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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Go West, Young Man


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.

Mike 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, NY.
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.

 
1:17 pm est          Comments

Monday, January 30, 2012

Shalom

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.

Even 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.

~~~~~~
1
©2011 Amos Oz; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, NY.

 
 
12:24 pm est          Comments


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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:

the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Forty-Thirty 
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast

Bethlehem

Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood

 

 

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 fourth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
and 
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA
.

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,