Sunday, May 30, 2010

Changing Voices

Most of the time, one is content to read books start to finish over the course of a few days; finish one book, let it settle for a spell, then start something new. Nothing unusual about that. On the other hand, there are weeks when I’m not quite so straight-lined about reading, and graze on two or three books alternately—an afternoon visit with one book, a bedtime read with another. Surprisingly, there are no twinges of impatience in this manner of reading, and the shift from one title to the next comes easily enough, with no confusion of characters or plot. Thought I would give a brief sample of three books under my eye this week, each one exceptional in its way.

The Practical Heart by Allen Gurganus

A quartet of novellas, I’ve only so far gotten through three-quarters of the title story, and because of that my perspective is incomplete and my comments limited. The writing is frequently luminous, but I’ve had that same feeling about other books by this North Carolina writer. The first of the novellas revolves around a Scottish immigrant to Chicago in the late 1800s who dreams of having her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent. Her desire to be seen as worthy of the reigning master gives wing to her solid practicality, and her imagination produces events that may or may not be true. Here is a snippet describing what perhaps the narrator saw in the painter’s gaze…

‘And the slight pressure of her pianist’s hand caused the petals of the lowest peony to drop, with half a humid sigh, around her tense white forefinger and thumb on which all weight now pivoted. The chin was lifted, accidentally displaying the long pale neck that her crippled mother had mercilessly and often described as, “along with Muriel’s hands, her one distinguished feature.”’

The prose of Allan gurganus is very special, very singular. If nothing else, the next time you’re at your bookstore or local library, give a look to his prizewinning 1989 novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

Love From the Depths by Tomihiro Hoshino

Writing about another of Hoshino’s books in this blog a few days ago rekindled my interest in his unusual life story. I first read Love From the Depths in 1994. The writer’s whole life has been about heart and spirit, and he records it in a simple style that scores a direct hit on the reader’s heart. The words in the extract below describe his fear and despair during the early weeks after his crippling injury at the age of 24.

‘I could not hold back the tears. Around my bed, doctors stood watching me. I did not want them to see such a pitiful-looking face; but the tears continued to flow like water from a broken dam. When I could not take it any longer, I tried to wipe my face with my hand. But where was my hand? I could not even turn my head to hide my tears, and a little round lamp over my face illuminated them mercilessly.’

If you want a look at human drama Japanese style, but universal in its pain and celebration, then search this book out.

Going Native by Stephen Wright

I’m not beyond the first twenty-five pages in this film noire road story down a dark and violent highway. The Village Voice quote on my copy’s cover says: “Wright broadcasts an English as electrically intoxicating as a mescaline Slurpee…” Yeah, I’d say so. Sharp, slightly abrasive sentences that quickly snag onto your interest about where the character is heading. Here are the opening lines…

‘Rho is at the kitchen sink, peeling furiously away at a carrot when she draws her first blood of the day, and, of course, it’s nonmetaphoric, and her own. A sudden blossoming of color in the drab plot of one ordinary afternoon. She watches herself spilling out across a trembling forefinger as if in a hurry to be gone, a hollow red staccato in the brushed-steel bucket of her sink. For a time she is simply a wide pair of mesmerized eyes, lost in the facts of the moment and strangely, no longer present to herself. But the spell breaks, the cut is plunged into the aerated stream of her Puraflo faucet, the finger wrapped in a floral blue paper towel. The show’s over.’

This 1994 book is something a friend passed on to me. I stuck it in the bookshelves until the other night. Glad now I pulled it out.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America