Sunday, March 31, 2013

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

How It All Began

Oh, I dearly loved this book about an event which spawned a series of follow-on events, some of which could be termed momentous, in the context of a life. The story was funny and true and ridiculous and painful and all those things that life can be. It was comforting to hear about folks whose lives had hit a major speed bump but who managed, by shuffling the deck, to usher in a new chapter in their lives, one that they liked even better. But it is lightly told, and not so painful for us, safely behind our reading glasses, sipping tea and considering just how awful divorce could be…for the characters of course.

I was also struck by parallels between the theme in this book by Lively and Kate Atkinson’s new offering Life After Life . It is almost as though the grande Dames of British Literature were given a writing assignment to mull over the possibility that Hitler had never been born or had died in early life, before the tragedy of World War II. The assignment might have specified that they didn’t have to focus on the 1940’s, they just had to mention Hitler and make their story relevant to a new reality. Consider Lively’s contribution, that she places in the mouth of Henry, retired University professor and a man sure of his talent to make history interesting and relevant:
I myself have a soft spot for what is known as the Cleopatra’s nose theory of history—the proposal that had the nose of Cleopatra been an inch longer the fortunes of Rome would have been different. A reductio ad absurdam, perhaps, but a reference to random causality that makes a lot of sense when we think about the erratic sequence of events that we call history. And we find that we home in on the catalysts—the intervention of those seminal figures who will direct events. Caesar himself. Charlemagne. Napoleon. Hitler. If this man or that—no, this person or that—had not existed, how differently could things have turned out? Focus upon a smaller canvas—England in the eighteenth century, of, indeed, any other century—and we find again that it is personalities that direct events, the human hand that steers the course of time…A decision is made in one place, and far away a thousand will die.”
Then, consider Kate Atkinson’s contemplation of this question, whom she gives to Ursula, her protagonist :
“Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”
And it is a great theme to be going along with: eliminating those pesky outsized actors from our history. After all, isn’t life complicated enough with just our own mistakes to manage?

In any case, the thing that really caught my attention in this book, and that I loved above even the story (something which Lively spends some time considering—how a story can draw us in) is the discussion an older woman, a retired teacher of literature as it happens, has with a younger economic migrant to whom she is teaching the fundamentals of reading. They speak of language, words, and the passion the younger man has for stories. He’d had trouble learning English, both spoken and written, but he was passionate about stories. So she teaches him, rather than the language of commerce, the language of poetry. She gave him stories, and his passion for stories developed into a passion for words, which he collected assiduously and used ardently. He loved, and was loved though words. It was delightful.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace
“It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such. The air was warm and still and the grass of the cemetery…was soft green and the river…reflected the sky [like] a long ribbon of blue silk…”

The thirteen-year-old narrator of William Kent Krueger’s new mystery juxtaposes death and bucolic beauty, but we know the dead can’t see. Set in a small town north of everywhere in America and south of Canada, this is a tale of an extraordinary summer in an ordinary town in Minnesota--the summer when everything seemed to come untethered and God drew His awful grace (vengeance?) like a sword. There is always something dark or threatening about mysteries by William Kent Krueger. It has to do with half-hidden resentments that may flame into retribution, or ugly prejudices on the lips of town folk or law keepers.

Krueger has created characters that sharpen our instincts: Doyle, the small town cop with no more sense of right than a hormonal teenaged bully; Redstone, the tall, taciturn Dakota whose greatest compliment is that one “might have Sioux blood”; the WWII veteran-turned-preacher who had spent all his pride and was left only with generosity. Our narrator, Frank, is impulsive and on the cusp of discoveries about life. He may not be entirely reliable.
“Happiness…is only a moment’s pause here and there on what is otherwise a long and difficult road. No one can be happy all the time. Better, I think, to wish for…wisdom, a virtue not so fickle.”

Imagine an aerial shot of three boys pedaling their bikes as fast as they can along a country road in high summer. We can’t hear the buzz of insects in the fields, nor the frogs burping along the river, but we can see the boys. We don’t know where they are going, but we imagine the excitement of the day’s first swim, or the urgency of finishing a tree fort, or the need for an ice cream soda at the drug store. Then we notice a car speeding behind…in pursuit or accompanying the boys, we do not know. Now we begin to suspect something may be wrong. They are all going too fast.

Krueger continually confounds our expectations of “ordinary” by placing it next to extraordinary: high summer small town in southern Minnesota, a fish-filled river, a clergyman’s nuclear family. But there are flaws in the picture: the daughter, a ravishingly talented musician, has a hare lip. The world-famous pianist teaching her lost his sight in the war. His sister is deaf from birth. No wonder we don’t trust the sunshine. There is darkness here and wisdom has a terrible price.

This engrossing novel is a great success for Krueger, who is best known for his Cork O’Connor mystery series set in northern Minnesota.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker

Ten White Geese

It is no surprise that a book about a scholar deeply immersed in the work of Emily Dickinson is also about death. The titular ten geese, by the end of this book, number only four. But this book is about deception, too, and perception; love, and relationships; nature, and gardens. We pass two months in Wales but every season is accounted for. Gerbrand Bakker has created a knotty piece of fine art for us to contemplate.

We never learn how old she is, Agnes, or Emily as she liked to be called. We know she is probably at the end of child-bearing age, so desperately had she tried to conceive. She is an intellectual, writing a dissertation on the poems of Emily Dickinson, that poet she must have once admired but grew to resent. She is ill. We learn that early, along with her sense of being stuck, and unsure in which direction to go.

She arrives in Wales alone, escaping the failures of her past. She walks. One day a badger bites her foot as she lies sunbathing on a rock. Not long after, Bradwen, a boy, and Sam, his dog, stumble into her yard and stay. But statements about events are foreplay here, for there is undertone and atmosphere and references and indications which are more of the book than the story itself. Like poetry, perhaps?

After her encounter with the badger, Emily pulls out her copy of The Wind in the Willows, one of the main characters of which is a badger. The book is mentioned again when Bradwen takes it from the house on his departure. That The Wind in the Willows is mentioned more than once cannot be coincidence. But why that book?

Perhaps we are to draw light comparisons between Emily and Toad for she is at her happiest in the bath; makes a mash of her career; alienates and betrays those close to her; is “on the run.” Bradwen might be Rat, for he carried a backpack and simply takes what he needs for his journeys, offering friendship to Toad when he needs it most, and is locked up while Toad makes his escape.

Bradwen is a curious figure whom we can’t see as a reliable character. He lies by omission, as does “Emily.” He never tells Emily who his father is and how he came to stay in this place, but clearly he is at home in it. He is willing to make meals in exchange for a bed. He shares a comforting, unerotic coupling with Emily, filled more with silence than sound, and worries ever after that his generosity might add to her burdens.

Sam the dog might be Mole, who accompanies Rat and finds the badger. A badger is a solitary creature “who simply hates society”--perhaps the reclusive Ms. Dickinson herself?--clever, generous, and welcoming when another comes to visit, but must be sought out. Friendly but fearful and elusive, the badger and doesn’t ever seem to come when called. Dickinson was apparently better known as a gardener while she was living than for writing poetry. Does this draw a line from Bakker to Dickinson, and badgers?

Gerbrand Bakker writes with a clarity and a depth that borders on knowledge—about pain, confusion, hurt, alienation, even sickness unto death—and in the voice of a woman. “I’m a strange man, maybe, but I think there is no fundamental difference between men and women. A lot of people would say otherwise, perhaps.” (NPR interview, 2013) This point of view may come from his training as a gardener. Humans of either sex are the same species: one sex has basically the same wants, needs, desires as the other—our differences don’t define our essential character. That having been said, this was a woman apart and in exquisite pain. I recognize her, but I hope I never meet (am) her.

Ach. Gerbrand Bakker’s book refuses to leave me. In the same seven minute NPR interview mentioned above, Bakker says that the process of writing this novel precipitated in him a great depression. I am not surprised. But literature can make us think about what man is, and Bakker doesn't leave us bereft. We still have The Wind in the Willows.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

American Vegan Kitchen by Tamasin Noyes

American Vegan Kitchen

Noyes has enormous talent in making hearty meals reminiscent of American Classics, or Blue Plate Specials. In fact, she chooses to even use those names which give us a hint of the originals, e.g., "Salisbury-style Seitan" and "Southern Fried Seitan." These come close to the flavor and texture of those old-fashioned dishes, and I now constantly underestimate the efficacy of having such dishes in one's repertoire when one is serving non-vegans. People are willing to try/eat vegan, particularly if the food is delicious, and some are more willing if the food is familiar. It is hard to believe some people are still eating "southern fried" anything, but there you go...a little treat for those unreformed but without as many calories or cholesterol. I tried it, and it is delicious.

Noyes' recipe for Tempeh Stroganoff (with no vegan sour cream) is terrific and I will use it again and again. I had it on mashed potatoes, but it would be good in any combination with any grain. It is simple, since it is basically oven-baking tempeh in a marinade--no need to steam the tempeh first.

The Fettuccine Alfredo looked gorgeous, and tasted great. I had trouble keeping it hot enough, but that is always my particular problem with pasta dishes.

I tried the All-American Incrediburgers and they live up their name. When the burgers are hot, they even leak a little, like fatty beef (hope that doesn't put you off). Grilled, these would be pretty spectacular, but they were excellent pan-fried in the dead of winter. Non-vegans were amazed. Best of all, perhaps, was the recipe for Burger Buns, which held together under slatherings of sauce and juicy burger. This was the MOST successful recipe I have (found and) tried for these, and bread is my specialty. I'm sure the Tempeh Burgers will taste exceptionally good as well, for they use the same ingredients as that indomitable team, Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Romero in Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook.

Tried the Blueberry-Oat Short Stack one morning for breakfast & unfortunately couldn't eat them hot because the baking powder made them horrible. I wonder still if that 2 Tblsp of Baking Powder is a typo. I would use yeast instead, but if you must, use only 2 tsp Baking Powder if you try these. The overnight soak is the theory behind museli as well (softening the oatmeal). Anyway, I left the oatcakes stacked on the table, and late in the afternoon, when they were cold, I did not taste the baking powder so much, so they weren't as bad then.

The Corn and Bean Chowder was pretty spectacular, and the Mushroom Barley Stew really had a deep mushroom flavor, especially since I used half an ounce of dried Chanterelles with the fresh mushrooms.

In many recipes, Noyes asks for a spice mix she created: All American Spice Mix. It is very good and useful. For a week or more, when I had run out of Chili Powder and kept forgetting to buy some, I used this spice mix interchangeably in recipes calling for Chili Powder. It is flavorful and has the kick of cayenne.

All in all, Tami Noyes is something of a diva, and going to her house for dinner must be something akin to entering those pearly gates.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out To Wonderful

Robert Goolrick is a masterful storyteller. He tells stories the old fashioned way: long and languidly, and full of description. Love, especially a great love, never goes out of style. Goolrick delivers. He writes of a big love story in a small town. Everyone is involved, right from the first Annual Oyster Fest deep in midsummer, when Charlie shows his physical prowess and Sylvan wears her dark glasses and her red lipstick.

Sylvan Glass. And Sylvan herself—she was just as pretty as her name:
“She had a country face, young, probably not much more than twenty, if that…Her lips were a crimson slash, her hair pulled up in gleaming blonde waves on top of her head, held with tortoise-shell combs studded with rhinestones. She wore dark sunglasses, a thing no other woman in town even thought to own…She had a perfect figure, rounded, soft and fleshy for a young girl, although she seemed willowy next to her bulky husband…”
We sense even right at the start that a storm is on the horizon, but I don’t think any of us are prepared for the finale. But by then he has led us long and well, and we react like his town folk, good people all. We feel helpless in the face of such a love, and wish we’d never known it.

But I have to mention my favorite character, though I doubt I would have ever gotten close to her, had I lived in Brownsburg. Claudie is like none other, with long, thin fingers “like the tines of a fork” and blessed with a special skill to sew like no one else. She created clothes for the townspeople, especially for the lovely Sylvan who wanted those dresses she saw in films and magazines and had a figure to match the finery. I nearly wept with admiration and joy to read of Claudie arriving in front of the town at the end:
Next came Claudie Wiley, dressed, fantastically, as though for a Negro Baptist wedding in New York City, brigiht in fuschia, cut from a pattern she had found in the back of Vogue magazine, and adapted to suit her figure, with a hat to match, and a veil, and shoes, all the same intense color, the color of sunset, the last burst of color before darkness falls.
She was some kind of character, with a life and a mind of her own. She is worthy of a book in her own right.

(view spoiler)[I lavish praise on Goolrick for his skills, so perhaps you won’t mind if I say that the crisis, when it came, did not ring entirely true to me. The key may have been that Charlie was Sylvan’s Hollywood, and therefore may have seemed unreachable and unreal and ultimately unknowable. But I felt we were led to believe in this love, only to have it shattered in front of us for a poor excuse of a husband and his ridiculous marriage contract, none of which would sway someone under the influence of a great love. And the ending did not suit me—it seemed too dramatic for the reality. But perhaps, in the eyes of a Hollywood star, it was just the right kind of ending. (hide spoiler)]

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“There is a fine line between living and dying,” a character observes in Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And it does certainly seem to be the case here, in the midst of two world wars, during the Great Influenza, at the beginning of the twentieth century in Britain. Characters come close to death, and some do not escape it: alternate histories are woven together until we are not really sure what is true. And this is the message. “History is all about ‘what ifs’” a character says late in the novel. More to the point here, perhaps, is that fiction, and this fiction in particular, is all about ‘what ifs’.

This is my first experience with what I would call a literary mash-up. Mash-up is a relatively new concept in literature that was borrowed from music where two or more songs are combined, usually by laying the vocal track of one song over the instrumental track of another. Wikipedia defines a literary mash up as taking a pre-existing work of fiction, often a classic, and combining perhaps thirty or forty percent of it with a vampire, werewolf, or horror genre. Atkinson has taken “classic history,” which is the Führer’s horror story, and overlaid many possible stories (love stories, family histories, employment possibilities) so that outcomes in some cases are different for individuals, but not, that we can see, in the larger history.

Stories cascade upon one another, all centered around a single family, indeed, a single person, Ursula, who we meet in the first chapter and who succeeds, we think at first, in killing the Führer.
“Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”
The juxtaposition of the chapters makes one remember those times when we stare into the unknowingness of the future and wonder what it will hold for us…and once there, looking back at the innocence of the early years, when we proceeded with our lives as though we had any control at all. Which brings me to a larger observation in this novel and in Atkinson’s fiction in general: oftentimes Atkinson’s characters are not agents of change, but reagents, possibly causing a chain reaction when they are introduced, possibly having no discernible impact at all.
“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future.”
Sometimes there are exceptional people, but even they cannot escape that possibility that “one thing” could change everything. Therein lie our power, and the power of the fiction writer.

The title, Life After Life, points to those lives impacted by another’s life, or a close escape from death, or lives that continue after another has died, or simply the alternate histories we all might have if “one thing had been different.”

When the book and the stories were drawing to a close, I admit I didn’t want to get to the end. I didn’t want another person to die unexpectedly. I didn’t want Ursula to grow older. I didn’t want to know which story was true. So, you see, I was caught, too.

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