reality:

The jurors will wait and they will listen. They will weigh up notions of truth and lies – the truth with its border emptiness, and lies with their standard narrative conventions. They will trawl through the vast compendium of facts and figures and conjecture. It will be, to them, like trying to mine for light in the darkness, working in shafts, pockets, seams, chutes. The judge will instruct the jury members of their responsibilities and they will retire to deliberate.

The second story in the collection, "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?", also has a two-fold nature. We begin with a writer who is under pressure to produce a piece of fiction for a magazine’s New Year’s Eve edition. Somewhat in desperation, the writer hits on the possibility of a story about a young American soldier on solitary sentry duty in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve. Gradually, as this story begins to grow and take shape – the soldier is a woman who has a teenage son (or maybe he’s not her son?) back in South Carolina – we become more involved in it, but we never lose sight completely of the writer at his desk inventing the whole thing. That could be why the story he’s concocting never completely captivated me as a reader. But I don’t think it’s supposed to. The main appeal of the piece is the interplay between the imagined reality i.e. the man sitting at his desk, and the imagined fiction in Afghanistan. The point of it all is the way the two stories flow back and forth, merging into each other, then separating. The piece forces us, then, to become more aware than we usually are of the processes involved in writing and how they have an impact on us as readers.

"Sh’khol," the title of the third story is a Hebrew word that describes a parent who has lost a child. The term comes up in a story that our main character is translating into English. The translator, a single mother, has brought her adopted son, a teenager who is profoundly deaf, to the seaside at Galway, where he wants to try out the wetsuit she has given him for Christmas. A problem arises while they’re there, a tragedy seems to be shaping up, and that’s the main thrust of the piece. Along the way, we get a bit of background by way of the woman’s thoughts about things like the process of adopting her son and her relationship with her ex-husband. But the main focus is on whether or not the looming problem will be solved satisfactorily. For that reason, I found the story a bit thin, proceeding too much in a straight line along one track, compared to the rich and variegated scenario in the story about the old man who was attacked in Manhattan. Still, the woman’s handling of the problem confronting her is conveyed with great sensitivity and insight, leading ultimately to a Zen-like realization that makes the whole story worthwhile: "I live, I breathe, I go, I come back. Nothing else. I am here now, that is all."

"Treaty," the final story in the collection, is about a nun who is taking some quiet time in the US after a difficult life in the missions in Latin America. By chance, she is confronted with an unwelcome connection to a horrible experience of many years ago when she was captured, raped and tortured. The impetus of the story is the question of how the woman will deal with the resurgence of the awful feelings about all that. Can she forgive and forget, or is there something else she needs to do? Again, I found the one-track aspect of this story somewhat narrow and confining. As you’re speeding along the rails towards the resolution of her dilemma, there isn’t much else to think about.

On at least one occasion, Mr. McCann’s writing seems to spin out of control, perhaps as a result of trying to be too creative. As in this: "Sister Anne is a woman who has aged gracefully apart from a shallow set of accordion lines that seem to hurry toward her cheekbones, giving her a vaguely scattershot look." Even if you could picture those "accordion lines" on someone’s face, how in the world could they result in a "scattershot look"? And a few aspects of this nun’s character struck me as not quite believable in the context of Catholicism today. I’m overlooking the facts that she smokes and that she once lived in a convent that provided shelter for women who were visiting an abortion clinic in Houston. It’s possible that a contemporary nun’s resum could include such items.

It’s the smaller things that bother me. After a transatlantic flight, for instance, she faults herself for missing Sunday mass next morning. Surely, no nun who has been out in the world as much as this woman would agonize over such a thing. She refers at one point to "the holy sacrament," by which I think she means Holy Communion, but I don’t think any Catholic refers to it that way. Even stranger, Mr. McCann has her recalling the days when she could sketch the sign of the cross over a young child by way of blessing. That gesture, as far as I know, was always reserved to priests; I don’t know of any nun who would have done it – unless you’re talking about a nun in a world of books and movies. And why does it matter if these details strike me as inaccurate? Because they throw into question Mr. McCann’s knowledge of this woman. You wonder if you should trust him on the bigger issues concerning her.

But he does offer some intriguing observations about this woman. Here, she’s addressing her thoughts to God:

Am I supposed to directly bestow my forgiveness, Lord? Am I to reconcile with evil? Is that what is being asked of me? Is that what You demand after all these years? Apokatastasis panton. The restoral of all things. To what, then, shall I be restored? Is there no wisdom? Is that what I have to learn? That there is finally none at all?

As to what the nun eventually does, there’s no denying that her forthright, courageous behaviour has the ring of truth, i.e. the sense of something that is done because it must be done even if it doesn’t bring much of the relief that one might long for.

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