Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Readers will be drawn quickly into this story of a man caught up in the tangle of personal and societal challenges and his struggle to survive on his terms. Writers will want to read with an eye as to how J.M. Coetzee writes an emotionally moving story without a trace of sentimentality. There is nothing superfluous in Coetzee’s narrative; it is the stark story of one man’s journey (although perhaps an allegory too).

J.M. Coetzee creates an entire life, beginning with Michael’s birth, keeping a quick pace, yet giving readers all the information they need to develop their own ideas about Michael K and his life. We first meet the infant, born with a hair lip, whose mother “shivered to think what had been growing in her all these months.” Then, “Because of his disfigurement and because his mind was not quick, Michael was taken out of school after a short trial” and sent to a state institution until he was fifteen. “Because of his face K did not have women friends. He was easiest when he was by himself.” We learn all of this, starkly, and without elaboration, in three pages. When the narrative opens, Michael is working as a gardener. His dying mother wants to go home to a childhood farm on the veld. Michael, dutiful son, attempts to obtain travel documents, which never arrive. He quits his gardening job at Wynberg Park, City of Cape Town, and they leave without the required papers. On foot, pushing his mother in a make-shift cart, the journey begins.

In Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee has taken one damaged man and written a lucid, spare story of his determination to live his life his way. True to the best character driven stories, Michael changes. Mid-way through the story, Michael realizes it.

When he thought of Wynberg he thought of an earth more vegetal than mineral, composed of last year’s rotted leaves and the year before’s and so on back till the beginning of time, an earth so soft that one could dig and never come to the end of the softness; one could dig to the centre of the earth from Wynberg Park, and all the way to the centre it would be cool and dark and damp and soft. I have lost my love for that kind of earth, he thought, I no longer care to feel that kind of earth between my fingers. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red; not the wet but the dry; not the dark but the light; not the soft but the hard. I am becoming a different kind of man….

Nevertheless, Michael’s limitations impede him: “Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words…. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story; always wrong.” Like the best protagonists, Michael is aware and flawed too. But eventually, he does understand something essential in his own immutable way:

When my mother was dying in hospital, he thought, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked to but someone who stood behind me: her mother or the ghost of her mother. To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.

Michael K is a most memorable character. J.M. Coetzee has won two Booker Prizes (1983 and 1999) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), among other honours and awards. If you “Read Like a Writer,” you can read no-one better than Coetzee, and if you creating a character-driven story, take note of Michael’s path.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Life & Times of Michael K

If you like this story, you may also enjoy reading my review of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me

 

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

There is value in “truly describing the world.” In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuśińki shows us how to capture culture, time (present and past), and place. And he shows us – through example – how to write a fascinating, informative, layered story. History and philosophy buffs will appreciate his nuanced writing. Writers who read carefully, as Kapuśińki reads Herodotus, will gain the insights (and how-to) of a master reporter and storyteller.

Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, Kapuściński had a dream. He wanted to cross a border, not to leave Poland permanently, but just to feel what it was like to cross a border. He had Czechoslovakia in mind. By 1955, Kapuściński had finished his studies and was working at a newspaper. One day, his editor-in-chief asked him what he’d like to do. He told her,

… “I would very much like to go abroad.” …It made no difference which [border], because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act. Crossing the border [Emphasis Kapuściński’s].

A year later the editor summoned him. “‘You know,’ she said, as I stood before her desk, ‘we are sending you. You’ll go to India.’” As a parting gift, she gave him a copy of the newly translated The Histories.

India was an unknown world, a mystery. “I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of the hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter.” Yet, his open-eyed curiosity during his immersion in India is a joy to read (as are his stories of China, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere). Kapuściński might be the best travel writing I have ever read. His stories lack pomp and arrogance; they are immediate, carrying readers directly into experience. And all the while, he probes Herodotus for advice. How does Herodotus do it: go where Greeks had not gone, write with knowledge and insight about what was then unknown?

Stories in Herodotus’ time were oral; they had to hold people’s attention or they would drift away (not so different from today, is it?). He begins one session with the kidnapping of a Greek princess, Io, by the Persians. Kapuściński asks, why: “Because he respects the laws of the narrative marketplace: to sell well, a story must be interesting, must contain of bit of spice, something sensational, something to send a shiver up one’s spine.” In time, as Kapuścińki read The Histories, he abandoned his focus on the people and their wars and,

…concentrated instead on [Herodotus’] technique. How did he work, i.e., what interested him, how did he approach his sources, what did he ask them, what did they say in reply? I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher. I was intrigued by his encounters, precisely because so much of what we write about derives from our relation to other people—I-he, I-they. That relation’s quality and temperature, as it were, have their direct bearing on the final text. We depend on others; reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.

Later, in Ethiopia, Kapuściński notes how he lacks the resources of Western correspondents. He writes, “So I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape, and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain, because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.” He goes “into the field.” Like Herodotus, Kapuściński is a traveller.

Of course, the writer is a filter and present in the writing, but Kapuściński praises Herodotus for the way he relates information by giving the voice to his informants. Quoting from the beginning of The Histories, Kapuściński notes:

According to learned Persians…Or The Phoenicians say that…, and adding: So this is what the Persians and Phoenicians say. I am not going to come down in favour of this or that account of events, but I will talk about the man who, to my certain knowledge, first undertook criminal acts of aggression against the Greeks. I will show who it was who did this, and then proceed with the rest of the account. I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place.

Travels with Herodotus is two stories in one. Ryszard Kapuściński weaves tales of his early forays into travel journalism (beginning mid-1950s) with his reading of The Histories by Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC), that had been recently translated into his native Polish.

Kapuściński is a master storyteller who weaves magic realism, historical allegory, and literary techniques into his writing. He also introduces readers into an award-winning style of journalism. (Kapuściński was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature and won many other awards.) Travels with Herodotus 2004) provides readers with insights into writing acquired over a lifetime; it is his final book.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Travels with Herodotus

Book Review: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Readers will simply fall into this story—its events; its place. The writers among us might read beneath the beautiful words to think about how Anne Enright untangles memory and truth.

I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is a provocative family saga that delves into questions of secrets, memory and truth. At its heart is the story of a sister and her brother, their intense attachment within the milieu of a big Irish, multi-generational family.

I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It is also the story of marriage and children—the people we choose to live our lives with and the ones we don’t—the choices we make and decisions (or circumstances) made for us.

This sounds like a tangled, complicated story, but Enright’s writing is smooth and lyrical. The novel moves forward, while conversely it slips back into the lingering puzzles of childhood—with extraordinary and enviable storytelling skill.

The Gathering is an Irish story as only Irish writers write (think Joyce, the poetry of Seamus Heaney). It is grounded in Ireland. About three-quarters of the way along, Enright says,

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family—a whole fucking country—drowning in shame.

But if you’re not a political or history buff, don’t let that stop you from reading this unflinching look at life, life’s struggle for love. I am not alone in finding The Gathering a story to read; Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Reading as a Writer, pay particular attention to the pace of the story, how the author keeps you turning pages. Think, also, about the opening sentence:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

As you read, be aware how Enright stays constant to this thread, weaving the elusive “thing” and its consequences through to the last sentence.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Gathering

Book Review: Childhood by André Alexis

Childhood is one of the best stories written with the theme of time/memory and relationships. It is an intimate story of a man’s search for insight, if not understanding and meaning. This is a story that haunts on my levels.

Published twenty years ago (1998), Childhood by André Alexis, continues to loom large in my imagination. Childhood is told through the eyes of Thomas MacMillan. When the story begins, Thomas is a middle-aged man contemplating loss. He notes that it has been “six months since my mother died; a shade less since Henry passed.” Thomas, the narrator, has been brooding and decides:

Perhaps writing is the discipline I need.

So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning.

The “you” in the story is Marya, the woman he loves, a woman we never meet. He writes about memories as mysterious as childhood itself, their clarity elusive.

We meet the child Thomas in Pretoria living with his grandmother, and we come to understand a bit about his loneliness and the cerebral world in which he lives, notwithstanding his deliciously whimsical interpretations of the external world.

After his “cantankerous” grandmother, Mrs. Edna MacMillan—retired school teacher and leader of the ill-fated “The Dickens Society of Lambton County”—dies, Thomas meets his mother for the first time. He’s been living with a neighbour for two weeks. He’s ten years old.

She knocked at the door. I answered.
– Yes?

In a soft voice, the first word I heard her speak, she said
– Thomas?
and leaned forward to hold me. Though it was unpleasant, I allowed myself to be enveloped.

–We have to go, she said.

Pretoria is left behind and a car trip to Montreal begins. This is when he tells us that his “small world splintered.” It is an unusual and disorienting journey that ends, not in Montreal, but Ottawa, at 77 Cooper, a rambling three-story house that includes a library, a laboratory, and Henry Wing. On this convergence of mother, Henry, and love, Thomas strives to understand life and himself. About understanding his mother, Katarina (Kata) MacMillan, he concludes:

So, of the woman who whelped me, I now a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don’t know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned.…

Mind you, I can barely scratch the surface of “Who am I?” either.

The structure of Childhood is circular. At the conclusion, the adult narrator Thomas writes from a desk at 77 Cooper:

…I’ve come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through the ground. (I mean, Time is the ground, but my analogy is weak.)

Soon, there’s a contradiction, as happens in life:

Time, which isn’t like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I’ve led.

I will have thousands of childhoods before time is done.

He says that he will “begin another retrospective when I must.”

Childhood takes us on a poignant journey through memory, yielding shifts, distortions, and truths. A thesis could be written about what is largely unsaid—the impact of the immigrant experience, the mystery of loss, the lack of physical affection, abandonment and reclamation—the things written between the lines.

For the writers among us, Childhood, is the best example I can think of for a circular story structure. This book is not memoir, although André Alexis grew up on Pretoria and lives in Ottawa, which gives depth to the specific, nuanced details in the fictional novel. The third thing to look for as you read is how the author moves expertly between adult and child so that in the end we see the child still residing in the man.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Childhood

Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

Poetry’s addition to our lives takes place in the border realm where inner and outer actual and possible, experienced and imaginable, heard and silent, meet…In a poem, everything travels inward and outward.

The essays in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World lead us from what is inherent in poetry (and the other arts) through metaphorical windows of language, image, sound/music, hidden/unsaid, ambiguity, surprise, transformation, and more. Throughout, Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the importance of poetry in our lives, how it reflects culture, and how it can even change cultural borders.

In “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image” (Chapter Three), Hirshfield writes, “…if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you.” Haiku was not new when Bashō came around in the 17th century, but he changed it and influenced writing since. Bashō sought more from the form than did his predecessors. He sought

…to make of this brief, buoyant verse form a tool for emotional, psychological and spiritual discovery, for crafting new experience as moving, expansive, and complex ground as he felt existed in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.

Even for poets who veer from the Haiku form, this goal is an ambitious one. In this small poem of image and sound, Bashō excels in meeting the challenge:

seas darkening

the wild duck’s calls

grow faintly white

In Ten Windows, Hirshfield reminds writers and readers to see what isn’t said, to read between the lines. To me, this poem speaks volumes beyond what Bashō saw; it stirs emotions of darkness, of the fleetingness of experience, and of things disappearing/lost. Hirshfield notes:

“The reader who enters Bashō’s perceptions fully can’t help but find in them a kind of liberation. They unfasten the mind from any single or absolute story, unshackle us from the clumsy dividing of world into subjective and objective, self and other…. 

In a chapter about uncertainty, Hirshfield reminds us:

Poetry often enacts the recovering of emotional and metaphysical balance, whether in an individual (primarily the lyric poem’s task) or in a culture (the task of the epic). Yet to do that work, a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over—disorder and brokenness are necessarily part of human wholeness.

A couple of paragraphs on, she continues developing her idea: “The most serene works on the bookshelf are…in the lineage of Scheherazade’s stories—art holding incoherence and death at bay by invention of beauty, detour, and suspense.” In the colloquial, we say show, don’t tell; leave something to the reader’s imagination; tie up loose ends, but leave the door open.

A work of art is not color knifed or brushed onto a canvas, not shaped rock or fired clay, a vibrating cello string, black ink on a page—it is our participatory, agile, and responsive collaboration with those forms, colors, symbols, and sounds.

Later, in the transformation chapter, Hirshfield writes:

The experience of art takes place within and under the skin. When we read the word “orange,” neuroscientists have found, our taste buds grow larger, more so if we are hungry. A mountain in a poem is known by what has been motionless and stony in us, and by what we have internalized of rock and steepness through legs and eyes. The characters of a story or play are lent our lives’ accumulated comprehensions and history, in order to make theirs our own.

Writing and reading is collaborative. “Poems are made of words that act beyond words’ own perimeter because what is infinite in them is not in the poem, but in what it unlocks in us.” This can be said of all art forms. Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ten Windows

Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic Crime (by Miles Harvey)

Miles Harvey takes us on a journey where maps and travel, character and obsession, and crime come together and where the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul” is explored. Map aficionados are bound to love The Island of Maps. Readers who are also writers will want to explore how Harvey reveals the shadowy Gilbert Bland and how it leads Harvey to character insights of himself.

Miles Harvey—who tired of reading other people’s escapades in his role as book-reviewer and columnist for Outside magazine—began to crave an adventure of his own:

Or maybe adventure isn’t quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination.

Harvey found his quest in crime, in his search to understand Gilbert Bland’s map thefts and, as it turns out, obsession. Along the way, we discover the fascinating world of old maps and cartographic traders. And we discover something of the character of both Bland and Harvey. We also discover the magic that is old maps.

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects…. Columbus, himself, for instance, seemed to think maps were endowed with a force that transcended mere matters of geography. They stoked his imagination, inspired the flights of fancy that made his great discovery possible. The sixteenth-century chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that when Columbus gained access to a map the Florentine scientist Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli it “set [his] mind ablaze.”

And who among us hasn’t dreamed of maps: maps where dragons hover beyond the known edge of land; treasure maps promising trunks brimming with pearls and gold; maps to hidden, idyllic places (think about Lost Horizon’s Shangri La)? Harvey notes that maps can cast powerful spells on our imagination:

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects—what [Joseph] Campbell called ‘amulets’ and [Werner]Muensterberger described as ‘power-imbued fetish[es].”

Harvey seeks Bland, the shadowy man of maps, hoping to penetrate his character—to understand why and how he became the most famous of map thieves. He concurs with Campbell, who he quotes:

As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples n the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep—as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

You can see how circuitous Harvey’s journey has become.

Along with Bland, Harvey explores the worlds of mythology and literature. Among the authors in his voluminous research is Aldous Huxley who wrote about what lurks in “‘the antipodes of the mind.’” With this, Harvey

…sensed that I was on a collision course with one of those ‘strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.’ It was one discovery, I feared, that would bring no joy at all.

During his search he enters a world he didn’t know existed, a world of persons obsessed. His pursuit of a story about a series of rare-map thefts, and for insight into the character of the thief, eventually twists inward. He comes to the realization that…

We rarely reach our destinations, at least not the ones we set out to find. More often, we arrive one day at a place unfamiliar and unexpected, where all roads suddenly seem to converge and something—the ineffable smell of fate or the stench of defeat or (likeliest of all) sheer exhaustion—tells us the journey is over. In my case it was the knowledge that I had wandered too far. We do not take trips so much as they take us….

Harvey was four years researching and writing The Island of Lost Maps. Along the way, he discovered some truisms about the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul.” For these, you will want to read the epilogue.

For reading as writers, pay particular attention as to how Miles Harvey’s search to understand Gilbert Bland’s character leads to insight about the author’s own. Besides character, if you are writing about obsession, there’s much to learn by being attentive as to how Harvey layers his story to reveal many facets of this kind of passion.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

Book Review: The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante, tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name is a great summer read. It will take you into Italy, a specific Neapolitan neighbourhood and holiday beaches. For those reading as writers, read to see how Elena Ferrante creates place and how she develops character. The Story of a New Name may be a great summer read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a story worth reflecting on “how” the magic happens.

Elena Ferrante creates a time and place that is drenched in tradition: a neighbourhood in 1960s Naples, and two women’s struggles to break the chains of their roles and male machismo.

The Story of a New Name is narrated by Elena Greco who unravels her complicated friendship with Lina/Lila Cerullo throughout the 471 pages of the book (the second in a series). The close bonds the girls shared through childhood are broken when Lina/Lila marries Stefano Carracci. With that ceremony, Lina becomes a wife and all that implies in the traditional 1960s Neapolitan neighbourhood. Lina/Lila, however, doesn’t embrace expectations. Elena remains in school struggling for books and space to study, and to experiment in her own way with blossoming sexuality and unrequited love.

I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits.

Ferrante is a master storyteller. Quickly we’re engrossed in the lives of the neighbourhood, the interpersonal entanglements, local politics, and money. But at its heart, this story is a story of friendship overcoming obstacles—many created by the girls themselves.The girl-women are opposites in many ways: Lina/Lila marries into relative wealth; Elena struggles for schoolbooks and space to study. Their temperaments and morals are also polar opposites. Lina/Lila goes after what she wants, recreates herself; Elena holds back and her transformation comes slowly. But like the yin and yang of self, they are bonded.

…Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that’s enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself. What was that deception but another of her fantastic moves, which were always full of risks? The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.

The Story of a New Name took me in deep into a time and place unknown to me, but one clearly lived by the author who shares her name with the fictional narrator of this story. (For a story of friendship between men, check out What I Loved.

For those reading as writers, think about how Ferrante creates place and character, and how she builds the tension that keeps us turning pages.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Story of a New Name