Wednesday, February 19, 2014

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

"So, like I was saying, as that owl was just about to smash into our winshield, it slanted its wings, and slanted up into the dark...And I said something like, "That was magnificent," and my girlfriend - you know what she said? She said, "I'm breaking up with you because you are not an owl."

"Yeah, it was on Okinawa, an we hit the beach, and well, it's hard to talk about it - it was the worst thing...I'm not a poet - so I don't have the words - but just think of it this way - that beach, that island - was filled with sons and fathers - men who loved and were loved - American and Japanese and Okinawan - and all of us were dying - were being killed by other sons and fathers who also loved and were loved."

I am in love with Sherman Alexie. His laughing face with his long hair flowing is one of the hand-made posters that hang up in my classroom. I teach "Indian Education" basically every year in every grade that I can get away with it. "Hey Victor" is something I say sometimes to people not named Victor when I want to have an inside joke with myself. In spite of all this, I have only read two of his books - The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (one of the books on my comps list that was not discussed at all much to my sadness) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. I recommend both of them all the time to everyone. I need more Alexie in my life, and this came to me in pristine condition from Goodwill. It is his most recent work (from 2009) and is a collection of short stories and poems.

This collection has a few different narrators, including an American Indian named George Wilson who accidentally kills a black teenager, a white senator's son, an ethnicity-free Paul Nonetheless, and Sherwin Polatkin whose surname will be familiar to anyone who has read his other works. It's great to see stories that stray from his feels-very-autobiographical works and that are still delicious and wonderful. This collection is very much focused on masculine experiences and men's relationships with their girlfriends, wives, sons, and fathers.

One line in the book gave me utter joy above all else. 

"Frankly," my doctor said. "Your brain is beautiful."

I couldn't say where I picked up the expression, but 'beautiful brain' is something that I use often enough that a student once doodled this in her warmup notebook. (That was a very accurate depiction of what I used to look like). 

If you've never read Alexie before, I would recommend one of his more popular books to start with - not because this one isn't good, but because the other two are AMAZING and much more typical of what people associate with his writing style and content. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

"Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood." . . . It swore every boy to stick to the band, and. . . if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn't eat and he musn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued; and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever. 

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath."

Seeing how often this novel has been reviewed on this blog (Chris's 2007 review, Brent's 2007 Review,  Chris's 2013 Review) makes me even more ashamed that I have never read this novel (or if I did, I was too young to remember). Go ahead and put on your Judgey Pants - I deserve it. An MA in Literature, an AP Lit teacher for four years, an American Lit teacher at one time and another and not read Huck Finn? The problem is that I didn't get it in high school, and my undergrad/grad classes didn't offer it (assuming probably that I had read it in high school), and as a first year American Lit teacher (who had two other subjects to teach) I was not going out of my way to read a book I had never read before just to teach it. There are just so many books....However! My freshies have the option of choosing this as a companion novel for To Kill a Mockingbird and my juniors also have the option of choosing this if they are unwilling/unable to get more contemporary American Lit (their other options include Alexie, Chabon, Tan, Egan, etc), so I really needed to read it.

When I began, my first thought was "Really? It's the n-word that is the MOST offensive thing and the reason why kids shouldn't read this book?" 

(Siderant: a student who is not my student found a slightly cut down version of this article by a Harvard Law professor on the n-word and was very offended that I was teaching it. I found out because they complained to their teacher. The teacher pointed out to the student that my MLA citation showed my source as being The Journal of Blacks In Higher Education and that such a journal would probably NOT print anything that was racist. I actually did white out the 'igger' for every word not in a quote because I found it to be a bit much; I hand-wrote a note at the top saying that although I didn't feel I had a right to change the author's diction, I did feel like it was acceptable to leave the blank space to give students the space to determine their own feelings on the word. I feel like this student's knee-jerk reaction - that any paper that has the n-word on it must be racist and any teacher who passes out any papers with the n-word on it must be racist - to be so depressing because it showcases how adults can have the same knee-jerk reaction about a book - that any book with the n-word in it must be racist.)

Needless to say, I found the alcoholic father and the child abuse to be a much more compelling reason to keep this out of children's hands. "He chased me round and round the place with a clasp-knife, calling me the Angel of Death, and saying he would kill me...By and by I got the old split-bottom chair and clumb up as easy as I could, not to make any noise, and got down the gun. I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip-barrel, pointing towards pap, and sat down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along." Here we have a 12 year old pointing a loaded gun as his drunk father because he is rightfully afraid for his life...and the n-word is what we are all concerned about? It makes me sick the way Americans don't even notice violence but will get all up in arms for a word (or any kind of sexuality). My grandfather (who was himself an abusive alcoholic) gave my older brother beautiful copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when he was in elementary school, and in retrospect I really can't imagine what he was thinking.

As a former teacher of wayward youths, I immediately fell in love with Huck. He's had such a shit time at life because of circumstances totally beyond his control, and my heart really went out to him. I found his journey to be fun and funny and sweet and heartbreaking, and I really just wanted to be the older-but-not-a-parent mentor figure for him. His narrative presence is often beautiful ("And how slow and still the time did drag along" - come on! he builds a slow and still sentence that is so lovely). His struggle to develop a morality when everything around him is a complete moral paradox is at times baffling because I'm so far removed from his reality, but considering the setting I don't actually find it problematic when Huck thinks things like: "Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children - children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm." 

What made me crazy throughout the book though was Huck's hero worship of Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer would have done it better, more elegantly, more interestingly, smarter, blah blah blah. His self esteem is so low that all of his endeavors have to be measured up to (and fall short of) the great Tom Sawyer. Huck can never measure up to his smarter, richer, better off friend who wants to slum it and play at scary situations and violence because he has had the luxury of not having to actually deal with scary situations and violence. 

When actual Tom Sawyer shows up, I started to really dislike the book. Tom Sawyer is a monstrous teen of the worst kind. Scientific American has an interesting article about the psychology behind why Huck Finn turns into such a terrible person at the end, and it does a solid job of explaining Huck's actions (TLDR: peer pressure and awareness of low social status as well as Jim's role as a parental figure that needs to be rebelled against), but it also just reminded me why I don't teach middle schoolers. They're evil, and Huck is one of them even if he's not in school. He will probably be a kid I'll love in high school, but I can't stand the meanness of those 8th grade boys, and I hope that Huck grows up to realize that even in 8th grade he was a better man than Tom will ever be. 

As for Jim, how can you not love Jim? I do. I love every brave moment he has: running away, trusting a kid, taking care of that kid, not telling him what he saw in the ship, standing up to Huck and telling him when he's being a dick, trusting other slaves to pass information to Huck. All of these things could mean a return to slavery at best, lynching and mutilation at worst. Every time he does one of these things, I see the images of every lynching photo I have ever seen floating before Jim's eyes and him deciding to do it anyway. The power of that is moving. It's also heartbreaking to see his continued failure to find freedom. "Yes; en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, and I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

Because I love Jim so much, it's hard to forgive Huck, even if Jim does. I am completely okay with him being a more loving person than I am. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart, and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth.  Gold!--his own gold--brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!  He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure.  The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze.  He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered warm soft curls.  In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child--a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.

The question that struck me before I picked up Silas Marner was: can George Eliot write a short book as well as a long book?  Some people seemed inclined to write one or the other, so it's strange to me that Eliot was able to pump out something as tome-like as Middlemarch as well as this little under-200 pp. book.  Silas Marner, as expected, doesn't have the complexity of Middlemarch, but it shares a concern in the vitality of communal living, and effectively gives the impression that its characters are only one glimpse of a larger story of the town in which they live, as in Middlemarch.

Silas Marner is a weaver and a miser who adores the pile of gold he keeps beneath his floorboards.  He was once a religious man, but an instance of betrayal--his closest friend blames on him a horrible crime--made him shun society, and horde the proceeds of his weaving.  One night, his gold is stolen and his world unravels.  But a few days later a young golden-haired child appears mysteriously in its place, as if the gold has been transformed.

We know the provenance of the child--a woman trekking through the snow has died and the child sought shelter in Marner's cabin--but to Marner and the other villagers, this is a mysterious occurrence.  Eliot is concerned with the nature of Providence: what is it, what does it mean to be given it and what does it mean to be denied it?  The young Marner's guilt is determined by drawing lots, and the result drives him away from God and church.  But the transformation of the gold into the girl, whom Marner names Eppie, is a different kind of Providence.  Eliot lets us see the human striving and action behind the mystery, and this way manages to suggest that we are the engines of God's beneficence--which Marner, cut off from his community, has long been starved of.  Eppie reconnects him to other people:

The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of coin.  And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to his earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.

There's a cloying cuteness to this story.  This "adorable-child-redeems-an-antisocial-lout" conceit is surprisingly popular these days, and most often is a sign of laziness.  (It even happens to Tim Riggins.)  But perhaps the idea was fresher in Eliot's day.  Even still, Silas Marner has the air of a fable, neatly packaged with a moral at the end.  It seems to owe a definite debt to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  But Eliot is such a masterful writer--at times she reminds me of Hardy, but with a better sense of authorial control--that it never seems cheap or overly didactic.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph

This book is actually a collection of three plays, but I'm going to treat them as one text and do mini-reviews of each from my least to most favorite.

I'd See It, But It's Not On My Play Bucket List: Animals Out of Paper
(Joseph's fourth play, but the earliest play in this collection)
This play follows a newly divorced origami master, the science teacher who is enamored with her, and the origami prodigy teenager he's discovered at his school (who is also just a regular prodigy) who he wants to be an apprentice to the master. 

This play has a few funny moments, like when Andy (teacher) goes to Ilana (origami master)'s studio: 

He points to a Chinese take-out box.
ANDY: Hey did you do that? That's great.
ILANA: Those are take-out boxes.
ILANA: Yeah, that's Szechuan beef.
ANDY: It's just that there's so many. I thought it was conceptual. 

It's WORKS, but it's also a cheaper laugh because it's a joke that's been made with a lot of conceptual artist's work - it just works better because of the origami/Chinese take out box connection. It's too bad that it's one we've heard before. 

It's also a little heartbreaking, like when Andy accidentally leaves his book of blessings (yes, he counts and writes them down) behind at Ilana's apartment and she reads them all, discovering many things about him including his uncomfortably huge crush on her (uncomfortable because he idolizes her and they've had very few interactions).

ANDY: I really like you. I mean, I have a really big crush on you.
ILANA: I know, it was in the book.
ANDY: Oh man!
ILANA: Andy, listen . . . 
ANDY: People have two sides, okay? They have their inside and their outside, and I don't really need for everyone to be reading my book!
ILANA: People have more than two sides.
ANDY: Some people. But not me. There's this. And then there's this. 

He feels like she already knows all the little stories, moments, and anecdotes that a person would normally have the opportunity to share while getting to know someone. The motif of sides, paper, and folds is repeated throughout the play at different intervals, often beautifully (I am a little geeky about origami and have had dreams about folding and teaching and usually make at least one origami piece with my students every year, so I am very much biased - I think most things having to do with origami are beautiful). 

ILANA: Look at this paper. It has no memory, it's just flat. But fold it, even once, and suddenly it remembers something. And then with each fold, another memory, another experience...It probably can't remember it's still in one piece. Probably feels like too many things have happened to it. It's all twisted into something so far from what it used to be. 

The idea is great, the writing is beautiful, but I wasn't satisfied with the arc of the plot and where Joseph decided to end it. Because it is such a new and (at least in my circle of readers) relatively unknown text, I don't want to give anything away, but it made me want to origami, and I think I'll indulge for my Valentine's Day cards. 

I Want to See This So Badly and Was Ecstatic to See an Ad for It in San Francisco Only to Have My Soul Crushed When I Found Out it Was Put on Five Months Ago: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

This play is THE Joseph play. It was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2010 under drama, but lost to "Next to Normal" by Tom Kitt which I cannot speak to as I've never read/seen it. 

This play showcases the Iraq war in a really interesting and brilliant way. The title character, the Tiger, is played straight as a person who watches the horrifying events unfold before him (although he IS a tiger and doesn't necessarily find killing problematic). We also get the perspective of two American soldiers as well as an Iraqi translator, his murdered sister, a handful of civilians, and Uday Hussein. Living characters interact with dead ones, and time and space are sometimes blended. 

Including Uday Hussein is a really interesting choice. I did a little research to see if he's portrayed accurately, and it turns out he was in fact a really awful person (you are surprised, I know). TIME Magazine did a profile of the Hussein brothers and it begins with an anecdote about Uday seeing a 14-year-old girl, kidnapping her, and keeping her for three days while he raped her. The girl's father was an ex-governer and reported the rape. Uday told him to drop the charges and send the girl back to him with her 12-year-old sister, which (according to the article) the ex-governer did. So. There's that, and that part of his personality is included in the play. 

UDAY: (truly aggrieved) But people don't like me. They say I am a bad man. Evil. A torturer. I tortured people. (beat) Of course I fucking tortured people. When you have people who have wronged you . . . you would torture them. . . And then once they have [tired of the torture], you bring in their women. And you have your way with them. Because to watch your wife get fucked by a man who is about to kill you, well, that is a piece-of-shit day you are having, my friend. 

The American soldiers are struggling to keep it together psychologically and morally while still upholding their masculine military values. Kev is a compulsive liar who has to make himself seem braver, more impressive, more important than he is. 

KEV: (near tears) Jesus! Everything I see every day is just one crazy thing after another. 

The play does have funny moments - one of my favorite is when Musa, the translator, addresses one of the soldiers as Johnny (after being repeatedly called Habib by the Americans). In the way that "Animals Out of Paper" uses origami as a metaphor, this play uses topiary as a metaphor, and again - I might have a bias because my mom is into topiary and I grew up with it - it's a really lovely metaphor. 

This is one of those texts where I feel like there is so much happening below the surface, and I think I really will need to see it in order to start to have an idea of what I've missed. One thing I am very excited for in production is the use of Arabic. In the script, we the reader get the phonetic, the Arabic, and the translation, but stage directions specify that the audience only hears Arabic. 

I Saw This Play Twice In One Week and Will Never Turn Down a Chance to See It: Gruesome Playground Injuries 

My favorite Las Vegas local theater company, Cockroach Theatre, included this in their last season and I was immediately blown away and saw it twice. After reading it, I am still in love with this play. Joseph is really into these metaphors that take over the whole play (see: origami, topiary) and in this play it is injuries. The play features two people: Kayleen and Doug, and shows them from age 8 to age 38. Every scene jumps forward fifteen years or backwards 10 years, thus in the first scene they are 8, in the second they are 23, in the third they are 13, etc. They have a will-they or won't-they friendship that is showcased mostly in the nurse's office and hospital rooms, but sometimes in other places. 

The most interesting aspect of this play is that the costume changes and makeup changes are done on stage in front of the audience, so they get to see the actor cover themselves with mud or blacken a tooth or put on an eye patch. This play has to be one of the most difficult for actors to do because they are playing this huge range of ages and experiences, but Joseph's writing so wonderfully captures their ages. 

KAYLEEN (age 8): The rest of the castle is loud and has bright lights and flags and hot oil because of wars. But the dungeon is where people can go to languish and get some peace and quiet. 

After having sex for the first two times, she describes the second time with: 

KAYLEEN: It wasn't fun. It was . . . It was just like, you know. Like you have to pretend you're not even doing anything, like you're just playing around. . . wrestling around and everything and then suddenly we're not, suddenly, he's like. . . you know . . .
DOUG: He's like what?
KAYLEEN: Nothing.
DOUG: You didn't want to?
KAYLEEN: I mean . . . not at that exact moment . . . 
        Doug stands up, stares at her. 
DOUG: Kayleen . . .
KAYLEEN: Don't get all crazy. You're always so dramatic.
DOUG: I'm going to fucking kill him. 

Oh, this moment. This moment where a girl doesn't feel comfortable calling her experience rape or inappropriate or anything, and the person who loves her is ready to fucking kill that person. I feel like this is *such* a woman moment, teenage moment, human moment, and way too common, and perfectly captured. 

I don't know if I would have loved this play so much if I hadn't seen it done SO well in an intimate black box theater with really amazing actors who were perfect for the parts (and really excellent decisions in sound choices - the stage directions just say to play music in between acts while they're changing, and the director had era-appropriate music that made it feel very much like these characters were on MY timeline, although I am a wee bit younger). However, I do think that the writing is THAT strong in order for two people to carry the entire weight of a play on their shoulders. I would recommend this to everyone, but especially to women and men in their teens, twenties, and thirties who spent part of their youth and maybe part of their present being broken and damaged. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings

Questions of English reverberate through our daily lives.  When we use a language, we may be making a social connection, answering a question, enjoying ourselves, passing time, or showing off, but fundamentally we imagine that the interest of the person or people to whom we are speaking is engaged.  The desire to shape and emphasize this engagement is crucial.  How do I get you to listen to me?  Can I persuade you to like me, hire me, trust me, come and see my etchings?  Manipulations of our language -- by the state, advertisers, salespeople, factions, preachers, prophets, poets, cheats -- are legion.  Then there are other questions.  How do we refer to social groups other than our own -- people of a different ethnic background, say, or people with disabilities?  How do we address strangers, which words are hurtful, and when is it okay to swear?  Is the language of an email different from the language of conversation?  What songs can we sing, and how should we pray?

Though Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars declares itself a history of arguments over the nature of proper English, it's really a polemic.  That's okay; The Language Wars is never more engaging than when Hitchings revels in a vigorous defense of a descriptive way of looking at the English language, whether it's exposing the dangerous jingoism of "pure English" or pithily observing that "[t]o expect a natural language to behave like mathematics is akin to expecting a child to behave like an iPod."

Of course, I find Hitchings persuasive partly because I was already persuaded.  Like Hitchings, I believe that carping about the "rules" of English is not only irritating but the product of a mistaken view of how language works.  Several times in the past few months I've been caught in arguments about the news that certain dictionaries have decided to include "figuratively" in their definitions of the word "literally."  Most people are surprised to find that I think the decision is the correct one.  The purpose of a dictionary, I say, is to act as a record of English usage, not a set of fiats to follow.  It is possible to lament the shifting usage of the word "literally"--I too cringe when I hear it used as an intensifier--without pretending that offenders are violating some invisible rule of ironclad law.

Hitchings surveys the history of the English language from its "modern" roots in the fifteenth century to shows that these arguments have always been going on.  Taken as a whole, the book reads like a pantheon of pedants, from crusty old coots inventing rules from the premise that English should act like Latin to crackpots who want to "purify" English spelling and grammar to make it more rigid, scientific, English, or American.  Sometimes it's funny--did you know that eighteenth century grammarian Lindley Murray argued against using the relative pronoun who when referring to children because "We hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection?"  Humorous too are the lists of words that were once thought of as pernicious, including mob, which Jonathan Swift hated, or electrocution, gullible, standpoint, and autograph.  Sometimes it's frightening--instead of giving an example from the book, maybe just recall this.

The most powerful thing, in fact, about The Language Wars, is how well it details just how entangled the idea of "proper English" is with some very nasty assumptions about race, class, nationality, gender, and power.  Still, I have to voice my admiration a little for nineteenth century writer and favorite of Thomas Hardy's, William Barnes, whom Hitchings pokes fun at for his attempts to eradicate Latinisms from English in favor of Anglo-Saxon words:

Barnes preferred wheelsaddle to bicycle -- a detail quoted by Hardy in his obituary of Barnes in 1886 -- and nipperlings to forceps.  More alarming, perhaps, was his suggestion that leechcraft was better than medicine.  But not all his proposals were shunned: it was Barnes who revived the Old Enligh term Wessex, steeped in associations with paganism and Saxon kingship, and we can see a Barnesian flavour in the use of foreword and handbook instead of preface and manual.

Attempts to return English to its Anglo-Saxon roots, as Hitchings points out, have often been tinged with xenophobia and racism.  But foreword IS better than preface, and sunprint more evocative than photograph.  I could get behind using inwit rather than conscience.   But I don't know that Barnes even lived to see the worst of Latinisms, which really clog up academic, legal, and professional writing--expedite over hasten, deracinate over uproot, et cetera.  (Excuse me--and others.)  Hitchings' goal is to expose the shoddiness of prescriptivism, I know, not give style advice, but for such a clear stylist, I think he's often reluctant to identify genuine good advice about language.  "Avoid using literally when you mean figuratively" is not a rule.  But it is good advice.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Symposium by Muriel Spark

'Perhaps', said Dan, 'you can't be a friend.  Maybe in fact you're our worst enemy.  It may be.'

'Undoubtedly,' said Magnus.  'In families, one never knows.'

Muriel Spark's Symposium starts with a very basic plot: A collection of well-to-do Londoners meet for dinner, including the newlyweds Margaret and William--whose mother can't make it, because she's being murdered in her apartment on the other side of town.  From there it branches off disparately, through the recent histories of all the dinner party's guests.  That's a particularly Sparkian trick, to pack as much disparate information into a tightly sealed space, and here, as in The Finishing School, another "late" Spark novel, the sparseness struck me as a bit excessive.  I think that Spark grew only chillier and more ascetic as she grew older, and parts of Symposium seemed jarringly rote.

The best parts--most of which have to do with Margaret, who might just barely be called a "main character"--are shuffled unceremoniously in and out without time to really appreciate their fertile weirdness.  There's Margaret's mad Uncle Magnus, who everyone in the family seems to agree is not always mad, and who is the family's principle adviser in his lucid moments.  And the Marxist sisters of Mary of Good Hope (Spark loves nuns!) who take Margaret in as a novice before a murder forces them to dissolve.  Here's a letter Margaret writes:

Sister Lorne is furious because the Bishop sent a dictionary to Sister Marrow.  He said he had been given to understand she was at a loss for words, how to express herself.  He wrote something like that.  And he recommended she should study the dictionary or look it up when the accurate epithet was called for.  We had a meeting about the letter.  Sister Lorne has written back to the Bishop that this was an insult.  She said that four-letter words were the lifeblood of the market place, the People's parlance and aphrodisiac, the dynamic and inalienable prerogative of the proletariat.  Sister Marrow added a PS. Fuck your balls Bishop, you are a fart and a shit.  I posted the letter myself.  The Bishop can't do a thing.  Sister Lorne remarked that there is no power in Church or State that can stop the inexorable march of Marxism into the future.

Are the sisters of Mary of Good Hope a humorous diversion, or integral to the themes of the novel?  As I always find with Spark, it's hard to tell.  Margaret, we find out, has a bad knack for being around people when they are murdered, including her own grandmother.  That's why she's in the convent.  But, naturally, even her own family suspects that she may somehow be implicated in these murders, and for a moment, we are led to think that, too.  Ultimately, Margaret decides that if she's going to be thought of as a murderer, she might as well have the fun of murdering, and she sets her sights on William's mother:

'I'll tell you what,' said Margaret, 'I'm tired of being the passive carrier of disaster.  I feel frustrated.  I almost think it's time for me to take my life and destiny in my own hands, and actively make disasters come about.  I would like to do something like that.'  She sat on the sofa beside Magnus, tossing back her red hair, rather like a newly graduated student seriously discussing her future with her college tutor.

'Perpetrate evil?' Magnus offered.

'Yes.  I think I could do it.'

'The wish alone is evil,' said Magnus with the distant equanimity of a college tutor who has two or three other students to see that afternoon.

'Glad to hear it,' said Margaret.

Ironically--SPOILER ALERT--it's not Margaret that kills William's mother.  She's done in by a ring of thieving butlers who swoop in on empty homes when they know their occupants will be at swanky dinner parties.  The black comedy of it all is that Margaret, who has tried unsucessfully for so much of her life to bring good to others--she lives by philosophy she calls Les Autres--makes a sudden switch to the pursuit of evil, and she's foiled even in that.  Spark wants us to laugh at Margaret's utter failure to practice any sort of morality at all.  It makes sense, then, that she opens the novel with a quotation from Plato's Symposium:

...the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.

Fair enough.  But Symposium is only infrequently funny, and the digressions to the other members of the party--of which there are eight or so, and whom I have addressed here not at all--enervates the central plotline of any real tragedy.  The ironic comparison of the dinner party to a Platonic Symposium is cute, but as a writer's ethos, it seems more well matched to, say, Loitering with Intent(Incidentally, the book that Fleur Talbot writes in Loitering shares a plotline with this novel.)  Don't get me wrong, I loved reading it--I always love Spark's novels.  But I wouldn't recommend it to a novice.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

"Could a Negro ever live halfway like a human being in this goddamn country?"

This is one of those classics that has never made it onto my nightstand which is a little strange because of my reading preferences. I have read what I would consider to be an inordinate amount of literature by African-American woman (compared to an average American reader) with a comparative lack when it comes to African-American men. I did read Native Son as an undergrad, and it took me a few years to get over the experience which my overly-privileged self felt I really didn't need to experience (I have a much greater appreciation for it now).

In choosing companion novels for To Kill a Mockingbird that are appropriate for freshman, I realized I didn't have a single book by a black male author that I wanted to offer as an option, so I decided to preview Black Boy and felt the way I almost always feel when reading a book I know I should have picked up earlier in my life: how have I not read this?

The quote above is striking because it's one of the VERY few times Wright utilizes a colorful word - he makes it clear early in the text that words are powerful and he is not interested in expressing himself with coarse words which of course makes this usage feel like the slap in the face that his whole life has felt like.

The autobiographical novel begins at around age 4. As someone who has almost no memories until I was well into elementary school, the early memories make me incredibly envious. The whole first part of the book which follows Wright growing up in an incredibly religious household that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly divisive school system that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly racist town that he doesn't fit in with. His family lives in poverty and he's constantly starving, hungry, and obsessed with food.

"I lived on what I did not eat."

It is maddening and frustrating and illuminating. Although I obviously graduated from high school and college with American history credits, took Modern African-American Lit as an undergrad, teach American Literature, and prepped for teaching TKAM, the details of his daily life were still a surprise. I wonder if it's just something that is impossible to get over? Today as my students read about Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow etiquette, I found myself paraphrasing Wright to them. One freshmen said that he couldn't imagine having to wait for white drivers to pass through intersections before him because he doesn't pay enough attention to people's race, and I said that's a luxury he has because he's a Caucasian appearing man in 2014, and if he were a black man in the early 20th century he would think about race every moment of every day.

"This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

The second part of the book showcases Wright's migration to the North and the freedoms and difficulties found there. One of the most striking moments in this section is the desperate loveseeking that a young woman engages in and her mother encourages. They are tirelessly trying to convince Wright to marry the young woman, engage in sexual relations, connect with, etc, in spite of the fact that she is illiterate, they have just met, and it's unknown if they have anything in common. The mother tries to dangle the fact that they own their house as a prize for Wright to settle with her daughter. This economic carrot is one that appears later on in the text as well. 

"But people have to find their own way to each other."

As Wright becomes an insurance salesman he reveals that some women don't pay their insurance premiums, and the salespeople have sex with them in exchange for paying their dime or nickel premium. This ugliness is written about as though it were nothing, and Wright takes on a haughty tone against prostitutes as though his kept women are something besides women who are trading sex for money.

One critique a coworker said about the novel is that she gets to the point where she feels like "I get it, let's wrap this up." Although I feel like every aspect of the novel is there purposefully, and similar sections are included to show the nuance of experience, but he does get INCREDIBLY nuanced when it comes to what happened with him and the Communist party.

Throughout the novel I kept finding myself taken in by a perfect turn of phrase, and I wonder how much of the beauty of Native Son I missed because I was so disturbed by the content.

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The face of a man contemplating revolution.
"My point is that one person is responsible.  Always.  If H-bombs exist--and they do--some man controls them.  In terms of morals there is no such thing as 'state.'  Just men.  Individuals.  Each responsible for his own acts."

"Anybody need a refill?" I asked.

Nothing uses up alcohol faster than political argument.  I sent for another bottle.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was excellent.  It tells the story of three characters who start a revolution to free the moon colony, Luna, from its tyrannical Earthside rulers.  If this sounds a little familiar, it's because it is.  Heinlein's scholarly character, the Professor, notes the similarity between their revolution and that of our founding fathers.  This is one of the reasons the book is good: the political angle.  The plot is driven by a libertarian revolution and the characters' various reasons for seeking freedom from the Earth.  A number of chapters include poignant debates between the characters.  Also quite a telling account of the legislative body.

Nonetheless, the book is also extremely funny.  The characters all have a great sense of humor and on multiple occasions (including the passage above), I was laughing out loud.  Another example:  "'I must confess,' said Prof, 'that I find these conflicting reports very conflicting.'"

The highlight of the book, though, is Mike, the recently turned sentient super-computer that gives the revolutionaries their edge.  Mike is a super computer that manages everything in Luna.  After becoming sentient, Mike plays pranks just to see what happened.  The narrator meets Mike/learns of his sudden intelligence because the narrator simply starts talking to Mike.

What is striking about Heinlein's presentation is that, although Mike is wildly intelligent, he does not understand basic human interaction.  As a result, in the beginning of the novel, Mike acts like a child.  For example, Mike asks the narrator to explain humor to him; throughout the novel Mike is as interested in understanding humor as he is in winning the revolution.  I liked this idea: a suddenly sentient intelligence won't know how to act, or why.  It would need guidance.

Highly recommended.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something.  Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.  I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from.  There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it.  Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted.  I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.

From 1946 to 1947, Flannery O'Connor--long before her writing became synonymous with the "Southern Gothic"--kept a prayer journal in a composition notebook, which a month or so ago was published in the form of a book.  It's a wonderful record of stark honesty, although peering into someone's personal life of prayer seems voyeuristic.  In his introduction, O'Connor's friend W. A. Sessions' says that the Prayer Journal should be taken as a document of a "craftswoman of the first order," and not necessarily spontaneous moments of intimate reflection.  But that belies a persistent anxiety in the Journal about the conflict between craft and honesty.  The very first page seems to have been torn out, leaving this fertile fragment as an opening line: "[...] effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had."  Yet, look at the beautiful--and quite writerly--metaphor that follows:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.  You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.  The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

O'Connor vacillates between the deep desire to be a professional writer and self-chastisement over the practice of writing: "But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so."  I don't think this is an ironic gesture; in fact, much of the Prayer Journal reads as intentionally plain, stripped intentionally of artifice.  The truer, and more wonderful, irony is that the flares of guilty craft are often the lines that inspire the most thoughtfulness and reflection in me--like the lines about the moon above, or the banal specificity of "floor wax and pigeon eggs" as a route to prayer.  And yet, O'Connor seems to understand this possibility and dismisses it:

There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead.  Writing is dead.  Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness.  I bring my dead want into the place, the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing.  This has its purpose if by God's grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.

That, like much of A Prayer Journal, is deeply sad.  It almost makes me feel guilty for being inspired by any part of it.  I hope that O'Connor found something vital for herself in the career that she so earnestly desires throughout it, that it wasn't all a "dead want" in a "dead place" for her.