July 2010

Barbara J. King

features

The Four Pleasures of a Summer of Books

Because July’s freedom from university life untethers me from reading responsibility, I drift from genre to genre just as summer seaweed pulses in the sea’s current. Made-up and surely overlapping, the following categories are my four pleasures:

1. Novels that enwrap the senses and shut out all distractions.     

Frances Itani's Deafening is a story about love and language set in Victorian Canada. Grania is a little girl recently deafened by scarlet fever. Her family is loving, but still she struggles to emerge from her interior world and enter a hearing one.  

Grania’s grandmother Mamo and family dog Carlow are her two lifelines. At home, Mamo teaches Grania, pulling her into a linguistic orbit; for his part, Carlow cares nothing for whether she can hear or not, speak intelligibly or not. One day, Grania's voice "makes swooping sounds as she begins to sing. Up and down and out of her head, the words swoop like the flights of swallows.... Carlow listens, and understands. And Mamo, standing behind the laundry window inside, also listens and understands."      

Grania is sent away to a boarding school for the deaf. As she learns to communicate by sign, hands fly. She floats between hearing and deaf worlds. Later, when she falls in love with a hearing man named Jim, the two create their own hybrid universe: 

She wanted to talk. The room was dark unless there was a moon, but she did not need the moon. She closed her eyes and raised the fingers of her left hand to his lips. Though at first he was astonished, he understood and began to speak. His careful words fell into her fingertips and she whispered back and they conversed like this, side by side.

As World War I breaks out, Jim leaves for England and then the battlefields of France. From this point on, Grania’s story is both heartbreaking and heart-affirming.  

These cardiac adjectives apply too to Diane Hammond’s Seeing Stars. In this novel, aspiring child actors in Hollywood -- and their parents -- form a network stretched tight with hope and dreams. Bethany and her mom Ruth seek Bethany’s fame. Ruth worries that she pushes her own yearnings onto her daughter:  

The Ghosts of Stage Moms Past dogged her constantly. It was impossible to tune out the background whine of the devil’s question: Who was driving whom, the mother or the child? Ruth had heard of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a grotesque mental illness in which mothers made their children sick so that they, the mothers, got attention. Could there be such a thing as an actress by proxy?

Bethany’s Dad, exiled back in home’s stale routine, feels left out. He questions the whole dreamy enterprise, and Ruth’s rule in it. “He missed his wife,” Hammond writes. “This woman was no one he knew, and certainly no one he would have married if he’d met her today for the first time.”   

The other Hollywood kids, Bethany’s rivals with their grubby agents and cruel auditions and too much sadness to shake off, become real in Hammond’s hands. I cared about them, just as I cared about Itani’s Grania and Mamo.  

2. Works from well-adored mystery writers.  

To be transported to a newly invented world is to discover a fresh ecology of human relationships, and it’s one big reason we read. But it’s an intense pleasure too to fall into the pillow of a known and loved world. In a mystery writer’s ongoing series, the crimes are ever-changing but the main characters are welcome familiars.  

Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death reunites the lovely and lordly Inspector Lynley with the slovenly but big-hearted assistant cop Barbara Havers. Connected by their differences, these two keep each other’s back. This time, they scour London and the English countryside in search of a young woman’s killer. When Maureen Corrigan, high-ranking female in the mystery-critic hierarchy, panned the book, I stiffened just as if someone had dismissed the work of a favorite aunt. “Pretentious, preposterous, and overlong”? I see none of that, but I read with loyal eyes.  

A dose of tough love is called for now and again. Laurie King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes mystery, The God of the Hive, kept me reading at a fast clip but with the small mosquito-like bite of discontent in my brain. As she always has, King makes Russell a match in courage and cunning for the much older Holmes. But now, unlike in early books in the series, toughness is made to preclude tenderness. As I complained at Amazon.com:

Of course it's fabulous that as a married couple Mary and Sherlock don't emote all over the place about their feelings, or lock lips, etc., in some weird anachronistic modern display. But the book's tension builds as Mary and Sherlock wish to reunite in London, and when they do? They could be two work acquaintances, for all the real feeling displayed. What I was looking for was the nuanced gesture, the pressed hand, the exchanged look, the few words of implied affection, anything between the two principals....  

That’s part of loyalty, too, though -- speaking up when something is amiss. 

3. The heavy stuff. 

Anthropologist-physician Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood is a masterwork of scholarship. Even at over 900 pages, it should entice anyone keen for knowledge about human infancy, childhood, and adolescence and the evolution of these life stages.  

This one, I’m not reading straight through, but dipping into here and there. Divided into four sections -- evolution, maturation, socialization, and enculturation -- it’s threaded throughout with Konner’s commitment (unsurprising in someone who has studied hunter-gatherers) to a global perspective: “Of all the research touched upon here,” he writes, “none is more urgent or neglected than the cross-cultural. Modernization on the positive side and conflict and oppression on the negative side are rapidly altering unique and irretrievable opportunities for study.” 

Konner marries biology and psychology, adds a firm grasp of our primate past, and guides our understanding of children’s lives in various social contexts. In a section on language learning, Konner corrects an entrenched EuroAmerican tendency to assume that kids learn to talk only after joint attention with caregivers to objects. !Kung infants in Africa, he reminds us, grow up without such scaffolding, yet speak as elegantly as anyone else.  

Oddly enough, Konner chooses to label his perspective as “developmental sociobiology,” though he surely grasps that the S-word induces many an anthropological shiver. And at times, he tips too close for comfort to that very S: “Constraints on plasticity are greater than they were assumed to be in late-twentieth-century psychology and social science,” he declares. Yet the creativity of our species matters greatly to Konner. “Of course,” he notes, “human adults do not merely select among naturally occurring child behaviors, favoring some over others; we lead our young to generate new behaviors that would never occur unless imitated or even taught.”  

4. All things animal.  

In the wake of his death, I have revisited some of my favorite Jose Saramago novels, with an eye to his use of animals. 

In The Stone Raft, the dog is a constant (and completely silent) companion; he’s the first to notice the crack in the natural stone between France and Spain, a crack that leads to the novel’s astonishing central event -- a populated land goes adrift in the sea. The small band of human travelers on this “raft,” the people who motivate the narrative, both look to the dog for various practical and emotional needs, and end up calling him by the name “Constant.”  

The silence of Constant is notable: “Anyone who knows anything about words knows to expect anything from them,” Saramago writes. “Dogs, as everyone knows, do not speak, and this one cannot even give a loud bark as a sign of jovial approval.” It’s through his silence that the dog becomes one with the travelers, and indeed, completes them. Thus an animal is rendered silent yet also capable of thought and feeling -- and is recognized as such by some humans.  

In Blindness, a constant dog appears also, a dog cleaved to the side of another small group of seekers and (at one point) travelers. The woman in the story who does not, unlike everyone around her, go blind, bonds closely with the dog: “She cried because all her mental resistance had suddenly drained away, she was like a new-born baby and this cry was her first and still-unconscious sound. The dog of tears went up to her, it always knows when it is needed, that’s why the doctor’s wife clung to him, it is not that she no longer loved her husband, it is not that she did not wish them all well, but at that moment her feeling of loneliness was so intense, so unbearable, that it seemed to her that it could be overcome only by the strange thirst with which the dog drank her tears.”       

The dog of tears: a small part of my pleasurable quartet this summer, rendered in Saramago’s incomparably perfect phrases.  

Barbara J. King wrote about the mysteries (to her) of the publishing world at The Chronicle of Higher Education.