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Monday, May 22, 2017

Realism's Youth?




“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

You’ve heard before that the biological development of an individual repeats, in a compressed timeline, the evolutionary development of the species of which it is a member. What I’m wondering now – and bear with me, because this may be a stretch – is if something similar might happen in reverse with cultural movements, and I’m thinking in particular of literature. That is, might not a literary movement in its younger stages share the callowness of a youthful individual with limited experience, and might not that very movement, as it develops over time, practiced by individuals learning from their predecessors, grow finally to a mellower maturity?

My mind is still on Madame Bovary and on Flaubert’s preoccupation with corruption – physical, moral, and social. It seems to me very similar to the ordinary, nonliterary adolescent response to encounters with death, deception, hypocrisy and the like. Wounded youthful idealism enters a phase when anything apparently good or beautiful can only be seen as a disguise for underlying “reality,” that is, for what the youth now believes is the true ugliness and pointless of existence. Think Holden Caulfield. Everything in the adult world is “phony” at its core.




In the same time period that Flaubert was writing, there was a movement in France of poets called the “Decadents.” This group was given its name by Maurice Barrès, an anti-Semitic, anti-Dreyfusard writer and critic who had an early “fascination with death and decay," themes apparent also in Madame Bovary. The Decadents took it as their mission, as artists, to shock the sensibilities of the middle class, people whom they saw as narrowly and unthinkingly conventional. “Épater les bourgeois!” (“Shock the middle class!”) was their rallying cry.

To shock the middle class by showing them the emptiness of their own (middle-class) pretensions and claims to any cultural achievement higher than egotistical self-aggrandizement seems very much an important facet of Flaubert’s project. Isn’t nearly every character in Madame Bovary a little would-be well-dressed emperor parading around without clothes on?

And now I’m thinking that “Épater les bourgeois!” is also “dénigrer les bourgeois.” The early realist novelists and poets set out to shock the middle class by denigrating and insulting its members, by representing them as having no redeeming features, and isn’t that very like the typical rebellion of youth, with its rejection of parents and family background and values? Can we not see in the youth of this literary movement the same wholesale (though by no means universal or inevitable) alienation of an individual seeking to establish some kind of separate sui generis existence in the world?




Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to denigrate the young by saying that boredom, revulsion, and obsession with the darker, more disappointing and upsetting features of life are typical of youth. We are all young once, even if many of us are no longer, and wrestling with life’s basic facts – idealism, corruption (both physical and moral), death, etc. – is an important part of living. Not to go through it would be to miss something important. No, my point is not an argument with youth but an observation on the development of a literary movement.

Would the realist or the Decadent himself identify with those he wanted to shock? Actually, Flaubert is said to have claimed, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"! What are we to make of such a surprising admission? That the author, like his creation, suffered crushing boredom in the provinces, looked with horror on the lives and aspirations of his provincial neighbors, felt himself above his neighbors and worthy of a more exalted position that the one he held in his own village? If so, is his self-identification with the character Madame Bovary not support for my idea that both writer and character were experiencing the trapped feeling of adolescence and, therefore, viewing “reality” with a jaundiced rather than an objective eye? Was early realism in large part sour grapes?

If I were reading nothing but nineteenth-century literature, the question of youth vs. maturity might never have entered my mind, but as a catholic and voracious reader I found the contrast leaping from the juxtaposition of successive books read, a contrast particularly acute between Madame Bovary and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. McCann’s characters come from many different walks of life, and their struggles are with much more than Emma Bovary’s boredom, yet through all their backsliding and failure, and in prose every bit as beautiful as that of Flaubert, one never feels the author is holding them up as disgusting examples. He does not tear away veils of hypocrisy to show pettiness and corruption but gently moves aside veils of materialism, even squalor, to show human beings capable, from time to time, of expressing love and recognizing beauty.




One of my all-time favorite novels is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There are characters in Smith’s story that one might not choose to sit next to for a long bus ride, and yet the author manages to present even her least attractive people from the inside and with sufficient complexity such that we understand why they behave as they do and feel sympathy for them. (I should note that she also does this in very simple language. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a remarkable literary achievement, deserving of a more prominent place in the literary canon than it is generally accorded.) And while Let the Great World Spin and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are both New York novels, I reject out of hand any objection that their urban context vitiates my argument. My main point, after all, is not to contrast urban and rural literature but to suggest that Smith and McCann represent mature practitioners of literary realism in their ability to present flawed characters with sympathy. In the work of these authors (and many other outstanding writers of the twentieth and twenty-first century), I want to say that realism itself has achieved maturity.

Have I made a case? The beginnings of one? What do you say? I put the question particularly to my small town friends.







Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recommending a Book – Not Always a Piece of Cake




Every once in a while I read and enjoy a book and admire its story and language and style without being able to come up with, easily, the logical and natural audience for it. “I think you might really love this book,” I want to say – but to whom do I say it? I imagine a potential reader questioning me further and what I might say in response.

Is the story set in Michigan?

Well, no, not this one. Southern Indiana, actually. Evansville, mostly, to be precise. You know, down on the Ohio River?

So what’s it about?

Always a tricky question when the book is a contemporary novel! Okay, there’s this guy, the book’s narrator, and the story moves back and forth in time from one part of his life to another. He grows up in Evansville, and he has kind of a wild, wasted youth, even though his father is a math professor, but eventually he gets a B.A. in philosophy, but even with a college degree the only job he can find for years is part-time work counting woodland songbirds for serious university ornithologists--.

So there’s a lot about songbirds? That’s one of the themes?

Well, yah, but it’s not all pretty stuff – you know, the beauty of nature. There’s a lot that’s gruesome or scary, sometimes downright revolting. But mixed in with the beautiful, you know? I mean, there’s shooting of songbirds, drunkenness, reckless driving, drug-dealing, assault--.

So what’s the appeal?

[My imaginary questioner has taken a dubious step backward, and I become somewhat more aggressively defending the book in response.]

Believe it or not, parts of the story are pretty funny, if you can get down off your high horse and refrain from judging the characters for every move they make. And they’re a pretty diverse cast. Maybe you’ve met people like some of them, may not, but they’re very American.

There’s an important coming-of-age aspect. There’s also an authentic Midwestern atmosphere and flavor, the evocation of what East and West Coast types refer to, disdainfully and dismissively, without the slightest awareness of how much their ignorance encompasses, as “flyover country.” The author, in his first-person narrator’s voice, expresses at times a typical young person’s impatience for and rejection of the people around him – in this case, his fellow Hoosiers – but years later he finds that Indiana calls to him like nowhere else in the U.S. No single demographic group or aspect of society escapes criticism, but neither is any completely condemned.

Maybe I need to offer a few passages:

Page 13:  Some people describe the sound of a tornado as akin to a freight train, which is like comparing a wolf to a beagle. I have sat with Lola and a brace of bear, directly beneath rolling trains on the Dogtown trestle bridge over the Ohio River: they’re rhythmic, clattering, dependable, and their sound, though loud, suggests a sort of restrained power. As I clutched my head between those poplar roots what I heard was purely chaotic, an unhinged and unpredictable malevolence, demon song; lightning struck twice nearby and I could not hear the thunderclaps because the whole chorus of hell overwhelmed them. 
Page 53: Wood thrushes were my best informants. Neighboring pairs sing to each other in a chain of call-and-response that occurs in every wood in the Midwest. If one pair fell silent I could place the intruder within fifty or sixty feet of a nest tree. A male indigo bunting will try desperately to get your attention if you stray near its nest—usually, in my experience, by leading you into the thorniest, muddiest, hottest smilax thicket nearby. Warblers are passionate about warbling and any reticence from them was a likely sign. 
Page 73: The reason they make you wear an orange jumpsuit is so you won’t talk back to the judge. When someone says you’re free to go, and you’re wearing handcuffs, you might be inclined to argue. But you’ve just spent the night on a hard narrow cot and you look ridiculous, so you don’t.  
Pages 96-97: Bowfishing, at least as practiced in Southern Indiana, combines hunting and angling while eliminating while eliminating the need for the skills of either. You sit in a rowboat firing arrows at large targets three and four feet away in three feet of water. It’s considered a good date in Jefferson....  
Page 124: Indianapolis is the twelfth-largest city in the United States, but it feels like the country’s largest suburb; it is all sprawl and you spend half of every day in your car. There is nowhere on earth I detest more.  
Page 197: Some people go ga-ga for an owl or an eagle—it’s my job to encourage that now. And it’s a good thing. But privately, I prefer a bird that doesn’t shit in its own nest. I had grown more bitter with every clump of severed tails I threw in the trash can. 
Page 203: Vermont has bears. I like bears. ... Vermont also has moose and mountains and other natural glories, all of which I enjoy. But they don’t—can’t—call my name the way Indiana woodland used to; the Ohio and Wabash rivers have a way with words that our local New England brook can’t match.... Vermont has famous fall foliage, too, but compared to Box County in October, Vermont is a painting Gauguin left out in the rain.

And still, entirely left out of this sampling are the people who pass through the narrator’s life, some briefly, some repeatedly, even constantly over the years -- Gerald, Lola, Shane, Warren, a Vietnam veteran encountered in the woods, an assortment of locals at a roadside diner – each one memorable and occupying a distinct place in the story. It’s worth taking the time to meet and get to know them!

Yes, this is a book worth reading. But really, is there any book that’s “for everyone”? I doubt it very much. Each must find its audience. Here I’ve done a preliminary introduction. Now it’s up to book and reader to come together in the private, intimate space we call reading.



Snapper, by Brian Kimberling
NY: Vintage Contemporaries, 2013
Paper, 210pp, $15


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Once It Starts, There Is No Stopping It



For a while, it felt as though spring would never get here. A beautiful, warm, sunny day or two would be followed by a round of sock-it-to-'em wintry blasts, and this happened over and over. Are we out of the snowy woods yet? It would appear so. As for frost, however, smart money always hedges its bets until after Memorial Day, when it will be a race to get planting done before summer speeds to a gallop and leaves us all gasping for breath.

Now is the time to breathe deeply, to look and drink in the landscape. At the moment, soft bridal landscapes are all around, and from higher elevations or across at a distance the blooming trees look almost like low-lying clouds or blankets of fog. “At the moment” – and only for a moment, so don’t put off looking around! Drink it in, breathe it, devour it!

One day...

... and one day later

The release of Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel on May 9, like spring and the cherry blossoms, set off a flurry of publicity. I bought People magazine for the first time in my life, after a friend called to tell me Sarah had made the “People Picks”! She’s also been interviewed by someone from the Wall Street Journal. I’m doing “told you so” big-time when it comes to this book (“I told you it would be a bestseller!”), but no one seems to object. My blog post about our book launch event even made it into "Shelf Awareness," which is always a kick (the good kind!).




Meanwhile, my reading life continues. I’ve toggled back and forth between two engrossing novels for the past few days, one a nineteenth-century French classic, the other a recent National Book Award winner, and now I am going to round out this blog post, shamelessly, with quotes from my recent reading, because nothing I might write could ever come near the literary excellence I find between the covers of books.
He thought about her less, as he became used to living alone. The novel pleasure of independence soon made solitude tolerable. He could now change the hours of his meals, come home or go out without giving reasons and, when he was very tired, stretch his arms and legs out to the sides, in his bed. And so he coddled himself, pampered himself, and accepted the consolations offered him.  
-      Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  -  -  -  -
Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late-night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him—others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother had become, and what I’d later see among the cast-offs of New York—the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless—all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.  
-      Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin 
In an interview, Colum McCann answered a question by saying,

I don’t mean for this to sound trite, but I really like life. I enjoy my time here. I always quote Mandelstam on this score: “But we must love this poor earth, for we have not seen another.” And I love engaging with life on the ground. 
[Interview with Nathan Englander following text of the novel in Random House paperback]
He said much more, of course, but I’m thinking that both Flaubert and McCann “engage with life on the ground.”


Flaubert’s most recent translator, Lydia Davis, who so beautifully renders his prose into English, notes that the author was determinedly antiromantic and again and again juxtaposed “disturbing” or “brutal” or “mundane” elements into his most exquisitely lyrical descriptions. She believes Flaubert intended these juxtapositions ironically, and she is probably correct in that claim. Flaubert was 36 years old, still a young man, when Madame Bovary was published, and it is not surprising that he would take an ironic stance toward provincial village life. Perhaps he felt trapped, himself, in Croisset, a hamlet near Rouen.


Here is another passage from Madame Bovary, where she is walking, with a young admirer, to the home of the woman caring for her child, a passage that illustrates the translator's point better than the one I used above:
To reach the wet nurse’s house, one had to turn left, after leaving the street, as though going to the cemetery, and follow a little path, between cottages and yards, bordered by privets. These were in flower, and the speedwell, too, the hawthorns, the nettles, and the slender wild blackberries that arced up out of the thickets. Through holes in the hedges, one could see, in the farmyards, a hog on a dunghill, or cows in their wooden collars, rubbing their horns against the trunks of trees. The two of them walked slowly, side by side, she leaning on him and he slowing his step to match hers; in front of them flitted a swarm of flies, buzzing in the warm air.
So yes, along with the flowers are a pig on a dunghill and a swarm of flies, and in the next paragraph there appears “a poor, sickly little boy whose face was covered with scrofulous sores....” 

Oh, but it's easy to feel bored and ironic when young, when life can seem to move at a turgid pace and feel empty of promise. Easy to focus on what is ugly and disappointing. Much more difficult, fortunately, to recapture those feelings of boredom and despair when life seems, if anything, only too full, when one would give anything to slow the days down and enjoy a few hours of emptiness!

So -- I'm sorry-- whatever he intended, I can’t help being captivated by every detail Flaubert imparts, the mundane observations as well as the lyrical descriptions, because they are all part of the great, spinning world, the tiny moments that make up every ordinary life on this extraordinary planet of ours. Certainly McCann’s characters and their situations, like Madame Bovary herself, often appear hopeless, and yet the author allows them glimpses of beauty along the way:
Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past.... We stumble on, now, we drain the light from the dark, to make it last.

One more thing McCann said in that interview that I want to share: “I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair.” Certain it is that I finished reading Let the Great World Spin feeling light and filled with hope, grateful for beauty in whatever corner it appears. I am not, as I'm sure is obvious, a literary critic. I read for pleasure and, at times, as a "doorstop against despair," too. What I'm feeling today, though, is not despair but that there is no stopping beauty and hope, any more than we can halt the turning of the seasons. Beauty and hope may vanish for a while, in any single life, but hold on long enough and around they come again. Like spring.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

It Took a Village






Our Tuesday evening Dog Ears Books event at Spice World Cafe was a very Northport kind of story. Officially, it was a book launch. Unofficially, it was much more. The themes, as I reconstruct them now, the next day, were friendship, community, and welcome. 

Sarah Shoemaker wrote the novel, Mr. Rochester (destined for an international audience, in my opinion), and also made brownies for the reception following dinner (because, like any serious, dedicated writer, she has had to practice versatility), while Angela Dhami prepared dinner for sixty in her Spice World Cafe (Tuesday's crowd could never have squeezed into Dog Ears Books) and her crew did yeoman service getting it on the tables. Trudy Carpenter put together fruit punch and brought her deservedly famous lemon bars. The cake was a delicious David Chrobak creation. I know it was delicious, because someone brought me a piece, but I didn't get to see it before it was cut.



Bill Coohon and Patty Noftz helped me out with fliers to publicize the event ahead of time, Pat Scott brought fresh flowers for the tables on Tuesday, and David Grath took charge of microphone and camera. Getting the books here from the publisher in New York--that was my part, but when it came to sales, I was helped at the event by my loyal, longtime bookstore volunteer, Bruce Balas. Barbara Stark-Nemon (another local author) also brought a camera, and besides serving as backup photographer she pitched in repeatedly whenever she saw something that needed to be done, as did David and Trudy and Bruce and many others. Northport people don't sit around on their hands: they get up and get things done!




Northport people? Of all those mentioned above, only one is native to Northport, with a second coming originally from down the road in Leland. The rest of us started out at distant points, moving along meandering life routes to get where we are today. But where we're "from" doesn't matter. We're here, now, and we came together with our fellow townspeople to mark a very special occasion, the launch--in Northport!--of a book simultaneously released on May 9 in the U.S., England, and Australia--let me say it again!--Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker.

Already reviewed in "USA Today"

Northport may be considered "off the beaten path," but it is very much a part of the larger, "real" world. We are not only affected by what goes on elsewhere: once in a while something we do here sends ripples outward. The novel we celebrated on Tuesday evening began as an idea in Sarah Shoemaker's mind five years ago, thanks to a book club discussion at our little Leelanau Township Library in Northport. The author was aided in her research by the Michigan Electronic Library, accessible from our little local library. And now we in Northport will be watching, proudly, as Mr. Rochester makes its way around the world--and we will be cheering our friend Sarah every step of the way!


When I was invited to give a brief spiel for the event on a Traverse City radio station four days prior, the radio host commented that not many towns the size of Northport can boast a local bookstore. Well, there were times in the 24 years since Dog Ears Books was born (back in 1993, right on Waukazoo Street a short walk from its present location) when I didn't think we would be around much longer. Northport, like the country in general, has known times of struggle. And yet, here we are, my little bookstore and I, nearly a quarter-century later, still going strong, and now introducing to my local community a book I read and loved in manuscript three years ago. 




What does it take for a small independent bookstore to survive? It takes hard work, perseverance, sacrifice -- and it takes a village of friends who love books and are eager and willing to support a bookstore. 

My heart overflows with gratitude for my book-loving village friends! You are the secret to my success!




Thursday, May 4, 2017

Yo-Yo Season




That’s what I call our northern springs, and this year has been no exception. We’ll have a couple of balmy, no-jacket afternoons, and then the temperature plunges back into the 30s, and we see snowflakes in the air--not a welcome sight in May, but we remind each other, shrugging, “Well, this is Michigan!” (the part of the country where “What shall I wear?” often translates to “Winter coat or spring jacket?”). While the furnace was still kicking on and off, however, we managed a couple of front porch meals before the latest cold spell, and I look forward to many more as the days lengthen and late afternoon sun pours in.




Until then, everything being a double-edged sword (my philosophy of life), the upside to cold, rainy days is that there’s no pressure to get outside and start spring yard work, so last Monday—still a “day off” for me, in general, though next Monday, the day before our big world premiere book launch, may prove an exception—David and I cut short our errands in town to come home and get cozy by the fire. He’s currently reading, on my recommendation, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton, and enjoying it every bit as much as I did, while I feel like I’ve been on a little fiction mini-binge, going straight from My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout) to a re-reading of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (Anne Tyler), and then, after a travel memoir, jumping into Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking.

Reading Strout and Tyler back-to-back raised questions in my mind about the two authors’ reputations and my own responses to their work. Both are Pulitzer winners, with similar themes in their fiction. My questioning thoughts sparked a bookstore conversation with one friend who has read work by both writers, and her take on the two was that Strout is more cerebral and keeps more distance between her characters and her readers, while Tyler allows readers to enter more immediately into her characters’ lives. Tyler’s writing, my friend thinks, is more “heartfelt.” One interview with Strout calls her writing “spare.” In fact, interviews I found with each of the writers (Strout here; Tyler here) reinforced the feelings I already had: Basically, I admire the work of Elizabeth Strout and am interested in the ways she tells her stories, but I love Anne Tyler’s novels--and I don't think the difference is as simple as Tyler's work being more "accessible," but what do you think? Different responses, anyone?

Colum McCann, in Thirteen Ways of Looking, does something similar to what Strout and Tyler have done, in that he takes an incident forward and backward in time and gives the reader various perspectives that build into a larger, deeper picture, doing it with a slightly Joycean, wonderfully Irish narrative voice. Another aspect of the novel not immediately apparent (or maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places) is that it’s a mystery, with clues dropped all along the way, but what meant much more to me was how stilled I was by reading this book, the world outside dropping away.

But my attention is a yo-yo this season, too, what with a world premiere book launch on the docket for next Tuesday! Oh, did I already mention that? (Details here if you missed them earlier.)