26 April 2020

Scheherazade in Palestine.

Colum McCann Spins Another Gorgeous Novel.

The great Colum McCann
“Apeirogon” which means a shape of infinite sides, is based on the true story of a Palestinian and Israeli who forged an unusual friendship in the hopes of peace in the region. Both men lost their daughters to terrorism. Fodder enough for good fiction in a place where division and hostility prevail.

What makes the novel mesmerizing is the telling. McCann has written 1001 snippets – some a couple of pages, others only one line – and includes fascinating factoids as far afield as how birds and bats were once used as weapons [birds are a constant metaphor, reflecting, I suspect, on flight as freedom, and the cover is adorned with doves]. Also how certain words, like mayday, came to be, how Israeli irrigation tunnels were dug by the same Sandhogs [immigrants and freed slaves] who dug NYC subway tunnels, how Einstein and Freud commiserated over the rise of fascism or Francoise Mitterand’s favorite meal.

Fascinations embedded into the tapestry of two family tragedies and a shared determination to advocate for unity.

It’s a WOW work of fiction. To my mind, Pulitzer prize-worthy, but not for everyone. This novel requires a commitment to reading all 1001 passages, as each thread and every image has meaning. 

A homespun set of photographs complement the telling. 

The story sounds more sobering than it is, although surely painful in parts. Also heart-wrenching and mind-bending. McCann is a writer of unusual excellence. [If you haven’t read his National Book Award winning “Let the Great World Spin” I recommend highly, and its protagonist, the high wire walker Phillipe Petit, makes an appearance here as well.]

The first 500 sections lead up to an intermezzo in which the protagonists, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, speak directly. From there, 500 additional short passages dwindle down. Plus one. And every one, even though occasionally repetitive, plays an important role in telling the tale.

This is a rare glimpse into the lives lived in this region – an ancient spiritual people devastated by politics and greed. Also an inspiring view of two men who might have retaliated or allowed anger to define them, who chose peace instead.

And oh, the storytelling, the prose and the fascinating information. Consider these, but a few of the many examples.

They seemed the most unlikely of friends, even beyond the obvious, one being Israeli, the other Palestinian. They had met first in the Everest Hotel. On a Thursday. It was that time of the evening when Beit Jala willed itself to cool down: the land breathed, the sun dipped, the birds rose, the hills took on a sudden burst of dark green.

Riot, from the Old French, rioter: to dispute, to quarrel, to engage in argument. Riote: noise, debate, disorder, rash action. Also, perhaps, from the Latin reguire, meaning to roar.

On the day of judgment, in Muslim tradition, it is said that a fine wire rope will be stung from the top of the Haram al-Sharif wall on the west to the summit of the Mount of Olives in the east where Christ and Muhammad will both sit in judgment. The righteous will be preserved by angels and they will cross quickly, but the wicked will fall headlong into the valley.

The reason a falcon is hooded is exactly the reason a falconer is not: the birds can see so well that they would most likely be distracted by other prey much further away. The falconer hoods the bird and waits. He wants the falcon to only see what he sees.

In Jewish tradition it is forbidden to throw away writings invoking the name of God. Prayer books. Scrolls. Encyclopedias. Garments. Tefillin straps. Even pamphlets or cartoon books. Instead of being destroyed, the texts are interred in a genizah, a burial place for the written word.

Released last month in hardcover and for e-readers. These days, local book stores will deliver online orders and they need our support. Libraries, mostly closed, offer e-reading downloads.  

A masterful and profound work of fiction in which to immerse yourself while social distancing. Stay safe and stay well. 

01 April 2020

Go somewhere without leaving home.

Anthologies are a great way to go
So, we’re stuck at home. Better safe than sorry. Some are home schooling, bravo to all of you. Some are working from home, good job. Others are out providing essential services, thank you.

We've got streaming stations, too many TV stations and On-Demand. I suspect, we’re adding items to our Watch Lists as fast as the virus is spreading. We need things to look forward to.

And, of course, you are listening to the news. More sobering by the day. How long will this last? There is only one answer: too long.

Unless you are a genuine recluse, it’s a hard time. Even a loner enjoys occasional socialization. I can write all day, but I prefer writing at a cafĂ©. I miss lunch with friends and dinner out with the boyfriend. Small sacrifices, yes, but we all feel the pinch. Many of us are taking walks or bike rides, maintaining social distance, please. Nevertheless, the days are long, and the stress level is high.

Whatever your circumstance, we are living in strange times. Even your elders, like me, have never experienced anything quite like this. Not in this country. Uncertainty is the tie that binds right now, across the globe.

Reading [and music] are the great equalizers, beyond social media or blogs or Internet news. They have their place, of course, but they tend to fuel the fires of anxiety. If we are to stay sane, and support our immune systems, which suffer under stress, read fiction. Whatever your favorite genre, read. Get out of your head. Away from what ails us. 
Some of my very favorite collections

Although we have too much time on our hands, our attention spans are justifiably under assault, so I recommend short stories. There are a zillion of them in print and online and in a matter of minutes, maybe a half an hour, you might ground yourself in what truly matters.

From the Bible to fairy tales to Sherlock Holmes, stories fortify connections more than divides. You may prefer the traditionalists – Hawthorne and Hemingway, Fitzgerald or O’Connor. Or the early modern masters, like Grace Paley and Ann Beattie. 

Thanks to The New Yorker [one of the only commercial magazines still publishing short stories] you can peruse the archives and read stories by greats like E. L. Doctorow and Alice Munro, or grand Irish storytellers, like William Trevor and Edna O’Brien. More recently, you’ll find the phenomenal Lauren Groff and Paul Yoon.

Some of my favorites, Mary Gordon and Tessa Hadley, layer stories like cake. Award-winning novels have been strung together like pearls with short stories by Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan and Bernadine Evaristo, just as James Joyce did in his day.

Reading a short story first thing in the morning softens the edges of harsh news. At bedtime, the most poignant tale makes for sweeter dreams than our current reality.

There are many stories published online in literary e-zines and also many short story podcasts. I prefer The New Yorker Fiction or The Writer’s Voice – listening is like sitting by the fireside. Audible and Kindle offer some stories for free. Soothes the soul. Oh how we need that now.

BTW, although the OC Library system, like others across the country, is shuttered, there are several digital systems available and most local bookstores are taking online orders. They need our support. 

A gold mine of short reading awaits. Stay safe, stay well.