Friday, December 18, 2009

A Guide to Gifts in the Holiday Homestretch

Despite the 50-degree weather in Rome, it’s not difficult to tell the holidays are on the horizon. My chestnuts roasting on an open fire days ended when I left Tuscany, but almost every corner has some for sale. Sparkly lights rim the more commercial streets and if you’re lucky you can catch an Italian singing “Jingle Bells.” It’s past time to start shopping for gifts. All I want for Christmas is a 2,000-piece puzzle (for when I get lonely) but for those who like a book and a mug of apple cider, I have suggestions.
The fictional coup pulled by Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall was recently chronicled in the pages (?) of this blog. Here the reality of another time woven into fiction. Henry VIII is angling for his second wife and is taut wire of lust, insecurity and power. Mantel chronicles Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to indispensability and reconfigures his character in the process. His intelligence and surprising kindness are emphasized. The tone is humorous and carries the reader quickly through this pile of pages. In Wolf Hall the changes taking place in Europe are depicted as what they were; calculated evasions and manipulations by powerful men and canny women.
The narrative unfolded in the pages of Phillip Meyer’s American Rust is full of nitty, gritty reality despite the surreal beauty of Buell, Pennsylvania. Without a note of bitterness the author chronicles the dissolution of a once booming steel town. In the stale limbo of Buell opportunities are scarce and lack of direction becomes dangers. The near impossibility of success leads to mad attempts and criminal failures. Meyer’s characters are fusions of humanity and the metal of the region. They are beautiful and their confusion and missteps tragic.
For those exhausted by the recycled cast of characters running through fiction, Jayne Anne Phillip’s Lark and Termite will prove an uncommon delight. Phillips unfurls her story in a range of different voices and in two distinct periods of time. Corporal Robert Leavitt is enmeshed in the violent turmoil of the Korean War. Time becomes fluid. His memories are of Lola, his lover who is a blurry but strong presence in the novel. Leavitt’s mental return to her throbs with an urgent but gentle sexuality. Ten years later Lark cares for her disabled brother Termite with a wisdom beyond her years. She credits him with a reality of his own despite his inability to speak and Phillips’s entrance into the minds of each character indisputably real and new.
Everything about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is captivating. In Wells Tower’s debut collection of short stories he focuses those recently set adrift. His characters, largely men, are regular. Their concerns are ordinary ones. But even ordinary navigations can be a struggle. Tower’s people are not always likeable but they are human and the reader is caught up in their plights to find something that will anchor them. The author has an excellent touch with language and will throw in the right sort of zesty verb or cutting adjective to the story interesting and the reader off-balance.
Finally, a little advice about the contents of the archives. Do not ever give or read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The final pages caught my interest but the preceding hundreds didn’t make them worth my while. If you are in Paris, or going, or have been, or love Hemingway, read A Moveable Feast. It isn’t really finished, a delightful mishmash of his genius and his encounters with other geniuses of the 1920s on the Left Bank. Colm Tobin has an excellent and dark collection of short stories called Mothers and Sons and in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral one learns huge amounts about gloves.
I’ll be dreaming of your white Christmases, book in hand.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poetry animated by Baker's Paul

After reading a review of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, I got the impression that the narrator, Paul Chowder, was a bit pathetic. Wrong. Well, not exactly wrong. But his pathetic qualities are entirely delightful. The narrative is lively, humorous and drowning in poetry. Paul’s obsession with poetry is similar to Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. But while Rob was a professional appreciator, Paul is a poet himself.
By the time the reader is introduced to Paul he has reached his fifties and is more of a struggling poet than a successful one. His current project is writing an introduction to his anthology Only Rhyme. After patient weeks of supporting him, his girlfriend Roz has finally left. He had avoided the daunting task of writing his introduction to his anthology by singing in his office, reorganizing and buying more books of poetry than he can afford.
Baker’s protagonist would be entirely pathetic if it weren’t for his extravagant adoration of poetry and language. The book is both an unraveling of Paul’s current distress and his fervent explanation of bits poems and sketches of the lives of his favorite poets.
Paul passes on reasonable bits of advice amidst his diatribes of loneliness and mild self-loathing. He suggests reading your poems aloud in different accents, and paying attention to the stories you hear every day; they just might wend themselves into a poem. Paul walks the reader through the rhythm of a poem with precision, concluding a line with his own triumphant BOOM to emphasize where the aural rest exists. His declarations about his circumstances are often acute and he uses words like “fulth” and “gimbleflap” with ease. I couldn’t help giggling. The exuberant nature of Paul’s approach to poetry would serve in many college introductory courses. (I was fortunate enough to have a more successful and socially adjusted version of Paul Chowder.)
The current that carries the book to its conclusion bears almost no relation to Paul’s love affair with Roz. There are few moments in the text when his preoccupation with his girlfriend rises above mildly dull. She seems very nice and entirely justified in her decision to leave her crumbling poet until he gets back on his feet. She isn’t and wasn’t a must. Paul addresses the necessity of suffering for a poet to be truly successful and admits that comparatively, he has nothing to complain about.
Paul’s meticulous untangling of rhyme, and his enduring battle against the iambic pentameter, burst with giddiness. He gets his perks from poetry and so does the reader. The title of the book is something of a misnomer because although part of Paul’s difficulty stems from the introduction he is attempting to write, his aim remains the poetry itself, not its collection. He shows the reader how a poem often turns on a single stanza. And in a funny moment in the text realizes that it is in fact a single line that mesmerizes him and finally a single word. The miracle is that the reader understands him and in fact agrees.
All passionate reader will identify with Paul’s anecdotes even if poetry never makes it on their reading lists. Baker gets at the pleasures, surprises and lasting effects that words have when strung together properly. Paul enunciates both sizzling criticisms and melting words of awe. His entrancement with his subject is engaging if not rousing. Paul’s intimate knowledge of his favorite poets awakens the reader’s interest in them and inspires one to search again for a half forgotten line in order to pin down why exactly that phrase demanded particular attention.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cromwell Resurrected

The first point that Hilary Mantel should be commended for in her lengthy historical novel Wolf Hall is the humor. Mantel writes about a epoch filled with scandal, blood, corporeal and spiritual wants. But rather than relying mainly on the sex (unlike the very sexy show the Tudors) or drying the narrative with clunky play by plays, Mantel infuses these stodgy historical characters with the wit necessary to afloat.

Thomas Cromwell, the corrugated self-made protagonist, is a master of self-control. He possesses a mottled history after his escape from beneath the fist of his father at the age of about 15 (no one had thought it necessary to record his birth).  When the reader meets him again it is after his shadowy years in Europe. Years that have schooled him in the ways of bankers, memory, control, as well as Italian, French, Flemish, to name a few.

Mantel succeeds in revealing all that passes beneath the impassive surface of Cromwell’s notably unattractive face. In her prose he has a rich internal life that is constructed from intelligence and shrewd observation. He both notices the person in the room everyone disregards and has the ability to fade from view himself.

Cromwell is made human by Mantel. His house at Austin Friars is first decimated by the sweating sickness, which takes his wife and daughters. Mantel crafts likely moments of tenderness between her hero and his family members.

Cromwell’s unlikely kindness is strewn across the pages of Wolf Hall. He takes in a number of wards as well as those fortune has dealt a bad hand. The man Mantel portrays is not soft; his are never acts of charity. When he fills his home with rouges he manages to transform them into indispensable persons. His generosity fills his house to the brim with wealth of influence, people, power and money. He is a force to be reckoned with.

Mantel’s novel makes it difficult, or impossible, not to like Cromwell. In addition to being clever, he is incredibly knowledgeable. His vast linguistic knowledge and his experience on foreign, military and marketing frontiers prove essential to his growing position of power. The nobles who surround him lack these qualifications. Cromwell’s common birth would hobble a lesser man. His shadowed past manages to count in his favor. Dirty dealings must have accelerated his acquisition of wealth and power but he does not appear to be fueled by greed. Smart calculations propel him forward.

It is perhaps a sign of the changes in England at the time that he was able to reach the heights he did.

Mantel’s excellent prose brings the stink and violence of Tudor times to life. Despite its length, the novel never lags. Mantel’s renders the historical characters at her disposal in all their complexity. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and King Henry are rendered from the viewpoint of man who served in their time, not by history. Through Cromwell, Mantel snatches at the human filament beneath the label of Queen, peasant, whore.

Aside from the feat of rescuing Cromwell from the historical slop bucket, Mantel pulls off a more literary coup. From page one the reader is directly alongside Cromwell. “He” is always used. Mantel takes seriously the concept that mentioning a character’s name distances the reader from him. Despite the occasional awkward moment, her ploy succeeds in immersing the reader into whatever clandestine mission Cromwell is about to achieve. The reader is on Cromwell’s side as he sculpts laws in favor of King Henry’s desires, changes the identity of the queen and creates the Church of England. Not an easy feat. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Spin" carries weight of Twin Towers

Colum McCann weaves stories betwixt and between the disparate neighborhoods and towers of New York in his most recent work Let the Great World Spin. His world of stories pivots on a single event, even as the characters’ lives dip and turn in ways that draw them far from what occurs early one morning in New York City. McCann passes the reader from narrator to narrator with ease. As is to be expected in a book where Manhattan is the backdrop, a wide range of characters appears in the pages of Spin.

Always at the periphery of their narratives hovers the solitary figure of a man traversing a grand distance, at a grander height, on the thread of a wire.

Phillipe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Centers was a fraction of a day decades ago. Its impact had faded from consciousness, having yet to be brought to the attention of the next generation. A different story now envelops the Twin Towers, casting the more innocent event in the dark. September 11 is only mentioned once in McCann’s collection but its shadow hovers behind the text. His stories evaluate the disparate reality of the transience and endurance of a moment. And despite its potential for dominancy, McCann deftly maintains control over the force he has put to use in his collection.

Spin provides entrance into the lives of a hooker, priest, nurse, artist, Park Avenue mother and many more. The person on whom McCann focuses his lens next is never predictable. He jumps and dodges through his cast of characters. The reader’s view of each one is intimate. With each acquaintance a new angle emerges from which to consider the walker’s feat. In some stories the man in the sky only flutters briefly against the structure of the character’s life. McCann does not suggest that lives were changed by the man’s walk through the sky. But the walk itself is emblematic. It is a resistance, a challenge, and a moment of beauty.

The time the reader spends alongside the walker proves the most magnetic. McCann has measured command over his craft and each story draws the reader into its twists. Swaths of characters’ lives are revealed in most of the stories but with the walker the material relates directly to the moment. He is attuned to the weather, the bend of the wind, the suppleness of his body. The anecdotes that examine the walker express the simplicity of what he wanted to do. In these sections nothing exterior exists. There is only balance, a wire, height and the sky. Desire, pure and simple, is frozen above the heads of people full of their own buzzing lives. The walk fulfills nothing more or less than a determined craving. Politics, Vietnam, death, crime, motherhood, marriage, remain reassuringly outside the scope of what this man set out to achieve. He capers. His body is life and movement as he gambols in space. In McCann’s print, the moment is alive again and it works to extinguish all the rest.

Of course the lightheartedness of the walker’s triumph is meant to stand against the events of 9/11 that occurred almost thirty years later. The bliss is momentary. McCann’s stories bear testimony to this as much as they create a patchwork view of New York. Inevitably the September 11 theme has been abused and can verge on wearisome when mishandled. But McCann’s collection examines the same buildings for chapters on end without succumbing to the obvious. His silence makes the event all the more powerful and the reader is immersed in other lives even as the Towers spin toward their conclusion.