You get to thinking how books come to you. You wonder what makes you pick up this volume, put that one down. As the year draws to its close you review the books you’ve read in your mind or let your eye scroll down the pages of your reading journal, looking at the various titles. How did you come to read this particular book? Where do the books I read come from? How do they get from the library shelf into my hand, or the online bookstore into my device, or from the bottom of my TBR pile to the top? Other than “as the spirit moves me,” I have no answers that will satisfy most readers. Do you have a reading plan? I never have.
For me, taking the reading plunge is exactly that. How I come to books – or they come to me, for all I know – is exactly like the deciphered text of the long lost sutra written by the Buddha himself in Dai Sijie’s latest novel, Once On a Moonless Night.
Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling in the dark when he comes across a long path that merges into the mountains and the mountain into the sky, but halfway along, at a turn in the path, he stumbles. As he falls, he clutches at a tuft of grass, which briefly displays a fatal outcome, but soon his hands can hold him no longer and, like a condemned man in his final hour, he casts one last glance below, where he can see only the darkness of those unfathomable depths.
“Let go,” rings a voice in his ears, “The ground is there, beneath your feet.” The traveler, trustingly, does so and lands safe and sound on a path running just a short drop below him.
That’s why I was delighted to discover this story about the Biblio-Mat, a book vending machine at The Monkey’s Paw bookstore in Toronto. You pays your money and you takes your chance. Las Vegas meets library. Insert $2, pull the magic lever, wait in anticipatory suspense for the gears to grind and your book to be spit into your hands from the bowel of the wondrous one-armed bandit. “Every book a surprise,” it says on the refrigerator-sized dispenser of reading delights. I need this machine!
The lure of the Biblio-Mat is that “People have a deep need to think the thing is actually being picked for them,” says the owner. On this point and in my case alone, I disagree. I don’t feel such a need to know. I’m more like the trusting traveler and believe that whatever the book, I will enjoy reading it. That is how great the power of the word is over me. Almost without exception, once I drop into the pages of a novel, I am seduced by imagination.
I’m two-thirds of the way through a slow, chewy reading of Once on a Moonless Night. How it arrived into my hands I’m not sure, but I believe it’s on the simple recommendation that seeing the author’s name on the spine of anything is enough for me to let go the tuft of grass. This novel is a reader’s novel, requiring attention, an inquiring mind, and a gift for making associations. It’s not inaccessible but it requires one to do more than just pull a lever. Best described as a matryoshka doll of a book, stories nest within stories, myths open and reveal myths, emperor’s lives parallel earlier emperor’s lives, son’s lives mirror their father’s, fates unfold that have unfolded time and time again. Running through it all is language, the powerful mysterious essence of culture, civilization, history, and inheritable knowledge. Everything we are is what we record: events, legends, memories, lists, ruminations, and dreams.
Yet, the secret isn’t the words themselves or the recording of them. It’s the discovery of them and their mutation over telling and retelling that makes them immortal. Even when a language dies, it hardly ever dies without pieces of it surviving in an idea here, a philosophical point of view there, a lesson elsewhere.
Dai Sijie asks us to put our trust in taking the plunge, even when it means letting go of an old language or our own culture, even when it puts us on a new path, we must go forward. Everyone’s life is a fairy tale that begins “once upon a time there was I. . .” Every novel essentially does, too.
I don’t question why I am alive and I don’t question how a book arrives in my lap, I am just grateful. But I do wonder sometimes. If two dollars could decide my fate, tell me what comes next, would I put it into the machine and let it decide for me? Would you?
Culling my Reading Journal, I offer my two dollars worth of contemporary fiction reads so far this year that include these jewels:
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng: Told through flashback after a mysterious woman arrives at his door on Penang Island, the story of teen-aged Philip, half-Chinese, half-English youngest son of an important Malaysian trading dynasty is befriended by Endo-san, a Japanese diplomat and martial arts sensei in 1938. At first, the relationship seems harmless as the boy and man develop a strong bond through teacher-pupil norms and through Philip’s desire to learn about Japanese culture. But hints drop that Endo has a black past and once Philip meets his estranged Chinese grandfather, the balance of power shifts. What terrible thing will Philip do during the war?
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick: Charlie Beale arrives in his pick-up, two suitcases to his name and a set of butcher knives, and nothing else, to the small Virginia town of Brownsburg that nestles in the foothills of Appalachia. Filled with a longing he can’t identify, he puts down roots, camping by the Maury River, bathing in its waters, and sleeping under the stars. Brownsburg is filled with good people, including Will, the butcher, his wife, Alma, the Latin teacher at the one school, and their young son, Sam, who loves baseball and comes to worship Charlie after he sees him play at the annual Methodist oyster festival. But even an idyllic Eden has its snake.
When the Night by Cristina Comencini: Marina is a new mother who is afraid and incapable. Knowing she makes her husband afraid because of her anxiety, she takes her toddler son, Marco, on a one-month vacation in the mountains, renting the apartment above Manfred, a mountain guide. Manfred has women issues since his mother abandoned him and his two brothers – or so he believes. His wife has left him after he struck her, taking their children. He thinks he can do just fine on his own. When Marina arrives, she upsets his life and inserts herself into his family’s broken circle. More enemies than lovers, the two of them mentally fight each other, yet must acknowledge their common desire when Manfred, seriously injured in a fall into a crevasse, is kissed by Marina.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: Cerebral and self-absorbed Frank Bascombe struggles to fight back against his grief and loneliness following his son’s childhood death and, as a result, his divorce, and his disintegrating life. An internal story of Frank’s struggle against what he calls dreaminess but is really a detachment and disengagement from the world that is symptomatic of his crippling depression. Told over the Easter week, beginning on the anniversary day of his son’s death, it is a story of one man’s Christ-like agony, entombment, and resurrection.
Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon: “Stand by Me” meets “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Wonderful coming of age story set in the early 60s that mixes memoir with magical realism and stirs in the fantasy imagination of an 11-year old. Cory Jay Mackenson lives in Zephyr, Alabama, has two loving but struggling blue collar parents, good friends, bad enemies, knows his hometown and all the people in it, including the black community of Bruton and the Lady, its queen. At school he hates his bullying teacher and the bullying boys who make his summer baseball games hell. Cory is kind-hearted, richly imaginative, and true. And he’s lucky to own a magical bicycle named Rocket that he was rewarded with by Lady and the people of Bruton for saving one of their own from drowning during a great flood. Zephyr is a place of memory and fantasy, able to support solid citizens, petty criminals, and the secrets of a dangerous murderer.
The Storyteller of Marrakesh: A Novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: In order to live, a story requires a teller and an audience. In the case of Hassan, the storyteller of the Djemaa el Fna, the central square of the fabled city of Marrakesh, he involves his entire audience in the recreation of the night two foreign visitors disappeared from that very square, involving Hassan’s brother, Mustafa – a man who has sworn to pursue beauty no matter the cost, in the crime that seems to surround the incident. We often hear that stories are the means we have invented for exploring and finding life’s truths, but in this case we see that the story’s truth may be a compilation of everyone’s lies. Roy-Bhattacharya gives us an enigmatic tale, richly symbolic, and overflowing with the exotic variety of the inhabitants of northwest Africa.
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li: Told through the eyes of the townspeople on the day of Shan’s execution for being a political dissident, Li provides a vivid and condemning picture of China’s post-Maoist era. All the characters are sharply drawn, their personalities are strong and varied. They are alive on the page: the good (Teacher Gu, Shan’s father); the not so good, a sexual pervert who lures a hapless girl crippled by birth defects; Kai, the broadcast personality blessed with a perfect but dull husband and her lover. They both tremble on the verge of dissident activism. The reader feels like she is “living under the volcano” as socio-political tension seems to be mounting toward another revolution.
A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun: Mohammed Thimmigrant (The Immigrant) is an illiterate, diabetic, meek Maghreb/Berber from Morocco who came to France as a newly married youth to work in a Peugeot factory where he spent his life and is now due to retire. He’s afraid of that stage of life as he has only been defined by his work routine. He is estranged from his children who are completely “Frenchified” and have no desire to be like their parents. He has no personal life with his wife, no life beyond work with friends, no life that includes hobbies or interests. He fears “‘tirement” because he imagines it to be a death sentence like he believes it was for Brahim who died soon after his retirement; he fears dying alone like Momo who was found dead after three days; he is totally occupied with thoughts of his own death, fantasizing about how he’ll return to his home village when the time comes to die, surrounded by his extended family. And so, he returns to Morocco to build a palace in his native village where there is no running water and no electricity in an effort to reunite his family.
The Untouchable by John Banville: In a stream of conscious interior dialogue, Victor Maskell reveals his duplicitous nature now that he’s unmasked as a Russian double. Once a member of British intelligence and for many years art expert to the Queen, he’s now a disgrace. Inspired or based on the life of real spy, Anthony Blunt, art adviser to QEII and Russian double agent. Even includes a character based on Alan Turing who also commits suicide by eating a poisoned apple. Loyalty and identity, moral ambiguity, homosexual networks, good old Cambridge spy boys – it’s all here in the quiet masterful prose that proceeds with the inevitability of ocean waves returning and returning to the shore.
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman: I loved this strange and evocative book constructed in a series of short stories, telling the history of Blackwell, Massachusetts, which nestles at the foot of Hightop Mountain, over 300 years. Each chapter records characters and incidents that are intertwined by fate and action that give us a continuum of mysterious, magical, and vivid occurances (humans love bears and eels more than other humans, children drown, women kill husbands) and inhabitants (the Starrs, Partridges, Bradys, Kellys, and Jack Straw, the tavern owner),. At the center of everything exists a particular garden where only red plants can grow and where “the truth can be found by those who dare to look.”
The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey: This dark and haunting novel is lyrical and sad and beautifully constructed. The subject is pederasty, a topic inherently too taboo to explore in an even-handed way or without provoking overriding disgust. But Livesey has created a story about the destructive pain caused by inappropriate desire told from the points of view of several characters. The core characters are Cameron and Dara, the father who thinks of himself as a present day Charles Dodgeson whose particular affinity for pre-pubescent girls is also documented in his photography. Dara is his daughter, a social worker, who as an adult comes to know what her father is.
Gardens of Water by Alan Drew: Powerful and beautifully written story of two families – one Kurdish, the other American -- and two faiths – Christianity and Islam – set in Istanbul, Turkey where East meets West, just after the devastating earthquake of 1999. The great themes of this novel are loss and betrayal, the collision between an agricultural tribal society with a technological urban society, and the manifestations and curses of faith and ideology – and honor. Drew hasn’t written a small novel but a great one that tackles the major issues warring with each other throughout the Middle East and violently raised by terrorists abroad from their homelands and within them.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo: Miles is in the middle of a divorce from Janine and is trying to protect his 16-year old daughter, Tick, from the heartbreak. She, in turn, is trying to protect her father from her misery at high school where she’s just broken up with a popular boy who she no longer likes and is friendless. Miles’ brother, David, isn’t the black sheep he used to be. His father, Max, remains the reprobate he always was. The town is dying, seemingly without hope as it’s without the industry of textile mills and shirt factories. The restaurant Miles is proprietor of but doesn’t own is as paralyzed as the town because it’s owned – like everything else of value in Empire Falls – by old Mrs. Whiting, the relict of CB who put a bullet through his head after realizing he couldn’t have Miles’ mother. More than being a novel about the town, it’s a book about high school, the buried emotions that can flare with tragic consequences, and the agony of being a teenager.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt: Who knew psychopathic killers for hire could be so likeable – well, one of them anyway. Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers who are employed to kill Hermann Warm, a gold prospector, by the enigmatic Commodore. They set out from Oregon City for San Francisco, have horse trouble, meet odd-balls, fall in love, get drunk, and lurch from moralistic musing and pronouncement to senseless slaughter. Cowboy noir has arrived.
Trojan Women: A Novel of the Fall of Troy by Byrne Fone: The voice is that of Chryseis, now an old woman who serves as a sort of priest of Apollo and Sibyl at the ancient temple of Smintheum in Chrysa – a land ruled by Troy, as she narrates her life story. Chryseis is a miracle child of great beauty and the ability to experience mystical visions that should guarantee her future but instead merits her doom as a captive slave to Agamemnon and forces her to keep that “gift of the god” secret. Chryseis is the “Cressida” of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Then the voice of Briseis, another captive of Achilles rounds out the Greek p.o.v. From inside Troy, Hecabe, Andrmoache, Kassandra, and Helen complete the first person voices that tell the re-imagining of the Iliad.
The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: Two friends meet for dinner, get drunk and talk. One is a writer pf political propaganda, the other a professional blood donor. The writer recounts stories he would create, had he the courage. The other campaigns to be the subject for his friends new assignment – to write a Communist Hero tale to inspire the worker bees. The novel is constructed around the wanna be novelists stories and bridged by the satirical and witty comments of the blood donor. The people who exist in the imagining of the writer lead lives “pulled and pummeled by fate and politics as if they were in the hands of a noodle maker.” Warm, engaging, bitingly humorous, and devastating.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje: Michael, an adolescent, is making a month long sea voyage from his native Ceylon to England aboard the Oronsay. With him on the ship are his two friends – Cassius and Ramadhin, who has a bad heart. His cousin, Emily, with whom he’s infatuated is also sailing, but in higher class. Mynah (his nickname) is seated at the least distinguished table, farthest from the captain’s, with his friends, a woman birder and crack shot, a botanist who keeps poisonous plants in the hold, a quiet tailor, a thief, and a kindly piano player with a dark past who takes an interest in him. Using flashbacks and present time narrative, Ondaatje builds a mystery around a shackled prisoner, a mute girl, a Ceylonese circus troupe, and undercover cops as the ship journeys across the seas, carrying Michael from innocence to knowing.
Caleb’s Crossing Geraldine Brooks: Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister, grows up on what is now Nantuckett Island in the mid 1600s. She meets and befriends Caleb (as she names him), an Algonquin boy destined to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Brooks writes in a style that echoes the time her book is set, using archaic vocabulary on occasion, but it does not distract; rather, it enriches the story that unfolds. While the title makes clear the story is about an Algonquin’s movement from his own culture to that of the white man, Bethia makes her own crossings: first into an appreciation of some aspects of native culture and later to achieving a surreptitious and somewhat sketchy, though higher education, by dint of putting herself in the way of learning.
Baudolino by Umberto Eco: Decameron-like philosophical fable of adventure set during the time of Frederick Barbarossa as told by a liar to a Greek chronicler while Constantinople burns down around them. Eco shows us that religious myths arise from political need to suit the requirements of the actors on history’s stage; that history is story and story is exaggeration, and exaggerations are really just plain lies invented by the more intelligent among us to suit the occasion or solve a problem. An unreliable narrator illustrates the unreliable nature of history, which deals in facts, and religious history, which deals largely in a tissue of fantastic myths and superstitions largely concocted to give provenance to false “relics” that meant economic and political power accrued to the cities and rulers who held them.
The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander: In a fantasy medieval Chrysanthemum kingdom exists a powerful sisterhood with its own secret language and vows of friendship that supersede all others and cross all walks of life and station. When a massive earthquake destroys the mountain summer palace, the Young Empress and 2nd heir, rule passes to Liudan a lonely frightened girl who hides behind an aggressive facade. Can her group of gathering jin-shei bao step up and help her govern her empire wisely and well?
Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss: Samson is found wandering in the Nevada desert and has no idea who he is. It happens that he has a benign brain tumor. After it’s removed, he is returned to his wife of 10 years, Anna, and she takes him home to NYC with the hope that his memory may return beyond what he knows up until age 12 and the present memories that he’s creating. To Samson, Anna is a perfect stranger; he has no idea how to love someone; he has no desire to re-create his past in terms of reconnecting with friends or his teaching position at a local university, where he goes one day and encounters Lana, a student of his with whom he begins a relationship.
I look forward to the next moonless night when I can sit up late with a book that has arrived in my hand from who knows where, or how, or why and free fall into myth or reality.
[NOTE: This diary is also a stand-in for bookgirl's regular TUE 10PM series, now on hiatus, Contemporary Fiction Views.]