Monday, September 27, 2010

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Sunset Park

In Sunset Park the characters are drawn with the swift, sure strokes of a master and are immediately accessible, and likeable. As it happens, I began reading this shortly after I'd begun Franzen's Freedom, on which I was struggling to concentrate. I was struck by the similarities and differences between the beginning of this book and Franzen's. Franzen's novel seemed an overstuffed suitcase, the contents of which we pick up in wonder and put back, curious how these vignettes will become relevant in the long course of the story. Auster's story is more like a briefcase of a story, each item within it immediately obvious in its usefulness to us, the readers. The writing is spare, elegant, propulsive.

The novels are similar in that they tell us of an American family, and a young person becomes an adult as we read. The descriptors echo, one book with another, but I had trouble grabbing hold of Franzen's, while Auster's grabbed ME and kept me up late into the night. Books on fiction writing often say we should "show" and not "tell," but strangely, I felt Franzen was showing and Auster was telling, which is one reason why Franzen's was longer, and more digressive. There seemed nothing extra in Auster's. Franzen's is simply a different style, and yields similar truths about the human condition.

If I had one regret with Sunset Park, it is that we did not see more of Pilar, who, while the youngest person in the story, in the end was the most adult. She seemed extraordinary, and we wanted to see more of the woman who could make grown men laugh, cry, sigh, and lie.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


A big book, in every sense. The whole of America is wrapped in its pages--a close, funny, irreverent look at "the way we live now." Funny and tragic at the same time, Freedom is a comedy of manners that can enter the literary canon as a marker for America early in the 21st century, just as the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton gave us the motivations and beliefs of Americans in the early 20th. What I understood the author was saying is that we have so much freedom to create our own lives and make our choices, but sometimes that freedom is as much of a burden as not having freedom. And that perhaps with all our freedom, our choices are less than laudable, and feel more like mistakes. Maybe we're not doing such a bang-up job of making good citizens despite our unprecedented learning and wealth. We may have an inkling of what we ought to do, but we never seem to choose that particular option. Franzen has the young ones of the Berglund family, Jessica and Joey, looking with dismay at the choices their parents have made, but it is just a matter of time—they have had less time to make their own choices—and mistakes. No one political party comes off looking attractive after Franzen lays waste to their point of view, showing the absurdity of the rhetoric spewing from all sides. But the author clearly believes we have a responsibility to do the moral thing--a thing we already know but "choose" not to do. It is a human failing, but in this book, it has a particularly American flavor.

The book was frustrating and irritating to begin, for I felt much impatience with the long discussion of Patty's college years. I can attest to the kind of naiveté Patty exhibited in high school with her neighbor boy and in college with her stalker girl, but as an adult, the painful examination of old mistakes and errors in judgment felt like a reliving old wounds. The narrative and my sense of involvement changed, however, when Richard was introduced. The scene where Patty changes her interest from Walter to Richard felt all too real. Which one of us has not experienced the pain and humiliation of a potential lover lusting after our best friend? From whichever angle--the foolish luster, the cool lusted-after, or the poorly-done-by loser, it is an oft-played, excruciatingly painful memory, and when Franzen brought us there, he got my attention. From that point on, we regularly and ruefully see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our families struggling to gain control of our lives, make decisions, and then overcome the results of poor decisions. With all the freedom we have to choose any direction, we often choose a wrong direction, the author seems to be saying. Judging from the recognition with which I read the novel, I've been there more times than I care to admit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Wave by Susan Casey

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

The Wave is an outrageously good read, alternately thrilling and terrifying us in turns. How many ways can a wave be described? As many ways as there are waves, though one suspects the Hawaiians had more words for the qualities of water than we do. While surfing plays the loudest chords in this book, one of the most resonant notes played was a description of Lituya Bay in Alaska, where epic waves scour the coastline. I went back and forth with the narrative to examine the included photographs again and again. Pictures help, but Casey’s descriptions are harrowing.

Reading (or writing!) about surfing could be a difficult endeavor. After all, unless one is on the wave, it is difficult to get a feel for its power. Even watching from shore doesn’t give one any real feel for what is going on in the water. Casey brings us up close and personal, partly through her access to the men who ride in wild conditions, and partly through her use of language and imagery to describe different conditions: “Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree wasn’t especially beloved. It didn’t break that often, and when it did it lunged open in a maniac sneer, spitting foam and tangled rafts of kelp.” For me, I have an indelible picture of this vicious water, as in this different, but equally effective description of Mavericks: “The Aleutian swells thunder three thousand miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay’s harbor. When it hits this shallower depth, the wave energy rears up, shrieking and screaming, forming the clawed hand that is Mavericks.”

As I read, I was reminded of Yvon Chouinard's autobiography Let My People Go Surfing because while the visionary businessman and adventurer lamented climate change and the disappearance of glaciers, he prepared for it by developing a bigger line of surfing products. If there is going to be more water everywhere, Chouinard suggests, that's where the business opportunities are for the outdoorsman. But even now we see that the biggest waves are becoming too much for the surfboards now made. Laird Hamilton, surfer extraordinaire, is trying new hydrofoil boards to take on the larger, more destructive waves being generated in oceans whose currents and temperatures are changing.

This book is the equal of Born To Run, the word-of-mouth bestseller among athletes and couch potatoes alike. One doesn’t have to do more than act like a sponge to enjoy this extraordinary book.