August 31, 2015
Image by Albrecht Durer
2015 Daphne Awards
The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark
I’m going to wander on a self-fulfilling limb a little bit, but here goes: we don’t know things the way we used to. ‘Knowledge’ is permanently at our fingertips, big data is waiting to be churned by our processors, and everyone’s an expert in everything, all meaning that we collectively, individually, know jack. At least, when it comes to what writers write about, and non-fiction especially, everything feels surface-level or constructed on shaky spurious correlations. But I don’t read non-fiction all that much (see what I mean about self-fulfilling?), so maybe I shouldn’t extrapolate.
In any case, what I’m trying to get at is that The Oysters of Locmariaquer is splendid for many reasons, but prominent among them is the degree of knowledge conveyed. Eleanor Clark knew her oysters inside and out. In exploring the curious regional economy of Morbihan, a French province in southern Brittany, Clark does nothing so much as convey her knowledge and passion for the subject. She explains the difference between les plates and Portuguese oysters (from France). She describes the biological history of the oyster, as well as the cultural history. Also the cultivating history of oysters. She reports on the glorious day in June when the oystermen and women put the tiles out in the bay and near the river mouths to catch young oyster seeds and give them a safe home. About the only thing Clark doesn’t tell us about oysters is what the best wine is to drink while eating them. I might have just missed it.
What makes The Oysters of Locmariaquer special, though, is that it’s not just a book about oysters. At the risk of drifting into exhaustive hyperbole, here’s some of what the book is about: globalization and modernization; economic stratification in a small French region; science and governance both good and bad; climate change; the priest’s innocent flirtation with the shopgirl; despair and suicide; domestic violence; the legends and stories of Brittany (one of the more magical places in Europe) and France (hi, Heloise and Abelard!); the ravages of relying on nature and the weather for a livelihood; the stultifying effect of mass tourism; and the difference between the U.S. and Europe. At the risk of drifting into concise hyperbole, here’s what the book is about: everything.
The reason it all works is because of Clark, obviously. She writes with careful observations and playful authority in her voice, an old-fashioned style that conveys knowledge so well and that we’re too cynical to consider any more (I thought of the recent discussion James Fallows hosted about the ‘mid-atlantic’ accent as a parallel). She writes almost strictly using commas where we would use semi-colons, dashes, or parentheses, showing that you can string together related thoughts without pulling out the heavy grammatical artillery. And she gets to know a variety of characters in this oyster farming community, presents their insights with the ‘new journalism’ style of getting into the subjects’ heads. She reminds us that oysters are great, but we’re all humans too.
I read and learned from and thoroughly enjoyed The Oysters of Locmariaquer. Many times I wondered, ‘how could she know that’ or ‘how is that connected to oysters’, and yet, she would pull it off each time. It’s a wonderful book, full of knowledge and enlightening to human readers who are interested in anything, or everything. That much, I know.
- Daniel Shvartsman
August 27, 2015
Here are some events that I’ll be doing once The Dead Ladies Project is out:
September 29, New York City
In conversation with Laura Kipnis
at Melville House
46 John Street, Brooklyn
October 1, Chicago
good old fashioned house party
1926 W Erie
October 5, London
70 Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge
6:30 p.m. (or you goddamn Europeans, 18.30)
October 12, Paris
reading, champagne, and launch party
at Berkeley Books
8 Rue Casimir Delavigne
7:30 p.m. / 19.30
October 15, Leipzig
cabaret! with opera singer Jennifer Porto! details to come
August 17, 2015
Image by Lois Mailou Jones
2015 Daphne Awards
The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
Fifty years ago Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its pages convey a vivid portrait of the Howland family’s prosperous, 150 year history in the Alabama back country. The central character of the novel is the family’s modern day patriarch, William Howland, but it is William’s black housekeeper, Margaret, with her quiet dignity and inscrutability that captivates the reader. William finds eighteen year old Margaret living destitute in the county’s swampy woodlands and persuades her to follow him home. She becomes his housekeeper and after a short time, his mistress and the mother of his children. Although her and William’s relationship is one of mutual respect and intimacy, Margaret never asserts herself as more than the Howlands’ hired help. Theirs is a discreet partnering, the nature of which they neither offer nor are called to account for due to William’s stature in the community: "And he was a Howland, the real Howland, best blood in the county, best land, and most of the money."
Grau’s descriptions of the slow rhythms and steadfast ways of the Howlands’ ancestral home and nearby small town of Madison City create a palpable sense of place and time.
All in all the Howlands thrived. They farmed and hunted; they made whiskey and rum and took it to market down the Providence River to Mobile. Pretty soon they bought a couple of slaves, and then a couple more. By the middle of the century they had twenty-five, so it wasn’t a big plantation; it wasn’t ever anything more than a prosperous farm, run pretty much along the lines of the Carolina farms the first William Howland had seen. There was cotton, blooming its pinkish flower and lifting its heavy white boll under the summer sun; there was corn, soft-tasseled and then rusty as the winter cattle grazed over it; there was sorghum to give its thin sweet taste to the watery syrup; there were hogs whose blood steamed on the frozen ground in November; there were little patches of tobacco, moved each two years to fresh clean virgin ground.
So central is setting to the novel’s direction and its characters’ motivations that comparisons to William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County are unavoidable. And in this place and time, no amount of family discretion can hide the fact that the children of William and Margaret are conspicuous reminders of the fear and prejudice that divide black and white.
I looked at this child that my grandfather and Margaret had produced. You could see both of them there. The heavy boned figure was my grandfather, all Howlands had those heavy stooped shoulders, and the same shaped head. And the blue eyes were my grandfather’s too. Robert looked like my grandfather, feature by feature, but there was a mist of Margaret spread over everything. There was nothing of hers you could put your finger on and say: that came from Margaret. She was everywhere, in his face, in his movements, intangible but all-present, as much as her blood running in his veins.The Keepers of the House does not provide the stylistic innovations or emotional urgency of some of its Daphne competitors like Lispector and Leduc, but Grau eloquently makes use of her bigger than life characters and setting to tell the Howlands’ tale as it would have been passed down to each generation.
Everyone tells stories around here. Every place, every person has a ring of stories around them, like a halo almost. People have told me tales ever since I was a tiny girl squatting in the front door yard, in mud-caked overalls, digging for doodle bugs. They have talked to me, and talked to me. Some I’ve forgotten but most I remember. And so my memory goes back before my birth.
Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFeathers