The Letter of Marque

The_Letter_of_Marque_coverThe 12th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series opens with Jack not being quite himself, having been dismissed from the Royal Navy on false charges. On many counts, he’s lucky. In The Reverse of the Medal, his friends made sure he didn’t have to suffer public humiliation. And Stephen has purchased the recently decommissioned Surprise for Jack to captain as a letter of marque (essentially a private ship). But being a Navy man was a crucial part of Jack’s identity, and he hopes to find a way back in.

Captaining a private ship has some advantages. Men can’t be pressed into service, so everyone on the ship wants to be there. And Lucky Jack Aubrey is someone volunteers want to serve under, in hopes that they can benefit from his luck and get a share of valuable prizes. And the arrangement is successful. Jack is as capable a captain as ever, and he has reason to hope his good work will be rewarded with a return to the Navy.

The first part of this book was duller than some of the others in the series. I had a hard time getting interested in the missions themselves, although of course I wanted Jack to do well. As is often the case, the specific details of the encounters with enemy ships weren’t always easy to follow. (It’s why I often prefer the books set on land.) And there wasn’t a lot of the personal interaction that I enjoy from this series. There is an especially intense attack on a French ship in which Jack is injured. The operation to remove the bullet is one of the book’s more gripping scenes.

Another point of interest in the early part of the book is Stephen’s opium addiction. He comes up with an all-too-convenient argument about how medical men can be responsible about their doses, even given themselves an amount that would seem like a lot. All the while, he’s gradually being weaned of his addiction as his servant Padeen steals doses for himself and waters the remainder down with brandy. It’s heartening to watch Stephen recover without knowing what’s happening. But by the end of the book, his ignorance about the low doses becomes dangerous when he gets a fresh supply. And his new liking of coca leaves does not bode well for the future.

The last half of the book brings a return to land, and I found this much more enjoyable. At home in England, Jack is offered the reinstatement he so desires, but on terms he can’t bring himself to accept. A death in the family gives him a new status that may work to his advantage. For once, Jack doesn’t really bungle anything much in his time at home. I mean, you could say he bungled the deal to get back in the Navy, but I say he took a principled stand. If, as Stephen says later, it had been presented to him differently, he might have made another choice.

Stephen, meanwhile, must try and repair his marriage with Diana, and so he goes to Sweden to proclaim his faithfulness, despite rumors to the contrary. This part of the book was maybe a little too easy, but Stephen deserves some happiness. I’m just not convinced that the happiness will last. But I like that Diana is not made out to be a bad person, just a very independent one. It remains to be seen whether she’s too independent for a happy marriage with Stephen. Then again, maybe a marriage to a man so often at sea is the perfect thing! I’ll continue to be interested in seeing how their relationship evolves.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

The Moon and Sixpence

Moon and SixpenceThis 1919 novel by W. Somerset Maugham is ostensibly a biography in which an unnamed narrator attempts to shed light on the life of the mysterious artist Charles Strickland (a character based on Paul Gauguin). Although he’s stretching the truth when he says, “I knew him more intimately than most,” he did know Strickland personally at a key moment in his career. However, much of what he knows about him, he came to know second-hand, sometimes through stories from people who the narrator himself admits are unreliable.

Thus, this novel is, to a small degree, a demonstration of the problem of biography. The narrator/author has firsthand knowledge of his subject, but that knowledge is limited, and so he must fill in the gaps. He notes that “I find myself in a position to throw light on just that part of his tragic career which has remained the most obscure.” Yet it is just this part of his career that the author knows only secondhand. But perhaps those early years, when he knew him better, are more important anyway, if it’s important at all to know the life behind the work.

Strickland did not initially appear to have the makings of a great artist. His biographer gets to know him only because his wife has made an effort to surround herself with literary talents. Her banker husband seems dull, but pleasant enough. So it was a shock to everyone when he suddenly took off for Paris. Rumor had it that he had run off with a mistress, but the truth was that he just wanted to paint. And paint he did, although hardly anyone was impressed with his talent. The only person who sees much potential in Strickland’s art is a fellow painter who doesn’t like Strickland much but takes the man under his care anyway, much to his later regret.

Besides being a painter of not much note, Strickland is also entirely selfish and oblivious to the needs of others. He leaves his wife without a moment’s concern. He takes another man’s wife without a twinge of conscience. He asks for loans, meals, and cigarettes without ever giving a thought of reciprocating. The narrator says that

To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

But would Strickland’s “singular” personality be in any way worthy of note if he hadn’t produced art that someone later deemed to be a work of genius? At best, most of Strickland’s acquaintances grimly tolerate him. It’s only after his art becomes notable that anyone considers him as anything other than an ordinary asshole. After his art becomes valuable, even his abandoned wife rethinks her view of him, pretending that he didn’t leave her and their children on the edge of financial ruin. His final years in Tahiti are treated as artistic excess, but there’s little interest in how his young wife and servants really feel about him and about their life. What little we know comes at third- and fourth- hand, often from people who are interested in impressing the curious Englishman who’s asking about Strickland.

As for the art itself, it is unsettling and strange, and hardly anyone likes it at first glance. Many never come to like it, but some do find it compelling. The narrator says of Strickland’s paintings:

They were strangely unsettling. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyze. They said something that words were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland saw vaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was so strange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols. It was as though he found in the chaos of the universe a new pattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul, to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for the release of expression.

Good art isn’t always pleasing, and, from this, it sounds like Strickland is making good art. There’s something in it. The crude lines and off-kilter coloring point to something bigger. But does it? Or is the narrator reacting to the posthumous praise of Strickland’s work and attempting to see something in it that isn’t there?

How do we assess art? Or a life? Or the interplay between the two? Those are the questions of this book, and they’re never answered. They’re too complicated to answer in just 200 pages. But I don’t think we’re meant to take the narrator’s assessments at face value. If so, this would be a really dull book. (And, as it is, I’m glad that it was a short book. It couldn’t have sustained my interest for much longer than it did.)

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 2 Comments

Avatar: The Comics

If anyone had told me five years ago that an animated Nickelodeon show would become one of my favorite TV shows ever, I’d have had a hard time believing it. I don’t consider myself too grown-up for animation or anything like that. I just wouldn’t expect an animated show on a kid-oriented network to achieve the kind of sophistication and complexity I find in my favorite TV shows. And although I enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender from the start, it took a while for it to become a favorite. But once it did, sometime during the second season, I was well and truly hooked. It’s a show that, like so many of my favorites, put the characters first and stretches them so that they find their strength and their true selves. And when it was over, I wanted more.

It may, in fact, be telling that I was more interested in reading the comic-book follow-ups for Avatar that I was in the ones for Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But I attribute that mostly to the fact that Buffy’s story seemed to be complete. The Avatar story, on the other hand, had gaps that I wanted to see filled.

The first volume of the Avatar comics was a curious and highly uneven collection called The Lost Adventures. These are mostly short stories that occur during the time of the original series. My understanding is that many of them were published with the DVD. They were … not great. Most of them were one-joke vignettes that focused on the show’s comedy elements, rather than the more serious character development.

The three graphic novel trilogies that I read, on the other hand, were excellent—exactly what I wanted. Written by Gene Luen Yang with series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and with art by Gurihiru, these books take place in the period after the animated series and before the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which picks up the story with a new generation.

The first, The Promise, takes place immediately after the defeat of the Fire Nation, with Zuko having to decide what kind of leader he’ll be as the new Fire Lord. He asks Avatar Aang to help ensure that he doesn’t become a despot like his father. But as the complications of independence for the former colonies becomes evident, that promise becomes more difficult to keep. This book is a great example of how the series balances big political questions about how to govern with personal questions of how to be a good person and a good leader. Zuko, Aang, and Toph all have to grapple with this as they each take on a new leadership role.

The book I was most eager to read, The Search, came next. This book was really the reason I got these comics. The big question left unanswered at the end of the series was about the fate of Zuko’s mother, Ursa, and this book promised to answer it. To find the answer, Zuko decides he must get help from his sister, Azula, who has been imprisoned since the end of the war. Much of this book dwells on family and how difficult it is to put family relationships aside, even when those relationships aren’t good for us. Setting them aside comes at a cost. Ursa’s story is extremely painful because she felt she had to break those relationships, and she took drastic measures to do so. That aspect of the story was extremely satisfying, although I found some of the parallel relationships to be a little trite in comparison.

And, finally, I read The Rift, which addresses the tension between tradition and progress as Aang and Toph find themselves on opposite sites of a dispute about a factory built on what was once ground sacred to the airbenders. Probably the best part of this book was seeing Toph’s reunion with her father. It was also fun to see that she had a fan in the young engineer Satoru. The principal conflict itself didn’t interest me as much as others in the series, but I think it’s because the stakes didn’t seem all that high. I could appreciate the characters’ dilemmas, but this wasn’t a conflict that had been building over years.

I enjoyed these books, but I’m not sure I’ll read the others. For now, at least, my desire for more of this story is satisfied. But I’m glad to know there’s more in the works if I want it. (And there are still a couple of seasons of Korra I can watch as well.)

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

The Raven King

Raven KingIt was a long wait, but Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series concluded this week with the release of The Raven King. In the past few weeks, I reread all three of the preceding books. (This included listening to The Raven Boys on audio, which I highly recommend. Will Patton’s rendering of the various accents was perfect.) So when Tuesday came, I was past ready for this final book, and it did not disappoint.

But let me step back and share a bit about the series. Set in the fictional town of Henrietta, Virginia, the Raven Cycle is the story of Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic member of her family. It’s also the story of Richard Gansey, a student at the local private academy who is searching for the Welsh king Owen Glendower on the ley line near Henrietta. Gansey’s friends Ronan, Adam, and Noah each have a role to play in the search—and a special ability related to the ley line. The series follows the group through a year of searching for Glendower, a search that is complicated by their own feelings about each other and about life. It’s a marvelous series, where the magic is central and consistently exciting but never quite as important as the characters’ personal growth.

As the characters have grown, so have the questions. There are still the questions from the beginning of the series: Can Blue escape the prophesy about her true love dying if she kisses him? Can Gansey escape his death, which Blue’s vision on the ley line revealed will happen in the coming year? If they find Glendower, will he grant them a favor, and what will that favor be? But there are also questions about Blue’s family, about the sleeper who shouldn’t have been awakened, about Ronan’s dreamed-up family, about Ronan’s feelings for Adam, about Adam’s newfound powers, about Noah’s fading presence. Never mind that there’s also the future to imagine. Can Adam escape Henrietta? Can Ronan restore his home? Does Gansey have a future, and can Blue consider a future without him? What about Greenmantle? Mr. Grey? The Orphan Girl?

It’s a lot, and each question is heavy. This book is an emotional roller-coaster. The good kind.

One of the things that I like about this series—and about this book in particular—is how expansive the story is. And it manages to be so without losing the intimate connection with the central characters. But the story is bigger than this five people. The series is structured to be about Blue and Gansey, but this book returns again and again to the idea that it didn’t necessarily begin with them. Does it even have a beginning at all? It certainly doesn’t have a single beginning. There are too many lives, on too many separate trajectories that become interwoven, all leading to this point in time.

I will admit that I was initially a little frustrated at the introduction of some new major characters in this volume, especially when it appeared that one of them would be there for the end when others were absent. I liked the character, and I liked how his presence caused Blue to rethink some of her own ideas about Aglionby boys. But he seemed too central, too fast. But in her post on the book, Ana makes a good case for his presence, and I’ve come around. The thing is, beginnings and endings don’t happen on a schedule. There may be moments in our lives when a lot of them happen at once, but they happen all the time.

And that brings me to the book’s ending, the ending of the whole series. There was a moment near the end when I had to put the book down in frustration because I thought it was telling a story I didn’t want, that it was essentially using a trick I’ve seen done better in another series that I love (and that I will not name here because it’s a spoiler for both series, but I don’t actually know anyone else who has read both series in full). But Stiefvater had tricks of her own, and I wasn’t disappointed in the ending. She’s been saying all along that Gansey would die, and her readers have been saying he can’t. The way it shakes down isn’t wholly surprising, but the how is where the surprises are.

So this book is about endings and beginnings and how they all weave together, with leavings and joinings, disappointments and delights. It’s a fitting conclusion to a fine series.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Lucy BartonLucy Barton is a writer who lives in New York, a place she could barely even dream of as a poor child in rural Illinois. Her new life cemented the distance that was always there between her and her family. But when what should have been a simple surgery turned serious and forced her to stay in the hospital for weeks, Lucy’s husband summoned her mother to stay with her—and she came.

In this novel by Elizabeth Strout, Lucy remembers the conversations she and her mother had in that hospital room, and she remembers the things she doesn’t want to talk about. Most of their talk centers on neighbors from Lucy’s childhood, where they are and what they are doing. That’s safe. Talking about themselves isn’t, as Lucy knows instinctively:

I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly—it was just stupidity—I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.”

One of the things this novel does exceptionally well is capture how families can mark us irrevocably, even when they’re not part of our lives. Lucy has little to do with her family. There’s nothing that looks like intimacy between her and her parents and siblings. But she can’t escape her memories, some of them extremely traumatic. The memories tend to exist as fragments only, because Lucy can’t face much more, but those fragments are enough.

The book also raises the question of memory and how well it can be trusted. Lucy mulls over whether her mother’s memories are the same as her own, and the few times they creep toward getting personal reveal some differences. Lucy’s mother barely even remembers the truck that’s the center of Lucy’s trauma. And then there are the assumptions they make about each other.  “You were a different kind of kid from Vicky. And from your brother too. You didn’t care as much what people thought,” Lucy’s mother says. But Lucy’s memory is different. She may have done what she wanted, but that didn’t mean other people’s opinions didn’t matter.

Strout almost obstinately refuses to really dig in to see what really happened in Lucy’s childhood or what her mother really thinks. And that’s OK. The fact that we only see her actions and words and have to surmise her meaning are what make this book work. It shows how we can never fully know another’s mind, especially if that mind is deliberately keeping itself secret.

For these reasons, the sometimes frustratingly fragmentary nature of this short book work in its favor. But there were some other aspects of the narration that I found frustrating in a less satisfying way. For instance, Lucy often refers to specific events and cultural touchstones with great specificity, leaving out everything but the name. The series of children’s books about the little girl on the prairie. The president whose wife consulted an astrologer. I couldn’t decide if she’s avoiding proper names to keep the book from seeming dated or to get at the vagueness of some memories, but either way, it was distracting, kind of like when TV shows have people drinking out of red-and-white soda cans that merely say, “Cola.” We all know what you mean, and pretending none of us know seems silly. (I understand the reason for this on TV, but I don’t get it in a book.)

The storyline involving Lucy’s relationship with her family is set against her story of becoming a writer, of learning to be ruthless. I think this book is meant to be her attempt at ruthlessness, and it sort of works in that respect. Her mother doesn’t come across well, and neither does Lucy herself, by the end. She shows how both of their actions have consequences that extend across generations, even when neither of them means to be hurtful. The last several chapters shows how Lucy leaves her own wounds. However, this section lacks some of the detail that made the early chapters, constructed around those hospital conversations, so powerful. They seemed rushed and maybe even a little perfunctory. Expanding them might have led too far in the other direction, toward too much explaining. More justifying, less ruthlessness. But I was still left wanting something different in the book’s resolution.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

Alive

AliveIn October 1972, a group of rugby players from Uruguay, along with several friends and neighbors, were flying across the Andes to Chile when their plane crashed. Seventy days later, sixteen survivors were rescued.

This is a well-known story, perhaps one of the best-known survival stories of modern times. I was already familiar with it from the 1993 movie, also titled Alive, the documentary on the movie DVD, and the audiobook of Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado, one of the survivors. I thought I’d had enough of this particular story, but Citizen Reader gave this book, the first written about the disaster, such a strong recommendation that I gave in. I’m glad I did. I whipped through the whole thing in a day. Even though I knew the story, this account was impossible to put down.

Author Piers Paul Read takes a very straightforward approach in describing what happened. He spends most of his time with the survivors of the plane crash, describing in detail how they organized their days and worked to survive. He also describes the search efforts by the families, some of them quite misguided. He does not editorialize, nor does he appear to shape the narrative to present cliff-hangers and other authorial tricks to garner interest.

Read’s restraint is significant when it comes to the survivors’ difficult decision to eat the bodies of the dead. He makes no great attempt to defend their decision, nor does he condemn it. Instead, he presents their logic and lets the reader decide. I find it hard to imagine anyone condemning them after reading this, and I think if Read had tried to argue for them, it could have backfired. Instead, he puts us in the moment, letting us understand how desperate the situation was and how they needed to find physical strength both to live and to find a way home. He also doesn’t sensationalize, although he describes their diet in some detail, partly, as he notes in the introduction, to stave off speculation that their actions were worse than they were. It is gruesome, but not gratuitous.

Another area where Read’s approach is useful is in his depiction of the group dynamics. Seventy days together in the best of conditions could be difficult, and these were the worst conditions. Although the survivors became a tight-knit group who relied on one another, there were tensions. Read never pretends that there weren’t. Some survivors ate more than their share, while others appeared to malinger and not do their share of the work. None of this is unexpected, and Read presents the conflict within the group as just one of many aspects of life at the crash site, making no great effort to dig into who was right and who was wrong. I liked that about his approach, because I don’t think it’s possible for me, in my cozy apartment on a sunny spring day, to judge someone stuck on a snowy mountain with serious injuries and little chance of survival.

I also appreciated Read’s focus. This story is about these survivors. There’s no need to pull in other, similar accounts. Read doesn’t provide additional context by looking at other, similar disasters, nor does he interview experts on survival or the Andes. Such information could have been interesting, but it could also have been a distraction. There’s enough material here, and the story stands well enough on its own.

Posted in Nonfiction | 4 Comments

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursI’m on record as liking my short stories weird. Authors can get away with things in short stories that would be unbearable if they tried to sustain it for hundreds of pages. So I was excited that Helen Oyeyemi’s new book was a short story collection. It seems like a perfect form for her. And the stories mostly work. Where they don’t, I think it’s because I wanted more.

Most of the stories seem to exist in a world that’s sort of our world, but not quite. Puppets are sentient, for one thing. There are some scientific advances that involve summoning a sort of ghost of an alternate life (or something). Certain characters appear in multiple stories. And there are lots of keys. Keys to secret rooms and secret gardens, spare apartment keys, diary keys, keys that have been melted. Keys are ominous, as Rowan, a wooden puppet in “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” observes:

A key ring gets left in your care and you reject all responsibility for it yet can’t bring yourself to throw it away. Nor can you give the thing away—to whom can someone of good consciences give such an object as a key? Always up to something stitching paths and gateways together even as it sits quite still; its powers of interference can only e guess at. The wooden devil suspected keys cause more problems than they solve, so she followed Myrna with one plan in mind, to do her bit to restore order. Myrna’s home had seemed like a clever—and strictly temporary—hiding place. But with typical slyness the keys had let Rowan in and then been of no assistance whatsoever when it came to getting out.

A lot of the time, locks should just stay locked. (The final story, with the wonderful title, “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” makes that idea perfectly clear.) But once in a while an unlocked door leads to treasure, so maybe it’s worth the risk?

There’s humor in several of the stories. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” is an amusing send-up of online fan communities, with some dark twists. It’s perhaps one of the least inscrutable of the stories, and one of the most entertaining. “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society,” about a college women’s group, is similarly dark and funny.

More poignant is “Presence,” about an experimental approach to helping people who are grieving. This was one of the stories that I wanted more of. The narrative goes on some detours that never fully paid off, and I wanted to explore more of the corners of that world. But maybe not the part involving puppets, as this story is linked to “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” with its sentient puppets. That story is one of the longest in the book, and I felt its length. There was a lot going on, but it never seemed to go anywhere.

I didn’t enjoy this collection quite as much as I’d hoped, but I am finding more to appreciate as I reflect on the stories. Even some of the weaker stories, like “Drownings,” included some arresting images, such as that of a woman being burned to death who “took him [her killer] in her arms and fed him to the fire he started.” Oyeyemi deals in images. Some of them may just be there to be marveled at, but some, like this one, lead to bigger ideas. It would be fun to discuss these stories with others, to make sense of them together.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Murder of Mary Russell

Murder of Mary RussellHow’s that for a title to make long-time fans of a series nervous? The fourteenth book in Laurie R. King’s Russell/Holmes series begins with Russell facing down an unexpected visitor in her and Holmes’s Sussex home. The intruder appears to be housekeeper Mrs. Hudson’s son, Samuel. He’s after something, and although Russell suspects he’s up to no good, she tries to help, hoping that she’ll be able to figure out what he’s really after—and when he pulls a gun, she hopes that being helpful will keep her from being shot until she gets a chance to strike back or escape.

But when Mrs. Hudson comes home from her shopping Russell is gone, and there’s a pool of blood on the floor. It’s up to Holmes to figure out what happened and rescue his wife, if she’s even still alive.

Mary’s confrontation with Samuel gets the plot moving and raises the stakes, but most of this novel takes place in the past, when young Clarissa Hudson discovers her talent for “Cheats.” Clarissa and her father, James, pick pockets and scam the moneyed all over Australia before making their way to England, where they launch a long game intended to get Clarissa into loftier social circles. They slowly work their way up and have some success, until Clarissa begins to have her own ideas and desires.

One of the pleasures of this series is how King doesn’t confine herself to England in the early 20th century. She takes Holmes and Russell all over the world, to Palestine and Portugal and Japan. This time, she travels into the past, focusing the action on 19th-century London, with brief sojourns into Australia. She takes her inspiration from the Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.” I haven’t read that story, and I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, but I did find some of the character relationships confusing, and I wonder if reading the original story would have helped.

Honestly, though, I read this series for the characters more than the details of the mysteries. It was fun to get this look at Mrs. Hudson, although some of what’s revealed is unsettling and doesn’t cast Holmes in a particularly good light. It’s a complicated relationship, to put it lightly. And I missed seeing him with Russell. Actually, I just missed seeing Russell. She’s the highlight of the series for me, and a book that keeps her on the periphery is never going to be as good as a book where she’s at the center.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 4 Comments

Fates and Furies

fatesandfuriesI didn’t expect much from this book. I wasn’t a fan of Groff’s first book, The Monsters of Templeton, and there was nothing much in this book’s premise—rich white New Yorkers with marriage problems—that appealed to me enough to make me set aside my dislike of her first book and try this one. That’s until it rose from the dead to rejoin the Tournament of Books last week, making it the only book to compete after the semi-finals that I hadn’t read. Plus, the conversation on the TOB site made me think it was worth at least trying.

It was clear to me early on that we’re not meant to take the initial account of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde Satterwhite entirely seriously. The first chapter is too over the top to be real—or, if it’s real, too over the top to sustain. And then there are the parenthetical comments, making notes that show the narrative is constructed and not necessarily a full and complete account. Plus, there’s the story of Lotto’s birth, “in the calm eye of a hurricane” to a mermaid (performer) named Antoinette and a father named Gawain. The baby’s full name: Lancelot. His aunt Sallie dubbed him Lotto so he wouldn’t get beat up.

And although Lotto is surrounded by tragedy, he’s continually shielded from it. When things get complicated at home, his mother sweeps him away. He’s just awkward enough not to be hated, and his skin problems don’t lead to girl (or boy) problems. Even incidents that could scar Lotto permanently seen to wash right over him. When he meets Mathilde, the sparks are instantaneous and the marriage swift, passionate, and always faithful. With Mathilde’s support, Lotto builds a successful career. The bumps along the way don’t last, until Lotto encounters a challenge that he can’t simply wash away without thinking of it again.

The book is structured in a way that I thought was evident from the start, when we’re told, of Lotto and Mathilde, “For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from.” Most promotional copy and reviews have referred to it as something we’re supposed to know. But some have referred to it having a twist that has do to with its structure. I’m going to discuss that in some detail now, so if you’re leery of spoilers, you may not want to read on. But I truly don’t think this development is meant to be a surprise twist.

The first half of the book, “Fates,” focuses on Lotto as he makes his clumsy but amiable way through the world. In the second half, “Furies,” attention turns to Mathilde, and we see just how oblivious Lotto was. Although Mathilde was steadfast in her love and support for Lotto, she had secrets that Lotto never even bothered to wonder about. In Lotto’s version of the story, it’s easy to read Mathilde as the sometimes overlooked woman behind her man, and Mathilde’s account doesn’t contradict that. But Lotto, with his rose-colored glasses, never saw Mathilde’s true nature.

I think it would be easy, reading the Mathilde-centered section, to write her off as a Fury, wreaking violence and vengeance wherever she goes, looking out only for herself and doing whatever she must. It’s certainly true that she’s a calculating person, but it’s not clear how much her early reputation for evil is just rumor that got repeated so much that it became reality. Plus, Mathilde is remarkably ill-equipped to be her own person. She learns to give, but only because that’s how she can receive.

Still, it’s hard to just dismiss her as selfish, supporting Lotto for what she can get out of it. It does seem that there is love in their relationship. It’s not a healthy love, not a marriage to aspire to. Lotto and Mathilde never escape their own selfishness. Lotto because it doesn’t occur to him to try, and Mathilde because she knows no other way to be. They love each other in the way that they can love. It’s not a good way, but does that keep it from being love?

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 12 Comments

The Old Ways

old waysI recently reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s book, Mountains of the Mind, which is part personal essay and part cultural history. It asks a number of questions about mountains: What is it about mountains that draws us? How do mountains shape us? Why have we talked about mountains so differently over the centuries, and why have so many people sought their summits at the risk of their lives? Macfarlane’s lovely, thoughtful prose, his erudition, and his personal connection to his subject made a perfect combination, and I wanted to seek out more of his work.

In The Old Ways, Macfarlane discusses the old paths — some as old as the Neolithic age, some as recent as the 18th or 19th century — that still exist in the world, to be walked by the curious, the pilgrim, or the merely pragmatic. He talks about chalk paths across the Downs, drove-roads, holloways, sea-roads, shieling-paths across peat bogs, wadis, the Camino de Santiago, and much more. Famous walkers haunt his text: Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Thoreau. One whole chapter is dedicated to the life of Edward Thomas, an English poet whose work was deeply influenced by his walking.

One of the things Macfarlane posits in his text is that walking is actually a way of knowing, something that is other than, and beyond, thinking. Our feet press the earth, and the earth presses back; our feet are shaped by the earth, and we can know it differently by walking on it than we do by observing it in other ways. He explores various pilgrim ways: the Camino, as I mentioned, but also the Buddhist kora, or sacred circumambulation, around Minya Konka, a vast mountain in Tibet. This is the path as Way as knowledge, and Macfarlane plays with the idea that less-sacred paths — the ones where we encounter nature — are paths of knowledge and enlightenment as well.

In each chapter, Macfarlane tells stories of people he meets who are walking the same paths, people who are creating meaning out of connecting one place to another. Anne Campbell spends her days walking the peat bogs on the isle of Lewis, mapping the shieling paths and writing down the memories people have of those disappearing places before they are sucked into the peat forever. Ian Stephen is a sailor, also from the Isle of Lewis, who knows the sea-roads all around the Outer Hebrides, and can sail them in a tiny clinker-built two-man boat. Steve Dilworth is a sculptor whose work “makes ritual objects for a tribe that never existed,” and he works with a circle of erratic stones in the Outer Hebrides, connecting them with his materials of flesh, bone, metal, sinew, sand, blood, and fire. Miguel Angel Blanco has created a book for every walk he has taken, capturing its essence and shelving it in a thousand-volume Borgesian library of paths. These chapters are fascinating and also deeply personal: these are Macfarlane’s friends, his experiences. He meets these people, sails the sea-road with Ian, walks the Camino with Miguel — and then walks on, glad to have done it, glad to be alone again on the path.

This book was wonderful. It’s beautifully written and also neat and accurate, separating Macfarlane’s own experience from the history and cultural analysis with a precision that’s often hard to find. It made me want to go right out with my walking stick and a pair of good shoes (his praise of barefoot walking didn’t inspire me) and begin immediately. It was such a pleasure to read about things I didn’t know, or had heard bits about in literature but never the history. I look forward to reading more by Macfarlane, and soon.

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