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Thursday, February 2, 2012
Go West, Young Man
1:17 pm est
The last two years before I retired, I shared a small, cramped, noisy office with two co-workers. We
got to know each other quite well, quickly learning each other’s quirks and follies, likes and dislikes—acquiring
more personal information than otherwise would be normally learned in a working environment. One of my office mates was/is,
like me, an avid reader and movie buff. We'd often take short breaks to chat about the books we were reading, the films we
saw, offering suggestions, comments, and opinions to one another. It was our very own private book club.
shot me an email a few weeks ago recommending that I read the four novels of Kent Haruf, a resident of Murphysboro, Illinois
and a teacher at Southern Illinois University. He suggested that I start with Plainsong , Haruf's most popular and successful book, and continue with Eventide, the sequel. So, again, off to he library I trotted—well, I actually drove, but you get the drift—and picked
up the hardcopy first edition of Plainsong1 and the audio
CDs of Eventide2. I'll let Mike tell you why he loves these books. Here's what he wrote in his email:
"The style is so careful, simple, and down-to-earth. The dialog is brilliant and spot on. He doesn't show
off. His characters are like that too, at least the good ones are. His style seems to mimic the simplicity of small town life
on the high plains. I spent a few years in my 20s in northeastern Colorado, so his books remind me of those
years and those people. And he doesn't sugar-coat the West. Some of the events are tragic and some of the people are deeply
flawed (and just plain nasty), but that's small town life in the West. He doesn't idealize it. And it takes a masterful writer
to achieve that kind of realism."
I, too, like Mike, in my late twenties sojourned in Colorado, but most of
my time was spent in the large metropolis of Denver and on the ski slopes of Aspen. Hence, I did not get a chance to see first-hand
the true atmosphere of a small town of the West that Mike mentioned and Haruf wrote about. And so, I delved into this mid-Westerner's
writings in the hopes of gaining some insights and perhaps to enjoy a good, rip-roarin' read. For some reason, I started with
the audio version of Eventide, listening to the seven CDs over the course
of three nights before falling asleep. Well, actually, they kept me wide wake...
There are some books, as we all
know, that are considered "chick lit", meant for and about women.
There are some books that seem to be geared for a male readership and may not appeal to the general audience of both genders.
Plainsong and Eventide
are two of the latter. Maybe it was the voice of George Hearn, the reader of the text of Eventide.
His gruff, gravel voice was a tad too annoying—there
were times when I wanted him to clear his throat and swallow. Maybe it was the all too stark crispness and reality of the
language that disturbed me, or maybe it was the suggested and often—more than I could handle—graphic events that
turned me away from enjoying the novel. Certainly, I was not enamored of most of the characters; but, then, with Haruf's
stark, almost Hemingway-ish writing style, I don't think I was supposed to. As Mike says, "That’s small town life
in the West.”
However, I did persevere and completed my listening of the complete, unabridged CD set and
immediately moved on, when I had finished and had gotten some sleep, to Plainsong.
Books, in my opinion, take on different connotations and less subtle nuances when listened to, rather than being
read. Some books are more enjoyable when "acted out" by a good reader; for prime examples: the mysteries of Lisa
Scottolini and the spy novels of John Le Carré. Both authors are best appreciated when heard. These two novels of Haruf
are also best appreciated "on tape", even if the male reader's voice is a bit grating. For one, I have difficulty
reading dialogue without the benefit of quotation marks. For two, I also have problems with overly descriptive run on sentences,
even if they do remind me of Ernest Hemingway. The hardcopy version of Plainsong
had both and, thus, I had a difficult time ferreting out what was being spoken, what words were thought by a character, or
what text was narration and description.
"Plainsong", as defined in the beginning of the book, "is
the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air".
I understand that by incorporating a literary version of this type of music in his writing style, Haruf seems to be emulating
the songs of the small town of Holt, Colorado, with all its harmonies and disharmonies between its residents—their atonal
tragedies, their liltingly small successes in their daily lives, the intertwining and interweaving of their melodies with
one another. I found these aspects of the novel intriguing. I also found Haruf's characterizations and dialogue, like Mike
found, strong and spot-on, albeit, sometimes, as I said, too starkly real.
This in no way is meant to deter you
from picking up a copy of each of these two novels and settling in with them. They are, all in all, very well written and
are sure to captivate many a reader. But they are just not quite my taste, having more of a masculine bent to them than I
currently would care to read—even though I did. I would recommend, however, that if you do decide to read them that
you do so in order: Plainsong first, then Eventide. And I would also suggest that you listen to them, rather than read them, in order to capture
the essentially finer shades of interaction between all of the protagonists.
After all, a melody is meant to be
vocalized, even if it is written in plainsong.
1 ©1999 by Kent Haruf; published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc., New York,
2 ©2004 by Kent Haruf; Books on Tape, Santa Ana, CA, with arrangement with Random House Audio Publishing Group,
Random House, Inc., New York, NY. Read by George Hearn.
Monday, January 30, 2012
12:24 pm est
As many of you know, I grow up in what was then a small village
in lower Westchester County, New York. While it is a large, bustling town—almost, but not quite, a suburb of the City—Dobbs
Ferry's population was only 5,000 back then; large enough to maintain some semblance of autonomy, but small enough so that
most of the residents knew each other or at least knew of each another. If, in the course of a conversation, a name was mentioned
and you didn't know who it was, you probably knew someone who did. It was, at the very maximum, the third degree of separation.
The village of Tel Ilan in Amos Oz's collection of short stories,
Scenes from Village Life, is
very much like that of Dobbs Ferry. In this slim volume of eight vignettes, we meet characters who go about their daily lives,
sometimes they interact with characters in other stories; sometimes they are totally oblivious to the other lives around them.
I learned about Scenes from
Village Life while listening to a recent broadcast of "Radio Times" (NPR on WHYY 90.9fm) in which Marty
Moss-Coane interviewed the author. Oz is a prolific writer, a native and resident of Israel, having been born in Jerusalem
in 1939. I was intrigued both by the concept of the latest of his fourteen literary renditions, and by the fact that while
he speaks fluent English, he writes in Hebrew, carefully constructing his phrases with what he termed, "the precise word,
which is sometimes hard to find in the limitations of the Hebrew language". His English translator, by the way, is Nicholas
de Lange, a professor at the University of Cambridge whom, I have to trust since I cannot read Hebrew, has maintained Oz's
liquidity and loquaciousness. Since I've been immersed lately in fiction written by authors of Puerto Rican descent, I thought
I'd take up Marty's suggestion and read something different, this time by an Israeli. And, so, off to the library I went to
pick up an almost brand new copy of the first English edition1.
While, in general, I enjoyed reading Oz's writing style and was intrigued by his descriptions
of everyday life of what he perceived to be "ordinary", everyday people, I at first found this array of short stories
disjointed and, in some parts, repetitious. The characters, while living in the same village, and, albeit, each having his/her
own tale, do not interface as much as I had expected. There are links and hints, but some of them do not follow through from
one story to the next. If this is as small and as close knit a village as we are led to believe, then we should be exposed
to more closeness between its residents. In addition, at the end of some of the stories, we are left hanging, without resolution.
I found this a little disconcerting. But, then again, as I reminded myself after finishing each one, these are scenes—bits
and pieces of life—not the whole play.
so, in the pages of Scenes from a Village Life I did loose myself in the
streets and households of Tel Ilan last Saturday evening and the better part of yesterday afternoon. The reading, however,
did leave me a bit unsettled, wanting more and wishing there were resolutions of the characters' plights and quandaries: Did
the mayor, Benny Aurin, finally find his wife, Nava? What became of Rachel Franco's father? What happened to Adel, the Arab
student who lived in the shed in their back garden? And did the real estate agent buy the old house once owned by the deceased
writer? In the next to the last story "Singing", most of the characters we've met in the preceding six stories come
together for a Friday evening, start of the Sabbath sing-a-long. Here, I thought, maybe some of my questions will be answered,
but it ended in ambiguity. The last story left me bereft of meaning: I was not sure what Oz was trying to say, what the story
meant, or what he was implying.
But, as I said,
these are scenes—pictures, depictions, snippets of brief moments; brief meetings and often nebulous connections with
other lives in another places, in other times. I don't think we are meant to see or have everything in these tales resolved
for us. Some stories, some books, even some plays and movies, do not have to be wrapped up in a neat, concise, resolved dénouement.
Oz's lyrical writing is intended to provide us with these snippets
to mull over, to think about what may have or may not have happen to their protagonists outside the realm of their stories.
To have the reader ponder what the characters are doing and saying at their own particular moment in time that is being read;
to reflect on each character's thoughts and feelings and how these thoughts and feelings are reflected in the mirror of one's
own life. And, yes, oftentimes, a reader is lost between, in and, by stories.
Which is precisely what good literature is really meant to do.
©2011 Amos Oz; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company, New York, NY.
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of
Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World
Rainbow in the Sky
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her sixth novel.