Friday, January 22, 2010

A Reliable Wife -- Robert Goolrick

I've been forcing my students to write summaries in 50 words -- no more, no less. Let's see if I can take my own medicine:

Don't be fooled by the promise of mystery: this tawdry bodice-ripper is predictability defined. The characters are static and you won't feel any stirrings of sympathy for them, no matter how many dead loved ones they may pretend to mourn for. Far too much sex with far too little meaning.

In Ron Charles' review for The Washington Post, he says "I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly." That, my friends, is a bad sign if ever I saw one. I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time and was pretty disappointed to find out it was essentially soft-core porn with a plot "twist" so tired I was actually dreading the resolution of the story. Only one other time in our relationship has my husband expressed such disdain for a storyline, and it was for an equally ridiculous tragic romance -- only Charlotte Bronte* in all her Victorian sensibility would never have dreamed to write about Mr. Rochester placing his hand on Jane's "sex."

Author Robert Goolrick claims to have gotten the idea for his novel from a book published in 1973 titled Wisconsin Death Trip. 36 years later, and the "tantalizing secrets hidden beneath the surface of quaint small-town life" has already been done -- and done much better.

Final Verdict: *

* I can't seem to figure out how to add the accent mark over the "e." Apologies!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jayber Crow -- Wendell Berry

At lunch a few months ago, my department chair asked me if I had read anything by Wendell Berry. "Just his poetry," I responded. "You should read Jayber Crow," he said. "It's not a book I would recommend to everyone, but I think you'll like it." Well! I had no choice but to read it after that -- if only to find out more about why he thought it'd be a good book for me in particular. (I'm going to keep this technique in mind next time I want to get someone to read a book!)

Wendell Berry is truly a man of letters: poet, essayist, and novelist -- he's been speaking volumes ever since he first wrote "November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three" after the death of JFK. The Unsettling of America made Newsweek's "50 Books to Read Now" list (a resource I've referred to many times on this blog). Most of his writing focuses on farming life in rural America, a topic of great personal passion for Berry. He still lives and farms in his native Kentucky and is a fervent supporter of local farming and the preservation of rural farming communities. Jayber Crow is one of Berry's Port William books, "one of the most richly imagined communities in contemporary fiction" (according to Kirkus Reviews). Though I have not read any of his other novels from this set, it seems that the characters appear and reappear throughout them, with stories showing up in more than one place but each book providing a different lens or emphasis depending on the unique character's perspective.

Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the book for me was the language itself. Berry is after all, a poet, and the novel reads like an extended ode and elegy all at once (more on that later). In describing a walk in the forest, he writes "We went from paths into pathlessness. The woods has many doors going in and out. It is full of rooms opening into one another...We would come sometimes into a place of such loveliness that it stopped us still and held us until some changing of the light seemed to bless us and let us go" (350, Counterpoint Press 2000 edition). If nothing else, reading the book is a chance to immerse yourself in the words and phrases of one of the masters of the English language.

Berry's book begins with two epigraphs. The first is a paraphrase of the famous frontispiece to Huckleberry Finn in which the author urges the reader not to read too deeply or to suffer the consequences (in Twain, getting shot; in Berry, getting banished in exile). But the second is an unattributed passage from Andrew Marvell's metaphysical poem "The Definition of Love": "Magnanimous Despair alone could show me so divine a thing..." This reference to Marvell gives us a clue about the coming narrative, at least for those well-read enough to know the original (or willing to put in the time to google it): "The Definition of Love" is a poem about a love that cannot be realized or requited. However, it's a puzzling way to start the novel, given the previous Twain-like admonition; metaphysical poetry is meant to be a logical riddle for a reader to solve, like piecing together the steps of a geometric proof. Why, then, would Berry warn readers not to think too much about the subtext of his story?

On the surface, Jayber Crow is a simple story about a simple man. Crow is the town barber, and the book details his life from the earliest days of his memory until his old age. We learn about his childhood, when he thought he was destined to become a preacher; his attempts to take college courses and his first encounter with what would become his trade and identity; his meandering journey back to his hometown to start a new life; and the ebbs and flows of the decades he spends in Port William, years filled more with people and relationships than with actions and events. At one point, Crow remarks that "I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back" (133). This is perhaps why my department chair told me he did not recommend this book to just anyone; there is very little emphasis on plot and much more emphasis on setting and character. One comes away with more of a feeling than an understanding of what happened.

At the same time, the book is about something: mainly, love, as the Marvell quote warned us it would be. But Berry weaves together many different types of love here. We have love for a place and for a community, love of one's occupation or station in life as seen through Crow as well as some of the regulars to his barber shop, love for one's spouse or one's children, love as a burden, gift, and even a duty, and love for a way of life that seems to be drifting away. That last kind of love seems to be Berry's purpose behind the narrative: there is, throughout the story, a sense of sadness that what Crow describes so lovingly is lost to the ages -- not just those specific people and places, but others like them, too.

Two aspects of the book were troubling for me: Crow's love for a woman named Mattie and Crow's ongoing struggle with his religious belief. The Marvell quote makes some sense in the context of these two personal dilemmas, as the original poem deals with a love that cannot be made real since the object of the speaker's affection -- in Marvell's case, God -- is physically absent (the struggle between eros and agape love is a big topic for Donne and the rest of his metaphysical crew). But I never really felt there was an answer to the question "why?" for the conclusions Crow reached for either of these situations, and I was left feeling unsatisfied about the decisions that he made. It left me with the same feeling I had about the two epigraphs -- what does Berry want us to take from this?

The book, though, seems mostly to function as a window more than anything else, and so I can't blame Berry for the lack of something he didn't set out to accomplish, especially considering his warning on the first page. When you finish reading Jayber Crow, you really feel a fondness for the people of this community whose lives you've had the chance to spy on and become a part of. The back cover quotes The Bloomsbury Review as saying the novel is "likely to send new to look for some of those other thirty-eight books" Berry has written; I'm glad to know that I can go back to visit Port William and its inhabitants again and again.

Final Verdict: *** 1/2

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Murder Most Cold

Saw an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune this morning: Julia Keller's take on the recent boom in popularity of mysteries set in Scandinavia. I've been watching Masterpiece Mystery!'s "Wallander" series over the past few weeks, and what I've seen confirms what she claims: the stories and the landscape, albeit beautiful, are bleak and sparse. I've not actually read any of the authors she mentions in her article, but I'm now curious to know more about these writers...