The March Book Choice Is:

Elegy for Iris by John Bayley

John Bayley’s love letter to his wife Iris Murdoch, the noted British writer, was written during her descent into Alzheimer’s. There is aching honesty here; a memoir of Iris and John’s meeting and marriage, and a life spent with books and each other. This is a reader’s book. John drops titles and allusions throughout, like small sprinklings of salt.

John was smitten when he first viewed Iris at Oxford. And he instantly created a narrative around her, that she was a pure experience that none had ever known or defiled. It is a direct analogy to English epic poetry, Una and her Redcrosse Knight:

‘I noted the lady on the bicycle (she seemed at once to me more of a lady than a girl) and wondered who she was and whether I would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love. Certainly it was in the innocence of love that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past or an unknown present.’

The feelings were mutual. John later found in Iris’s notes a few lines that mentioned their first date:

‘St. Antony’s Dance. Fell down the steps, and seem to have fallen in love with J. We didn’t dance much.’

They married, which was more of an enactment than a betrothal since the idea of marriage was repugnant to them both. John remembers Iris’s hilarious reaction upon hearing someone refer to her as Mrs. Bayley:

‘Iris said that this was the ghastliest moment of what was for her an extremely gruesome occasion. She was now lumped among a lot of Mrs. Bayleys.’

Iris developed Alzheimer’s in the last years of her life and John chronicled the impact it had on the both of them. The ravages of Alzheimer’s manifests differently in each person. Some are aware; some are simply encased in fog. John argues the point that those who subsist with the disease without indignation are those people who are not narcissistic by nature, as Iris was. Still, it is nothing to look forward to:

‘I used to try reading Agamemnon and other Greek plays to her in a translation, but it was not a success. Nor was any other attempt at reading aloud. It all seemed and felt unnatural. I read several chapters of the Lord of the Rings and The Tale of Genji, two of Iris’s old favourites, before I realised this. For someone who had been accustomed not so much to read books as to slip into their world as effortlessly as she slipped into a river or the sea, this laborious procession of words clumping into her consciousness must have seemed a tedious irrelevance … Tolkien and Lady Murasaki had been inhabitants of her mind, denizens as native to its world as were the events and people who so mysteriously came to her in her own process of creation. To meet them again in this way, and awkwardly to recognise them, was an embarrassment.’

The theme of memory runs like a river throughout the book. At times, it’s difficult for John to visualize the person that Iris was. She is ever present and never changing in his life in the 43 years they were married:

‘I know she must once have been different, but I have no true memory of a different person.’

Iris Murdoch died in 1999; John Bayley died in 2015.

The February Book Choice Is:

The Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore


Writing a short story requires an editor’s mentality. The tighter the writing, the more effective it is. In comparison with the morass of a novel, the short story is more suited to a 21st century sensibility. It is lighter and more intense.

Moore is a master of this art form. She takes the reader into each story and then snaps them back out again. There is some really, really good writing here.

In People Like That Are The Only People Here is a story of The PeedOnk or Pediatric Oncology, where the families of kids with cancer gather, waiting on treatments, and fixes, and death. How do families cope with this?

Cancer is ‘…A tumor with its differentiated muscle and bone cells, a clump of wild nothing and its mad, ambitious desire to be something: something inside you, instead of you, another organism, but with a monster’s architecture, a demon’s sabotage and chaos.’

Moore writes with such clarity, the story feels autobiographical:

‘Total, sweet bald little angels, and now God is trying to get them back for himself. Who are they, mere mortal women, in the face of this, this powerful and overwhelming and inscrutable thing, God’s will? They are the mothers, that’s who. You can’t have him! they shout every day. You dirty old man! Get out of here! Hands off!

This gem of a line is from What Is Seized:

‘…Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.’

In Debarking, recently divorced Ira gets involved in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who has an unnatural relationship with her child. The weirdness of the situation devolves into levels of humor and then pathos: so, comedy. Here’s the foreshadowing scene where Ira gets invited to a Lenten supper where he will meet Zora:

“So you’re doing Lent. I’m unclear on Lent. I mean, I know what the word means to those of us of the Jewish faith. But we don’t usually commemorate these transactions with meals. Usually there’s just a lot of sighing.”
“It’s like a pre-Easter Prince of Peace dinner,” Mike said slowly. “You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year, we gave up our faith and reason. This year, we’re giving up our democratic voice and our hope.”

One of Moore’s funniest stories, How to Become A Writer, follows a working class writer (as most are), trying to make a go of it. It is filled with small wisdoms, relatable to everybody:

‘Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.’

The January Book Choice Is:

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.

Barry Lopez wrote his first book after spending time in the Alvord Desert in Oregon in the late 1960s. He was 24 at the time. He transformed what he took away from that experience into a set of poetic short stories, and it set his writing career into motion. This collection has a running theme of the human relationship with the natural world. His short story ‘Coyote and Rattlesnake’ explores the invasive nature of people, the encroachment and usurping; the big picture reveals that people are just passing through and are part of the wider narrative. Lopez is our country’s finest writer of the natural world and his work has heavily influenced subsequent generations of writers.

When Desert Notes was anthologized with River Notes & Animal Notes in 2014, Lopez wrote about his writing technique in the afterword:

“When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.”

Barry Lopez’s latest book ‘Horizon’ will be released in March.

The December Book Choice Is:

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife

Chris Skaife, yeoman warder of the Tower of London, is chief Raven Master there, and though he claims to not be a raven expert, he is as close as it comes to understanding, and more importantly, revering them. Chris is in charge of the general welfare and the keeping of the ravens. Currently there are seven ravens housed at the Tower and it is foretold that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall, along with London itself. Hence, the importance of the job, not the least being that it keeps the mythos alive. Chris speaks romantically of London with its rich backdrop and substantial past:

‘History and prehistory, legends, fables, and stories, they’re everywhere here. I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination, and the ravens are its guardians.’

Yeoman warders are informally known as ‘beefeaters’ and besides being the guards of Her Majesty’s crown jewels, they chaperone the droves of tourists who visit the Tower. Chris guesses that he must be photographed nearly 400 times a day during the summer: ‘I reckon the ravens and I have probably featured in someone’s family album in every country in the world.’ Guilty as charged: I also have a photograph of a beefeater from a trip to London.

As the head of Team Raven, Chris has attuned his senses to his birds’ needs. Ravens are smart birds but much-maligned and they have more in common with us than we might think: ‘Ravens are creatures of habit, and even the slightest change to their daily routine can lead to stress and psychological problems. Sometimes by the time I pick up on a dispute between ravens, it’s too late. Like a lot of us, they tend to hide their sicknesses and their grievances. I assume it’s a self-protection mechanism. I’m not an expert on raven social systems, but I can see that they have complex social lives, with feuds and disagreements between them, just as we humans do.’

Check out Chris’s twitter feed at twitter.com/ravenmaster1 to see images of the Tower’s magnificent ravens.

The November Book Choice Is:

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

Neil White was incarcerated in 1999 at the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana for bank fraud and soon after found that the prisoners shared their low-security buildings with the only colony in America of patients suffering from leprosy. Carville had been established for over a century and was home to a large population when leprosy was more prevalent. As the medical community learned more about prevention and treatment, leprosy began to die out and thus, unused space at Carville became available. The state of Louisiana deemed it a federal prison in 1990 and began sending low-risk prisoners there. Most inmates believed there was some sort of government conspiracy going on, having to do with experiments and testing. But it was home for the leprosy patients.

“Initially, I couldn’t imagine why the federal government would decide to put inmates in the same facility as leprosy patients … But now I was beginning to realize what an insult it was to the leprosy patients. Despite how the inmates felt about it, for the patients, it was another slap in the face. That the federal government thought nothing of moving criminals into their home said a lot about their standing.”

White is an egocentric guy when he’s admitted. He learns his most valuable lesson at Carville from the leprosy patients, especially Ella, an 80-year-old patient who was admitted when she was 12, abandoned by her family (as all the patients have been). Ella teaches White empathy, and how to really see others. It’s a lesson to everyone: leprosy was once thought to be a contagion and sufferers were unduly removed from society’s eyes and abandoned by their families and communities. Today, we can replace the word leprosy with any other that emits an intolerant tone. Every era has its own prejudices.

The October Book Choice Is:

Autobiography of a  Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

This strange little book with the excellent title is a collection of short stories, each with an underlying layer of psychological creepiness. Here is a diagnosis of three:

In the Pupil begins with a man and woman in a newly formed relationship. But something odd happens: he sees his reflection in her eye: ‘It was then that I saw him, a tiny little man staring at me from out of her pupil, my Lilliputian likeness: He had already slipped in there. I smiled and nodded to him. He nodded politely back.’

Nothing unusual about this except that the little man is real:  ‘One day , as I was nearing my lips to hers, I looked into her eyes and I saw the little man look out from under her lashes and wave to me, then he turned on his heel and trotted away into her pupil.’

What follows is a strange telling of the room in his lover’s eye where her lovers are trapped, not as reflections, but as miniature representations of each.

In The Land of Nots, the narrator travels from his land where the ‘Ises’ live into where the ‘Nots’ live. It is a macabre negative reality as the narrator describes the social system, beliefs, and mythos of the Nots: ‘The succession of events in the head of a Not is as follows: first the soul, then a piece of dead flesh, then decaying detritus, and then, if one peers through the skull’s blind sockets, the Not reduced to naught.’

It becomes an existential question: ‘Imagine the Not’s surprise when out of the window he saw no world at all, as if the whole world, lambent with stars and sun, clad in green and azure, had fallen away, had come unstuck from the panes like a cheap paste-on picture washed off by the rain. Still clutching the cord, the scholar stared into the yawning darkness. There was absolutely no doubt: This was nothing, the most ordinary nothing.’

The Runaway Fingers, a strange little story about a concert pianist’s rebellious appendages, are eager for adventure. But first they need to break free:

‘With a desperate tug the fingers suddenly wrenched themselves free, hand and all, from the pianist’s cuff and jumped – diamond ring on the little finger glinting – down onto the floor. The parquet’s waxed wood struck their joints a painful blow, but the fingers, without missing a beat, picked themselves up and – mincing along on their pink shields of nails, vaulting high into the air with great arpeggio-like leaps – hared toward the hall’s exit.’

Because Krzhizhanovsky just didn’t fit the mold, his work was censored in Soviet Russia. His work was finally published in 1989.

 

The September Book Choice Is:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.

During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:

‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’

Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’

A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

“…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats…”

Thus, James Agee presents his theme for this masterpiece of Southern non-fiction. During the 1930s, documentary literature was a popular avenue for a writer to take. Writing of sorrows makes for a better read than happier fare, and there was plenty of sorrow to write about during the decade of the Great Depression.

Agee and photograph Walker Evans stayed a summer with three tenant families in Alabama, and found them hard-working but weighted down with day-to-day endurance, pushed down to Job-like living:

“Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.”

The book reads poetically; Agee breaks into verse at times. He was influenced by the modernist lit movement, and particularly Joyce and Faulkner, memorable for that long, drawn-out written thought. At times, I felt I was reading Faulkner; I was just waiting on the word apotheosis to appear:

“and when the women are through, they may or may not come out too, with their dresses wet in front with the dishwashing and their hard hands softened and seamed as if withered with water, and sit a little while with the man or the men: and if they do, it is not for long, for everyone is much too tired, and has been awake and at work since daylight whitened a little behind the trees on the hill, and it is now very close to dark, with daylight scarcely more than a sort of tincture on the air, and this diminishing, and the loudening frogs, and the locusts, the crickets, and the birds of night, tentative, tuning, in that great realm of hazy and drowned dew, who shall so royally embroider the giant night’s fragrant cloud of earthshade…”

The writing continues uninterrupted from paragraph to paragraph. Almost, I wanted to add the second stress and read it as ‘drown-ed’ because the writing reads so much like poetry.

James Agee was tentative of writing of the sharecropper life and its hardships. He was convinced that Walker’s photographs should tell the story:

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”

The photographs that Walker Evans recorded for this book are available at the Library of Congress here:

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003656560/