Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Tidewater Morning by William Styron

Occasionally the memories of my boyhood are framed not as if through the boy's eyes but as reflected in the viewfinder of a movie camera, drawn back on one of those marvelously unimpeded mechanisms, a boom or crane, which allows the object--in this case myself, unshouldering that iniquitous bag--to be seen as if six feet away, angling downward from about the height of a towering basketball player.  The eye encompasses more this way: not just the newspapers, weighing two and a half pounds each, being heaved one by one into the river, but the boy shaking with rage and exhaustion, the skinny, suntanned legs moving furiously about, sinews of the thin neck straining as, one after another, the papers are seized form the bag, heaved, drowned.  A Sunday edition floats for a moment.  I recall how each of the papers seemed to drift at first with a kind of lordly self-confidence, but then immediately afterward blotted up the water, turned from a white to a deathly gray, and sank out of sight, unfolding layers of itself like some diseased vegetable sea-growth.  I was tempted to dive in after them to quench the heat raging around me and to assuage or at least distract myself from the returning sense of doom; but there was something too dreadful about swimming in the midst of those disintegrating fronds of paper, groping me, those headlines, bright comic pages decomposing.

In Ocracoke, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, there is a very short street called Styron.  It's one of the old local families whose names you see everywhere--just up the road, on the other side of town as far as that goes, there's a Styron's General Store.  I don't know if William Styron is one of those Styrons, but I wouldn't discount it.  Virginia's Tidewater area, the wide coastal plain centered on the megalopolis of Hampton Roads, is the most accessible nearby region to the Outer Banks, far more so than the inner cities of North Carolina itself.  There are certain difficult-to-describe affinities between the islands and the Tidewater that resonated, as I hoped they would, during the past week I spent there on vacation.  (And until someone writes a good book about the Outer Banks, it's probably as close as you can get.)

A Tidewater Morning is a set of three stories, presented as childhood memories, of a Tidewater native named Paul Whitehurst, who is pretty clearly Styron's stand-in.  Two of them center on war: In "Love Day," a twenty-year old Paul is serving on a cruiser in the Korean War when he realizes, thanks to an abrupt memory of his father, that he actually hates, and does not love, the war he's fighting.  In the title story, a thirteen-year old Paul draws a connection between the headlines of impending war in Europe, emblazoned on the newspapers he carries, and his mother's worsening cancer.  "Love Day" is a tight little knot of a story, that shuffles effortlessly between several clustered memories; "A Tidewater Morning" is so loose and shaggy it feels like a stunted novel.  Both boast a writerly knack for sharp observation and a plainspun but effective style that impresses me more here than it did in The Confessions of Nat Turner.

The best story, "Shadrach," is in the middle.  In it, a young Paul is hanging out with a local family who, over many generations, have fallen from the height of Virginia society, and become hicks.  An elderly black man appears in a car, too old even to control his bodily functions, but who has trekked nevertheless from the Deep South to die on the land where he was born, and served, as a child, as a slave:

I had no way of knowing that if his long and solitary journey from the Deep South had been a quest to find this millpond and for a recaptured glimpse of childhood, it might just have readily been a final turning of his back on a life of suffering.  Even now I cannot say for certain, but I have always had to assume that the still-young Shadrach who was emancipated in Alabama those many years ago was set loose, like most of his brothers and sisters, into another slavery perhaps more excruciating than the sanctioned bondage.  The chronicle has already been a thousand times told of those people liberated into their new and incomprehensible nightmare: of their poverty and hunger and humiliation, of the crosses burning in the night, and above all, the unending dread.  None of that madness and mayhem belongs in this story, but without at least a reminder of these things I would not be faithful to Shadrach.  Despite the immense cheerfulness with which he had spoken to us of being "dibested of mah plenty," he must have endured unutterable adversity.  Yet his return to Virginia, I can now see, was out of no longing for the former bondage, but to find an earlier innocence.  And as a small boy at the edge of the millpond I saw Shadrach not as one who had fled darkness, but as one who had searched for light refracted within a flashing moment of remembered childhood.  As Shadrach's old clouded eyes gazed at the millpond with its plunging and calling children, his face was suffused with an immeasurable calm and sweetness, and I sensed that he had recaptured perhaps the one pure, untroubled moment in his life.  "Shad, did you go swimming here too?" I asked.  But there was no answer.

How does a white person write about black people?  I've been thinking a lot about that question.  I can't accept that the answer is just not to do it, because writing fiction is a necessary kind of seeing.  Styron struggled with that question, too, and in Nat Turner came up with answers that many found wanting.  I don't think that either I or Styron have the standing to say whether "Shadrach" is more successful.  But I do see some possible answers in it to that question.  One, by placing the story within the larger historical context that we whites are so easily able to ignore.  Two, with a self-conscious distance, and an eye toward the writer's own limitations.  Paul never pretends to know Shadrach, but by giving an account of him he rejects the false choice between understanding and ignorance.  The story is never "about" Shadrach in the way that it is about Paul--how could it be?--but it doesn't seem to shy away from anything, either.  Whatever its quality, Nat Turner does the first but certainly not the second.

In the end the thing in A Tidewater Morning that resonated most with my Outer Banks trip was that cover, which perfectly captures the special quality of afternoon light when it falls along the marsh.  But books about the South, when they're true--in the larger sense, not just non-fiction, though I suspect much of these stories is non-fiction--resonate with me like no other books can.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

"This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it?  Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it?  Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong,--because I know how, and can do it,--therefore, I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy.  Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set Quashy to doing.  Because I don't like work, Quashy shall work.  Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun.  Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it.  Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod.  Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such a chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient.  This I take to be about what slavery is.  I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it.  Talk about the abuses of slavery!  Humbug!  The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!"

I recently realized something: many, many white people in the United State of America simply do not think that slavery was all that bad.  It becomes quite obvious when I hear someone like Roy Moore say that "even though we had slavery," America was greatest before the Civil War because we had strong families.  (Never mind that slavery tore family after family apart, as Uncle Tom's Cabin shows quite well.)  Or I read stories like this one from Vox, where a docent at a Southern plantation recounts some of the questions she received, like, "Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?"  It stands out quite clearly when people defend the statues of Confederate generals, because of how upright they were despite their defense of slavery.  That "despite" says a lot.  The most humbling thing about this realization is that I had it at all; all of this has doubtlessly been clear to black Americans for hundreds of years.

I bring this up because the most striking thing about Uncle Tom's Cabin is how it captures the rationalizing, the hemming and hawing, the rhetorical and political cowardice of white Americans.  Uncle Tom lives with his wife and children in Kentucky under a kindly man who treats his slaves well and promises never to separate them, and yet, when money is tight, he does exactly that.  From there he's purchased by a compassionate but indolent man named St. Clare, who slowly but surely is convinced to do something about the injustice of slavery and set Tom free--and ends up getting killed in a bar fight on his way to draw up the papers.  It's St. Clare who delivers the stirring monologue up top, recognizing that slavery itself is an abuse that can't be ameliorated by treating your slaves well, but it takes the superhuman patience and goodness of a man like Tom to drag St. Clare to do what he already knows what's right.  And the fact that it's too late just goes to show how right he was; his own kindness to Tom amounts to nothing when his proud, selfish widow sells Tom to the vicious Simon Legree.  Time and time again, Stowe shows us the mental gymnastics necessary for white Americans, slaveowners and otherwise, to keep their egos intact.

Uncle Tom himself has given his name to a rather nasty epithet.  But the character Tom couldn't be farther from the stereotype of the black betrayer who sides with his masters, although he does form strong and compassionate relationships with many of them.  Rather, Tom is a picture of perfect Christian goodness, designed to emphasize the injustice slavery does to good people.  This is best exemplified by the moment when Tom refuses an order by Legree to beat another slave--a typical tactic meant to divide slaves and pit them against one another.  Tom has no problem recognizing Legree's ownership and mastery over him, but he claims a higher allegiance to God.  In doing so, Tom seals his own death warrant, turning Legree's petty viciousness into an unquenching resentment, and turns Tom into very much a Christ figure himself.  It's hard to square that act--the pointed refusal of his owner's command, at his own severe expense--with the image of the traitorous, sycophantic "Uncle Tom."

Jane Smiley has suggested that we should read Uncle Tom's Cabin in schools instead of Huckleberry Finn, which she finds wanting in its attitude towards black Americans.  I can't get behind that.  First of all, Uncle Tom's Cabin is twice as long, and contains long stretches of inaction that would make it hell to teach, compared to the zippy Huck Finn.  It also drops an important and exciting plot thread--that of a couple of escaped slaves named George and Eliza--for literally hundreds of pages in favor of the tedious exploration of St. Clare's saintly little girl, Eva.  But what makes Huck Finn such a rewarding book to teach is its complexity and nuance, and one of my favorite things to do in class is to ask students to evaluate its attitude toward race.  You couldn't do that with Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is written in the polemical mode and lacks that kind of complexity.  As a polemic, it's terrific--the best and most influential polemic we ever produced in America, probably--but I doubt it would work well in a classroom.

But that doesn't mean we should stop reading it.  It has been credited with reshaping American attitudes toward slavery in advance of the Civil War, and sad to say, I think there are still those in need of its message. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Image result for Lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

To still be there when the sun next set.  
                 mrs. antoinette boxer

And discover, in those moments of restored movement, that we had again been granted the great mother-gift:
                 robert g. twistins

                 lance durning

More time.
                 percival "dash" collier

I have never been a great fan of speculative fiction and enjoyed Saunders' collection The Tenth of December a good deal less enthusiastically than those who raved about it.  I held off reading this, his first novel, despite the awards and reviews, because the idea of a novel about dead people hanging around a cemetery just did not seem promising to me.  I was totally unprepared for this level of promise.

To say the novel is speculative may be technically accurate - it posits a relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, that is extremely detailed and involved.  However, the label doesn't prepare one for the power of the prose or the depth of character here.  It is set up as an extended conversation among various souls waiting around a DC cemetery that centers on the body and soul of Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln's son who has recently died of typhoid.  As the characters debate the fate of Willie's soul - the dead must choose to leave the immediate area of their physical bodies to move on to the afterlife or else stay tethered to the cemetery for eternity - they confess to their own limitations in life and the fears and hopes that keep them from moving on.

Lincoln himself is a character and Saunders draws his portrait through dozens of very short excerpts from the many biographies and histories in the Lincoln canon.  These include descriptions of his demeanor, but also of his hair and face, his hands and gait.  We get a deep and living portrayal of a father in his grief who also happens to be worried about the war ripping his country apart.

We also get a great social history of Nineteenth Century America as the characters - in snippets of dialogue that run from single words to two to three page speeches, discuss their lives in what they refer to as "that previous place."  We learn of their experiences with sex and race, money and family.  It is not clear until late in the novel whether moving on is really such a good idea and as individual characters leave the Bardo, I missed them.

In fact, it was the type of reading experience in which I missed the characters whenever I wasn't reading and began to irrationally hope that their strength and courage to do what they ultimately decide they must do would not flag.  In the end the novel is about redemption, but a redemption that is permeated with loss, a contemplation of life in which, as one of the major narrators, roger begins iii says, after listing objects from "the previous place" he misses,

Everything was real; inconceivable real, infinitely dear.  
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.
And now we must lose them.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

"A senior at a small private high school, the teenager [Sasha] identifies as agender - neither male nor female...Sasha puts down the book, and drifts into sleep. A few feet away, three teenage boys are laughing and joking...Sasha sleeps...sleeps as Richard surreptitiously flicks a lighter and touches it to the hem of that gauzy white skirt."

I saw Dashka Slater on a panel at the Vegas Valley Book Festival and was shocked that I had not heard about the event that inspired Slater to write The 57 Bus. In 2013, Sasha, an agender teenager who always wears skirts, fell asleep on their way home from school on a city bus in Oakland, California. Richard, a 16-year-old who took the same city bus on his way home from school, touches his lighter to their skirt, setting them on fire. Sasha ends up with second degree burns, has to spend almost a month in the hospital, and needs multiple surgeries to recover from this horrific injury. Richard is arrested by police the next day.

When I saw Slater speak, she described being pulled in by this story as a journalist and realizing that it was too complicated a story for a news article. She had to write a book about it. I will admit that my first reaction was skepticism because there is no question that Richard committed the crime. There is video evidence of him setting an agender person on fire - how is that complicated? By the end of Slater's panel, I felt I had to read the book to investigate it myself. As a librarian, I talk to students all the time about the information cycle and how the news (despite what some people think) is trustworthy, but journalists have a very short amount of time from an event happening to publishing information about the event. This book was published four years after the crime took place, and the story really is that complicated.

An example of the complications is that Richard is being tried as an adult even though he is 16. Sasha and their family did not ask for and do not want Richard to be tried as an adult, but apparently that doesn't matter. 

Another example of the complications is that Richard's two felony charges had a hate crime add on which means he could end up with a sentence of life in prison. 

This one is more complicated - would Richard have set Sasha on fire if Sasha wasn't gender non-conforming? Probably not. But was he, as the police, the DA, and his own confession said, homophobic?* Probably not. Later, when asked what he thought 'homophobic' meant, he couldn't define it. His Instagram had pictures of him wearing women's clothing and accessories to be silly, and he had gay family members that he got along with. (*The term 'homophobic' is the one picked by the DA for the hate crime even though Sasha doesn't identify as homosexual because that term can't really apply to someone who is not on the gender binary in the first place, but, I digress.)

The book is very good and does more than describe a crime and its after effects. We get to know Richard and his family intimately, Sasha and their family intimately, and at the same time receive a well-researched education on gender, sexuality, crime, criminal justice, race, and class. The book just received the Stonewall Young Adult Literature Book Award, which it absolutely deserves.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother by Anna Prushinkaya

I leave the house for the first time as a mother and I get coffee. I see a pregnant woman in the coffee shop. I realize that I no longer have the marker. Strangers won't ask me when I'm due. I am disappointed. The feeling is roughly that everyone should know what happened, that I just gave birth, this should be obvious from my body, the way that the pregnancy was. I want to tell the strangers: "I gave birth eight days ago! I was pregnant very recently! He came early! He came fast and at home!"
I read Prushinskaya's essays in the last few days of my own pregnancy, and I was immediately impressed. She charts the territory from pregnancy to motherhood, drawing on everyone from Alice Walker to Anna Akhmatova to Anne Lamott. We hear about her maternal experiences as well as her mother's and grandmother's.

As evidenced by these reviews, I've been reading a lot about motherhood recently (a trend I assume will continue into the next few years), and these essays resonated with a lot of the ambivalence and confusion I've been feeling. I don't know how relevant or poignant they would feel to a non-mother (or a less recent recruit), but to the extent that lyrical personal essays are worth reading regardless of common ground, these are worth your time. Prushinskaya is witty and incisive, and her prose is eminently readable.

In general, I think more of us should be writing and reading about the liminal space between womanhood and motherhood; I felt utterly unprepared for almost everything I've experienced so far (I can only assume that actual motherhood will be even more blindsiding), and if reflections like Prushinskayas were more commonplace, if we valued the experience of becoming a mother as the nuanced and often difficult journey that it is, then perhaps women would feel more supported and validated as they move across into parenthood.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Golden Hill
by Francis Spufford
Image result for golden hill francis spufford isbn paperback

A bird and a cage.  Not a bird in a cage, as you like to imagine:  that is sentiment, that is you inducing yourself in the pleasure of conceiving yourself a victim, and being warranted by it for any amount of poison.  No, you are yourself the cage.  It is not made of your circumstances.  It is made of your passions...

In November of 1746, one William Smith of London lands in New York, a rustic town of 7,000 stuck on the tip of small island in a large harbor.  He walks immediately to a necessarily small trading house and asks if they will honor a note drawn on a famous bank in England.  Since the trading house is reliant on the bank for credit and a good reputation in trade, they don't really have a choice and they agree - stating only that if the note is for more than 5 pounds Mr Smith will have to come back the next day as they raise the money.  Smith presents a note for 1,000 pounds sterling.

What follows is a romp through colonial New York which touches on issues of business, banking and finance, but also involves gender relations, slavery and racism, sexuality, a card game named piquet, dueling, party politics, coffee houses and the state of theater in early America.  Mr Spufford is an historian writing his first novel.  Much of the detail of Smith's time in New York is fascinating to me, but some of it was skimmable.  The exact nature of the play in piquet seems irrelevant to plot, theme and character and I glanced over it.  Other readers may find the parts I found fascinating - banking, dueling, travel, weather, more or less fascinating.

All of this is driven by the mystery of what Smith is doing in New York and what the thousand pounds is for.  He hints liberally that he is there to perform some task with the money, but waits until very late in the novel to reveal what the task is.  As the people of New York immediately decide he is a thief, conman, lackey of the governor or political operator for the nascent Assembly of councilman the real engine of the plot is his attempts to survive banishment, imprisonment and threats against his life.

Oh, and there is a love story.  And a highly improbable sex scene.

I found the book hard to put down and had one of those weeks when commuting home was the highlight of my day.  Much of the prose is remarkable and several characters - primarily Smith and his love interest, Tabitha Lovell - are very well drawn.

In the end, the mystery was largely irrelevant and something of a disappointment, but if the final pages did not live up to the quality and excitement of what preceded them, the overall bargain was still in my favor.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink, and digest without hyperventilating like a dead fish in your bed.

In one essay from Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury describes his method: Write a story on Monday, a second draft on Tuesday, a third on Wednesday, a fourth on Thursday, a fifth on Friday, and then send it off on Saturday.  And unlike some other advice-givers, Bradbury doesn't seem to be one of those who says you must do it mechanically, even when inspiration isn't striking.  To the contrary, he writes, "[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer."  The impression these essays ultimately give is of a writer so full of gusto and zest you hope that some of it will rub off on you.

If you're looking for practical advice, you might be disappointed by the collection.  Bradbury credits most of his successful work to a single list of nouns he jotted down one day in his twenties.  (THE LAKE, THE BABY, THE OLD WOMAN, THE RAVINE.)  Over several decades, Bradbury returned to this same list--or so he claims--to inspire him.  ("The Old Woman" and "The Ravine," for sure, I remember as some of the most outstanding sections of the story-collection-as-novel Dandelion Wine.)  Who can imitate that?  No one, I expect.  But the essays themselves are so full of life and good feeling that they give you the impression that you might just be able to, especially if Bradbury believes in you--and they also give the impression that, somehow, he believes in you.

Zen is a collection of essays written at various points throughout Bradbury's life, and as with a lot of these compilations, you hear the same stories over and over again.  Bradbury is especially fond of talking about how, as a kid, he tore up all his Buck Rogers comics in an effort to fit in, and the guilt he felt at betraying Buck was so strong that he vowed never to turn his back on his childhood loves again.  "Since then," he writes, "I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas.  When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room."  It's such a charming aside that you don't mind hearing it again.

Zen in the Art of Writing won't change any aspect of how or what I write.  But it did give me some classic snippets that I'm going to share with my students.  And as I find myself striving, slogging, to finish a book of my own, it was a nice inspirational kick in the pants.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

I had chosen a ten-point font, both to conserve paper and to discourage people from reading the story, which I didn't think they would enjoy. Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything that I thought anyone would like to read. 
Before I get too far into this review, I have an important confession: I am a massive Elif Batuman fangirl. Anyone will the nerve to use Dostoevsky titles for all of her books (and to shout out Fyodor Mikhailovich by his patronymic in her acknowledgments) is already pretty impressive in my book; add to that the fact that her twitter handle is @bananakarenina and I was ready to swoon before even opening her first novel (also The Possessed was incredible, so the bar was set high). Luckily, she lives up to the hype.

The Idiot documents Selin's first year at Harvard. It's 1995, and on top of the endless awkwardness of any freshman year, Selin has to learn how to navigate the new world of email. She begins an online correspondence with Ivan, a graduate student in her Russian class, and the novel unfolds around her largely inept attempts to parse her feelings for him while adjusting to life in college.

Batuman does self-deprecation impeccably. She is funny and sharp in her descriptions of the agony of inadequacy that is any freshman year. Selin spends the summer in Hungary (in another clumsy attempt to win over Ivan), and Batuman's observational skill is put to even better use there. All of the madness and hilarity of post-Soviet states is captured here, along with the difficulty of being a Western interloper. I laughed out loud several times and was especially won over by this description of life in Hungary:
I suppressed a sigh. Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.  

I loved this book. Selin is eminently frustrating and loveable: as a budding writer, a lovesick young adult, a student of Russian. Each aspect of her (totally wonky) personality is laid out with care and humor, and Batuman is able to capture all the inelegance of being nineteen and in way over your head perfectly. Every once in a while you find a book that you really, really wish you'd written, and this felt like that for me. Her time in Hungary perfectly mapped onto my time in Russia, and her fumbling attempts to establish herself as an intellectual and as an adult rang so true that I found myself constantly wanting to underline and copy down passages. I felt similarly about The Possessed, so I can't wait to see what Batuman produces next!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

The breeder of the black German shepherds said her kennel was in Sedona, a place known far and wide for its good vibrations, its harmonic integrity.  But the kennel was actually in Jerome, thirty miles away, an unnerving ghost town set above a vast pit from which copper ore had been extracted.  The largest building in Jerome was the old sanatorium, now derelict.  The town's historian insisted that it had served all the population in the town's heyday, not just the diseased and troubled, and that babies had even been born there.

In any case, the dog coming from Jerome rather than Sedona was telling, people thought.

Another something that could be the basis of the dog's behavior was the fact that her mistress always wore sunglasses, day and night.  Like everybody else, the dog never got to see her eyes.  When the woman had people over, she placed a big bowl of sunglasses outside the front door and everyone put on a pair before entering.  It was easier than locking the dog in the bedroom.

The Lord is a recurring character in Joy Williams' Ninety-Nine Stories of God.  He's not the only character, and you can draw your own conclusion about what it means to call the eighty-odd stories in which he's not a character "stories of God."  For His part, the Lord isn't quite lordly in these stories.  Typically, we see him engaged in pretty commonplace human behavior.  "The Lord was invited to a gala," one begins.  Another first line is: "The Lord had always wanted to participate in a demolition derby."  Another, perhaps less commonly, begins "The Lord was in a den with a pack of wolves."  The image that Williams gives us of God is one who is relatable, but still unknowable; not omniscient--he has trouble winning the raffle to participate in the demolition derby--but who knows at least a little bit more than we do.

The longest of Williams' stories runs about three small pages; the shortest are single sentences: "We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested."  That story is called "MUSEUM," and like all the stories in the collection, the title comes at the end, rather than the beginning.  This has the effect of turning the title into a kind of punchline:

When he was a boy, someone's great-grandfather told him this story about a traveler in thirteenth-century France.

The traveler met three men pushing wheelbarrows.  He asked in what work they were engaged, and he received from them the following three answers.

The first said: I toil from sunrise to sunset and all I receive for my labor is a few francs a day.

The second said: I'm happy enough to wheel this wheelbarrow, for I have not had work for many months and I have a family to feed.

The third said: I am building Chartres Cathedral.

But as a boy he had no idea what a chartres cathedral was.


That's pretty funny.  But it also resembles a Zen koan, a question with no real or satisfactory answer.  In this story, the effect is to trouble the point of the great-grandfather's narrative.  The great-grandfather wants his great-grandson to see the way in which our experience is defined by our perspective, apart from literal fact, but the great-grandson's lack of understanding somehow both confirms the lesson and prevents him from "getting" it.

And in the same way, these stories refuse to be "got."  They're highly elliptical, and leave more out than than they leave in.  They remind me of what someone once said about the band Spoon: they take out every track that's not absolutely essential, and then they take one more.  Check out the story in the italics above and notice how much we're not told about the dog or its owner; we don't even get to know what behavior the dog exhibits that's so troubling.  This, too, is a "story of God," a story about the inherent inscrutability of the universe, which refuses to bend to our expectations of causality and rational observation.

I loved these stories, and I'm excited to show them to my creative writing students, whose fiction often stalls out at five or six pages of background, well before any narrative thrust can really get going.  Look at how much you can do with how little, I'll tell them, and it's a lesson I'm excited to reflect on for my own writing, too.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

A heavy rumble shook the earth; Andrews's horse started backwards, its ears flattened about the sides of its head.  For an instant Andrews searched the upper air about the southern mountains, thinking that he had heard the sound of thunder; but the rumbling persisted beneath him.  Directly in front of him, in the distance, a faint cloud of dust arose, and blew away as soon as it had arisen.  Then suddenly, out of the shadow, onto that part of the valley still flooded in sunlight, the buffalo emerged.  They ran with incredible swiftness, not in a straight line toward him, but in swift swerves and turns, as if they evaded invisible obstacles suddenly thrust before them; and they swerved and turned as if the entire herd of thirty or forty buffalo were one animal with one mind, a single will--no animal straggled or turned in a direction that was counter to the movement of the others.

William Andrews is the son of a Unitarian minister in Boston; he comes west with money in his pocket looking for a genuine experience with nature.  He ends up in Butcher's Crossing, Kansas, a tiny outpost flush with money from the buffalo hide industry.  He finds himself financing a hunting party to the Rocky Mountains, led by a hypermasculine tracker named Miller, and accompanied by a religious drunk, Charley Hoge, and a truculent skinner named Schneider.  Miller's promise of a secret valley laden with thousands of buffalo turns out to be true, and Miller slowly picks off every single one of the animals, already at this time starting to dwindle from its terrific population.  But his thirst for wiping out the herd presses the party to stay longer than is wise, and soon they're snowed in--not for six weeks, as they expected, but at least six months.

Butcher's Crossing is, among other things, a send-up of Emersonian Transcendentalism.  Like Emerson, Andrews comes out of a Boston Brahmin tradition looking for a real connection with the earth that will provide meaning and freedom from the strictures of civilization:

But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought.  It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous.  What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year.

But what Andrews finds on the buffalo hunt is not freedom or hope but the existential indifference of the natural world, with its tendency to diminish the human ego.  The archetype of the "natural man" is not some enlightened Thoreau, but Miller, who kills buffalo not for money but for some deep and dark primeval need.  And Andrews changes, too, but not for the better; the experience manages to empty him in a way he cannot foresee, underscored by a scene in the midst of the snow-covered valley in which, stricken by snowblindness, he loses his sense of direction and his sense of self.  One of the party goes insane; one doesn't make it back at all.

Williams' novels are so different from each other: a western, a campus novel, a Roman historical novel.  But in each his style is indelible, even though it is a kind of unstyle marked by a preference for the most familiar word and few pyrotechnics.  Williams' descriptions of the Rocky Mountains are little more than an inversion of his descriptions of Kansas, "great" and "green" versus "low," "flat," "brown."  In Stoner the style reflects the plainspokenness of the protagonist; here it becomes both chilling and chilly, emphasizing the fundamental difference between Andrews and the natural world he hopes to access.  There is no vocabulary sufficient to describe it; it effaces vocabulary, as it does in the six months Andrews' party spends in the snow barely speaking to each other.

But perhaps the most chilling aspect of Butcher's Crossing is not the slaughter of the buffalo hunt, or the unceasing trauma of the Colorado winter, but what happens--spoiler alert, I guess--when the party returns to Butcher's Crossing.  The market for buffalo hides has bottomed out, and the thousands of hides which they have left stored for safekeeping in Colorado are worth an infinitesimal fraction of what they invested in the operation.  Butcher's Crossing itself is basically a ghost town.  Andrews doesn't need the money, really, but it underscores the futility of his Transcendental dream.  Not only has the experience isolated him, separated him somehow from human life, the failure of the buffalo market precludes the last hope of his successful reintegration into the civilization he didn't know he longed for.  The last image is, like every good cinema Western, of Andrews riding off into the sunset alone.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

He's not chopping it down.  He's saving it.  Those branches were long dead from disease.  All plants are like that.  By cutting off the damage, you make it possible for the tree to grow again.  You watch - by the end of summer, this tree will be the strongest on the block.  

Even though Speak was written more than a decade ago, it's just as relevant today.  The novel picks up as Melinda begins here freshman year of high school, shortly after she suffered the trauma that haunts her school year.  She went to an end of summer party with some friends, had a couple of beers, and is raped by a rising senior.  In her terror and confusion, she calls the police, but runs home before they arrive.  The police break up the party and Melinda is blamed, becoming an outcast, losing her friends and her support system.

As the novel progresses, we witness Melinda descend into depression, with bouts of PTSD thrown in for good measure.  Her grades plummet, she doesn't really  make any new friends, she gets in trouble at school, and she stops speaking almost entirely.  Her one outlet is her art class, where her year long project is "tree."  Her experimentations and dead ends and frustrations with the project mirror her downward spiral; at one low point, she wishes she could sheer away the entire linoleum block in which she's trying to carve a tree and leave nothing behind.

As the year progresses, she begins to recover and find her voice.  A friend Melinda thought had abandoned her tentatively reaches back out, helping Melinda find her voice.  In a pivotal moment, Melinda adds her rapist's name to the graffiti on the bathroom door under the warning "GUYS TO STAY AWAY FROM."  When she returns later, other girls have added to her message with their own experiences with him, agreeing that he's a dangerous creep.  It's not hard to draw the parallel to the effect of #metoo and the strength that people draw from realizing that they're not alone.

Speak isn't particularly subtle (Anderson answers Melinda's complaints that Hawthorne's symbolism in The Scarlet Letter is too opaque by hitting you over the head with hers), but Melinda isn't a caricature, either.  She isn't a one note depressed high schooler; she has good days and good moments and makes the sardonic observations about her teachers and classmates that you'd expect from a high schooler.  And yet it can all come crashing down from a chance encounter with IT (as she names her rapist in the beginning of the book), or even an invitation to a pizza party from a seemingly harmless guy friend.

Despite it's lack of subtlety, I thought Speak had a strong sense of its protagonist's perspective, and I would recommend it (with the caveat that though none of the scenes are exceptionally graphic, there are violent scenes and descriptions of depression and PTSD).

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Undergirding this experiential understanding, and often accompanying it, is the more abstract understanding that is part of Buddhist philosophy. Making real progress in mindfulness meditation almost inevitably means becoming more aware of the mechanics by which your feelings, if left to their own devices, shape your perceptions, thoughts, and behavior--and becoming more aware of the things in your environment that activate those feelings in the first place. You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has something in common with enlightenment in the Western scientific sense: it involves becoming more aware of what causes what. 
The title of Robert Wright's book is problematic, and he seems to know it. He bookends the text with a defense of the language from the title, and he's spoken in podcasts and interviews about how it can be misinterpreted. My husband (and likely other scientifically minded skeptics) has refused to read the book based largely on the title. The subtitle, however, is fairly accurate. Wright uses evolutionary psychology and our current understanding of how brains work to explain why Buddhism, specifically mindful meditation, is a way around some of the ways our brains have evolved to deceive us and make our lives more complicated.

The version of Buddhism that Wright discusses here (and he makes this very clear) is a Western, secular Buddhism, and Wright is clearly a Western, secular scholar. He draws on everyone from Darwin to Plato to Montaigne to ground the reader in Western thought, and cites current studies on brain development and psychology. His discussion of Buddhism is a little less deep (and often based on his own experiences with meditation), but he does a good job of making it accessible and clear. His basic point is that humans have evolved to do everything in their power to survive and pass on their genes. Our brains often play tricks on us to ensure that we are able to survive as long as possible, and Buddhism, despite being developed long before we understood evolutionary biology provides us with the tools to circumvent those tricks. In Buddhism, that circumvention ends in enlightenment. For us laypeople, it ends in a less anxious, more compassionate existence. It allows us to let go of our attachment to feelings, to objects, to pre-conceived notions, and, most importantly, to detach from our sense of ourselves as uniquely special individuals.

One of the ideas he explores later in the book is whether secular Buddhism (which, as far as I can tell, mostly boils down to the regular practicing of mindfulness meditation) counts as a religion. This is something I've wondered about for a while. To be clear, my experiences with mindfulness are far less extensive than Wrights. At one point, Wright suggests that 50 minutes a day is an appropriate amount of time to be meditating to see real results; I occasionally remember to meditate for 10-minute stretches. That being said, even with my meager and inconsistent practice, I've felt the benefits of mindfulness in ways that have helped me see how (if done far more regularly and seriously) it could constitute the foundation of a spiritual practice.

I really enjoyed reading this. Wright is articulate and his expertise is wide-ranging. His own skepticism makes him a compelling guinea pig in the quest for mindfulness, and I appreciated his dry humor and mild chocolate addiction. I do wonder how serious scholars and practitioners of Buddhism would take this. Wright glosses over many aspects of Buddhism and pokes gentle fun at others. He also does things like take extensive notes during silent meditation retreats, which can't be smiled upon.

The Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy by Andy Puddicombe

As a new parent, what we are learning to do in such situations is to let go of one moment before beginning the next; to draw the curtain on one activity, before starting another. Time will continue, the moments will keep on coming--we are the only ones who can decide if we are going to carry our frustrations with us and compromise what we are doing right now by dragging the past into the present. 
I've been using Headspace for a couple of years now, and I bought this book after doing their pregnancy series. I was hoping for a deeper dive into mindfulness and pregnancy (and also on how to apply mindfulness techniques to childbirth and potentially parenting). Mostly, that's what I got. It probably would have been more useful had I read it earlier in the process, but it definitely provided some strategies that have been useful in my final weeks.

Puddicombe addresses the elephant in the room right off the bat: he is a man (a former monk at that) writing a book about pregnancy. He has sought the input of a number of women including an obstetrician, a neuroscientist, and his wife, so he does a decent job not seeming like he's mansplaining a uniquely feminine experience, but it did nag at me throughout.

For those who already have a mindfulness practice, this doesn't provide anything particularly new or groundbreaking. That being said, it was helpful to have the basics of mindfulness re-iterated and re-framed around pregnancy. Puddicombe comes back to most of the basics he outlines through Headspace, and walks us through how they apply to the uncertainty and chaos of pregnancy.

One section, presumably included to sell the reader on the benefits of mindfulness, enumerates the many ways in which stress and anxiety are bad for you and your unborn child. Puddicombe cites study after study about how terrible it is to be stressed and anxious while pregnant which, to a person who is basically constantly anxious, was not the most reassuring ten pages.

Overall, if you're pregnant and looking for mindfulness strategies, this provided some helpful ones. Puddicombe isn't a particularly good writer, but he's clear and succinct, and, as with the Headspace app, he uses metaphor well to explain concepts that otherwise might be hard to process.  If you're already using Headspace, it's more of a refresher than a collection of new insights, but I still found it valuable. The last section of the book is a series of mindfulness exercises for various stages of pregnancy. For the most part, they line up with various Headspace strategies, so I've been using the corresponding recordings. I've never tried meditating using written cues, so I'm not sure how it would go without the recordings to guide me.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

To a parent, your child wasn't just a person; your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and past you remembered and the future you longed for existed all at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she'd been and the child she'd become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again. 
Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere takes place in a neatly laid out suburb of Cleveland, a community that takes pride in its planned-ness, its neatness, its control. That facade falls apart immediately; the fires from the title come in the opening pages as the daughter of a lifelong resident burns her family's house to the ground. The novel circles back to the weeks and months before the fire, showing the slow, inexorable slide into chaos and follows several families in Shaker Heights: a seemingly perfect nuclear family, an artist mother and her daughter newly arrived in town, a couple with a newly adopted infant, and the mother of that infant. While we only know about the fire from the get-go, Ng builds each of these storylines to a crisis point beautifully. Once I had gotten a few chapters in, I couldn't put it down.

On some level, this is a novel about belonging. Ng plays with the idea of community, relationship, and family, and the ways each of those ideas is built around a sense of who belongs where and who belongs to whom. The idea that a tight-knit community (or family or relationship) is defined not only by who belongs within it but also by who gets left on the outside is brought up over and over in different forms and permutations. The teenagers in the book struggle with belonging in all the predictable ways, but also succeed in some new and unexpected ones--the art of incorporating yourself, however briefly, into a friend's family for instance.

I'm not sure if I would have read it this way at another point in my life, but this also felt very much like a book about motherhood. There are many mothers and aspiring mothers here, and each gives a different glimpse into the various heartbreaks and joys of being a parent. Ng's mothers are for the most part incredibly complicated-both in their maternal lives and their outward personas, and she builds character beautifully, especially with her two leading women.

Ng's first novel, Everything I Never Told You, is more overtly a mystery (a girl disappears in the first pages), but Little Fires Everywhere has the same tension and suspense. You don't know immediately what the mystery is, but you can tell there is one. It's a little more subtle, and I enjoyed it more as a result.