The Year's Best

This is the season when almost everyone is making a list of their favorite books of the year, in most cases a list of the ten best. The list on the Salon online magazine was a little different. They asked 50 reasonably well-known writers to name their favorite book of the past year. Their selections included two that were mentioned more than once—Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (three times) and Volt by Alan Heathcock (twice).

However, in a glaring and unforgivable omission, Salon did not ask me for my selection. In putting the question to myself, I came up with a list of the following 18 books that I that I consider my top 18 of the year. What is my favorite of the group? That is a tough one.

Paul Auster Sunset Park
Joshua Ferris The Unnamed
Natalia Ginzburg Little Virtues
Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists
Jonathan Dee The Privileges
David Vann Caribou Island

Teju Cole Open City
Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time to Keep Silence
Mary Gordon The Love of My Youth
James Salter Light Years
Alastair Reid Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner
Iris Origo War in Val d’Orcia

Andre Aciman Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
Allegra Goodman The Cookbook Collector
Ann Patchett State of Wonder
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness
Michael Ondaatje The Cat’s Table
Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot

As I think back on the experience I had reading each one, there are three that brought me the greatest pleasure and insight: Open City, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and I Married You for Happiness. Of these three, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere garnered by far the most entries in my commonplace book, always a good measure of a book’s literary value to me, but by no means the only one.

However, I found Aciman’s writing utterly compelling, as it always is, those long, wandering, here and there, back and forth, ambivalent, questioning sentences.

…the life we think of each day and the life not lived, and the life half lived, and the life we wish we’d learn to live, while we still have time, and the life we want to rewrite if only we could, and the life we know remains unwritten and may never be written at all, and the life we hope others may live far better than we have…

But I spoke these words without conviction, and would have thought I hadn’t meant them had I not grown used to the notion that speaking without conviction is how I speak the truth.

And his frequent reflections on the concept of Place, of neighborhood, of city and the memories they evoke, also ambivalent, is much like my own. So I’ll cast my vote for Andre Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and look forward to hearing from Salon next year.

Marks In The Margin will be on a holiday break for the next few weeks. See you next year. Meanwhile:


On Rereading

“The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does.” Patricia Spacks

I am reading On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. It is the first time I’ve read it, although I have reread the first chapter that sketches Spacks’ views on the value of rereading and the reasons that motivate her to devote a fair amount of time to rereading literary fiction.

She suggests we reread for enjoyment, a way to evoke memories, a reminder of forgotten truths, as well as a source of new ones. But we also reread, she says, to measure how we have changed or even if we have changed. “…but for most readers, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of unexpected change.” She cites a passage from an essay on rereading by Vivian Gornick:

“When I read Colette in my twenties, I said to myself, That is exactly the way it is. Now I read her and I find myself thinking, How much smaller this all seems than it once did—cold, brilliant, limited—and silently I am saying to her, Why aren’t you making more sense of things?”

But for the most part Spacks suggests we reread fiction because we want to re-experience the pleasure we found when we first read a book, the enjoyment that can arise from an engaging story, stimulating truth or fine writing.

The bulk of her text describes the various encounters she has had rereading books. She treats the books she read as a child, her favorite Jane Austen, those she read in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the books she read as a professional teacher and critic, those she ought to have liked, but didn’t and the ones she has read as a member of a book group.

In the final chapter, Coda, she reviews what she has learned from all the books she’s reread. She wonders what the era of electronic books will do to reading and the experience of rereading and confesses she can’t begin to imagine what that will be.

At the same time she realizes how much she has “been shaped—personality, sensitivities, convictions—by reading.” She also comes to better understand how the extent to which her values and attitudes have changed over the years.

“If Herzog has meanings that I was earlier unable to detect; if The Golden Notebook, with large pretensions, now seems relatively trivial in import; if the facts of a book’s nature can shift in such ways, value judgments, too must be less stable than they appear.”

Most of the rereading I do is simply because I’ve forgotten so much, if not all, of what the book was about, why I liked it, and why it is (usually) still on my shelf. I reread because I forget so much. And I don’t do a great deal of rereading, since I really only started reading seriously relatively late in life and have a lot catching up to do.

And then I think about those truly special books I’ve read. These are books I don’t forget. And, unlike Spacks, I know I don’t want to reread them again. I don’t want to do anything to alter the memory that I have of those days, the people in the book, their story and the great writing. None of it can ever be repeated. They were the best and I want to keep it just that way.

I’d rather not experience Gornick’s melancholy lament: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.”

Here is a brief video of Spacks talking about her book:

Patricia Meyer Spacks, ON REREADING from Harvard University Press on Vimeo.


Doctor to the Resistance

We lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night, but our lives were not dark and martial. . . There were arrests, torture, and death for so many of our friends and comrades, and tragedy awaited all of us just around the corner. But we did not live in or with tragedy. We were exhilarated by the challenge and rightness of our cause. It was in many ways the worst of times and in just as many ways the best of times, and the best is what we remember today. Jean-Pierre Levy

Few Americans participated in the French Resistance, a movement that will always represent in my mind the epitome of moral courage. I wrote about one here. Although I imagine there were others, the only one I am aware of is Dr. Sumner Jackson. These are individuals we don’t want to forget.

Jackson’s various roles in the Resistance are described in Hal Vaughan’s Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris. Sumner Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1919 and soon thereafter joined the British Royal Medical Corp as a field surgeon during the First World War. Once America entered the war, he was enlisted by the U.S. Army Medical Corp to serve at the Red Cross Hospital in Paris. It was there that he met his wife, Toquette, a French citizen who was a nurse at the hospital then.

After the war, the couple returned to his home in Maine. But they found it difficult to adjust to life there and moved back to Paris. Jackson worked at the American Hospital in Paris, where he remained until the Germans captured him in 1944.

The Jacksons began acting as Resistance agents in 1940, soon after the Germans occupied Paris. At one point they even asked their 14 year-old son, Phillip, to gather photographic intelligence of German submarine and ship building installations around the port of Saint-Nazaire. However, most of their activities took place at the American Hospital and their home on Avenue Foch, not far from the hospital.

They used their home as a shelter for downed Allied pilots who they helped to escape back to England via the various secret routes to the Spanish coast, to hide French militants wanted by the Nazis, and to relay encrypted messages to members of the Resistance. At the hospital Jackson also treated and provided care for injured pilots, French citizens on the run from the Nazis, and members of the Resistance itself.

All the while they were trying to survive through bitter winters with scarcely any heating fuel and with limited food and medical supplies for themselves, the staff and patients at the hospital.

In 1944 the Jackson’s housemaid found anti-Nazi notes in Phillip’s clothes while doing the laundry. Soon after, the Gestapo detained the three members of the Jackson family and transported them to work camps, where most prisoners either died of beatings, starvation, or exhaustion.

Toquette was send to Ravensbruck and somehow managed to survive the war. Jackson and Philip were sent to Neuengamme. As the Americans approached the camp, the prisoners were taken to the port of Jubeck and forced into a prison ship. In an aerial attack on the German ships as they leaving the port on their way to Sweden, Jackson and Philip’s ship was bombed and quickly sunk. Jackson drowned while ministering to the injured, while Philip was able to swim back to shore.

By participating in the French Resistance Dr. Jackson, Phillip and Toquette joined with “Thousands of French patriots…who, under circumstances that none had foreseen, began to do things they never would have imagined possible. … They simply refused, at risk of their lives, to accept dishonor and degradation of human values.”


The Marriage Plot

There is no happiness in love except at the end of the English novel. Jeffrey Eugenides

There are many strands running through Jeffrey Eugenides new novel, The Marriage Plot—the future of the novel, the meaning of love, and the quest for religious insight. Two others loomed large for me—the effects of reading fiction and the power of manic-depression.

The scene is 1982, the place is Brown University, the characters are three graduating seniors, Madeleine Hanna, an English major and her two suitors Leonard Bankhead, a handsome, talented student of semiotics and Mitchell Grammaticus, a prospective theology student, also talented, but struggling to compete with Leonard for Madeleine’s affection.

The novel begins with books, the books on Madeleine’s dormitory bookshelves—the Henry James, the complete Modern Library, the many 18th and 19th century novels, the moderns, too. The novel ends with a lengthy question Mitchell poses about a half-fictional, half-realistic novel. In between, we are led to wonder whether novels are actually about “real life.”

Do books change us, what good are they for, do they have any practical use or are they simply about other books? Madeleine is seriously in love with Leonard and they are both reading Roland Barthe’s book A Lover’s Discourse in the semiotics class they are taking. Eugenides writes,

“The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page…Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sense. And oh, how she loved it.”

No matter that Barthe’s book rejects the belief that books are “about” something. “If it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.”

Eugenides’ descriptions of Leonard’s manic-depression, as bi-polar disorder was known then, are handled so well and are precise in their accuracy. Perhaps he has experienced it, known someone who has (as I have) or read the books carefully. Regardless, the violent swings, the manic highs, the depressive helplessness, its unpredictability and the terrible effects of the drug lithium that was about the only medication used at that time seem to me thoroughly true to the “disease.”

…something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.…his mind kept up its play-by-play analysis of the contest under way…You can’t get clean from depression. Depression is like a bruise that never goes away. A bruise in your mind. You just got to be careful not to touch where it hurts. It always will be there, though.

In one of Madeleine’s English classes Professor Saunders, her senior thesis adviser, declares the novel, especially those devoted to the marriage plot, had reached its highpoint with the nineteenth century novel. “As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.”

The pleasure of reading The Marriage Plot refutes Saunders’ claim and suggests that Eugenides is quite ready to place his bets on the classic novel. “What exquisite guilt she felt wickedly enjoying narrative…Madeleine felt safe in a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”

Does Madeleine cast her lot with the troubled Leonard or the calm and reflective Mitchell or does she give up on the idea of marriage all together? You care about these people and you want to find out what she decides even in an age where marriage seems like a thing of the past, where pre-nuptial agreements and filing for separation or divorce are routine matters.

Yes, it is still possible to develop a fine novel that is sustained by the themes of love and marriage, as if anyone ever had any doubts in the first place.


The Third Place

“Conversation is a crucial thing in Spanish culture. Writers, artists, poets and philosophers, intellectuals in general used to join ever day at the cafes to talk around a drink about the human and the divine and to try and arrange the problems of the world. This habit is called tertulia. German philosophers used to think first then write. Spanish philosophers use to talk, and then, if it works, to write. For the Spanish, talk is a form of thinking.”

Imagine a place where you went each day to chat with your friends, to write, or simply get away from everything and spend a quiet afternoon reading or brooding.

In his book The Great Good Place: Café’s Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day, Ray Oldenburg refers to these settings as Third Places, informal gathering places away from a person’s home and place of work. He discusses the German beer gardens, the English pubs, French cafes and the American tavern.

“In cities blessed with their own characteristic form of these Great Good Places, the stranger feels at home—nay, is at home—whereas in cities without them, even the native does not feel at home.”

He says informal gathering places are largely absent from the countless suburban communities in this country now. Oldenburg suggests that where the citizens of a country have no place to spend time outside their home or place of work, something profoundly important is missing from their life. This is the problem of place in America.

What many people in both suburbia and metropolitan areas are missing are places to gather whenever they want, as often as they want, nearby and easily accessible that are “real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.”

We often hear about how deficient American life has become, how people are distressed at the quality of their lives and how so many need to seek assistance to get their act together. Oldenburg attributes part of this general malaise to the inability to participate in the pleasures of these informal gathering places.

In contrast, the French, he says, have solved the problem of place. There are usually several coffeehouses in each of the neighborhoods of any French city. It is easy to walk there and many go to the same place at the same time each day so they can count on the regulars being there.

The Parisian café is legendary as a place for writing letters, books, or simply studying. Around the Sorbonne or any city in France near a university students gather at all hours of the day to discuss the work they are doing and the latest cultural movement. Susan Sontag wrote, “After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a café looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendezvous …One should go to several cafes—average: four in an evening.”

According to Oldenburg there are several fundamental characteristics of these settings.

• Everyone is considered an equal.
• Conversation is the main activity.
• The “regulars” can be counted on to be there.
• The mood is both playful and serious.
• It feels like a home away from home.

In addition, the traditional third places are fundamentally settings for friendship and companionship. The need for such settings can hardly be denied even for those who enjoy their times of solitude that are paradoxically sometimes spent in a café. A contemporary regular said, “There’s a recognition here that people come to a café to not be alone”


The Cat's Table

“It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.” Michael Ondaatje

I find myself looking back more and more now as Michael Ondaatje does in his recent novel The Cat’s Table. The tale is narrated by an older version of the fictional Michael’s future self, as he recounts a critical youthful experience in his life and sees its importance in a way that was impossible at the time it occurred.

Michael, nicknamed Mynah as a youth, looks back on the twenty-one day journey from the then Ceylon to England that he took by ocean liner, the Oronsay, at the age of eleven. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Ondaatje says The Cat’s Table is fictional and the ship, the characters in the tale and its locations is an “imagined rendering.” Why he says this is a mystery to me, when in fact, it is well-known that as a young man Ondaatje did travel by ship from Ceylon to England, did, as the novel depicts at the end, become a writer, and surely did encounter passengers on the ship that bear some resemblance to those depicted in the novel.

Knowing all this, however, in no way detracts from pleasure in reading the magical tale he unfolds during his three-week voyage through three oceans, two seas (Red and Arabian) and the Suez Canal. The “cat’s table” refers to the table where he and a group of “insignificant” adults and his two great companions, Cassius and Ramadhin, were seated at mealtimes. It is the table most distant from the one occupied by the Captain and his group of notables. Cassius is the wild one, the troublemaker, while Ramadhin is quite, serious and ill with asthma.

Ondaatje writes: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power…So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large and interesting with strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.” Once they realize they are virtually invisible in the midst of all the other passengers, the three boys proceed each day and night of the voyage to engage in a series of wild adventures that largely pass unnoticed. “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.”

They discover a mural of a giant nude women deep in the ship’s hull that was painted by soldiers when the ship was used to carry troops during World War II; they visit an artificially lit garden hidden away below the lower deck; one night they tie themselves to the deck at the front of the ship during a cyclone, as the waves sweep over the bow; and each evening they hid themselves in one of lifeboats to steal a glance at the prisoner-in-chains who was being transported to England to be tried for committing a murder and only allowed out of his shipboard cell for a brief walk in the middle of the night.

As Michael grows older he moves to Canada and tries to stay in touch with the friends he made on that youthful voyage. He learns that Cassius has become a highly regarded artist and during a visit to London goes to the gallery where his paintings were showing. He sees that one depicts the dock they looked down upon when the ship paused at the Suez Canal. He learns that Ramidhin has died of his illness and takes the overnight flight to England to be with his family at the funeral.

Do certain childhood experiences echo in your life the way the journey on the Oronsay does for Michael? In all the experiences Ondaatje recounts, we realize that Michael is the observer, the outsider who even though he was just a young boy, was able to understand what the gestures and the words of those around him meant. Recalling them anew now, he arrives at an even deeper understanding of their meaning and the role they continue to play in his life.

The Cat’s Table ends with a visit Michael made to his cousin, Emily, who was also a passenger on the Oronsay’s journey to England. He wonders if the adult she became was influenced by any of the events on that journey and concludes he can never know how much it had altered her. “As far as I could tell it seemed to have been for Emily just a three-week journey...[and] how little all of it appeared to mean to her.”


The Moviegoing Scene

His refuge from IBM is the cinema. In a film called L’Eclisse a woman wanders through the streets of a sunstruck, deserted city…. The woman is Monica Vitti. With her perfect legs and sensual lips and abstracted look, Monica Vitti haunts him; he falls in love with her. He has dreams in which he, of all men in the world is singled out to be her comfort and solace…J. M. Coetzee Youth

The weekend approaches. The time when I normally head out to see a film. But increasingly I am finding it impossible to bring myself to see anything playing in one of the local movie houses. Those that I do see are the exceptions and nothing like the old days when there were so many films around, I often missed a few because I couldn’t spend all day, every day, inside a movie house.

The days when you went to see every film from France and Italy are long gone. Where oh where is Ingmar Bergman these days? I conclude the Summer Doldrums have become a permanent, year-round fixture. It is not unusual for me to walk out of a film well before it is over.

A while ago things had become so bleak I decided to see Shall We Dance? a remake of the quite wonderful Japanese film of the same name. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Everyone enjoyed it. When it was over, the audience burst into applause. Such a light film. Fun yes. But applause?

I was reminded of a Sunday matinee when a young woman came down before the audience and asked for everyone's attention. She announced to the perplexed assembly that it was her mother's birthday, indeed, a very special one, and asked everyone to join in singing happy birthday to her. Without a moment's delay, everyone belted out a lusty Happy Birthday to Sandy followed by wild applause from the smiling moviegoers.

After Shall We Dance? was over, I began musing over a scene where a middle-aged woman meets the detective she has hired to snoop on her husband who she suspects is having an affair with his dancing instructor. They meet in a bar. She wants him to end the investigation. The detective wants to flirt with her. He asks her why do so many people get married? She replies at once by saying it is to bear witness to your life.

I was puzzled by her comment. How odd I thought. I recalled a remark made by one of the characters in Rachel Cusk’s novel The Lucky Ones that I happened to be reading then: “I felt a terrible despair at having failed to find another human being to corroborate my existence.”

I didn’t think that was why most people married or the reason they would give if you asked them why they did. That is not why I married my wife or why she married him as far as I know. It had nothing to do with confirming our existence. Yes, it was sometimes pleasing to tell her about my day, how I felt, and the ideas I had and equally pleasing to hear about hers. Sometimes it was even instructive. But our marriage was not dependent on our bearing witness to these accounts.

And so this is how it goes from one weekend to the next, as I ponder the meaning of the films I can mange to see in the local movie houses or the old ones I watch once again on a DVD. They engage me as much as the books I read or the theatrical performances I attend. They puzzle me, move me, sometimes clarify matters, but more often they confuse me even further, especially over questions of moral thought and action. These I never stop wrestling with. Progress is slow.