January 30, 2011
Wouldn’t that be nice. A summer month to work in a remote location, hitting the pause button to get away from Blackberries and iPhones, Twitter and Facebook, e-mail and those demanding calendar pop-up reminders (dismiss!). Of course, that’s my fantasy, not the story of Tom Birkin in J. L. Carr’s classic novel A Month in the Country published in 1980. A Time Out New York review claimed it to be “one of those perfect, precious novels that you want to loan to friends, buy all your relatives for Christmas and give to your latest paramour.” Birkin is a traumatized World War I vet who arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby the summer of 1920 to restore a medieval mural in the local church. As he restores the lime-washed painting, he restores himself.
Each day, Birkin steadily works to reveal the anonymous artist’s depiction of Judgment, while beyond the church windows the green summer fields surround him with nature’s peacefulness. He becomes friends with several villagers, especially Charles Moon, another war veteran who’s digging in a nearby field to locate the grave of a villager’s ancestor. Birkin finds solace in their friendship, which you can see beginning here in this clip from the 1987 movie starring a young Colin Firth as Birkin and Kenneth Branagh as Moon.
The power of this classic lies in its beautiful, unadorned prose and the simplicity with which it demonstrates Birkin’s transformation through the Oxgodby people and his work. We become immersed in the feeling of gradual, enlightening renewal that Birkin experiences within the precious commodity of slow time. Looking back over this idyllic summer in his life, he says, “The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them.”
J. L. Carr (1912 – 1994) knew how to write about the granting of peace to a human being. This is a quiet, redemptive novel and an enchanting story.
January 25, 2011
Over a lunch hour last week, I drove to the radio station to pick up a book left in my mailbox – Linda Gray Sexton’s new memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. When I returned to my car in the parking lot, I decided to take a moment to read the first page. An hour later, I was still reading in the parking lot, blowing off my workout at the gym. By the time I finally drove away, I knew I had to continuously read this powerful memoir about Sexton’s bipolar disorder, vicious depressions and suicide attempts. I couldn’t casually return to it off and on during the week. Her story is too intense. I needed to stick with it until I reached the last page, so I could close the book and get out of its dark world.
There is metaphor in that reaction. Sexton’s family and friends didn’t stick with her during her depressions and two suicide attempts. They distanced themselves because they didn’t or couldn’t understand what was happening to her. She also pushed them away, but that’s part of the bipolar disease, despite an overwhelming fear of abandonment. Sexton got mentally trapped in an isolating nightmare of anxiety and tormenting inner voices.
She knew what was happening to her – Linda Gray Sexton is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, whose drunken rages, breakdowns, depressions and many suicide attempts (and success in 1974) are the stuff of well-known literary history. That story is the legacy of suicide referred to in the subtitle of Half in Love, what Linda fell prey to despite making a pact with her younger sister, Joy, that she’d never, ever become like their mother. She also promised her husband and two sons that she’d never do to them what Anne Sexton did to her.
Linda is brutally candid as she writes about struggling against an undertow of depression as a wife and mother, and then crossing the line to suicide as she approached her 45th birthday. Her happy suburban life shatters with the sudden onslaught of psychiatric wards, divorce, excruciating migraines, debilitating depressions, self-mutilation and ineffective therapy. As she relentlessly describes what she endures, Sexton teeters close to the line of being excessively self-focused and insistent, but these cloying moments are exactly as they need to be. Otherwise, how can we possibly comprehend her interior world that sees death as a viable option? How can we know what it feels like to fall down the rabbit hole of mental illness witnessed in her mother?
A light shines in the final chapters of the book, a happy, hopeful ending with Sexton in a positive place. There’s also another light, and it shines throughout the memoir, a lighthouse beam beckoning us to a place of understanding about the uncontrollable nature of depression and suicidal desires. The police chief whose officers rescued Linda Gray Sexton from her second attempted suicide saw that beam after she wrote him a thank-you letter. Before that letter, he’d regarded suicide as a selfish act.
Half in Love is Linda Gray Sexton’s second memoir. Her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton will be reissued in April.
Update 1/26/11: You can hear Linda Gray Sexton talk about her mother, herself, her writing and her suicide attempts with WOSU’s Christopher Purdy and myself in an interview posted on the WOSU Classical 101 blog.
January 20, 2011
I’ve not paid much attention to the Edgar® Awards in the past, but this year is different: I’m curious, thanks to my newfound reading adventures in this literary genre.
Nominees for the 2011 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2010 were announced this week. These awards are sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the genre.
The full list of nominees in the 10 categories can be read on the Edgar website. Here I investigate the six nominees in their Best Novel category.
Caught by Harlan Coben
Described by The Independent as a “an excellent thriller” and by the New York Times as “crazily hyperactive,” bestselling Coben’s newest stand-alone involves a teenager suddenly gone missing and a news reporter who makes a name for herself chasing sexual predators. In this case, though, she starts questioning her instincts. The prologue is available for reading on Coben’s website.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
The story of two boyhood friends, torn apart by circumstance, who are brought together again by a terrible crime in a small Mississippi town. Washington Post book critic Ron Charles wrote this: “If you’re looking for a smart, thoughtful novel that sinks deep into a Southern hamlet of the American psyche, ‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’ is your next book.”
Faithful Place by Tana French
NYT book critic Janet Maslin listed this as one of her 10 favorites of 2010. Faithful Place is a story about an Irish family with a mystery to go along – one of the family members returns to his hometown, Dublin, Ireland, to investigate the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart.
The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan
This mystery takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, with Halliman’s returning travel-writer protagonist facing evils from his wife’s past that threaten the family. Lots of blogging about this book, but no reviews from major sources that I could find. This is the fourth mystery in a series.
The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton
This story’s 18-year-old protagonist doesn’t speak, ever since he experienced tragedy as an eight-year-old. But he’s got a gift for picking locks, no matter how impossible it may seem, and this gift leads to crime. This is a new character for Hamilton, who’s known for his Edgar Award-winning Alex McKnight series. From The New York Times review: “As coming-of-age novels go, this one is too good for words.”
I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
The story of a young woman who dangerously engages with a man on Death Row who kidnapped her when she was a teenager. From a review in the Washington Post: “Some people would segregate Lippman as a crime or thriller writer. That’s a shame. She’s one of the best novelists around, period.”
January 16, 2011
I finished the first Kurt Wallander book Faceless Killers this past week, by the popular pre-Stieg Larsson Scandinavian crime novelist Henning Mankell. A new paperback edition is being released this month by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, a publishing house devoted to the best of classic crime novels. I’m not a huge detective mystery reader but like the occasional one. They’re an enjoyable change for me from the thought-provoking literary novels I gobble up. There’s no getting emotionally involved with the suspects or the police force, just wondering who committed the murder and getting swept up in the twists and turns of the clues.
The sophisticated clues in Faceless Killers kept me from figuring out what happened to cause the unexplainable murder of an old farmer and his wife in Sweden’s countryside. They are strange victims of violence, considering their peaceful life. Only a few clues give Wallander anything to go on: the knot of a noose tied around the wife’s neck, their horse recently fed and watered in the barn, and a last word uttered by the wife, indicating the killers may be foreign. When this last clue is leaked to the press, it unleashes racial hatred in the community.
While it’s the mystery that makes a good crime book, I wanted to find a detective whom I could care about and whose life I invest in from the beginning, as I explore this literary genre. That’s why I picked up Mankell’s first Wallander mystery, originally published in English in 1997. There’s certainly enough going on in Wallander’s life to invest in: the guy’s got serious yet common personal issues that reveal his humanness. His wife, whom he still loves, leaves him, his daughter won’t talk to him, he can’t seem to break a junk food habit and he’s clearly in need of advice on how to approach a woman romantically — he fumbles badly with the new prosecutor, groping her over a drink. An opera buff, Wallander would’ve done better by offering tickets to La Bohème.
In March, Wallander’s author and publisher Knopf will release The Troubled Man. It’s the first Kurt Wallander detective mystery to be published in a decade and likely the last in the popular series. At least, that’s the buzz, as in this from a fan site: “[Mankell] mentioned that Wallander will not die in the book, but that something will happen to him and it will be impossible to write any more Wallander novels.” This new/final book in the series is another reason to begin at the beginning, with Faceless Killers, and work forward to whatever is going to happen to Kurt Wallander in The Troubled Man. It’s rarely if ever satisfying to walk in with a blank slate on the last act.
Kenneth Branagh plays the role of Inspector Wallander in the Masterpiece Mystery! production of Faceless Killers. You can watch a clip from the show that aired October 3, 2010.
January 10, 2011
I went trolling for Melissographia and landed on Maud’s Book. Both are artistic books by artist Amy Shelton. The former is a letterpress book composed of a series of bee poems with individually embossed, hand-painted pollen maps scattered among them. Created in collaboration with Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside, it looks beautiful, but it’s the latter book that drew me in: an artistic rendering of Shelton’s great grandmother’s autograph book from when she was a teenager, between 1914 and 1918. An original page from the autograph book is shown below.
Maud’s Book made me wish I’d kept my own autograph book from girlhood. I probably threw it away, thinking it was childish, yet now I’d regard it as a treasure. Shelton saw the treasure in her great grandmother’s autograph book, signed by soldiers stationed near her village in England, soon to be sent to the front of the Great War . It’s a memoir, of sorts, with its signatures and accompanying poems, drawings, riddles and musings. In its new form created by Shelton, however, it is neither hardbound nor paperback nor electronic, rather a series of clay tablets, like books used to be, thousands of years ago.
One tablet is below, but you can see more on her website where Shelton writes: “As clay tablets they reference the ancient clay writing tablets (cuneiform) from Mesopotamia, made three and a half thousand years ago, serving as recording devices carrying stories as hymns to the fragility of human culture.”
January 7, 2011
At about ten o’clock Sunday morning, February 11, 1979, Scott Moorman and some buddies left the east coast of Maui in their motorboat Sarah Joe. It was a fine, sunny day for fishing until the wind kicked up just before noon and turned into a hurricane by evening. At five o’clock, the Sarah Joe was reported missing. Searches began yet not a trace of the boat and the men were found. Then, nine-and-a-half years later, the wrecked boat and Moorman’s bones were found on the beach of Taongi, the northernmost and driest atoll of the Marshall Islands 3,750 km from Hawaii.
That atoll is what you see here in a page spread from Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, which features 50 isolated islands around the globe. The majority are uninhabited, and those that have residents tend to be inhabited for research or military purposes. This is a gorgeous book, first published in German, translated by Christine Lo, and sub-titled Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.
I, too, will never set foot on these remote places. Seeing their dots on the book’s world maps, however, was like suddenly seeing the birds in my backyard, small components of the universe typically overlooked and dismissed because they don’t figure into world news or our own remote islands of self. One wouldn’t vacation on Semisopochnoi, which may very well be the westernmost part of the United States. No one has lived there — ever, Schalansky tells us. While mainstream atlases tend to treat remote islands, such as Semisopochnoi, as “footnotes to the mainland, expendable to an extent,” they are “disproportionately more interesting.” I second that.
In her introduction, Schalansky writes: “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world.”
January 3, 2011
I spent New Year’s Eve by the fire reading the last 50 pages of John Williams’ classic novel Stoner. There’s no better way I could’ve entered 2011, not because of the idyllic scene of reading by the fire, corgis sleeping at my feet, rather because of the message that arrives at the end of William Stoner’s life.
Stoner is the fictional character whom the story follows, from his student years at the University of Missouri, beginning in 1910, through his adult life as a professor there. A farmer’s son, Stoner surprisingly falls in love with English literature and gets his PhD. He works hard but goes nowhere, both figuratively and literally; he doesn’t even own a car. The university is Stoner’s life until his death in 1956.
It’s a riveting story about heroic humility, of the kind the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes about in Seeds of Contemplation, when he says it takes heroic humility to be oneself. Such is the very heart of this great story, especially when Stoner confronts the manipulations of his calculating wife and his vindictive department chairman. Merton acknowledges it’s difficult to keep a balance in the face of such things, “of continuing to be yourself without getting tough about it and without asserting your false self against the false selves of other people.” But that’s what Stoner does so well, and why this novel is so exquisite.
On his deathbed, Stoner recognizes the failure that others probably see in his tenured career that didn’t achieve full professorship and a marriage that dissolved into indifference. But his success gradually comes to light and a sudden force of joy comes over him: “He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” What better epiphany to read on the last night of the year when one looks backward, and forward, measuring the success of a past year and determining changes to make in the new one. Stoner is one of the most satisfying novels I’ve ever read.