The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Frank Bascombe claims to be a literalist. But he might better be described as a fabulist, constantly lying to himself and others, inventing life histories for chance acquaintances (which mostly turn out to be far from accurate), and struggling to reassert his personal narrative in the face of his oldest son’s death two years previous, his inconsistent actions since that time, and the end of his marriage. He exists, often, in a dreamlike state, muddled and meandering, often overtly acting at cross-purposes with his best intentions. By contrast, what he admires in the athletes about whom he writes is that they can be within themselves, in the moment, totally fixated upon the task at hand. He aspires to that level of unconcern with his surroundings, his past, and his future. But Frank was never an athlete even in college, and in the end it is his words that must see him through.

It takes some time to get to know Frank, not least because of how poorly he knows himself. He praises mystery—in life, in people, and in circumstance—and says he wants to preserve it, yet he is the consummate explainer, filling in all the details of a person’s life even when, in most cases, he has to invent it. He himself is unclear about what he means by mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the son for whom he is entombed in mourning. Perhaps it has something to do with his persistently spouting proposals of marriage, but never in such a way that they could be taken seriously. He is a man divorced from his wife, from the politics of his time, from his own family history. He seems to be adrift in a sea of suburbs and insubstantial, place-holder, accommodations, that can neither substitute for the absence of community nor inspire hope for the future. His monthly gentlemen’s club for divorced men might easily be a model for all of our modern relations—insincere, uncommitted, grasping after distractions in order to avoid the real issues and emotions that are thundering down upon us. The very distractions in which the sportswriter specializes.

Ford’s writing here is deft and subtle. Frank Bascombe is a man of words, by nature and by profession. But what purpose do his words serve, either when he was a short story writer, or in his career as a sportswriter? He claims that with his sportswriting he is doing about all a man could hope to do in addressing the problems of family, community, nation, even life itself. But he doesn’t really believe it, does he? He is a man hiding from himself, perhaps, and his real fear may be the literal truth he cannot face.

This is no novel to be raced through. It needs to be savoured, maybe even mellowed by age. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much had I read it more than twenty years ago, when it was first published and when I was more than twenty years younger. Reading it today, it felt entirely apt. Certainly, long before the end I had reached the conclusion that Ford is a writer more than worthy of the effort. I would gladly read this novel again. And anything else Richard Ford has going. Highly recommended.

Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough

Just over the border, in the sleepy post-revolutionary Mexican town of Corazón de la Fuente, the erection of a mammoth radio tower will soon transform the lives of everyone living under its green-hazed penumbra. Dr Brinkley, the tower’s progenitor, is a million watt charlatan and his heavy brand of hucksterism and patent medicine, pitched to address men’s greatest fear, is wildly successful. But with so much potency on the loose, is it any wonder the citizenry of Corazón de la Fuente end up being shown the business end of his tower?

Robert Hough’s gentle, descriptive prose traces the hopes and fears of a wide selection of Corazón de la Fuente’s favourite sons and daughters in near-sepia tones. From the lame mayor, Miguel Orozco, to the Spanish hacendero, Antonio Garcia, to Madam Félix and the Marias of the House of Gentlemanly Pleasures, Hough treats his subjects with compassion and just enough self-awareness to keep them interesting. But perhaps my favourite of the many citizens of Corazón de la Fuente is the aged molinero, Roberto Pántelas, and his young love, Laura Valesquez. Their sad story, tragic but humane, captivates the reader. How could their end signal anything other than the downfall of Corazón de la Fuente?

Of course Corazón de la Fuente does not go down without a fight. The elder statesmen of the town, together with the young Francisco Ramirez, and the ancient curandera who foretold the malignant effect the tower would have, take it in hand to set things right. But perhaps too much has happened and too much has changed by then.

This is fine writing by an author clearly in command of his craft. A pleasure to read and to recommend.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Writers write, as they say. That is about the only certain advice one can receive from a book on writing and life and the writing life. With a wry, self-deprecating, brutally honest demeanour, Anne Lamott informs her students that the way to become a writer is to sit down every day at the same time with a clean piece of paper or the file on your computer you’ve been slaving over for more than a year—and write. Only those who have actually attempted this will appreciate, along with Lamott, just how difficult it may be to fulfil that simple injunction. She is well aware that you will stare at the page or the screen sometimes for hours on end; that you will reconsider your decision to post-pone the fun you could have had working on your taxes; that the corner of your desk will become endlessly fascinating and just may be the grain of sand in which you will perceive the whole…yes, just about anything is more enticing, at times, than writing.

This book shares a few useful techniques to help your writing process, which I’ll get to in a moment, but what makes it one of the best books on writing that I have read is Lamott’s compassion for others in her situation. Because more than anything else, this is a book about compassion. Compassion for others, certainly, but also compassion for oneself. That, and learning the value of producing an SFD: a “shitty first draft”.

Lamott has a strong belief in the power of writing per se. If you press on, word after damn word, reaching a certain number of words per day (she suggests three hundred as a target), eventually you will complete your SFD. And here is an important tip: don’t show your SFD to anyone. The embarrassment of riches (and the stink) of an SFD should be yours alone. Fortunately, once you’ve got an SFD you can move on to the rewriting stage—because having made something, your job as a writer is to make it better. Of course making it better can take a long time. It may involve sharing your current versions with your writing group, with a trusted but critical colleague, with an editor or your agent, if you have one. The good news is that no matter how bad they think your writing is or how much further you’ve got to go with it, at least you can rest easy that they didn’t see your SFD.

By all means borrow this book from your local public library. And when you’ve finished reading it, go out and find it in a bookshop somewhere. Because you’ll want to have it on the shelf in your office to glance at when you are staring at that blank page (or screen) to remind you that, well, writers write. (P.S. If you think this review is bad, you should have seen my SFD.) Recommended.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The characters in Emily Brontë’s novel are so extreme, so given over to their passions, so driven and wilful that you will, certainly, want to pull your own hair out. From the dissipated yet cruel Hindley, to the emotionally divided and divisive Cathy, to the mindlessly foolish Isabella, and her ineffectual brother, Edgar, to the stunted, brutish Hareton, it is a cavalcade of distasteful, even monstrous, types. But none compare to the fiendish Heathcliff himself, whose unrelenting vengeful monomania brings ruin upon them all. How Heathcliff’s perverse passion for Catherine came to represent any sort of ideal of romantic devotion in the many years subsequent to the novel’s publication is a mystery to me.

If possible, it might be best to set aside the principal characters and their extreme emotions and actions, and turn instead to the descriptive prose with which Emily Brontë renders the wild moors, the relentless inclement weather, and the brief wonder of spring or a sunny summer day. Even more intriguing is the bracketed narrative technique, initiated by the loquaciously risible Mr. Lockwood and then, more prosaically, carried forward by Ellen Dean. That Ellen Dean at one point encourages Mr. Lockwood to pursue a possible marriage with the younger Catherine deliciously risks the confusion of narrative and plot, and Mr. Lockwood does well to get himself as far away from Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights as possible. His return later in the year rightly heralds the wrapping up of loose ends and the natural dénouement of the tale.

Wuthering Heights, even today, seems so singular, so extreme that, if you still have hair at the end of it, you might wish to set it on its own shelf in your library, isolated and incomparable. A curious, dark masterpiece recommended only for the brave of heart.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

It is highly likely that, like me, you are a re-reader of Jane Eyre. Why? The melodrama is risible; the coincidences beggar belief; the transformations in situation and fortune are almost like a fairytale. And yet something draws you back. Surely it must be the conviction of Jane’s narrative voice, her flinty unwillingness to be misused, her determination, her luck of survival, her daring to even consider love, but also her resolve not to submit to anything less than the equal marriage of (unfettered) true minds and hearts. It is Jane alone who draws us back. What a curious and singular character she is.

It is certainly true that Jane encounters her fair share of repugnant individuals in her short life. Nothing redeems the behaviour of Mrs Reed or her children, and Mr Brocklehurst is a sorry substitute, fixated as he is on an economic spiritual ideal of education mostly suited for shaping souls for the next life and not the one before them. But Jane also has luck. Whether it comes in the form of the inspirational Helen Burns, or perhaps her best mentor, Miss Temple, Jane somehow attracts the succour of the good and just individuals she meets. Even the otherworldly St John Rivers is counterbalanced by his more amiable sisters.

But of course it is Mr Rochester who fascinates Jane, and she him. He is both ugly in form and, at least initially, ugly in character – officious, peremptory, and dismissive. More ugliness lies beneath, too much perhaps. Rochester tempts fate by enticing Jane into a liaison that can only blacken his character. He tempts fate, and fate intervenes.

Brontë’s world is heavy with the clash of dark and light, good and—not evil perhaps, but—sullied nature. My temperament leads me to prefer Austen, but every once in a while, I find it necessary to come back and re-read this gripping tale. Recommended.