Let’s get the essentials out of the way: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s delightful novel, State of Wonder. The author has written what ILet’s get the essentials out of the way: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s delightful novel, State of Wonder. The author has written what I call an “Airplane Book.” And, because the novel stretches to over 400 pages, I refer to these gems as “Airplane books on steroids.” Books like State of Wonder are quite rare—I cannot remember the last longish novel that I read into the early morning hours on two successive nights.
I review books for a medical journal and produce an annual list of additions to the “Airplane book” genre. These tomes are well-written page-turners that will engage physicians (And, of course, all those who journey) as they negotiate the inconveniences of modern travel. However, to be clear, these novels need not be the stuff of graduate level literary syllabi. If C.S Lewis is to be believed and great books can be determined only after repeated reading, good Airplane books fall slightly short of the mark.
For a reader to survive gate changes, talkative seatmates, and airport announcements, a successful airplane book needs a straight-forward plot line, a limited cast of minor characters, and must be available in paperback. (Russian novels need not apply) And while some of my more literary friends may look in askance at my reading suggestions, I have traveled with these folks. Like all those who read, they have times when the delight of a well-written page-turner is the necessary prescription.
State of Wonder is a quest novel that moves an emotionally imperfect protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, from her Minnesota research lab to the heart of the Amazon jungle. A gynecologist turned pharmacologist is sent by her pharmaceutical firm to locate the body of her lab partner, Dr. Anders Eckman and also access the progress of the covert drug research her partner had been sent to investigate. Patchett plunges the reader into a jungle replete with poisonous snakes, strange indigenous tribes, and fever producing bugs. Perhaps, more hazardous to our heroine are the dysfunctional group of Amazon researchers who have spent too much time away from civil society. (Or have they? Who indeed represents “normal civilization” and holds the moral gold-standard? )
Patchett writes with terrific pacing and prose that, as John Gardner admonishes, seldom “interrupts the dream.” Is this novel perfect? In a word, no. If I look critically at State of Wonder, I see (Without giving up a spoiler) a less than believable dramatic conclusion and an under-developed denouement. Further, the major-minor character of Marina’s love interest and company CEO, Mr. Fox, remains both under-developed and unbelievable.
However, after a siege in which I read three successive complicated and intricate novels, I found Patchett’s effort a much-needed tonic. I note the novel’s shortcomings only to prevent readers from anticipating what this story is not: A Literary Classic or even Patchett's best novel. (Bel Canto for instance.) State of Wonder is, however, a most successful Airplane book that will not disappoint the weary traveler desperately needing to flush away the realities of economy-class flying, plane delays, and the TSA.
The "Boys in the Boat" contains a compelling story. However, the manuscript badly needs further critical editing. I think this book would have been anThe "Boys in the Boat" contains a compelling story. However, the manuscript badly needs further critical editing. I think this book would have been an example of a story made stronger by reduction. ...more
Atul Gawande is a bright and gifted writer. He has established his credentials with books, "Better" and "Complications" and numerous thoughtful articlAtul Gawande is a bright and gifted writer. He has established his credentials with books, "Better" and "Complications" and numerous thoughtful articles in journals like The New Yorker. What separates Gawande from most other physician/writers is his willingness to see both sides of a controversy. He has a firm commitment to data. And, unlike many doctors who diagnosis healthcare problems without taking the risk of proposing solutions, Gawande offers actual “boots on the ground” suggestions for useful change. He recognizes that often change must occur incrementally, one common-sense step at a time. His books stand testament that policy makers are swayed far more effectively by a reasoned and elegantly crafted prose than loud polemics.
Gawande’s last book, "Being Mortal," engages a far different subject than his previous efforts: Aging. In his usual fashion, the author first engages the available data concerning physical aging and our cultural attitudes towards the elderly. But downing his prophetic mode, he begins with his inadequate "End-of-life" training before critiquing modern medicine’s approach toward the care of patients in the last third of life.
This quote from Being Mortal gives a useful introduction to the entire volume:
“The late surgeon Sherwin Nuland, in his classic book How We Die, lamented, 'The necessity of nature’s final victory was expected and accepted in generations before our own. Doctors were far more willing to recognize the signs of defeat and far less arrogant about denying them.' But as I ride down the runway of the twenty-first century, trained in the deployment of our awesome arsenal of technology, I wonder exactly what being less arrogant means. You become a doctor for what you imagine to be the satisfaction of the work, and that turns out to be the satisfaction of competence. It is a deep satisfaction very much like the one that a carpenter experiences in restoring a fragile antique chest or that a science teacher experiences in bringing a fifth grader to that sudden, mind-shifting recognition of what atoms are. It comes partly from being helpful to others. But it also comes from being technically skilled and able to solve difficult, intricate problems. Your competence gives you a secure sense of identity."
"For a clinician, therefore, nothing is more threatening to who you think you are than a patient with a problem you cannot solve.”
"Being Mortal" made me uncomfortable. I recognized myself in the quote as a physician who was far better at technical competence than dealing with patients who had problems I could not fix. I was also uncomfortable because I am someone who is no longer young. Gawande exposed my romantic myths about mortality.
For those readers involved in healthcare, I suspect the author's analysis will hold painful truths. Gawande is at his best in "Being Mortal" performing self-interrogation. Real system change, of course, must start with honest questioning of the self as well as the systems. However, I found his diagnosis and prescriptions, at times, incomplete. Gawande seemed unwilling to explore in depth the more personal issues that aging and death necessarily raise.
In my experience, if the listener is patient and willing, most older patients have significant questions about the spiritual nature of being human. Their queries are seldom articulate sentences and rarely couched in creedal language. Rather, these are the deeply held questions of significance. What does it mean to be fully human?
I needed to read this book. There are times when we read a book to be challenged to change, to become better than we are even if later we discover the author asked only first questions. Dr. Gawande has written a useful and necessary analysis of modern medicine's inadequate management of patients in the last third of life. In the process, he provides a basic starting point for thinking about mortality and the most personal question of what it means to be fully human. A necessary exercise even if you might not always enjoy the experience....more
I love to travel and have been fortunate to visit many parts of the world. As delightful and stimulating as these journeys are, I realize I’m always aI love to travel and have been fortunate to visit many parts of the world. As delightful and stimulating as these journeys are, I realize I’m always a little “on my guard” while carrying my passport. Irrational as I know it to be, simply walking through customs onto US soil in the sterile O’Hare or DFW or Kennedy Airports feels different, feels, well, like home.
What gives us this sense of place? Often, the specifics of what constitutes “our place” will elude precise definition. However, deep within each of us there seems to be at least a memory of what we call home, a known physical space holding particular sights and smells in addition to specific family or friends holding a unique shared history and common belief.
Camilla Gibb is a social anthropologist by training and gifted novelist. Her novels reflect a fascination with the effects of physical, emotional, or cultural dislocation upon individuals and whole societies.
In her novel, Sweetness In The Belly, Lilly is a child abandoned in Morocco by her English parents. Raised as an orphan Sufi shrine, she becomes a devout follower of mystical Islam. As an adult, Lilly is forced to leave the only world she has known making her way to Harar, Ethiopia and finally to England.
But, Lilly doesn’t quite fit anywhere. The usual genetic and cultural parameters that provide a matrix for orienting a person to who and where they are in the world have, for Lilly, been removed. Gibb does a masterful job at putting the reader into Lilly’s dissonance, even if sometimes the reading experience is disorienting, as if the author has gone too far or left information out. The author’s use of rapid change and discontinuity in time and location occasionally leaves the reader unsettled—a tension I believe the author crafted in order for the reader to participate more viscerally in Lilly’s dislocation and loneliness.
The prose in this novel is beautiful, and the opportunity to learn more about Northern Africa as well as moderate and mystical Islam was well worth the effort. But more than learning something new, this novel allowed me—a white, comfortable male living in relative safety—an opportunity to feel a little of Lilly’s displacement and exile. The excellent writer can offer the reader an opportunity to share emotional experiences not available in real life. Sweetness in the Belly is an unusual and unique novel worth the time to read. ...more
Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is the story of her 1100 mile conquest of the Pacific Coast Trail. Recently divorced, a heroin abuser, reeling from her mCheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is the story of her 1100 mile conquest of the Pacific Coast Trail. Recently divorced, a heroin abuser, reeling from her mother’s death, and patently unprepared, this memoir reads much like a modern quest story. In classic quest tales, the protagonist is often hurt or burdened with a special gift or task and often must journey alone. The well-written quest novel shows the main character engaging physical hardships and challenges in pursuit of some goal and allows the reader to view how the protagonist deals with adversity and failure. Most especially, we are allowed to watch this character come to terms with their particular gift or handicap.
In the manner of many contemporary memoirs, Strayed outlines in detail her many defects or handicaps when she decides to leave her addicted boyfriend and strike out on this quest. The author’s defects seem so severe that entertaining the idea of walking the PCT trail seems ludicrous. Her magical thinking nicely speaks to the authors desperate and disordered state-of-mind and is an effective narrative strategy pushing the reader to continue in order to learn the outcome.
The author crafts her story in a skilled, spare, and engaging prose. There are few unnecessary words and the author surely does not exempt herself when self-interrogating. The level of Strayed’s self-absorption is, at times, breathtaking. Her explication of behaviors destructive to herself and those around her—even those she obviously cared for—was painful to read but believable. I found myself rooting for Strayed through her many challenges and was caught up by her adept descriptions of the adventure. I was relieved for her when in the end she sat on the bench near the Columbia river and ate an ice cream cone.
This honest self-interrogation combined with Strayed’s commendable resistance to blame others remain the essential memoir soil nutrients allowing readers to grow trust in the author’s judgments. Narrating a memoir requires an unvarnished humility about the self, including those dark desires and character failures most humans choose to subjugate and ignore.
Simple narration—however skilled and honest—is not enough. The best of memoir requires a skilled use and melding of two different “times” and “voices.” There is, of course, the voice of the memoirist relating what happened in the past. Strayed did not write Wild while she hiked the PCT. Rather some years after the event she sat down at her writing table and attempted to recreate the person and events as they happened—as author Patricia Hempl suggests, “The voice of the ‘I’ character as he or she thought, spoke, and acted then.” This well-crafted "I-character then" is the most successful aspect of Wild.
What I think Wild lacks is the presence of a more reflective voice—the emergence of the mature “I” character, a writer “at the desk” looking back at the experience and attempting to understand and perhaps learn from both the mistakes and triumphs. Like a successful essay, the memoirist in this more mature voice does not need provide perfect closure or understanding. Rather, it is the process that matters most; an intelligent mind engaging and struggling to make coherent their particular circumstances, heart’s desires, and behaviors.
This relative paucity of what I call the mature, reflective voice creates this memoir’s greatest flaw: a lack of universality. A memoirist succeeds when the particulars of personal experience are rendered and linked to universal human experience. For instance, I am still not clear how this trip on the PCT changed her relational deficiencies and allowed her to become a successful wife, mother, and writer. Wild posits a frequent heard modern myth or desire: escape into the freedom of nature will allow an individual to “find oneself.”Did the author find an escape or complete freedom? Did the author find any truth or help in the extreme physical limitations the quest imposed? Finally, while the author went into the wilderness to be silent and alone, she actually practiced a liturgy of reading. What role did this connection with language play in her life?
While Strayed’s story may have significant resonance with individuals who share similar contexts, and there can be no doubt any serious reading concerning people’s lives different from our own allows for the possibility of increasing empathy, I think the author missed an opportunity. While the adventure story is engaging and unlike Into Thin Air, ends happily, the lack of a thick reflective voice, a voice pointing out the possible larger issues contained in the particulars of this single life is a significant deficiency. ...more
I used portions of this book when teaching an introductory non-fiction writing course. I found many of the chapters a useful resource for students witI used portions of this book when teaching an introductory non-fiction writing course. I found many of the chapters a useful resource for students with specific writing issues. Particularly Part II--"Finding a Structure" or Part III--"The Art of the Sentence" provided instruction and examples that actually helped students to see in practical ways how they could move their sentences and structure to something better.
Some of the chapters--for instance, "Passive Voice--need to be longer (adding more examples, prompts, and exercises) if this book were to be considered "comprehensive." The author writes in engaging prose and has clearly thought about and is experienced at the "harder than it looks" skill-set known as "teaching writing." This tome rates as one of the better "how to" books of this genre for active students of writing....more
Geoffrey Wolff’s second memoir, A Day at the Beach: Recollections, is a well-written and smart reflection of a man in the terminal days of his “late mGeoffrey Wolff’s second memoir, A Day at the Beach: Recollections, is a well-written and smart reflection of a man in the terminal days of his “late middle age.” Actually, unlike his first memoir The Duke of Deception, a book more akin to a biography of his infamous father: The Duke, this book is a series of nine essays describing life-episodes starting as early as his college days and ending with a novella-length description of sailing with his wife and grown sons.
The Duke of Deception was written with a tone of restraint; for the most part the author allowed a simple recitation of the facts to convey meaning. In this effort Wolff abandons any appearance of neutral restraint. A Day at the Beach has a far different tone. At times intelligent and witty, Wolff does become snide and hectoring, offering the tone of an abrasive but very bright smart-ass. However, what ties these two memoirs together is the looming and overshadowing presence of “The Duke.”
Memoirs often allow the reader to hear alternating voices. The voice relating the events as seen by a much younger author alternates or is followed by a more mature reflective voice delivering to the reader a portion of understanding or interpretation, a kind of wisdom derived from distance or time. The essay—a term derived from the French essai meaning “a trial” and the Latin exagium translated “to weigh”—often suggests the author, far from understanding, writes in a desperate attempt to understand. It was Montagne who suggested, “I write so that I know what I think.”
In A Day at the Beach Wolff’s essays attempt to make sense of his own life’s many surprising twists and turns, a journey irrevocably tied to a fantastical con-man father. The Duke, so big a hero to his son growing up and then an object of revulsion in the young man first learning his father wasn’t what he had believed, was also the conundrum who died alone in a mental institution, penniless and friendless. After being raised by a father with such an aversion to truth-telling and who raised false personas to a high art, is it any wonder Wolff struggled throughout his life and on the page to know just what could be believed and who could be trusted.
Because The Duke plays such a large role in Wolff’s life there is a significant amount of over-lap with his earlier memoir. In addition, as with all essay/ memoirs, at times there is a lack of connection between the parts. That is, the stand-alone character of each essay, at times engenders confusion concerning just how the essays tie together or where the overall arc of the work might be headed. This lack of continuity is most evident with the last, and longest, essay: “Waterway.”
The Duke has haunted the first eight essays only to disappear in this last essay. It may well be the author intends a simple allegory. That is, just as Wolff negotiates the treacherous passage from Bermuda to the US, we are only to understand he has also made a "home port" with his wife and sons. However, given the smart writing that proceeded this last essay, I think this is too simplistic for this author. The problem lays elsewhere.
I don’t doubt Wolff has reached a kind of home port resolution. The problem: I was left not really understanding why. To be clear, I do not expect Wolff to have the book end with all relationships and questions tied up with a trite synthesizing bow. I also understand our modern suspicion (And I assume Wolff's as well) concerning happy endings, a concern reflecting the unspoken presupposition that all happy endings are, by definition, infected with sentimentality—a kind of prose believed to be the most evil force in contemporary writing.
However, I think the problem actually reflects a problem with the author’s choice of form. By choosing the essay the reader expects to have been offered more speculation as to why the same boy who was brought-up by a nearly amoral con-man successfully negotiated his own propensity for falsity and alcohol. Why as a mature man he achieved a lasting even enduring marriage and produced children who as adults now offer him a measure of respect. Surely by all contemporary standards this constitutes at least a qualified success, even a life containing a measure of satisfaction and accomplishment.
None of us can look back upon our life’s successes or failures and explain the reasons with certainty. However, the essay form demands the writer share the thinking journey. The reader must see the twists, false starts, dead-ends, and mystery of the author’s thinking as he or she attempts to find a degree of understanding.
In this last aspect, I find A Day at the Beach: Recollection—an otherwise extremely entertaining and well-crafted book— wanting and therefore cannot award it a top rating. ...more
Authors Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff might be an argument for the presence in the human genome of a great writing gene. Following a tempestuous marriageAuthors Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff might be an argument for the presence in the human genome of a great writing gene. Following a tempestuous marriage and divorce, these two biologic brothers were raised separately. Tobias Wolff Tobias, the younger and perhaps more famous writer, (A Boys Life, In Pharaoh s Army, The Barracks Thief) was parented by his mother Rosemary while Geoffrey became the responsibility of his father, the Duke. Geoffrey Wolff was a long-time book reviewer for The Washington Post and achieved moderate success as a writer of fiction. However, it was his memoir, Duke of Deception: Memories of my Father, that brought the older Wolff critical acclaim.
Duke of Deception would perhaps be most accurately labeled a biography of his father, Arthur Samuels Wolff-“The Duke.” “The Duke” has become one of the most memorable characters in modern American literature. I first encountered the escapades of Wolff’s father reading an abstraction of Wolff’s memoir found in a writing textbook devoted to writing vivid characters.
Proving that the truth is more fantastic than fiction, the life of Arthur Wolff—a man his son calls the world’s greatest “bullshit artist”—provides a fascinating read producing alternating bouts of hilarious incredulity and profound disgust. Is it really possible that this man without a college degree and no experience could have become the chief engineer in multiple well known aviation companies? Or, could a man live so well for so long constructing imaginary personas and refusing to pay his debts? Had I not previously read Tobias Wolff’s accounts of their mutual father, collaborating accounts of events unknown to Geoffrey, the Duke’s amoral con-man career might have strained all belief.
Given the Duke’s outrageous and sometimes unconscionable parenting I suppose the memoir could be viewed as Geoffrey Wolff’s therapeutic efforts to shift blame for his own personal flaws. However, while the author is candid concerning his alcohol addiction and behavior flaws--flaws he points out that bear frightening similarities to father’s issues—Duke of Deception does not join that “blaming” sub-genre of memoirs so popular these days. Rather, this non-fiction memoir reads like an outstanding novel.
The best authors render fictional characters in a “thick” or “rounded” fashion. By this, it is meant the reader discovers a character on the page that is, as are most actual individuals, a montage of good and bad qualities, variable expertise, and multiple foibles. In the best memoirs the author must treat him or herself as a character, undergoing a self-interrogation equal in intensity to the inspection given the other characters. The “I” character must be shown in an equally “round” fashion or the reader will lose confidence in the author’s will to tell a true story. This memoir/biography meets this exacting standard.
The Duke of Deception also reads like excellent fiction because the author is skilled storyteller. Wolff isn’t interested in delivering parenting sermons or moral lectures or beating-down the reader with didactic facts. Readers are trusted to “get it.” and the prose flows smoothly. Using juxtaposition, suggestion, and omission, the reader is able to glimpse the author’s surprising and subtle empathy and sense his—and therefore our— slow acquisition of a deeper more dimensional but refracted truth about his father. Above all, the reader feels the whispered pathos of a young man growing-up in the company of a deeply flawed father.
I strongly urge newcomers to the memoirs of the Wolff brothers to read Tobias Wolff's A Boys Life in conjunction with Duke of Deception. A rare if not unique opportunity to read two highly skilled writers describe the same persons and reflect upon many of the same events from such different vantage points and with far different literary styles. A delicious literary treat. ...more
Richard Russo’s protagonist in the novel Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr stumbles badly negotiating the pot-holes of late middle-age and itRichard Russo’s protagonist in the novel Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr stumbles badly negotiating the pot-holes of late middle-age and it bothers him—actually, it bothers him a lot. He discovers himself perseverating far too often over a writing career that stalled twenty years ago and is beset by thoughts that his wife is having an affair with the Dean. In addition, Devereaux’s children are making a mess of their lives, his colleagues are plotting against him, the father who abandoned him is returning, and he is having anxiety attacks over what is imagined to be a terminal medical condition. However, the real problem for Devereaux, a professor of English in a “lower-tier university,” is that he has been openly committed to not caring about such things; he has been his department’s most successful practitioner of that uniquely academic worldview: ironic anarchism.
Russo’s main character has been committed to the proposition that no aspect of life is to be taken too seriously or go without humorous but skeptical analysis. William Henry Devereaux has yet to find a topic unworthy of his pithy and sarcastic wit. His absurdist critique is a mocking worldview consisting of equal parts of careful observation, chaos theory and pseudo-intellectual arrogance.
This odd approach to relationships and career might not have garnered our protagonist much traction in the majority of life’s enterprises but, William Henry Devereaux Jr entered University life and achieved success: he has risen to the rank of full professor, become chairman of the English Department, and finds himself a candidate to become the Dean of the College. The fact that Devereaux’s wife doesn’t listen to him, his children don’t take him seriously, and neighbors and colleagues dislike him hasn’t, until now, made much of an impression.
This book is full of a very modern brand of humor. Russo accurately captures a host of the most ridiculous and absurd behaviors found among college professors and the academic enterprise. I have spent over twenty-five years in the academy, first on the medical faculty and then as a part-time member of an English Department and felt sure Russo had been looking over my shoulder. Derrick Bok, then president of Harvard, was said to have remarked that “The reason Academic battles were so bloody was because the stakes were so small.” Russo’s graceful prose brackets these foibles beautifully.
The novel is chocked full of ironic humor and I frequently found myself amused. However, this was not the sharp-witted aggressive humor found in a Woody Allen screen-play or the farcical misunderstandings reveled by Shakespeare in "Twelfth Night" or even the slap-stick absurdist humor of say a Monty Python movie. Rather, my amusement was more like the wry smile accompanied by a shake of the head that reflects, “If I hadn’t actually seen this kind of absurd behavior I wouldn’t believe intelligent human beings capable of such non-sense.” I think Russo writes a novel detailing academic life in a humorous vein because it allows the reader, especially a reader without much contact with the academy, to loosen the constraints of believability. I think Russo knows that if he were to have written these character’s stories without emphasizing the humor most readers would have not had much empathy for them or believed such people existed.
Many of Russo’s best works (And here I’m thinking of novels like, “Bridge of Sighs” or “That Old Cape Magic” are full of small-town people who he sympathetically renders coping with the bittersweet stuff of families and jobs and life’s half-full glass. And, Straight Man surely has a measure of this. Yet the infusion of such large quantities of ironic humor in order to render the characters believable also instills a corrosive acid scrubbing our belief there can be any real hope for William Henry Devereaux or his colleagues. Irony is, after all, the notion that holds nothing is what it seems, nothing can be believed because there always remains some other self-serving motive or truth lurking just beneath appearances.
Perhaps my four stars for this wonderfully conceived and rendered novel reflects less a criticism of Russo's prose than my peevishness concerning the current state of novel writing. I grow tired of a constant diet of irony. These days I find myself ranting that we don’t need one more novel that tests the limits of terminal irony’s final frontier and then "throw the baby out with the bathwater."
To be fair, "Straight Man," is a modern novel that does not lapse into terminal irony. Rather, it is a humorous and a worth-while read by a master author....more
This is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully craftThis is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully crafted book....more
This is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "spThis is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "spiritual origins" I mean Taylor primarily dissects Christianity's contribution to the formation of Anglo-American culture. Taylor, a Catholic, is even-handed when handling protestant/catholic issues but covers little of non-Christian religious traditions. First published in 1989, Taylor's analysis has stood up well and remains a key source. (in addition to his newest book continuing and completing his argument ) Sources of the Self is an essential starting point for any student studying at the interface of religious belief and contemporary culture.
Although my devoting such a great amount of time (twice)! to this 500 page text may seem excessive, close reading of the text has been more than rewarding. In particular, Taylor's final chapters: "Visions of the Post-Romantic Age" and "Epiphanies of Modernism" provided a helpful intellectual infrastructure for both my long-standing interest in theology and the arts and a newer imaginative literature project. In many ways the twenty plus years since the author wrote the text have added significant validation to his assertions. I know of no other text with such a wide-ranging, thoughtful, yet distilled analysis of modern imaginative culture.
However, be forewarned: the writing here is academic and I do not mean simply the presence of numerous endnotes. Taylor's prose while clear is ponderous and without literary style. Worthwhile reading, but Sources of the Self does require a committed reader....more
Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres is not recommended for readers needing happy or uplifting stories. However, for those readers who revel in grace Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres is not recommended for readers needing happy or uplifting stories. However, for those readers who revel in graceful prose and finely observed relationships, this novel is for you.
Smiley tells a story that on the surface describes the implosion of a solid prosperous Iowa farm family. The Cook family, like many successful midwestern multi-generational farm families, failed to adequately account for the dangers implicit when passing control from older to younger generations or the treacherous economic conditions that exploded during the final decades of the 20th century. While the economic tale has become well known, Smiley’s principle interest resides in the dissonance found below the surface, a calm surface marked by church pot-lucks, hard-work, and taciturn small-town manners that also hides a viscous under-tow of incest, abuse, hate, patricide, and even murder. While these recent farming economics may reflect an extreme aberration, the author’s use of Shakespeare’s King Lear as a matrix on which to frame her modern story suggests inter and intra generational struggles are universal and there is “nothing new under the sun” when it comes to the human heart.
Jane Smiley’s prose is a delight to read and a model for novel construction. While some critics were unimpressed by this modern Lear re-telling, I found her use of the “Elder sister” Ginny as narrator (That would be Goneril for those who don’t quite remember their Shakespeare), a most un-Shakespeare like treatment of Caroline (the Cordelia character), and a far more detailed and nuanced description of Daddy Cook (Lear) made this story fresh. I was aware of the matrix; it just didn’t matter.
I come from Midwestern farm stock(Iowa, actually) and found Smiley’s descriptions of people and places uncomfortably accurate. During the last thirty years the farm crises produced countless stories of suffering, culture destruction, and displacement. Without a doubt, this narrative documented the withering of many long-standing farm communities and represented a significant cultural loss. Although understandable, these same stories often reinforced many distorted small town myths, myths that might once have been true but no longer approximate the truth. Smiley’s novel suggests that small towns, family farms, and stable multi-generational communities are not now nor ever were protection against the human heart’s tendency toward self-seeking. This tale is replete with all too accurate descriptions of the tragic long-term consequences of sexual abuse, repressed hate, and vengeance.
New readers of A Thousand Acres may consider this narrative of family dysfunction, particularly the incest, represents a too-often trod path. It is well to remember Smiley’s book is now over twenty years old. When it was written, in the middle of the farm crisis, our culture’s sensitivity to sexual abuse was significantly less than our own. However, as Shakespeare’s continued popularity attests, good stories tell tales about the human heart—and these stories never get old.
However King Lear—often described as the most theological of Shakespeare’s plays—carries a hint of redemption or at least insight that is notably absent in Smiley’s novel. Lear, unlike the elder Cook, in the last act is able see Cordelia’s actions as gestures of love; the Shakespearian protagonist’s suicide would seem a sign of the old King’s acceptance of at least a degree of culpability and finitude. Smiley’s Ginny, unlike Goneril who when her evil plans failed killed herself, is blandly grateful that the attempted murder of her sister by poison was unsuccessful. The book ends with her noting, “. . . that a burden had been lifted.” But it is not clear if this expression simply reflects the reality that Rose was dying from cancer and Ginny’s homicidal actions were no longer needed, or if Ginny now saw her actions as evil and possessed a modicum of genuine remorse.
Smiley’s characters are thoroughly modern. They have, in ways Shakespeare’s characters have not, lost confidence in any outside standard of right or wrong. The inept interventions by the local pastor and inadequate cultural mores leave the inhabitants of A Thousand Acres adrift in a sort of existential narcissism. The book comes to a close, as do many of the recent farm narratives, with a sterile farm sale, a prose image not dissimilar to Roman guards dividing the crucified Christ’s cloak. But, life does go on—in real life and in the novel. Unlike most TV dramas, Smiley leaves the reader unsettled and unresolved; Ginny and Rose’s two children simply survive and “move on.” Perhaps, like death camp survivors, Smiley suggests Ginny, Ty, and her nieces' triumph is the opportunity to try again.
In the novel's epilogue, it seems the only cost to the survivors is paying an estate-tax bill; an act Ginny can imagine only as a transaction--a most peculiar personal transaction. She reaches a deal with the IRS to pay her share of the tax over 14 years. To be sure, she notes that her act will keep Rose’s children from the burden, but she is “. . .glad to pay it,” but not as a gift or act of love; Ginny is glad to remit the money because it pays off “her regrets.” In this modern view, a view I think Shakespeare would have found strange, Ginny’s moral imagination—like all the other characters—is stunted, able only to process personal feelings and needs. In considering the legacy of her father, his lack of remorse, a memory Ginny will safeguard above all others, she remembers this deficit as, “. . .wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self.”
I left the book with a a profound sadness. Smiley has beautifully articulated the peculiar modern infatuation with self. This is an infatuation that corrodes all possibility of human relationships; an infatuation that by its pervasiveness allows survivors to see others looking into Narcissus’ mirror but makes them blind to the mirror before their own eyes. However, a reader looking for a hope greater than simple existence will need to look elsewhere. Indeed, A Thousand Acres is a modern tragedy. ...more