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Monday, March 9, 2009

Dogs, Books, Walks Here on the Gulf


Saturday was a light-hearted morning for the pack, starting even earlier than our 8:00 a.m. (on the dot!) arrival at Pine Island, where we paid the five-dollar admission fee and showed Sarah’s inoculation record at the gate so all three of us could participate in “Bark Island,” a two-hour, off-leash romp on the beach, held once a month except in summer. No fences! The beach at low tide! So many other dogs! The cool, refreshing water to run into, over and over and over! We gave her a full hour of intoxicating freedom. She would gladly have stayed for the second hour, but I was concerned that she would drink salt water, being too distracted to come back to us for fresh drinks when thirsty. And besides, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t made the most of every single minute of liberty!

On the way out she seemed almost dazed. “I think she’s in shock from so much excitement,” I told David. He thought (maybe because he’s been reading those Sam Shepard stories) it must have an experience for her equivalent to what he would feel at a big Hollywood cocktail party, tossed into a sea of strangers, all with something to sell.

My head was kind of reeling, too. Keeping an eye on our girl in such a big, open space, as dogs wove in and out of groups of people and splashed in and out of the Gulf of Mexico, was tiring even though I didn’t run or swim myself…


…I was also coming down off a kind of reading marathon, overwhelmed by worlds I’d visited and heartsick for their inhabitants.

Having recently read The Bookseller of Kabul, my first immersion into life in the Afghan capital, I was drawn to Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez, and the story began with such a gripping episode that I was glued to the book all day and finished it before bedtime. I know several hairdressers who would gulp this book down! Honestly, though, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could find it dull or uninteresting. (David is reading it now.) The narrator is lively, extroverted and irrepressibly candid. The situations in which she finds herself are quite (I can’t help this) hair-raising. But I have reservations. I can’t give an unqualified rave.

To explain why not, here’s part of what I wrote about The Bookseller of Kabul:
“These are real people, not fictional characters, I kept reminding myself. I wondered if Sultan, the bookseller, or any of his English-speaking family members, had read this book and what, if anything, that might mean for the lives of any individuals in the story. It is such a huge responsibility, I always think--writing and publishing intimate details about the lives of living human beings. How does one dare?”

Since writing that post, I’ve read that the real-life bookseller depicted in Seierstad’s book, Sultan, was indeed unhappy with the literary portrait painted of him. An unsurprising consequence. But in light of that, how about an answer to the obvious question that started shouting in my mind while I was reading the first chapter of Kabul Beauty School, a question left unanswered by the following chapters, as well as by the interview with the author and questions for discussion at the end of the book, i.e., What have been the repercussions to the author’s “best friend” in Kabul subsequent to the publication, in a best-selling book, of the account of how the two women managed to pass the friend off as a virgin on her wedding night? How has the friendship fared? How would it be possible that Roshanna’s in-laws would not now know the whole story? What is the point of engaging in subterfuge on a friend’s behalf, only to trumpet the full story to the world after the fact?

The last of the questions suggested for groups discussing this book is, “Do you think it was wise for Debbie to help Roshanna escape detection as a non-virgin on her wedding night? Would you have chosen to interfere? Why or why not?” Fine, I say, discuss those questions, but don’t stop there--go on and ask whether or not, having interfered, Debbie took on an obligation to keep her friend’s secret?

The author admits to being impulsive, rarely thinking twice before speaking her mind. Had she not told the story of Roshanna’s wedding, the book would lose that much of its force, so it’s easy to see why everyone on the publishing team would have pushed for it, but didn’t Rodriquez have any second thoughts? Is this a moral dilemma? It’s probably pretty obvious where I come down on this one. Even here, in the tell-all, tabloid culture of the U.S., I would expect better treatment from a friend. In Afghanistan, where women are punished severely for so much less, and the author knows it, I can’t understand Debbie’s decision at all. Did Roshanna give her permission? Encourage Debbie to tell her story? This was a 5 a.m. wake-up-and-agonize story for me, and I’m not even involved!

Is it wrong of me to raise the question here in a more or less public forum? What do you say?

Social discrimination against Native Americans, traditional ways of life lost, wildlife habitat lost, tracts of formerly beautiful land manacled and imprisoned—these were the Patrick Smith novels I read last week. Women denied any reasonable measure of autonomy, turned into “female impersonators” or “drag queens” for as long as it takes them to be transferred from father to husband, their husbands also suffering from unemployment and endless war, the fields their children might have played in now minefields—these were the memoirs set in Afghanistan. I don’t advise hiding from either history or current events; being informed about our world is crucial to living in it wisely. But I admit I needed a little break at this point and turned to a different kind of reality, one more amenable to direct input, more likely to ease the heart. Anne Raver’s Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures was like a morning in the garden. I needed that. The Wild Boar, a different kind of murder tale by Felix Mettler and set in Zurich, was another change of pace. Right from the beginning, we know who committed the murder. The mystery lies in if and how the police will solve the crime.


I was in motion pretty much the whole hour on the beach with Sarah on Saturday morning, and Sunday brought a surprise visit from our friend Sandra, who was on her way for a walk in the Weeki Wachee Preserve and invited me to come along. Fabulous! The tracts of land that make up the preserve are varied. Some areas are “scrubland restoration,” while the land we walked on Sunday was formerly owned by a company that mined it for phosphate. Unlike the scrub, it’s mostly open land, savannah-like in appearance. There are also beautiful small lakes and strange hills of piled-up limestone rocks, both lakes and hills created by the old mining activity. This area has several points of entry, a straight paved road leading in from one, with two-tracks branching off and curving through the property. We’ll go earlier next week and hope to see more birds. My only disappointment (but hardly a surprise) is that dogs are not allowed, even on leash.

So, back in Aripeka, later in the day, David and Sarah and I went for a stroll. It was a very lively day, with families fishing from bridges and road ends and lots of boats going out on the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Land was good, too, though. The sun was like a benediction. I felt a little bit the way Sarah must feel: “Outdoors!!!!”


Anonymous said...

Margaret Atwood says writers are ruthless, and she should know, but I'm always shocked when they disregard the very safety of their subjects. That's carrying writerly self-absorption too far.

But then I am a crank these days. I believe I need a vacation.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm not exactly cranky, Gerry, here on vacation, but I'm still a crank on selected issues. Now HOW cold is it back in Michigan???