Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Dear Barbara Kingsolver,

To say that you raised the bar in environmental and geographic-centered fiction would be an understatement. In Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, not only did you escort your readers to the places in which the story lines took wings, but you provided detailed, dead-center references, chains of occurrences, birdseye views of fauna and flora central to your settings and oh so necessary to your plots and character developments. In a way the fauna and flora were characters in their own right, tying your plots and settings and characters together, weaving around and across and into your stories like the tightly knit webs of natural material they represented.

But for some reason, in Flight Behaviour, you felt you had to create your story and make your point by bringing in an occurrence which did not mesh with the area about which you were writing. Yes, the phenomenon of the orange butterflies did take place, but in Mexico, not at all in Appalachia. Perhaps you were so amazed and mesmerized by the sadness of the plight of the Orange Monarch butterflies that you wanted to write about them anyway, but did not feel comfortable confining your story to Mexico. Unfortunately what transpires is a story that is kind of not here and not there. The same lack of conviction with which you try to transport the Orange butterflies to Appalachia seems to inhere in not only your characters, but the deus ex machina ending, in which everything simply floods away. That is not like you. You give your characters and even nature a choice. You didn't, this time.

Ah, well. Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer still tower above other environmental/geographic fiction offerings.

Here's to your next.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger - #2

Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger - #2

It is easy to peg Catcher as a novel of teenage angst, but one almost wants to tell Holden, "Hey, if you'd been born in the 1950's and come of age in the late 1960's, you'd have had  a much easier time of it." Letting kids show their individuality more and play to/with their talents was just around the corner.

As a matter of fact, if one reads Catcher as a playback of the underside of the 1950's, it seems painful but achingly accurate in some ways. The rich prep students and their parents are either phony and self-absorbed or nice but unreflective.  The Beats and musicians are talented but cynical and aloof. It is as if Holden is angry at the poses they all have to maintain just to put across an image to frame their lives as salable and livable. One can of  course include D.B., his talented Hollywood script-writing brother in this cavalcade.

And we only encounter his parents by hearsay, never in person.

The wholly good characters: his sister Phoebe and his dead brother Allie.

Holden is actually a microcosm of an entire generation waiting to erupt. As they will.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Monday, December 29, 2014

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour continues Barbara Kingsolver's involvement with the corruption of climate and earth and her ability to show nature as tied to the humans who live with it and yet more powerful and dangerous than they are.

Orange monarch butterflies have been thrown out of their natural habitat in Mexico and have settled on the trees of a mountain in Appalachia. The woman who sees them, Dellarobia, feels she has been saved from her own dangerous, destructive impulses by the beauty they offer. When others find out about the butterflies, they consider her blessed, touched by the divine, and a celebrity. A scientist and his grad helpers come out to observe and record the habits and probable death of the butterflies.

The flight and fate of the butterflies symbolizes and comes to presage the fate of the town to which they have fled, offering a warning of what is in store for the USA and the world.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wuthering Heights and Professor Mark Schorer

Introductions can be short or long, weak or strong, perfunctory or in-depth.

Professor Mark Schorer's introduction to the Rinehardt edition of Wuthering Heights, first printed in 1950 and reprinted in 1960, posits that Emily Bronte was trying to figure out if it was possible for the strength of an unmoral passion to possess its own morality. When I read his introduction for the first time, in 1973, I was sure I understood what he meant. He meant, I believed, a passion that injured, even killed others associated with those who felt it and acted on it/expressed it.

41 years later, I am not so sure.

Now that I am older, I am not so sure that passions themselves carry any kind of morality, or lack. They are very strong feelings. The morality, which concerns social conduct, inheres in ways in which the holders deal with these feelings. Morality is intimately associated with different kinds of laws tacit and written. If I feel passion for a piano and write a poem about this passion, I am expressing my passion without breaking any of our written laws. (That is, if the poem does not recommend or emphasize the idea of hurting or killing someone in order to use or admire the piano,) If instead of writing a non-violent poem, I kill someone who is playing the piano, I have broken the laws of my state and country. However...the passion itself is not immoral or moral. My expression of it is because our morality is bound up with our written laws. Other people have passions for pianos and do not kill those who are playing them.

Similarly (although it may seem a bit bizarre to compare the passions felt by Catherine and Healthcliff to my supposed passion for a piano), I do not see Catherine's and Heathcliff's passion for each other as unmoral. Perhaps the laws of our respective lands -even in the 1940's- rendered passion they experienced as unmoral because it and they did not seem to take into account that they were both married  to other people, but felt much much more strongly for each other, Not against our laws, but against the unwritten laws of kindness and civility, they acted cruelly to others who seemed to get in the way of their expression of this passion.

Now if they had both run away at some point to an island or another country before either of them had married, I don't see that anything about even the expression of this passion could be considered unmoral. The unmoral nature of the passion in Emily Bronte's time would seem to concern itself with Catherine's marrying Linton so that she could use his money and position to advance Heathcliff's standing. This to me would seem to indicate that they were committing a kind of adultery, which is of course against the law in certain areas, even now. However, it is only unmoral if we believe that this law is just, which I don't.

In short, it seems to me that Professor Schorer has labeled their passion unmoral because it flouted certain written laws. I must conclude that he agreed with those laws in order to frame it thus.

And thus, although I admire Professor Schorer's effort to explain Emily Bronte's reason for writing Wuthering Heights, I now question its validity.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Rite of passage

I own a few editions of Villette, by Charlotte Bronte, at least partly because it is my favorite book.

The intro of one states that she was "hopelessly fixated" on her Lit teacher at the Pensionnat Heger, the school in Brussels at which she taught English and studied French and other subjects. Besides this being a strange statement to make about any writer, and the fact that many young women fall in love with their lit. profs, it is close to a rite of passage for female writers and professors to fall in love with their brilliant, magnetic professors. One falls in love, one sighs, one writes love poems, one reads poems outside, one listens to lots of sad love songs -or writes a few- and hey nonny nonny, one goes on with one's life. Sometimes one writes letters. So, nu? 

Men are forever falling in love, often unrequited, with female teachers, professors, nurses, etc. They may or may not be "hopelessly fixated," but somehow it is recognized that famous male writers will indeed undergo this rite of passage and that it will enrich their writing.

Charlotte Bronte wrote her best book after she had come to terms with her (probably) unrequited love for her brilliant literature professor, the one who stirred and stimulated and stung her intellect and challenged her to find, in herself, the resources to understand and transform her pain. She did so magnificently. 

The person who wrote that Charlotte Bronte was "hopelessly fixated" either does not understand or was not willing to grant Charlotte Bronte the rite of passage granted to most intelligent female and male writers. Why? Lack of vision, understanding? Thorough insensitivity? A kind of blind stupidity?

A combination of all of them?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thank you, Dr. Potok

Some books I reread almost yearly. Others I read every so often.

I read The Chosen for the third time in the past few days. I remember really liking it the first time (at 15) and detesting it the second time (at around 32).

Now I am 60.

I have distanced myself enough from the world portrayed by and in The Chosen to be able to view it as something/some people who do not -or at least, who no longer- affect me personally. I have seen Chasidim in different venues than those of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, and as they walk, I feel no animosity - just a quiet semi-acceptance. They don't yell or get angry at me. I don't get angry at them.

Thus when I reread The Chosen, it was with a kind of rediscovery. Yes, I re-remembered their passion, their clannishness, their insistence on their own interpretations of the Torah and Tanakh, their view of women as not entitled to participate in study or prayer with them (and generally, not at all).

What I loved was the evocation of Brooklyn in the 1940's, the war years, the years of Israel's Independence struggle, the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the streets of Flatbush. Chaim Potok did this masterfully. I was born only nine years after the war, so such scenes, while mostly occurring in The Bronx where I lived and visited, were still familiar to me. Then, dear. Now almost uncapturable.  When I reread The Chosen, I was there again, and the atmosphere of the glass doored-studies, the tea, the books, even the meals in the synagogue and  shul lived again for me, as did the streets and the sycamores. Far from these years and the places shown, I now missed them but blessed Potok for bringing them back.

I also ended up appreciating the part of it that was after all a coming of age story. At 32 I scoffed because it seemed so male-oriented, with baseball as the catalyst. Now I have witnessed other coming of age stories, some featuring girls, some featuring boys, and I didn't mind- well, not as much- the fact that women seemed to play minor roles, at best, here. I still wish that at least a woman or two would have had more of a voice.

I am glad I reread The Chosen at 60. I would still not consider it one of my all time favorites, but it spoke to me of times gone by, and I appreciated that, although Potok probably would not appreciated what made me warm to it.

Thank you, anyway, Dr. Potok.