Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

The Pulitzer Prize committee did not award a fiction prize this year. The New York Times Magazine editors invited a number of writers to make their own recommendations, and Gregory Cowles, an editor of the book review, suggested Jean Thompson's fifth novel, The Year We Left Home. It is extraordinary.

It begins in a small Iowa town in January 1973 (Thompson labels each chapter with a place and date) and ends outside the same town in June 2003. Over the 325 pages and thirty years we watch an ordinary family's four children and a cousin grow, change, get married, divorced, have children themselves, deal with death, and try to live as the country changes around them.

Thompson uses a limited third person point of view for each chapter, and each chapter is a different person, at different time, and set in a different place. They could, it seemed to me, almost be short stories (she's published five story collections) except that we follow virtually the same cast of characters through the entire book, and things that happen in one character's life resonate and connect with another character's. Moreover, she's done something very difficult to do (I know because I'm trying to do it myself in my new book): She's made each point of view character an individual, with individual perceptions, attitudes, and personalities.

Not only that, but she's been able to use the larger events of the period—the Vietnam War, the emptying out of small Midwest towns as family farms failed, the Reagen assassination attempt, the dot-com bubble, and more—to indicate how they affected these individual people. On the one hand, Thompson is not heavy handed about these influences; on the other, her characters are living in a recognizable world of news, television, and pop culture, and social change.

And Thompson is brilliant in sketching a relationship in a few sentences. A character thinking about his wife: "At some point in their life together he had assumed the burden of making her happy. Her most familiar mood, what he thought of as her default position, was one of exasperated suffering. Which he must attend, coax, tease, and try to reason away. He would never be entirely successful; at best she would only be not unhappy. But he would always be obliged to try."

One more example, a description of Norwegian relatives: "They lived out in the boondocks, what his father called Jesus Lost His Shoes territory, and their church still held services in Norwegian the third Sunday of every month. Most of them farmed. They believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity. If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you called someone else." If you have write exposition, that's the way to do it.

I don't know if The Year We Left Home should have won a Pulitzer Prize (I plan to read the other recommendations). I do know it's a wonderful book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lost in Place by Mark Salzman

It sometimes feels as if everyone wants to write a memoir. Libraries and senior centers offer memoir-writing classes. The growing interest in genealogy, aided by TV shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots" and by the ability to do research on the internet, also encourages people to record their memories so future generations will have more than raw data. After a certain age, writing a memoir can seem like a way to make sense out of—or at least impose some order on—your life. Heck, even I've tinkered with the memoir.

But while it is one thing to record incidents and experiences for one's family, it is something very different to expect strangers to be interested. Unless one has led an extraordinary life of public activity, most people's experiences are just not that interesting. At the same time, I believe that even the most ordinary life can be made interesting by extraordinary writing. (The ideal, of course, is a memoir of an noteworthy life by a brilliant writer. But there are not many of those.)

Mark Salzman's memoir, Lost in Place, is subtitled "Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia;" he grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It covers his teenage years, from age 13 in 1972 to age 18 or 19 in 1979 or so. He published the memoir in 1995 when he was 36. It was his fourth book. His first, Iron & Silk, a memoir of teaching English and learning martial arts in China was exceptionally well-received in 1986. His third, The Soloist, a novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He's no slouch as a writer.

And that's what kept me reading through his adolescent experiences in learning kung fu, the cello, experimenting with pot, applying to Yale to avoid the last year of high school (and getting admitted!), smashing up his mother's car, and star gazing with his father. Of his father, he writes: "Every morning he left the house looking as if someone had tied a hundred-pound sandbag across his shoulders, and every evening he came back looking as if the sand had gotten wet." Of his kung fu teacher's demonstration of control, he writes, "...two of us [got] on our hands and knees while a third, wearing no shirt, lay on his back on top of us with a watermelon on his stomach. Sensei would blindfold himself, do some loud breathing exercises, then split the watermelon with a samurai sword. It became an especially dramatic feat from our point of view if we could smell liquor on his breath as he did his breathing exercises."

Salzman's life is not special except, of course, that every life is special. Reading the memoir stirred up memories of my own adolescent fantasies, dreams, and angst. I think he would like to leave the reader with a message, the answer to the unanswerable questions: "How do we live if we know we must die? Why bother with any of this, since none of it will matter when the sun burns up and the earth turns into a cold cinder? Why bother with anything?"

The best answer is probably still: "Because bothering is still the best game in town." Not, I suspect, an answer Salzman found while still an adolescent searching for enlightenment before he could drive, but a satisfying way to end his book.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Wood Beyond by Reginald Hill

I came to this British mystery writer via television. We have been watching the Dalzeil/Pascoe A&E Television series on disk and have found them to be superior to most TV crime shows once acclimated to the Yorkshire accents. In my experience, if I like a movie I will then like the book even more. (It seldom works the other way; if I like a book, the movie is then usually a disappointment.)

Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (prounounced Dee-ell), Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, and Sergeant Edgar Wield are the team that solves the crimes. The each have distinct personalities and histories. Dalziel is a former rugby player, overweight, not formally educated but street smart. Pascoe is formally educated, happily married and, in this book, has a young daughter who's trying out words like "bloody!" and "fucking great, dad!" Wield is gay and living with a partner; his sexual orientation has given him a interesting perspective on the police, on suspects, and on his duties.

I found Hill's writing superior to most writers, mystery or mainstream. Three random examples:

Dalziel, in his car, is talking to Wield who stands in a pouring rain: "Dalziel...was not a man totally insensitive to the comforts of his inferiors, but the sergeant was swathed in oilskins and the Fat Man could see no reason why the torrents Niagaring around their folds should be diverted to his vehicle's upholstery."

"The nineteenth century had brought the city [of Leeds] closer [to the village of Kirkton] and the twentieth had completed the job, with tentacles of urban sprawl running out like rivulets of Vesuvian lava, threatening, touching, consuming, and finally passing on, leaving a dead and dusty landscape in their wake."

"In appearance the head teacher was far from formidable. With her flowered dresses, flattish shoes, bare legs, bobbed hair, and round, smiling, glowing, almost makeup-less face, she wouldn't have been out of place at a Betjeman tennis tourney."

The Wood Beyond is a mystery; by the end we've got three bodies, and that's not counting the 70-year-old remains that start the investigation. But it's far more than a straightforward mystery puzzle, because Peter's grandfather had been in The Great War and we read large parts of his war diary. By the time we are well into the book, we want to know about the bones animal rights activists have discovered on the grounds of a pharmaceutical research facility, why one of the activists has been apparently killed, what actually happened to Peter's grandfather in the war, and how all these threads tie together.

Because the story is more complex than many novels, mystery and otherwise, the book demands attention. Friends say they could not get through it because of the complexity and because there is a certain amount of Yorkshire dialect and locutions ("owt," "nout" "I were born...." etc.). I, however, agree with the reviewer who said, "Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe novels are enjoyable as much for their characters as for their complicated, suspenseful mystery plots."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I sometimes see other people make mistakes in their thinking. They misinterpret evidence, draw mistaken conclusions, ignore key facts. They do this entirely unknowingly. They are not aware of their mistakes until they've stepped on the rake of reality and it has hit them in the face. It does not take a large leap of imagination, however, to believe that if other people make unconscious mistakes, so do I.

Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in psychology, has written Thinking, Fast and Slow, to alert readers to the challenge of thinking clearly. For example: "You see a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which of the following is a better bet about the reading stranger?
"She has a PhD.
"She does not have a college degree."

Kahneman argues convincingly that we humans have two systems of thinking. One is quick, intuitive, and emotional; he calls this System 1. The other is slower, more deliberative, and more logical, System 2. Most of us have to use System 2 to compute the product of 17 times 24. Because System 1 is fast, it is prone to make mistakes. In the above example, everyone who intuitively guesses that the Times reader has a PhD is mistaken. When you (reflexively) consider how many people have PhDs and how many people ride the New York subways, you realize the better bet is that she does not have a degree.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is filled with examples like this to illustrate how the way our minds work can trip us. The book reports on dozens of experiments to test effects. Kahneman and his friend and collaborator Amos Tversky one rigged a wheel of fortune so that it would stop only at 10 and 65. They would spin it and ask unsuspecting subjects to write down the number at which it stopped. They then asked: "Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote? What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?"

A wheel of fortune has nothing to do with anything. The participants should have ignored it. But they didn't. "The average estimates of those who saw 10 and 65 were 25% and 45% respectively." Why? Because of an "anchoring effect," and Kahneman clearly explains it and provides more examples from daily life.

For a book filled with the results of psychological experiments and some fairly sophisticated statistical theory, it is remarkably clear. Kahneman suggests where we can and cannot trust our intuitions (pace Malcolm Gladwell) and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. We can never avoid mental glitches, but we with work we can reduce them and, perhaps in situations where it really counts, take the time to let the lazy System 2 do its work.