Radio Bookmobile

Radio Bookmobile, Program #2, April 8, 2015

H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when she the author battling grief after her father died and began dreaming of hawks after the death of her father. This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:

The birds she studied with a team of scholars…

“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.

Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”

Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.

Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime. This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again. In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.

It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.

You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold? Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.

“Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance; there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s

“not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book-those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular-the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.

This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.

It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.

It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen, the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.

The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.


About Bunin
Susan Trott

West Marin Review, Volume 4

Doris: Susan Trott is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.

” ‘Big.’

“How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….

“But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.

“He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?”

Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.

Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony. So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.

Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov-what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….


The Orphan Master’s Son
Adam Johnson

Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember? This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.

I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.

That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.

For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans.

“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.

These observations are funnier when you consider they’re all true in a way.

The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as theinstrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.”

When an American athlete leaves after a visit, “her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.

Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity-all of which the reader absolutely believes-though how could the author know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world?-causes you to constantly be shaking your head in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the part where they talk about “canines”?

Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable. “The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated,” we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using “indolent phrases from capitalism.” Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal.

“You must never hurt a dog in America,” a North Korean expert says. “Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.”

The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets. “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”

What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor “understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a clich?, no manipulation of the reader by the writer-which is something I’d like to talk about another time.


The Medic
Leo Litwak

Doris: Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.

“The captain told us, ‘When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t mater that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.’

“Captain Dillon called this maneuver ‘marching fire.’

When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.

Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.

Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed. No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures. And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”

Doris: We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.

Radio Bookmobile, Program #1: March 25, 2015

Well, we lurched around a bit ourselves for the first Radio Bookmobile, just to get the kinks out, but the passages we read from the books quoted below have so much power and authority we simply needed to get out of the way.

Here they are, with a brief word about context:


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Doris: In spite of many strange and difficult aspects, I count this as the best book I’ve ever read.

The scene is this: It is an autumn day in the late 16th century during hunting season, and King Henry engages in target practice. On this day, Henry invites Cromwell to accompany him, saying, “Here we will be alone, and I will be free to open my mind to you.”
Thomas wonders whether Henry is ever really alone. “Alone” on this day means just with Henry’s yeoman of the bow and his menials. Cromwell knows that the king doesn’t even sleep alone. If he’s not with the queen, two men sleep at the foot of his bed.

“When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now he is royal. At home or abroad, in wartime or peacetime, happy or aggrieved, the king likes to practice several times in the week, as an Englishman should; using his height, the beautiful trained muscles of his arms, shoulders and chest, he sends his arrows snapping straight to the eye of the target. The he holds out his arm, for someone to unstrap and restrap the royal armguard; for someone to change his bow, and bring him a choice. A cringing slave hands a napkin, to mop his forehead, and picks it up from where the king has dropped it; and then, exasperated, one shot or two falling wide, the King of England snaps his fingers, for God to change the wind.”

Pat: What a knockout paragraph! I thought I knew the meaning of “the divine right of kings,” but until Henry snaps his fingers at God “to change the wind,” I didn’t realize the unbelievable power people believed (and Henry himself believes) deity has given to royalty.

Doris: What makes this a great paragraph is that history has left us with an image of Henry VIII as a big fat man, but in this scene he’s tall and muscular-beautiful, even. There’s a sort of intimacy learning about one of his great pleasures, practicing with bow and arrow several times a week, no matter what-and he’s good at it. (Obama plays basketball and golf. Picture him drawn with Hilary Mantel’s pen.)

Pat: I’m not a fan of historical fiction usually, especially novels about British royalty, but this passage changes all that. When you read it, Doris, I didn’t want to leave that scene, didn’t care that every other character is named Thomas, stopped worrying I’d lose track of the chronology. It’s so heady and lush and surprising, I just want to keep reading, even if the book has another 600 pages to go.

Doris: Let’s take a look, too, at the author’s deliberately weird punctuation.
The scene is this: Cromwell takes Rafe, 7 years old, into his own household to raise and educate. Rafe will become like a son to Cromwell, and eventually his chief clerk. As the two journey through a wild rainstorm, Rafe asks in a distinct, polite tone:

“‘What place is this?’
” /London,’ he said. /Fenchurch Street. Home.’
“He took a linen towel and gently blotted from his face the journey just passed. He rubbed his head. Rafe’s hair stood up in spikes. Liz [Cromwell’s wife] came in. “Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?” Rafe turned his face to her. He smiled. He slept on his feet.

Doris: In the underlined part above, who is “he,” and why would Hilary Mantel deliberately mix up the references? An editor seems to have persuaded Mantel write more clearly in the sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” but here it may be that Mantel wants the reader to feel so deeply immersed in events that we’ll just know by instinct who’s doing what.


Open City by Teju Cole

Pat: This a mesmerizing novel in which Julius, a psychiatrist in residence at a New York hospital, has taken to walking the streets between shifts, noticing things. He refers to entering “dark rooms” — meaning the minds of his patients — and we see him interpreting scenes in the city from his own “dark room,” as in this paragraph, when he decides to take the subway during rush hour. As the crowds ahead of him swarm down the steps, this thought occurs:

“The subway stations served as recurring motives in my aimless progress. The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Above ground I was with thousands of others in their solitude; but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified.”

There’s nothing new about feeling alone in the midst of the crowds, but here the narrator takes us quite a bit further — maybe into his own gloom, sure, but something rings universally true about his idea of rush hour as a “counterinstinctive death drive.”

I remember taking the subway in New York every day with thousands of commuters and thinking this is insane; what are we all doing, living like this? But I couldn’t articulate the feeling, not the way this author does. And those sooty screeching subway cars packed to the windows with bodies that never, ever make eye contact– well, no wonder he uses the term “movable catacombs.” That really nailed it for me.

Doris: I tend to picture this scene in the summer, since I grew up in New York and remember how hot and humid it can get in already suffocating conditions. Down in the subway where everybody’s sweating profusely, the more packed the cars get, the more chance for something awful to happen.

Pat: We don’t have time to pursue his reference to “reenacting unacknowledged traumas,” except to say this: His sense of the mood of New York since the attacks on 9/11 attunes Julius’ eye, makes it sharp and peculiarly sensitive to choices about death that have already been made. He sees something off, in a foreboding way — something anxious and worrisome — about everything from the Statue of Liberty to the way birds migrate to midtown museums to an “anxiety that cloaked the city” long before 9/11.

But you know, there’s something liberating in this moment, too. Over and over, books remind us that we don’t have to think like everybody else — our minds are free to explore every kind of thought, especially those that are forbidden or seen as kind of ghoulish, even when New York commuters are described as lemmings rushing off the cliff. It’s disturbing, but if there’s a kernel of truth to his observation, our own perceptions are deepened and enriched.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell

Doris: This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but also ironic and funny. It takes place between the mid-1920s and early ’40s in Kansas City, and describes a marriage, an upper-middle class lifestyle, and a woman whose life is constrained by what she’s been raised to know is “right.” Hers is a Father-knows-best world.

I’d like to read you the very first paragraph in the book, as an introduction to the book’s main character. It’s very short:

“Her first name was India-she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.”

After this introduction, the author takes us fast forward through courtship and marriage, and on page 2, we read:

“For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when [her husband] fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

“This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”

Doris: The leading line here: “She was in such demand…” suggests celebrity, someone booked well in advance. We think of supply and demand, of popularity on a grand scale, but the author doesn’t mean that here. He’s talking about sex. Sex between two inexperienced people. We gather in this paragraph, without the author saying so, that before their marriage, Walter and India were not intimate. We are surprised at India even being able to speak to her husband about her desire. In fact, I stopped to try to imagine what words she used…

And then for Walter to fall asleep! Maybe he misunderstood her, maybe he was sleeping while she “spoke of her own desire” and so missed her request. It’s sadly funny and so true, and then we see what Mrs. Bridge learned from the experience: marriage might be equitable, but love isn’t. And this made me really wonder in what way she found marriage equitable, because what we think of as equitable today is not what people thought about relationships back then.

Pat: I first thought that Mrs. Bridge’s ability to express her desire for physical intimacy is just astonishing for her time. But so little about women’s sexual wanting in marriage has been described in literature that we can’t conclude anything about her plea to him. Maybe women over the centuries often indicate their needs in bed while husbands respond with amiable but colossal indifference. We do know that Mrs. Bridge accepts a future without sexual satisfaction and will look for fulfillment elsewhere — that’s an “equitable” marriage to her mind. What remains in the reader’s mind, I think, is how succinctly the author has summed up the entire disposition of her discovery, and we’re only on page 2.


The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Pat: People who study literature often say that vocabulary is half the battle in writing fiction. So here’s a not-very-good novel in which the author shows a gift for transporting us by a single word — and this word is so unexpected that it changes our image of what’s going on in a split second.

The novel is set in the jungles of Malaysia in the 30s and 40s, but much of the writing describes a world of nature that could occur anywhere. I’ve put the single-word phenomenon in bold below:

The lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.

A willow grew a few feet away, its branches sipping from the pond.

A character sees the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops.

In a flashback, a Japanese pilot watches his close friend start to take off in a kamekaze warplane. The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.

(Side note re kamikaze – the novel tells us that Japanese pilots were originally referred to as Cherry Blossoms, “blooming for just a brief moment of time before they fell.” In fact, research reveals, the image of “beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor” was so compelling that on aircraft carriers, “young girls would line the runway and wave branches of cherry blossoms as the pilots took off on their attacks.” See )

From the quiet of a mountaintop: A pair of storks, their wings edged with a singe of gray, sprang off from the treetops and flew over a hill, heading for valleys hidden from our sight. It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.

At the waterfall, the spray opened its net of whispers over us, rinsing the air with moisture that had traveled all the way from the mountain peaks, carrying with it the tang of trees and mulch and earth

An early morning view: The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.

Above the trees, the line of the mountains serrated the sky.

When the main character opens up rooms that have been closed for decades, she notices: Cobwebs muffle the rafters, the husks of consumed insects hanging in them like tiny, primitive bells.

A waterfall pours over the outcrop of a cliff, the water broadening into a white feather as it fell, to be swept away by the wind before it could reach the earth.

After watching a meteor shower: The torrent of falling stars dried up, but the sky continued to exhale a luminance, as though it had retained the light from the meteors. Perhaps the illumination was trapped not in the sky but in our eyes, in our memory.

Here are some sentences that stun us not because of a single word but a phrase that freeze-frames the image:

In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.

The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing.

How it feels to be an Alzheimer’s patient: I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void

At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s lightbulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.

Pat: I’m especially taken by the quote above. It shows how effortlessly the author places us inside the mind of the moth, which has confused the light bulb with the sun … and we agree with the moth! From its point of view and its span of life, the light globe is “the heart of the sun.”

Here’s another point-of-view image, looking at the increasing use of barbed wire wound around houses as a security measure: In the last light of sunset, the drops of dew clinging to the barbs glinted like venom on the tips of a serpent’s fangs

Doris: I also admire these excerpts, but I notice how much more you’re attracted to the use of metaphor than I am. So many uses of “like” to project imagery makes me a bit wary.

Pat: You’re right, I love metaphors (when used well!) to the point of swooning because the truths they reveal go very deep in the reader’s psyche without ever being held to the scrutiny of scientific fact. They have the power of dreams in that way. Sometimes it’s that glimpse of one’s subconscious upon waking that follows you around for hours, affecting everything you do because it feels so true. To me that’s what metaphor does on the printed page.

Doris: Well, it shows you how subjective fiction can be. Different people warm to the many gifts of storytelling in different ways.


October Light by John Gardner

Doris: Here’s the scene: An elderly brother and sister live together. He’s a very irritable old man, maybe a little crazy, and has just chased his sister upstairs and locked her in her room. There she notices, on the floor and under the table, a dog-eared paperback, torn half to pieces, the binding glue weakened so that pages are loose, and great chunks of the story are fallen away. She begins reading.

Sally Abbot read without commitment at first, just a hint of curiosity and a tentative willingness to perhaps be amused. But quite imperceptibly the real world lost weight and the print on the page gave way to images, an alternative reality more charged than mere life, more ghostly yet nearer, suffused with a curious importance and manageability. She began to fall in with the book’s snappy rhythms, becoming herself more wry, more wearily disgusted with the world-not only with her own but with the whole /universe,’ as the book kept saying-a word that hadn’t entered Sally’s thoughts in years. Life became larger, in vibration to such words, and she, the observer and container of this universe, became necessarily more vast than its space, became indeed (though she would not have said so) godlike. By degrees, without knowing she was doing it, she gave in to the illusion, the comforting security of her vantage point, until whenever she looked up from the page to rest her eyes, it seemed that the door, the walls, the dresser, the heavy onyx clock had no more substance than a plate-glass reflection; what was real and enduring was the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.

Doris: I chose this excerpt because it describes so exactly the magic of reading. In a paragraph like this, the real world loses weight, words become images and the reality we enter is of a different quality than outside a book — more charged, Gardner shows us, more ghostly yet nearer.

Pat: And the wondrous “reveal,” if I may use a popular term, is that Sally has been imprisoned in that room, but the moment the words cease to be coded little symbols and the story takes hold in her mind, she is liberated. She is gone from that room, that horrible brother, and lives to pursue only “the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.” It’s just a sensational adventure, the act of reading.


Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Pat: I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Neil Patrick Harris’s memoir and laughing out loud every few minutes.. He’s an actor you may remember who started out years ago as a teen prodigy in the TV series Dougie Houser MD and most recently a sitcom I’ve found very boring but who cares called How I Met Your Mother. He’s infused enormous vitality into hosting the Tony Awards on Broadway and won a Tony himself in a complicated role as Hedwig in the stage adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Writing his autobiography he decided not to go the conventional route. He tells us that growing up as a young reader he fell in love with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of Young Adult novels in which you, the reader, can decide to leave, say, the current astronaut plot and flip to another page where you can become a detective, or another to become a cowboy, and so forth.

So he’s now written this memoir entirely in the 2nd person himself: You the reader get to BE Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s cut his own story into several parts so that on any given page, you can go off into another direction of your choosing — you can be the star of Dougie Houser MD or the idealistic young character he once played in Rent or the rising real-life singer/acrobat/gay dad/magician he’s become in real life. I listened to him narrate this book and it’s a lot of fun; but sorry to say the actual physical copy has been so larded with bad cartoons and trasju that it looks like a junkyard between covers.

Still, the fun is that Neil Patrick Harris loves being a magician so much that he provides actual do-it-yourself magic tricks in this book where you take a deck of cards, for example, go through simple instructions he lays out and end up with, voila! the very card you held up in Step #1. “If I were there, I’d take a bow,” he says amusingly, and I’d sure applaud.

But what I like best about Harris are behind-the-scenes glimpses he provides at the way show business really works, which is to say insanely and strangely, and actors who turn out to be particularly, well, nuts. You don’t expect that from a celebrity biography because people in Hollywood worry about getting sued, which is why what he says about the actor Anne Heche is so intriguing.

Doris: Anne Heche …

Pat: Anne Heche is a pretty good actor who had that headline-making affair with Ellen Degeneres and then wandered off talking in a foreign tongue of her own making, ostensibly because she was on prescription drugs, after which she wrote a book called Call Me Crazy. Her career got a little rocky soon after, but she’s now starring in a TV series called Dig and seems to be doing well.

So: What knocked me out in Neil Patrick Harris’s book is his description of working with Anne Heche, in 2002, when the two appeared on Broadway in a play called Proof. He writes that at the first rehearsal, Anne Heche announced, “Wow, how do you theater people do the same thing every night? I just don’t get it. I don’t work that way.”

She meant it. For the duration of the show’s run, he says, the crew and cast discovered that “Anne Heche is the kind of costar who decides one night, for no reason whatsoever, to shout all her lines. And on another night not to pause for the entire performance. One night you watch as she delivers all her lines as single rapid fire eruptions, as if every monologue is one unimaginably long German compound word. “

Well, I love that kind of — okay, I want to say deliciously telltale backstage stuff but I also mean that kind of you-are-there honesty that puts readers in the author/actor’s shoes trying to remember lines while the star throws the whole play off balance by going bananas.

One night, Harris says, Heche played the role entirely offstage. Other times when his character was supposed to kiss her passionately, she made it appear that he was disgusting, just to see how it would feel. She also doodled on her outfits in permanent marker so the wardrobe department was forced to create different costumes for her every night..

I bring this up not because it’s exceptionally written — the writing is fine and workmanlike — and not because Neil Patrick Harris is gossipy or mean, either. Rather he has a point to make about live theater as a collaborative effort in which director, cast, crew and wardrobe must block out every word to achieve the kind of deliberate spontaneity that makes live theater work.

After all, as he says, “In the world of the play, any particular night is the same night it always is.”

That’s the intriguing contradiction that stopped me. He wants us to know that in live theater, every aspect is invented, rehearsed and choreographed so it looks impulsive and unrehearsed. And this slavish devotion to doing the same thing every night, as if it happened only once, has to be maintained so exactly that the audience remains completely in the thrall of the playwright’s creation.

So Harris is saying that Anne Heche wasn’t just messing around on the stage of Proof; she was crippling “the world of the play,” and the cast was lucky that some critics bought it. The New York Times critic said Heche turned Proof into “quite a snappy show” due to her rapid-fire delivery that night. “Boy, she talks fast,” wrote admiringly, “sometimes accelerating into chipmunk territory.”


The World Rushed In by J.S. Holliday

Doris: This is a book about the California gold rush, published in 1981. The author had been given William Swain’s extraordinary gold rush diary and had promised his mentor that he would write Swain’s story. But Holliday’s vision was bigger than one man’s experience. He wanted a book that would be an authentic, vicarious experience for the modern reader.

So when Swain wrote entries that were brief or repetitive, when he concentrated on himself to the exclusion of the larger scene around him, Holliday would quote other diarists and letter writers who were at the same place at the same time, and who wrote more descriptively, observantly, or factually. These accounts enrich and balance the Swain record.

Holliday also collected the letters William sent home, and the letters he received from his wife and brother. The diaries and letters follow this 27-year-old gold seeker from his peach farm in Youngstown, New York, to the diggings north of San Francisco, in three parts: the overland journey, life in the mining camps, and the homeward journey-and they allow us to see the other side of the story: the story of families left behind.

That latter aspect is what I’d like to read a bit of, from William’s wife Sabrina. He’d been gone about a month when she wrote this, and she has received one letter from him so far. She refers to a neighbor, Mrs. Bailey, in the following. Mr. Bailey is traveling with William:

June 26, 1849:

After getting your letters, I took them and went down to see Mrs. Bailey, and I read some parts of them to her. She said Mr. Bailey had mentioned some sickness amongst them, but from what she said, I took it to be nothing serious. I hope you will not keep anything back, let it be ever so bad. Nothing could make me feel worse than I do now. I am all the time framing up something that will befall you. I do not place that confidence in God that I ought to; still, I feel that His arm is able to protect you in your absence. But the loss of your society is great, and the longer you are gone the less reconciled I feel. My dear, I feel sometimes as though I should sink under it. I am confident that it wears on me. You know, William that I am of a very nervous temperament and for that reason I cannot get along with it as well as I could were I not.

I assure you of one thing, and that is, if God spares you to get home again, I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left. However, my dear, I never have been sorry that I acted the part I did in letting you go, but I think I should act otherwise were it to be done again. This may, as I hope and trust, be a good lesson for us both. It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together. I, however, have one thing to comfort me, that we always did live agreeably when together, and often does my mind revert to the times and places that we have been and enjoyed ourselves together. Yet with all this, we cannot realize our attachments and fondness for one another until we are deprived of the society of those fond ones.

Pat: Most stunning to me about this letter is how eloquently she writes, especially when we remember there were no computers or typewriters or White-Out, heaven knows, in those days, and she had to write in indelible ink, hoping the pages would survive what must have been a four- or five-month-long journey. He had the adventure, but for his wife, the waiting was excruciating.

Doris: And she has this conflict that couldn’t have been easy to express: She urges him not to hold anything back by way of bad news because she can’t feel worse than she already does. She doesn’t completely trust God, but she’s trying. And let’s not forget her nature: she’s of a very nervous temperament!

Pat: Yes, at first that seems wholly true, but her voice is so direct and uncompromising that she begins to sound like a big solid oak tree back there at home, waiting for as long as it takes.

Doris: That sentence that describes her love — “I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left” — is about as ferociously explicit as letter-writing got for their time. Although she assures him she’s not sorry she let him go, the letter makes it clear she wouldn’t do it again. That steadfast nature leads her to the only positive lesson she can find in their separation: “It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together.”

Pat: A great lesson for any age. And the title of Holliday’s book is so apt for us in 2015. The world most certainly did rush into Northern California when gold was discovered in 1848, and historians said that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Yet today the “tech migration” is rushing into San Francisco once again, looking not for gold but Internet startups. (Plus the streets are lined with soaring property values.)


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Pat: We certainly don’t expect humor from two exhausted doctors standing in the rubble of war, but here in 2004 during the 2nd Chechen war, one doctor, Sonya, speaking of a friend who lives in London and knows what’s going on in the world, tells her colleague Akhmed:

“‘Last month he told me that George Bush had been reelected.’ “
“Who’s that?” said Akhmed.
“The American president,” Sonja said, looking away.
“I thought Ronald McDonald was president,” Akhmed said.
“You can’t be serious.”…
“Wasn’t it Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall?”

It’s very funny, probably accurate, and of course for some readers, this doctor is right: Americans did have a clown for a president who talked like Ronald McDonald at the time. But that’s not the reason I loved this novel. It’s full of the kind of casual details, quietly tossed into descriptive paragraphs, that surprise us with images we will never forget.

For example, when bombs destroy a village in Chechnya, not all of them explode, and thelocal doctors end up performing thousands of amputations because people step on them and they do explode. Here’s what happens when villagers figure out what to do, as explained from the point of view of a young Chechen girl named Havaa:

No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded bombshells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa’s parents, among other villagers, pried toilet bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and, dragging them upside down and two by two, gently set them over the unexploded bombs. Havaa would never forget the sight. So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn’t pass for weeks, and in that time she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke.

Doris: I loved reading that novel, but I didn’t remember this amazing scene about the upended toilets until you read that passage. It just goes to show how fast I was turning the pages to find out what happens in Marra’s riveting story.

Yes, the story just pulls us in from page on. In fact, I think I would have avoided a novel about Chechnya because the history of the country is so bleak, but thanks to Marra’s spellbinding characterizations and his ability to fracture chronology in a way that doesn’t confuse but actually clarifies the story, I got hooked before I knew it.

Here’s another quote that stopped me for its word selection alone– it’s about what happens to two starving people in wartime who fall in love and finally decide to become intimate:

They undressed by degree, a button here, a shirtsleeve there making a show of their shortcomings, their bodies androgynous with deprivation.

Doris: Wow. Here’s a sentence that’s so condensed and succinct, with every word invaluable and not a comma wasted, that it truly befits characters in wartime who are down to nothing — until they find each other.