Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry


Stories -- powerful, effective stories -- pack your bags and send you traveling to places boggy and foreign, and to places darkly familiar. To lands where the slang puzzles your reckoning, and to realizations that you never would admit to yourself but are as true to you as the wrinkles on your palm.

If those are the criteria for a strong story, then Kevin Barry has some darn muscular ones in Dark Lies the Island.

Stories this insular, with their peculiar dialects and speech rhythms, with their reliance on local geography and entrenched politics, with their undoubtedly Irish sensibilities and remoteness, are as particular to Ireland as the Gaeltacht. Reading them places you as soggily in the rural counties as reading Mark Twain places you rocking upon a river boat. And yet... you'll find a piece of small universality in each of them. These are truths that fit inside our psyches and transcend oceans.

No doubt about it, Barry's writing quirks the usual. (In ways like verbing "quirk." And verbing "verbing.") But sometimes, you learn more by studying the world through funhouse lenses. When the same old isn't the same and it isn't old, it reveals itself. It discovers itself. And once it finds a home in a story, it brings you along for the ride.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis

Think of the pleasures you have wished would never end. A glorious day in summer, a perfectly seasoned dish, a first kiss, a good book. Do you linger to prolong the pleasure? Do you stay outside until the sun is chased by the evening cold, leave aside a final bite until its sauce has firmed and cooled, dive in for one more soft peck, read the penultimate page again to avoid turning it?

I do. I'm a professed lingerer. I always figure that by drawing out the enjoyment, it lasts longer, and in some way the memory will be fuller for it.

One passage in Out of the Silent Planet might have changed how I feel about pleasure. The character Ransom (a human, or Hman) is trying to figure out how the Martian hross lives his life, because it seems not to be in pursuit of repeated pleasures. The hross, Hyoi, elaborates:

"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure.

"How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back -- if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?"

Pleasures are transient; pleasures are ephemeral. Yet the memory of pleasure may live as long as the one who experiences it. The memory will naturally grow in its own way, but is that not part of the pleasure?

When next I encounter a stunning view, or go to a revolutionary concert, or taste a delectable beer, I won't rush through it just so I can get to the memory. But neither do I intend to linger, and thereby reduce the memory by reducing the initial pleasure. When the sun sets, the music fades, and the pint glass empties, I'll understand that I still have the memory -- and with it, an extension of the pleasure itself.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Children are so often relegated. Not to any lower realm or back shelf in particular. Just relegated. Period.

Children's and young adult books are less serious endeavors than grown-up literature. (Don't believe me? Eat lunch at work or school while reading Harry Potter, and then again while reading Finnegans Wake.) Children's opinions, no matter how well-informed, are less valid than adult rantings. (Don't believe me? Check and see the last time your state legislature had a member of the high school speech and debate team in to give a presentation on a controversial topic.) Children's perspectives in history, and the way historical events affect children, don't expend much ink in history texts. (Don't believe me? Go to the library and see what you find that isn't related to Anne Frank.)

Which is what makes One Crazy Summer such a special -- and important -- kind of book. Its narrator, Delphine, and her sisters get caught up in the Black Panther movement in Oakland in 1968. Children are present for, and affected by, all the great political and social movements.Their experiences and responses are genuine and human. So what if their take is different than the canonical history? Doesn't that make our understanding of the past all the richer?

Wearing the harmless cloak of the "children's book" label, novels like Rita Williams-Garcia's can fly under the radar of those who relegate children in the first place. Once they make their escape, however, these books have the power to show us our world through different eyes.

Isn't that what all books, for readers of any age, aspire to?

UPDATE: Same day I wrote this, I came across a great and relevant line from C. S. Lewis: "A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then." Sometimes, these stuffy old dons really knew where it was at.