Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
First the good: there’s lots of neat info in this book about antique map collecting and about the history of maps in general. Anyone with a passing interest in maps will find that the The Island of Lost Maps contains a number of absorbing digressions about adventurous mapmakers from centuries ago. Miles Harvey’s book also, however, bills itself as an account of the crimes and ultimate downfall of map thief Gilbert Bland. As Harvey writes early on in the book, Bland never agreed to talk to him, and the crimes themselves, while interesting, are not compelling enough to carry the 400-some pages that it takes Harvey to tell the story. The book is a 15 page magazine article enveloped in hundreds of pages of discursions and asides about various cartographic topics as well as a great deal of melodramatic meta-narration about Harvey’s efforts to tell Bland’s story:I was trying to map the life of a man – an anonymous and elusive man, a man I did not know, and a man who demonstrated no desire to meet me. And even all that might not have been so bad if I had somehow been able to find a way inside his head, to put myself in his shoes. But Bland and I were very different people. Other than a few shared superficialities – both of us white males, both right-handers, both map lovers – our common frames of reference were few.It’s as though Harvey, realizing that he is devoting a tremendous amount of writerly energy to what is, in the end, a rather straightforward crime committed by an uninteresting man, feels the need to overexplain himself. Over and over he tells the reader how fascinating this crime is and obsessed he has become with telling Bland’s story, and after a while it seems that Harvey has forgotten about his readers and is simply trying to convince himself. The best creative nonfiction seems effortless (John McPhee’s books, for example), but Maps reads like it was a tremendous effort to write.
When Irving Howe reviewed J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians for the NY Times in 1982, he touched on the concern that Coetzee’s “universalized” (which is to say unnamed and fictional) Empire would “be ‘elevated’ into sterile ruminations about the human condition.” At the time of course, it was Coetzee’s South Africa, that obvious villain of the last half of the last century, that Coetzee’s crumbling Empire represented.25 years later, Coetzee’s choice to craft a novel about a nameless, malignant Empire seems prescient, as it turns out that other Empires can be viewed through the lens of the novel. Recent events have made the effect even more striking. As Howe goes on to add, “Waiting for the Barbarians renders a moment in our politics, a style of our injustice. Precisely this power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, ‘universal’ value.”Some plot summary will be useful here: Barbarians is told in the first person by a character known as the Magistrate, a benign bureaucrat comfortably ensconced in a settlement in the outer frontiers of a sprawling Empire. As happens from time to time, the Empire has become exercised by an outside force, its usual nemesis, the Barbarians, roaming bands of nomads that live beyond the Empire’s frontiers and always, it seems, present a threat to the heartland from the periphery. In the policies of the Empire and its bureaucrats and enforcers, this threat gives it license to throw its weight around. The Magistrate, meanwhile, is something of a softy, taken to indulging in women and rather aimless hobbies and more than satisfied to be positioned well beyond the notice of the officials in the capital. That is, until Colonel Joll and his men arrive on orders to take on the Barbarians that roam beyond the settlement walls. Ultimately, the Magistrate objects to the torture and ineptitude practiced by the soldiers in their dealings with the Barbarians and he is labeled if not a traitor, then someone of too weak a constitution to be trusted with the aims of the Empire. He too is subject to torture and humiliation.Much of the book takes place in the Magistrate’s head, both because he leads an isolated life and because for a portion of the novel he is in prison, with not much else to do but think. While the machinations of the Empire are very easily compared to those of our government and others’, the Magistrate’s inner monologue is no less comparable to the inner struggles of citizens of these “Empires.” Though the Magistrate’s moral compass is intact, he has grown fat and weak on the largesse of the Empire. We are left to wonder, are the Magistrate’s failings personality flaws or are they inescapable byproducts of our desire to live comfortably, even if it means that, as a result, others somewhere in the world are not?Allegories aside, the book is a fairly stunning, brisk read, dystopian and thoughtful. Coetzee’s Empire is finely wrought as are the people who dwell within it and without. Perhaps Coetzee had South Africa in mind when he created the Empire, but Barbarians will forever illuminate the price of power and hegemony.
Mrs. Millions sent me a nice email yesterday (from the other room – funny how we communicate) that she thought I might want to share on the blog. It touches on the many things that reading can offer beyond just the story itself.And since Mrs. Millions puts up with all the time I spend on the blog, she gets to post here as much as she likes. Here’s what she wrote:I recently started a full-time job. Prior to this I had relished a very irregular schedule, taking on projects, doing freelance design work, and teaching on the side. It was a juggling act but gave me many different avenues to pursue. Now I am getting accustomed to a more regular schedule. My life is a busy sequence of days, and will remain so until I adapt. Because I am continuing a couple of projects I had begun prior to taking this job, it feels as though I am unable to complete anything. Things which remain undone are very troubling – I think about them when I am not working on them, spending time worrying when I could otherwise be productive. And so, each day, I head to work, knowing that I will return home tired, and be unable to complete the other things that, at times, I would much rather be doing.Last night, however, I accomplished something. I finished reading The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. For me, finishing a book is usually a little sad. I don’t have a queue of books staring at me, and once I get to know a character or a place, I don’t like to leave them behind. When I get to the end of a book, well, I’ll read only a single page in a sitting, just to keep it from ending. I’ll even reread the last page or two over and over. So, there I was, awake late a couple of nights ago, giving in to reading the last few sentences, thinking about the journey that is The Old Patagonian Express, trying to keep the story from ending.The Old Patagonian Express is a wonderful story, without a moral or a murder or a message, other than having a definite path and destination. For Theroux, it’s Patagonia via railroad starting in Boston and traveling far far south through cities, villages and past singular train stations that are nothing more than a wooden platform in the middle of seemingly nothing. Theroux is true to his goal, and is enviably determined and able to achieve it. His sticks to the course, deviating only for Borges (but who wouldn’t change their plans to have the chance to read to Borges?). Time is a major theme in the book – train schedules, waiting, rushing, riding. Time, for me, is so finite when I set goals for myself. And it’s so easy to fail when all I look at is the time. But life isn’t about time, it’s about all the things that come and go and make life interesting and exciting.So, after finishing the book, I realized that I needed to be less time-obsessed. This I can claim to attribute to Theroux, but that would be false. My husband, Max, is the person who gave me this book to read. And in reading it dutifully a few pages each night, I finished it, felt satisfied, happy, and knew that my day had been a good one because I had completed something. Thank you, Max, for helping me to slow down and be successful. I’m ready for my next book.Thanks, Mrs. Millions! Ain’t she a sweetheart! I’ve given her A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin to read next. Hopefully, it can offer a similarly sublime experience.I should have also mentioned: I was inspired to get this book in the first place by Andrew’s post, Travel Writing by Train.
Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.