Wednesday, March 30, 2016

NW by Zadie Smith

Every unknown word sent her to a dictionary--in search of something like "completion"--and every book led to another book, a process which of course could never be completed. This route through early life gave her no small portion of joy, and indeed it seemed at first that her desires and her capacities were basically aligned. She wanted to read things--could not resist wanting to read things--and reading was easily done, and praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things. Wasn't it possible that what others mistook for intelligence might in fact be only a sort of mutation of the will?
NW is (sort of) a book about a neighborhood. In classic Zadie Smith style, the novel opens with a cacophony of voices and story lines (so much so that it is very difficult to get your bearings at first), all of which take place in NW London. It takes most of the novel for them to coalesce into one narrative arc, but it does so in fairly satisfying fashion by the end.

I felt about this book the same way I've felt about most of the Smith I've read. At first, I really didn't enjoy it. The narratives were too disjointed--the voices to hard to follow. She slips into these inner monologues that are almost impossible to decipher that go on for pages and pages, and then she'll leave a character at the drop of a hat and pick up with a brand new one. It often took me several pages of a new character to re-orient myself, and by the time I did that, she was usually ready to move on to something else. Once I got used to that pace, I was able to sink in and enjoy the writing (which, as always, is excellent), and Smith settles into one coherent story line for the second half of the book that is much easier to follow (and broken up into neat little vignettes).

The book is so sprawling that it's hard to pin down one thing that it's about, but the friendship at it's center is a beautifully conceived one. Two girls, each impressively and utterly believably insecure, grow apart and then back together, and we get to crawl into each of their brains throughout. The ways in which they brutally compare themselves to each other, the conviction they each hold that the other is smarter, more pulled together, more genuinely herself--each of these pieces is perfectly written. What could feel cliche or preachy instead feels honest and a little uncomfortable in its accuracy.

The voices Smith crafts, while initially confusing and off-putting, become totally immersive by the end of the book. Her sentences tumble and weave and sound just like the jumble of thoughts that go on in your head, but they resolve into these beautiful nuggets (that sound nothing like thoughts I have ever had). Sprinkled throughout are these sentences that stop you in your tracks for minutes a time: "While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became." "I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me." "Like most children, theirs was a relationship built on verbs, not nouns." I'm willing to put up with a lot of garbled monologues to get to gems like these.

Overall, I ended up enjoying it. I often felt like I wasn't a smart enough reader to grasp what Smith was trying to achieve, but I found enough to hold onto to ground myself in the story and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans--or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation... But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn--as much about ourselves as about the past--by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments . Western culture has a very varied inheritance.  Happily, we are not the heirs to the classical past alone.  Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

When Mary Beard's SPQR is described as a "popular history of Ancient Rome," it might be easy to miss the resonances hidden in the acronym: Senatus Populusque Romanus--the Senate and the Roman people.  It's a history which is written for the layperson, sure, but Beard's title intentionally draws our attention to that second populus, which is part of what makes the book so engaging.  It's not just a story of Great Men--though there are plenty of them here, from Romulus to Cincinnatus to Hannibal to Julius Caesar to Augustus--but also a book that pays special attention to what life was like for the average Roman citizen, who tends to get lost in the historical narrative.  What was it like to be a woman in Rome?  What about a slave?

That kind of approach can seem like a fuzzy kind of history, one that forsakes the clarity of what happened for the ephemera of domestic life.  But Beard makes a clear case that such an approach is necessary if we really want to engage with the problems and ideas that shaped the Roman consciousness over a millennium, and which continue, shadow-like, to inform our own problems and ideas today.  The class conflict between the Senate and the plebs, and later the optimates and populares, don't map neatly onto our own class conflicts, but man, are they recognizable.  So too the argument about citizenship--who gets to be a Roman, where, and why?--that preoccupied the ancients until universal citizenship was granted in the third century CE have their own echoes in our current political cycle.  The preemptive strike which utterly destroyed the city of Carthage in the Third Punic War looms large when we think about our own role as the world's mightiest military, and Beard carefully and consciously wants us to consider what it might have been like to be a Carthaginian.

But SPQR is also filled with those great, faintly familiar stories about power, intrigue, statecraft, and war which are the hallmarks of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It's fun to read about Cicero railing against the traitor Catiline, even as Beard asks us to consider the hypothesis that Catiline was something of a popular reformer, rather than a venal turncoat.  And who doesn't love to hear about the bloody exploits of Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned and bungled the murder of his own mother, even as Beard points out that it's the murdered emperors, on whose perfidy their successors' legitimacy rested, seem to be the worst of the bunch?

SPQR hits a sweet spot for me--it reminds me of the history that I know already, and which fascinates, while prodding me to think in directions I might not have otherwise.  It's thoughtful in a way that a "popular history" probably doesn't have to be, and that's what makes it worth reading.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

"Only feeling, sire," answered the Provost.  "I was born, like other men, in a spot of the earth which I loved because I had played boys' games there, and fallen in love, and talked with my friends through nights that were the nights of the gods.  And I feel the riddle.  These little gardens where we told our loves.  These streets where we brought out our dead.  Why should they be commonplace?  Why should they be absurd?  Why should it be grotesque to say that a pillar-box is poetic when for a year I could not see a red pillar-box against the yellow evening in a certain street without being wracked with something of which God keeps the secret, but which is stronger than sorrow or joy?  Why should any one be able to raise a laugh by saying ' the Cause of Notting Hill'?--Notting Hill where thousands of immortal spirits blaze with alternate hope and fear."

In the distant future of 1984 (lol), things are pretty much the same as they were in 1904.  Men still wear their topcoats, and politics has become so humdrum and bureaucratic that the king is chosen at random, because he might as well be.  Chesterton's vision of the future is a wry takedown of the predictors and prognosticators popular in his time who "took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened."  But it also anticipates the theory of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, which imagines the universal acceptance of liberal government and the end of nationalist squabbling.  That sounds nice, maybe, but one of the most provocative ideas in The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that there's something to be said for nationalist squabbles.

The stability of this England is upended when Auberon Quin, one of those career bureaucrats, is chosen as king.  Quin uses his new position as an excuse to inject humor into the drab English system of government, and decrees that several London neighborhoods--Notting Hill, Bayswater, South, North, and West Kensington--must build city walls and operate as medieval city-states, with halberdiers, banners, and Arthurian pomp.  No one appreciates the joke, but they begrudgingly go along with the joke.

Years later, the provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, begs for an audience with King Auberon.  The provosts of Bayswater and South Kensington, you see, want to demolish Notting Hill's Pump Street, and its dingy handful of shops, to build a highway.  Wayne is younger than the King, and the other provosts, and in fact he has grown up in the system which the King imposed as a joke.  Which means he doesn't see it as a joke.  He is a living, breathing medieval man, who speaks earnestly in the Arthurian manner which the King speaks ironically, and he believes in the sanctity of Notting Hill.  What follows is a protracted "war" in which the forces of Notting Hill heroically withstand the onslaughts of the halberdiers of the other neighborhoods,  and wins its own sovereignty.

Some of Chesterton's objectives in this novel are political.  He looked at the world of 1904 and saw the massive British Empire systematically squashing smaller states.  Notting Hill, like Nicaragua (whose king makes a brief and baffling appearance in the beginning of the novel), stakes its right to its own sovereignty on the depth of attachment of its own citizens.  Patriotism, for Chesterton, matters because it is subjective, and subjective feeling matters more than the unfeeling interests of the state.  Martin Gardner, in the foreword, argues that we are meant to reject Wayne's assertion that "[t]here were never any just wars but the religious wars," but I think that's Chesterton's point precisely.  Chesterton, of course, died in 1936, just as the dangers of sentimental patriotism were really starting to become apparent.

On another level, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, like The Man Who Was Thursday, political intrigue transforms into religious allegory.  In a final meeting, Quin and Wayne consider themselves as representations of God and man.  God, like Quin, may have made the world in jest and scorn, but man endows it with an inviolate value:

"...Suppose I do not laugh back at you, do not blaspheme you, do not curse you.  But suppose, standing up straight up under the sky, with every power of my being, I thank you for the fools' paradise you have made.  Suppose I praise you, with a literal pain of ecstasy, for the jest that has brought me so terrible a joy.  If we have taken the child's games, and given them the seriousness of a Crusade, if we have drenched your grotesque Dutch garden with the blood of martyrs, we have turned a nursery into a temple.  I ask you, in the name of Heaven, who wins?" 

This doesn't work as well as it does in Thursday, I think, where seems both natural and remarkably profound.  In many ways Notting Hill seems like Chesterton feeling out the mode which he perfects in Thursday: he mines the mundanity of politics for its absurdity and humor, and finds meaning in the absurd.  And unlike Thursday, Chesterton isn't really able to graft this mix of comedy and profundity to a workable plot--the battle scenes, which ought to be funny, are really mostly a slog.  Maybe a Londoner, who knows these places and for whom the absurdity of treating them like medieval Florence or Brittany or something would better land, might have gotten more out of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sula by Toni Morrison

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven's wings and flew high above their hats in the air.  They did not hear all of what he said; they head the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves.  For some it was the term "Sweet Jesus."  And they saw the Lamb's eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves.  They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich.  That one.  The one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old young skin, and was the one the world had hurt.  Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in.  Or they remembered how dirty the room looked when their father left home and wondered if that is the way the slim, young Jew felt, he who for them was both son and lover and in whose downy face they could see the sugar-and-butter sandwiches and feel the oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood, but the remembrance of it.

I love buying used books when I travel because when I pick them up, months or even years later, they remind me of where they came from.  It wouldn't be the same with new books, I think--the appeal must lie in the way they must have been possessed, and read, by someone who lived there, or at the very least passed through there.  I bought this copy of Sula in a dusty bookshop in Virgin, Utah, population 596.  In 2000 the town of Virgin, Utah passed a law mandating that every resident possess a firearm.  There's something of a Morrisonian touch there--it seems like each of her books has a "town" who is as much a character as anyone else, and one which can be quite menacing.

In Sula, the town is Medallion, Ohio, which is in every other way not very much like Virgin, Utah (though I think she'd like that name, too).  In the black district, known as The Bottom despite its place in the high hills looking over the majority-white valley, two girls grow up as friends: the conservative Nel and the brash, wild Sula.  Sula is the kind of girl who cuts off her own fingertip to scare off a group of male harassers, as if to say, you don't know what I'm capable of.  Sula and Nel bond over childhood joys as well as traumas, as when they accidentally drown a small child in the river.  (They're swinging him around by his arms and lose their grip--it's weird, and not totally realistic, in a way that's typical of Morrison's novels.)  Later, Sula comes back from a long absence, sleeps with Nel's husband, and generally attracts a bad reputation.

It's tempting, and perhaps not incorrect, to see Sula and Nel as complimentary halves of a single representation.  Sula is the one who leaves, Nel is the one who stays home.  Sula is the whore, Nel is the respectable woman.  Sula is the id, Nel is the ego.  Morrison, as always, is too complex and too cagey to let the story resolve into those easy binaries.  She goes out of her way to show Nel in the process of developing and discovering a discrete self:

She gout out of bed and lit the lamp to look in the mirror.  There was her face, plain brown eyes, three braids and the nose her mother hated.  She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.

"I'm me," she whispered.  "Me."

Nel didn't know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant.

"I'm me.  I'm not their daughter.  I'm not Nel.  I'm me.  Me."

This passage rings very true for me.  Haven't you ever had that late night sensation that there is a you which is somehow separate from and beneath your face, your body, your name, all of that?

Sula seems not to need this realization, for her own discrete selfhood has never been in doubt.  When she sleeps with Nel's husband, Morrison attributes it to a sense of self so resolute and complete that it borders on solipsism.  Confronting her, Nel reminds Sula that such an existence is lonely, but Sula replies, "Yes.  But my lonely is mine.  Now your lonely is somebody else's."  Morrison is hyper-aware of the demands that other people--husbands, children, whole towns and countries--place on us, and the ways in which they limit and define us.  And yet, Nel is right--which of us would take a life as lonely as Sula's, no matter whose lonely it was?

These moments are the heart of Sula, and they're extremely moving.  But they are surprisingly brief.  Sula enters the book late and is ushered out early.  Instead Morrison, as she does in her other novels, dwells lengthily on the figures at the novel's edges.  Figures like Shadrack, the vagrant war veteran who inaugurates The Bottom's National Suicide Day, or the deweys, a trio of adopted boys who no one can tell apart (though they don't look alike) and who never age.  Nel and Sula have sisters, brothers, mothers, grandmothers, all of whom interest Morrison at least as much as the pair themselves.

In a novel like Song of Solomon, this kind of things works well because it helps to define and complement the magnetic character of Milkman, whose gradual embrace of his family history is central to the novel.  Sula is too steely and removed, and too briefly sketched, to serve the same kind of role, and Nel pales against the colorful supporting cat.  As a result, Sula never really coheres in a way that would allow its better aspects to really hit home.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

"I believe," Fran said slowly, as she disengaged her fingers from his and stood by the hall door of the compartment, "that whether it's a play of imagination, of drug-induced hallucination, or an actual translation from mars to Earth-as-it-was by an agency we know nothing of'--"  Again she eyed him sternly.  "I think we should abstain.  In order not to contaminate the experience of communication."  As she watched him carefully remove the metal bed from the wall and reach, with an elongated hook, into the cavity revealed, she said, "It should be a purifying experience.  We lose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say.  And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow.  Or forever, if you believe as some do that it's outside of time and space, that it's eternal.  Don't you agree, Sam?"  She sighed.  "I know you don't."

"Spirituality," he said with disgust as he fished up the packet of Can-D from its cavity beneath the compartment.  "A denial of reality, and what do you get instead?  Nothing."

Climate change has left the Earth a scorched wasteland.  (Good call, Philip K. Dick of 1964!)  Traveling outside means using special cooling packs, but most people just don't step out of doors unless they're getting in a taxi.  The rich adapt by paying for special treatments which speed up their evolution, giving them a chitinous shell to protect them from the heat as well as giant skulls to accommodate their newly massive brains.  The middle class and the poor are subject to sudden draft notices which inform them that they've been selected for forced migration to the frozen hovels of Mars.

Being a Mars colonist apparently sucks.  The colonists get by through the use of a special drug known as Can-D, which allows them to inhabit the bodies of a popular doll named Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which are clearly meant to suggest a 22nd-century Barbie and Ken.  The colonists spend much of their excess cash on Can-D, not to mention the intricately detailed playsets modeled after pre-climate change Earth life.  In one funny scene, a group of colonists are giddy to try out the new psychiatrist's office they've purchased for Pat, but they can't agree on how much the psychiatrist's services are supposed to cost--because many believe that they go through a kind of actual translation to Earth, even the smallest are vitally important.

The Can-D business is booming, despite its illegality, until Palmer Eldritch--a famous entrepreneur and adventurer, a kind of intergalactic Richard Branson--returns unexpectedly from Proxima Centauri in possession of a new drug, Chew-Z, which will supplant Can-D forever.  Unlike Can-D, which only provides the illusion of an altered experience, Chew-Z seems to transport you into a new reality, one in which space and time can be manipulated.

I was telling Brent the other day that Dick's books tend to be formulaic.  That's not a criticism, but an observation that, for all their wild inventiveness, they have really similar structures and characters.  The protagonists are usually white males, simultaneously battling professional and personal disgraces, and without any really significant character traits.  Who can tell Barney Mayerson, the Can-D representative who is the center of Palmer Eldritch, from Rick Deckard of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Or the protagonists of any of his other books, whose names I've utterly forgotten?  The VALIS novels are the exception to this, and that's why they're Dick's best works; they alone really offer a sense that the personal travails of the protagonists are more than just a way of exploring the knotty thought experiments Dick projects into the future.  I never attempt to rank Dick's books like I do some of my other favorite writers, because I'm not sure how to differentiate them.

On the other hand, you can see in Palmer Eldritch a foreshadowing of the idiosyncratic Christian mysticism of VALIS.  The Mars colonists think of the Can-D experience in explicitly religious terms, likening it to communion.  When the minds of the women exist simultaneously in the body of Perky Pat, or the minds of the men do in Walt, the parallels with the eucharistic body are clear.

Much of the book is taken up by the protagonists'--Barney and his boss, Leo, engaging in corporate sabotage--experiences on Chew-Z, trying to discern what exactly the nature of its powers are.  Is it really a new reality?  Or does it, like the specially evolved precogs of many of Dick's novels, launch you into a future time?  Can it do both?  Or does it merely trap you in the mind of Palmer Eldritch himself ?  It's this last possibility which frightens the Can-D executives, because they suspect it will lead to the wholesale destruction of the human race, gobbled up inside the being of Palmer Eldritch, or perhaps an alien being who has come back in Eldritch's likeness.  This leads to some trippy scenes late in the book, where Eldritch's title "stigmata"--laser eyes, a metal jaw, and a fake hand--begin to appear on everyone Barney comes into contact with.

After all, the creature residing in deep space which had taken the form of Palmer Eldritch bore some relationship to God; if it was not God, as he himself had decided, then at least it was a portion of God's creation.  So some of the responsibility lay on Him.  And, it seemed to Barney, He was probably mature enough to recognize this.

Getting Him to admit it, though.  That might be something else again.

Ultimately, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch asks some oblique questions about how man might relate to God, and what that might suggest about his own independence and individuality.  God, for Dick, hadn't yet become the alien ray of pink light of VALIS, but He is inscrutable, perhaps not entirely benevolent, and human beings are not very much in his likeness.  Many of Dick's other themes are here, too: the questionable extent to which we can trust our senses to measure reality, for instance, and the dangerous allure of mind-altering drugs.  Ultimately, Palmer Eldritch doesn't do much to submit the tried-and-true formula of Dick's novels, but I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Young Adult Non-Fiction History

I have learned an amazing thing this semester - young adult non-fiction is awesome and an awesome way to learn about history. Although I had a mostly great public school education experience, I had shockingly terrible history teachers compounded by the fact that public school social studies tends to avoid controversy anyway, so I have a lot of gaps that are quite frankly embarrassing for my education level. I have kept Zinn's A People's History of the United States by my nightstand for years, but I'm still in the early colonial years. I am so excited to have found this genre of narrative history texts written at a young adult level. They are informative compelling quick reads, and here are my three recent favorites. 

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Like one of my favorites of last year, Code Talkers, this book covers a part of military history that isn't discussed enough (or at least, isn't in my experience). It opens on an anecdote from the Pearl Harbor attack when an African American navy member jumps into combat, saves people, gets high military awards, and then goes back to the cooking and cleaning crew since that's all African Americans were allowed to do on ships at the time. This sets the stage for the story of Port Chicago - a port where ammunitions and missiles and bombs were loaded from train cars onto ships and then off to fuel World War II. The work was dangerous and done entirely by African Americans. Eventually an explosion happens - almost 300 people die - and it's possibly because of the actions of white officers. After cleaning up body parts for a few days, the surviving crew is moved to another port and are asked to report to....load ammunitions and missiles and bombs. They refuse which escalates to 50 sailors being charged with mutiny. Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights activists get involved, and this story is interspersed with anecdotes about the different racism, discrimination, and disgusting injustice faced by different African American service members across the country. The book is powerfully moving, as most civil rights era stories are, but especially because this is a story that has rarely been told. 
"[1940s America] did what they thought was best, which was stupid. And I forgave them for being stupid." 

 Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

It might be a stretch to call these women 'almost astronauts' - it would be more accurate to say 'Capable Women Denied Opportunities Because of 1960s Sexism.' While NASA was starting to test and prepare men to go into space, one man realized that women tend to weigh less and eat less food, and therefore could be cheaper to send into space. He got tentative permission to put some women through the same tests the male future astronauts were being put through - and they performed amazingly! The women started to get really excited about being (almost) astronauts - but NASA didn't ever intend for these women to be put into space. This conflict eventually led to a Congressional hearing where it was decided that NASA wasn't discriminating based on sex - astronauts had to be test pilots in the military, and the military didn't let women become test pilots, so women not being astronauts was entirely based on their test pilot ability which had nothing to do with sex. Um. Yeah. I spent a lot of my reading shaking my head so hard. I don't have the book with me, but the most important quote is definitely the one from President LBJ when he says the reason why we can't have female astronauts is because then Black men and other minorities would also think they could be astronauts. Um. Yeah. 

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia

Everything I know about Imperial Russia I learned from the Disney movie Anastasia (I'm sure you're shocked to hear that it's not quite accurate) and second-hand by teaching Animal Farm (so I have the basics) and reading Russian literature (I really really hated Doctor Zhivago). This book is the longest and meatiest of the three, but when talking about the dismantling of an empire, you need some pages. The book starts with Tsar Nicholas I and ends with the final 2007 discovery of the last two Romanov remains. I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone who is already a Russian history buff, but for anyone who just wants to really and truly understand what the heck the difference between a Menshevik and Bolshevik actually is. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Let me share a secret. The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life. 
I'm very torn about this book. Kondo's writing periodically made me roll my eyes so hard I though they would get stuck, but I've tried some of her strategies, and they do seem to work. In broad strokes, she recommends getting rid of as many of your belongings (everything from clothes to books to old love letters) as you can--anything that doesn't "spark joy."After that, tidying of your minimal possessions becomes easier once you assign a place for everything and create routines around returning each item to its place.

That part basically works. I followed her guidelines for purging my closet and desk and plan on moving on to my books at some point. It really does help! The "sparking joy" element is a little obnoxious, but being given permission to rid yourself of things you no longer love or use is liberating. I also found that after having gotten rid of the clothes I didn't love, I appreciated the things I kept that much more. Getting dressed is much easier in the morning, and I'm being more reflective when buying new things: is this just something I'm going to get rid of a few months down the line? My desk is much easier to keep clean and organized, and I actually do feel calmer and more at peace looking at my nicely organized closet and clean slate of a desk.

Kondo has a real thing for personifying objects. Of the socks you've been balling up and tossing in your sock drawer she says: "Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get rest like that?" Apparently not. Kondo has strong opinions on how to fold things (make everything into a nice, neat rectangle!), how to store (vertically!), and what to hang in your closet (basically nothing. Fold everything!). Also, we are to thank our clothes and accessories for their service as we take them off in the evening. All this (and the entire section about shrine tokens) was a little much for me. She is right about some things, but she ascribes some serious pseudo science to the emotional and physiological consequences of living in a clean, uncluttered home.

Overall, this book is worth a read if you're working on tidying up your life, but take it with a largish grain of salt. Getting rid of stuff you don't need is worthwhile and freeing; worrying about how your socks will feel if you don't thank them at the end of the day and making sure you stop storing your shampoo and conditioner on the rim of your bathtub seems less useful.

Lyra's Oxford, Once Upon a Time in the North, The Collectors by Phillip Pullman.

Lyra stood up to lean on the stone beside him, her limbs full of warmth, and gazed out toward the southeast, where a dusty dark-green line of trees rose above the spires and rooftops in the early evening air. She was waiting for the starlings. 
These three books each take up a different story line from Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Lyra's Oxford checks back in with Lyra after the novels end, Once Upon a Time in the North takes us back to when Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison first meet, and The Collectors is set some time after the novels and gives us a hint what Mrs. Coulter's been getting up to.

The three books are short; each can be read in an evening, and Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North are fun forays back into the world of the novel. Iorek Byrnison is one of my favorite characters from the books, so I enjoyed getting to spend some more time with him and Lee Scoresby as they thwarted their first villain together. Both books are illustrated beautifully with wood cuttings and have "primary" sources scattered throughout (maps, encyclopedia entries, newspaper articles." I especially loved the map (pictured above) of Oxford, complete with annotations and whimsical illustrations. Once Upon a Time in the North would make a nice introduction to the longer books, but Lyra's Oxford makes too many references to the novels to make sense to a new reader. Both were lots of fun for Lyra fans!

The Collectors is more of a short story than a stand alone books. It is dark and twisted and leaves you with more questions than it answers. Of the three, it is definitely the most adult (and certainly more adult than the novels themselves). If you haven't read the other Pullman books, or if you aren't quite one for YA fantasy, this story still works. The pacing and suspense I loved in the novels works just as well if not better in shorter form, and Pullman can pull of creepy pretty well.

Krik! Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

There is a place in Ville Rose where ghost women ride the crests of waves while brushing the stars out of their hair.  There they woo strollers and leave the stars on the path for them.  There are nights that I believe that those ghost women are with me.  As much as I know that there are women who sit up through the night and undo patches of cloth that they have spent the whole day weaving.  These women, they destroy their toil so that they will always have more to do.  And as long as there's work, they will not have to lie next to the lifeless soul of a man whose scent still lingers in another woman's bed.

Looking back at my review of Edwidge Danticat's story collection Krik? Krak!, I find that I don't have much to add.  That doesn't bode very well for the prospect of teaching this book, which I like, but which I'm not sure is going to stand up to the kind of close-reading exercises that are the normal way of approaching a text in high schools.  That's OK, not every text has to be approached in the same way, but the fact that I didn't notice anything new the second time makes me wonder how productive our discussions will be.  I think my students will like this book, and I hope they can find things in it that maybe I have missed; connections between the stories that are interesting and valuable.

I did feel a little differently about each story.  I liked "Between the Pool and Gardenias," about a woman who finds and cares for the corpse of a dead child (yikes!) a little less than I did the first time I read it, and I liked a couple of them a little more: "Nineteen Thirty-Seven," whose narrator visits her mother in a Haitian prison, and especially "Seeing Things Simply," about a young Haitian girl who poses nude for a foreign artist.  I like the latter because there's a genuine ambiguity about Catherine, the painter, who sells these paintings of Princesse's nude body at art shows in Paris.  Is Catherine a positive force, who shows Princesse the beauty of her own body, or a negative one, a foreigner who exploits that same body, like a colonialist?  I enjoy that kind of ambiguity, but it's not something I think Danticat is interested in, generally speaking.

Anyhow, if Krik? Krak! isn't the kind of book I am accustomed to teaching, well that's all the better.  We decided to include it in our curriculum because we're severely lacking in women writers and writers of color, and what would be the point of reading this novel if it had the style and tone of Great Expectations, or something?  Teaching Krik? Krak! will be a challenge for me, but one I'm happy to admit that I need to take.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Partisan by John A. Jenkins

Rehnquist was vying for [literary agent] Lantz's attention yet again, this time with an idea for a historical novel--"or movie or play"--based on Custer's Last Stand. Rehnquist wanted to write a fictionalized account of a court-martial of one of Custer's few surviving officers. He intended to bring in some Civil War greats even though they had had no role in the original court of inquiry: Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. Lantz told him to forget it.

I am not a regular reader of biography. However, when this book came out, I added it to my Amazon "save for later" list. I forgot about it until, a couple months later, I saw that it was reduced from its full price of nearly $30 to $3 (I may be exaggerating...but I remember it being really, really inexpensive). I then set it on my shelf and proceeded to not think about the book for nearly four years.

But after Notes from a Dead House, I was still waiting for my next batch of books to read, so I picked this up. I'm glad I did; Jenkins is a good writer, so this was a quick, interesting read. His basic point is that the former Chief Justice was a highly partisan person. Deeply conservative, deeply against the liberal excesses of the Warren court.

So, we get to follow Rehnquist from childhood, to law school, through his time as a prominent conservative attorney in Phoenix, his time working for the Nixon administration, his time as an associate justice, then as chief justice.

The portrait reveals a man who was both talented and faithful to conservative ideals. Jenkins presents Rehnquist as conservative to a fault, less a jurist and more politician in judge's robes.

The passage above ends a particularly hilarious chapter in which Jenkins describes Rehnquist's literary aspirations. Rehnquist, apparently, believed he had more in him than merely being on the Supreme Court. Through a mutual acquaintance, he connected with a literary agent who agreed to review a copy of Rehnquist's manuscript. This manuscript was terrible, apparently. For years, they went back and forth with revisions. Finally Rehnquist gave up. The passage above was his second idea for a novel.

Another ominous indication that lawyers can't write novels. Alas.

The book is worth reading for the Supreme Court nerds out there. Because Jenkins writes well, it's a fun and quick read. There's an ostensible "cool" factor simply because of the people around--other Supreme Court justices and important figures in the executive branch. It's also a fascinating view into the life of a Supreme Court justice.

With that said, sometimes the book reads as though Jenkins is more interested in proving his hypothesis than simply laying out the facts. When he is simply laying out the facts, the hypothesis proves itself. However, other times it feels like Jenkins is inserting his own commentary into his biography.

Still, a good read.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In fear I raise my head and look around at my sleeping comrades by the dim, flickering light of a two-penny prison candle. I look at their pale faces, their poor beds, at all their rank poverty and destitution--look at it intently--and it's as if I want to make sure that all this is not the continuation of an ugly dream, but the real truth. But this is the truth: I now hear someone moan; someone moves his arm clumsily and his chains clank. Another shudders in his sleep and starts to talk, while grandpa on the stove is praying for all "Orthodox Christians," and I can hear his measured, quiet, drawn-out "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us! . . . 

"I'm not here forever, but only for a few years!" I think and lower my head to the pillow again.

Notes from a Dead House is the loosely fictionalized account of Dostoevsky from his time in a prison work camp, after he was caught being part of a political intellectual circle. I've always been a fan of Dostoevsky and this book came to my attention because of a Paris Review interview discussing this new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Without realizing it at the time that I read them, I was a huge fan of their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Demons.

Given the subject matter's connection to my work, my pre-existing fondness for Dostoevsky, and the really powerful Paris Review interview, I thought this would be a great book to read. I was mostly right.

Dostoevsky's writing is quite powerful and moving at times. The book, written under the auspices of a fictional version of Dostoevsky, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, follows Petrovich as he navigates prison life. Rather than being a straight narrative, however, the book is more like a loose collection of Petrovich's thoughts, reflections, and anecdotes of his time in prison. He explains the drudgery of work, the relationships between guards and inmates, the relationships between aristocratic inmates v. peasant inmates, and various interruptions to the regular routine of prison life, like a Christmas pageant that some of the inmates put together.

Dostoevsky's writing is most powerful when he discusses various revelations he has about inmate life. For example, after the non-aristocrat inmates organize a food strike to protest the low quality of the food (alas, some things never change), Petrovich notices that none of the aristocrat-inmates join the protest. He attempts to apologize for the lack of solidarity:

"Ah, my God! But some of yours eat their own food, and they still came out. We should have, too . . . out of comradeship?" 
"But . . . but what kind of comrade are you for us?" he asked in perplexity. I glanced at him quickly: he decidedly did not understand me, did not understand what I was getting at. But I understood him perfectly at that moment. For the first time now, a certain thought that had long been vaguely stirring in me and pursuing me finally became clear, and I suddenly understood something that I had realized only poorly till now. I understood that I would never be accepted as a comrade, even if I was a prisoner a thousand times over, even unto the ages of ages, even in the special section. It was Petrov's look at that moment that especially remained in my memory. In his question, "What kind of comrade are you for us?" such unfeigned naivete, such simple-hearted perplexity could be heard. I thought: isn't there some sort of irony, malice, mockery in these words? Nothing of the sort: you're simply not a comrade, that's all. You go your way, and we go ours; you have your business, and we have ours.
For Petrovich, prison is the first place he spends much time, face to face, with peasants. Many of the anecdotes revolve around him trying to resolve the tensions caused by him being both an aristocrat (and thus, in a sense, "higher" than his other inmates) and being an inmate like everyone else (being "equal" to the other inmates). In another passage that struck me, Dostoevsky writes about how prisoners expect to be treated:
Some think, for instance, that if the prisoners are well fed, well kept, treated according to the law, the matter ends there. That is also a mistake. Every man, whoever he may be and however humiliated, still requires, even if instinctively, even if unconsciously, respect for his human dignity. The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner, an outcast and he knows his place before his superior; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being. And since he is in fact a human being, it follows that he must be treated like a human being.
The book works best when it is presenting these thoughts and reflections, of which there are plenty. As I read, many times, I had to stop to think about some extraordinarily beautiful way that Dostoevsky explained one of his thoughts.

Dude knew how to sport a beard.
However, because it abandons any narrative plot or direction, at times the pace lags. Without narrative to keep the reader interested, it could be difficult to care about Dostoevsky's elaborate descriptions of prison life. And, because there was no plot, sometimes whole pages would go by that would feel both uninteresting and irrelevant.  I only mention this criticism because, from my perspective, there are too many better Dostoevsky novels out there to settle for this one. It's a book reading if you've already finished (and enjoyed) other Dostoevsky novels, or if you have a particular interested in 19th century prison life. It should not, however, be the one Dostoevsky novel you read. (I'd politely point you to The Brothers Karamazov).

One last note: if you're considering picking up a Dostoevsky novel, I think it's worth spending the extra money for a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They do a good job of capturing the beauty of Dostoevsky's writing...where others don't. To this day, I wonder if the reason Crime and Punishment is not my favorite Dostoevsky novel is because I read the wrong translation. Save yourself this grief.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Argall by William T. Vollmann

Powhatan now gestures at the girl-child who's saved him.  Sweet John peers at her for the time.  Shaveheaded in front, she sports long black tresses plaited near about as tightly as chains of beads.  Nobly confident (which perhaps beseems her blood), she gazes into his face.  He can't accompt her now.  His heart's not yet sure it's allowed to beat.  How could he discover her face, let alone remember it?

She is wearing winter skin-clothes with the hair on them.  At her throat she wears a stone bead with a round carven face which gazes upon him with deep-sunk eyes.  He fears it, & her.  (She herself hath glistering eyes.)  What if she proves tigress?

She smiles upon him.  Now he fears her not.

The story of Pocahontas is pretty nuts.  John Smith, early Virginian colonialist, claimed in his memoirs that she saved him at the last moment from being executed by her father, the Native American king Powhatan.  That might not be true--or it might have been an elaborate ritual designed to indicate Smith's rebirth as a Powhatan.  We know that story from the Disney film.  But Disney leaves a lot out: Pocahontas was no more than twelve when she saved John Smith, and later on life she's captured by English settlers, who marry her to one of their own as a way of forcing the Powhatans into peace.

In his novelization of the Pocahontas story, Argall, William T. Vollmann leaves nothing out.  And I mean nothing: every detail of Smith's life, no matter how irrelevant, is included here.  Vollmann takes no artistic license, except perhaps for the quasi-Elizabethan pidgin English he employs (which is reminiscent of novels like Nothing Like the Sun and The Wake).  Reviews seem to have objected to the overly digressive nature of Argall, which pushes 700 pages and seems to think every minor historical character needs thirty pages of background, and I understand that.  But I wonder if there isn't something noble, given the amount of artistic license taken with Pocahontas, and with Native American history in general, in the way Vollmann desires to lay the entire historical record out.

And besides, the story as it is, and as Vollmann tells is, is incredibly powerful.  He describes a Jamestown that is perpetually on the brink of starvation, ruled by petty men disappointed in their expectations of gold, and who rely on the surrounding Natives to provide them with enough food to survive.  The relationship between the English and the Powhatans is alternately friendly and inimical, vacillating between free, though uneasy, exchange and horrible, bloody raids on both sides.  (But mostly, tbh, by the settlers--Vollmann goes out of his way to show there's no equivalency.)  Many of these raids are run by Smith himself, who idolizes Machiavelli and puts Machiavellian precepts into practice in his brief ascendancy at Jamestown.  But the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, still just a child, is the one relationship between Natives and whites built on genuine affection, and it offers the slightest hope for reconciliation, even love, between the two groups.

I read the section of Argall that details Pocahontas' captivity with the English right after seeing Room, and that amplified, for me, its tragic sadness.  Her conversion to Christianity and marriage to John Rolfe seems like Stockholm Syndrome, or perhaps just the brokenness of a woman stolen from her family and home.  "I am nothing," she tells her cousin.  Later, in England, she meets John Smith after more than a decade--the English told her he had died--and she can do more than turn her face away.  Vollmann takes that from the historical record, and it is deeply sad, as sad as the historical record itself.  Speaking later, Smith begs her to tell him her real name, the secret Powhatan name which she betrayed her father by confessing to the English, and she scorns him with the pet name she gave Smith as a child:

As she whispered to him that same word that she had uttered long ago:  Mufkauiwh, which signifies A Flower of a fine thing.  But this time she whispered it in bitterness.  And he never learned whether her father had called her this, or whether she meant it to apply to him as in the olden days.  After that she withdrew & would not come out.  When Maister Rolfe (having seen their guest to the door) peeped in to visit her, he found her weeping so wild as to be almost beyond the bounds of submission.

In the end, the story of Pocahontas and John Smith is deeply sad, and yet familiar: here are two people who loved each other, but whose love could not survive circumstance.  When, we wonder, might it not have been too late?  We might as well ask the same question about the native peoples of Virginia, whose wholesale subjugation and eradication was so complete as to be perhaps beyond all remedy.  Vollmann, who is in the midst of a planned seven-book series about the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans, wants to reveal to us how we all are inheritors of this great evil, which we abide in and cannot escape.  He closes the novel with a series of road signs in "Virginia"--that swath of land from New England to Florida--that, while gimmicky, underscores this very point:

Even the title is telling--not Pocahontas or John Smith, who are losers (in the Trump sense), but Argall, the name of the scheming, amoral captain responsible for Pocahontas' capture.  Sometimes the novel hits this note too hard, and seems didactic or screed-like.  But mostly it succeeds in giving the tragedy of history a human face.