Divisidero, by Michael Ondaatje

I've waited a couple of weeks to write about this book, but my thoughts still haven't settled. They are like the birds at the feeder, startling up at the slightest shadow into a flurry of wings. Ondaatje's books always give me plenty to think about, and this one is no exception.

The first part is about Anna and Claire, two teenaged sisters who live on a farm in Northern California with their father and a young man named Coop. The father had brought Coop from the neighboring farm to help with the work and learn to be a farmer after Coop's family was murdered. Older than the girls, Coop moves out to and restores the cabin that the girls' grandfather had built when he first came to stake his claim. The story moves between the three young people, circling around the incidents and stories that make up their past.

Details bring their lives into vivid focus: “Coop, who with his confidence would sweep a hay bale over his shoulder and walk to the barn lighting a cigarette with his free hand.” And “Sometimes Claire and I would come down the hill with the car lights turned off in complete blackness. Or we would climb from our bedroom window onto the skirt of the roof and lie flat on our backs on the large table-rock, still warm from the day, and talk and sing into the night. We counted out seconds between meteor showers slipping horizontal across the heavens.”

Later sections follow Anna, Claire and Coop as they move out into the world, scattered by an act of violence. Only Claire returns regularly from her job in San Francisco to visit her father and ride the high ridges of the farm. Coop has become a gambler, while Anna is in France, researching the life of a nearly-forgotten poet, Lucien Segura. She lives in his now-empty house and meets a young Romany named Rafael who once knew the author.

There are lovely structural parallels in the story. Rafael, Segura, and the three young people all are affected by fathers and stepfathers, their crafts and mistakes and disappearances. Segura's empty house echoes the grandfather's abandoned cabin and the deserted town of Allensworth in Southern California which Anna stops in during her flight from her father. The Central Plain of California, stark and barren, through which she travels was once a sea of flowers, like the depression in Segura's lawn that was once a pond. The story moves in and out of the past, setting up reflections and remnants.

Anna walks Segura's paths, swims in his stream, and sits at his blue table translating his work. She learns that she can hide in art, take refuge in the third person. I love the moment when she falls in love with the task, listening to Segura read some of his work on an old cylinder. “There was a sweet shadow and hesitance in Segura. it was like a ruined love, and it was familiar to me.” It reminded me of a recent conversation with my friend, Steve, when he told me of a casual comment that made him want to know more, and thus set him on his life's work. It also reminded me of a recent Writer's Almanac segment about Stephen Ambrose and how a professor's comment that a research paper “would add to the sum of the world's knowledge” changed his life.

What I find myself returning to again and again is Anna's quixotic effort to capture and preserve the past, Segura's past. A single life is short and buried in the flood of all the lives that come after and around it. You devote your life to accruing knowledge and experience. You expend considerable effort in shaping it into a coherent whole, and then you die and all of that is gone and no one really knows what it was like to be you. Marty introduced me to a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “People”, which has these lines: “To each his world is private . . . In any man who dies there dies with him / his first snow and kiss and fight / it goes with him . . Not people die but worlds die in them.”

The last part of the book gives us what Anna will never know: Segura's story. We find out why he left his family to come alone to the house where she sits, how Rafael met him, and why the blue table is important. Whole peoples have gone, whole towns deserted or drowned. We wonder about the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Minoans. We read about Colette or Wague and wonder What was it like to be you? The birds rise up again and then resettle in a different pattern.

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis, by Cara Black

I like reading books set in familiar places, but can also be entranced by those set in places where I'd like to go. Cara Black's mysteries featuring Aimee Leduc as a detective who mostly works computer security are set in Paris, a place that is high on my bucket list. Leduc is assisted by René Friant, only four feet tall, but dapper and wise.

On the very first page, as Leduc struggles to finish a system upgrade within the deadline, this story is launched by a phone call. A woman's voice begs her to go down to the courtyard, promising that it will only be for a few hours. When Leduc, armed with her Beretta carefully explores the courtyard, she finds a baby hidden behind the garbage containers. And we're off into a whirl of danger made even more frenetic by her attempts to care for the baby.

Black draws even the most minor of characters with a fine brush, such as the homeless man, Jules, with whom she takes refuge, or Jean Caplan who owns a dusty second-hand shop and tries to watch out for and feed Helene, an elderly woman whose life is packed into shopping bags. Black captures both the young and rebellious heir to a long-gone Polish monarchy and his uncle, an elderly Count hanging onto his memories, avoiding stereotypes and bring them both alive with small details and surprising inconsistencies.

Where Black really shines, or at least what delights me most are her descriptions of Paris, the back streets and hidden courtyards, the stones lining the Seine, the tunnels below. Leduc lives on the Ile Saint-Louis, a small island in the middle of the river, originally a “feudal island fortress”, now only eight blocks long and three blocks wide whose inhabitants refer to the rest of Paris as “the Continent”. Black shades the people and places with subtle references to the city's past. The faded aristocrats and the down-and-out both suffer the long reach of tragedy.

This is yet another excellent entry in the series: smart, fast-paced and full of heart. I highly recommend it.

A Tidewater Morning, by William Styron

I hadn't read anything of Styron's since Sophie's Choice but picked this up because I was spending a week in the Tidewater area of Virginia. The three stories making up the book are linked by having a common protagonist, Paul Whitehead. Set during the Depression and World War II, the stories present Paul's memories, based, as the Author's Note tells us, on Styron's own experiences. The tone of the stories avoids nostalgia and sentiment, giving us the boy's experiences unmediated by the experience of age.

The third story, which provides the name of the collection, is a masterpiece. On the morning in question, a brutally hot one, Paul is awakened at 1 a.m. by his mother's scream. In the last stages of cancer, her pain cannot be mitigated even by the morphine delivered by the night nurse. Forgotten, Paul lingers around the edges of the house where his mother is dying, overhearing his father's increasingly despairing conversations, taking comfort from the maid, Flo, who is legendary in the town for her crankiness, and examining his own memories of his parents arguing.

If I were teaching a class on the short story, I would have the students study this one carefully. It succeeds on all levels. The word choice reflects the vocabulary of a thirteen-year-old boy who likes to read, as we know from the books in his room. The things that he thinks about and notices—his guilt over drinking directly out of the water bottle in the refrigerator, the rankness of the chicken necks boys are using to catch crabs, his worry over what the changes in his body mean—are also typical and beautifully rendered in sentences that ache with clarity and emotion.

The organization of the story amazes me, the way answers are given and withheld, the echoes and repetitions, the gentle foreshadowing, the voices of the people in his world. Gruff Mr. Quigley docks Paul's pay for every soda and harangues Ralph, the store drudge, yet shows his compassionate side first to Ralph and later to Paul. Flo listens to radio preachers in the night and tries to comfort Paul with her faith, while later attempts by the Presbyterian minister and his wife to comfort Paul's father, a stalwart of the church, draw only a shocking contempt for a god who could allow such pain. The headlines of approaching war on the papers Paul delivers are echoed later as he trudges the street by the Flying Fortresses from the Army base down the road flying over him. And these signs of war are themselves premonitions of the death and grief to come.

The story takes on even more meaning when set against the other stories in the book. In the first story, “Love Day”, Paul is 20 and serving as a platoon leader in the Pacific. As he and his shipmates fret about when they will actually join the assault on Okinawa, Paul recalls an incident from childhood when their Oldsmobile broke down near a peanut field, and his father, although an engineer helping to build warships, is unable to fix it. Paul's remarks on a story in The Saturday Evening Post he's reading about a possible Japanese invasion earn him a tongue-lashing from his mother who loves the Japanese culture and upbraids him for reading trashy, scare-mongering stories. His father, who never raises his voice, a gentle poet somehow caught up in building war machines, snaps and tells her not to be such a fool, asking what she thinks he does all day, what she thinks the Flying Fortresses are that fly overhead every Sunday.

In the second story, “Shadrach”, Paul is ten and caught up with a family called the Dabneys, who have come down in the world, the father a bootlegger and the mother “a huge sweaty generous breadloaf of a woman”. An only child, he loves their “sheer teeming multitude” of seven children and loud eccentric life. One day, an ancient and emaciated black man turns up, Shadrach, who has walked from Alabama to die on Dabney land, 75 years after Mr. Dabney's great-grandfather sold him. Through dissolute generations since, the once-proud plantation has been reduced to a dilapidated box home made of concrete blocks.The struggling family nevertheless tries to honor the wishes of this all too human (and rank) reminder of their past.

The past and how it informs our present is one of the threads brought out by the proximity of these stories, as is the expectation of war, the small wars with those around us and the mechanized war of nations. But mostly the stories are about what it means to be a man, trying to protect your family and honor your legacy, taking refuge from emotion in gruffness and in words. This last reminds me of Ian McEwan's Solar which was also partially about hiding from emotion in words. McEwan's trademark of having some violent event intrude on normal life and set the story in motion seemed to me contrived after Styron's remarkable stories of the chaos that can upend our small and private lives.

Playlist 2011

Songs are stories, too, even when there are no words. Thanks to my friends for all the great music and for all the sweet dances.

The Jolly Tinker, Jeff Warner
Mandalay, Jeff Warner
The Bonny Bay Of Biscay-O, Jeff Warner
Across The Blue Mountains, Suzannah & Georgia Rose
Hallowell, Suzannah & Georgia Rose
Travelers Prayer, Suzannah & Georgia Rose
Narrow Space, Suzannah Park & Nathan Morrison
Darlin' Corey, Suzannah Park & Nathan Morrison
Amelia , Suzannah Park & Nathan Morrison
Man Of Constant Sorrow, Suzannah Park & Nathan Morrison
Three Pieces By O'Carolan: The Lamentation of Owen Roe O'Neill / Lord Inchiquin / Mrs. Power, John Renbourn
4×32 Strathspeys – Young Ivercauld's / Appin House / Gordon Castle / Bonnie Beatons, Waverley Station
Arran Boat/Paddy Fahey's/Devlin's/Bagdad Bully, Alexander Mitchell
Monongahela Sal, The NewLanders
Hard Times, The NewLanders
Run, Johnny Run, The NewLanders
There'll Be Some Changes Made, House Top
Do I Worry, House Top
What'll I Do, House Top
Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
True Life Near , Craig Taborn
Diamond Turning Dream, Craig Taborn
Neverland, Craig Taborn
Spirit Hard Knock, Craig Taborn
Forgetful, Craig Taborn
Bird on a Wire , Jennifer Warnes
Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler
Rocky Beaches, Ken Kolodner, Brad Kolodner
Snow Drop, Ken Kolodner, Brad Kolodner
Bethany Beach, Ken Kolodner, Brad Kolodner
Needle Case, Ken Kolodner, Brad Kolodner
Southern Cross, Ken Kolodner, Brad Kolodner
The Cordwainer's March/Mick Walsh's/Road To Banff, Ken Kolodner & Elke Baker
Purple Lillies, Ken Kolodner & Elke Baker
Booth Shot Lincoln/Moneymusk, Ken Kolodner & Elke Baker
Shebeg An Sheemor, Happy Traum
Delia's Gone, Happy Traum
White Oak Mountain / Kitchen Girl, Sally Rogers
Planxty Fanny Power, Sally Rogers

Best books I read in 2011

This has been an odd year for me. I read fewer books than usual, but among them are some that will go on the best-of-a-lifetime list.

1. To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is one of the most deeply moving books I’ve ever read and it has stayed with me long after I closed the cover. No other fiction I’ve read comes close to capturing as this book does what it means to be a parent or what it means to belong to a land.

2. Precious Bane, by Mary Webb

First published in 1926, Precious Bane is a novel about life in a village in the Ellesmere district of Shropshire. It captures the sumptuous beauty of rural life in the pre-industrial past but also the superstition, brutality and terror, thus providing a realistic picture of what is often sentimentalised as Merrie England.

3. In the Temple of a Patient God, by Bejan Matur

Matur’s poems ache with power. Her words and images barely control the deep, rumbling force that threatens to explode in blinding light. A Kurdish Alevi from Southeastern Turkey, she draws on that dark heritage of war and defeat and loss and exile to create the poems in this collection.

4. Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Everyone talked about the film, but the book is better. Woodrell’s economical prose captures life in this remote valley in the Ozarks without sentimental hand-wringing, with just the calm clarity of purpose that moves sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly through her day.

5. The Forest of Sure Things, Poems by Megan Snyder-Camp

I ended up reading this collection four times. The first time I just enjoyed the words, the sound of them, the flow. The second time I read for images, lingering over each poem and letting resonances collect in the space between them. The third time I read for meaning. I let everything go for my fourth reading, allowing words, images, and meaning to merge into an extraordinary experience.

6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In compelling prose, Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from rural Virginia, who died of cancer in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cells harvested from her tumor, in accordance with the standard practice of the time, became the first cells that could be grown in a laboratory, a huge advance for medicine because they enabled researchers to run tests in laboratories instead of on live people. Yet Henrietta’s family knew nothing of the continued existence of her cells nor of the contributions to society they enabled.

7. Journey from the North: Autobiography of Storm Jameson

In her long life (1891-1986), Jameson wrote over 45 novels and served as President of the London center of the P.E.N., the first woman to do so. This narrative captures the vitality of life as we live it: a jumble from beginning to end, sprinkled with mistakes, false starts, and moments of unreasoning joy.

8. The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel

Langston Braverman has come home to her small town of Haddington, Indiana, simply walking out of her PhD orals and abandoning that life and all its dreams. She takes refuge in the hot attic of her parents’ home where she imagines that she is writing a novel. Or maybe an epic sonnet sequence. In reality she is mostly sleeping and contemplating the wreck of her life. I found the book smart and funny and unexpected.

9. Breaker, by Sue Sinclair

This is the third book of poetry from the Toronto-based Sinclair, though the first one I’ve read. Or rather, immersed myself in, since I’ve read and reread it, set the book aside for a few months, and read it again. Poets are often advised to go deeper, to make space for more profound meaning to emerge. Sinclair’s poems make me look at the things of this world in a new way.

10. Searching for Caleb, by Anne Tyler

In discussing The Help, I said that the relationship between domestic help and their employers was more complicated than Stockton’s book indicated. For a more nuanced view, I went back to this Anne Tyler novel from 1975. While the relationship between the Pecks and their long-time maid Sulie is a very small part of the story, it is a crucial one and Tyler nails it. In just a couple of scenes she captures the conflicting emotions that drive their behavior towards each other. It is a privilege to read this woman’s writing.

11. Sketches from a Hunter's Album, by Ivan Turgenev

Beautiful descriptions, fascinating characters, and a realistic picture of the plight of the Russian peasants just prior to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.

12. The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

The death of Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran brings together four people who had been inseparable for a few years in the late 1970s but have since lost touch. Dickeyville, where the story is set, is a most peculiar neighborhood even in a city known for its colorful neighborhoods. The quality of memories, individual and shared, and the use to which we put them are always concerns of Lippman’s, but here there is also the idea of venturing out of the everyday world into woods where, as in a fairy tale, anything can happen.