Monday, August 31, 2015

What libraries have meant, and will mean (perhaps)

The library, like the symphony orchestra, has always seemed to me to be one of the towering accomplishments of civilization. The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, a collection of essays edited by Alice Crawford, is a marvelous survey of Western libraries and books from Greek and Roman times to today. Crawford is digital humanities research librarian at the King James Library at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the essays were commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the library.

It is a lovely book, handsomely designed with endnotes, author bios, bibliography, index, and an eight-page, four-color insert—illustrations of ancient and medieval book cabinets. The essays consider the social roles libraries have played across the age, as centers for scholarship, mazes, sanctuaries, archives, and repositories for hidden wisdom. As Crawford writes in her introduction, "Although they are arranged to follow the library's development through history, the essays aim to offer simply glimpses of what libraries were like at these times rather than a comprehensive history. They focus on what libraries were used for, why they were needed, why they were meaningful to the various communities from which they emerged, and provide impressions rather than analyses of their value in the changing chronological contexts."

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, opens the book by noting that our first certain literary response to a library is in a raucous comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 425 B.C. The book closes with an essay by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who argues that "librarians are becoming more rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies—the kind that have historically not fought one another." In between these two essays, we read about the growth of community libraries in England and Scotland, the library in fiction from Gilgamesh to Borges, the library in film (think "Ghostbusters"), the library in poetry, and more.

At least two profound shifts have affected the library in history. The first was the invention of printing and movable type. With the spread of printed books—inexpensive compared to hand-copied codexes—a library was no longer a way for Europe's richest to flaunt their wealth and culture.

We're in the middle of the second shift: the rise of the internet and digital copies. This means that something like the HathiTrust, founded only in October 2008 as a consortium of research libraries, now has more than 11 million volumes and is one of the 10 largest research library collections in North America.

As a novelist, I was particularly interested in rise of community libraries in 19th century England. The worthies in charge saw the institution as a tool of edification and moral enlightenment. Novels were a problem. Narrative fiction "seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or whitewash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and—a fascinating Georgian perception—servants, as a consequence threatening not just public morality but also the social and political order." Shades of Seduction of the Innocent.

Clearly The Meaning of the Library is not a book for everyone. But for those of us who love books and have long loved libraries it is a stimulating and fascinating survey of "the library" in Western culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Science fiction that reads like science

Biogenesis by Tatsuaki Ishiguro is difficult to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed the book's four stories and am writing this to introduce other people to Ishiguro's work, but I'm afraid I'm not skillful enough convey what makes the book so special.

Because, on the one hand, three of the four stories follow the form of a scientific report, not the most engaging short story format. (And I thought the last story in a more traditional form was not up to the level of the first three.) These could be accounts of research into actual plants and animals. There is very little action and the drama comes almost entirely from scientific discovery, investigations into a winged mouse that weeps blood tears and whose tiny "wings" vibrate and emit a faint glow in the dark...into a woman with pure white hair, no memory, and a body temperature of 75.2 F...into a plant
that seems to need both radioactivity and human blood to thrive...and into a marine creature with miraculous cancer-healing powers. This is science fiction with a focus on science.

What makes the stories so powerful are the very human actions and conflicts of the scientists and others—army officers, doctors, professors, assistants, and observers—as they struggle to understand the mouse, woman, weed, and sea squirt that do not fit into standard categories. But not only to understand, to have consequences from the research. Why, Ishiguro is asking, do some species survive while others become extinct?

He observes, "In and of itself, the natural world admits of no laws or consistent narratives based on hypotheses. Attaching meaning to the natural world's various phenomena and aligning them into convincing narratives merely serves human interests. No matter how quantitatively a law is expressed, it is a human application and nothing more."

Three of the stories are set in Hokkaido and in the recent past when the northernmost Japanese island was even more wild and uncivilized than it is today. Ishiguro was born in Hokkaido in 1961, has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, so he is writing from inside knowledge. For example: "Adjusting the type and length of the primer as I went, I repeated the same steps nearly thirty times until finally, through trial and error, a single instance of synthetic reaction occurred. Using the automated DNA analyzer, I fed the resultant base strand into the computer. The results showed a perfect match for human (Homo sapiens) DNA."

The translations by Brian Watson and James Balzer, as the quotes above suggest, are fluent and clear. And Ishiguro studs the stories with interesting observations: "A progressive endeavor is rarely understood and when it comes to reporting on a rare illness, it is basically impossible if the messenger is not trusted. Were Yuki [the woman with abnormally low body temperature] to be transferred to some research facility, it is clear that she would be treated like a lab animal." In another story, the military allows the research to continue only because the army believes it will help the war effort.

Had an acquaintance recommended Biogenesis to me, I'm not sure I would have bothered. Now that I've read these unusual and powerful stories, all I can do is say I'm glad I have read them and to recommend them to others.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Hot and trending again! What fun!

This morning I posted another request that people nominate Death in a Family Business for the Kindle Press program on LinkedIn where, to my surprise, I am linked to something like 270 people. Some of the must have responded because a minute ago, I was "Hot and Trending," and the book's cover was one of the first site visitors see.
If somehow you haven't been to the site or been able to nominate my book, here's a link to the site:

Kindle Scout asks people who nominate a book to sign in to Amazon, a way I suspect to keep authors from stuffing the ballot box.

For those who have nominated my book, many thanks. For those who haven't (and have an Amazon account), I will be eternally grateful if you do.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How two young New Yorkers find themselves on a Norwegian island

Rebecca Dinerstein has an MFA in fiction from New York University. The Sunlit Night is her first novel. I tend to approach first novels by MFA graduates with a certain amount of mistrust. The writing may be stunning—such descriptions! such metaphors! such similes!—while the characters and stories are juvenile and banal. Unhappy first love. College angst. Dysfunctional family. Each of these subjects of course can be literature, but a 24-year-old MFA graduate usually does not have enough life experience, skillfully expressed as it may be, to bring interesting depths to her work. That apparently is not Dinerstein's problem.

The Sunlit Night has two protagonists, Frances and Yasha. Frances is 21, a recent art school graduate, at loose ends when in the first pages of the book she breaks up with her wealthy boyfriend. She narrates her own story.

Yasha is 17, the son of a Russian immigrant baker with a shop in Brighton Beach, and a mother who apparently remained in Russia ten years earlier. Dinerstein tells Yasha's side of the story in third person. The shift from first to third person point of view is seamless and gives the novel a depth and richness it would not have otherwise had.

While the story begins in New York City—Frances, her sister Sarah, and her parents share a two-room Manhattan apartment; Yasha and his father live above the bakery in Brooklyn—the action shifts to Lofoten, an archipelego of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle and warmed by the Gulf Stream. The scene is both exotic and convincing; Dinerstein is the author of a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems, so she sounds as if she is writing from lived experience. For example, picked almost at random:

"The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it... I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace."

How and why the American girl and the Russian-American boy end up on the same small island in northernmost Norway is both moving and plausible. Neither are characters dropped from Mars (individuals with no parents, siblings, or friends). Both have parents and lives beyond the island; both have challenges with which they must cope. Frances's parents, disapproving of Sarah's fiancee, refuse to go to her wedding and decide themselves to separate. Yasha's father dies and his mother shows up on the island with her lover.

Because there is no evil to overcome, no malevolent menace to be defeated, the thread running through The Sunlit Night is a profound question: How can one live in this world of other people? I thoroughly enjoyed and was rewarded by living in Rebecca Dinerstein's world, a world in which during a certain time of the year the sun never sets.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pre-teen boys hide out in a 19th Century reform school

Aiden Sullivan and Charles Wheeler are 11 and 12 years old in Boston in 1889. Aiden, nominally Catholic, nominally Irish, has no father and a consumptive, dying mother. Charles, an orphan who has already done time for stealing a sandwich, is living by his considerable wits on the streets. They connect early and plausibly in Connie Hertzberg Mayo's fascinating new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.

Mayo shows the boys' daily scramble to make enough money for food and, in Aiden's case, for rent to keep a tenament roof over his mother and little sister. Desperation finally pushes the boys into rolling drunken sailors on the waterfront, which works until it doesn't. One night, the drunk grabs Charles who has just opened the man's pocket knife, and, in horrible accident, plunges the knife into the man's gut. Worse, a woman happens out of an alley door, spots the boys, and cries havoc. Charles and Aiden now have to get out of Boston, but where?

With the connivance of a friendly whore and an accommodating minister, the boys pass themselves off as orphan brothers and are sent to the Boston Farm School on an island in Boston Harbor. That the school's policy not to accept boys with any kind of criminal record, which Charles has; that there is rampant anti-Irish feeling in Boston in the period, which means Aiden has to watch his accent; and that the school promotes a heavy Protestant Christian ethos to boys guilty of murder makes the island a refuge filled with tripwires.

At the same time, the school offers school, work, shelter, and regular meals. The book's middle section book dramatizes Aiden's and Charles's adjustment to school life as the reader knows this idyll is too good to last. As it is.

The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor was a real institution, and Charles Bradley, the superintendent of the school in the book, was in fact the superintendent from 1888 to 1922; his wife Mary was the school's matron. The school was finally closed in 1975.

Mayo has taken the basic factual information about the school and 1889 Boston society to create two engaging 12-year-olds in Aiden and Charles. The novel works so well I think because Mayo is able to evoke the times, the society, and the thought processes of the characters. We see the world through the eyes of Charles, Aiden, and Superintendent Bradley; they are all different, and they are all convincing, given who they are and what they want.

Although the two protagonists of The Island of Worthy Boys are pre-teen, which tends to cast a novel into the YA genre, I believe this is a book adults and young adults can find rewarding. Young people will be interested how Aiden and Charles fill their days in Boston, scrounging for pennies, and at the school, adjusting to life with 98 other boys. Adult readers will be interested in Mayo's evocation of 19th century assumptions about child raising, the era of "As the twig is bent, the tree will grow." Bradley turns out to be an unusually enlightened and kind reform school superintendent. I finished the book pleased and satisfied, and, perhaps more importantly, convinced that the lives Mayo has realized could have truly lived while the drama of their story carried me along.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"The Stranger" from an Arab point of view

Albert Camus's The Stranger (in the Matthew Ward translation) begins: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know."

Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation (in John Cullen's translation) begins: "Mama's still alive today. She doesn't say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."

Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for Algeria's third-largest French-language newspaper. His novel is a tour-de-force, has won a number of prizes, is being translated around the world, and will be the basis of a 2017 film.

Meursault is the name of Camus's narrator, a pied noir who seems to be without ambition, motivation, or inner life. When his boss in Algiers offers a bigger job, an opportunity to live in Paris and travel, he turns him down. "I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine her at all." That evening when Marie, the woman with whom he's been having sex, asks if he wants to marry her, "I said it didn't make any difference to
me and that we could if she wanted to." In the middle of the book, almost carelessly, Meursault shoots an anonymous Arab on the beach, then fires four more bullets into his body. The Arab is a stranger, and Meursault feels no more remorse for the killing than love for Marie or enthusiasm for his job.

Daoud's brilliant idea was to tell the story of the murder from the point of view of the dead Arab's  brother, who was a child at the time. He's now an old man, sitting in an Oran bar, talking to an unidentified and silent interlocutor, hashing and rehashing the murder. He gives the victim a name, Musa, and talks about the effect on himself and his mother, his anger at the unnamed author who wrote a book about Meursault, colonialism, his involvement (or not) in the Algerian revolution, his own murder of a pied noir, his failed relationship with a woman. I believe a case could be made that Daoud's narrator is a mirror image of Meursault. Except that this narrator is more engaged:

"I squeezed the trigger and fired twice. Two bullets. On in the belly, and the other in the necs. That makes seven all told, I thought at once, absurdly. (But the first five, the ones that killed Musa, had been fired twenty years earlier . . .)"

He, like Meursault, has interesting observations about life: "To tell the truth, love is a heavenly beast that scares the hell out of me. I watch it devour people, two by two; it fascinates them with the lure of eternity, shuts them up in a sort of cocoon, lifts them up to heaven, and then drops their carcasses back to earth like peels. Have you seen what becomes of people when they split up? They're scratches on a closed door."

One does not have to have read The Stranger to be fascinated and engaged by Daoud's narrator but reading it, then The Meursault Investigation can make the experiences seriously richer. I was skeptical about an unknown writer taking off on the Nobel Prize-winning Camus, but Kamel Daoud's novel, while offering its own rewards, can stand with Camus's. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Midwest Book Review likes "Girl"

The Midwest Book Review has posted their staff's response to my novel:

"The Girl in the Photo" by Wally Wood is a compelling novel about love and longing, regret and renewal. David and Abbie are a brother and sister who discover a surprising secret after the death of their father in the form of a photo of a young woman who was his lover decades before and half a world away. Even as they mourn their father, an eminent surgeon, David and Abbie question what they thought they knew about his life (and theirs) as they struggle with conflicting memories, unexpected emotions, and new possibilities.

A deftly crafted work of literary fiction, "The Girl in the Photo" is an inherently fascinating and deftly crafted read from beginning to end. Strongly recommended for community library General Fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "The Girl in the Photo" is also available in a Kindle edition ($2.99).