Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Billy's 2019 Review

I did it! For the first time I made it to 50 books!  Now I never have to read another book again!

As I finally made it to the finish line, I figured a top 5 was in order.  First, some stats:

Books by women: 32/50
Books by genderqueer authors: 1/50

Books by authors of color: 19/50

Books by queer authors/about queer topics: 18/50

Books by straight white men: 4/50

Nonfiction: 21/50

Audiobooks: 5/50

Repeat authors: 2 (Mohsin Hamid and Tana French)

I have made a concerted effort over the last few years to diversify my reading, and this year was by far my most successful.  A big part of my push for 50 and my diversification was a summer reading bingo challenge by a local bookshop, Little Shop of Stories, which tried to push you out of your comfort zone by having a different genre or category per square (e.g. "read a novel that centers the LGBTQIA+ experience" or "read a novel whose protagonist is an African American woman").  I really enjoyed it (and filled 21 of the 25 squares).

Honorable mention:

  • The Likeness by Tana French: A riveting crime novel that was as gripping as the first book in the series, but didn't have a huge asshole as the protagonist, so it was even better.
  • Honeymoon for One by Keira Andrews: I had never read a really sultry romance novel, so I downloaded this one.  Not only did it have some steamy gay sex, it also had a hard of hearing protagonist, and I learned a lot about how HOH people exist in the world. 
  • Down to the Last Pitch by Tom Wendell: I had no idea that Lonnie Smith bought a gun and planned to murder John Schuerholz before they both ended up with the Braves! That's bonkers! What if Lonnie Smith had murdered John Schuerholz!!
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A really interesting look at class and how that affects relationships, and has a good story and well conceived characters.
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe: A book that has been showing up on best of the year lists, and for good reason.  Say Nothing is a great introduction to The Troubles in Northern Ireland for those who don't know much about it.

5. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

2019 was in part a year of memoirs for me, as I read 11 books that could reasonably be described as memoirs (or memoir adjacent).  Some were mostly light and fun (I Totally Meant to Do That and Thanks, Obama), some were incredibly depressing (A River in Darkness and Rabbit), two were the only two graphic novels I read this year (March and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness), but Born a Crime was probably the best as a memoir.  What I found was that what makes a good memoir was having some broader point to make yet weaving it seamlessly into the stories that make up the book.  Thanks, Obama and Rabbit, for example, were just a series of stories without much introspection.  I Totally Meant to Do That had a broader point, but it was basically just "New York City, boy, I don't know...".

I like Trevor Noah on the Daily Show just fine, though I've pretty much stopped watching it.  His memoir, on the other hand, was fascinating.  Noah was born in South Africa before the end of Apartheid to a white father and black mother, which made his existence literally the evidence of a crime.  As a result of his parentage and the strict racial dynamics in South Africa, Noah was in a position to observe the social construct that is race in a way that most people aren't.  It's very useful to read about how race is a social construct somewhat abstractly in a book like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats, but it's also very illuminating to see how that plays out in practice through Noah's eyes.  Also, he is very funny, so it's an enjoyable read, too.

4. Queer Intentions by Amelia Abraham

Abraham's tour of queer communities and issues around the world does a great job of illuminating and discussing the benefits and drawbacks of queer assimilation into heteronormative society and how class and race impact the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and how that fight differs country by country.  She excels in amplifying marginalized voices and finding the nuance in the different issues she observes.  This was a very important book for me as I try to find my place in the queer community and make sure that my white/rich/cis/male privilege don't blind me from fighting for those who don't have the same privileges that I do.

3. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book took a certain book loving section of the internet by storm this year, and for good reason.  It's witty and fun and provides some escapism for people who would love living in an alternate universe where a competent woman won the 2016 election.  The book tells the story of Alex, the First Son, as he falls in love with Henry, the Prince of England.  And the best part (and why this book made it into my top 3), is that Alex is bisexual.  Alex is in his early 20s when he figures out his queerness after a surprising, but steamy, kiss with Henry.  His story is so relatable, with lines like "Straight people, he thinks, probably don't spend this much time convincing themselves that they're straight." As someone who tried to convince himself he wasn't bisexual for many years, that was a revelation.

2. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I recommend this book to everyone (especially white people).  Being progressive and on the internet in 2019 means picking up a lot of ideas about race and structural racism, etc., but sometimes we miss things or don't fully understand them.  Thus, most of what I read in Oluo's book wasn't necessarily new to me, but what makes the book great is how clearly she explains these concepts.  In some chapters, like "What are microaggressions?" and "What is intersectionality and why do I need it", Oluo tackles the core principles of being anti-racist, while addressing more practical topics in chapters like "Why can't I say the "N" word?" and "I just got called racist, what do I do now?"  This is one that I'll probably read again, and it is vital for anyone who wants to be anti-racist.

1. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I loved this book.  It was so beautifully written that it was like eating a perfect scoop of ice cream.  The way Hamid explores the refugee crisis while vividly crafting two characters and their love story would be enough to make this my favorite book of the year, but that he does so with such elegant prose is shocking.

Brittany´s Top Books of 2019

(Note: my keyboard is stuck in Spanish, so pardon any typos)

By The Numbers
  • 67 complete books read (18 young adult, 14 romance novels not including Pride and Prejudice rewrites, 6 Pride and Prejudice rewrites, 12 non-fiction books including 5 memoirs, 5 short story collections, 2 graphic novels, no audiobooks, 1 reread, and 1 reread in a translated language)
  • 61 authors (the repeats include Alyssa Cole, Jasmine Guillory, Helen Hoang, Meg Medina)
  • 12 men, 49 women, and 0 nonbinary or genderqueer authors
  • 60 living and 1 dead (RIP Gloria E. Anzaldúa)
  • 20 authors who are white, 41 authors who are not
  • 11 books with queer main characters
  • 6 stories with main characters who are disabled or have disabilities (although I would not recommend Everything, Everything as its problematic plot fails to pass The Fries Test) 

Compared to previous years, my number of books is back on the upswing. I have only been tracking my reading since 2013, and since most of the last 6 years have been spent either in reading-intensive graduate programs or recovering from said programs, it´s hard to say what is a ´normal´ amount of reading for me as I have had years as low as 20 and as high as 73.

In 2013 only 42% of my authors were women (shoutout to my MA in English program), and since realizing that Ive made a concentrated effort to read more women. For 2019 I’m up to 80% (when will there be enough women on my reading list? to quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg: when there are 9.)

This year, as usual, two thirds of my authors were people of color. Although I have always read a lot of LGBTQ stories, this is the first year I am tracking it. I have never gone out of my way to read books featuring people with disabilities, but I’d like to read more to try to combat the very few and very problematic depictions that exist in mainstream media, so I’m starting to count now.

Top Books
It was a rough year to do this because I didn’t do any book reviews, and all I had to go off was tiny hearts I drew next to some books in my bullet journal reading log. This may not be an accurate list of my actual top books in their actual order, but I tried my best.

1. The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
I saw Valeria Luiselli do a powerful performance piece called The Courtroom which included excerpts from the novel, questions from the credible fear interview that asylum seekers answer, and details from reports of migrants who died in the desert near the border. Valeria herself has volunteered as a court interpreter helping children making their case for asylum, and those experiences clearly influenced this novel. 

The Lost Children Archive opens with a couple (who each have a child from a previous relationship) embarking on a road trip for their respective research. The husband is interested in traveling to the lands that used to belong to the Apache to record sounds there while the wife is researching unaccompanied children refugees and looking for two specific children at the request of a friend. The family road trip builds the frame of the novel which is interspersed with sections from the (non-existent) book Elegies for Lost Children, lists of contents of boxes, map details, and other little bits. It’s an ambitious novel about marriage, family, road trips, immigration, refugees, children, archives, and maps, and it does a beautiful job. 

2. Good Talk by Mira Jacob
This book was recommended on the Spring Books 2019 episode of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. In the interview, Mira Jacob shares an anecdote that inspired this graphic memoir which is comprised of conversations (many between her and her son). Her son, after observing the differences in Michael Jackson´s appearance across different albums, asks, ¨Are you going to turn white?¨ No. ¨Am I going to turn white?¨ No. ¨Is dad going to turn white?¨ ¨Daddy´s already white.¨ ¨But was he always?¨ This charmingly funny conversation turns serious when he asks ¨Are white people afraid of brown people?¨ 

I read this book after a trip to Washington, D. C. The book covers the time period of the 2016 election, and the author´s in laws are supporters of Number 45. So, yes, I spent a lot of time crying (which was awkward because I was on an airplane). But the book is also very warm and funny, so I also spent a lot of time laughing (again, awkward, airplane). The memoir vividly captures this moment of time, particularly for people of color, particularly for families that are mixed racially or politically. 

3. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez 
The novel opens on teenager Maribel and her parents Alma and Arturo Rivera arriving to a Delaware apartment complex from Mexico. Maribel has a traumatic brain injury, and her dad seeks employment in the US so that Maribel can go to a school that specializes in TBI and other disabilities. Most of the novel is told with alternating chapters from the perspectives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro (a teenage neighbor who instantly falls in love with Maribel). However, almost every Latinx immigrant who lives in their apartment complex gets a chapter to tell their story. Im almost always a fan of interconnected stories, and the topic of this particular novel makes it an easy sell for me (I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant married to a son of an Okinawan immigrant). It captures so many different perspectives of why people come to the US. 

¨We´re the unknown Americans, the ones no one ever wants to know, because they´ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we´re not that bad, maybe even that we´re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?¨

4. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
I did not love every story in this collection, but the ones I loved I loved so much that the book earns its spot on my top 5. As a whole, the collection is solid. The stories center topics like racism, violence, white supremacy, the apocalypse, etc., so it´s not an easy read or a pleasant read, but it´s a necessary read.

Three stories are particularly strong. The Finkelstein 5, which opens the collection, starts with Emmanuel dialing his blackness down to try to get a job while thinking about the latest brutal act of violence committed by a white man against 5 black children. It is a horrific and powerful story. The best story is Zimmer Land which is the name of a theme park with immersive experiences where players can engage in different ´justice´ scenarios. The reader follows Isaiah who works in a fake idyllic neighborhood that players enter in order to confront him, a Black youth. I read this on my annual camping road trip, and was so impressed by the execution of the idea that I read it aloud to my husband while he drove. The last story Through the Flash was so interesting to me that as soon as I finished it, I flipped back to the start and read it again. It details a world stuck on a loop where every day ends with a nuclear apocalypse, but only some people realize they are stuck in the loop. It’s an interesting exploration about what people would do when every single day doesn’t matter. 

The collection has something for everyone - Christopher specifically didn’t like Through the Flash while I felt meh about one of his favorites (The Hospital Where). We both disliked the eponymous story and its two companion stories (Friday Black, In Retail, and How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing), but many reviewers consider these anti capitalist tales to be the strongest. 

5. The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Two accidental themes of my reading year were adoption and immigration, and this National Book Award finalist is about both. It’s hard to describe the novel without revealing too much. The story is deliciously revealed over shifting points of views across different time periods (the novel covers two generations worth of time). At its core, the novel is about a Chinese American boy, Deming Guo, being adopted by two Nice White People after his biological mother disappears, leaving him behind. The NWP rename him Daniel Wilkinson and attempt to raise him as an assimilated All American Boy. It is an expansive novel that covers adoption, trauma, race, culture, family, immigration, friendship, etc. but still manages to be a fairly quick read.

6. Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship by Kayleen Schaefer
¨Prioritizing friendship is sometimes tricky; society often indicates to women that it´s not on the same level as the other relationships in our lives, such as the ones with our romantic partners, our children, or even our jobs. Devoting ourselves to finding spouses, caring for children, or snagging a promotion is acceptable, productive behavior. Spending time strengthening our friendships, on the other hand, is seen more like a diversion.¨

This book (which is another recommendation from the podcast Call Your Girlfriend) gave me so much life. I was raised by a couple who didn’t have any friends and instead focused all their energy on their family or their jobs. Schaefer centers a lot of her book in pop culture media depictions of friendship which I enjoyed because honestly that´s how I learned about what friendship could look like. 

I’m proud of my career, my relationship, and my education, but I am most proud of my friendships. I believe that people get the community they create, and I have worked really hard to build a community of amazing friends. Shoutout to the Special Ladies! instagram chat, the Consummate Rascals messenger chat, documentary film club which is 26 months strong, trips to Los Angeles and Pahrump and trips from Atlanta and Missoula to connect with friends, the parties we throw each other, and the lives that we have built together.

7. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I was lucky enough to see Lesley Nneka Arimah twice last year as part of the Believer Festival in Las Vegas. The first time she charmed me by reading a part of an unpublished story that was brilliant and the second time she inspired me by patiently explained to the white woman interviewing her that she doesn’t write for a white audience. It’s difficult to describe this collection of short stories because some take place in the US, some take place in Nigeria, some are magical, some are post-apocalyptic, some are fableesque. The stories are all over the place, but one consistent motif is relationships between mothers and daughters, so I would definitely recommend it to anyone who, like me, has a complicated relationship with a parent. Out of the 5 short story collections I read this year, this one was the most solid collection with the most consistent quality throughout. 

8. Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
The only young adult novel on my top list this year! Much of the plot can be discerned from the title. Our main character is Darius, and he is not okay. His depression seeps into every part of the novel, as well as his feelings of inadequacy both as a son and as a Persian American. His grandfather falls ill which kicks off a family trip to Iran and an opportunity for him to connect with his family history. I really enjoyed watching Darius´s relationship with his family in Iran develop over tea, food, and tourist adventures and his friendship with Sohrab develop over soccer. The only downside of this novel is the incredible depictions of Persian food. I am now on a quest to find and eat faludeh.

9. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
I accidentally picked up this book of poems thinking that it was a graphic novel because of the intensely gorgeous cover. I breezed through this book during a read-a-thon. The entirety of the collection is solid. It was particularly interesting for me because I think this is the first text Ive read (and definitely the first poetry collection Ive read) written by a Chicano author.

Honorable Mentions
  • Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero: I wish I had read this as a teen. Gabi is a fat Mexican American teen poet who has one best friend who is pregnant and another best friend who is gay and a drug addicted parent which covers enough of my own teenage experiences to make my heart both beat faster and break throughout the novel. ¨I don’t want us to be ashamed anymore...This picture was taken after we sent out our college apps...Who can say they did most of it on their own? Not a lot. So we have to be proud and always remember who we are and when we make it to college, who we were.¨
  • Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: I didn’t love every story in this collection, but I really enjoyed a few. The opening story Standard Loneliness Package was one of the best things I read all year. Wealthy people from developed countries pay employees in a call center to experience pain on their behalf. Instead of feeling the emotional pain of the death of a cousin or the physical pain of a broken arm, people pay others to feel it for them. I also enjoyed First Person Shooter (zombie in a supermarket) and Yeoman (about our favorite destined-to-die red shirts). 
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: It’s impossible to go into an airport bookstore without seeing 50 copies of Jasmine Guillory´s novels starting back at you. I, like most women in America, could not ignore their call. I grew up reading romance novels (because my mom read romance novels and I read literally anything I could get my hands on in the house), but as an adult my only romance reading has been YA novels and Jane Austen. After reading and loving The Wedding Date, I went to romance Twitter to get recommendations for books that had the same elements I enjoyed in this novel: must have people of color, main characters must have interests beyond the love interest, main characters must have relationships beyond the love interest. I got a tone of great recommendations, but I’d like to also give honorary mentions to The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang which I cried my way through; Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston which is the perfect blend of sex, romance, and politics; and the Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole. 
  • Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal: I read 6 versions of Pride and Prejudice this year, and this novel was my favorite one. It takes place in Pakistan and focuses on the Binat family, specifically Alys who teaches English literature at the local school for girls. One of the things I loved about this adaptation is that its totally self aware - the novel opens on Alys asking her students to rewrite the opening line of Pride and Prejudice and Alys references Austen throughout. ¨“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Alys said, “that hasty marriages are nightmares of bardasht karo, the gospel of tolerance and compromise, and that it’s always us females who are given this despicable advice and told to shut up and put up with everything. I despise it.”
  • The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede: I was randomly gifted tickets to see the touring Broadway show Come From Away. I literally knew nothing about the show, and when I realized I was watching a musical about the September 11 terrorist attacks, I was not exactly excited. I ended up becoming obsessed with the true story behind the play (TLDR: the FAA wouldn’t let any planes land in America in case there were more terrorist attacks coming so they decided to make it the rest of the worlds problem which is how Gander, Newfoundland ended up taking in 38 planes with over 6000 people who didn’t have access to their luggage and needing to be accommodated in a town with a population of about the same size). As part of my obsession, I read this non-fiction book. It definitely isn’t objectively a top book and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but for anyone who is deeply interested in the story it's a satisfying read. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christopher's Top Ten of 2019

No, it can't be Top Ten time already.  I just wrote one of these last month, didn't I?  Oh, well--I can only assume that next year will go by more slowly.  This year brought some terrific new surprises, including new (to me) authors like Anna Burns, Harriet Doerr, Alistair McLeod, Rachel Cusk, Mary Gaitskill, and Charles Johnson.  And of course, I have to observe that I read more books in a single year (85) than I ever have.  Here's some other important numbers I've been keeping track of:

Books by women: 45/85
Books by people of color: 21/85
Books by non-Americans: 35/85
Non-fiction books: 12/85

I'm pretty happy about my resolution to make at least 50% of my reading books by women; obviously being better about reading authors of color is something I'm going to have to work on, too.  But it's a new year soon, and a clean slate.  For now, here's my reflection on the best books I was fortunate enough to read this year.

Honorable Mentions 2019:

Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt
The Cross by Sigrid Undset
Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
The Ice-Shirt by William T. Vollmann
Island by Alistair McLeod
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

Top Ten 2019:

10. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe - You know, I feel like I keep reading acclaimed science fiction/fantasy novels and coming away disappointed.  I couldn't get into Ann Leckie or N. K. Jemisin, although I believe genre readers when they say those are standout books in this field.  So The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe--who died earlier this year--really scratched an itch for me.  All the genre hallmarks are here--quests! guilds! citadels!--but they're constantly in flux, being recycled and recombinated, in a way that makes you suspect that something important and mysterious is going on "behind the curtain."  If genre conventions are only important to the extent that they're subverted, The Shadow of the Torturer is the best genre book there is.

9. The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White - This might be White's best novel outside of Voss.  In its central character, a dying old woman, White finds the perfect image for his obsession with the paradox of the material, physical (and often gross!) body and the possibly of spiritual transcendence.  As always, White's books are funnier, grosser, and downright weirder than I remember.

8. Libra by Don DeLillo - It's no mean feat to make the JFK assassination interesting, I think.  The 20th century moves around it like a black hole, a place where conspiracy theories proliferate until they collapse under their own weight.  DeLillo makes Libra worth reading, I think, by embracing the inscrutability of the whole thing: at the center of his novel is Oswald, an idiot and reprobate who barely understands himself, and a series of other bunglers whose collective myopia leads to JFK's death.  There's no big conspiratorial plan, but plenty of little ones, because that's what history is, a collection of small actors in the grip of a big mystery.

7. Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr - This quiet, beautiful novel is one of the big surprises of the year for me.  The setup--a pair of naive Americans move to rural Mexico to reinvigorate an old family mine--suggests a parody about cultural conflict, and while it's true that the Evertons never quite understand the Mexican villagers who become part of their lives or vice versa, the novel is really much more gentle and tragic.  It's husband Richard's incurable and terminal disease that comes to snatch their dreams away, and everyone's attempts to overcome cultural barriers, as doomed to failure as they are, that come to seem sweetly noble.

6. My Antonia by Willa Cather - Funny, Doerr's writing reminds me of nobody else but Willa Cather.  I was so taken by this sweet, charming story of life on the Nebraska plains at the turn of the century, in a way that I never was by Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book I liked considerably.  Few books capture such a sense of place and time as this one, and it takes such a writerly eye to find the interest and magic in a place like Nebraska.  As for Antonia herself, dust-jacket descriptors like "headstrong" and "stubborn" seem so reductive; whatever she is, it's more convincing and real than those words can convey.

5. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante - Like John, I read the second in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series this year, although I think I was more persuaded by it than he was.  To me, the appeal of these novels is no mystery: they capture a social moment that few books are able to, and few authors are willing to try.  This book is stronger than the first for me because so many of the characters finally come into stark relief, and knowing who they are, I can see how they fit into the socioeconomic landscape of mid-century Naples.  Elena and Lila's opposite trajectories here--Elena's sudden success and Lila's sudden downfall--are not just an extension of the personal conflict set up by My Brilliant Friend, but an expression of two women struggling against the forces of history.

4. Milkman by Anna Burns - Of all the novels I read this year, this is one of two that made me go: Huh.  I didn't know you could do that.  The funny, cynical, oblique, casual voice of the title character of Milkman, called only "middle sister," is like nothing else I've ever read.  And it's perfect for this story of social repression at the heart of Catholic Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  It's weird and circular way of speaking and thinking is a perfect distillation of how we are often unable, or unwilling, to see our own historical moment clearly.

3. The Collected Stories of Grace Paley - This is the other book that made me react that way.  I've been familiar with a few of Paley's stories for a while because I use them in my fiction writing class, but I didn't realize until reading this collection that they are part of a huge corpus of semi-autobiographical stories that tell a version of Paley's own life.  And yet, things happen here that could never happen in real life: at one point the Paley stand-in, Faith, visits the family living in her old apartment out of curiosity and doesn't leave for months.  The thing I admire most about Paley is that she never seems to agonize over whether a choice is the right one, or if people will get it, she just barrels on, and if people get it, they get it.  If not, that's their problem.  I dream of that kind of bravery!

2. Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers - Let me tell you something.  I was taught--in a manner of speaking--that racism, as a social force, at least, was something we had all woken up from in the 60's, like a very long and bad dream.  The past few years have shown me how naive that was.  And no book--none--has resonated with that newfound feeling of shame and anger than McCullers' Clock Without Hands, a book about how bigotry murders and poisons everything.  I recognize the sad old racist Judge at the heart of this novel everywhere, from the White House to family Christmas, and I wish I could get all of them to read this book, which is like someone trying to smash a mirror in their faces.  This book left me almost literally shaking.

1. Tree of Smoke and Angels by Denis Johnson - OK, I'm cheating.  What are you going to do about it?  I was convinced for most of the year that Tree of Smoke was the novel of the year for me: a sprawling, intelligent, mysterious take on the Vietnam War that one-ups Libra in its conception of the 20th century as mostly mystery and mistake.  And it cemented my belief that Johnson is one of America's most perfect stylists.  But as the year went on and on, I found that it was Angels--a slimmer book, about Arizona, greyhound buses, drug addiction, rape, and the death penalty--that kept coming to my mind again and again.  Like McCullers, Johnson demands we really look at the people we try so hard not to look at.  And I had actually forgotten until this moment that Tree of Smoke is really a prequel to Angels, the story of Bill Houston, whom war has--well, not destroyed, but it sure didn't make him any better.  If Angels is a portrait one man whose life never really mattered for much, Tree of Smoke wonders who exactly decided things would be that way, and why.  These novels' focuses are so different, large and small, political and personal, but together they're the best things I read this year.

One morning I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what had happened to me that night on the beach near Barano.  Then, still in the third person, I wrote what had happened to me on Ischia.  Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood.  Then I changed names and places and situations.  Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch:  a blue-violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless gray fragments.  I spent twenty days writing this story, a period during which I saw no one, I went out only to eat.  Finally I reread some pages, I didn’t like them, and I forgot about it.  But I found that I was calmer, as if the shame had passed from me to the notebook.  I went back into the world…

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

This is the second book in Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan quartet.  I read My Brilliant Friend last year, and liked it,  though perhaps not to the same degree as others – the quartet has become something of a phenomenon.  That first novel was wonderfully atmospheric, capturing the impoverished neighborhood and the oppressive limits imposed by that poverty and the air of violence that permeated everything.  Some of that violence was domestic, some of it associated with mafia-like gangs, but all of it speaking of a collective frustration.  The two protagonists, young girls born only weeks apart who are recognized by their first-grade teacher for their intelligence, are lively and real and the question of whether intelligence will get them anywhere in that world seems vital.  I was put off by a certain “I do this then I do that” quality in the plot – incident piles upon incident with the only sense of direction being the aging of the girls.  The narrator’s obsessive competition with her brilliant friend also seemed repetitive.  I finished the novel thinking I had the taste of this popular story that I needed and would skip the other three – though almost everyone I knew was reading them feverishly.

This fall, I spent some time with old friends and an energetic and passionate conversation about the four novels renewed my interest.  My friends were trying to work out the issue of identity in the novel – starting with the actual identity of the author. (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and the author has managed to avoid having any other identity become public despite a literally world-wide level of curiosity.)   I find the question of authorship somewhat boring – I am content to let the pseudonym be.  But the relationship of the narrator to the two protagonists and of the protagonists to each other intrigued me.

The book is obviously designed to lead the reader to think it is autobiographical – full of references to memory and recall.  The author’s chosen name is Elena.  The narrator’s name is Elena.  The other girl’s name is Lina.  The two girls are born in the same place and at the same time.  They are from similarly poor families and suffer under the restrictions of their poverty and of the general patriarchal limitations that women face.

The author splits them by having the narrator, Elena, be allowed to continue her education beyond the 5thgrade point when most people – and virtually all girls – stop.  Her brilliant friend, Lina, stops school at that point, though she desperately wants to continue.  For reasons that are not clear to the girls, their teacher advocates for Elena’s education more successfully than she advocates for Lina’s.  A simple conversation changes the course of Elena’s life, separating her from her friend.  We are told over and over (and over and over) that Lina is as intelligent as Elena.  In fact, one of the fears that drives Elena is her suspicion that Lina is smarter than her and that the educational opportunity has been given to the wrong girl.

What develops is a kind of fictional case study in how a simple change can affect a life path.  In this second novel we see Lina married to a sexist pig of a man who has risen from poverty to relative wealth.  She lives a comfortable life, but one void of love or any sort of emotional or intellectual growth.  Elena continues through middle school and onto high school and university, scraping by on a meager allowance from her parents and a few dead-end jobs, but being introduced to a wider world of culture and ideas.

Along the way, Lina’s hunger for meaning and substance leads her into adultery, domestic violence, and a bold break for independence that leaves her to raise a child in dire poverty, subsisting on the stingy wages from her dangerous job at a meat packing plant.  In other words, she lives out the destiny of a girl of her class.  Elena has several love affairs, faces class-prejudice among her educated friends, but succeeds beautifully as an academic and by the end of the novel has become a novelist, albeit one who suspects her friend would have been the better writer, given the chance.  

The connection between the two kept my interest.  They are fully formed, deeply human characters who live rich inner lives in response to the powerfully portrayed social and emotional pressures the world offers them.  In addition, the possibility that Lina is a kind of alter ego for Elena or that they are alter-egos for each other, sparked my thinking.  That this split represents some kind of two-headed coin version of the possibilities open to women at this time was powerful and the idea that Elena was breaking free from the life she might have been forced into was redemptive.

There are still aspects of the plot that bore me.  The pattern of the two women getting together, of Elena being obsessively insecure and competitive, of them rediscovering their childhood bond, only to have Elena feel the need to separate again to avoid her guilt and her feeling that Lina is actually superior was repetitive and led to some skimming on my part.  I have now read almost twenty years in their lives and Elena’s response to her friend is essentially the same as it was when they met.  There is also still a random quality to the plot – incidents pile up and, while they have a cumulative effect on our understanding of the characters, few of them feel important in themselves.  There is little doubt that these patterns continue in the next two novels.   

But I have to confess that I miss these two girls, so I may continue reading.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

While I was easedropping at the colored house I started a list of all that a family should have.  Of course there is the mama and the daddy but if one has to be missing then it is OK if the one left can count for two.  But not just anybody can count for more than his or her self.

The title narrator of Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster is a ten-year old girl in the South who skips from home to home after the death of her parents.  Her mother dies by suicide, having taken a bunch of pills, while Ellen watches, her father forbidding Ellen to help; her shitbag father dies in prison.  Obviously, this is a horrible beginning for young Ellen, but the novel's childlike voice keeps these events at arm's length.  The confrontational realism of Bastard Out of Carolina--a similar story of parental abuse in the South--is missing here.  The homes that Ellen bounces through, moving largely from one to the other on her own accord, have a kind of Goldilocks-and-the-Three-Bears quality to them: her mama's mama blames Ellen for her daughter's death; her two aunts are incapable of caring for Ellen each in their own way.

We know from the beginning of the novel that Ellen ends up with her "new mama": a woman she spies at church with a group of dissimilar kids in tow.  She's told this is the woman's "Foster family," so she hatches a scheme to join them, even changing her name mistakenly to "Ellen Foster."  (That she holds on to this name even after being corrected shows her stubbornness, but also the power of her will.)  Gibbons' insistence on writing everything, both past and present, in the present tense--a component of Ellen's voice, I suppose--makes navigating time in this slim little novel kind of a chore.

Ellen's search for a new, supporting family is one of the novel's two threads.  The other is her "awakening" on race: Ellen has a "colored" friend named Starletta.  Like a milder Huck Finn, she's torn between her strong feelings of affection for Starletta and her primitive understanding of racial stratification.  On a desperate night she stays at Starletta's house, welcomed with open arms by Starletta's mother, and in the morning she says, "I was surprised because it did not feel like I had slept in a colored house.  I cannot say I officially slept in the bed because i stayed in my coat on top of the covers."

Ellen comes to see her unwillingness to sleep in a black family's bed, or eat a black woman's biscuit, as foolishness, and at the end she makes a gesture of reciprocation by inviting Starletta to stay with her for the weekend at new mama's house.  "Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway," Ellen says at the end.  "But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it.  It seems like the decent thing to do."  Okay.  It makes you wonder, though, why Gibbons steers clear of one obvious resolution: Ellen comes to live with Starletta.  Are sleepovers the best version of integration Ellen and Starletta can accept?

I understand why people are attracted to this novel, with its plucky heroine and ironic, wise-beyond-her-years voice.  Walker Percy called Ellen a "southern Holden Caulfield," which is awfully silly, mostly because the difference between Ellen's ten and Holden's sixteen makes a big difference in terms of how the voice operates.  But by the time I was getting into it, the novel was over.  My impression was this: for a novel in which the character watches her own mother commit suicide, Ellen Foster is mostly toothless.  I kept waiting for a little heat on the Starletta front--does Starletta's saintly mother notice that Ellen won't eat a biscuit made by a black woman?--which never came.  Instead, Ellen Foster provides another version of a white person's racial enlightenment that dismisses the possibility of black anger or resentment.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Some Stories by Clarice Lispector

I would like to tell you that having passions does not mean living beautifully, but rather suffering pointlessly. That the soul was made to be guided by reason and that no one can be happy when at the mercy of the instincts. For we are animals yet we are animals disturbed by man. And if they forgive him, he is proud and demanding and never forgives their excesses.

Clarice Lispector doesn't really do narrative. At least, that's the impression I get from this slim collection of early short stories, all of which focus on one character who describes, normally in first-person, the epiphanic moment when they realize that everything in life is unimportant, or at least incomprehensible.

The centerpiece of the collection is Obsession, about a girl who, while sitting in a coffeeshop, hears two young men discussing philosophy in abstract terms. Apparently never having heard life described in anything but concrete terms, she becomes obsessed (and later involved) with one of them, Daniel. Daniel is, from all indications, a real jerk whose behavior is repeatedly justified by the narrator by his tortured existence; he disdains the physical world which he cannot escape, and lives in a world of abstractions which he can never really understand. And though the characters in this collection wrestle from time to time with God, none of them truly believe in the metaphysical, and so with Daniel--he is a Gnostic with no hope of transcendence. In modeling her life after his, the narrator finds herself in the same position, ever alone but unwilling (or unable) to return to the world of the simple and physical--she loves chocolate, which shames her; she admires her husband Jamie's simplicity, which makes he despise him. And the story ends, as it must, and as most of these do, with the protagonist alone in an incomprehensible universe.

Hope, however, hovers in the peripheries of these stories, though the protagonists never recognize it as such. Jamie, from the story above, is content with the way the world is, even when he's being mentally cuckolded by Daniel. He's perhaps the only happy person we meet, and his relentless physicality and resistance to any sort of internal analysis seem to serve as a buffer to the misery the thinking characters feel. As the excerpt that opens this review indicates, passion doesn't lead to happiness; it leads to pointless suffering.

The final story, A Couple of Drunks, points forward to... something as well, though it's not clear what it is. A woman bar hops, looking for someone, a man or a woman, who will need her, who will realize they don't deserve her, who will lend her a sense of control she can't seem to get ahold of on her own. She finally meets a divorced man whose son has an angina, and proceeds to shame him for his divorce and then, in a passage that made me laugh at its ghoulish hyperbole, describes what's liable to happen if he doesn't return to his son:

“Imagine her, eyes burning, at the child’s side. The child wheezing painfully, dying. He dies. His little head is contorted, his eyes are open, staring at the wall, obstinately. Everything is silent and the young lady doesn’t know what to do. The boy is dead and all of a sudden she has nothing to do. She collapses onto the bed, sobbing, tearing at her clothes: ‘My son, my poor son! It’s death, it’s death!’ The household rats take fright and start to race around the room. They crawl up your son’s face, still warm, gnaw at his little mouth. The woman screams and faints, for two hours. The rats visit her body too, cheerful, nimble, their tiny teeth gnawing here and there.”

She moves from this macbre fantasia to the moon and the sadness of knowing that it has shone, will shine, on those who lived before and will live after her, after she has "returned to the humus, eyeless for eternity". And the man prepares to respond and the collection ends thusly: "Suddenly, he took the toothpick from his mouth, eyes blinking, lips trembling as if about to cry, said:"

We never learn what he had to say, just like the woman will never know what happens after she dies, just like she and the other tortured, free souls in these stories will never see the climax of their passions. And yet, there's a sense that somehow in connection, in conversation, even in mutual animosity, some meaning can be found--but don't ask anyone here how.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross by Sigrid Undset

The changeless roar of the falls went quivering through her overwrought body and soul.  It minded and minded her of somewhat--of a time endlessly long since--even then she had known that she could not bear the lot she had chosen for herself.  She had laid open her shielded, tender girlhood's life to ravaging, fleshly love--in dread, in dread she had lived ever since, a bondswoman from the first hour of her motherhood.  To the world she had given herself up in her youth, and the more she struggled and fluttered in the world's snare, the more straitly she found herself bound and prisoned by the world.

I began the third book in Sigrid Undset's novels about medieval Norway, The Cross--my Christmas tradition for the past few years--utterly confused.  I did not remember at all who these people were.  Who is Gunnulf?  What is an Arngjerd?  It didn't help that Kristin Lavransdatter, in the second book, bore seven sons, several of which are given other characters' names.  But by the end of it, I was convinced that this is the best book of the three.

The Wreath tells the story of Kristin's youth and engagement to the impetuous Erlend Nikulausson; The Mistress of Husaby--called in more modern translations, simply, Housewife--the story of her troubled marriage and Erlend's eventual fall from political grace.  When that novel ends, the disgraced Erlend must move into Kristin's family estate, Jorundgaard, having sacrificed Husaby to the crown.  The Cross is the story of Kristin's middle age, struggling to raise her sons in obscurity and ignominy alongside the still-unreliable Erlend.

The Cross depicts a woman still living under the weight of her original sin: her dalliance with Erlend in disobedience of her father, who had arranged for her to marry the gentle, reliable Simon Andresson.  To modern American readers, Kristin Lavransdatter might seem tedious: isn't it time for everyone to just get over it?  But God doesn't "get over" things, and while the various priests who pop up in Kristin's life from time to time chastise her for her faithlessness in holding onto her sin quite so strongly, Undset seems to understand that our gravest misdeeds do have the power to reshape our lives in ways that do not vanish.  Though Erlend has given Kristin these sons, their marriage has led directly to a life on the margins of Norwegian society.  Both Erlend and Ramborg, Kristin's sister and Ramborg's now-husband, perceive that Simon is still desperately in love with Kristin, and so the novel opens with Kristin's alienation from one of the few friends who remained steadfast through Erlend's downfall.  Things only get worse when Erlend, aggrieved at Kristin's long-simmering feelings of regret, separates from her and goes to live on his own.

The Cross is full of moments of high drama, which I feel reluctant to spoil, but which are key to understanding why the book is so compelling, so consider yourself warned.  First, Simon dies tragically without ever having told Kristin how he feels.  Kristin goes to visit Erlend, and while their tryst fails to reunite them, it does lead Kristin to conceive another son, whom she names "Erlend" in despair.   It's a no-no to name a child after a living person, because it suggest one of the two will die, and sure enough, baby Erlend is a sickly child and dies quickly, leading to rumors around town that Kristin did not live the child because it was the product of an affair with her steward Ulf.  Whew!  If that's not enough, Erlend, coming to defend his and Kristin's honor, gets into a fight with a petty townie and is killed without making confession.

At the end of all this drama, Kristin finds herself increasingly sidelined in her own home.  Erlend is gone, Simon is gone; her children are mostly grown.  Two of her sons join a monastery; another marries, making Jorundgaard another woman's responsibility.  Ultimately she decides to run off and become a nun herself, just as the Black Plague arrives in Norway.  The crisis gives Kristin the opportunity to atone for the original sin of her life through a final act of self-sacrifice and deep grace.  Undset manages to find an ending to the trilogy that brings Kristin's story to a logical, meaningful resolution, but without feeling too circular or on-the-nose.  As with the other books, its power only remains if you're willing to believe that Kristin's regrets are truly meaningful ones, and that her feeling that she has betrayed God is sensible and sincere.

The Cross closes on a Norway with an uncertain future.  The death and tragedy that have stalked Kristin, in this book especially, seem now to have come for all of Norway.  In light of it, the deaths of Simon, Erlend, baby Erlend, even of her sister Ulvhild all the way back in the first book, seem to be only a little early.  But the three books of Kristin Lavransdatter seem to suggest that goodness on a human scale--something that the self-despising Kristin has always possessed, in spite of herself--will not and cannot perish, even in the face of great tragedy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

First Woman's garden.  That good woman makes a garden and she lives there with Ahdamn.  I don't know where he comes from.  Things like that happen, you know.

So there is that garden.  And there is First Woman and Ahdamn.  And everything is perfect.  And everything is beautiful.  And everything is boring.

So First Woman goes walking around with her head in the clouds, looking in the sky for things that are bent and need fixing.  So she doesn't see that tree.  So they bump into each other.

Pardon me, says that Tree, maybe you would like something to eat.

That would be nice, says First Woman, and all sorts of good things to eat fall out of that Tree.  Apples fall out.  Melons fall out.  Bananas fall out.  Hot dogs.  Fry bread, corn, potatoes.  Pizza.  Extra-crispy fried chicken.

Thank you, says First Woman, and she picks up all that food and brings it back to Ahdamn.

Four elderly Indians--like, hundreds of years old elderly--disappear from a hospital somewhere in the middle west of the United States.  They're on their way, it seems, to Alberta, where a cast of characters converges on the reserve town of Blossom: Lionel, a 40-year old man whose dreams had long been shattered by a series of anti-Native misfortunes; Charlie, grappling with his father's abandoning him to play stereotypical Indians in Hollywood; Alberta (yes, I know), who loves Lionel and Charlie but can't imagine either of them giving her the child she desires; Eli, Lionel's uncle, who has returned from a comfortable life in Toronto to reside in his mother's shack, preventing it from being destroyed by an already-built dam.  These characters are all Blackfoot Pikuni, Indians living out their lives with an uneasy relationship to their own Indian-ness.  The four elderly Houdinis bring them together to "fix" some small part of the world, meaning both the problem of the dam and the problems of these characters.

Along with this narrative, King gives four versions of Native creation myths.  Each features a different first-woman figure--First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman--each of whom is associated with one of the elderly Indians, who seem to be telling these stories along with the trickster Coyote.  These stories are satirical and syncretic; they pull together not only different indigenous traditions but also the Bible, Moby Dick, westerns, and other Anglo cultural staples.  (This may explain why the old men are named Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye.)  These stories are often clever and funny, riffing broadly on the allusions they mash together, and they are meant to represent an indigenous worldview imagining its own relationship to the land and community in the midst of interference from settler colonialism.

Green Grass, Running Water zips along so breathlessly that you almost miss the cleverness of the way the four old men bridge the real world and the mythical or legendary one.  It also enables you to miss the thinness of the "real" story, and how it struggles to come together in a way that feels satisfactory or complete.  The best of these stories belongs to Lionel, whose pratfalls and misfortunes seem like a slapstick version of an Erdrich character--I particularly liked the detail that, as a teenager, Lionel accidentally got put on a plane to Toronto by a hospital nurse thinking he was supposed to have a heart transplant rather than a tonsillectomy.  (Although the error was fixed in time, his "heart trouble" prevents him from finding meaningful employment!)  It's the right kind of humor: broad and genial but also somehow sharp and funny, and the novel could have used more of it.  I found that the tone of the creation stories, which feature Coyote endlessly quipping like Kimmy Gibbler, ultimately wore thin, and that the "real" narrative didn't supply enough to balance it out.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In the indigenous worldview, a healthy landscape is understood to be whole and generous enough to be able to sustain its partners.  It engages land not as a machine but as a community of respected non-human persons to whom we humans have a responsibility.  Restoration requires renewing the capacity not only for "ecosystem services" but for "cultural services" as well.  Restoring relationship means that when the eagles return, it will be safe for them to eat the fish.  People want that for themselves, too.  Biocultural restoration raises the bar for environmental quality of the reference ecosystem, so that as we care for the land, it can once again care for us.

Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise.  It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land.  Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants.  It is medicine for the earth.

It wasn't until the 1970's that the National Parks System here in the United States first began using prescribed burns in national parks to manage the ecosystems there.  Controlled burns, like unplanned burns caused by lightning, clear the landscape of heavy forest canopies and allow grasslands and savannas, to flourish in their place, renewing a cycle of growth that leads back to healthy forests.  Indigenous people in North America knew this, and used fire to keep the lands healthy on which they were living, but white settler colonialism dismissed this knowledge as barbaric, supplanting it with an ideology of the "undisturbed wilderness," as it simultaneously uprooted indigenous people from their homes and relocated them.  It took hundreds of years for settlers to understand what indigenous people always knew: fire is an important part of the reciprocal relationship between humans and the aland.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is both a professor of environmental biology and an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation living in upstate New York.  Her book Braiding Sweetgrass is full of narratives like this one, in which indigenous knowledge about the ecosystems of North America have proven to be more accurate and more productive than the ideologies of industry and unfettered capitalism.  Here's another example: while industrial farming practice still grows plants like squash, beans, and corn in careful, individual rows--drive past any plot of farmland in the county and you can see them--Native Americans have always known that these plants prosper when grown together.  Tall corn stalks provide support for bean vines; wide bean leaves provide shade for late-blooming squash; even their roots are placed strategically underground to help each plant prosper.  And yet, the fact that indigenous people were found growing the "three sisters" together was considered proof of their ignorance about agriculture.

Kimmerer speaks with special authority on these topics because she can bridge the gap between two languages: the scientific language of environmental science and horticulture, and the indigenous language of a reciprocal relationship with plants.  Her lucid discussion of petioles and rhizomes leads to a powerful discussion of plant personhood and even love.  For indigenous Americans, Kimmerer explains, plants were thought of not as objects but as subjects, having a personhood of their own and demanding the same kind of reciprocity as other human beings.  As the land gives to humans of itself, so humans must ask what the land demands of them.

Many people probably find that language silly.  Plants don't demand anything, they might say, they're plants, and even if they did, the word love--as in, plants show love by giving themselves to us--is a bridge too far.  Even I found myself a little squeamish about those metaphors.  And they are metaphors, to be sure; but all of the language we use about the word is metaphorical, isn't it?  There's no reason to think that love is any worse a metaphor than mast fruiting to describe the way that pecan trees deliver immense pecan harvests when they are in possession of excess energy, so that the pecans might be collected and saved for lean years.  As a metaphor, love may be even better, because it recognizes that we, too, have an obligation to protect the pecan trees, and the squash, and the cattails.

One thing that really appeals to me about the worldview Kimmerer describes is that it is actually very human.  Kimmerer describes asking hundreds of undergraduates to describe a positive interaction between people and their natural environment and gets no answer.  "How is it possible that in twenty years of education," she writes, "they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment?"  But even our most well-meaning environmental ideologies are hopelessly mired in the fantasy that human beings are something separate from their environment, and that the best thing we can do for the land is to leave it alone.  We can't leave it alone, and it doesn't want us to.  The land needs us as we need the land, and only a reciprocal relationship with it will keep us from destroying it through overuse and neglect.

Braiding Sweetgrass is essentially a collection of essays.  The theme of reciprocity and indigenous knowledge informs each one, though the plants themselves are different: in this essay it's pecans, in that one cedar trees or lichens or strawberries.  It can be a bit uneven; it might have been even more impactful if the essays had been more carefully pruned.  (Horticultural pun intended.)  But even still, it's a powerful statement about what our relationship with the land might one day still be like, if we can find the humility to listen to those who have tended it for millennia.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

He had never been so sure of himself in his life, so much the master of his every smallest move, gesture, muscle; he was so calm, so thoroughly at ease and at home, that now he meant to prolong the moment as long as possible, savoring its every second to get the most out of it.

The Lost Weekend, by Charles Jackson

I knew this story from the movie with Ray Milland and, of course, from having lived with alcoholics.  It is an alarming, clear and true (if somewhat simple) view of a man’s consciousness and the lengths to which he goes to fool himself.  It has generally been described as an important entry into the literature of addiction, and it is that.  However, I was attracted to it recently as an entry into the world of queer literature. 

Don Birnham is a writer who never writes.  We follow him over the course of a five-day weekend when his brother, who is a kind of caretaker, leaves for a little vacation and Don goes on a long drinking spree, spending the entire five days trying to get hold of money and spending it on drink.  He consumes a tremendous amount of alcohol, drinking water glasses full of rye in a few gulps and does vivid damage to his body and his nerves.  

Over the course of that time, we get a constant window into his thinking and, through his memories, his life to that point.  What is easily revealed – and left out of the 1945 film version – is that Don is gay.  He has not exactly admitted this to himself and it seems that his drinking is in part motivated by his desire not to have to face this fact.  But we learn of a teenage affair with another boy, an incident in which he confessed love to a fraternity brother and was driven from the fraternity and several love affairs with women that founder over his lack of sexual desire for them.  He makes a great deal of the idea that he is more sensitive, more attuned to music and literature and that no one understands that part of him.  It is clear to the reader that he is misunderstood, but not for his love of art and music.

However, Jackson is not interested in plumbing Birnham’s sexuality as a cause of his drinking.  Jackson was himself an alcoholic and was an early believer in the idea that alcoholism is a disease and should be treated as such.  In this philosophy, is not fully in the power of the drinker to choose whether or not to drink and, therefore, psychological issues or social issues that seem to drive him to drink are less important.  In this novel, for the most part, Don Birnham drinks because Don Birnham drinks.  His psyche is more a tool to help him refuse to face the damage he is doing to himself and others so that he can summon the willpower to drink again.

As a result, the novel spends an inordinate amount of time demonstrating Birnham’s ability to build himself up, let his ego swell as he sees himself as all-powerful, an unrecognized genius who cannot possibly fail.  In the passage quoted above, Birnham is stealing a woman’s pocketbook in a bar and congratulating himself on the subtle little maneuvers that have allowed him to slip the bag into his coat.  His self-congratulations go on for pages, right up until he is thrown out of the bar and sees himself as a humiliated fool.  But each crash, every failure and humiliation simply causes him to find another fantasy to build himself up and start the cycle over again.  In the course of the novel he imagines himself as a great writer and plans out a novel that will capture the essence of life and a musician who can express inexpressible emotions. (As far as we can tell he neither actually writes nor plays an instrument.). He is a great ladies man who must regularly disappoint women because they simply don’t understand him, and a reader of great sensitivity who often, while drunk, forces others to listen to him slur his way through passages that they are not as capable as he is of appreciating.

There are times when this cycle feels too easy – or rather Birnham’s belief seems too easy to rekindle.  The destructive power of the downward slide is vivid and frightening, but Birnham never faces those consequences for more than a few minutes before finding a way to justify drinking again. This is especially true as the novel progresses and Birnham has gone days without eating or bathing or changing his clothes, after he has been badly injured and rendered incapable of any normal interaction.  An old girlfriend – ironically named Helen – comes to the rescue and leaves him with her housekeeper (unbelievably named Holy Love, so that he wakes up being watched over by Holy Love.)  But he simply allows these women to get him cleaned up enough to sneak out to buy several pints of whiskey and hide them around his brother’s apartment.

There is a certain cleverness in locking us into Birnham’s consciousness – we only occasionally get a glimpse of how disturbing a figure he has become through the reactions of others.  But we wonder about his brother’s response – how could he have left this man alone?  And the novel ends just before his brother returns with Birnham attempting to hide the damage he has done to himself and prepare for the next binge. We can presume that this relationship is causing the brother serious emotional and economic pain, but we are left with only our presumptions.  Helen is too saintly and patient to give us any sense of the emotional damage he is causing.  We are left with the notion that the addict is largely a danger only to himself.  If you have lived with one, you know different.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

I mean if I just presented to you this woman I’m writing about now …
“I’m a single woman in her late fifties.  I work in a doctor’s office.  I ride home on the bus.  Every Saturday I do my laundry and then I shop at Lucky’s and buy the Sunday Chronicle and go home.”  You’d say, Give me a break.
But my story opens with “Every Saturday, after the laundromat and the grocery store, she bought the Sunday Chronicle.” You’ll listen to all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of this woman’s, Henrietta’s, life only because it is written in the third person.  You’ll feel, hell if the narrator thinks there is something in this dreary creature worth writing about there must be.

I came across Lucia Berlin’s name just recently – a reference somewhere to her as a master of the short story in the vein of Raymond Carver – and I took note because I had not heard of her.  A Manual for Cleaning Women is a Selected Stories volume published some 11 years after she died.  It was pushed by various writers who knew her, including Lydia Davis, and it gave her the fame she had not achieved while alive.

The stories in it are wonderful – wry, dark, funny, and sad.  The comparison to Carver is apt – these stories generally deal with working class people who are struggling in small working towns, generally here in the south west.  They are openly autobiographical – in one a girl named Lucia is the child of a mining engineer, as was the author.  They tell of the struggles of raising children alone, of alcoholism, of the indignity of much work available to women.

The prose is simultaneously straightforward and experimental.   Berlin is wonderfully and efficiently descriptive – setting up a room or a character in clear decisive sentences with recognizable adjectives and the kind of small, ordinary words that would make Hemingway proud.  However, some of these stories are unusually structured.  The title story is a series of brief descriptions of women and households the narrator cleans for, laid out in such a way that we get to know the strength and weariness of the cleaning lady herself.   The story “Point of View” alternates between narrating the life of Henrietta and the narrator’s musings about how best to convey Henrietta’s life, with surprising turns as the narrator critiques her progress harshly.

Many of the stories are quite short and that brevity itself seems to become an experiment.  A world is created, a character’s conflict introduced, and then the whole thing is slammed shut, often in less than 1000 words.  While some of these very short stories still manage to come to a conventional conclusion, with the usual irony or sense of resolution, others seem to just stop, in some cases going out of their way to stop.  The reader is left slightly spinning, thinking carefully about the closing image, but not fully sure what has just ended.

While some of these struck me as more “slice of life” portraits than full blown narratives, I ended up enjoying these short pieces the most.  I wonder if they would be as successful at conveying an entire life if not embedded in a book.   In some cases I got a fuller portrait of the main character partially because I had been reading about someone just like her in a dozen other stories – these short snapshots become episodes in the life of a single character who finds and loses love, struggles with raising children (and maintaining relationships with adult children), works difficult jobs, drinks too much and spends a lot of time in laundromats.  The character becomes real as the stories pile up, the world is delivered to us with the urgency and detail of the real.  Some of the more abrupt endings require further thought, but mostly because I am convinced I am in the hands of a master.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The New Plantation by Jason Trask

Looking around at the barren landscape, my soul seemed a liability.  I sucked it deep within myself and followed other pedestrians across the parking lot to a sidewalk where a CO allowed everyone to pass but me.

I handed him my ID card.

Except for a customs agent in East Berlin, and occasionally my wife, no one has ever observed my face with such attention.  That afternoon, as I was leaving , he waved me past.  For the remainder of that school year and the two that followed, he would never check my ID again.  Thousands of people passed this man each day.  If you were new, he checked your ID; otherwise, he waved you past.

The New Plantation recounts and analyzes Trask’s three years teaching at the Rikers Island Educational Facility High School in the early 1990s.  It is a powerful, narrative and discussion that is timely for a number of reasons – the dawning awareness of the school to prison pipeline that exists in many neighborhoods and the imminent closing of Riker’s Island among them.  Trask makes very little of the fact that his story takes place so long ago.  There is no reason to think that anything has changed, though the waning of the crack epidemic has likely affected the number and ages of the children that pass through RIEF.

The story is told episodically, with more than a third of the book recounting his first few days at the school.  This serves to introduce us to the characters – Trask explains in a prologue that he has changed people’s names and, in some cases, combined several individuals into one for clarity.  He also, apparently relying on notes, recounts detailed conversations.  Much of the early section of the book is focused on establishing that his classroom at RIEF was not your ordinary classroom.   There is abundant cursing and talk of crude sex.  Trask frequently succeeds because he is willing to talk to students on their level. The focus on the early days of his tenure is effective in letting the readers share some of the shock and fear Trask experienced in adjusting to this environment and to see how well-suited he was to that adjustment.

After the first two weeks are recounted in detail, the narrative is less chronological, as Trask takes up topics and uses anecdotes and character sketches to illustrate his points.  There is compelling narrative here, but also a didactic and persuasive aim reflected in the title.   Trask is essentially focused on opening the reader’s eyes to the harsh conditions in the school and how little chance at education or rehabilitation the inmate children are given.  He consistently focuses on ways in which this “school” experience is a continuation of the systemic racism its students have faced and, as the title (taken from something a student said to him in his first week) makes clear, a continuation of the history of oppression faced by people of color in America.  While the eye-witness nature of this is an important and powerful addition to this discussion, it is by nature this argument is more powerfully handled in books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon.  

What is strongest here is the portraits of the teachers and the children – their dialogue and the way they forge relationships with Trask even in the short time they are at RIEF. (Riker’s Island is a jail – most of the inmates are awaiting trial because they could not afford bail.  While there have been horrific and important exceptions, most inmates are there for months rather than years).  Trask is especially good at portraying himself.  He makes clear the moments when he is afraid, when he fails and when he gives in to his own prejudices.   This renders him human and approachable so that the clarity of his courage and compassion can come through without seeming egotistical.  He is generous in his praise of his colleagues even while he makes clear his disagreements with some of them.

There is a good chunk towards the end in which Trask analyzes race relations between the teachers.  Much of his discussion with his students is about race – there is no doubt that part of his success is based on his honesty with his students about the history of racism and his own complex part in that history as a beneficiary of white privilege.  His relationships with his peers is at least as nuanced, and this is an excellent reflection on the complexity of race relations in professional settings.  There is little overt hostility between white teachers and teachers of color, but it seems that friendships are rare and delicate.   

Trask ends with a lengthy argument that the power of racism is alive and well in this country.   While few who read this book will disagree, these arguments are not what readers will remember when they put the book down.  It will be the voices and energy of Michael and Tony and Metatron – the way they tested their teacher to see if he could be trusted, and the way that teacher passed their test.