Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Rules of Engagement

Two recent books offer different views of relating to the world

By Michael Sims

JUNE 14, 1999:  Diane Ackerman gets around. Her first book was about learning to fly. She's the author of the passionate and encylopedic book (and host of the feeble and self-indulgent documentary) A Natural History of the Senses. A critically acclaimed poet, she has recently published a new collection, I Praise My Destroyer. She has written books about the natural history of love, about her experiences as a crisis counselor, about travels to observe rare animals in the wild. Hers is a restless brain with a contagious enthusiasm for almost everything that this aging but still beautiful world has to offer. Naturally, this passion lends her an invigorating sort of charisma on the page.

You can never predict what Ackerman's next volume will be about. Deep Play proves this point. It's about, well, engaging with the world as deeply as possible--a challenge that, in her scenario, results in everything from mountain climbing to poetry to the roots of spirituality.

If the book's synopsis sounds highfalutin, the prose is never anything but down-to-earth and accessible. Ackerman smoothly ties together recent disasters on Everest, the feverish quests of Paul Gauguin, and the impact of flying machines on our perception of the world. As naturalist, professor, poet, runner, biker, pilot, and frequenter of exotic climes, Ackerman has plenty of her own stories to contribute. Every time you think some new direction is merely the author gamboling up a byroad, you discover that the new path loops back around and connects with the old one. Deep Play is Ackerman's most unified and tightly woven book--and one of her lightest, weighing in at only 212 pages of text.

Diane Ackerman thinks that at their best, astronauts, monks, skydivers, and poets all partake of the same rapturous, ecstatic experience--total engagement with the moment, finding the self through a situation in which you may (indeed, are forced to) abandon it. She makes a strong case for the universal human need for this kind of deep play, and for why we instinctively honor those among us brave enough to do what the rest of us only watch.

As with so many writers from Hemingway to Joyce, Ackerman's vices are mostly excesses of her virtues. Her poetic and vivid prose (as well as her poetry) sometimes turns shamelessly purple. Happily, Deep Play is less florid, but it doesn't lose a bit of its color or verve. Instead, the whole work is strengthened by the Zen-like combination of discipline and play that Ackerman obviously brought to the writing of this book. That is how it should be: Deep Play proves Ackerman's own need for, and aptitude for, deep play.

In her debut novel, Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime, Diane Leslie demonstrates a completely different sense of play: Her sly wit and offhand candor unite to create a charming and memorable protagonist. Leslie's background is rather different from Ackerman's too. She grew up in Hollywood and now works in a Los Angeles bookstore.

The family life of the young narrator, who looks back on her youth from adulthood, is hinted at by her very name. Caught up in their own careers and vanities, Fleur's parents burdened her from birth with a silly, punning name (including the ridiculous "de") simply because it amused them at the time--their usual criterion for everything they do. But Fleur will not be beaten. The novel covers almost three years of her life in the late 1950s, roughly from age 10 to 12, as she rattles around in a moneyed but heartless home in Beverly Hills, seeking out company and affection to replace what she's not getting from her parents--which is just about everything.

Because most of Fleur's experiences in life come from family substitutes, each chapter bears the title of a person who crossed her path during those three years--mostly nannies, with a former silent film star, a starstruck psychiatrist, and a quietly heroic gardener thrown in. Leslie's quick sketches of these supporting actors are part of the fun of the book. One of the nannies is a thief, another an escapee from a mental institution, yet another a duplicitous wannabe of the All About Eve subspecies.

Leslie doesn't make a great effort to sketch the wildly different culture of the 1950s, which would have helped the background of the story. But then, the world at large impinges relatively little on young Fleur's consciousness. Not surprisingly, she is interested mostly in herself, her family, her neighbors, and her school friends. Unfortunately, Leslie has so little sense of the era that she commits occasional anachronisms, such as having a character say, "Guess the boob tube's got me hooked," at least a decade before the term came into use.

Although they occasionally inhibit the suspension of disbelief that a novel requires, such speed bumps are minor flaws in an entertaining and quietly insightful novel. Light and airy enough to qualify as a beach book, yet substantial enough to feel like more than junk food, Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime has something to offer a wide variety of readers. The questing, curious, ever-growing character of Fleur is a delightful creation--a fictional character well worth meeting and remembering.

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