Friday, October 16, 2009

It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories







Lasdun is so revealing. Why is it that when one sees the innermost thoughts of a forty- or fifty-something man one feels slightly embarrassed, as though there were something pitiful about the conclusions they manage to align like a teetering stack of children's building blocks? Though writing from the United States, Lasdun always retains his essential Englishness, like, I might add, Netherland author Joseph O'Neill. These men, writing about the minds of men, bring out the voyeur in me.

But these men manipulate me, and I allow them to do so, because of their felicity with language. They can pull back a corner of the veil to reveal something true but which may not be wholly complete, and I will follow them there.

In this book, Lasdun reminds me of Cheever, talking as he does of cocktails among the monied working classes--not so wealthy as to be unafraid of losing it all--but sort of windmilling on the edge of losing their money, their house, their wives, their sanity. In Google's "Image Results for James Lasdun," the painting After Ovid: New Metamorphoses makes an appearance. It seems to show what I am trying to explain.

Lasdun's short stories are marvels of clarity and brevity. In one story, called "The Natural Order," Lasdun invites us to look in the mirror along with his main character:
"He looked in the mirror, felt the familiar jolt at the disparity between his persistently youthful idea of his physical appearance and the image that confronted him. His hair lay thinly over his temples; his torso looked shapeless in the useful lightweight beige anorak he had brought along for the cooler evenings. An hors de combat jacket, Stewart had jokingly called it when he first saw Abel sporting it...He smiled wanly at himself. He looked middle-aged."

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper








Christopher Nicholson had not registered on my radar before this latest gentle, lumbering, big, and somehow soft narrative about two elephants who land at the docks in Bristol, England in the 1700's. The novel is not written like anything that came out of that era, thank goodness, but one gets a feeling of life stripped of its furious pace and all the unnecessary essentials we find so time consuming now. I laugh quietly to learn on the HarperCollins website that Nicholson is a Thomas Hardy fan because there are echoes. I expect the author also researched source materials to imagine what could have happened to the animals brought to England from Africa at the time, and the story lets us live closely with the animals for the first third of the book.

The book elicits a sad knowingness regarding the tragedy of ignorance about wild animals while celebrating the close bonds that can be formed by the animals with humans. We know so much more about wild animals now, it pains us to see the cruel mistreatments that were common fare then. This absolutely is a book valuable for all of us and teenagers, too, for it gently instructs in an interesting way. There is sex, but it is animal sex, for the most part, or is introduced that way. And anyway, I don't think we are trying to prevent teens from knowing about sex, are we? This book suggests when sex can be wrong and when it can be right, which is actually very helpful. Would be a good class reading selection, especially grades 10-12.

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

This was such a suprising book. I found myself completely rapt to see how well the execution of the book worked--the interleaving actual photographs with graphic depictions of the travel and work of Doctors Without Borders in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. Didier Lefèvre, the photographer of the title, and his collaborators on this book, had personality enough to keep the tone moving constantly through interesting, awestruck, serious, funny, fearful. The reader is drawn into the photographs until one feels one has visited that place, was in that hospital, with those people. While the beauty of Afghanistan was constantly remarked upon, it was only at the end that I could see beauty there, in that stony and stark environment. There is something about the quality of the light and the air that is absolutely unique, and unforgettable. This book gives us something very special. It is a great gift shared.