On the weirdness of our fellow humans…

People are so weird.  They just are.  That’s my conclusion after teaching for over thirty years and traveling to a variety of countries, and I’m sticking to it. And the book I just finished, The Room, by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson (Random House, 2015), captures that weirdness fabulously.

This is an odd little book.  Promotional materials bill it as a sort of literary version of “The Office”, but I found it to be much more than that.  Yes, it is set in a nondescript government office.  Yes, there are the usual array of co-workers, with their predictable quibbles and foibles.  Yet the story goes far beyond that.  Bjorn, the protagonist, is not particularly sympathetic.  In fact, he’s downright annoying.  He’s arrogant, patronizing, and socially inept, which creates tension in the office.  And when he discovers an idyllic (for him) room that no one else purports to see or know of, this conflict intensifies.  The work he is able to accomplish there is of such high quality it eventually sets up even more discord.  Even if I wanted to spoil the ending, I couldn’t, for the simple fact that a day after finishing the book, I really don’t quite grasp what finally happens.

Which is what makes this such a fun read.  Also billed as “Kafkaesque”, there is definitely a surreal feel to the novel.  This is a short, terse, tightly wound volume that left me thinking about it many more hours than I actually spent reading it.  What I found myself reflecting back on again and again is the number of times in my working life I was thinking uncharitable things about my colleagues -and yes, my students- that sound truly awful when they’re actually put in print.  And here’s the thing:  I know my colleagues and students were in all likelihood thinking the same things about me.  The genius of the book lies, I think, in this universality.

The central premise of the novel, that Bjorn is able to do his best work in a separate room, illuminates another facet of the modern working world.  I know of several people who have felt threatened to the point of leaving their jobs by the currently popular “open office” concept.  If you are an introvert, the corporate emphasis on extroversion and teamwork can be taxing, and without any “space” in which to escape, these people find themselves being less productive and highly stressed.  In some way, then, I think the room Bjorn retreats to serves as a metaphor for the need many people have for private space and respect for their individual skills and needs.

I suspect that each reader of The Room will come away with a unique interpretation.  That the book was originally written in Swedish underlines that, despite cultural differences like caviar for breakfast or shoe covers in the office, we are all human, with unique needs and perspectives.  Which makes us all, in one way or another, weird.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Ah, Venice…

I counted.  I have twelve volumes on my bookcase about Venice.  Thirteen with the one I just finished and am about to review, My Venice and Other Essays, by Donna Leon (Grove Press, 2013).  Fourteen if you count Leon’s “Commissario Guido Brunetti” mystery, Beastly Things (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), that I picked up in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble recently and am also reviewing here.  And these are just the books I own, I have read numerous others over the years that were loaned to me or checked out from the library.

So what is it about Venice, anyway?  It’s so popular, so clogged with tourists, that I have seen it referred to as a sort of historical “Disneyland”.  I’ve heard people complain that when they got there, it stank and was expensive and was too crowded.  Or they had to slog through disgusting acqua alta flooding to see the sights.  But I LOVE Venice.  I’ve only been there for two short visits, but both times were during the “off-season (January and March) and it captivated me.  There is something about the reflection of light off the water, the boats and gondolas in place of cars, the maze of dead-end calles, that transports me back in time and piques my imagination.

In My Venice, Leon attributes her love of the city primarily to the absence of cars.  In her opening essay, she comments on the ways in which life is lived differently as a result, from forcing you to meet your neighbors to confronting your physical limitations.  Certainly she has complaints about other aspects of life there, and subsequent essays reveal that she spends the prime tourist summer season in a mountain home, that she has made a bad and costly apartment buying decision, and that she has frustrations about Italian politics and bureaucracy.  Interestingly, for a book ostensibly about Venice, only about a quarter of it actually deals with the city.  In other sections, we learn her opinions about music, animals, men, America, and books.  And she has some very strident opinions, indeed.  I came away from the whole reading experience with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, her writing is absolutely outstanding, something I admire and respect.  And I can concede to the point of some of her strongly worded judgments, for example, that “regardless of the current belligerence of American foreign policy, the emotion that fuels America is, and has been for my lifetime, fear, not courage.”  But my overall impression is that she might not be a particularly pleasant person to be around, that she may be a sort of female curmudgeon.

Which is not the impression I get of her from her fiction.  I’ve read several of her mystery novels, starting when I first learned of her while taking an Italian class several years ago.  They are all beautifully written, thoughtful and erudite and gentle, much like my impression of their setting, Venice.  The one I just finished, Beastly Things, is about a veterinarian who is found murdered and dumped in a canal.  Leon’s love of animals comes through in this book, as does a not so subtle indictment of the meat production industry. The last chapter, in which the protagonist, having solved the veterinarian’s murder, attends the dead man’s funeral, is one of the most tender and satisfying endings I have read in fiction.  I’m not in general a huge mystery lover, but I cherish good writing, and Leon is a master.  If you like well-crafted, intelligent stories that transport you to another world and carefully capture the intricacies of another culture, you might try one of her many novels.

Whenever I go to the Denver Art Museum, I always have to head up to the European collection and visit “my” Canaletto.  This 18th century Italian painter is one of my favorites, and the DAM’s rediscovered and restored Venice:  The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco (1724) is a quintessential composition that captures the water and boats and architecture of this city that I love so much. Every time I gaze at the painting I am transported to a different time and place.  The modern view of the same setting may be thronged with annoying tourists and/or rising water, but if you can look past these very legitimate concerns, the serenity and timelessness  and singular uniqueness of Venice is still there.  In many ways, Donna Leon’s writing is a worthy successor to Canaletto’s brushstrokes.

Canaletto trim

Two novels and a movie…

After the last book I reviewed here, Just Babies, I’ve been thinking a lot about how art and literature can define and challenge our concepts of good and evil, right and wrong.  I’m going to approach the subsequent two books I’ve read and one movie I’ve seen (I don’t go out much) from that angle.

My book group will be discussing All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Simon & Schuster, 2014) this coming weekend.  It is certainly a novel that deserves all the praise heaped upon it!  The writing is outstanding, with a structure that keeps you curious and engaged and language that captures everything from a gesture felt but not seen to the whorls of a seashell.  The characters are finely drawn and convincing.  Initially, I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about reading it.  I’m pretty much “over” the World War II genre.  But Doerr accomplishes a rare feat in this book, that of making you see the nuances of both sides of the epic good versus bad narrative of so much fiction set in that period.  The two main characters are a German boy swept up in the rise of the Nazis and a blind French girl who ends up active in the Resistance.  Their fates intertwine at the end of the novel in a startling and original way.  So much of the literature about right and wrong ultimately ends up being about redemption, and this novel at its core has a strong message about both the capacity for good and evil in each person and the power of atonement. Here’s perhaps the best recommendation for this book:  my husband, who doesn’t read fiction, read the first few pages and now is completely engrossed!

Because of the WWII setting and the central role of radio in both, an intriguing companion to this novel is the movie The Imitation Game.  My husband has a strong interest in military history and really wanted to see this, so off we headed to a matinée (since they’re cheaper…)  This is another widely praised work of art truly deserving of its acclaim.  The acting is outstanding, the story about how a group of mathematicians broke the German Enigma code is fascinating, and the way the movie subtly challenges our evolving definitions of right and wrong (homosexuality in this case) is powerful.

A completely different and equally excellent novel I just finished reading is A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (Random House, 2015).  I love Tyler, not least because I so often see facets of myself reflected in her fiction.  If All the Light We Cannot See and The Imitation Game explore morality against the grandiose backdrop of war and upheaval, this gentle novel takes us into one family and one house in Baltimore.  The setting and characters are deceptively simple, but at the end you realize that you have been completely immersed in all the complexities of this family and its story.  Through capturing the quiet moments and big upheavals of everyday life, Tyler illuminates the subtle choices “ordinary” people make.  Her grasp of human nature and family dynamics is uncanny.  The beginning of A Spool of Blue Thread introduces us to a central conflict in this family, that of a troubled and troubling son who disappears for long periods of time.  Consider this beautiful prose:

But still, you know how it is when you’re missing a loved one.  You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for.  You hear a certain piece of music and right away you tell yourself that he could have changed his clothing style, could have gained a ton of weight, could have acquired a car and then parked the car in front of another family’s house.  “It’s him!” you say.  “He came!  We knew he would; we always…” But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks.

This has been my experience every Christmas since my son moved away…

I have been exceptionally fortunate in my life.  In the grand scheme of human history, I have lived a privileged, comfortable existence.  I have never had to make awful choices while bombers screamed overhead.  I have never had society judge me based on who I chose to love.  But I have struggled with the daily dilemma of treating my family and friends fairly and kindly, of trying to do some good in the world, and of limiting and/or atoning for the harm I might inadvertently do.

Contemplating morality with “Just Babies”

I’ve been thinking for almost a week about how to review Just Babies:  The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom (Crown Publisher, 2013).  Despite the implied straightforwardness of its title, this is not an easy book to summarize.  And as I’ve watched current events unfold around the world, from the Brian Williams debacle to the ISIS threat, it strikes me that any attempt to explain the wellspring of what we know to be “good” or “bad” will of necessity be complex, fraught with contradictions and ripe for judgement by those who disagree with any belief system other than their own.

So I’m going to try to keep this simple.  Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University, has spent years studying how much “morality” we are born with by studying babies.  Through a complex series of experiments, he has been able to show that “babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness.” But, of course, it’s not that easy, and a large portion of the book addresses how we arrive at a fully realized sense of “right” and “wrong” beyond that with which we are born.  I don’t know that I had any “aha” moments with this book, but I did enjoy the gentle and clear way in which Bloom explains how we grow into moral adults.

If this topic interests you, I can recommend Just Babies.  Bloom makes a complicated subject that has defined our human history accessible and understandable.  Even if you disagree with his conclusions, he gives you much to consider.

FTC disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Playing the “Why don’t you…?” game

Last spring, as word was starting to get out around my school that I was retiring, one earnest Spanish 4 student came to ask me if it was true that I was leaving teaching in order to move to Spain.  I laughed and told her that no, nice as that would be I wasn’t necessarily planning to move, it was just that after thirty passionate years in education it was time for me to try something else.  But she was certainly onto something about me.  For as long as I can remember, two very different parts of my personality have been at odds with each other. On the one hand, there’s the “ditch everything and travel the world” Lisa. On the other, there’s the “I love my home and family and friends and critters and book collection” Lisa. I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to navigate between the two, and my bookshelf as a result is full of tomes about people who have decided to start new lives in foreign countries.  The book I just finished, Only in Spain, by Nellie Bennett (Sourcebooks, Inc, 2012), is just the latest in a series of titles stretching back to classics like Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun  and Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.  

I picked up Bennett’s book because, well, it’s about Spain and if there’s one foreign country I’m most tempted to move to, it’s Spain!  I was also fascinated by her premise, which is that after starting a flamenco dance class in her native Sydney, Australia, Bennett decides to further study the art form, first in a six-week program in Sevilla and then more seriously and permanently in Madrid.  There is something about flamenco music and dance that really moves me, so I understand that compulsion – though fortunately for all involved I’ve never subjected any teacher or class to my ridiculous lack of coordination!  I  quite enjoyed Bennett’s writing style, it is funny and engaging.  I did find, though, that there were aspects of her experience that annoyed me.  When she moves to Madrid at the New Year, she is surprised to discover that she can’t immediately start her dance classes because Spain actually keeps celebrating the holidays through January 6 (Epiphany, or in Spanish, Día de los Reyes).  I am continually amazed at how little effort people put into learning about new cultures and languages before going to other countries.  With just a bit of reading or Internet research, for example, Bennett would have know that.  She might have also discovered how very difficult it is to pursue a vegan diet in the country of  ham “museums” on every corner, or that “running away with the gypsies” may be a stereotype fraught with opportunities to find oneself in dangerous situations.  And I felt truly sorry for Iñaki, the Basque chef with whom she falls in love, but whose heart she ultimately breaks in her pursuit of “Why don’t you…?”.

Retirement has definitely presented me with ample time to contemplate my own “Why don’t you…?” scenarios.  The temptation is always lurking in my subconscious to liquidate my assets and move to Barcelona, or possibly Malta (per an “International Living” list of best places to retire), or even Gettysburg, PA (my husband’s preference).  But when I look around my house and think about packing up all my stuff, I get a bit overwhelmed.  I mean, I probably couldn’t move all my books, and how would I decide which ones to keep?  If I went overseas, what would be involved in bringing my kitties and my crazy pup, Reggie?  What if my mom needed more assistance than she does now, could I stand to not be easily able to help her?  I love Colorado, wouldn’t I miss my daily dose of mountain views on my walks, or camping in the summer, or skiing in the winter?  Family is so important to me, would I be able to tolerate only seeing my kids, or my sister, or my mom, a few times a year?

Another favorite book on my shelf is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, and my retirement rest and reflection has led me to more easily embrace and understand this concept.  While I’m not saying I won’t one day liquidate everything and move elsewhere, I ultimately end up realizing after reading books like Only in Spain that while the temptation is strong to play the “Who don’t you…?” game, for me the better option is to stay in the home and life I love and devote my energies to planning my next adventure(s):  Iceland in March, the Hudson River Valley in September, Charleston in October…

In a previous post I mentioned this quote by one my favorite authors, Ann Tyler:  “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.”  Reading has always been the best way I’ve found to calm the conflict between the two sides of my personality.  Unless I were to find millions of dollars hidden somewhere (highly unlikely for a retired school teacher!), I’ll never be able to travel as much as I imagine I would like.  And truthfully, even if I could, there would still be trade-offs.  In the end, reading has always been, and will always be, the best way for me to explore all the world has to offer!