A Few Good Reads
Emma Cline’s The Girls
Beautifully written, as the reviews proclaim; the fourteen-year old protagonist, Evie Boyd comes of age during the summer of 1969 when a Manson-like cult takes her in, gives her a place to belong, a connection to the girls, to Suzanne, the one she loves. Most interesting is Cline’s handling of Evie at age sixty-one, now offering her memoir, a sad tale that left me wondering about a complex character who does not change. She still belongs nowhere, not even to herself. Growth and change are irrelevant, hope impossible, and a larger, cultural arc is made clear. Is this part of a trend in writing?
James Joyce’s Dubliners
Fifteen stories stunningly well written, written well, brought to life during a recent walking tour of Dublin. Our group of twelve or so was led to various buildings and squares, a church, a school featured in the stories, where we paused to listen to the guide’s readings of pertinent passages. By tour’s end, we were steeped in Irish history, culture and commentary on the Catholic Church and its unwelcome dominance in Joyce’s life. And I was overwhelmed not by his genius but by his struggle to overcome threats to his vision.
Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk (audio version read by the author)
H is also for Helen, I heard her say in an interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s radio program Bookworm. First reading/hearing of this memoir and the vividly gorgeous descriptions of the hawk, goshawk, I learned, and its hunting grounds in Cambridgeshire, England jump out, so breath-taking they are. Second and third hearings, though, left me less impressed, and I saw the adjectives, the colors, the meadows and forests as over-worked, and a bit decorative in the writing. During the interview, the author said she found it easy to write about the hawk, something she loved doing. It was writing about her father, she said, that was much harder. She worked and worked to capture his life, his untimely death, and these passages I found more authentic, poignantly credible, gratifying—perhaps because I had just lost my own father. The weave of T.H. White’s writings, the story of his own hawk and his failure as a falconer, was interesting but not satisfying. Why do falconers miss the irony in capturing a wild creature then training it to hunt as it would have on its own?
For once, it is not I who is lost in the thickets, but rather the guide leading a walking tour in Dublin, pointing out the places that appear in James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. Joyce fled Ireland in 19??, never to return. In fact, Joyce wrote the last two chapters of Ulysses in Paris.(in one of the 19 places he and his family inhabited in the city of light during the remaining decades of his life.
“But he only wrote about Dublin,” the guide said, bewildered. To stay current, he said, Joyce pumped Irish friends and acquaintances visiting Paris for details about places and shopkeepers, pub owners, street names, distances from one place to another.
I understand why Joyce would not write about Paris, a city he could not see. He had a serious and debilitating eye disease—the same as mine—and he had to write from his memories, places that remained especially vibrant, the sights, the details perfectly preserved from his youth when he could still see. He was a careful observer, recording the visual information that would bring his writing to life. Funny how the memories grow brighter as the eyesight grows dimmer; how true I have found this to be.
The disease forced him to change his process, not his ideas. He dictated Finnigan’s Wake to his daughters, one of whom was named Lucia, her light carrying him through the blindness. Samuel Beckett came by to read to him, to discuss, critique, and of course seek advice from the mentor. Joyce kept going, and I plan to do the same, with Gene as my Beckett and as my Lucia. This is clear to me, a straight line through the thickets.