Sep. 28th, 2016

decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
On Sunday night, I left my writing workshop and walked a block or two in the same direction as Sara. We talked about the weather--a cliché maybe, but there had been a change, recent and real. She said to me, "I think this is the first year when I can remember the seasons changing exactly when they were supposed to. Everyone talked about the equinox, the last day of summer, and just like that, fall was here."

Later that night, I was at home getting ready for bed when I heard a flock of geese fly over the house. One of my favorite sounds of fall. I didn't get outside in time to see them, but that's alright. It was dark anyway, and I can remember enough other times when I've watched them in their wavering lines, heading south.

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A few recent books:

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka: A short, lyrical novel about Japanese women who emigrated to American between the wars as, essentially, mail-order brides for Japanese men who were already living and working here. Otsuka has an excellent eye for detail, but she makes one very strange choice: the whole book is narrated in the first person plural. "We came from this village and that town; we married a migrant worker, a servant, a farmer; we worked in restaurants, as lady's maids, and in the fields." I can understand the impulse to capture the variety of experiences had by these women, the full spectrum of good and bad, rather than suggesting that any single narrative could be definitive. And, like I said, Otsuka's eye for detail is good--she has an impressive ability to pinpoint little telling specificities that bring life to her broad spectrum. But the plural point of view means there are no real characters. There is no one woman whose life can be traced from beginning to end. For me, this flattened the book, reduced my interest, and robbed the story of a lot of potential power.

I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury: Last year, I helped one of the high school students I tutor with his work on Fahrenheit 451. I hadn't read any Ray Bradbury since the same book had been assigned to me in my own high school English class. I remembered that I had liked it well enough when I was 14, but as I worked on it with my student, I was surprised by how good it really was. Not just an interesting story, but nice sentences too. So I decided I should read more Bradbury as an adult, and when I saw this story collection at the library I grabbed it. And, sad to say, ended up a bit disappointed. Any collection of 18 stories is going to be a bit uneven, but I didn't find any of the stories here to be particularly memorable. And the prose did not sing in the way the prose in Fahrenheit 451 did. Oh well. I did like the stories better the longer they were, so perhaps this is just a case where Bradbury is better as a novelist than a writer of short fiction.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton: I first this book nearly fifteen years ago. My memory is that I didn't like it at first (mostly due to Paton's prose style), but that by the end of the book I was blown away. Yet, when I look back at my ancient LJ-post about it, that doesn't seem to be the case. So it is a book that has grown in memory over the years between reading and re-reading. (I think it helps that I've read Nadine Gordimer since then--the literature of South Africa, the literature of apartheid--it always helps to have more pieces to put together.) Now that I've read Cry, the Beloved Country again, I think my memory was correcting for the flaws in that initial assessment. It really is a very good book. Maybe not perfect, but very moving. It is the story of an elderly black parson in rural South Africa who gets word that his son is going astray in Johannesburg. He goes to the city to try to find his son, but arrives too late to prevent him from committing a terrible crime. Things become quite dark, but eventually the beginnings of something good are built out of desolation. Paton hops around in perspective, sometimes staying close to one character or another, sometimes pulling back to a very panoramic sort of omniscience. He throws all sorts of things into the story and they don't always cohere, but he always returns to the simple and powerful story of the father and son, the crime and its aftermath. And there can be no doubt that Paton wrote the novel with real feeling--that emotion resonates everywhere in the book.
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