Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vitamin D Deficiency: What Not to Do

Holy moly! It's Vitamin D deficiency time here in Kentucky, with sunshine in short supply and cold rain in plenty. I feel suspended in time and space, as if I'm lingering in C.S. Lewis's "Wood Between the Worlds," a sort of twilight place in one of the Narnia books in which nothing much happens unless you jump into one of its numerous ponds. Each one of these is a portal that might lead just about anywhere, and you have no way of knowing in advance where that might be.

I haven't been jumping into many ponds, unless you count library books and job applications as portals to other worlds, which in a sense, they are, of course. In the Narnia book (I believe it was The Magician's Nephew), two children begin to explore the ponds in the Wood Between the Worlds out of curiosity, unleashing some rather powerful consequences. One would hope that the innocent choice of a library book or a job opening wouldn't have such dire implications, though you might be wrong in that hope, from what I've seen.

I try to be responsible in the books I choose to review, but suspended here as I am, living without a permanent address, not sure where I'll be or what I'll be doing a month from now, hoping something better awaits me than public assistance, I do end up reading a lot to pass the time. I will admit to being a more suspicious and skeptical reader than I once was (as you may have noticed), and this especially pertains to recent books, which I sometimes suspect of having a political subtext buried within whatever plots or themes the author has chosen to explore. This happens even with writers I respect, and it annoys me.

Let me be clear on what I'm talking about. I would expect that political themes and ideas could play a legitimate role in any work should an author wish to pursue them. Politics is a part of life. What bothers me is when I start to read something and get distracted by what seem to be coy, half-hidden, half-revealed references to things outside the scope of the fictional world itself. Yes, I know Dante's Inferno is full of topical references to events and people that he didn't even bother to disguise--and I know it's a great work of literature--but that is the thing I dislike most about it.

I think a work of art is powerful to the extent that it takes a particular instance and makes it universal (or you could say it happens the other way around). Literary conceits like taking potshots at people or sending hidden messages make me question the author's motives. I come to a book assuming the author's integrity and desire to tell a good story, maybe even to create a great work of art. If I start to feel that he/she is dropping names, manipulating me, or trying to send messages that will only be recognized by Abyssinian eunuchs or Macedonian spies, I start to feel that the contract between reader and writer, based on trust, has been violated. It makes me much less likely to bother with that author in the future.

Of course, I have reviewed some books recently that seemed to me to be referring to things slightly out of my ken, and I said so. One of them was Gregory's Maguire's After Alice, but I have to say that Mr. Maguire's book, while it startled me at times, did not offend me. Why not? It was simply a feeling I got that while parts of Mr. Maguire's novel were a little opaque to me, he was not trying to hit me over the head or sell me anything. It was a delight, rather than otherwise, to realize that some of his allusions were beyond me and not amenable to instant unraveling. His book wasn't reductive, in other words; it was more poem than mathematical equation. It raised questions without necessarily answering all of them, and I wanted to recommend it to other people to see what they would find in it.

This past week, I read a book about a World War II pilot who returns to France years later to reconnect with people he knew during the war. It was a good story and well written, but somehow I felt rather empty at the end of it. So why can I not recommend this book to you? Let me state that I know nothing of the author's intentions, so my reactions are strictly to the book itself. While it explored such laudable themes as memory, responsibility, humanity, and inhumanity, I just felt beaten down at the end of it. I kept getting distracted by names and references rather than feeling they were a seamless part of the story. I kept wondering why certain choices were made. And for a novel whose themes seem to be worthy and life affirming, it had a curiously deflating ending.

The pilot, who had succeeded in sneaking out of France during the war, reprises his escape decades later with the woman who assisted him years before but had never done the crossing herself. He hadn't wanted to relive the experience, for reasons that become clear, but the woman, with whom he has become romantically involved, insists on it, almost (it seemed to me) bullying him into it. Her motives somehow seem impure, though she is presented to the reader as a remarkable and courageous freedom fighter. Right about here, the author lost me completely. Why would this character, with so many painful memories of her own, insist that her lover relive one of his most painful war episodes? It all seemed a little sadistic.

I admired the author's skill in bringing the war vividly to life, but at some point, the plot and I parted company. Why did the pilot's life after the war suddenly seem to count for nothing until he returned to France? Perhaps that did not quite ring true to me. Why did he end up traipsing across the mountains after a vertigo-inducing journey by car that he hadn't wanted to make? I felt I had been left hanging. OK, so maybe this book wasn't the best choice for a cloudy week in November (though I don't think reading it on the beach in Cancun would have improved matters much). Something about it bothered me, making me wish I had chosen something more straightforward, or at least more straightforwardly opaque.

Picking library books is more of a crapshoot than it seems sometimes. I have no way of knowing how often anyone who reads my column seeks out books and films I've written about--maybe it never happens. But just in case you decide to track this book down, I recommend reading it by a sunny window or underneath a sunlamp, at the very least. I wouldn't want to be responsible for inadvertently adding to anyone's Seasonal Affective Disorder, and though it's quite possible you would respond to it differently, I can only tell you that I heard a giant whooshing sound as half the Vitamin D in my body seemed to escape when I turned the last page. It takes a lot of Ben & Jerry's to replace that much Vitamin D.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Turning of the Year

I'm pretty sure we reached the tipping point this week weather-wise, the point at which early fall slips into late autumn and those glorious October days morph into the gloomier part of November. When I came back here at the end of the summer, I was happy to at least be far away from the wildfire then burning in Southern California and the hurricanes down in the Caribbean. Late summer was still in the air, so it was hot at first, the humid, Kentucky kind of heat I'm used to. Then a period of rain set in, and I enjoyed watching it, as I had seen very little of that all summer in L.A.

I watched The Weather Channel as one hurricane after another headed toward the United States, but the weather here was generally calm. I'm not in the greatest area for taking walks, but I took them anyway, occasionally combining an errand in another part of town with the chance to park the car and walk through a leafier neighborhood. Those occasions were special treats. I have been reluctant to go back to my old neighborhood for walks, though--I have too many bad memories of an area that has changed radically from the way it used to be. Revisiting those streets would make it seem too much as if I had never left.

Last Sunday, I decided to walk near Ashland, the historic home of Henry Clay, knowing that the mild, sunny days of autumn were probably drawing to a close and wanting to make the most of those that remained. Obviously, a lot of other people had the same idea, and unlike on previous occasions, there were just too many other people out and about to make a solitary walk possible. Some of the foliage was breathtaking, and the sun was warm, but I was practically tripping over other people, so I finally called it a day.

We have had a good bit of rain off and on lately, and one or two very windy nights that seemed to mark the turn toward winter. In the last week, I've been reminded of what I dislike most about the weather in Kentucky: the cold, gray days that are so frequent from November to March. While the sameness of the weather throughout my summer in California didn't compare favorably in my mind with summer in Kentucky, just a little bit of winter in Kentucky goes a long way. Of course, with climate change, it could be a while before we see true winter (although I did see sleet and flurries one morning last week, nothing stuck). What we'll probably get is a protracted autumn.

You know it's starting to get cold when a sunny day of 54 degrees feels warm to you. We'll probably have more of those here and there, but I'm always surprised at how early November can fool you into thinking that the mild days and colorful foliage will just go on and on only to yield, almost overnight sometimes, to leafless branches and a pervasive, damp, end-of-the-year gloom. It never ceases to amaze me how different a rainy day in June is from a rainy day in December.

Friday, November 3, 2017


A number of years ago, I stayed in an extended stay hotel while renovations were being done on my apartment building after a fire. While there, I had cable TV, something I did not have at home, and I often watched it. Other than movies, my favorites were The Weather Channel and Animal Planet, both of which I could watch for two or three hours at a time.

This year, while staying in extended stays and motels, I've also had access to cable TV, but I find that overall the viewing experience is a lot less fun. Almost everyone seems to be selling something. I don't know exactly when this trend started, but it's frequently the case that, despite having dozens of channels to choose from, I'm not interested in any of them. In some cases, I enjoy the commercials much more than the actual programs; they often have more style and charm, which doesn't say much for the overall state of television land, but it's true.

One channel I do enjoy overall is HGTV, and if I were going to psychologize the reasons for this, I might say that it's the archetype of home drawing me in at a time when I don't have one of my own. There's probably some truth in this, but it's also true that I've always been interested in looking at houses and the different ways people go about using space in their homes. If I had access to HGTV back in the summer of the fire, I don't remember watching it much, but many of the programs they have today, which feature people making decisions about buying, selling, and renovating houses, fascinate me.

The big question with "reality TV" is how "real" or how "scripted" the programs are, and I think about that when I'm watching. Most of the series I watch are presented as if the people and situations are genuine, and even though I question that sometimes, I'm usually willing to accept that they are. My favorite is Property Brothers, though I also enjoy Fixer Upper and House Hunters (which apparently is heavily staged, or has been in the past). I was watching House Hunters one night when I suddenly became convinced that one of the people was an actor, and whether or not I was right in that instance, I often get the feeling that, just as elsewhere on the TV dial, there is some sleight-of-hand taking place. Nevertheless, I still enjoy watching.

The process of "demo," a prominent feature of many of these programs, has been a particular revelation to me. I always assumed that houses, floors, and walls are all more solid than they actually are, that is until I saw the gusto with which the Property Brothers and their clients rip down cabinets, tear out toilets, and knock down walls. (I still think it would be harder for me to take out a kitchen cabinet than it would be for Jonathan or Drew, who do it all the time, but some of their clients seem to have quite a knack for it.) I've also learned that what sells today is a much sleeker style than I would probably go for in a home of my own. The houses always look beautiful after they're renovated, but I sometimes prefer the pre-renovation, lived-in decor of homes that bear the imprint of the people living in them, even if the post-demo reconfiguration is usually a great improvement.

I enjoyed the Property Brothers segment in New Orleans in which the brothers competed against one another in renovating the two halves of a shotgun house. I would have had a hard time picking a winner; I liked Drew's kitchen and dining area better but preferred Jonathan's bedrooms. There was another program featuring historical renovation that I also liked, hosted by two women who fixed up a Montana farm house for a young married couple. I liked the way they were sensitive to the rugged, traditional style of rural Montana while completely updating the house and managing to make it both practical and cozy.

What else? Well, I've learned the term "shiplap," even if I'm not sure what it is. I've learned that my taste in bathrooms, far from being extravagant, is pretty much the norm in reno land. I have yet to see a kitchen that quite matches one I would pick for myself if I could, but I'm inclining much more to the open-concept floor plan than I used to. I was thoroughly charmed by an upstairs porch with a fireplace in a Knoxville home and have decided that, despite several years of fascination with the mid-century modern style, I am probably more a Craftsman person myself.

The irony of being further away financially than I have ever been from home ownership while digesting all of these HGTV shows isn't lost on me, and I'm occasionally offended by the demands and expectations some of the TV clients have when I think of the homes other people make do with (or don't make do with). On the other hand, I suppose it's a mark of optimism that I still enjoy watching these programs and seeing what's possible, despite my own circumstances. I still hope to have a home of my own some day, and while I have only a general idea right now of what it might look like, there is one thing on the top of my wish list besides a rainfall showerhead: no shared walls. Especially after seeing what flimsy things they can be.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mythology for the Literal-Minded

It came to my attention this week, quite by accident, that author Mark Haddon included a piece in his collection The Pier Falls and Other Stories that retells the myth of Ariadne and Theseus. Neither is named, but the plot parallels the events of the myth closely enough (on a literal level, at least) that anyone familiar with the story will recognize what is meant. I'll be honest in saying that I didn't like the story, nor the one that preceded it, which was not myth-based, though it seemed to bear an odd kind of kinship to "The Island," the story I'm writing about. Both deal with horrific loss of life near the sea.

I sometimes feel that it's worth staying with an unpleasant book or sitting through an unpleasant movie, depending on what I perceive the artist's intent to be. I watched Munich, for instance, even though I found it difficult, because the theme was compelling. The question of just where the dividing line is between terrorists and anti-terrorists is a very real and important one, and it was brought home to me in a way I'll never forget in that film. It was worth sticking it out for the lesson it taught me.

Likewise, Mr. Haddon may well have a purpose in mind with his book, and if so, I may have gleaned it from the first two stories, though it's probably unfair to characterize the whole book without having read it all the way through. I guess what I'm saying is that if Mr. Haddon's purpose is to reveal the coarser side of human nature and the unfortunate tendency many people have of being drawn to the grisly and horrific events that befall others simply for the thrill of it, then I get what he's saying and thank him for his efforts, but I won't be reading any further. It may be that the rest of the book deals with other themes, but when I started on the third story and still found myself in carnival sideshow territory, I felt it was time to call it a day and go on to something else.

It's probably obvious to anyone who's read my book that I look at the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the labyrinth as very symbolic and, underneath it all, life-affirming. My way of looking at it is not the only way, of course. Mr. Haddon's version is a horror story that nevertheless stays pretty close to the actual outline of the myth; the devil is in the details. His story even begins as quasi-realistic, as if Ariadne and Theseus might have been actual people--Ariadne a spoiled but sheltered princess who makes a fatal error in betraying her people for a man she's besotted with and Theseus a calculating and manipulative brute.

Mr. Haddon's way of dealing with the Dionysus part of the myth is not one I had seen before and conjures up the destructive aspect of the god. This side of Dionysus certainly appears elsewhere in mythology but not in the context of this myth, at least not to my knowledge, so it seemed to me a bit like mixing bad apples and worse oranges, though of course one has the creative license to do just that in a story of one's own telling. Ariadne's marriage to Dionysus in the classical version of the myth is a much more benign event than Mr. Haddon makes of it and supports the idea that Ariadne herself was viewed, at an earlier period of Greek history, as a powerful goddess. In some versions of the myth she, a goddess, was already married to Dionysus when she decided to help Theseus, so that perhaps the marriage on Naxos in later versions is a way of linking Ariadne, now a mortal, back to her original husband.

I discussed in my book some of the thinking about Ariadne's role in the myth, which centers on the idea that the labyrinth may originally have had a powerful religious meaning. I tend to see Ariadne as a positive figure guarding the secrets of life itself, the labyrinth in this sense becoming a symbol for birth, and even more than that, for becoming human. In that regard, her pairing with Dionysus makes sense, because he, too, is deeply connected with life in his associations with wine and the life cycle of the grape.

Whereas Demeter oversees agriculture in general, Dionysus's connection with the vine speaks of something that, paradoxical as it seems, is in some ways even more nuanced and refined. I'm talking about the life cycle of the grape and of how many things have to go just right in order for the winemaker to produce a fine wine. Dionysus presides over all of this, not just the growing of the grapes. The wine distills some of the essence of everything that goes into its making, the soil, the water, the sunlight, the container it's placed in, and, in no small amount, the soul of the winemaker, whose care of the vines has a great deal to do with how the wine turns out. Every vintage is unique, just as every person is.

By the way, I'm indebted to the movie Sideways for revealing to me so evocatively this nurturing aspect of Dionysus. That the main character, Miles, has a difficult relationship with wine, the very thing he loves and appreciates so well, is both a sad irony and a reminder that Dionysus does indeed have two sides, though bookish Miles is in some ways really more an Apollo kind of guy. Miles's boorish friend Jack, who has no appreciation for the subtle beauties of wine, embodies the dark side of Dionysus much better than Miles does. Miles's love interest, Maya, combines characteristics of both Demeter and Aphrodite, which really makes her the Ariadne to Miles's Dionysus.

All of this is just to say that in my reading of the labyrinth myth, Ariadne and Dionysus are both nurturing figures, and there is some support for this in scholarship. I was honestly rather shocked by Mr. Haddon's story, and even though I think most people realize there are many ways to read a myth, I want to point out, in this era of sensationalism and over-emoting that takes place everywhere from The Weather Channel to the nightly news, that the most shocking interpretation of a story isn't necessarily the best one and definitely isn't the only one. You can look at life through the eyes of love as a rich adventure filled with beauty and interest (despite its many serious problems) or you can look at it as a carnival sideshow, with one freakish event screaming for your attention until another one even worse comes along to take its place. I recommend that you not be that guy. (You know the one I mean.)

I don't know whether to thank Mr. Haddon for a lesson in the dangers of literal-minded mythology or to wash his mouth out with soap, but I rather suspect he had a reason for telling the story the way he did. As an example of literature as shock therapy, I'm not sure I've ever seen its equal. It's like a literary hairshirt. A tiny dab of that may be edifying, but more than that is going overboard. Whether he even expects you to finish the book or not is a question I'm not sure I can answer.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Getting Down With Alice

Author Gregory Maguire can usually be relied upon to spin entertaining novels with his clever, offbeat versions of fairy tales and children's stories written for grown-up children.  He has outdone himself with his novel After Alice, which I cached in a recent visit to the public library (yes, we're still in literary form this week at Wordplay). Mr. Maguire leaps fearlessly into Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, managing not only to land in the right "neck of the woods" (located near the tops of the trees, as one particularly harried bird in the story is careful to explain) but also bringing some wry modern humor with him.

I had a sense, while reading this story, that I was almost as perplexed as Ada, Alice's friend, who, in this telling, has stumbled down the rabbit hole after her, losing a jar of marmalade in the process (so that's where it came from). The novel is full of what appear to be in-jokes, allusions to things that you feel you ought to be able to figure out if you only think about them hard enough. However, like the mysterious key that remains stubbornly out of Ada's reach, this strange and surreal underworld doesn't give up its secrets easily. That you are having an underworld experience is the one thing that is clear; even Ada, who compares Wonderland to a Doré illustration she has seen of Dante's Inferno, soon realizes that.

Of course, you know that Wordplay always has your best interests at heart--and that is why we read After Alice twice in our resolution to be responsible and give you an accurate account of it. My assessment at this point is that while I got the gist of it, it has more in it than any one person can fully unravel, so I invite you to read it for yourself and see what you make of it. I feel sure you'll be entertained. If parts of it seem oddly familiar to you, I won't question that, because I had a similar experience. It wasn't merely the fact that I had read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland previously but also a feeling that, yes, something like that happened to me one time, too, and yes, that character reminds me of someone--even though the characters in this novel have the fluid identities of people in a dream, seeming to shift and reappear in multiple guises. Even the Jabberwock has a hidden identity.

While the geography of After Alice is firmly in Lewis Carroll territory, with many characters from both Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass making an appearance, Mr. Maguire brings a number of tangential characters fully into the story and introduces new ones. Ada, not Alice, is the focus of this story, and Alice's sister Lydia becomes a flesh-and-blood character in the upper world, carrying on a somewhat less-than-thorough search, along with Ada's governess, the highly strung Miss Armstrong, for the missing children. A visiting American has brought with him a freed slave boy, Siam, who makes his own way into Wonderland through the looking-glass in a closed-off parlor.

By turns, this underworld journey is topical, surreal, disturbing, amusing, and sometimes touching. Siam's worldly-wise outlook and American dialect introduce a New World rawness into the somewhat grim rectitude of Victorian Oxford, and some of the denizens of Wonderland express themselves in surprisingly modern though not always fully straightforward quips. "I stole a glance at her," says the March Hare. "So shoot me." And how about this from Humpty Dumpty: "I adore salt. Salt completes me." Ada is repeatedly admonished, "Don't look up," and, while frequently the recipient of advice, is also warned not to take it.

Crippled by a back brace and socially awkward, Ada is perhaps the only character who seems to gain by her underworld experience, which becomes somewhat of a hero's journey (though unacknowledged by anyone else). In Wonderland, she loses her brace and becomes surprisingly sure-footed amongst all the hucksters and dangerous characters she meets, though at the outset she would seem to be no match for them. By the end of the story, I was eager to find out what would happen when Ada returned to the upper world and was sorry when the novel ended, as I would have loved to follow her subsequent career. The final page definitely came too soon in this case.

Kings, queens, duchesses, knights, and other courtiers abound here, including Queen Victoria herself, who somehow makes her way to Wonderland in a bathing machine. Charles Darwin is a guest of Alice's father, Mr. Clowd, a failed scholar, and they discuss evolution and theology over light refreshments, oblivious to the three children who have gone missing in the neighborhood. The book Lydia was reading, "with no pictures or conversation," is revealed to be an essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Miss Armstrong has the hots for her employer but transfers her affections rather easily to the interesting American, Mr. Winter. The story begins and ends by a river.

That may seem like a disjointed way to summarize the novel, but the story itself flies about with great flapping wings, changing direction unexpectedly, which is only natural in a story in which the "surreal" and the "real" are tangled up so closely. Mr. Darwin poses a scientific question to Mr. Winter that you will have to answer for yourself, which may or may not sufficiently explain the reason for this novel but will in any case leave you feeling quite thoughtful.

True story: I once had dinner in a chocolate bar in St. Louis. Yes, there is such a thing--they even had chocolate martinis. When I visited the ladies' room, I had to descend a stairwell that was decorated with an Alice in Wonderland theme. On another occasion, while attending a conference in Southern California, I stayed at an Alice in Wonderland themed inn in which my room was named after the Queen of Hearts. It was a bit more room than I needed, but the inn's atmosphere was suitably whimsical and certainly carried out the theme. While either or both experience may have some bearing on why I related so much to Mr. Maguire's story, they don't explain it entirely. At least, I don't think they do.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What I Found on the Shelves

Lately, I've had pretty good luck finding interesting books at the library, so this week's post will be a literary one. Popular culture is a bit of a minefield these days, in my opinion, and the simple wish to be entertained can result in being subjected to all kinds of schlock. The trick, of course, is to try and be discerning, as we have all been taught since we were little children--though I don't recall discernment being nearly so difficult an art when I was small. The reason is simple: the age of innocence has flown the coop on us.

It's been a few years since I reviewed anything by author Tracy Chevalier, but some of you may remember my review of her book The Last Runaway, the story of a young Quaker woman starting a new life in the wilds of rural Ohio in 1850. That book painted a vivid picture of the dangers of everyday life on the frontier, when a simple wagon trip through the woods--at a distance that would be as nothing in the age of interstate highways--was a frankly hazardous undertaking. Ms. Chevalier returns to 19th-century Ohio for At the Edge of the Orchard, a novel about a family working the land in the perilous Black Swamp of the state's northwest region. In actual fact, this book provides an even more harrowing portrait of frontier life than the author's previous book.

The Goodenough family is dysfunctional, which adds another layer to the nearly insurmountable difficulties they already face in making a living from the land. A dark tragedy leads to the breakup of the family and to the beginning of years of wandering for youngest son Robert. Although Robert travels widely and sees many wonders, even ending up in California in time for the Gold Rush, the story is not so much Mark Twain adventure as it is Aeschylus Greek tragedy. 

The Fates do indeed seem to pursue the members of this family; rarely, while reading the book, do you shake off a sense of being haunted. Although there are humorous episodes and characters (Robert's cigar-smoking landlady, Mrs. Bienenstock, is everything a Barbary Coast landlady should be), the novel imparts a feeling almost of claustrophobia. Rather than Manifest Destiny and a feeling of endless possibility, the horizons have shrunk; you get the sense that no matter how far Robert roams, he will never escape the events he is running from. The novel offers a darker view of this period of western expansion than you get from many tales of Western adventure, darker in plot as well as in tone. While it looks like 19th-century America, it feels like Greece in the Bronze Age, as if the House of Atreus had somehow crossed the sea and fetched up on foreign shores. America does not seem so much exceptional as it seems doomed to repeat the cycle of the past.

As it happens, I followed this book up with another one with a California setting, María Dueñas's The Heart Has Its Reasons. I greatly enjoyed Ms. Dueñas's The Time In Between, a novel about a Spanish dressmaker who gets involved in the resistance during World War II, and I was curious to see what she would do with a strong female character in a contemporary setting. The Heart Has Its Reasons is the story of a woman who, after the breakup of her marriage, flees her university job in Spain for a stint as a visiting professor at a Northern California college. The ingredients for a great story--a woman making a new start, a picturesque setting, and an academic mystery entangled with personal tragedy--are all there, but I was thrown off by something in the storytelling itself, an awkwardness that was absent from Ms. Dueñas's previous book.

I at first wondered if something had been lost in the translation, since the style seemed little like what I remembered from the previous novel, not that every book by an author needs to sound exactly the same--though you don't expect one to be assured in tone and the next to be a little off-center. While I enjoyed the story and was intrigued enough to keep reading, I was distracted by a certain roughness in the prose. There is a scene early on in which the main character is looking at photos of the long-dead professor whose papers she is organizing when, for unexplained reasons, lickety-split, she is suddenly outside in need of fresh air. Wait . . . how did that happen?

It is as if some bridge between the two scenes, a connection supplying the reasons for Professor Perea's sudden exodus, is missing. I found it surprising that a writer as accomplished as Ms. Dueñas would write a scene that way, but whether the explanation is typographical, translational, or purposeful I cannot say. Did the character undergo a fugue state? Did she step into a wormhole? Later in the novel, there is a confrontation between Professor Perea and another academic in which she seems to overreact to the revelation that he's behind the fellowship that brought her to America. I didn't think the news quite warranted throwing him out of her apartment, much less her life, and it also seems inconsistent with her previous behavior--yet another example of something that doesn't quite fit in the story.

Overall, I did enjoy the book, though, and was reminded occasionally of my own experiences in California, both as a visitor and as a student. Ms. Dueñas certainly has the setting down to a T, and she knows the world of academia to boot. It's just that the storytelling itself seemed to raise mysteries, almost in the manner of a poem whose letters and lines are placed in an unexpected way on the page, pointing to something beyond what's in the words themselves, if I am not imagining it.

This is the beauty of browsing: I had been looking for some time for a book set in the Gold Rush era of California history, which seems to me a fascinating time, and I found one by luck just by poking around in the shelves. I'm also interested in the history of California missions, which plays such a critical role in Ms. Dueñas's book, and I came across that one by accident as well. Serendipitous finds like that are always fun, even if you don't quite get what you're expecting. NoveList is a wondrous thing . . . but there's nothing like finding a book yourself.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Death of Tom Petty

While I wish I had the ability to say something useful in the wake of this week's violence in Las Vegas, I don't know what it would be. Sometimes it's better to let more information emerge before jumping into the fray, beyond condemning the bloodshed, as any rational person must. I'm turned off by commentators who start putting forward theories about an event before all the facts are known, and rather than be one, I prefer to let the investigators do their work.

I found my attention drawn to a different event, the death of rocker Tom Petty, the day after the attack, possibly because it was less overwhelming (except to his family and friends, of course) but nonetheless unexpected. I read reports that he thought his recently completed tour would probably be his last, and though I might be reading too much into it, I wonder if he had had any presentiment of what was going to happen. It wouldn't be the first time someone had succumbed right after completing an exhausting task; I'm remembering my own father, whose health seemed to fall apart not long after he retired. Still, I admit to finding the timing of Mr. Petty's death to be a little strange.

I listened to Mr. Petty's records a lot in the early '80s but never saw him live. I followed his career loosely, at a distance, and one or two of his songs pass the Wordplay "Turn Up the Volume" test (it's a very select group). In recent years, I've noticed that his song "I Won't Back Down" (from the Full Moon Fever album, which I don't have) seemed to be getting a fair amount of airplay--or perhaps it's more accurate to say that, out of a multitude of songs that I hear on the radio and elsewhere, this one seemed to rise above many others and stamp itself on my consciousness in a rather insistent way. It's the right song at the right time, I guess you might say.

I will admit to occasionally having a mildly transgressive thought, and I have a recurring fantasy involving this very song. I imagine myself somehow getting access to the public address system on Capitol Hill long enough to play a song that could be heard from one end of the building to the other. This would be the song I would play, on behalf of, well, let's see, the oppressed, the unchampioned, the forgotten, the ill-used, and the otherwise everyday people everywhere trying to keep going while the politicians play their Washington games. (I've also had similar fantasies about the B-52s' "Love Shack"--don't ask me why. It just feels like it would be a fun thing to do.)

On a personal note, I was at a blues festival several years ago in Southern California, walking through a crowd after hearing John Fogerty perform, when I thought I spotted Mr. Petty. He stopped in the crowd a short distance ahead of me and gave me a sweet smile. I'm almost certain it was Tom, and although he didn't say or do anything else, in my memory I can almost see him putting his finger to his lips, as if to say, "Ssshhh, you've spotted me--but don't say anything!" I wondered about it afterward, as I almost had the impression that it wasn't quite a chance encounter, though I can't really say why I think that. It was just something in his face, though it was dark, and I could be mistaken, of course. I had certainly never met him before.

So I think it was really that incident, along with the fact that he was one of my favorite rockers in my college years, that has had me feeling sad and thoughtful over the last few days. Though I'm often shocked to hear about someone's untimely passing, this death touched me in a way that many others haven't. I felt an almost personal sense of loss that surprised me at first but doesn't now that I've thought about it. When someone has touched you with his or her artistry and has been part of the soundtrack of your life for decades, as Mr. Petty has been in mine, it means something when he goes.

I looked at the videos of two of my favorite Tom Petty songs and was impressed with a sort of mythic sense that permeates both of them, especially "Runnin' Down a Dream" (also from Full Moon Fever). Students of Native American mythology may notice sequences reminiscent of Navajo and Lakota folklore; King Kong is in there, too. I was also reminded of such disparate elements as Madeleine L'Engle, a story I once wrote about children who fly into outer space by means of their bed, and an episode in the film Black Orpheus involving a spiral staircase. There is a feeling of magic, mystery, and something slightly out of reach in this video, a vision that, though I never would have imagined it just from hearing the song by itself, matches it perfectly. I especially like the part where the cartoon Tom scratches his head. (The animation in the video was reportedly inspired by Winsor McCay's comic strip Little Nemo.)

The persona Mr. Petty adopts in this video for "Runnin' Down a Dream" and in the video for "I Won't Back Down" (which features some familiar faces) is one and the same. He appears at the beginning and end as a type of storyteller/magician who has something he really wants to show you but won't explain. The blending of mythic/imaginative elements and a certain sly "world as we know it" allusive quality is priceless. Both songs (co-written by Mr. Petty) are definitely enshrined in the "Turn Up the Volume" pantheon of the Great American Songbook; in fact, be careful--either or both could cause you to drive too fast.

I guess it's mean to say it, but I particularly hope, if you don't like either or both of them, that you have trouble avoiding them in the coming weeks. Take it as a sign. And by the way, I never said I wasn't mean.