Archive for August, 2014

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

August 27, 2014

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

Purchased at the Book Depository

Purchased at the Book Depository

Ruth Swain pens that credo on the opening page of her personal opus which will become History of the Rain. By age 15, the precocious Ruth was a “sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome” (Ruth uses a lot of capital letters, as her writing coach notes). But when she headed to Trinity College, she collapsed and came home again: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet.”

So Ruth is confined to her bedroom in the attic of the Swain family cottage in Faha, Ireland, in search of something to do. Her room has two distinguishing features — two skylights that let her track the rain (and occasional welcome sun) and 3,958 books (carefully catalogued by her father who collected them) in tottering stacks that virtually surround her. It is those books that inspire her project to tell the Swain family story.

Mainly, she wants to recount the story of her father’s life, but to do that she needs to go back as far as her great-grandfather, the Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, who created the foundation axiom of the Swain family:

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

booker logoWe will learn more about the Reverend (including his affection for the Pole-vault — “firing himself into the sky”), but that is probably indicator enough for review purposes. The Reverend sends Abraham off to Oxford to read the classics and Prepare for Life, which pretty much comes down to “waiting to get The Call”. A Call does come, but it is not from the Almighty — rather it is the arrival of the Great War and Abraham’s decision to enlist.

Abraham’s war does not last long. He is seriously wounded on his very first offensive, before he has even fired a shot. His life is saved first by a sympathetic German soldier who applies a tourniquet rather than finishing him off with a bayonet — and then by a young English doctor, Oliver Cissley, who “has come to war to save lives”.

Abraham will spend the rest of the war in a home for injured soldiers and Cissley will die in it — but saving Abraham’s life has left a mark that will stretch on. The doctor’s mother visits Abraham in the home and shares with him her son’s letters and his pride in saving Abraham. The Cissley family has done well out of the war (they manufactured “two million Mills grenade bombs”) and wants to give Abraham a house and lands in Ireland that they own in memory of their son.

Ireland (well, at least the Ireland of fiction) is notorious for having land that is hostile to farming and the plot that Abraham Swain is given is even more resistant to cultivation than most. While he struggles along for some years, slowly but surely he develops an obsession with salmon fishing. He records every catch he makes in succeeding decades and eventually produces a book, The Salmon in Ireland, with “Seventy-eight Illustrations from Photographs and Two Maps” — the novel features a number of excerpts.

Ruth’s father, Virgil, has no better luck farming the plot than his own father did and, like Abraham, develops his own obsession (hopeless obsessions are an essential of the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard). It starts with collecting and reading books (those 3,958 volumes that are Ruth’s constant companions) and evolves into endlessly writing poetry. He never actually gets any poetry published, but the people of Faha do regard him as the town laureate.

There is a fourth generation of male Swains present as well in the History of the Rain, Ruth’s twin brother, Aeney. She tells us early on that he is no longer with us — she takes a fair while to tell the story of his death.

That family history is the superstructure of this book, but it would be wrong to imply that that is all there is to it. Ruth’s manuscript is as much written contemporary oral history as it is historical story — each chapter opens in the here-and-now with incidents from her own confined life, be it the visit of townsfolk, domestic crises or the latest on her mother’s mother, the ninety-seven-year old Nan (or is she ninety-nine?) who continues to rule the Swain cottage from her seat by the fire.

Indeed, it is those contemporary thoughts that supply History of the Rain with one of its most distinctive features. Ruth is a product of all those ancient books she has read (Dickens is a particular favorite) and her prose when she is writing about her ancestors reflects that — to the reader, for the most part it feels as through the book was written many decades ago. And then, out of the blue, there come references to Facebook or the latest economic collapse and we are abruptly reminded that Ruth’s chronicle is very much being written in the present by a 20-year-old girl.

All of this made for a pleasant enough read. While this is the first Niall Williams I have read, it is his ninth novel — and, as I have come to expect from Irish authors, he certainly knows how to use the language. As the novel went on, I came to quite like and appreciate Ruth — her pictures of the male generations of the family were not quite as well developed but they too become real-enough characters.

The problem is that History of the Rain is what I call an “Irish village” novel and that sub-genre has some challenges of its own. “Irish village” novels do acknowledge that there are global issues at play (be it a famine, the Great War, the Troubles or the latest economic collapse) but those are so remote and beyond the influence of the book’s characters that they are just “there”. Of far greater consequence are the localized, personal issues (such as Ruth’s illness or Nan’s latest problems) that do genuinely impact on day-to-day life. Alas, there is an inherent limitation in focussing on the “small” while only acknowledging the “large” — and it takes some special skill to make it memorable.

All of which means that while I found History of the Rain to be an entirely worthwhile read, this fan of “Irish village” novels would have to admit that it did not measure up to the best in the genre. I would point to John McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun, John Borderick’s The Pilgrimage and even Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (which was Booker longlisted last year) as better examples of the sub-genre. (And Colm Toibin has more than one that would be worthy of including on that short list.)

Don’t let that put you off History of the Rain — but if you don’t yet have your own list of “Irish village” favorites and want to expand it, there are better places to start than this one.

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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

August 12, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Imagine a youngish chef (say in his late 30s) who has decided he has had enough of all traditional cuisine, be it French, nouvelle or any of the more recent fusions. He’s going to create his own — he’ll still use a stove, pots and pans and knives but this mix of Inuit, Brazilian and Eritrean is going to be something special. A few of his customers end up thinking he is brilliant, many at least appreciate the creative effort and some (more than a few it has to be said) think the whole thing is just plain silly.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the third novel from 39-year-old Joshua Ferris, but I’d say he has already “typed” himself as a writing version of that young chef. I sampled his first, Then We Came to the End (2007), and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat frothy, romp. Set in a failing Chicago ad agency, it had some truly comic moments and diversions, enough to offset the parts that just didn’t make sense — other readers had a much more negative reaction than mine. I was not tempted by his second, The Unnamed (2010), because reviews indicated it was more of the same. And I would have given this one a pass as well had it not been one of the original American novels to make the Booker longlist.

So just what story “cuisines” does Ferris try to fuse together in this one?

booker logoThe foundation one is dentistry of all things. The central character, Paul O’Rourke, is a Park Avenue dentist of some repute, with five treatment rooms (no office — the rent is expensive and that would mean one less chair) and a thriving practice. He’s proud of his work, so don’t think as a reader you won’t get some dental treatment reading, painful as it might be. As well, all but one of the other story threads are rooted in aspects of the dental practice.

Next into the mix is Ferris’ comic strain — and I knew from his debut (and some New Yorker stories) that he is a fine comic writer. Dentist O’Rourke, despite his reliance on his “me-machine” (that’s what he calls his cellphone) is techno-fearful and has always resisted the creation of a website for his practice:

I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.

And then one day, Paul’s receptionist/office manager (and ex-lover), Connie, calls him to the computer station: on-screen is a website for O’Rourke Dental, complete with accurate information and real, if dated, pictures of the staff. The novelist spins this out not so much as “identity theft” but “identity virus” — the website eventually is supplemented with a Facebook page and Twitter account. Given Paul’s own fascination with his me-machine, this particular thread supplies the platform for some quite good satire on modern social media.

Stream three springs from the clinic staff — in addition to Connie (Jewish, but not observant), there is his hygienist, Mrs. Convoy (who is a devout Catholic) and Paul’s aide, Abby, who appears in the novel only behind her pink paper mask and never says a word. Ferris doesn’t use this threesome so much as characters as he does metaphors for Paul’s historical love life:

I don’t get pussy whipped. I get cunt gripped. I get cunt gripped and just hope to get out alive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes — so you can look forward to that one irrecuperable battering ram of a ballbreaker that will finally do you in.

To be cunt gripped means to show up at the door unannounced. It means calling at all hours. It means saying “I love you” far too soon, on or around the second date, and saying it all too frequently thereafter. When they caution that I might be moving too fast, I double down and send them flowers and fruit. To be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life.

This has happened four times in Paul’s life. The first two were in puberty and don’t really count at this stage of the story. The third, Sam Santacroce, came in university; the fourth was Connie. And we soon discover that Paul’s fascination was not with either Sam or Connie as individuals, but with their families, specifically their religious commitment and the “community” that that created — rabidly Catholic in Sam’s case, Jewish in Connie’s. Paul is not religious at all but he has a desperate compulsion for the security of the formality, ceremony, structure and discipline, above all discipline, that comes with fervent religious belief, whomever the particular superior being might be.

That desire fuels the fourth thread of the novel, which segues off both it and the “identity virus” and becomes the dominant one for most of the book. Whoever has created the website and other social media for O’Rourke Dental is a sect leader and excerpts from the religious texts of a lost Levantine tribe subject to frequent attempts at genocide start to appear on the various social media vehicles of the “virtual” Paul. Without giving too much away, the source of the identity virus is the founder of the religion of Ulm (whose central tenet is doubt in everything, starting with whether or not there is a God — not atheist or agnostic, just doubtful) and who is identifying and recruiting individuals (like Paul) whom he has decided have ancestral roots in the lost tribe.

And finally, just to put some icing on the cake and add some offbeat spice to the story (sorry about that — couldn’t resist extending the mixed metaphor, but Ferris has that effect on me), Paul is a lifelong Red Sox fan who watches, tapes and saves every game but always absents himself from the room for the sixth inning. Actually, he was more a fan of the Curse of the Bambino — since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, his enthusiasm has ebbed but old obsessions are hard to shed.

Much like Harriet Burden in the last book and first Booker longlister reviewed here (The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt), Paul is a character searching for his identity (which makes the “virtual” one perhaps the most innovative aspect of the novel). Unlike Harriet, however, who has a number of substantial identities that she is trying to meld into a single one, Paul’s quest is self-evidently hopeless from the start.

And, for this reader at least, silly.

While the early parts of the novel had their moments — especially the bits around social media — once the real and pseudo religious ones took over, it became positively distasteful (okay, my metaphor is now totally out of control — blame Ferris). And I would have to say that the twist that Ferris uses to end the book said to me that he was every bit as confused by his fusion as I was and had to grasp to find a conclusion.

I could accept To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an acceptable, if failed, effort at literary risk-taking that deserved to be published. For the life of me, I can’t understand how the Booker Jury decided it was one of the thirteen best novels of 2014.

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

August 7, 2014

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Harriet (“Harry”) Burden is the widow of a prominent New York art dealer, Felix Lord. She is herself an artist who exhibited to little notice in the 1970s and 1980s — she stopped exhibiting but remained very much part of the art world, even if merely (at that point) as “spouse of Felix”.

Harriet was convinced that her work was overlooked primarily because she was female and after Felix’s death embarked on a project titled Maskings: “…declaring that it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”

Maskings involved Harriet engaging three males to serve as “fronts” for exhibitions of her work (I’d describe them as installations which grow ever more complex): The History of Western Art (1998) by Anton Tish, The Suffocation Rooms (2002) by Phineas Q. Eldridge and Beneath (2003), by an artist known only as Rune. In one sense, she proved her point: all three exhibitions were well received. In another, she failed dramatically — Rune insists that he was the creative force for Beneath, acknowledged as the most complex of the three. While she is generally given full credit for the first two, critical debate continues around who really created Beneath.

booker logoThe reader learns all this (and much more) in the opening pages of The Blazing World, which come in the form of an Editor’s Introduction from I.V. Hess, an academic who has pursued Harriet’s story and produced this book. Harriet is dead at this point, but she has left behind 24 journals devoted to subjects ranging from autobiographical items to notes on reading to “quantum theory and its possible use for a theoretical model of the brain” to thoughts on the study of monsters.

Perhaps the most relevant of the journals cited in the Introduction are the two devoted to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), who served as Harriet’s alterego (the novel’s title comes from one of Cavendish’s works) and who also felt “brutally constricted by her sex”:

Snubbed by many with whom she would have liked to engage in dialogue, Cavendish created a world of interlocutors in her writing. As with Cavendish, I [Hess] believe that Burton cannot be understood unless the dialogical quality of her thought and art is taken into consideration. All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue. She continually shifts from the first person into the second and then to the third. Some passages are written as arguments between two versions of herself. One voice makes a statement. Another disputes it. Her notebooks became the ground where her conflicted anger and divided intellect could do battle on the page.

Burden complains bitterly about sexism in the culture, the art world in particular, but she also laments her “intellectual loneliness”. She broods on her isolation and lashes out at her many perceived enemies. At the same time, her writing (like Cavendish’s) is colored by extravagance and grandiosity: “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace,” she writes in an entry that directly discusses her spiritual kinship to Cavendish. Like Cavendish, Burden’s desire for recognition in her lifetime was ultimately transmuted into a hope that her work would finally be noticed, if not while she was alive, then after her death.

Hess does not just discuss the notebooks in the Introduction, she (I’m assuming Hess is female — we aren’t told) outlines her own investigative process. She’s discovered that Harriet/Harry wrote some critical reviews of her own work under the pseudonym Richard Brickman (and perhaps some others). She has had full access to conversations and interviews with Harriet’s two children, Maisie and Ethan, and their work (both are involved in the art world as well). She has researched and interviewed the three frontmen/collaborators, Harriet’s childhood best friend, her post-Felix lover and a host of others.

The most dominating characteristic of The Blazing World is its structure, so let’s pause to outline that here. After that introduction, the novel proceeds in “chapters” that range from excerpts from the notebooks to interviews with those who knew Harriet to essays from Maisie and Ethan to relevant articles culled from academic journals. While the arrangement is roughly chronological, the voice, style and specific subject matter all change from chapter to chapter. My mental image while reading The Blazing World is that it is a literary version of doing a massive jigsaw puzzle: the Editor’s Introduction is the helpful full picture on the box but after that we are left to figure out where the detailed pieces themselves fit in that picture. And in this particular puzzle, the “pieces” come in a welter of different sizes, shapes and artistic styles which makes the “solving” even more difficult than usual.

There is another characteristic which for readers is every bit as important. As the author’s note at the end of the novel reveals (and fans of Hustvedt probably already know), the novelist herself is a multi-disciplinary creature. This is her fifth novel, but she also lectures on artists and theories of art. She has published a non-fiction work, The Shaking Woman or A History of Nerves, “an interdisciplinary investigation of the mind-body problem”. And she has lectured at international conferences “on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology”. All of those interests show up in The Blazing Woman — this is one of those novels that features some lengthy footnotes and numerous citations of other books ranging from poetry collections to philosophy.

Given that the shifts in voice, person, text and scholarly (or narrative) point of view occur every 15 pages or so, all this makes The Blazing World a very difficult book to read. By the halfway point, I found myself skimming almost as many sections as ones that I was reading closely — neuropsychoanalysis, obscure theories of art and digressions into centuries-old philosophical disputes are pretty much ventures into opacity for this reader. There were so many threads being presented and I was finding only a few of them worth the attention. Indeed, were it not for the novel’s presence on the Booker longlist (and it was my first read from that list), there was a powerful inclination to abandon the novel — an inclination that I suspect many readers will indulge.

I kept on, however, and in the final analysis I am glad that I did. At about the two-thirds point, I found that the threads that were important to me kept popping up more and more often. And, despite the odd structure of The Blazing World, I found it was developing an entirely worthwhile structure of its own.

Harriet (or Harry or Richard or whomever) — artist, journal-keeper, reader, polemicist, philanthropist, spouse and mother — is a creature involved in a lifelong struggle to find her identity. Only is this case, it is not a search for “An Identity” but rather how to meld together the numerous fully-formed identities that are part of her character (in that sense she is a reflection of Hustvedt) so that they form a single individual. As her death approaches, that struggle/challenge has not been answered and acquires an increasing urgency.

Given all the parts that I skimmed, that suggests that I would find much more if I went back and gave The Blazing World a second read — and I am sure that I would. Despite my overall positive assessment, I won’t be doing that: my own struggles and challenges on the first read were enough for me. I am sure that budding academics in the future will be spending many months, even years, paying attention to the many threads that are twined together in this novel and producing lengthy theses that purport to represent the whole cloth.

How did this novel come to the Booker longlist (one of four that represent the first American contingent under the new Prize rules)? I am guessing that that “academic” reference I just made might be the answer. This year’s jury features a number of academics whose life work consists of the kind of investigation that I.V. Hess has undertaken with Harriet Burden — and I suspect Hustvedt’s portrayal of that process made the novel a better read for them than it was for me. I won’t be pressing The Blazing World onto a lot of friends as a “must read” but if interdisciplinary academic searching is something that strikes your fancy, you might want to give it a try. And I will admit that the picture of Harriet “Harry” Burden that finally came together for me is one that will remain in memory.

Crimes Against My Brother, by David Adams Richards

August 3, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

One thing can be said for certain: in the literary world, the Miramichi River, the rugged terrain surrounding it and the people who live there are every bit as much “David Adams Richards country” as southwestern Ontario belongs to Alice Munro. A list of his publications, both fiction and non-fiction, numbers more than 20 and most are centred on the Miramichi. And those works have produced recognition, spread over decades: A Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1988 (Nights Below Station Street), another one for non-fiction in 1998 (Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi) and a Giller Prize in 2000 (Mercy Among The Children).

I was born in 1948, Richards in 1950, so his writing career and my reading one have certainly overlapped. I don’t count him as one of my favorite authors but over the decades I have read a number of his books (I can’t say exactly how many), although Crimes Against My Brother is the first since the KfC blog started 5 1/2 years ago. Let’s just say that I am willing to venture into the Miramichi valley every now and then, but the fictional version is not one of my favorite destinations.

Richards’ Miramichi is not a particularly pleasant place. At the top end of the scale, it is an environmentally stunning one — a world-famous salmon river surrounded by incredible stands of timber. That produces the mid-level conflict — lumbering companies who strip the land, endanger the river and its tributaries and cruelly exploit their workers. And right at the bottom, we have the people who struggle to live there. As is the case with so many people who are born and live their lives in resource-rich areas, they are pawns in the global economy and that powerless status becomes amplified in the way they relate to each other.

Crimes Against My Brother features all of those elements. If you haven’t yet ventured into Richards’ Miramichi it would not be my recommendation as the place to start (Mercy Among The Children would be my choice) — if as a reader you have been here before (and appreciated the experience), you will want to explore this latest part of the ongoing saga.

Here is the author introducing this latest Miramichi volume:

Ian Preston had some good times with his two cousins, Evan Young and Harold Dew.

There were two or three things that united them, as if they were tethered together in the hold of a ship.

One, each boy grew to manhood on the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river.

Two, all three know Joyce Fitzroy and Lonnie Sullivan, all of them had to work for Sullivan and all had a chance at getting Joyce Fitzroy’s inheritance. But the one who didn’t seek it got it. That fact is a strange anomaly in the heavens, one that might make us believe or disbelieve. That is, no matter how things happen, some will say yes, there is a God, and others will say no, this proves no God exists. As for God himself — he has already made up his mind.

The narrator of the novel is himself a product of the Miramichi from the same era. He is from the same generation as Ian, Evan and Harold but “escaped” to college in New York, went on to Yale and is now a tenured professor but his heart and soul (and this is typical of Richards’ work) remain in the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river:

I spoke to my students often — all of whom had written their interminable essays, their left-leaning theories on the dispossessed, their brilliant studies of our disenfranchised, every piece so polished you would think it is publishable in The Globe and Mail — about these three. Yet I realized that not one of my students had ever slept in a room with rats walking across the floor like Ian Preston had. Not one of them, at fourteen, had stood up against men coming in at night drunk to fuck his mother, like Evan Young. Not one had carried a water bucket up a gangplank, or tossed wood all day until dark, like Harold Dew. Not one had cut his own wood for the winter, trapped beaver against a black brook, killed an animal with a stick. Or gone at twelve years of age to work for Lonnie Sullivan. That is, even as I taught these students, these pleasant, affable upwardly mobile young men and women, I wondered what could their inestimable essays ever say beyond what I myself had known in my blood by the time I was ten years old? And why did my mother and father want this for me — this world where I had become something of a figure of merit? To fuss and preen over me when I came home?

In the world that Richards creates, the powerless people in this valley — not just the three cousins and the narrator, but everyone who appears — have three options about the fundamental source they will choose as a guide for their lives:

  • They can choose to devote themselves to God as Sydney Henderson has (he was a central character in Mercy Among The Children, a minor one here). He made a pact with God, but as you can tell from the first excerpt his God was not a particularly beneficent one. There are others in this book who have a made a similar pact — although not Ian, Evan or Harold.
  • Or you can reject God, as the three boys did when they were caught for three days in the terrible ice storm of 1974 on Good Friday Mountain where they were cutting and hauling Christmas trees for Lonnie Sullivan. In a blood brother ceremony before they are saved, they reject Sydney’s God and vow to survive on their own. That puts them at the mercy of the mercantile, commerce-cheating, global-economy world — a world that has little patience for the children of the Miramichi.
  • And then there’s the “get by as best you can” option, the choice of most of the secondary characters in the book — Annette Brideau, the Robb sisters, the narrator himself, to mention just a few. This choice has its problems as well, since both the malevolent God of Sydney and the equally malevolent powers of commerce keep intruding on the Miramichi — “as best you can” is an ever-moving target.
  • Crimes Against My Brother will follow the three boys through to adulthood — a concise summary of the story would describe it as “relentlessly bleak”. Two of them, in fact, will “succeed” in conventional economic terms; they do not in any way “succeed” in finding an enjoyable life. The narrative stream pretty much moves from one upheaval to another, following the stories of each of the three.

    Like the other Richards’ novels that I have read, this is a look at the inherently powerless, how life treats them and how they respond. There are truly despicable creatures in the novel (Lonnie) and there are sadly misguided ones (Annette), but for the most part it features decent people doing their best to find a decent life — and almost always failing, sometimes from their own weaknesses, more often because of external forces.

    From my experience, that seems to be consistent with Richards ongoing exploration of the Miramichi and its people and one can hardly fault him for returning to this world and those who live there. If Alice Munro looks at her part of Canada through sepia-toned glasses as some have observed, Richards looks at his with razor-sharp, penetrating precision — life in his Miramichi Valley is definitely not pleasant, but it is a story that deserves to be told.


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