Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann

blackbird

Thirteen ways of looking is a keeper! I wish I could assign 10 stars to this book of four short stories. The writing is lyrical with clean lines and no wasted words as they slip from the page and gently wrap the reader inside each tale. The author’s expert use of puns adds wit to the otherwise often sober narratives. All the scenes unfold without extreme graphic descriptions, even when sex and torture are involved, making it easy to read and absorb, as well as enabling the reader to get the point without the foul language and excessive detail of some of today’s novels. All of the stories involve the watching eyes of a camera or of a person, or of the blackbird; the eyes of a bird see more clearly than a human’s.
The first story, which takes its name from the title and a poem, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens, is the longest. Each scene in the story begins with a stanza from the poem, which in an online analysis is explained to mean a view seen from 13 different vantage points. In each scene, Mendelssohn looked back at his life from different moments and thought about their meaning, not knowing that this would be his last day to ponder. Peter Mendelssohn, and elderly Jew, an octogenarian, former judge and formerly happily married family man, was lunching with his son who was obnoxious and rude, spoiled by his success, and with far different values than his father. Peter was growing frail with age; Elliot was growing more arrogant. One represented an age gone by and the other the one coming of age. As Mendelssohn’s thoughts emerged and he tried to make sense of the world around him, even as his memory sometimes failed him, he began to better appreciate the life he was living. Mendelssohn, a widower, still yearned for the company of his wife, Eileen. He was a lonely man who found solace in his routine, but he enjoyed his companionship with his live in housekeeper and caregiver, whom he was beginning to realize he might not treat well enough. She was, after all, kinder and more concerned about him than his own son. When Mendelssohn was murdered, the eyes of the video cameras which usually saw more than the human eye, actually saw less because of a snowstorm. How did Peter die? The story concerned itself with the contemplation of a life, about the different ways to view things; the camera’s sharper view and ultimately, the world view.
In the story, What Time Is It Now, Where you are?, a writer is facing a deadline for a story to appear in a New Year’s Eve edition. He writes about Sally, a female soldier who sits high on a hilltop in Afghanistan. It is New Year’s Eve, and she is watching the barren landscape, searching for the enemy. The night sky is dark, her loneliness for family deep; the danger is out there, but it seems minimal. In the midst of this timeworn place, enmeshed in war, she thinks of her family at home and waits impatiently to call them at midnight with her SAT phone. She has taken the watch to allow everyone else to celebrate, albeit without her. It is a story within a story, his story of his writer’s block, as he struggles to find a theme, and then it is the magnetic story he settles on about the lonely soldier, far from home, on New Years’ Eve. The ending leaves the reader wondering what the New Year will bring.

In Sh’Khol, the tension grows slowly but surely. A 13-year old boy, Tomas, goes missing. He was deaf and emotionally and mentally disabled. His divorced parents had adopted him when he was 6-years old, from Vladivostok. He is now 13. He is away with his mom, Rebecca Marcus, vacationing in an Irish beach town when he disappears on Christmas day. The search for him is riveting as all eyes wander the landscape, hoping, even after several days, that he will be found. The ending leaves the reader with many unanswered questions to think about especially about how the eyes of each individual viewed the disappearance through a different lens.

*** From the Jerusalem Post
A word for losing a child
By Laura Rosbrow
Tue, 10 Jan 2012, 09:08 AM

“Language says so much about a people. For instance, I learned the word “sh”khol” (שכול) the other day. Sh’Khol translates to “bereavement,” but its meaning in Hebrew is much more specific. It’s an adjective used to describe a family member that loses someone at a young age, or prematurely. Oftentimes it is used to describe parents that lose children in war or terror related incidents.
My Hebrew teacher noted that as far as she knows, this word does not exist in any other language— and she knows eight. It certainly doesn’t in English.”***

Treaty is about a heinous unsolved crime involving the rape, torture and kidnapping of a Maryknoll nun, by a paramilitary group near Puerto Boyacá, in Columbia. When 76 year old Beverly was in her twenties, she was captured by rebel soldiers and held prisoner for six months. She bears the mental and physical scars of the brutality. Now years later, she has been told by the order to go to a seaside town on Long Island to relax because she is elderly, overly stressed and sleeps poorly. While there, she watches a Spanish language station with two of the other Sisters in her order; suddenly, she sees a face that is familiar and unsettling. It is the face of the revolutionary who kidnapped her decades ago. She wonders how he morphed into a diplomat involved in peace talks, from the scruffy brutal man he once was when she was his prisoner. She must find him and confront him, but when she does, it is an odd confrontation, and the eyes of the video camera once again play a role, but in this case, it does not conceal the evidence of a crime, but reveals it. Will she ever reveal it publicly? Should she seek revenge?

There are many common threads in this book worthy of intense discussions. All of the women play different, important roles. Both Peter and Beverly are aged and forgetful, Carlos and Sally are involved in wars, there are those who don’t know how to tell their stories and those who cannot tell theirs, in one the water is calming and in another, disastrous, all of the stories involve some kind of searching, watching, and yearning. Video cameras play important roles as eye witnesses. They are all set in cold places. All have Irish threads running through them. Religion is somewhat superficial in the stories with Peter’s son Elliot worshiping money more than G-d, but devotion or the lack of devotion to a person or to a G-d is a common theme. Good judgment and misjudgments are common themes. The characters are larger than their superficial descriptions. Peter looks back on his life, Sally, the soldier, contemplates the life she is missing, Rebecca regrets some parts of her life and Sister Beverly is guilty and ashamed about hers. The eye of humans, the lens of the camera and the dark eyes of the blackbird are at work in each story, in some capacity, as they bear witness to events. All of the stories are open ended with unresolved questions for the reader to ponder. What really happened to Peter? What happened to Tomas? Will Sally survive? Does she ever reach her family on the phone? Can Sister Beverly come to terms with her inner pain? They are all somewhat sad stories with a thread of anger, fear, loneliness, sacrifice, compassion, brutality, and neediness running through them. The ends are never completely tied up; instead, they are left with an air of mystery. It is more thought provoking than disturbing. While a story might seem gloomy, it is not. The injection of humor and the graceful, fluid prose make the book an interesting journey into the way we think and view our lives.

The author writes a brief piece, after the book ends, in which he explains that he believes every writer’s work is somewhat autobiographical. He had been mugged (like Peter) and beaten into unconsciousness when he went to the aid of a woman. He, like the nun in the story, had to decide whether revenge was the appropriate response for the victim of a crime.

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About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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