Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Blizzard Voices

The Blizzard Voices

Everyone I love who has died has been cremated. The coffin disappeared with a mechanical whoosh, or a discreet curtain covered it up, and that's the last we saw of it. It's cold, clinical, institutional, fake, and it's not enough for me. I want to watch dirt cover the coffin and know that it's done. I want a place to visit, a place to sit and chat and cry and think.

So my husband and I will be buried. We will sink into the soil and turn into good earth. We will be in a place where our children can hold a picnic, and listen to the trees, and breathe goodbye over and again. In my fantasy world, I will be buried at a friend's block, quiet, unremarked, ignored for the most part, but a good place for a picnic; a place where the wind sings and a rainbow is often to be seen spanning the valley. In reality, we're visiting country cemeteries and seeing what's available.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to The Blizzard Voices. I find most poetry to be unutterably omphaloskeptical (I have always wanted to use that word in a sentence) and excruciatingly tedious.

And then there's Ted Kooser. Kooser is a poet who uses the cool spare language of the Great Plains. He is the poet for people who like stories, and other people. His language is clear, strong and wiry; and he tells the most wonderful tales.

The Blizzard Voices is a collection of poems about the terrible storm which struck the Plains in the late nineteenth century. Teachers and students were trapped in schoolhouses with limited fuel and food. Farmhands perished in the fields, unable to find their way home. Fathers sheltered under upturned wagons with their livestock, and lost hands and feet to the cold. Mothers sat anxiously at home waiting for their husbands and children to return: from school, from the neighbour's house, even from the barn just yards away.

Kooser collected the stories from those who remembered, and from old diaries and other reports. He shaped the material into a series of short poems, each speaking in a different voice to relate an image, a snippet, or an experience. Together, the poems form a chorus, and provide a sense of the many faces of the blizzard: finding a loved one dead in a snowdrift, and the methodical calm of a plainsman in dealing with it; the surprising experience of discovering turkeys days later, buried by the snow but alive and well; the quiet devastation of a young teacher who lost her way and held three young charges close as they died in the night; the sight of a man who lost arms and legs to frostbite being loaded onto a train; the line of sunflowers which led a teacher and her children to safety.

Reading the book, I felt I was sitting at the feet of a grandmother or a great-uncle, listening as they told stories by the fire. It is a deeply nourishing set of poems, tied to a particular time and place, but drawing the reader into a collective history, and giving the reader a sense that the history is part of our shared story.

As in his book Local Wonders, Kooser finishes the collection with a deeply moving piece which is a benediction of sorts; here, a blessing on those who died. He writes that the names of those buried unremarked and unremembered in the corners of fields are still carried on the wind. And I'm back to where I began. Two lifetimes and half a world away, I think of those lines whenever the wind blows, and hope that I too can one day be buried in a field somewhere, remembered for a few years, then left to the song of swaying grasses, and the ever changing crooning of the wind.

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

(You can read more about Kooser's book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps here.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry

I loved the The Time Traveler's Wife, so I immediately sought out Niffenegger's next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. Don't make the same mistake; it's awful. The characters are tedious; some of the plotline is so obvious I wanted to scream, and the rest is so bizarrely idiotic that I was gobsmacked. The writing clunks and drags, full of clichés and inane comments; I wonder if an editor even saw it? I finished it only out of pride; I had it listed as 'what I'm reading' and thought I'd better see it through.

To summarise, Her Fearful Symmetry is a twee ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London (cliché alert!). Yet it doesn't feel at all like London, but instead like Disney London aka Ye Olde London Towne. The characters are stereotypical Londoners, all white: the bookseller with a stuffed animal in her study; the frail but impressive grande dame who oversees the volunteers at the cemetery; the slightly ineffectual academic; the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter. They all live in magnificent spacious flats near the cemetery, because, as you know, second hand booksellers, crossword compilers and PhD students make so much money. Oh please.

Into their midst arrive bland American twins, insipid, tedious, vapid and boring. They have inherited one of the flats from their aunt, who now haunts it. The story appears to be about their struggle to separate identities, just as their mother and aunt, also identical twins, struggled to separate theirs. With the aid of the ghostly aunty, her former lover and a Ouija board, the weaker twin embarks on a plainly disastrous attempt to draw away from the other; of course, she can't just move out of the flat and get on with her life like a halfway normal person. That would be too straightforward, and the reader would miss out on her riding on a raven over London's tourist hotspots.

The only character to provide a glimmer of interest is the OCD-afflicted crossword compiler, Martin; yet even this character is hard to swallow. Being a paranoid obsessive, he agrees to take 'vitamins' (aka Anafranil) administered by a stranger (aka the bossier twin), just because she says he should; he shows dramatic healing as a result. Such behaviour beggars belief.

The book is a total bomb. I can't quite believe that the author of The Time Traveler's Wife wrote it; I find myself wondering whether this ghost story was ghost written in some clever little game played on readers everywhere? Ghost written or not, don't waste your time. It's awful.