Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

My friend Vinton McCabe gave James Meek's latest novel a rave review, and because I trust Vinton's opinions and because I could not immediately lay my hands on a copy of The Heart Broke In, I lay my hands on his earlier novel, The People's Act of Love.

Meek, 50, born in London, grew up in Dundee. He's worked as a newspaper reporter since 1985 and lived in the former Soviet Union from 1991 to 1999. At the time this novel was published, he wrote for The Guardian and contributed to the London Review of Books and Granta. His reporting from Iraq and about Guantánamo Bay have, according to the flap copy, won a number of British and international rewards.

Here's how The People's Act of Love begins: "When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl's satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name. He didn't want to be 'Ivanovich' any more. The Ivan from whom the patronymic came, his father, had died when he was two, soon after his mother, and he had lived with his uncle ever since...."

We're in pre-revolutionary Russia, a time of revolutionaries and acts of terror and exile to Siberia. By Chapter 2, we're in revolutionary Siberia, where the Czechoslovak Legion has washed up after WWI. The Legion is led by a monomaniacal captain who dreams of establishing a Czech republic in the vast, empty landscape. Meanwhile, the Czech soldiers—essentially stateless because the Austrian-Hungarian Empire from which they started no longer exists—are living in town populated mainly by a sect of castrates. So Meek writes (sympathetically) about two forms of fanaticism: political and religious.

The main characters include Samarin, the revolutionary; Lieutenant Josef Mutz of the Czechoslovak Legion; Anna Petrovna Lutova, a middle-class photographer and widow; and Gleb Alexeyevich Balashov, a former hussar in the Imperial Russian Army, now a castrate. Minor characters include the Legion's captain, a native Siberian shaman and his albino apprentice, and Nekovar, a Czech soldier/mechanic. Nekovar, who has no luck with women, considers them mechanically: "What if the female erotic machinery was wound tight by the pressure of the man's muscles, so tight that her soft outer hide began to palpitate and heat up with the tension as it strained against the unreleased mechanism, causing the nipples to harden and lubrication to be released into the mouth of her lower valve, which the rigid male member would then slide easily into, triggering the release of her coiled sexual spring and causing her body and limbs to shake and move with violent energy...."

I found the book riveting. Meek shifts point of view seamlessly, and writes one vivid scene after another. He convinced me these people would have acted the way they do at this time in this place—and the place is exactly as he describes. The best I can do is quote Jim Harrison's blurb from the back jacket: "This is a novel of the first order, and perhaps that is an understatement. It quickly becomes unimaginable that this story didn't happen exactly as Meek tells it, which is the grand and steadfast illusion of art without which we fail to understand life." I now have to get my hands on the Heart Broke In.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

This 2012 publication, Black Dahlia & White Rose, is Joyce Carol Oates's twenty-fourth published collection of short stories. It contains eleven stories, all but one told from a female point of view, and several narrated by a woman. Bad things either happen or the characters dread them happening. The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, is the victim of the unsolved kidnapping-torture-rape-murder-dissection in Los Angeles in 1947. Post mortem she narrates the story of her life and her roommate's, Norma Jean Baker. (Oates has no qualms dramatizing the impossible. In another story a woman and her lover turn into spotted hyenas.) A young girl has to ID a body suspected to be her murdered mother's. A good Samaritan finds a woman's wallet on a train, returns it to the woman's house, and meets her husband who is certainly distraught that his wife is missing, but who may also have killed her; we never learn what happened.

I very much liked the last story in the book, "Anniversary," because it echos my experience. An older woman—widow, professor, former college president—has volunteered to teach English in a New York State maximum security prison, working with another, much younger impetuous male volunteer. The story covers their first class with flashbacks to the orientation that the system gives to volunteers: Never touch a prisoner, even lightly on the wrist...never engage in flirtatious banter with a prisoner...never give a prisoner any gift however small, and never any money...never deliver any message even a verbal message from one prisoner to another, this is a felony. The prison (perhaps like most) has a no-hostage policy: if prisoners take hostages, there is no negotiating for their release. (Everyone get gassed and someone probably gets hurt.)

All of this rings so true and Oates's description of the prison so accurate I wondered briefly if she were writing about the facility in which I teach creative writing. It's not, but I'd like to talk to her about her experience. The point-of-view character, emotionally fragile anyway, is not reassured by the orientation nor by the behavior of her young colleague who has apparently (not uncommonly, if unfortunately) identified with the student inmates. At class end and the narrator's near-collapse from anxiety, it's not clear she will be returning. One hopes she does.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Taste of Japan in the Berkshires

For my birthday, my wife and I drove to the Berkshires and stayed two nights in a Japanese-theme bed-and-breakfast, Shirakaba Guest House (白樺旅館-it means “White Birch Inn”). We'd learned about it from an enthusiastic article in the Sunday New York Times travel section. It's at the top of a hill, and was designed by a Japanese architect to be a B&B. It has two, two-bedroom suites with a bath between the two bedrooms. These first floor bedrooms have large closets, giant, soft, luxurious beds, flat-screen TV sets with DVD players attached, mini-refrigerators, microwave ovens, alarm clock/radios that will also play an iPod, and more. There is also a lap pool, hot tub, and sauna on the ground floor level.
The second floor has a great room with a huge flat screen TV, fireplace, wonderfully soft recliner/couches, the open kitchen, restroom, and a traditional tatami room. (You remove your shoes at the front entrance and put on the inn’s slippers to walk around on the polished wooden floors.) The innkeepers, Sadao Yagi and Louise Palmer, do everything they could think of to make a guest’s stay memorable and comfortable. Fresh yukata are waiting on your bed to wear around the inn. Louise embroiders a special Japanese washcloth for each guest, a souvenir to take home. The fridge is stocked with flavored seltzers. There are cookies and microwave popcorn. The suite comes with a small bowl of chocolates. Breakfast can be either western (bacon and eggs) or Japanese (miso, oshinko, gohan, tamago) and the breakfast is big enough to hold you well past lunch. It can also include yogurt, fruit, Japanese-style toast, Japanese spread for the bread, juice, coffee, or tea.
Because it was my birthday, we ordered a special Japanese dinner, which is not included in the room rate. Louise decorated the formal tatami dining room with colored streamers, “Happy Birthday” banners, and balloons for a festive evening. The six-course dinner included edamame (green soybeans boiled in their pods), cucumber salad, miso soup, chawanmushi (a cup-steamed egg custard containing shrimp, carrots, and other vegetables), beef sukiyaki, and a dessert of homemade red-bean ice cream.
The weather was so nasty, we did not go out to Shirakaba’s gazebo until the morning we checked out. Too bad, because it is on a clearing on a hill overlooking the valley and the hills in the distance. It would have been an enjoyable spot to sit and read or to have our edamame first course. When we had to leave, Louise gave us a plastic container of freshly made oatmeal cookies. I want to go back.