A Review of Christopher Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River

a meeting by the river cover image

I wrote a fairly thorough summary of the first half of this book in my Yarn Along post on Wednesday, and you can read it here if you missed it. This is a short epistolary novel that manages to be both quick-paced and contemplative. I suppose its protagonist is Oliver – the young British man preparing to take his final vows as a Hindu monk at a monastery in India – since his diary entries comprise about half the book, but really this is not a book that tracks the growth and change of a protagonist as a result of the plot in the traditional sense. The suspense and tension in this novel are a function of the reader trying to figure out when to believe these characters (i.e. Oliver and his brother Patrick) and when to assume that they are lying.

Like many siblings, Oliver and Patrick are guarded around each other, protective of their own secrets. At the same time, each is convinced that he can read the other like a book. Patrick’s big, capital-S secret is the fact that he’s gay (though Isherwood hints that Oliver knows this). His wife Penny is at home in London with their children, and Patrick has just spent time in LA, where he is involved in adapting a book published by his company into a movie, and connected with a young man named Tom. Tom took Patrick on a long walk to a place by the ocean, where they walked through a tunnel in the rock and then made love on the other side. Then, before Patrick leaves for India, Tom gives Patrick an erotic novel to read on the plane – and the novel contains a scene exactly like the one Tom initiated with Patrick on their hike. Patrick is titillated by this discovery – by the thought of Tom orchestrating a tryst exactly like the one in the book – but he is also a little alarmed that an encounter he thought was spontaneous was actually carefully planned and scripted. This incident plays a relatively small role in the plot, but it connects perfectly with many of the thematic elements of the novel: secrets and lies, originality and convention, male friendships, and the idea of mentors and followers, gurus and disciples, and the many ways in which life (and maybe especially male life?) is a constant push and pull, a struggle for balance and autonomy.

Oliver’s journal seems likely to contain his unscripted, honest thoughts – in the same way that a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play can generally be trusted – but I don’t trust its revelations very much. Oliver assigns himself the task of writing the journal as a spiritual exercise, and to me there is usually some ego tied up in any task described as a “spiritual exercise.” I think Oliver wants to be honest in his journal, and he does express some anger at his brother that seems perfectly genuine, but overall, Oliver – the apparent protagonist – is the most inscrutable character in the novel for me. I never really get a sense of how genuine his spirituality is. In some ways, I wish one of the swamis kept a journal too, so we could see how Oliver is perceived by the religious authorities (we do know from Oliver himself, incidentally, that the swamis treat Oliver differently from the other initiates – offering him a private room with a bed instead of a mat on the floor in a shared room, etc. – and that Oliver declines this special treatment whenever possible) – but we never do. He’s an enigma. We know that Oliver has a case of sibling rivalry, and we can speculate from the total lack of references to Oliver and Patrick’s father that Patrick was likely Oliver’s primary role male role model when he was growing up. We also learn that Patrick’s wife Penny was originally Oliver’s girlfriend, and while there is no doubt that this incident – however it took place – complicated the relationship between the brothers, even this fact is rarely mentioned.

Patrick writes long letters to three people. His letters to his mother are designed to ease her anxieties about Oliver. He describes the beauty of the monastery (and then quickly describes its squalor and foul smell to his wife) and waxes philosophical about what it means to be a British man at large in a former colony – thereby introducing into the reader’s mind ideas about colonial and postcolonial relations between Britain and India, including the idea that a colonial relationship is similar to a parental one, and that India is the young adult who has recently thrown off the yoke and now seeks to relate to its parent country as an equal. His letters to Penny – and Oliver’s journal entries describing his conversations with Patrick – indicate that he worries about Oliver’s health and finds his life in the monastery a bit ridiculous, but to his mother Patrick praises the food at the monastery and compliments Oliver’s seriousness as a monk.

Patrick’s letters to Penny feel honest to me, although of course they never mention Tom. To her, he mocks Oliver openly and complains about his mother’s insistence that he report in on how Oliver is doing. He complains about India itself and about almost everything his brother does – although he does seem to genuinely like many of the other monks, who welcome him at their meals and other group events. In spite of the fact that he is cheating on Penny with Tom (and we’re never told whether he has had other lovers before Tom), he seems to have a deep affection for her. He writes to her as a peer.

In his letters to Tom, Patrick gushes like an adolescent about how hard it is to survive without Tom, about his deep, deep lust, etc. Tom turns the tables on Patrick, though, when he calls the monastery late at night and insists on speaking to him. The monks misunderstand and call Oliver to the phone, so Oliver learns about his brother’s affair when Tom mistakes him for Patrick and begins speaking before Oliver can correct him. After the mistake is cleared up and Patrick has, with great embarrassment, ended the conversation and gone back to bed, Patrick writes a letter telling Tom that their relationship is over. He begs Tom to destroy his letters and never tell Penny what has happened – we never learn if Tom obeys, but I suspect that we’re supposed to assume that Patrick’s entanglement with Tom is far from over.

Confused yet? This novel is full of ambiguities and half-truths and secrets, as characters shift back and forth between a variety of personae dictated by whom they are with. While I’m sure it all sounds a little convoluted when I summarize it, I had no trouble keeping track of facts when I was reading the book. This is one of those novels that feels like real life – even if you’ve never been to a Hindu monastery in Calcutta – because its characters are so fully developed and compelling.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a more extended version of Tobias Wolff’s “The Rich Brother” – and, of course, there are any number of stories and novels and films out there that explore the relationships between brothers. Wolff’s story makes several direct allusions to the story about Cain and Abel, and even though this novel does not do so on the surface, this novel is certainly preoccupied with the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and also with any number of follow-up questions: ‘How do I feel about being my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Does my being my brother’s keeper mean that my brother is not free – does it mean, in fact, that I am not free?’ ‘If my brother rejects my help, does my responsibility to him end, or not?’ When Oliver takes his final vows as a monk, a process that involves reciting funeral prayers for one’s parents and siblings, he is essentially inducted into a new family – a family that he has chosen. But what does this mean for Patrick?

This novel asks more questions than it answers – but it is a quick, compelling read and I recommend it highly. This novel is an example of why good-quality used books stores are so important: Isherwood’s books are not widely available in the U.S., and this one – like his others, I’m sure – deserves to be discovered and read.

Posted in Authors, Christopher Isherwood, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Some First-World Complaints About My Life (Loosely Disguised as a Review of Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever)

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The revolution was televised – but I missed it because I was too busy grading papers.

I have such mixed feelings about the intensity of my teaching career. On the one hand, I loved my work. Every time I see pictures of one of those silly dot-com start-up offices with the Nerf basketball hoops and people bouncing around on stability balls or whatever, I think These people have no idea what fun is. They have to import the trappings of fun because they have no teenagers around to provide the real thing.

On the other hand, a whole decade of my life is gone. And I’ve never even found time to watch The Sopranos.

The revolution Sepinwall describes in this book concerns television. He identifies twelve shows made between 1997 and 2012 (and a few of their 20th-century precursors) that represent a fundamental shift in what TV writers and directors think of as the limits of their genre. Since most of my readers are probably not boarding school teachers (teachers are WAY too busy to read blogs), you could probably make your own list of shows from this era that were innovative and challenging. But just in case you can’t, here’s Sepinwall’s list: Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Before I read this book, I had heard of eleven of these shows (all but Oz), although I thought Battlestar Galactica was a sci-fi series from the ‘70’s (it was, but it was remade and significantly changed in the ‘00’s). I had watched two of them (Lost and Mad Men) from start to finish (or from start to the most recent episode, in the case of Mad Men, which I watched in its entirety after I left teaching). I’ve watched several dozen episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, enough to understand its general premise but not enough to really understand how the characters grew and changed over the course of the series (I was really hoping that Sepinwall would explain how Buffy suddenly acquired a teenaged younger sister halfway through the series – but no dice). I’ve watched a dozen or so episodes of Breaking Bad when AMC was running a marathon of the entire series last December (again, after I quit teaching), and while I found the first few episodes pretty compelling, I lost interest when I went to bed and woke up in the morning to find a bunch of men in suits threatening everyone with machine guns. I’ve seen the first episode of The Wire and didn’t like it, though Sepinwall says everyone dislikes it after the first episode. The remaining five shows I know by name only – although the son of one of the actors of 24 attended one of the schools where I worked for a while. I didn’t even know that The Sopranos had a psychiatrist in it.

I’ve never imagined myself whining on the internet that my life is ruined because I missed a lot of good TV shows. For portions of my adult life (1994-99, 2007-09), I didn’t own a TV and didn’t miss it. When I was teaching, I rarely had time to watch TV at all until 10:00 or so at night, and then there were the Tae Kwon Do years, when I was never home in the evenings, ever. If I thought about TV at all during these years, it was to grumble that reality shows had taken over and to moan about the lost sitcoms of my youth: Cheers and Night Court and Growing Pains and Perfect Strangers and Mr. Belvedere and Benson and so many, many more.

Sepinwall’s thesis – and, given my intense reaction, we can assume that he defends it well – is that ever since the “revolution” that began with The Sopranos, serial TV drama – not movies, not books, not other art forms – has become the art form that defines our culture in the early 21st century. I don’t necessarily want this to be true (as you may have noticed, I’m a book person), but I think there’s a good chance that Sepinwall is right. I want to cringe and complain that books are superior to TV, but then I remember that I want to try to stop thinking of reading as a moral act, as something that makes a person “good” (if she reads classics), “trashy” (if she reads romance novels, or “stupid” (if she doesn’t read at all). If reading is morally neutral, then other forms of interacting with narrative are probably morally neutral too.

Once, during the long struggle with health issues that led to me quitting teaching, I complained to my therapist that when I got home from work at night I was so tired that I couldn’t do anything except sit on the couch and watch TV. This complaint was prompted by the fact that many, many of my co-workers were overachievers. Boarding school teachers usually are. They train for marathons, triathlons, and ultras, waking at 4 am or earlier to train. They are wonderful, dedicated parents to their children. They grade entire sets of essays the very day their students hand them in. They carry on long-distance relationships and take courses at night toward their master’s degrees and write poetry and fly off on the weekends to attend their college friends’ weddings. They spearhead fundraisers and do volunteer work and are always taking on new committee work, coaching assignments, and other duties at work, and during vacations they take exciting trips all over the world (often with students!) while I lay in bed and moaned that my ribs hurt. When I complained that I had no energy for anything but TV, my therapist looked at me strangely and said, “Do you realize that the life you just described is the average American’s idea of a perfect life?”

I was alarmed. “What??” I asked.

“Ask around,” my therapist said. “Ask a random sampling of Americans what kind of life they want, and at least two-thirds of them will say the same thing: they want a job that pays the bills, and at night they want to sit down on the couch and watch TV until they fall asleep.”

I don’t know many people who fit her model – though I suspect that a few might be out there – and she seemed puzzled by mine.

I don’t know how the things I’ve written here qualify as a review of Sepinwall’s book; in fact, I don’t think they do. But as I was reading the book, I didn’t know whether to be dismayed about how much I missed or excited about all the great shows I can watch on DVD or on Netflix. What I felt, mostly, is that the nature of my career in the first decade of the 21st century cut me off from the rest of my generation. A long time from now, I imagine myself sitting in the gloomy common room of second-rate retirement home somewhere, listening to all my fellow nonagenarians reminisce about the great TV dramas of our young adulthood. “Tony Soprano?” I will say, desperate to fit in. “Is he that kid who sold his mother’s Vicodin in order to pay off his phone bill?”

So there you go.

Posted in Alan Sepinwall, Authors, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Media and Pop Culture, Reviews by Bethany | 2 Comments

Yarn Along

Yarn Along 4.16.14

Once again, I’m working on a tank sweater that was commissioned by my friend Dawn. The picture looks a lot like last week’s, but I’ve actually completed about six inches more since I took that photo. Now that I’ve finished the neckline and the process of picking up stitches around the neckline to form the gathering in the front of the tank  (I had to rip it out three times before I got it right!), the rest of the sweater is like a long drive through Kansas: just a lot of repetitive knitting on circular needles. But I have no complaints: the midnight blue merino wool is so much fun to work with, and I love seeing the way what used to be a heap of yarn in my lap turning into a recognizable (almost) finished product.

The book in the photo is A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood. I bought it when Jill and I went to Green Apple Books in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. I’ve known for years and years that I would probably like Isherwood’s work, but up until yesterday I don’t think I had read a single word he had written, ever. This short novel is told in the epistolary form. Sometimes epistolary novels bug me, but this one is quite good. It helps that the characters are all lying to one another in their letters. Maybe that’s a rule of sorts about epistolary fiction: if the characters are all telling the truth, an epistolary novel is a snooze.

Here’s the rundown: Patrick and Oliver are brothers. They grew up in England, where their mother still lives and where Patrick lives with his wife and children. Oliver lives in a monastery in India, where is is about to take his final vows as a Hindu monk (N.B. the Hinduism in this novel seems an awful lot like Buddhism to me. I am no expert – like any red-blooded American, I got my training in eastern spirituality from J.D. Salinger, with a little of the Beatles thrown in for variety – and I would like to assume that Isherwood did his research, but I’m just saying. There are no references to reincarnation but lots to non-attachment, no references to multiple gods and goddesses but lots to meditation that leads to something similar to enlightenment [though this exact word is never mentioned]. Again – I could be wrong).

Oliver has been estranged from the family for six years before he contacts his brother to let him know that he is making his final vows as a monk. This sets off a flurry of letters from Patrick to his mother, his wife, and his American lover, Tom. Oliver is troubled by the fact that he still feels so much anger toward his brother, so he assigns himself, as a spiritual exercise, to write a journal exploring his feelings, and we get to read these journal entries too. Then Patrick visits Oliver in Calcutta, where Oliver starts snooping on Patrick’s letters, and then it’s more lies, more lies, and more lies. And it’s totally well written and compelling.

Have you forgotten yet that this post was supposed to be about yarn? As a reminder, I invite you to visit Ginny’s blog, Small Things, where Yarn Along is hosted every Wednesday.

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Final Thoughts on Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena         

A constellation of vital phenomena cover

My first thought of reflection when I finished this book was “Good.  Now I have something to post about tonight, and I can put this book on the shelf.”  This was quite an enjoyable book, but by the end of it I was sick of it.  Sick of carrying it around, sick of spilling food on it, sick of not being able to write a post about it that’s complete.  Work has been busy the past couple of weeks and I’ve been getting home late, so I haven’t had as much time to read as usual.

And possibly I’ve been impatient to write my post about this book because I found a flaw in it last week, and I have been dying to talk about it ever since.  You have no idea how impressed I was with myself when I realized at page two hundred thirty six out of three hundred eighty-ish that I had caught Marra in a rookie mistake.  It’s more of a stylistic change than a mistake, but it’s abrupt and noticeable.  He starts using the telling-the-reader-about-what-happens-to-a-character-after-the-book-ends thing.  García Márquez does it in the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Allende does it throughout The House of the Spirits.  But they utilize this technique throughout their books.  Marra waits until page two hundred thirty six to do it.  And he does it first with extremely minor characters who no reader would care about.  By the end he’s using this technique to tell us about what happens to Havaa, and her long and happy life, but to start with it’s some “sheikh” who Ramzan trades with prior to turning informer for the Feds.   And a patient who comes into Hospital No. 6 with a leg wound, and quite a few others.  Now don’t get me wrong.  It’s all well written, but it loosens up the narrative and made me bored.  Take, for example, the following.  This is about the future of the leg wound fellow: “The war had already taken his mother, but he would live to return home to her cats, which had multiplied to the population of a village during the war years, feasting, as they did, on the burgeoning estate of rats and mice.  Working odd jobs and sacrificing the comforts of wife and family, he would spend his life caring for the descendants of his mother’s cats.  Eight hundred and eighty-two, all named for his mother, though he would never know that exact figure (305).”  Nice, right?  But it’s about a character who is present in the novel for literally less than two pages.  We talk at my hospital all the time about how one should not do any diagnostics that aren’t going to change our treatment plan, because otherwise it’s a waste of our time and the client’s money.  I feel like these digressions of Marra’s wasted my time, the publisher’s money to print them, and they were just, like, writing exercises that didn’t advance the plot at all.  It’s possible that he was trying to pay respects to various Chechens who he met in his travels throughout the country doing research for the book, but if that’s the case, write a non-fiction book detailing the stories of the refugees, don’t stick things like this in your novel willy-nilly.  And don’t start doing it over halfway through the book; it comes off like an afterthought.

It’s possible I’m being too harsh.  But I’ve been really busy outside my reading life lately, and when I got to stuff like this while I was reading I got annoyed because I could be reading about Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, and their various family members and friends, not strangers.  In the second half of the book, many things happened that were not a surprise: Akhmed is taken away for refusing to reveal Havaa’s whereabouts; Sonja’s sister, Natasha, is never found (though Marra tells us all about what happened to her); Akhmed and Sonja have sex.  There are a few surprises as well, such as Khassan resists killing his son Ramzan, and drives off into the sunset with his pack of feral dogs to live at least another nine years, which is saying a lot for a Chechen man of seventy nine.

I also found the genesis of the title of the novel.  It is the definition of life as found in Sonja’s medical terminology dictionary.  This is not what I remember life being defined as.  Marra’s definition is much prettier.  Life is “a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (317).”  I kind of don’t get it, but it’s pretty.

I definitely recommend this book.  Marra knows how to write well.  And it’s a good story.  And Chechnya deserves more time and attention paid to it than we have out here in the rest of the world.  I suspect if I’d gotten through it faster it would have annoyed me less.  I do think that if Marra had spent less time on minor characters and fleshing out their stories and more time on Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, as well as Natasha, Ramzan, and Khassan, I think the novel would have been stronger.  I’m sure Marra is going to have a long, successful career, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Posted in Anthony Marra, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

yarn along 4.8.14

This tank sweater is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever knit. I think the neckband is going to be a bit on the large side, and I had to rip out the place where the body of the sweater joins the neckband three times before I got it right, but overall I am very excited about this project and have already bought yarn to make another one.

I’m still reading WAY too many books at one time. I’m reading Macbeth with the 9th grade student I tutor, and I’m enjoying it all over again, of course. When I took a survey course on Shakespeare in college, Macbeth was the only tragedy I didn’t like. Now it’s one of my favorites: not quite up there with Hamletbut close.

Sometime soon I’ll put together a post about all the crazy things I’m reading. The title will be “The Unspeakable Chaos of my Reading Life” – note the allusion to Pat Conroy.

My blog vacation is almost over – I promise. Between the two of us, Jill and I published a post a day for 63 days: from February 1 through April 4. Since we both have fairly full lives, I’m pleased with this accomplishment, although I’ll admit that I’m a little bummed that it’s over. Maybe we’ll try again in the summer or fall.

As always, Yarn Along is hosted every Wednesday on Ginny’s wonderful blog, Small Things.

Posted in Yarn Along | 6 Comments

Autobiography, Day 4

I promise not to let the Autobiography project take over the blog. In addition to posting a photo every day, I have every intention of posting at least two full reviews each week. But today was – well, it was wonderful, but it was also a bit taxing. It involved taking my car in for $1,200 worth of repairs and maintenance, navigating the city on Muni, an hour of tutoring in the morning, a bad attack of plantar fasciitis in my right foot, a delightful lunch with four old friends, including Jill, and a fruitful trip to Green Apple Books. Then Jill sat with me in a cafe for almost three hours and helped me plot out the rest of the novel I’m writing – which was honestly the best gift she could have given me right now. I can’t say that we solved every problem that will come up in terms of how the characters’ lives intersect and how the plot lines will resolve, but I came home so focused and feeling newly confident that this project is worth pursuing. So I’m sending out enormous thanks to Jill and posting just an Autobiography photo today. I’ll be back on Sunday with something a little more ambitious.

Autobiography 4.4.14

Posted in Bethany's "Autobiography" Project | 2 Comments

This week’s new arrivals

I am having a feeling of hopelessness about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.  I had wanted to have it finished and post a final thoughts on it.  I have barely gotten fifty pages past where I was when I wrote my last post about it though.  I’m enjoying it, and want to make progress, but forces (better known as my day job) are conspiring against me.  So for tonight I thought I’d just tell you about the books amazon sent me this week and why I’mexcited to read them someday.


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The first book I got this week was Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess.  I haven’t read one of Philippa Gregory’s books in quite a while, but I love them.  Her specialty is British historical fiction, focusing on the royal families.  Her more recent books have focused on the Wars of the Roses time, though the earlier ones were more typical Tudor England stuff (you know Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, et. al.).  This book is, I believe, the fifth in this series.  To be honest I haven’t been that excited to read about this era of English royalty, and that is probably a lot of the reason why I haven’t read any of these books yet.  I continue to buy them because I know once I get around to reading them I’ll enjoy them and because I can’t give up on a series/author.

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The other book was Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.  This book was in The Morning News Tournament of Books this year and was eliminated in the pre-tournament playoff round when it went up against Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  Atkinson’s book actually went on to compete in the championship round and narrowly lose to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.  I honestly don’t know why I ordered this book!  I mean it sounds vaguely interesting, but more like a book that I’d buy in a couple years when I run across it in a used bookstore, not a book I’d pre-order in paperback on amazon, at least not lately.  This one sounds like it might be something of a satire: there is a cult leader in it, and I tend to think that any book with a cult leader as a main character is probably a satire.  The cover is pretty cool, though.

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My boss also brought me Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin.  I had never seen this book before, but it sounds interesting.  It’s a double narrative, with one storyline taking place in 1936 in central California, and one taking place in the present day.  The focus is on a picture that was taken in the 1936 storyline of a migrant worker.  In the present day it’s an iconic, famous photograph (and is actually a real photo in real life and is up above the start of this paragraph), and someone named Walker Dodge, a professor of cultural history, learns that his family has a secret wrapped up in the photo.  I’ve never really read anything that takes place during the Great Depression, so I’m looking forward to learning more about that era.  And I’m looking forward to discovering a new writer, too.

 

 

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment