30 June 2007

The Innocent Man, by John Grisham

This is the only non-fiction work that I have read by John Grisham. I've read many of his novels and have always found them excellent. This book was up to the same standard.

This is the story of Ron Williamson, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Oklahoma in 1987. Williamson was finally freed from prison in 1999, but he was a broken man haunted by serious mental illness, who died at the age of 51.

Grisham tells this story with great feeling and depth, and includes many details of Williamson's life and family. In addition, he tells the stories of other men wrongfully convicted during the same period of time, some of whom are still incarcerated without hope of release. He exposes the sloppy police work and incredibly incompetent prosecutorial procedures that have made Oklahoma the model for injustice and violation of civil rights in the USA.

Grisham makes an excellent case to stop using the death penalty in this country. Our justice system is far too flawed to use this irreversible step, even if one has no other objection to it.

17 June 2007

Happy Bloomsday, June 16th.


On Friday, the 15th of June, I sent this email message to several people:
Saturday is June 16th, the day in 1904 on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses is set. It's known as Bloomsday, after the name of the principal character, Leopold Bloom, and in Ireland it's a holiday.
I got a few responses, and they prompted me to write a little more about it. This to my nephew:
I read Ulysses once or twice about 35 years ago. It's creepy to be able to say amounts of time like that and actually mean it.

There's a great old black and white movie made of it, starring I've no idea who.

I would very much enjoy it if you would keep me posted on your joint reading -- I'm very interested in Joyce and am always amazed at the depth of his work. Personally I am only capable of appreciating the surface, but this is true for me of most art. When others explain the revelations they have discovered in Joyce (or for that matter almost any good writer) I'm always amazed and educated. So please, don't be stingy.

Here's a lovely bit from the first chapter to show you what an intellectual I am, I love this:

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman's wheedling voice:

--When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

--By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.

Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling:

--So I do, Mrs Cahill, says she. Begob, ma'am, says Mrs Cahill, God send you don't make them in the one pot.

I found Ulysses at The Gutenberg Project, and spent some happy hours on Saturday paging through it.
I sent this snippet to a teacher:
Here, teacher, Dedalus teaches (or tries to):

--You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?

--Tarentum, sir.

--Very good. Well?

--There was a battle, sir.

--Very good. Where?

The boy's blank face asked the blank window.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?

--I forget the place, sir. 279 B. C.

--Asculum, Stephen said, glancing at the name and date in the gorescarred book.

--Yes, sir. And he said: Another victory like that and we are done for.

That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officers, leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.

--You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?

--End of Pyrrhus, sir?

--I know, sir. Ask me, sir, Comyn said.

--Wait. You, Armstrong. Do you know anything about Pyrrhus?

A bag of figrolls lay snugly in Armstrong's satchel. He curled them between his palms at whiles and swallowed them softly. Crumbs adhered to the tissue of his lips. A sweetened boy's breath. Welloff people, proud that their eldest son was in the navy. Vico road, Dalkey.

This, to a friend who said he had tried and failed to read Ulysses:
Ulysses is not the most "accessible" of Joyce's works. If you would like to read what I think is one of the very best short stories ever written by anyone, and written by Joyce, and eminently readable, try "The Dead," from his book Dubliners.

Now, I'll freely admit that I love Joyce and without any rational reason for I'd guess that 3/4 of what he put into his writing goes right over my head but many years ago my old friend and High School English teacher John Hogan clued me in that the magic of Joyce is in reading his stuff aloud. He had a young daughter, Maggie, who was around 10 years old at the time, and he and his family went on a car trip somewhere. To pass the time and entertain everyone, Maggie read to the family from Finnegan's Wake.

Should there ever be a contest for the most inscrutable published work in the English language Finnegan's would have to be one of the top contenders, if not the hands-down winner. But, said Mr. Hogan, listening to Maggie read it for hours in the car, it made sense: it sounded good. It was like music, he said. Finnegan's wake is many things, and as I said, most of them I don't understand, but it is an orgy of words, just words for their own sake, and there are thousands and thousands of them, many of them made up new just for the occasion.

Joyce was nearly blind for much of his life, and the sounds of things were necessarily more important to him than their detailed appearance.
It's hard to say exactly why Joyce has always (at least since High School) appealed to me. He's Irish, and hard to understand, so perhaps that's the attraction?

The Wanderings of My Reading Life

I started writing these little reviews in October 2005. At that time I put them on a free blogging site called "Blogsource." It seemed fine at the time. Here's the original URL of My Reading Life:
http://readinglife.blogsource.com/
Please note that that link will become non-functional at some point. That's what I understand, anyway.

Blogsource recently let me know that they were shutting down, but offered to move my blog to a new location:
http://eflester.livedigital.com/blog
And indeed they did. They did a fine job, as far as I have checked. But it's just not where I want to be. Live Digital is very nice, and free, and works OK, and this is in no way any kind of complaint about either Live Digital or Blogsource. They are both free, and provide a way for people to publish stuff on the Web without doing a lot of work to format it. That's what I was looking for at the outset. But Live Digital is a "social networking" site, according to the person that communicated with me. It has lots of features that don't interest me in the least, and doesn't impress me as the place that I want as a home for this journal.

Since I have two other blogs hosted here on Blogger, it makes sense to move My Reading Life here too. So that's what I'm working on. I've moved quite a few entries, starting with the most recent and working my way backwards.

At the present, then, there are 3 different places where I've placed this blog on the Internet. Eventually, blogsource.com will go away. And I will most likely remove my stuff from livedigital.com as well, but not anytime soon.

If you enjoy reading my little essays, you'll find them here on Blogger.

Homeland, by Barbara Kingsolver

"Homeland"

The title story takes place in Morning Glory, Kentucky, "a coal town hacked with sharp blades out of a forest that threatened always to take it back." The Murray family has native American roots, as well as European. Great Mam is the Cherokee great-grandmother of Nathan, Jack, and Gloria -- the narrator of the story-- the grandmother of John (Papa, "Indian John") Murray. Florence Ann (Mother) Murray is married to John, and the children's mother.

"The primary business of Mother's life was scrubbing things, and she herself looked scrubbed. Her skin was the color of a clean boiled potato. We didn't get in her way."

Great Mam is near the end of her life, and her grandson wants to take her to Tennessee, to see where she grew up, the Homeland of her people. He decides that they will drive to Cherokee, Tennessee. This will be an arduous and expensive journey in their old truck, but the whole family will go.

Gloria, "Waterbug," relates some of the Indian lore and mythology that Great Mam shares with her, such as her belief in the "little people," who appear at night as stars in the sky, and by day walk invisibly amongst us, reclaiming discarded things such as withered flowers, and returning them whence they came.

In 2001 and the dark years that have followed it, the word "Homeland" has taken on a meaning that it did not have before in this country. Kingsolver published this collection of stories in 1989. It is interesting to note that she seems to be using the word to point toward the destruction of the Indians homeland, the destruction of their past and their heritage. The Murrays represent, among other things, a stage in the assimilation of the native American people into the modern culture and society of the USA. They work, struggle, grow, raise their children, fight the exploitation of their lives by corporations, they die, and make way for the next stage, the next generation.

"Blueprints"

This is a story about Lydia and Whitman, a couple who, by choice, live in a rural area, a sort of "back to nature" rebellion against modern life. They have moved from Sacramento to Blind Gap, thinking to find romance. Instead they have discovered inconvenience, deprivation, and small-mindedness.

"Her memories from Sacramento smell like salt-rising bread ... Whitman with his sleeves rolled up, gregarious ... giving his kindest advice ... to the people who gravitated endlessly to their kitchen. But when [he] was removed from that warm, crowded place he'd hardened like a rock."

The story's title comes from this:

"Whitman has an astonishing memory for details. Often he will draw out the plans for something he's building and then complete the whole piece without referring again to the blueprints."

And this, while Lydia is lecturing her young science students:

"She tells them about imprinting in ducks.

" ' It's something like a blueprint for life.' "

In this short story we are invited deep into this relationship, and get to see its weakness and its strength, and have an idea of its future.

"Covered Bridges"

I will describe this as a love story, about another couple, unsure of who they want to be. The husband (I don't think we ever learn his name) narrates the story, and describes his love for his Lena believably and beautifully.

They are married, settled, thinking of whether to have a baby, but can't decide. They decide to "borrow" (babysit) a friend's youngster for a weekend.

Melinda, the borrowed baby, is a bit of a problem. They take her outdoors to amuse her. this works, but while they are playing Lena is stung by a hornet, to which she is deathly allergic. Her husband saves her by administering her epinephrine shot. Later, as she recovers in the hospital, she says:

"Having a child wouldn't make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal."

And like Whitman and Lydia, they must decide what they will be.

"Quality Time"

This story is about Miriam, a single mother, and her daughter Rennie. As the life of such truncated little families can be, theirs is rather hectic, even stressful. Miriam tries to deal with it all by making lists, and carefully managing her time.

One day, as Miriam eats a hurried lunch, she overhears a mother explaining to her daughter that Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced.

It comes to Miriam like a slow shock, building up in her nerve endings until her skin hurts. This conversation will only happen once in that little girl's life, and I have to overhear it, Miriam is thinking. It has to be here. The surroundings seem banal, so cheery and hygienic, so many wiped-clean plastic surfaces. But then Miriam doesn't know what setting would be better. Certainly not some unclean place, and not an expensive restaurant either -- that would be worse. To be expecting a treat, only to be socked with this news.

In these few pages we get a very deep look into the lives of these two females adrift in the modern world, buffeted by its unfeeling forces, and how much they love each other, mother and daughter. Their life, Kingsolver says somehow (I think) is all right. It may not be the life of a single mother and daughter on American TV and it may not fit any stereotype at all, but it is all right. And they will live as well as they can, and they do.

"Stone Dreams"

In which we have a mother and daughter, a husband, and a lover. Complicated, dangerous -- and oddly resolved.

"Survival Zones"

Darrell and Millie Ormsby, and their friends Roberta and Ed are people in their forties, rural people who live somewhere around Cincinnati. As the story begins they're spending an evening together, although "Darrell is in bed with the stomach flu. Every so often he lows like a calf from the bedroom and Millie has to go get him some more Seven-Up." When Roberta returns home, she is wakeful, and after watching TV for a while "She goes into the kitchen and is surprised to find Roxanne sitting at the table in her yellow terry robe." This mother and daughter talk about love, and marriage, and growing up, as Roxanne is about to graduate from High School:

"Mama, Danny and me are talking about getting married."

"...What's your hurry?" ...She wonders if Roxanne would be able to tell her if she were pregnant.

And later,

"Honey, what I'm trying to say is, things generally work out for the best, whichever way they go. Don't do something just because you think it's going to be your last chance in the world at being happy."
The story concludes at Thanksgiving,

Roberta imagines the army of women across the country marching into their kitchens with turkeys like this, preparing to pick the bones clean for sandwiches and soup stocks that will nourish their families halfway to Christmas.
"Islands on the Moon"

This mother and daughter is a little more unusual. Annemarie and Magda are apparently products of the sixties, Magda being of the Summer of Love generation (or even the Beat) and Annemarie a very early child:

Magda had Annemarie when she was sixteen and has been standing on tiptoe ever since to see over or around her difficult daughter to whatever is on the other side.

As this story begins, we discover that both Annemarie and Magda are pregnant.

"Bereaved Apartments"

A strange, moody story in which two unlikely acquaintances develop a sort of unhealthy interest in an old woman's home, and the things in it.


"Extinctions"

This story is a complicated weave of family involvement. On the surface, a mother takes her two boys on a rather long auto trip to her childhood home, to attend Easter services with her aged relatives. There are dark overtones of Southern fundamentalist mystery and guilt, and closeted insanity.


"Jump Up Day"

Set somewhere in the Caribbean, "Jump Up Day" places an orphan -- her parents were probably American -- within a maze of African magical mystique. She is contacted by a mysterious person, the Obeah Man, reputed to have supernatural powers, who commands her to meet him and take a trip into the jungle.

"Rose Johnny"

In small towns it is somehow even more difficult to be a member of a minority. This is about prejudice, and bigotry, mob violence, sexism, ignorance -- practically the gamut of Human Evil run in the confines of this little place, and what place love and respect can have in such a muddle.


"Why I Am A Danger to the Public"

I read this story elsewhere before reading this collection. According to the publisher it appeared "in somewhat different form" in New Times. I have no recollection of ever reading that journal, but it's certainly possible.

"Danger" is a first-person narrative by a woman who "was not going to support my kids in no little short skirt down at the Frosty King." Instead she gets a job at the mine. As a female in a non-traditional job, a latina, and Union member during a strike on the mine, "Mrs. Morales" has a lot on her plate. But as she says at the end of the story,

"...They say he is all in one piece.

"Well, I am too."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

A quote from some Kingsolver advice to aspiring writers: "...breathe deeply and kill your television."

From HarperAcademic.com:
" Twelve short stories unified by Kingsolver's trademark themes of family ties and life choices."

Wikipedia article about Kingsolver.

05 June 2007

The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

This book is a collection of short stories with a common theme. Munro's ancestors came to Canada and the USA from Scotland, and this collection is about them, and their influence on the narrator of the more contemporary stories in the second part, whom I suspect to be at least approximately the author.

Castle Rock is divided into a Foreword, Two Parts, and an Epilogue. Part One is entitled "No Advantages," Part Two "Home." The Epilogue contains a single piece, "Messenger."

"No Advantages" is also the name of the introductory piece in Part One. It describes Ettrick, "...fifty miles due south of Edinburgh, and thirty or so miles north of the English border..." The story is prefaced by an epigraph attributed to "The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1799" that describes Ettrick as a "parish" that "possesses no advantages." The narrator visits Ettrick in modern times, it seems, looking for signs of her ancestors. One of these is William Laidlaw, also known as "Will O'Phaup." Will O'Phaup was believed by some to be one of the last human beings to have seen fairies. Munro hastens to clarify the true nature of the "little people:"

"Fairies were not blithe and captivating. They belonged to the olden times...the truly dark times...of bad powers and evil confusion, and their attentions were oftener than not malicious, or even deadly."

We shift from this ancient evil to a description of the famous Presbyterian preacher Thomas Boston. This formidable Protestant preached fiery sermons, and wrote a book "...said to stand next to the Bible in every pious home in Scotland..." Boston wrestled with his own unworthiness, examining his own soul and finding it lacking. "So it seems strange to me that Thomas Boston should have been the minister whom Will O'Phaup listened to every Sunday..."

"The past is full of contradictions...perhaps equal to those of the present..." This is, as Munro reminds us in her Foreword, a story -- but it has the ring of truth, the unswallowable dissonant nature of a recounting of How Things Were.

Will O'Phaup had grandsons, James Hogg and James Laidlaw. James Hogg became a writer. Laidlaw had a daughter and five sons. His son William, says Munro, "...will be my great-great-grandfather..."

James Laidlaw, "a modern man," and a lonely widower, becomes interested in emigrating to America. He is "scornful of the place where he was born." And so prepared, we go to the next story.

"The View From Castle Rock."

The story begins with a trip to Edinburgh for Andrew and his father. Andrew's childhood memory of this trip is of climbing the great tower at Edinburgh Castle, and from that great height they look out across

"...a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land ... a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

"'So did I not tell you?' Andrew's father said. 'America... you have looked over at America... God grant you one day you will see it closer up and for yourself.'"

And later:

"He knew he was not looking at America, though it was some years before he was well enough acquainted with maps to know that he had been looking at Fife."

But to America they did go, in 1818 -- James with his children Andrew, Walter, and Mary, Andrew's wife Agnes, and little James, the grandson, not yet two years old. the passage seems reasonable, considering the age in which it was accomplished, but it is not uneventful. Young Walter has a journal where he records the adventures as well as the mundane details of their journey. Nine days into the voyage he reports the death, and sea burial, of a child.

Agnes, Andrew's wife, gives birth to a daughter, who "can say all her life that she was born at sea."

“Poor Mary” (“...indeed the meagreness and timidity of many of the women in their family has caused that word to be attached to [their] names ...”) spends most of her time caring for her young nephew, James.

“He does not have to whimper or complain – she knows his feelings by the way he digs his little knees into her.”
“She and he communicate in a half-and-half language – half her teaching and half his invention. She believes that he is one of the cleverest children ever born into the world.”

And Mary, Oh, Mary...

“Mary ... thinks that women ... lead an appalling life... She will never forget her own mother, who lay in bed out of her mind with a fever...till she died, three days after Walter was born. She had screamed at the black pot hanging over the fire, thinking it was full of devils.”

In the course of this story James Laidlaw changes from the adventurous one who impels them all to leave Scotland for the New World, to the old story-telling patriarch, pointing out the past, deprecating the present--regret, remorse, or just the situation changing his personality.

"Illinois."

William Laidlaw, James's brother, settled in Joliet, Illinios in the 1830s with his wife Mary and their children. "There, in Joliet, on the 5th of January, either 1839 or 1840, William died of cholera, and Mary gave birth to a girl."

"The Wilds of Morris Township."

"William's children grew up in Esquesing, [Ontario] among their cousins." When they were grown, they set off on their own "for another wilderness." This was the settlement of Morris. These brothers and sisters and spouses were amazingly hard-working, incredibly sober and frugal people.

These hard-nosed Scots practically dare the land not to allow them to make a living from it. It is this victory over Nature that seems to transcend their lives, and it is perhaps the root of the disdain for people enamored of "nature" that Munro relates in the stories placed nearer our own time.

"Working For A Living."

The narrator's father makes a living as a fur trapper, fur farmer, later works in a foundry, and at the end of his life becomes a writer. This is a complex tale about a couple who marry and make their way in a small town in Canada, how they survive the Depression and the time after, and what this all does to them. And the theme of life, and death, and continuance, is continued.

Part Two

"Fathers."

In which three fathers are described, an abusive monster, a man who is perhaps too solicitious toward his child, and the narrator's own, "...the parent I sorely wanted to please." Or at least this is how they seem to be, at first.

Monsters beget monsters. The narrator reveals some truth about her own insincerity, her willingness to appease her parents in order to manipulate them. And she tells us some of the dark side of being a child, of ganging up on an unpopular classmate, not wanting to be associated with an unpopular child.

"Fathers" could have been entitled "Fathers and Children," or perhaps "Our Fathers."

"Lying Under the Apple Tree."

The narrator is a little older now, and showing some signs of the young woman she will become. This story is one in which she mentions how unacceptable it is in her culture to talk about "Nature," although the people in this rural Canadian town are surrounded on all sides by nothing else, and live within it -- but this is the type of person, we would think, who puts on airs, wastes time, and perhaps thinks she's a little better than those around her. Some of the values of Munro's Scottish ancestors are apparent here.

There is also the adventure of an early adolescent love attraction, not shy of the physical, which has an interesting outcome.

Munro perhaps tells us something of her own childhood and adolescence, of the events and circumstances that have molded this writer, and reader -- in the end, shocked and disappointed by her young man, she dives into a book, any book, and doesn't come out.

"Hired Girl."

The narrator tells about a summer job as a maid to some wealthy folks living on one of the Great Lakes. "I did not have the grace or fortitude to be a servant." Again, a book is her refuge at the end.

"The Ticket."

The Fall before her wedding, the narrator cares for her mother at home. Her mother is ill with Parkinson's disease; this has been mentioned before in some of these stories. She is close to her Grandmother, and Aunt Charlie; the latter is sewing her wedding dress. She compares social and economic classes between her family and that of her fiance, jumping into the future of their wedded life together and comparing wedding presents:

"The presents from my husband's family were packed in the shops where they were purchased, and shipped to Vancouver...

"Nothing in my trunks ... came up to scratch...

"But my husband did concede that a good job had been done with the packing... when I tried putting some of these things where they could be seen ... he had to speak plainly. And I myself saw the point."

She compares three marriages, while contemplating her own, about to begin. These are those of her parents, her grandparents, and her Aunt Charlie. Of the three, it seems that Charlie's may have been the one to be envied. Although they never had children, "Their affection was legendary."

"Home."

Later in life, after her mother's death, the narrator goes home to visit her father and his wife in their home, the home of her youth. Munro describes the remoteness and insignificance of their town by describing the bus trip that she takes to get to it, which requires three buses, each of which descends in comfort and efficiency.

Her father's new wife is a rough and practical woman, in some ways coarse, but at the same time sentimental about her husband, and her old dog. During the visit, her father is ill enough to go to the hospital, but at the end of the story it seems that he will be all right, at least for a while.

Munro effectively paints the texture and color of this remote rural place, and we know her connection to it and her separation from it. In the ending, she describes a vision from "the worst winter of my childhood, which was 1935." It is nothing spectacular, just a clear memory of a cold night when she helped her father milk the cow, the cow which died that awful winter, and the gathering cold, "which killed all the chestnut trees, and many orchards."

"What Do You Want to Know For?"

In this story the narrator reminds us of her own mortality, as she is seeing a physician about some suspicious lumps in her breast.

"So this is the first time.
Such frights will come and go.
Then there'll be one that won't. One that won't go."

She and her husband explore the countryside in Western Ontario. The beginning theme of learning about families from old graveyards is repeated, as they attempt to discover the history of some unusual crypts.

In the course of this, they meet a man who remembers her father:

"He takes a closer look at me, and laughs.

"'You're not telling me he was your dad, are you?'"

And later:

"'Well now. I can see it in you. Bob Laidlaw's girl. 'Round the eyes. That's a long time ago...'

"...I agree with him, and then we both say that it is a small world ... We explore the connection as far as it will go... we are both happy. He is happy to be reminded of himself as a young man ... with confidence in what lay ahead of him...

"And I am happy to find somebody who can see me still as part of my family, who can remember my father and the place where my parents worked ... first in hope and then in honorable persistence. "

Epilogue

"Messenger."

Here is another search for a burial ground, this time in Joliet, Illinois. The narrator and her husband travel into the USA "in the summer of 2004", looking for "some trace of the life of William Laidlaw, my great-great-grandfather," the immigrant who died early in the story "Illinois."

"Flags everywhere. Signs. God Bless America."

"... And Joliet rimmed with new suburban houses ... all alike. And even these are preferable, I think, to the grander sort ... with vast shelter for cars and windows high enough for a cathedral."

Amidst the suburban mysteries of Illinois, Munro eventually despairs of finding the actual burial place of her great-great-grandfather. She returns to Blyth, in Ontario, west of Toronto, where Mary Scott is buried.

"On her stone is the name of that man, William Laidlaw.

Died in Illinois. And buried God knows where."

We've come so far, and covered nearly two hundred years. But we've gotten more than a history lesson, and more than a picture of pioneer life. Munro reveals herself in these stories with a courage and (I think) honesty that leaves me breathless and astonished. I found myself searching my own dim childhood memories for forgotten people and places, and significances.

It was difficult to write about this collection because I did want to do it justice, and it's a work that is far above my own meagre talents. This was a book in which I was happy to lose myself, and yet also to find myself -- and from an unlikely source, perhaps -- and yet it is hard for me to put down what it is about these stories that captivates me. As I re-read them in trying to write this review, I got lost in them again. I was in Ontario, I could feel its sun and weather, and breathe its air, and look through the eyes of the younger and older woman who tells these tales. I ask no better reward from any work of literature.

James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd
Ettrick Kirk and Thomas Boston
Georgian Bay and Around, Photos by Hanif Bayat