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.


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.”


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.

Two poems by Li Bai

From historical sources, myths and stories, and the poetry of Li Bai and his contemporaries, Ha Jin conjures a vivid personality in a richly detailed world a millennium past.  The Banished Immortal, A Life of Li Bai draws us into the life of an extraordinary artist in the turbulent middle years of the Tang Dynasty.  Li Bai never achieved the official recognition that he sought but his poetry was widely admired and loved.  The nickname “the banished immortal” suggests it is so excellent that he must be a heavenly personage, banished to earth for some misdeed.

This short poem was chosen for the UN stamp set commemorating World Poetry Day.

Reflection In A Quiet Night

Moonlight spreads before my bed.

I wonder if it’s hoarfrost on the ground.

I raise my head to watch the moon

and lowering it, I think of home.

Another poem written for his uncle, a conscientious low-ranking official discouraged by court corruption.

Song For Accompanying Uncle Hua on Xie Tiao’s Tower

Yesterday, having left me, couldn’t be pressed to stay.  

Today, still disturbing me, makes me more upset.

The long wind is sending the autumn geese far away,

And viewing them from this high tower, we should drink more.

Your essays are fresh and strong like those of the Han dynasty

While my poetry resembles Xie Tiao’s in vigor and beauty.

We both have lofty spirit, thinking of soaring

To the sky to grab hold of the clear moon.

I draw my sword to cut water, which won’t stop flowing,

And I raise my cup to douse my sorrow, which grows stronger.

Ah, life is such a sad thing that tomorrow

I will undo my hair and sail away in a little boat.



Is That A Fish In Your Ear?

David Bellos subtitled his book “Translation and the Meaning of Everything” and meant it.  It’s a brisk, occasionally head-spinning, always interesting survey of the nature of Language as the tool of human expression and communication and of the inherent challenges of understanding each other across the boundaries of particular languages.

I can’t say for certain that it was the first work in translation that I read, but I distinctly remember one Saturday morning pausing in my assigned chores to pull The Three Musketeers from the family bookcase – just to see what it was like –  and losing myself for hours in the thrilling world of Dumas.  I did have to finish the dusting, but the world had suddenly become larger, more glamorous and variable than I had known.

As I’ve continued to read the literature and watch movies/tv from as many countries as I can, the work of translation has become interesting in itself.  An early awakening to the difficulties of that work came with my discovery of Hong Kong movies, whose subtitles in the early years were rendered into astonishingly poor English.  My book group years ago read Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo and found ourselves more than usually divided in opinion.  In discussion we realized that members had read two different translations.  We definitely preferred one over the other but had to wonder if one was “truer” to the source or if you can even evaluate that.  I recently read a delightful book One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato in which he compiles more than a hundred translations of the poem Old Pond by the haiku poet Basho.  It reminded me that language always carries multiple meanings.  The translator tries to carry as much of that multiplicity into the new language as possible.

There are more than five thousand languages in use today, certainly more “major” ones than anyone can master.  Even linguists depend on translation.  So what is it? how is it done? what makes a “good” translation?  And more questions, what is language? how does one differ from another? what kinds of meanings are carried in structure? even, what is wordness?  Bellos explores these and many more with a wealth of historical anecdotes and contemporary statistics.

A particularly interesting chapter discusses the different structural qualities of languages and their implications for thinking and expression.  These create what the linguist Edward Sapir called mind grooves or habitual patterns of thought.  But this doesn’t mean that the meaning of one language cannot be expressed in another or that a language is “primitive” if structured differently from ones own.

Different languages, because they are structured in different ways, make their speakers pay attention to different aspects of the world.

The mind grooves laid down by the forms of a language are not prison walls but the hills and valleys of a mental landscape where some paths are easier to follow than others. 

To expand our minds and to become more fully civilized members of the human race, we should learn as many different languages as we can.  The diversity of tongues is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.


How Fiction Works by James Wood

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring:  it all begins again with him.”

This is a wonderful sentence and wonderfully reassuring to an attentive, eager, self-educated reader of novels, i.e. myself, seeking to enrich her appreciation of fiction.  Wood proves himself an excellent guide, knowledgeable and witty, widely read and articulate in analysis.  He asks a critic’s questions – is realism real, how does point of view work, why do we love to read? – and offers answers from his work as a writer and a lifetime of reading.

Flaubertian realism, like most fiction, is both lifelike and artificial.  It is lifelike because detail really does hit us…in a tattoo of randomness….The artifice lies in the selection of detail.  In life, we can swivel our heads and eyes, but in fact we are like helpless cameras.  We have a wide lens, and must take in whatever comes before us.  Our memory selects for us, but not much like the way literary narrative selects.  Our memories are aesthetically untalented.

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call “lifeness”: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.

What James calls “the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.” … And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.


The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth

(c1939)  1998 St. Martin’s Press

How surprising that a novel by Roth should only find English translation (by Michael Hofmann) and publication nearly fifty years after it was written.  It’s an unusual book, not so much a story as a series of vivid scenes of Vienna life in the last years of change and decay before the Great War, scenes strung together like the pearls of the fabulous necklace gift of the Shah.

Roth conjures the physical Vienna with great specificity, walking us around the city with the details that prompt that “I know that place, I’ve been there” feeling in any visitor.  But we know only too well that the social world is decayed and dying.  We meet characters across the social spectrum but there will be no happy ending for any of them.  Roth is an incomparable stylist whose work gives the reader an exquisitely melancholy pleasure.

“…she sometimes surrendered to her dangerous dreams, knowing full well how foolish they were, and how bleak and bitter it was to wake from them.  Ridiculous dreams, fleetingly kind and beatific, for all the misery of waking from them.”

The last word from the waxworks sculptor: “I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion, and decency.  But there’s no call for that at all in the world.  People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters.  Monsters are what they want.”

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

1984 Scribner

I have a strict rule that I will always buy something when I visit an independent bookstore.  It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in a small shop like the combination coffee and book shop I visited in Bend Oregon last summer.  So I was pleased to find this reissue edition of a novel I’d enjoyed quite a few years ago.  I was even happier to find the story still fresh and engrossing, a really excellent novel.

It’s the original surfer noir novel,  well-plotted, strong characters, wonderful descriptive language eg when our young hero comes home after a shocking party night. “The sun was climbing fast by the time he reached the Sea View, heating up the streets, and the machinery of the town was heating up as well, moving into high gear now, the boomer gear, greased with hash oil and cocoa butter, hot-wired with cocaine, chugging to some New Wave anthem, and his heart was beating time, hammering erratically as he reached his room and stepped inside.”

or in a better moment in the surf – “On the horizon, the sun had begun to melt, had gone red above a purple sea.  The tide was low and the waves turned crisp black faces toward the shore while trails of mist rose from their feathering lips in fine golden arcs.  The arcs rose into the sky, spreading and then falling back into the sea, scattering their light across the surface like shards of flame.”