Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Laurel remembered her father’s lean back as he sat on his haunches and spread a newspaper over the mouth of the chimney after he’d built the fire, so that the blaze caught with a sudden roar. Then he was young and could do everything. 
In The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days after her father’s death. Her father, Judge Clinton McKelva, dies in the opening pages after an eye operation, and Laurel is left to bury him, manage his young (younger than her!) wife, and come to terms with three deaths: his, her husband’s and her mothers (the other two long past).
The descriptions of Laurel’s return to Mount Salus and her childhood friends (called collectively her “bridesmaids”) and neighbors are funny and moving, as are Laurel’s frustrations with everyone’s descriptions of her dead father; as so often happens, the stories Clinton’s friends tell about him as they stand around his coffin do not match the man Laurel remembers:
Here, helpless in his own house among the people he’d known, and who’d known him, since the beginning, her father seemed to Laurel to have reached at this moment the danger point of his life.
“Did you listen to their words?” she asked.
“They’re being clumsy. Often because they were thinking of you.”
“They said he was a humorist. And a crusader. And an angel on the face of the earth,” Laurel said.
The father Laurel remember is no less heroic, but more human, more real. Laurel spends the remainder of the book recreating the man he remembers as well as his love for her long dead mother.
Fay, Laurel’s stepmother, is almost absurdly harsh and unlikeable, and her Texas family descends upon the funeral, to the perverse delight of the gossipy ladies of Mount Salus. Fay puts on a show of grief, both in the moments before Clinton’s death and when she arrives on the scene at the funeral, but otherwise seems angry, alone, and resentful of the love Clinton had for his first wife.

The most beautiful parts of the book come as Laurel wandered her parents’ home alone in the days after the funeral. She remembers them as individuals and as a couple, and we’re given poignant vignettes from two intertwined lives. Her mother’s life is clearly a little sadder, but their love for each other seems to make up for the pain of her childhood. This was one of my favorites, remembered as Laurel lay in her bed the night before her father’s funeral:

When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.

These scenes are scattered throughout, and Laurel remembers her parents together and individually. She remembers them before she was born and as parents and in their dying moments, painting a fuller, more complete picture than her father’s friends were willing to do. Laurel comes to terms with what she’s asking of her departed love ones:
What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel—something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

In the end, Laurel realizes just how “incapable of being kept” these memories and feelings are, and she comes out on top. I loved watching her process; it was sad and beautiful and redemptive and true, and there were so many perfect sentences and paragraphs that I had trouble picking what to put in this review!

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

It seems very straightforward when I say "I."  At the time, "I" meant Justice of Toren, the whole ship and all its ancillaries.  A unit might be very focused on what it was doing at that particular moment, but it was no more apart from "me" than my hand is while it's engaged in a task that doesn't require my full attention.

Nearly twenty years later "I" would be a single body, a single brain.  That division, I--Justice of Toren and I--One Esk, was not, I have come to think, a sudden split, not an instant before which "I" was one and after which "I" was "we."  It was something that had always been possible, always potential.  Guarded against.  But how did it go from potential to real, intcontrovertible, irrevocable?

The heroine of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, Breq, was not always Breq.  Once she was an entire ship.  That ship, Justice of Toren, comprised an artificial intelligence split between the ship itself and hundreds, if not thousands, of the reanimated corpses of peoples conquered by the Raadchai Empire, called ancillaries.  But when the Justice of Toren and most of its ancillaries are destroyed by the perfidy of Anaander Mianaai, the dictatorial leader of the Empire, Breq escapes, taking with her the last scrap of the selfhood of Justice of Toren.

Ancillary Justice's complex meditations on selfhood are its best feature.  As it turns out, Breq is not the only one whose unified selfhood is troubled: Anaander Mianaai, who uses a system of bodies like the ancillaries to rule her Empire, is secretly split into a pro-reform and anti-reform faction, waging a surreptitious war against herself.  (This makes Breq's goal of killing the treacherous Anaander rather difficult.)  It seems like a contradiction, but who doesn't know the experience of having a conflicted mind?  I go back to the words of St. Paul: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

One of the more interesting features of Raadchai culture is that it doesn't distinguish between genders.  Breq refers to all characters with the feminine pronoun--including ones we know, by context, are considered male in their own societies.  When, in the course of her duties as the Justice of Toren, she interacts with foreigners in their own language, she constantly misgenders them.  Many characters are never reliably gendered at all.

It's this wrinkle that offended the reactionary wing of the science fiction world--a group of jackasses who call themselves "Sad Puppies" (or, more extremely, "Rabid Puppies") who protest that "social justice warriors" are taking over the SF writing scene, to the detriment of classic adventure stories.  Author Brad Torgerson called Leckie an "activist-writer" whose novel is "a social-political pot shot at ordinary folk."

Torgerson's idea of science fiction is so blinkered, so narrow and yes, white and male, the fact that he has anything to say about science fiction--which is by nature speculative and imaginative, rather than traditionalist--at all amuses me.  Because the truth is that the gender aspect of Ancillary Justice has little bite, and Leckie has far less to say about gender fluidity than she does about the fragmentation of the self.  Ancillary Justice struck me as a classic space opera story: the evil empire, the complicated space politics, the climactic battle at the end.  Strip away the pronouns and the AI and Ancillary Justice looks terribly like Star Wars.  In fact, I was largely disappointed by the novel, which I was hoping would be more thoughtful and less reliant on traditional SF imagery.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Brittany's Top 9 of 2016

By The Numbers
  • 74 complete books read (17 children books, 44 books for young people, 4 graphic novels, 33 non-fiction books or memoirs, 1 poetry book, 10 audiobooks, and 43 for grad school) 
  • 68 authors (repeats include Libba Bray, Kiera Cass, Steve Sheinkin and Sy Montgomery while some books had multiple authors)
  • 42 female authors, 25 male authors, 1 I’m not sure of
  • 1 dead (RIP Lawrence Anthony), 2 unknown (Bibi Dumon Tak, Loic Dauvillier)
  •  15 nationalities/ethnicities besides white American: Chinese American (Malinda Lo), Korean American (Linda Sue Park), Israeli American (Irin Carmon), African American (Kadir Nelson), African American (Taye Diggs), Mexican American (Duncan Tonatiuh), Pakistani (Malala Yousafzai), British (David Almond and Paula Hawkins), British Canadian (Andrea Spalding), South African (Lawrence Anthony), Zimbabwean (Graham Spence), American Indian (Eric Gansworth), born in Germany but lives in America (Sy Montgomery), writes in French (Loic Dauvillier), writes in Polish (Bibi Dumon Tak)
  • 1 American Indian author from Onodaga Nation (Eric Gansworth)

Things that stand out compared to previous three years: I read more books than ever (high of 74 compared with low of 36), but 17 of those were children’s books and I had a whopping 43 books I read for grad school. Last year was the first year I read more women authors than men (57%), and this year I read an even higher percentage of women (62%). My reading of dead authors is the lowest it has ever been – when I was finishing up my MA in English I read 19 dead authors while this year I only read 1. I listened to tons of audiobooks this year thanks to my running habit and a new long commute. 

Top Books 
Constructing my top 10 this year was tricky because so much of my reading was for grad school, and I didn’t necessarily love what I read. Over the last few years I’ve developed unofficial categories of favorite books which this year I didn’t fill. I didn't read a Classic I Should Have Read Already, or a Pulitzer Winner/Nominee, or a Book About Race. Even though I read far more books, I could only muster up a top 9 this year. 

My love for Miranda July is pretty endless, and this charming, depressing, sexy, lonely novel is her at her utmost. Any person who enjoyed her movie or her short story collection will love this book, although I would understand why someone might hate it.  Even though this was my thid book of the year, I was misquoting one of my favorite sections to a friend just a few days ago. “The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed. We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment.” The writing is beautiful, the plot is fresh, and the characters are incredibly real: a perfect top novel.

Like the woman herself who has inspired generations of women to be more badass nasty women, this book inspired me to read more non-fiction by/about women (Carrie Brownstein, Amanda Palmer, and Malala Yousafzai were tackled this year – I have Phoebe Robinson, Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Shonda Rhimes on my list for next year). She is a brilliant woman who deserves all the love the current generation of feminists gives her. This well-written, well-researched, entertaining biography allows those men and women to solidify what they already suspect about RBG based on her memes. The empty seat on the Supreme Court bench makes this book even more timely now than it was when it was published last year.
3. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Not writing a review of this book is my greatest book regret of the year. For this quick review, I tried to pin down a single characteristic that makes the novel exceptional and realized it does almost everything perfectly. The writing is exceptional: this is especially impressive since the novel is essentially one giant flashback which is a tricky plot device. The voice is exceptional: Eileen the narrator is such a different person from Eileen the character, and we get to witness the chain of events that connects these two women. I ached to know more about Eileen the narrator, but so much of who she is is defined by no longer being Eileen the character. The tone is exceptional: it is so slow-moving in the beginning and yet I couldn’t put it down. It builds up a perfectly taut tension. The plot is very good, but it only has to be when everything else is perfect. I did tweet one quote from it, but I do remember telling Randy it was a difficult book to tweet because of the nature of Moshfegh’s style which is not pithy or quick: “Nowadays perhaps we’d call the attitude blasé. It is a particular posture of insecure people. They feel most comfortable denying any perspective whatsoever rather than proclaiming any allegiance or philosophy and risk rejection and judgment”. 

4. The Diviners by Libba Bray
I just finished this book last week and have already recommended it to one person in every group of people I have encountered since then. I did not love the idea of this book. It is a 1920s historical fiction fantasy young adult novel – two of the three genres that describe its essence I have basically no interest in. I downloaded it as the first book for my Audible account because I was going on a road trip and it was 18 hours long, nominated for an Audie, and its sequel won an Audie – so I figured I would be getting my $14 worth. It was so good that when my road trip was over I immediately tried to find a paper version at my library so I could continue reading and, when one was unavailable, I downloaded the e-book and read it on my phone (which I almost never do). I really liked Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, but it was a little too long, a little too meandering, and a little too heavy handed with Life Lessons. Bray has learned much since then. Even though The Diviners series is a long sprawling book, it is tight and purposeful and engaging and so effortlessly diverse that all wannabe novelists should have to read it just to study how one could incorporate different ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities in one book without being an After School Special (and again – in the 1920s!) Evie, a party flapper girl, gets sent to her uncle in New York City after she makes a bad gin-fueled decision at a party. See, Evie is a diviner – she can touch an object and know the secrets of the person who owns it. Fortunately, her uncle Will runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka: The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies). As horribly mutilated bodies pile up in the city, Evie tries to help her uncle help the police find the serial killer without revealing her powers. Fortunately, she’s not the only diviner around. [Unofficial Category: Book of Interconnected Stories with Shifting Narrators]

This hybrid book (let’s say it’s two/thirds non-fiction book about octopods, one/third memoir about Sy Montgomery) stole my heart during my spring semester and as soon as I read it I knew it would be one of my favorite books of the year. I didn’t think much of octopods before reading this book (which is to say: I neither liked nor disliked them because I really didn’t think much about them), but now I’m obsessed. I would never say no to an opportunity to see an octopus and it is one of my dreams to touch one. The only disappointing thing about this text is that it is so informative that it was hard to do any of my own research – everything fascinating about octopuses is right here in this book. Highly recommended for anyone who likes well-written and researched non-fiction.

In a really unfortunate plot twist, I do not like Kiera Cass anymore* although I still dig her books and recommend them to my middle schoolers all the time. The Selection was another surprise series as I’m not a fan of The Bachelor and don’t watch any reality TV beyond The Great British Bakeoff – that’s the level of competition I can handle. Nonetheless, I couldn’t put down The Selection, its sequels, and its assorted related writings. In fact, it’s hard to consider the book on its own because it’s basically worthless by itself. As a whole series, it has a really interesting premise (35 random girls chosen from the population are thrown together in a reality-TV-style competition to win the prince’s heart, a position as future queen, and most importantly for America Singer – financial stability for her family) with interesting characters and interesting twists. The series continues to the next generation coming of age and their Selection. The writing is not the most amazing, the character development isn’t the most believable, and the romance is absolutely over the top. However, the politics that creep in during the early novels and completely overtake the last few is what makes this series stand out from other YA romance.

7. My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
The first thing I loved about this novel was Rebecca Lowman, the narrator of the audiobook. Her voice was perfect on Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and while I still enjoyed it on Fan Girl by Rainbow Rowell, the deep silkiness of her voice belongs with dark characters. Fortunately, this book and its main character, Aysel Seran, are quite dark. The novel opens on teenage Aysel at work at a call center browsing an online message board, Smooth Passages. It’s a personals-esque site where people find partners to make suicide pacts with. Aysel finds a good match for herself in FrozenRobot and the two begin a journey towards suicide together. It’s tricky to write anything about the book without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s rare to find a book that gets the feeling of depression right, and this one gets it right. The pacing is a slow wade through water and the characters are distant and difficult to invest in, but those features contribute to the getting-it-rightness.

8. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
This is a book with no 1 or 2 star reviews on Amazon.  On goodreads, 84% of its thousands of ratings are 4 and 5 star reviews. Steve Sheinkin is an amazing non-fiction writer, and although his target audience is young adults, all non-specialists would benefit from reading any of his books. My mom was 10 when the Vietnam War ended and my dad was in Mexico, so I didn’t grow up hearing anything about it from my family. My social studies teachers in high school weren’t great (sorry - I say this as a teacher, but they really weren’t), and as an English Education major I only had to take one history class in college. In other words, everything I learned about the war I learned from Tim O’Brien, which means I know nothing outside of the soldier experience. This book is meticulously researched, well-written, engaging, easy-to-follow, and contains such an important part of America’s history: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.  Perhaps the best part is the Epilogue entitled “History Repeats Itself” where Sheinkin connects Ellsberg to Snowden and current issues around government secrecy and whistleblowing today. [Unofficial Category: A Non-Fiction Book About a Topic More People Should Know About]

This book was a desperate airport buy when I thought I would die if I read one more book for grad school (I did read more books for grad school and did not die). This book, like the Soul of an Octopus, is part memoir part non-fiction book written by someone who is not a scientist. However, I entered this book with quite a bit of elephant knowledge because I have always loved these beasties. Fortunately, since the book is Anthony’s firsthand account of his tribe of elephants, everything is new and engaging. I would only recommend this to people who are interested in Africa or game reserves or elephants, but those people can expect to love this charming book.  

Honorable Mentions
  • The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Both of these books made good attempts to fill the hole that is left when Gillian Flynn continues to not publish a new novel. Both novels are marketed as psychological thrillers about missing women and both novels have shifting perspectives and chapters that aren’t in chronological order. The Good Girl is about a wealthy girl who is kidnapped and dragged into the woods. It has alternating chapters from the perspectives of the Mother, the Kidnapper, and the Detective which are either from Before the kidnapping ends or After the kidnapping ends. The Girl on the Train is about a woman going missing in a small suburb in England. It has alternating chapters from the perspectives of Rachel, the exwife, Anne, the new wife, and Megan, the missing neighbor. Readers of both books seem to love them or love to hate them – I thoroughly enjoyed both. [Unofficial Category: A Fucked Up Book]

  •  I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick 
I had to read the Young Readers Edition for grad school which has a different coauthor and (I've heard) less history/politics. It's a good book and and important book, but it didn't quite make my top 10. I think if I had read the original it probably would have. 

These four non-fiction young adult books all consider different aspects of equality, social justice, and identity. They were all very very good and readers who are unfamiliar with the topic should absolutely pick them up. Young adult nonfiction is one of my new favorite genres - they tend to be broader in scope, shorter in length, and easier to grasp than their adult counterparts which often have an expert audience in mind. 

Top 5 Books I Didn't Count
I’m still in grad school for youth librarianship which means I’m still having to decide what ‘counts’ as a book. For kids – everything counts. It breaks my heart to hear kids, parents, and teachers say a book doesn’t ‘count’ because it is too short or has pictures or is an audiobook or whatever. For the purposes of this blog though, I counted books that were 100+ pages and put those under on a different list. I only read 19 books that didn't count, but I still had a top 5. 

 1. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri illustrated by Randy DuBurke: This graphic novel is based on the real story of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member murdered by his gang. Yummy committed murder, arson, and armed robbery,  but his gang feared he would become a police informant if caught. The visual nature of the genre made this one particularly difficult to read and had many of my classmates wondering if it was 'appropriate' for young people. That was one reason why is was discarded as a finalist for our class's mock book award committee (someone in my group also felt it shouldn't win the award because it would be eligible for a minority-literature award so it didn't need to win a mainstream award, and in real life it was in fact chosen as a Coretta Scott King Honor Book). I agree that the book is intense, but it's problematic to say that one 11-year-old's real life experience is inappropriate for other young people to experience second-hand. I put this book in the same category as the best YA Holocaust literature - it's difficult but incredibly important for young people to read, preferably with an adult to process it. 

2. When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis: I am particularly interested in social justice and civil rights. Because I read so much in this genre, I wasn't expecting to be impressed with this book when I saw the cover and read the title. I figured it would have the usual people that we have all been learning about every February since 3rd grade. I was surprised, delighted, and totally blown away. Beautifully illustrated with lovely poems, the subjects include Zora Neale Hurston, Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, and Aung San Suu Kyi among others. A wonderful book to inspire kids to learn more about civil rights leaders they may have never heard of before. 

3. Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems: Last year I had never even heard of Mo Willems, and he took my number one spot on Top Books That Don't Count. I have read many of his darling Elephant and Piggie books, but this one is top notch. Elephant and Piggie are playing catch with a ball when Snake appears wanting to play too. Willems does a fantastic job of showing how people are uncomfortable addressing differently abled people and how being different shouldn't mean being left out. 

4. How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman illustrated by Allen Say: This charming classic tale (originally published in 1987) features a little girl telling the story of her parents falling in love. Her white American father was in the military where he met her Japanese mother. Although they were quite smitten with each other, each was too shy to ask the other on a dinner date because they worried about looking foolish in front of each other maneuvering chopsticks or a fork and knife. This book needs more love in 2016 than it gets, especially as the population of mixed race people continues to grow in America. I would recommend this for every child's bookshelf. It's a perfect mirror for any child who is living in a multicultural home and a beautiful window for any child who is not. 

5. Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh: who can do no wrong which you can clearly see based on all the medals on the cover. Another amazing non-fiction book from Tonatiuh (last year his picture book Separate is Never Equal was also on my Top 5 List of Books That Don't Count), this one tells the story of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist who is most well known for his calaveras, or skeletons, living their best skelelives. Informative and fun and beautifully illustrated in Tonatiuh's signature style mixed with Possada's totally different style - it has everything a children's picture book should. 

*A Note on Kiera Cass: In looking up her basic biographical details (female, alive, American) I discovered a pretty unfortunate controversy: a person gave the book a one-star review on goodreads which resulted in Elana Roth, Kiera Cass’ agent, calling the reviewer a bitch while they both discussed how to try to game the GoodReads system in order to bury her review. How do we know all this? Because they had the conversation publicly on Twitter (probably not on purpose). Like everyone on GoodReads, I review books for fun, and sometimes I don't like a book, and I should be free to say so. I realize Kiera Cass earns her living based on what people think about her books, but she is quite successful and that review probably wasn’t going to affect her book sales. Of course, the best/worst part is that the one-star review might have had a smaller audience, but thanks to Cass and her agent, it has been linked to and blogged about repeatedly as people discussed the controversy, becoming so big that even Publishers Weekly even wrote about it. Ouch. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil

What if Icarus hadn't hurtled into the sea? What if he'd inherited his father's inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He didn't hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt. -Bechdel
I'm taking a class from Roz Chast on graphic memoirs in January, and this was the assigned reading list (plus Flying Couch, a Holocaust graphic memoir by a woman I went to college with). Reading all four together lent a depth to each that I hadn't noticed before (I was re-reading all but Kurzweil's), and allowed me to look at the artistic decisions in a different light. My own memories and my recollection of the stories my family tells over and over are stored as images and clips--not words; the idea of recording those memories and stories not just with words but with drawings has always appealed to me as a medium for memoir in particular, and these four offered a wide range of the possibilities the graphic novel holds. Beyond the artistic differences (all four authors have dramatically different styles), one of the most interesting differences was the ways in which they chose to pair (or contrast) the voice-over type monologue with the images they chose.

Maus is by far the most famous of the memoirs and was by far the most difficult to read. Maus I only covers Spiegelman's parents' journey to the concentration camps, not their excruciating traumas afterwards, but Poland's inexorable progress towards the Holocaust is horrifying. Spiegelman moves back and forth between pages chronicling his interviews with his father where his own internal monologue provides the narrative text and panels depicting his father's life in Czechoslovakia and Poland where his father's voice takes over the narrative text. These transitions are elegant and easy to follow, and the flashes forward provide a break from the brutality of what is happening in the past. While obviously this is a Holocaust story, I found myself more drawn to these more intimate moments. His father is difficult. His relationship with his father is difficult. The heroism of surviving the Holocaust is complicated by the person his father has become, and the brutal honesty of his depiction of their broken relationship is very compelling.

Flying Couch is Amy Kurzweil's first full length graphic novel, and in it she chronicles her grandmother's experiences surviving the Holocaust as well as three generations of female relationships. Kurzweil uses stories her grandmother has told her along with hours of transcribed interviews to recreate her story, and she intertwines both old and recent memories of her mother and grandmother with her grandmother's experiences. The art is a little more chaotic than any of the other texts; Kurzweil rarely uses panels, and she layers and superimposes images and text to echo her own confusion and anxiety. She too has a fraught relationship with her parent (this time, a mother)--a theme that ran through all four books was parental disapproval of cartoonist as a profession--and some of the conversations she chronicles hit close to home.

Bechdel's Fun Home made me feel incredibly ill-read, even after reading 49 books this year. In it, Bechdel explores her own discovery of her sexuality parallel to her discovery of her father's complicated sexual identity. Bruce Bechdel, a high school English teacher, undertaker, and obsessive interior decorator was a difficult father (notice a theme yet?), who, it turns out, was sleeping with teenage boys and buying them beer. Alison discovers all of this right after coming out herself only weeks before her father's death, and the book gives a simultaneously tragic and unlikeable portrait of the man. Bechdel's narrative is interspersed with quotes from and references to Proust, Joyce, Collette, Homer, and likely dozens of others that flew over my head. Sometimes her narration describes the images in the corresponding panel, but more often than not they complement each other in more complex ways. She'll use passages from Proust across several pages with seemingly unrelated images and dialog, but upon closer inspection and re-reading, they often build on each other.

Last but not least there was Chast's description of the end of her parents' lives: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There is another difficult parent/child relationship here, but this one is described with far more humor and irony. Chast's father is anxious and neurotic (much as Chast depicts herself) and her mother overbearing and powerful. Both are set in their ways (and borderline hoarders) as only elderly parents can be, and Chast documents their dotage with a balance of biting sarcasm and kindness. I laughed out loud at her descriptions of her mother--an assistant principal who dealt out "BLASTS FROM CHAST" when angry, and cringed at the parallels between her father and my grandfather, obsessed with their bank books and the thought that someone might break into their apartment and steal them. My favorite page was this, an enumeration of all the ways one can die, go deaf, or meet other terrible fates:

Chast's mother would have been one of my favorite characters in a novel, but seeing her through the eyes of her daughter made her more problematic and more real--a clear illustration of how strong characters often make terrible parents--perhaps even an exploration of how motherhood and personality are not always allowed to go hand in hand.

I enjoyed Chast's the most of the four. I love her cartoons in general, and she was able to weave her usual paranoid, neurotic sense of humor into an honest and difficult narrative. I liked reading so many graphic texts back to back--comparing them to each other both implicitly and explicitly allowed me to read them a little more carefully and to look at form rather than just consuming them as as I usually do. Also, it allowed me to knock 4 of my last 5 books off in a matter of days!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

As the product of one of the most ambitious liberal welfare programs in American history, the rise of punitive federal policy over the last fifty years is a thoroughly bipartisan story. Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality. Indeed, crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.

From whence did mass incarceration originate? Dissatisfied with the prevalent law-and-order Republican narrative, Elizabeth Hinton attempts to answer this question while shedding light on how (bi)partisan politics led to our current levels of incarceration.

She starts with Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but before the Voting Rights Act, Johnson presented to Congress the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. This was part of a series of federal initiatives aimed at creating and subsisting a War on Poverty. Professor Hinton explains that the tough-on-crime legislation of the Johnson administration was part of a bigger project, collectively meant to alleviate poverty, particularly in urban areas.

Rhetorically, these programs were also supposed to empower local communities. Thus, the idea was that federal funds would go to local organizations who would use the funds to support various social welfare goals. However, when it came time to actually commit to local empowerment, Congress got cold feet; instead of local control, control would come through various arms of federal agencies.

These social welfare programs had varying levels of success. Professor Hinton shows a correlation between local control and success; however, local control was rare. And the message Congress received was not that local control was necessary, but that social welfare programs were doomed to fail. This belief, in part fueled by racism, led to a belief that the federal government should not be spending its funds on social welfare. So, as we moved farther and farther from the Johnson administration, we see these social welfare programs being cut more and more.

This was not the case, however, when it came to tough on crime measures. Refusing to see crime as a consequence of socioeconomic conditions, federal policy-makers viewed crime as the cause of bad socioeconomic conditions. Viewing crime this way freed Congress to pass gradually tougher and tougher crime laws. This was not only in the form of more stringent federal criminal laws, but also in the form of funds being made available to state and municipal law enforcement to enact federal prerogatives.

Professor Hinton tracks these two trends (de-funding and dismantling social welfare programs on the one hand and bolstering tough-on-crime measures on the other hand) from the Johnson administration through the first Bush administration. Her read of the relevant federal crime debates is compelling, supported by detailed research, and is the most persuasive explanation of mass incarceration I've read so far. Unlike the other books explaining mass incarceration, Professor Hinton does a good job of placing debates about crime within the broader context of other anti-poverty measures. She convincingly explains how the social welfare aspects of Johnson's War on Poverty were never given a proper chance to succeed, while the War on Crime garnered resources without regard to its success (or lack thereof).

This was the most comprehensive book on federal criminal justice policy I've read. It was similar in scope to The First Civil Right, but this book is broader in the sense that it is not interested in crime as a stand-alone policy, but as part of broader federal initiatives. Which is not to say that the two books are that different. They both attribute latent racism to our current state of mass incarceration; they both believe that Democrats are at least as responsible for mass incarceration as Republicans. The main difference is that Professor Hinton presents a narrative that shows the transformation from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Professor Murakawa, in contrast, presents a narrative focused on how the debates about federal criminal justice, in a fundamental way, conceded the premise of black criminality.

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

There are all these people here I don't know by sight or by name. And we pass alongside each other and don't have any connection. And they don't know me and I don't know them. And now I'm leaving town and there are all these people I will never know.
 The Member of the Wedding is a book about belonging. Frankie is in that weird in between stage where she no feels like a child but is not yet welcome in the world of adults. Her brother is getting married and the wedding becomes her way out of this limbo--finally she will be a member of something. Frankie decides (without speaking to any of the parties involved) that after the wedding, she will join her brother and sister in law as they travel around the world on their honeymoon.

I first read this book when I was a freshman in high school, and our teacher had each of us read the opening line out loud. I remember little about the book, but I still remember the first sentence: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old." I remember how my voice sounded saying it, and what it felt like to hear the sentence echoed over and over around the room. The following sentences perfectly summarize the floating anxiety of pre-teen existence:
This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Franke had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. 
That looming fear only heightens as the wedding draws closer, and Frankie's sense of isolation increases as well. Her housekeeper, Berenice, and cousin, John Henry, don't understand her. Her girlfriends have all abandoned her for a cooler set. She has a haircut she hates and brown patches on her elbows she can't rub off. Nothing about Frankie fits the way she wants it to (even the fancy dress she buys for the wedding and the giant sombrero she wears to shade herself from the sun), and the word she uses again and again to describe that disconnect between what she wants to be and what she is is fear.

Frankie's ambition and imagination are impressive, but her age, sex, and circumstances are constantly getting in her way.
She wanted to be a boy and go to the war as a Marine. She though about flying aeroplanes and winning gold medals for bravery. But she could not join the war, and this made her sometimes restless and blue. She decided to donate blood to the Red Cross; she wanted to donate a quart a week and her blood would be in the veins Australians and Fighting French and Chinese, all over the whole world, and it would be as tough she were close to kin to all of these people. She could hear the army doctors saying that the blood of Frankie Addams was the reddest and the strongest blood that they had ever known. And she could picture ahead, in the years after the war, meeting the soldiers who had her blood, and they would say that they owed their life to her; and they would not call her Frankie--they would call her Addams But this plan for donating her blood to the war did not come true. The Red Cross would not take her blood. She was to young. Frankie felt mad with the Red Cross, and left out of everything. The war and the world were too fast and big and strange. To think about the world for very long made her afraid. She was not afraid of Germans or bombs or Japanese. She was afraid because in the war they would not include her, and because the world seemed somehow separate from herself. 
This stage of adolescence where you understand the world enough to want to be involved in it but fully engage with it is perfectly and agonizingly captured. At every turn Frankie is isolated and excluded and her fear and anger only increases.

Besides the opening line, I vividly remembered Frankie fighting off a rape. This turned out to be a little less central to the book (and much less rapey) than I remembered, but part of Frankie's frustration confusion comes from her total lack of understanding of sex. Her brother is getting married; her friends are in budding relationships; the soldiers home from war are hiring prostitutes, and Frankie is at once fascinated and disgusted by the idea of sex (although she never calls it that). There are a few odd moments (in the weirdest one, she licks her cousin's ear in his sleep), but the rape scene goes much less far than I remember it going, and Frankie defends herself impressively. She never quite gets over her discomfort with sex, but she does emerge with a more adult understanding of the world and her place in it, including, unfortunately, the devastating realization that she will not be joining her brother on his honeymoon. While Frankie is struggling to find her place in the world, she never lacks in self assurance or courage.

The ending is not too saccharine or neat; Frankie finds a friend and some happiness, and even though we get the sense that it may not last, Frankie's brave defiance makes us fairly confident she'll turn out just fine.

While I can see why this was assigned reading in high school, I appreciated it much more as an adult. It was funny and sad and rang true in ways that I don't think I quite processed as a fourteen year old. As a teenager, I think this just served to point out all the ways in which I didn't belong either and all the ways in which the adult world was terrifying. A (somewhat) deeper familiarity with the world of adults has led me to a greater confidence that Frankie is going to be okay, and I will too.