Tuesday, November 19, 2013

P.S. Duffy

P.S. Duffy is the author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a debut novel that takes place during the First World War in Nova Scotia and the Western Front in France. She lives in Rochester, MN, had a long career in adult neurologic communication disorders, and now splits her time between writing fiction and writing scientific papers for Mayo Clinic. She says that at her age she is happy to have the word “debut” applied to anything she does.

A few weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Duffy's reply:
Traveling Sprinkler, by Nicholson Baker.

For the past week, I’ve been keeping company with Paul Chowder, a 55-year-old poet and the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s latest novel. I say “keeping company” because from the opening line, I felt Chowder (he refers to himself by last name) was writing me a personal letter. “Roz called me to ask what I wanted for my 55th birthday,” he begins, and I nod, as if Roz is territory Chowder and I have covered many times before. I say “novel” even though Baker, by his own unapologetic admission, makes little effort to ascribe a narrative arc to Chowder’s meandering days, observations of the ordinary, outrage at drone warfare, and riffs on music (musical notes “can be long or short, and in real life they are always bending up and down like flexible Claymation figures;” measures “are little aquariums of time in which the notes must forever swim”).

Ostensibly, Chowder is at a turning point—away from poetry toward writing protest songs—while simultaneously trying to get Roz back into his life. I want movement and conflict in a novel as much as the next person, but can tolerate its near absence as long as I’m prepared up front and the words inspire, delight, and take me someplace new, which these often do. I’m about three quarters through, and there are times I’ve been irritated at Chowder for self-indulgence. It reminds me of a line about a teenage boy in Monument Road, a novel by Charlie Quimby: “He was in the phase of life when most experiences and thoughts seemed exceptional simply because he had them.” Grow up, I say to Chowder. I don’t care how well-chosen your words and original your syntax; drop these looping insider takes on Debussy’s harmonics and Talking Heads, on sharps and chord progressions and click tracks . But then he surprises and wins me back, as I suspect he will Roz. Re-reading a poem by Howard Moss that in its perfection made him despair as a young poet, Chowder now finds reading it “only makes me happy.” One of the joys of aging—beautifully and obliquely expressed.

Reading this book before sleep, I find my dreams, like the traveling sprinkler, wander slowly through green lawns, a relief from troubled nights.

Crucible of War: The Seven years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson.

Lately, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I’ve been drawn to what we used to call the “French and Indian War.” I read a fair amount of history, and this is one I’m taking my time with and have dragged, all 862 pages of it, on trips overseas. It’s dense yet accessible. Anderson’s thesis is that the American Revolution can only be understood in the context of the Seven Years’ War—that the Revolution’s origins lie not just in the seacoast colonies but deep in the Ohio Valley. On a global scale, France’s revenge against Britain for her loss of North America cost Britain resources, and Britain’s massive North American land-grab proved too much to control from an ocean away. Equally crucial were the miscalculations of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, who were respected by colonials and European powers as sophisticated diplomats and negotiators in ways that are difficult to imagine given our humiliating treatment of them ever after. Having just written a novel that takes place during the Frist World War, the causes of which are still hotly debated and about which there are some 25,000 publications in English, I’m attracted to a recasting of common assumptions about war—especially one as intensely studied and often glibly understood as the Revolution. It wasn’t all Stamp Act, tea parties, noble ideals, and material aspirations, as Anderson’s refocus on critical context so well demonstrates. It might take me seven years to finish it, but I’m fine with that.

Bossy Pants by Tina Fey.

Tina Fey. Need I say more? This book makes me laugh out loud, and by that I mean actual laughter, not just “LOL.” Thanks, Tina, I needed that.
Visit P. S. Duffy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue