you’re old when…

“…maybe I’m getting old.”

“Don’t be cute. You’re not even fifty.”

“What’s that got to do with it? At my age, not long ago, people were already old, or almost. My father died at fifty-seven; my other didn’t live much longer. Now everybody wants to be young; I understand, but it’s a bit stupid. It seems to me the fun in all this is being young when you’re young and being old when you’re old; in other words: you’re young when you don’t have memories and you’re old when behind every memory you find a bad memory. I’ve been finding them for a while now.”

from the novel Outlaws by Javier Cercas

the writer’s duty according to Doyle

…I am emboldened to say a few words as to my own conception of the art of fiction. That conception is that our treatment may be as wide as the heavens and as broad as the earth, if it does but attain the essential end of interest. All methods and schools, romance and realism, symbolism and naturalism, have the one object in view – to interest. They are all good so far as they attain that, and all useless when they cease to do so…You are right to make your book adventurous, you are right to make it theological, you are right to make it informative or controversial or idyllic, or humorous or grave or what you will, but you must make it interesting. That is essential – all the rest is detail.

But there comes the obvious retort. ‘You say “interesting” – interesting to whom?‘ The difficulty is not really a great one. The higher and more permanent work has always been interesting to all. The work which is the cult of a clique, too precious for general use, must be wanting in some quality. We know cases where obscurity of style has retarded the recognition of really great writers – but obscurity of style is not a virtue, and they were great in spite of it….If you were to make a list of the works of fiction which have proved their greatness by their permanence and by the common consensus of mankind, you would find that no narrow formula would cover them…the only point which they have in common is that each of them holds the attention of every reader.

It is just this power of holding the attention which forms the art of story-telling…It is imagination – and it is the power of conveying imagination. But we do not know what imagination is, and so all our definitions and explanations become mere juggling with words.

And still critics are found to write, ‘The book is interesting, but we confess that we are unable to say what useful purpose it serves.’ As if interest were not in itself the essential purpose!…[to help escape life’s troubles through] the window of imagination which leads out into the enchanted country…The life of a writer of fiction has its own troubles, the weary waiting for ideas, the blank reaction when they have been used, worst of all the despair when the thought which had seemed so bright and new goes dull and dark in the telling. But surely he has in return some claim to hope that if he can but interest his readers he fulfils the chief end of man in leaving others a ittle happier than he found them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

from the Author’s Preface in The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard (originally published in 1902 Smith Elder edition of his work)

the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

img_0696

I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

img_0700

secrets will out

(After midnight an old classmate drops in on Inspector De Vincenzi at the police station.)

De Vincenzi looked at him. Why in the world was he here at this hour? And why had he come?

They had been classmates and friends. They were certainly friendly, but not, perhaps, close. Come to think of it, where could one find closeness these days, with men all hurling themselves towards their own destinies, with their own passions, their own needs and all the vices of the human body?

Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.

from The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

tension rising in Death Going Down

Gaby heard the click of the receiver being replaced on the stand, then she moved away silently. Once she was in her bedroom and had got into bed, she took a packet of cigarettes from the drawer in her bedside table. Long hours unfurled ahead of her like an image multiplied in a house of mirrors. She smoked with relish, tricking her wakeful anxiety with the calm appearance of her gestures, her gaze lost in the whitish smoke that slowly dissipated in the darkness of the room.

from Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco
translation by Lucy Greaves

…time has solidified

It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front…so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice.

Khaled Khalifa from Death is Hard Work

Looking back, from A Month In The Country

…at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart–knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever–the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow.

A Month In The Country by J.L. Carr

For All The Gold In The World, a Mediterranean Noir

For the umpteenth time I came to the conclusion that families are complicated and that everything becomes clear only when it’s too late. And then all you’re left with is time to waste on your regrets.

I am very happy to meet Marco Buratti aka”the Alligator”, a self-styled “free man with an outlaw heart”, in the series of novels by Italian author Massimo Carlotto. Writers in many countries have adopted/adapted the style and themes of noir crime fiction to tell stories of their own contemporary urban world. It’s been exciting recently to find several small presses (Pushkin Press, Bitter Lemon, Europa’s World Noir series) offering some really fine Noirs in English translation.

The elements of the genre – a world-weary flawed detective, laconic style, interior monologue – easily fall into cliche or even parody. These novels are utterly dependent on the author’s skill with language. Tone is everything. In the hands of a real craftsman, the Noir combines the pleasures of a complex story with the satisfactions of philosophical reflection.

Here is the Alligator reflecting after the not altogether happy resolution of For All The Gold In The World:
I kept on keeping on while waiting for another case where we’d need to step in to help straighten things out. The solution was almost never as simple as determining truth. We needed to protect our clients’ interests and, as much as possible, put things right, while respecting the rules of free men with outlaw hearts.

The opening quotation about regret is classic noir, taken from the scene below.

I sighed. It had been a little more than twenty-four hours and I was already standing up my new girlfriend.
She was at work and I couldn’t call her. I wrote her a text in which the word “sorry” appeared three separate times.
I turned around and, since I was definitely running early, I left the highway and drove to a multiplex. I had no idea which movie to watch, basing my decision more or less on showtimes. I chose a movie by an Italian director. A famous multiple award-winning director. I’d always been deeply grateful to the auteur school of filmmaking, which had put me in touch with aspects of life I knew nothing about. I often left the theater shaken, sometimes filled with wonder. The movies fed me with stories of the civilian world, as we referred to it, and helped me to understand ordinary people. But I felt no envy. Their world was still one I didn’t like. Unlike Max the Memory, I’d never cherished the dream of changing it. I preferred to live on its outskirts.
That afternoon I was sucked into a story of old age and death, told with great delicacy. I sat there as the end titles scrolled past and was the last to leave. I leaned on my car and smoked a couple of cigarettes, immersed in memories of my early life, the life that ended the day I wound up in prison. For the umpteenth time I came to the conclusion that families are complicated and that everything becomes clear only when it’s too late. and then all you’re left with is time to waste on your regrets.
“You can’t change the past,” I muttered under my breath, pulling open the car door and rushing to slip the CD into the player…The memories slipped from my mind. [the music] had managed to persuade the past to grant me a truce.

a recipe for a good old age

When asked the recipe for a good old age, I often give a list “good genes, good luck, enough money, and one good kid usually a daughter”.

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life
by Louise Aronson, MD

Despite our bravado or fear, most of us will be old and many of us very old. Aronson would have us embrace this stage of life and proposes it be recognized as distinct, but no less valued, from childhood and adulthood. She exposes the inadequacy and outright wrong-headedness of standard medical practice with respect to the biological differences of the older body and the kinds of services that the elderly need to be healthy and to maintain their lives.

Most of us probably want to blur the boundary between middle-age and old, but, however reluctantly, I have to acknowledge that I am crossing it. My husband is in the middle phase of Elderhood and my parents in the late, giving me a pretty good view of life in the last decades. Aronson’s book is very affirming for the dignity and value of each person at every stage of life. She condemns the view of old age as just a series of diminishments and losses. Elders in most times and cultures have been respected for their experience and service; she cites studies which show the greatest levels of happiness and life satisfaction among those in their 70s and 80s.

Aronson gives a withering critique of the medical services industry in the treatment of the elderly patient. I’ve encountered enough of what she describes to be nodding my head as I was reading. The phrase “health care” is beyond ironic when applied to the inappropriate, unhelpful, and violent treatment that so often is what the old experience in the medical system.

I will be recommending this book to everyone. It gives a very positive corrective to the prejudices and fears around aging and much good advice about securing good care until her call to “transform medicine” is realized.

Aronson’s recipe for a good old age is amusing, but has an edge. Whatever the positives in aging are or may be, inevitably our bodies will have problems and need care. Why does the medical establishment have to make things so much harder than they need to be?

The Bookcase Project (TBP) 1 Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

There was no suspense about the inaugural book of this collection review project. I chose The Lord of the Rings, a book special to me for multiple reasons and secure in its continued place in the Bookcase. I’ve read it only twice earlier, I think, possibly three times but it had been quite a few years in any case since the last time.

It’s special, in the first place, because it’s a truly wonderful book and a thrilling read each time. Tolkien’s singular achievement was to infuse his scholarship (languages, medieval literature) into a high fantasy story. He created a Heroic Romance for the modern reader, one that engages our emotions as well as our imaginations. Of course I remembered the humor and the great characters, but I had not remembered the sheer propulsive quality of the story or the pleasures of his descriptive language. When the great horse Shadowfax ran fire flew from his feet and the night flowed over him like a roaring wind.

It was good to recover the text, too, as the films were muddling my memories. I like much of the movie adaptation but there are, in my opinion, serious flaws. Everything with Arwen is made up for the movies and is entirely a mistake (true, the ride with Frodo to the ford is terrific but she doesn’t need to be there). That I dislike, but what I loathe are the Gondor scenes. The whole lip-smacking meal while the fair knights go to their doom sequence is the worst kind of overwrought cliche. Why make up something so lame when there’s plenty of good material available in the book?

My copies of the three books are early printings of the American edition from Houghton Mifflin. I bought them as a retirement gift to myself.img_0621

The pleasures of rereading are different from the first time, of course; we never read the same book again. I really enjoyed returning to Tolkien’s world but it couldn’t ever compare to the overwhelming experience of the first encounter in 1973. The book was becoming a cult favorite on college campuses and among the rather small audience, at the time, for science fiction/fantasy work. I’d heard of it but didn’t know anything about the story and wasn’t particularly interested. Then my fiancé expressed surprise that I hadn’t read it and pressed his copy into my hands. “I’m not sure I could marry someone who didn’t love this book” or similar words accompanied it.

I was pretty sure he wasn’t serious about that, but I couldn’t help but feel a touch of anxiety as I opened the first volume. Happily on all accounts I was immediately gripped by the story and delighted with this marvelous new world. My marriage was saved and I had discovered a genre of fiction that has continued to give me pleasure through the many subsequent years.