Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Headmaster

Am in the middle of John McPhee's The Headmaster right now and feel compelled to include a snippet. While Frank Boyden was headmaster at Deerfield he apparently wrote thirty-five or so letters a day to everyone from alums to the oil man. Here is one such note, written April 30, 1930:

My dear Mr. Stephenson:

Your letter of April 22nd was received. Please renew the Full Coverage Insurance on my raccoon overcoat for one whole year.

Friday, July 22, 2011

State of Wonder

Just finished Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, a title which describes exactly how I felt after reading it. Brilliant. That is the word that comes to mind when I think about how carefully she constructed her narrative, down to the very last sentence. Honestly - and I mean this as the highest compliment - it reminded me of the kind of critical writing we were all trying to do in graduate school. Weave strands of an argument together so convincingly that your readers have no choice but to believe you. Lead them to the edge of a cliff, and when they think they've arrived, ask them to look over the edge. That is how Patchett concludes this novel. While she convincingly winds down the narrative, our view of what has happened, what might happen next, ingeniously continues to expand.

Rather than describe the plot, I will just say that what I loved about this book was the lack of clear cut answers, beginning with page one. Characters in this novel are continually faced with challenging situations that cannot be easily righted. Indeed, it is difficult to discern right action from wrong when none of the choices seems clear or appealing. I like the title, State of Wonder, because it describes how the main character, Marina, moves between difficult contexts. She is baffled and stunned regularly (anyone in her situation would be), and yet she must act despite her state of wonder at what is happening around her.

Patchett sets this novel in the Amazon, and if you read this, you go there. You're on the pontoon boat wondering what is down there in the water beneath you; you're greeted by a tribe brandishing flames, another with poisoned arrows; and yes, you're wrestling with an eighteen-foot anaconda. Have fun. The writing is that vivid, that compelling.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Dirty Life

This has been a theme of my summer and also some of the other books I've been reading lately.

After day 1 of my AT hike, I reveled in my grime-covered self. "I LIKE being dirty!" I exclaimed. The feeling of being covered in dirt and sweat with nothing to be done about it was wildly freeing to me. My hiking partner was not nearly so enthusiastic. While he took pains to clean up after each day's hike, I generally pretended that I lived in the Dustbowl and could be featured in a Dorothea Lange photo at any moment. I thought a lot about what life must have been like for women back then, cooking over a hot stove with few resources. Dirt would be the least of concerns, I imagined. In no way did I want to experience or glamorize poverty. I wanted to experience hard work and the essentials that rise to the surface when life is stripped bare.

Post-hike, I dug into Kristin Kimball's book The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Food, Farming, and Love. I am such a sucker for these memoirs about farming: See You in One Hundred Years, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and now The Dirty Life. It is generally easy for me to romanticize the difficult work of running a farm and growing one's own food. The idea makes so much sense to me, but there is a reason that few people actually take it on. Kimball's story is particularly appealing because she leaves behind a life I'm familiar with: the sometimes-glamorous sometimes-miserable existence of New Yorkers. Turns out Kimball lived on the same street in the East Village as one of my old friends, right across from the Hell's Angels headquarters. She cobbled together a living from writing and did the same things we used to do when there: ordered takeout; generally relegated the space in her fridge for ice, alcohol, and those bulky phone books; and hopped from one end of town to the other in search of...we were never quite sure. All this changes when she meets and falls in love with Mark, a man whose existence is about farming. And he convinces her to give everything up to make it her purpose, too.

Kimball doesn't sugarcoat anything in this memoir, and as I read about their life, it became clear that their gargantuan plan to run a farm that would feed their community could end in disaster, divorce. Maybe even death. But I ate up the passages about her own transformation because they touched on a truth that seems fundamental and also elusive in a digitized, virtual age:

"I had never in my life been so dirty. The work was always dirty, beyond what I'd previously defined as dirty, and it took too much energy to keep oneself out of it. I had daily intimacy not just with dirt dirt but with blood, manure, milk, pus, my own sweat and the sweat of other creatures, with the grease of engines and the grease of animals, with innards, with all the stages of decomposition. Slowly, the boundary of what I found disgusting pushed outward. The thought of bathing was unappealing at the end of the chilly spring day, with the unheated bathroom so far from the woodstove and morning milking so near. Some nights I would only peel off my outer layer of clothes before leaping under the thick comforter, leaving pieces at the foot of the bed for easy access in the morning dark. My wardrobe from the city had sifted down to one small drawer of unruined things, reserved for off-farm use, which meant they never got worn. The rest had been added, piece by piece, to the general-use bin. I discovered the insulating properties of silk, which gave my collection of lingerie new purpose. Some days I farmed in a black cashmere V-neck that I used to call my first-date sweater. In its youth I'd pampered it with dry cleaning and padded hangers. Now it was flecked with hay, two holes worn in the elbows.

I let my hair grow out, not by conscious choice but because making and keeping an appointment to cut it never reached the top of the priority list. I forgot to pluck my eyebrows. I hardly ever looked in the mirror, and when I did I saw that all the outdoor work was etching new lines around my eyes, weathering my complexion, bringing out the red tones, the freckles. I began to feel the weight of my skin on my brow, my cheeks folding down at the sides of my mouth. My new life was marking me. It was happening so quickly. There were intermittent spells of resistance, during which I'd pluck and moisturize and exfoliate, and then there was a period of grieving for my old self, who seemed to be disappearing toward the horizon, and then I relaxed into it" (129).

I liked this passage because it reminded me of what it was like living outdoors for a week. Beauty and hard work become connected and take on whole new meanings.