Thursday, January 30, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What constitutes a family?  When is a house a home – when is it something else?  What constitutes motherhood – is it the act of giving birth, or the relationship that grows later?

Ng’s novel is concerned with all these questions and explores them through a narrative that has a good deal in common with a crime story. 

The novel opens somewhere very near the end of the narrative.  Various members of the Richardson family are in the crowd that has gathered to watch their house burn down.  The children – Moody, Trip and Lexie – and their mother, Elena, all assume that the missing member, the fourth child, Izzy, has set the fire and they speculate about how much trouble she will be in when she returns from wherever she has disappeared to.  Izzy has always been a difficult, rebellious child, but has never done anything this extreme before.  While establishing this, Ng slips in the information that the Richardson’s tenants have moved out, dropping off the key that morning and driving off to parts unknown.  In a tightly efficient 7 pages we are introduced to most of the important characters and set up our return to the beginning, when the tenants, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, moved in.  

Over then next 300 pages that plot unfolds while the central questions about the nature of family love are explored.  Pearl comes to befriend various Richardson children, drawn to the stable and prosperous house they live in, while Izzy is drawn to Mia Warren whose nomadic existence as an artist building her life around experience rather than material wealth is so different from Izzy’s experience.  We learn a great deal about Shaker Heights, Ohio – a real life planned suburb of Cleveland, named by its founders because it is built on land that once belonged to the Shakers and – according to Ng, who grew up there – because the town aspires to live by principals of fairness and community inspired by the Shakers.  

Ng is clearly having none of that.  The matriarch of the Richardson clan, the indominatable Elena, appears immediately to be a kind of perfect suburban mother.  Of course, we all know American culture well enough to know that perfect suburban mothers inevitably show themselves to be deeply flawed.  We recognize her attitude towards Mia as paternalistic and condescending and we are prepared as Elena’s bad behavior becomes detached from the appearance of good deeds.   

In the first half of the book, she is simply contrasted with the Mia Warren, whose art Ng describes in great detail.  One woman has lived in this perfect community her whole life, has been deeply involved in her children’s lives and in the life of that community.  She has built a beautiful home even while maintaining a career as a local reporter.  The other has devoted herself to her art, moving about the country in search of new projects.  Mia Warren has consciously avoided fame and material success and expected Pearl to adapt to this hard lifestyle.

We understand why Pearl is drawn to spend her afternoons on the Richardson’s large sectional couch watching Jerry Springer with Moody, Tip and Lexie, but we also understand why Izzy, who has never gotten approval or even respect from her mother, reverses Pearl’s migration and spends her afternoons with Mia, in the tiny, barely furnished apartment helping her with her photography and admiring Mia for sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

In the second half of the novel, a number of plot points sharpen the dialogue about family life that emerges from this contrast.  First, the Richardson children begin to discover sex.  There are secret affairs, a pregnancy, an abortion.  Then the plan of one of Elena’s close friends to adapt an Asian baby is complicated by the impoverished but passionate mother’s reappearance.  Now the characters are directly and explicitly debating what makes a family, what balance of material stability and maternal love is necessary?  When Elena realizes that Mia is friends with Bebe, the birth mother of the little girl Elena believes must be raised by her friends on the wealthy side of Shaker Heights, and that Mia is influencing the thinking of her children, she decides to find out what secrets Mia has been hiding.  This brings us to the series of conflicts that end with the house burning down.

Ng has a gift for plotting and character – there are small plot twists that complicate the action and our view of the actors impressively.  Ng knows her setting and gives a highly detailed and caustic view of this community without directly criticizing it.  She also embeds the important thematic questions within the plot and the characterization in a way that gives the novel heft without lecturing.  While the reader is led to favor one side of the debate, the characters are left unsure of their views.  Ng does a good job of deploying plot complications that also complicate the discussion of family ideals.  While much of the prose is merely serviceable, there are moments of emotional power and I did come to care about these characters.

The disappointment in the novel is in the ending.  Spoiler alert:  while for much of the novel I was thinking that there would be some reveal to explain why someone else set the fire, Izzy is the arsonist.  Part of my thinking was influenced by the fact that   Izzy is not that important a character.  She is the least of the Richardson children not only in her mother’s judgmental view, but in the eyes of the reader who spends more time and energy following Lexie, Trip, Moody and Pearl.  For most of the novel, Izzy is a fifth wheel.  In the end, her anger is believable, but her decision to destroy her family home and run away – she thinks she will catch up with Mia and Pearl and live with them – is too big an action for her character.  It is also too big an action for this family’s dynamic.  In the beginning and the end, Trip, Lexie and Moody sit atop Trip’s car watching firemen fail to save their home and everything they own.  They talk about how mad their mother is going to be in the tone one might use if your sister took the car without permission or failed a math quiz.  Until that point, Izzy has been rebellious and obnoxious, but has not been seen as a danger to the community.  So in an odd way it is fitting that her family still doesn’t treat her as needing serious help, but to the reader this is not believable.  It simply doesn’t fit the setting Ng has built. 

There are other quibbles – I am not convinced the descriptions of Mia’s art work achieve the weight and meaning that Ng is going for; some of the criticism of planned suburban communities are a little easy.  But I read Little Fires Everywhere eagerly, with the kind of propulsion I put into murder mysteries.  It is a page turner; unfortunately, the final pages are less worthy of being turned than I had hoped.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

Father Damien was both a robber and a priest.  For what is it to entertain a daily deception?  Wasn't he robbing all who looked upon him?  Stealing their trust?  Shameful, perhaps, but Agnes was surprised to find that the thought gave her only satisfaction.  She felt no guilt, and so concluded that if God sent none she would not invent any.  She decided to miss Agnes as she would a beloved sister, to make of Father Damien her creation.  He would be loving, protective, remote, and immensely disciplined.  He would be Agnes's twin, her masterwork, her brother.

In 1996, Father Damien Modeste of the North Dakota outpost of Little No Horse, who has spent his life ministering to the Ojibwe who live there, is visited at last by a representative from the Church.  It's just a priest from nearby Argus, but that's all right; he's been writing to the Pope for decades now.  The visitor, another father named Jude Miller, has come to investigate the possible sainthood of a local nun, Sister Leopolda.  He pries into her history, but the history he gets is really that of Father Damien, who harbors a secret much more shocking that any miracle wrought by Leopolda: for nearly eighty years, he has really been a woman named Agnes.

Reading Erdrich's interconnected novels can sometimes feel like you've missed out on some essential, original text.  Who's Mary Kashpaw again, and how is she different from Margaret Kashpaw?  And who's just Kashpaw?  But there is no ur-text to guide you; you have to take these novels as pieces of the whole.  The more I read of them, the more satisfying they are, and the more these characters come into life for me.  The only one that has remained bell-clear is Nanapush, the lusty, elderly trickster who is modeled on the first man of the Ojibwe religion, Nanabozho.  In this book Nanapush dies of severe flatulence, but that hardly seems like a spoiler when he returns in so many other novels.  (Or given the fact that he "wakes up" twice, once to let out one more unholy fart, and then again to get laid one last time.)

Little No Horse is best read, however, next to Tracks, the first of Erdrich's novels that I ever read.  That book centers on Fleur, the beautiful and wild woman adopted by Nanapush.  I don't remember if Father Damien features much in it, but I do remember the murderously pious character of Pauline Puyat, who--as we learn in Little No Horse--becomes the famed Sister Leopolda.  Leopolda's reputation for holiness has spread throughout the church, but only Damien/Agnes understands the truth about her vindictiveness and her violence.

Damien/Agnes is drawn as an explicit contrast to Leopolda.  She may be a fake as a man, but not as a religious adept, having been a nun before the extraordinary circumstances that led to her donning the guise of Father Damien.  (I won't recount them, since they're not so material to the book as a whole, but they are really fun--some of Erdrich's best magical realism.)  She, too, is pious; her main worry in being found out is not damage to her personal reputation but the possibility that all the work she has done, the baptisms, the confessions, the sacraments, will be wiped clean as invalid.  Unlike Leopolda, who is only ever respected or feared, Damien/Agnes becomes loved by the Ojibwe--one of those who Robin Wall Kimmerer might compare to the plantain, or "white man's footsteps," a non-indigenous plant that integrates productively into indigenous ecologies.

Over time, in fact, something strange happens: as she lives among the Ojibwe, she finds herself being converted to the Ojibwe religion by friends like Nanapush.  Damien/Agnes calls conversion "a most loving form of destruction," which is true in both directions; while settler Catholicism threatens some of the most fundamental qualities of Ojibwe life, Damien/Agnes' conversion to the Ojibwe religion goes hand in hand with the dismantling of her old self and the creation of something new.  Though Erdrich is hypercritical of the Jesuitical severity of Pauline/Leopolda, she fashions in this novel and others a kind of convincing syncretism between indigenous and European religion.  Toward the end of the novel, Father Miller has a vision of world religion as a tree, "the branch of his own beliefs, the dogma and history of the Catholic Church not even a branch but a twig not strong enough for a bird to perch on, just a weak and slender shoot."

I think Little No Horse, along with The Bingo Palace, might be my favorite of the Erdrich novels I've read.  It's Erdrich at her funniest and most poignant, and her prose is at its most accomplished.  Its scale, which occupies eighty years of Damien/Agnes' life, allows a wider scope on the knotty genealogies that animate these novels, and create an epic tone that fits the magical realist elements perfectly.  I'm still thankful for the family tree printed on the flyleaf, though.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Winter Count by Barry Lopez

He moved several stones, seemed to orient himself, and amid spurts of dust I saw the stones lift off the ground.  As they rose from the earth, they began to move in an arc across the sky, turning finally overhead in a dark shape like a pinwheel, some four or five hundred yards across.  Now there was a waterfall sound, but only the lightest feeling of a breeze against my cheeks.  The man came toward me, acknowledging my dumbstruck stare with a conspiratorial nod that indicated he thought it was impressive too.  Perhaps because of friction, each of the thousands of stones now glowed, and they assumed the shape of a galaxy against the dark blue sky, like a bloom of phosphor rolling over in the night ocean.

The first story in Barry Lopez's collection Winter Count, "Restoration," takes place at a historic chateau in Killdeer, North Dakota.  The narrator is an academic passing through, and he stops in Killdeer for a few days to chat with the man restoring the chateau's library.  While the restorer goes through the painstaking, meticulous process of restoring books, the narrator skims through the library trying to recreate a sense of the owner's ideology about North American ecology through the notes he'd left.  The narrator and the restorer make a tenuous connection predicated on their shared obsessiveness and meticulousness, and at the end the narrator sees several antelopes standing outside looking into the house.

Placed at the beginning of the collection, "Restoration" seems designed to baffle: what happens here, exactly, besides a collegial interaction between two smart men?  The spare prose, which is balanced somewhere between Cather-Hemingway minimalism and the professional register of a research symposium, seems almost intentionally self-effacing.  The presence of the antelope--almost certainly not an impossible sight in North Dakota--seems oddly muted as an epiphanic moment, especially when compared to the other stories: In "The Orrery," quoted above, a man living in the Arizona desert shows the narrator how to lay out stones so that the wind picks them up and arranges them in the shape of the stars of the universe; in "The Location of the River," the Niobrara River literally disappears.  Even less mystical epiphanies, like the wayward herons that descend on a snowy New York street in "Winter Herons," seem bigger, grander.  "Restoration," maybe, serves as a caution sign for the stories to come.  Slow down, it says, and don't expect too many fireworks.

Like the restorer, the characters of Lopez's stories tend to be academics, professionals, people with small and narrow interests in history or ecology.  Like the stone-layer of "The Orrery" who is first seen sweeping the desert floor, they approach these interests with a zen-like intensity.  Take, for instance, the title character of "The Woman Who Had Shells," who, ah, collects shells.  The narrator--who, because of his aloof and professorial voice, is so easily imagined as the narrator of "Restoration," "The Orrery," and other stories--sees her gathering shells on Sanibel Island in Florida.  Years later, seeing the woman again in New York City, he tries to communicate to her how the sight of her combing the beach has stayed with him for occluded reasons, and offers her a shell he'd collected in Arctic pack ice.  In turn, she shows him her collection:

The shells draw July heat from the languid air, shells brittle as Belleek, hard as stove bolts, wiht blushing, fluted embrochures, a gamut of watercolor pinks and blues.  Shivering iridescence rises from abalone nacre.  Heirogylphics climb the walls of slender cones in spiraling brown lines.  Conchs have the heft of stones.  One shell hides both firsts; others could be swallowed without discomfort, like pills.  A form of genuflection turned over in the hand becomes a form of containment, its thin pastels the colors to chalk a prairie sunrise.

You read on expecting some grand statement about the meaning of the shells, just as surely as you expect the man and the woman to have sex.  But they don't, and no meaning is forthcoming.  The shells don't mean; they simply are, and the acting of gathering them is, like the work of a historian who puts the events of the past into his own boxes of glass, a way of honoring the mystery of being.  If that sounds a little mystical, blame me--these stories are awfully reticent to make any such suggestion.

The centerpiece of the collection is about a historian.  In "Winter Count 1973," a historian of Native america from Nebraska travels to New Orleans to give brief remarks about his study of buffalo robes among the Northern Plains peoples.  The recording of a single event on a buffalo robe was their method of reckoning time ("1809 Blue feathers found on the ground from unknown birds," "1851 No meat in camp.  A man went to look for buffalo and was killed by two Arapaho"), but different tribes, different clans, different families all reckoned time with different events.  The winter count method of reckoning time is a direct challenge to white historians, and in this one it has caused an existential breakdown.  "He had long ago lost touch with the definitive," Lopez writes, "the awful distance of reason."  Interspersed with the years of the Northern Plains peoples are his own internal reckoning of time: "1918 Father, shot dead.  Argonne forest."  Is this history?  "You can only tell the story as it was given to you, he wanted to say," Lopez writes.  "Do not lie.  Do not make it up."  Is history--the attempt to put events into a clear and universal causal order--a kind of lie?

"Winter Count 1973" is something of a minor masterpiece.  The stories refuse so stubbornly to be outsized or epic, even when they are about entire rivers disappearing or bands of ghost buffalo retreating into the sky.  I often found myself feeling that I had missed something, but finding the flaw not in the stories but in myself, as if I should have been slower, more patient, more careful.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

The freeze traps life and stops time.  The thaw releases it.  We can smell the footprints of last fall and the new decomposition of all who perished in the grips of winter.  Global warming will release the deeper smells and coax stories out of the permafrost.  Who knows what memories lie deep in the ice?  Who knows what curses?  Earth's whispers released back into the atmosphere can only wreak havoc.

You want to talk about the frozen north?  The Anishinaabe of Moon of the Crusted Snow have nothing on the Inuit as recounted in Tanya Tagaq's memoir-fantasy Split Tooth.  You'd have to fly from Ontario across all of the frozen Hudson Bay, over mainland Nunavut, to reach Cambridge Bay, on the south tip of Victoria Island--a place on a similar latitude as Alaska's north coast--to compare the two.  Tagaq, most famous as a traditional Inuit throat singer who won Canada's top music prize in 2014, recounts a coming of age in the remote tundra in vivid, specific detail, mixed with a healthy dose of magical realism and interstitial poetry.

The unnamed protagonist of Split Tooth isn't necessarily Tagaq herself, but when the narrative is in its realist mode, it offers the kind of specific detail that can only come from life as it's really lived in a place like Nunavut.  She tells us, for instance, about carrying six lemmings around, one for each pocket of her coat--put two lemmings in a pocket and they'll start fighting, you know.  She details the challenges of Inuit life with honest clarity--not the climate or the polar bears, mostly, but challenges like the crippling defeatedness of elders who try to keep the Inuktitut language alive after it's been beaten and shamed out of them.  "We cut and paste words from our ancestry onto our paper-doll versions of ourselves," Taqag writes about Inuktitut class, "and everyone feels a little bit empty."  In Cambridge Bay alcoholism is rampant, and worse addictions; the narrator is often found huffing gasoline.  Sexual abuse is everywhere, and the narrator is both observer and victim.  Split Tooth has all sorts of fantastical monsters, but none as frightening as the moment when the young narrator, hiding in the closet from her parents' boozy, violent parties, finds the door opening:

The door slides open, and my uncle sticks his head in.  Towering over us, swaying and slurring.  Blood pouring down his face from some wound above his hairline. 
"I just wanted to tell you kids not to be scared." 
Then he closed the door.

Later on in the novel, the narrator fellates a mystical humanoid fox.  The novel's magical realist elements serve to both symbolize the idiosyncrasy of life in the north and to oppose its bleaker elements.  Having grown into a young woman, the narrator lies out on the freezing ice and is impregnated by the Northern Lights.  She gives birth to twins: a little girl who nourishes and gives life, and a boy who saps the life out of everyone around him, causing cancer and death.  Are these symbolic of the twin mysteries and dangers of Inuit life?  The twins are connected to the Inuit myth of Sedna, killed by her own father only to become a patron goddess of the Northern sea.  Like Sedna's father, Tagaq's narrator must decide whether she can live with her children or whether she must sacrifice them, but it's clear that she cannot sacrifice one and save the other.

These sections mostly work, and provide an opportunity for flashes of really inspired writing.  Less successful, I thought, were the interstitial poems, which almost always would have worked better if they had been integrated into the prose.  I also really enjoyed the black-and-white illustrations by Love and Rockets comic author Jaime Hernandez, which somehow fit perfectly the starkness of the tundra, its nightless summers and sunless winters.  In the end, Split Tooth offers what Moon of the Crusted Snow couldn't: an impression of real life among indigenous people in a very cold place, people who are as real, as frightening and inspiring, as the monsters and dreams that live there too.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

"Yes, apocalypse!  What a silly word.  I can tell you there's no word like that in Ojibwe.  Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway."

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

"The world isn't ending," she went on.  "Our world isn't ending.  It already ended.  It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us.  That was our world.  When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that's when our world ended.  They made us come all the way up here.  This is not our homeland!  But we had to adapt and luckily we already know how to hunt and live on the land.  We learned to live out here."

Evan Whitesky is an Anishinaabe man living on a reserve in Ontario's far north with his wife and children.  When the power goes out, he's a little annoyed, but used to it: living so far away, the tribal council is more than prepared to survive a few weeks, perhaps even the whole winter, without internet, without television, without food shipments from the south.  But when a pair of local boys who've been away studying in college arrive with stories of looting, violence, and social dissolution, everyone realizes this is more than a temporary outage.  The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) on the reserve are suddenly an outpost of civilization in a world where civilization has disappeared.

Who said that indigenous people have already experienced all the things we are afraid of when we write post-apocalyptic fiction?  Pandemic, exile, violence, genocide, disappearance.  The elder in the passage above makes that explicit: our world ended, she says, when white Europeans destroyed the land and forced us northward.  But for Rice, and for Evan, the end of the world offers an opportunity also.  If the Anishinaabe on the reserve are to survive the winter, they'll need to rely on traditional ways of hunting and trapping.  At home, Evan's young children discover that they don't need the television to pass the time; suddenly they are more excited, curious, and fulfilled than ever.  Evan dreams of his children, all grown up and living on the land once again.  Moon of the Crusted Snow inverts the old historical tale; here, the end of the white world means rebirth for the Anishinaabe.

Into this promise comes a white man, Scott, looking for refuge from the world to the south--although you would think he'd be safe enough with the number of guns he's carrying.  (Why don't they demand he give up his guns in exchange for safe passage?)  Scott is brash, cocky, not entirely realistic, but he does animate the novel in a way it badly needs.  He's a representation of white violence and greed; although he promises to pitch in by hunting and trapping, he makes vague and insidious threats about finding other ways to keep from starving, threats we understand to be suggestions of cannibalism.  Evan dreams of him as a horrible, black-eyed monster, as the Wendigo.  Can one white interloper ruin the promise of the Anishinaabe's rebirth?

Moon of the Crusted Snow offers a compelling vision of the "apocalypse."  I don't take any joy in saying it, but I wish the writing were better.  To work, the novel needs to show in vivid, real-seeming detail how the Anishinaabe are different from their white neighbors to the south, but instead there are a lot of paragraphs like this one:

Despite the hardship and tragedy that made up a significant part of this First Nation's legacy, the Anishinaabe spirit of community generally prevailed.  There was no panic on the night of the first blizzard, although there had been confusion in the days leading up to it.  Survival had always been an integral part of their culture.  It was their history.  The skills they needed to persevere in this norther terrain, far from their original homeland farther south, were proud knowledge held close through the decades of imposed adversity.  They were handed down to those in the next generation willing to learn.  Each winter marked another milestone.

Too much of the novel seems like pamphletese, a primer on Anishinaabe life that says nothing of real substance because its primary function is not mimesis but public relations.  What's the use of a paragraph like this one, when the novel opens with a patient, plainspoken description of Evan stalking and killing a moose?  Those paragraphs say all the one above says and much more, and I wish the book had had more like them.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

Carter had started thinking of the girls as the Three Fates.  He didn't know why this image should have lingered in his mind, except that he was a classical sort of fellow.  Contrary to the popular visualization, he had never seen those ladies as decrepit, tottering old crones but as irrational, merciless, impatient maidens.  How did they all get along?  They seemed so different.  One measured, one spun, one cut.  The only name of three he could remember was Atropos, the Inflexible, which was definitely Alice.  He thought of his dear Annabel as the spinner--good-hearted, a little unaware of what she was doing--and quiet Corvus as the measuring one.  Corvus was tragic but allowed no gesture of condolence.  She was utterly uncommunicative with him, though she did smile pleasantly if cornered.  She lived in the protectorate of suffering.

Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead opens on teenage Alice, babysitting a pair of twins.  Alice, a misanthrope and an environmentalist, has told these twins all about the ravaging of the Everglades and the dangers of single-use plastic.  But she hasn't yet been paid, so in the car on the way to the bank, the twins' mother abandons her, but not before giving her the old what-for:

"My boys say you say the world would be better off without them.  They say you killed a pony and a farmer and that you make them eat lettuce-and-rabbit pellet sandwiches.  They say you hate nuns and say not to flush the toilet when it's only yellow water.  But it was the wasp nest that did it.  I'm excessively susceptible to the stings of bees and wasps and could go into anaphylactic reaction and die.  It was as big as a beer keg.  They cursed me for destroying a thing that could have killed their own mother." 
"Fatal anyphalactic reaction is actually rare," Alice said.

I tell you what, from this scene, I was utterly engrossed in this novel.  It's like nothing else.  Williams is one of those writers who makes you pause in the middle of a paragraph just to marvel at the quality of the writing, which is spiky, ribald, uproarious, epigrammatic.  This is an author who describes the booming sounds of a fire as being "like the sounds of shotguns striking down owls at dusk."  I love the way the mother's harangue here mixes the obviously true (Alice told them not to flush just urine) with the obviously untrue (she killed a pony and a farmer).  And why is it so much funnier to say "you killed a pony and a farmer" than "you killed a farmer and a pony?"  And how did Williams know?

But all that would be nothing if Alice herself weren't such a terrific character, equally repulsive and attractive.  Watch how calmly she walks back down the desert highway, planning her revenge with clarity and coldness; her moral sense is constantly outraged but she's never angry.  She's joined by two other girls: Corvus, an old friend whose parents' sudden death makes her increasingly aloof and catatonic, and Annabel, a materialist whose mother has also recently died.  (It's a testament to Williams' abilities that both Alice and Annabel are equally sympathetic and detailed; Annabel's materialism is silly but never shallow or ordinary--she's as likely to say something as strange or interesting as Alice is.)  Death and loss unite the three girls; Alice has only recently learned that the man she thought was her brother is really her father and her mother, too, is gone.

The Quick and the Dead is mostly a novel about death, and partially a novel about grief, though the relationship between the two is always a little less than clear.  It has much to say about death, so much that sometimes you wish it would say a little bit less, so that you could catch your breath a little.  But it never seems anything less than fresh, and even when it's cryptic ("There is a next world, but no one we know will be in it") it seems to sparkle at the edge of some immense mystery.  Long sections take place at a nursing home where the girls volunteer, a kind of purgatorial predeath that is scarier than any of the book's more violent moments--and this is a novel where (spoiler alert) a man's penis is blown off by a package bomb.

The writing is so terrific, the images so haunting, the moments so breathlessly strange, you almost want to call The Quick and the Dead a masterpiece.  But it's hard, when you take a step back from the glittering sentences, to think that you've read a cohesive book at all.  For one thing, we're always off on tangents with side characters--why, you might wonder, is there a whole extended plotline about the millonaire big game hunter who runs the wildlife museum, and the eight-year old who forces him to see the error of his ways?  (Is it because Williams, as you'll know if you read 99 Stories of God, is jut fascinated by museums?)  Though Alice, Annabel, and Corvus each have their own internal conflicts, none of them seems to move forward in a recognizably narrative way.  99 Stories of God seems much more inherently suited toward Williams' style, which leans heavily on anecdote and vignette.  But all that seems right for a novel about death, which has been flouting humankind's expectations of narrative closure for millennia now.

There's one exception to this: the storyline that has a recognizable progression, that keeps The Quick and the Dead from feeling like a bunch of odds-and-ends cobbled together, is that of Annabel's father Carter, whose dead wife visits him every night to remind him what a schmuck he is.  Carter wants desperately to exorcise his wife, Ginger, from his life, so that he can enjoy an affair with the hired gardener, and so that the dead and the living will return to their properly ordained places.  The Three Fates, working in unison, measuring and cutting with precision and accuracy.  But death, like life, is messy, and the marginal cases are not always easy.

As is sometimes the case with good books, I've talked myself into liking it even more by writing this review.  Maybe it really is a masterpiece, once you sit down and try to put the pieces together.  I don't think Joy Williams really cares if you do.  You can put it all together, or not, it doesn't matter.  "What is the difference," she asks on the first page, "between being not yet born and having lived, being now dead?"

Coyote America by Dan Flores

There's a song I like by Western artist Don Edwards.
It begins,

"Was a cowboy I knew in South Texas
His face was burnt deep by the sun
Part history, part sage, part Mexican
He was there when Pancho Villa was young
He'd tell you a tale of the old days
When the country was wild all around
Sit out under the stars of the milky way
Listen while the coyotes howled

Now the longhorns are gone
And the drovers are gone
The Comanches are gone
And the outlaw is gone
Geronimo's gone
And Sam Bass is gone
And the lion is gone
And the red wolf is gone

Then he cursed all the roads and the oilmen
And he cursed the automobile
Said 'This is no place for an hombre like I am
In this new world of asphalt and steel'
Then he looked off some place in the distance
At something only he could see
He said 'All that's left now of the old days
Are these damned old coyotes and me.' "

The old cowboy would be happy to know, I assume, that not only are the damned old coyotes still around, they are thriving.
Once only found in the Western United States, they are now howling in every state of the union.
And this in spite of, in fact Flores will argue BECAUSE of, almost two centuries of extermination attempts.
Beginning with Lewis and Clark's first encounter with this American icon which Clark dubbed the "prairie wolf", European settlers were first perplexed by the not-quite-wolf but not-quite-fox who seemed to be a little too comfortable around humans.
The perplexity soon enough turned to a loathing that rivals our commonly held hatred for cockroaches.
The coyote was outright declared a target for extinction by the federal government.
Bounties were set, traps were laid, strychnine factories were built. Later, aerial gunning and specifically designed poisons were put into use, dead animal carcasses spiked with trial-and-error vetted toxins.
Millions and millions of coyotes were killed.

And it was not simply a matter of utility.
Even though there were the inevitable predations that occur when domesticated animals come into direct contact with wild predators, animal scientists in the field even in the late 1800's were discovering by analyzing stomach contents and scat that contrary to conventional wisdom, sheep and cattle did not make up most or even a quarter of the coyote diet. And later, as livestock containment methods and the proliferation of national forests and parks as refuges for coyotes pacified stockmen somewhat, big game hunters, claiming that coyotes were diminishing the elk population and were an existential threat to mule deer were also proven wrong.
But the Great Coyote Wars continued, aided almost from the beginning by good war propaganda.
As settlement of the West continued, the coyote became a symbol of deprivation, cowardice and cunning. Mark Twain, in his charming polemics, gleefully helped a good portion of America unacquainted with the species to hate the coyote with his famous three-page rant in Roughing It. Horace Greeley described it as "a sneaking cowardly little wretch." Edwin Sabin in an Overland Monthly 1938 issue, described it as "contemptible and especially perverse" and "lacking higher morals." And exploring ideas for commercial gain from the killing of coyotes, the Scientific American, in 1920, asserted that although coyotes were not worth the price of the ammunition to shoot them, it was still a patriotic guesture because, "The coyote was the original Bolshevik."

Even today, there are 500,000 coyotes killed in a year's time, almost one a minute.
And yet, or as Flores has it, as a result, coyotes now stretch from the southern border (and below) to the Yukon and from sea to shining sea. There is now a significant coyote presence in L.A., Chicago, and even Manhattan.
Coyotes excel under persecution.
They possess an autogenic trait that actually increases the size of their litters when they are under stress. Combine this amazing ability with their seemingly preternatural adaptability and a comfort level with humans that seems odd in a wild predator, and it becomes less incredible that patrons spilling out of a bar in Manhattan looked up to see a coyote on the roof, surveying the scene with casual boldness.

Flores does something else in the book that's a little startling. He insists that a given American's opinion of coyotes is often indicative of their opinions on......politics.
He uses the coyote as a locator of a person's position in the culture war.
And it's not a metaphor.
He claims that liberals tend to respect the coyote, while conservatives hate them. He says asking someone how they feel about coyotes is basically the same thing as asking them how they feel about John Wayne.
The conservative-liberal urban-rural divide is even reflected in how you pronounce the word.
Urban liberals tend to use coyot-ee, with the emphasis on the middle syllable.
Rural conservatives tend to use coyote, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
For what it's worth, I use the rural conservative pronunciation, partly because that's how we said it in Oklahoma (so that part checks out), but also partly because coyot-ee just sounds too cartoonish for obvious reasons.
I don't know if I believe that the coyote issue is as divisive or easily associated with a demographic as war or immigration, but I do recognize that there is some truth in what he is saying that I can corroborate myself. My opinion of predators is significantly different than those of most, or so it seems, of my conservative friends. They seem to view any wild predatory animal as a nuisance to be eradicated so that everything can be tamer. And safer.
At the risk of stretching the point along with Flores, and at the risk of giving anyone the opening to accuse me of reductionism, I have to admit I quickly compared the de facto conservative positions on immigration, drugs and civil liberties and nodded to myself.

Moving on, in the latter half of the 20th century, conservationists became alarmed at the rapid decline and imminent extinction of the red wolf in the southeast. The Fish and Wildlife Service believed that an ancient distinct species was on the verge of disappearing. Their solution was to gather the remaining survivors in the wild together with all the red wolves in captivity and breed a strong pure host of red wolves to re-release into the wild and hopefully recolonize their "native" habitat. But first they had to test each of the possible studs and brood canines for genetic purity. To their horror, they discovered that the majority of the "wolves" possessed coyote DNA. In fact, many were reddish full-blooded coyotes. In true bridge burning bureaucratic fashion, they destroyed every one of the impure animals, even the zoo animals, much to the dismay of the zoo officials.
But, as it turns out, the science that first declared the red wolf a distinct species was faulty. Most likely, the red wolves were actually a hybrid of coyote and wolf, much like the coywolves now populating many areas where wolf and coyote share hunting grounds. The fumbling incompetence of wildlife management experts in this instance is reminiscent of the heedless arrogance that in the previous century led the US government to support and subsidize the near extinction of the buffalo.

But maybe the coyote is too much like us for us to ever be completely rid of it.
Flores thinks so.
As a principal deity in the Native American Pantheon, Old Man Coyote seems quite similar to Zeus with a little bit of Loki thrown in.
He is not perpetually exemplary. He's one of those gods that we create in our own image. Which is to say he can be very good and also very bad. That split personality is what makes him like Zeus, along with his ability to appear human, whereas Zeus had the ability to appear animal.
Flores takes an imaginative, almost spiritual look at the coyote and concludes that he is us.
The indigenous peoples have many myths and legends with the coyote as a god, but a very human god. He is the wisest of all, but also often a fool. He is powerful, with sometimes paralyzing weaknesses. He is a trickster, but is constantly being tricked. He is not completely wild, and not completely tame. He'll do what it takes to survive, but often only just that and no more.
Less abstractly, Flores compares the evolution of man with the evolution of the coyote, and pronounces us clueless, if we think we can outmaneuver such a force.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe


Woman Who Strokes My Face,
Kisses my mouth,
Her hands slide up and down my body,
Gently scratching my belly.
We laugh unaware that in six moons hence,
I will be taken captive with
Her delicious scent still hovering in my dreams.

There is only the grimmest sketch of what happened
December 26, 1862.
The lamentable wailings, an anxious white child gawking,
wringing his hands,
Hangman William Duley's tight lips as he cut each rope,
His green eyes blazing,
Or red eyes popping blood,
My flesh becoming dust, my bones in a doctor's iron pot,
Only a story.  I am no one's uncle, no one's father,
No one's husband.

Serving a mad woman's unearthly pleasures.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution by hanging of 38 Dakota Indians.  Their crime was, ostensibly, rebellion, having attacked several frontier towns.  But the Dakota were starving, left without resources after a series of broken treaties and maltreatment at the hand of white settlers.  The execution, which remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history, was not a punishment thought appropriate for rebellious white southerners.  And in what sense could the Dakota, whose people would not be U.S. citizens for sixty more years, "rebel" anyhow?

Later, after Lincoln's own execution, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln was placed in a sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, where she claimed that every night, a "Savage Indian" crept into her room and sliced her eyelids open before scalping her.  He did this every night--presumably, she recovered between, like Prometheus chained to the rock.  In this book, LeAnne Howe imagines the interactions between Mary Todd and the "Savage Indian," who is both a figment of her own haunted conscience and a real ghost, chained to the widow of the man who ordered his death.

Savage Conversations is what you might call a "closet drama": It's written as a play, with lines, but it's mostly impossible to imagine staging.  Really, it's a book of poetry, written in free verse but redolent of Shakespeare more than anything.  (The Savage Indian knows a little Shakespeare, taught to him by a white man at Ft. Snelling--so don't think just because I can quote Shakespeare and the Bible that I'm all in your head, he tells Mary Todd.)  There are only three characters: Mary Todd Lincoln, the Savage Indian, and the Rope, a mysterious and sinister character who both is a rope and sits on stage fashioning 38 nooses.  He's a reminder, a physical instantiation, of Lincoln's sentence:

I know the secret thrill of taut,
Tying up, tying down,
Binding tight,
Strapping hard,
Lashing knot to payload--for kicks,I am a collar,
A strangler,
I float in the wind like a flag on holidays.
I inspire national pride.

For the first few sections of Savage Conversations, it seems like Mary Todd and the Savage Indian are talking past each other.  She spends much of the time talking to the absent Lincoln, ignoring the Savage Indian sitting by her bed, trying on her pinafores.  The Savage Indian compels her to confront him, but she's unable, until the nightly moment when he slices her eyelid open.  Only when she's unable to close her eyes will she be able to really see those she has harmed, including her own children.  The Savage Indian calls her "Gar woman," in reference to a legend that Gar fish eat their own eggs, alluding to a theory that Mary Todd may have killed several of her and Abe's kids due to Munchausen's by proxy.  Mary Todd's conscience is the nation's conscience; it secretly craves to be forced, even at the price of great pain, to be forced to bear witness.

"Yesterday my shadow climbed out of the abyss," Mary Todd writes, "Leaving behind a human ruin in the asylum at Batavia."  But the Savage Indian follows her even outside of this place, forcing a final detente: in the final section, "An Uneasy Union" (har), the Savage Indian forces her to confront the truth of her life.  Is there a way out for Mary Todd?  Is there a way out for the nation?  Maybe, maybe not, but like Mary Todd, we keep needing our eyes opened again and again.  Her final words in the play are, "Again, please."

I was impressed with the quality of the poetry here.  Mary Todd is spiky and solipsistic, one of those Shakespearean blusterers who is always lying to themselves.  The "Savage Indian" is coy, wise, sympathetic, lost; his fate is to be Mary Todd's accuser, and never more.  His identity as a Dakota and his individuality as a person are subsumed in the historical task of making the oppressor see their wrongdoing; it is a tragic task because it keeps him subordinate to her moral life in unto eternity.  When, Savage Conversations ask, will the oppressed people of North America be more than the oppressor's conscience?

It's a slim little book, easy to speed through without stopping to navigate the poetry carefully, and even as I forced myself to take it slow, my first thought when I finished it was that I'd like to go back and read it again.  I think I will, with my students, later this year.  Again, please.

Monday, January 13, 2020

New York Burning. Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore

In the 1730s, white New Yorkers, led by James Alexander, conducted an experiment in political liberty, and defended their right to constitute an oppositional party as a political form not only not destructive of but actually essential to good and just government, a form especially necessary in the colonies as protection against the abuse of unchecked governors who, by becoming tyrants, made their subjects political “slaves.”  In 1741, a phantom black political party –of real slaves – was discovered lurking in the shadows.   Its discovery marked both the logical consequence of, and an end to Alexander’s experiments in political liberty.  Having endured a white “City in a City” whose leader had gone unpunished, New Yorkers reckoned with their black “City in a City” by banishing, burning, and hanging its most threatening subjects.

The story of what happened in Manhattan in 1741, the subject of this short, dense and far-reaching account by historian and public intellectual Jill Lepore should be as familiar to Americans as the Salem witch trials a half-century earlier.  I only first heard of it cryptically when it was mentioned as backdrop of the novel Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, which I read last year.  The fact that such an enormous event is largely forgotten is only the first shocking detail of the story.

To give a quick summary:  In the winter of 1741, there was a series of fires in Manhattan – then a town of 10,000 people.  While fire was fairly common – flame was the major source of heat and light in buildings made of wood – the fact that so many happened so quickly and that they seemed to happen to the wealthiest members of the society sparked a rumor that the fires were part of a slave revolt.  Investigations, threats of punishment and promises of pardon brought on a torrent of confessions from both slaves and working-class Irish immigrants and within a few months 34 men and women had been put to death – twenty-one hanged and thirteen burnt at the stake.  Dozens more were sold away from the city (and their families) either as part of the pardon they received for confessing or because their owners feared losing their value if they were implicated.  

While the conspiracy was found to be nonexistent within a few months – and it generated prominent comparison to the Salem tragedy – the story largely disappeared from history.  This happened in part because the official account was controlled by the man chiefly responsible for the many miscarriages of justice and because the dead were largely enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Lepore’s account is wonderfully detailed and thoughtfully puts the events in context.  It is, also, dense and complex.  This piece of history awaits its Arthur Miller – someone to move it from history to popular culture. 

Lepore begins not with the fires, but with the trial of Peter Zenger a decade earlier.  As you may remember from American history classes (Zenger’s story is remembered) John Peter Zenger ran a newspaper – The New-York Weekly Journal – that was closely associated with a faction that had organized in opposition to the crown-appointed governor of the colony, William Cosby.  Zenger published a number of editorials that criticized and mocked the governor.  Cosby seized his press, had the copies burned and arrested Zenger.  In a landmark trial, Zenger was found not guilty because Cosby could not prove that the editorials were not true.  Truth had never been a defense against libel and this became a landmark case in the development of a free press.  It was also accompanied by many rhetorical attacks claiming that a too-powerful governor would “enslave” the people of New York.

The irony of that rhetoric seems to have been lost on its readers and Lepore’s first order of business is too revive it.  She establishes that at the time – the mid 1730s – New York was a slave-town.  Of the population of 10,000, fully 2,000 (20%) were enslaved.  The enslaved were all of African descent, with some directly imported from present day Ghana, others traded through the West Indies and some through Spanish colonies in the South.  This makes New York second only to Charlotte, North Carolina in the proportion of its population that is enslaved.  Lepore does an excellent job of establishing the role and life of an urban slave, establishing their work loads, movement about the city, relationships to each other, to white indentured workers and to their owners.  Clearly, this community was a giant part of the culture of the town and represented a lively, if somewhat underground, community.

Lepore uses a structure that approaches the so-called conspiracy from unexpected angles.  An excellent example is her chapter on water in New York.  While since the mid-nineteenth century, New York has been famous for the high quality of its water, in the eighteenth century, it was famous for the low quality of its water.  The fact that the islands of the harbor are surrounded by tidal rivers combined with the low water table to make most of the water on the island brackish.  The rapid growth of the city, and its terrible environmental practices, rendered most common backyard wells unusable after a short time.  The city provided a series of municipal wells at street corners, but the contracts for maintaining these wells were trading chips in a system that was largely corrupt.  As a result, the water from these wells was known to be discolored and smelly.  While humans could subsist on ale and cider, travelers were warned that their horses would get sick if they passed through New York without taking proper precautions.  This meant that the few landowners lucky and prudent enough to dig deep wells and tap into potable water found their wells became community meeting places as people came from all over the city with kegs to fill and cart home.

Of course, by people, I mean servants, most of whom were enslaved Africans.  One prominent well was on the land belonging to Gerardus Comfort, a barrel maker who found that the water trade helped feed the barrel trade.  His land was on the Hudson somewhat north of the most populated part of the city (a little south of the World Trade Center site).  His well was next to Hughson’s Tavern, a popular spot for workers – enslaved and free – to gather.  Slaves and free-servants carted barrels to Comfort’s well on a daily basis, stopping at Hughson’s for rest, refreshment and community.  

Much of Lepore’s discussion of how the rumors of conspiracy started and were maintained is speculative.  She operates on the logical assumption that a good deal of the written record is inaccurate.  The official account was written by the lawyer who was chiefly responsible for the Grand Jury investigation of the conspiracy, the man who sentenced the thirty-four New Yorkers to death, Daniel Horsmanden.  Horsmanden was an unpropertied man with large debts and aspirations of joining the upper classes.  He was a minor political player in New York and his fortune was constantly entwined with being on the winning side of political arguments and sharing in the spoils winning accrued.  While Lepore carefully documents the use of Comfort’s well and Hughson’s Tavern, she cannot know exactly what went on in that tavern.  She speculates that slaves and servants may have spent their time complaining about their master’s and bragging that they would someday kill them and become masters themselves.  She discusses African and West Indian cultural practices involving reversal celebrations – when servants and slaves would act out the roles of master and king, both to see how the other half lived and to mock it, and speculates that such a celebration may have taken place in the week before Christmas and New Years – just when the fires were taking place.

While some details of this speculation are more persuasive than others, it is not hard to imagine that  when the fires broke out and the powerful whites went looking for something other than coincidence to blame, they had no trouble finding slaves who had expressed the desire to kill their masters and burn their city.   When such comments came out in the investigation of the fire, a conspiracy to overthrow the entire city and name a black man king was born, and a full-blown effort to stamp out this revolution began.  Dozens of slaves were brought in for questioning and while many held out, it was not hard to get confessions.  As in the witch trials and later in the search for communists during the Cold War, the detail that made a confession valid and valuable was that it named new names – to get mercy you had to implicate someone previously not implicated.  Because there had been several fires in several neighborhoods, proving that the conspiracy was real required implicating people from a wide variety of the city’s social and geographic circles.

That need for variety, and Horsmanden’s constant need to expand his inquiry, to root out the evil of insurrection, caused the nature of the conspiracy to mutate over the months of the investigation.  Whenever the old evidence did not match the new evidence, the theory of who was behind the insurrection changed.  Over the course of the spring and summer the plot morphed from one run by tavern keeper John Hughson, to one led by the slaves themselves, to an aspect of a larger plot to aid the Spanish takeover of North America, to a Catholic conspiracy to destroy Protestantism in America.  Along the way, we learn of the subtleties of accepting testimony from slaves who might implicate whites, of how his practice of serving enslaved blacks affected the social standing of John Hughson (and his wife, who did the actual serving), we get an introduction to the politics involved when your city is a  pawn in colonial wars, and see a little of the power of anti-Catholic feeling in New York. 

As a result, Lepore’s really rather slim book (230 pages, though that does not include a hefty set of charts and footnotes) serves not just as the narrative of a horrific and lost incident in New York history, but also as a wonderful introduction to the daily society of that City at close to the dawn of its existence.  It is by no means a light read, but it is well worth the effort.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Randy's Best of, 2019

I had a good reading year. I haven't hit north of 30 since 2015 (and the time before that, I was still a student!). But they were also, generally, a better batch of books. This made picking difficult.

I think the big 2019 story has to be my continued interest in Asian American thinking. Four of my books this year were toward that interest, and three of them made my list (sorry, Orientalism . . . . by the end I wanted to scream at you and your too-academic prose).

Before I get to my list, I want to note the dramatically improved Paris Review. Since Nicole Rudick took over as interim editor, and then Emily Nemens as editor, The Paris Review has gotten extremely good. Every quarter I look forward to reading it, and I consistently put it down having enjoyed most of it. In recognition, I note two stories I loved.

The Doors by Nick Fuller Googins (Spring 2019)
The vote is 210-1. Do I like it no I do not. But here is something I have learned working on the doors: no door man can succeed alone. We are a team my brothers and I. And our team has voted. Saturday at midnight we will walk off the doors. That means all of us.
Googin's bouncer--I mean, door man, shit--is a man of principle in a world going on strike. As the strike continues and our door man tries to find his place in it, the reader asks whether there is still space for principle and loyalty in this crazy world.

Why Visit America by Matthew Baker (Fall 2019)
Without speaking to each other or acknowledging each other whatsoever, she and he are said to have engaged in simultaneous conversations with Joselyn Fankhauser, the teenage clerk, about the ripeness of the bananas, Belle remarking upon how bananas tasted best when the peels still had a hint of green, Sam commenting upon how bananas tasted best just beginning to brown, which many of us present interpreted as a coded debate about politics and democracy and nationhood. Neither she nor he bought any bananas.
A town secedes from the United States, and then renames itself America. One person, Sam, opposes secession, leading to tension in the town. The feud between him and everyone else escalates until, well, you should just read it. It's extremely funny, with a heartwarming ending.


Alright, here's my list (a top 6 this year):

(6)  Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson
Garamond' semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra's head arced back to strike . . . . We moderns have accumulated a host of characterful semicolons to choose from: Palatino's is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT's semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot's puffs it chest out pridefully.
The Paris Review blog--another part of the Review that has improved--had an excerpt of this book, and I knew immediately I had to own it. The book did not disappoint. First, Watson's style is itself beautiful and engaging; I was struck by the number of perfectly constructed sentences. Second, this is also the best kind of nonfiction: using one story, the semicolon's, to tell a much bigger story. Watson uses the story of the semicolon to show us that the idea of grammar "rules" is a recent invention, and we shouldn't let that invention prevent us from embracing a liberated love for language.

(5) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
He's the best thing that could have happened to us, I said. And that was no lie. It was, instead, the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things.
 I know, I know, I know. Everyone and their mother read this book 8,000 years ago when it won the Pulitzer. I didn't. I'm catching up. As with end-of-year lists, better late than never.

Like many children of the 1980s, I don't spend much time thinking about the war in Vietnam. This novel made me start, and to think about an aspect I never hear anyone talking about: the waves of Vietnamese who had to come to the U.S. because of the war. Also a good exploration of racial identity, and half-Asian identity specifically (this is essentially required reading for anyone interested in Asian American things). Excellent book, and worthy of the accolades it received.

(4) Rusty Brown by Chris Ware
Chris Ware has a talent for capturing the victories and tragedies that make up a life. Rusty Brown is like Building Stories: we follow multiple characters, leading more or less ordinary lives. Except, Ware is able to show how remarkable and interesting and beautiful these "ordinary" live are, which is a reminder that "ordinary" is really not a good way of describing anyone's life. We see these characters interact in big and small ways and the scenes take different meanings depending on which characters' histories you've already encountered. I couldn't put this down and finished it within a couple days' of buying it.

(3) The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
I sat through movies I could tell I wouldn't like just to be at Phoebe's side. While we strolled through campus, she kept a hand tucked in the back pocket of my jeans. The line between us relaxed its hold, the slack winding, like an exhausted snake, at our adjoined feet.
I don't know what to say about this novel except that it was really good. It reminded me of The Secret History: relative outsider starts college (here a once-very-pious but now nonreligious sophomore who has transferred from his Bible college), has transformative experiences as we work toward a tragedy that was unveiled on the first page. But, the novel is also very different, asking different questions: what is the nature of love? Possession? Faith? It's difficult to say more because much of the joy in reading the novel is in the slow, deliberately paced reveal.

(2) Strangers from a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki
Like immigrants from Europe, many Asians saw America as a place for a fresh start. They came here, as Filipino immigrant Carlos Bulosan expressed it, searching for "a door into America" seeking "to build a new life with untried materials." "Would it be possible," he asked, "for an immigrant like me to become part of the American dream?" The hopeful question also contained deep doubt, for Bulosan and his fellow Asian immigrants knew they were "strangers from a different shore."
The best history is story, and Professor Takaki successfully does it here, weaving together the jumble of identities captured by the idea of "Asian American." He has an ear for the poetic--knowing when to place a block quotation, or even include an entire found poem. But he also has a knock for writing his own poetic prose into the book, making what could be a very dry topic into an engaging one. A long read (500+ pages!), but I remained interested until the end.

(1) The Company They Keep by Neal Devins & Lawrence Baum
The dominant theories of decision making depict Justices as people who concentrate on achieving what they see as good social policy, good law, or a combination of the two . . . . For Supreme Court Justices, as we have argued, the need for respect and approval is one motive that can help considerably in understanding why they do what they do. Indeed, we think that Supreme Court Justices are especially interested in being held in esteem by other people who are important to their social identities.
The biggest factor in choosing my best-of is how much time I have spent thinking about a book, and also a prediction about how much more time I will continue spend thinking about the book. I have not stopped thinking about this book since reading it in May. The history of the Federalist Society coupled with the social psychology of Justices has left me thinking about the "legal elite," who is encompassed in that term, and how an elite might be created.


And 2020? Who knows. I've already finished two carry over books from 2019. But, other than the large and mostly random pile of books on my nightstand, I don't really have plans for 2020. It feels kind of nice to not have any plans. Still, I'd be pretty happy if my reading 2020 proves to be as satisfying as my 2019.

Cheers to another year of Fifty Books (and thanks, Christopher, for running this blog).

Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith

Considering that recent decades have seen the most significant Indian political movement in a century, including much new sensitivity and education, we might have thought things had improved.  But the familiarity of the situation around these recent publications leaves me feeling that things haven't gotten any better, only more subtle.  The discourse on Indian art or politics or culture, even among people of goodwill, is consistently frustrated by the distinctive type of racism that confronts Indians today: romanticism.  Simply put, romanticism is a highly developed, deeply ideological system of racism toward Indians that encompasses language, culture, and history.  From the beginning of this history the specialized vocabulary created by Europeans for "Indians" ensured our status as strange and primitive.  Our political leaders might have been called kings or lords; instead, they were called chiefs.  Indian religious leaders could have just as accurately been called bishop or minister; instead, they were medicine men.  Instead of soldier or fighter, warrior.  And, perhaps, most significantly, tribe instead of nation.

Paul Chaat Smith occupies an interesting vantage point in the history and discourse over Native American life in the 20th century: once a committed member of the American Indian Movement and later a chronicler of it, producing one of the definitive accounts of the movement during the critical years between the occupation of Alcatraz and the occupation of Wounded Knee, he later became a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian.  He straddles, then, both the institutional "genteel" wing of Native activism and the grassroots.  His book Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong brings this perspective, along with a casual and irreverent voice, to bear on contemporary Native American issues.

Chaat Smith's book is one of those books of essays compiled from different times and places; here are remarks given at galleries and symposia along with newer works that seem to have been written for this collection specifically.  As with all books like that, it has a habit of repeating itself: by the end of the book, for example, you will not be able to ignore the oft-iterated idea that European exploration of the Americas is the most important event in world history, because it brought together two hemispheres that had operated independently of each other for millennia upon millennia for the first time.  (As repeated ideas go, this one at least is fascinating and persuasive.)  You'll also get to hear a lot about the movie Dances with Wolves.

I had expected this book to be more academic and historical, something like a more sophisticated version of the book Do All Indians Live in TipisIt's too disparate to be that book, too unfocused, and besides, Chaat Smith's interest is really in cultural criticism.  Several of these essays are reflections on the work of Native artists I've never heard of, and were clearly written explicitly for galleries and museums in which those artist's work were present.  Chaat Smith's essay is meant to contextualize the artwork, but without the artwork, it was hard for me to contextualize the essays.  I got less out of those essays than I wanted, but I'm content to let them be a gentle push to seek out the work of these artists, like James Luna and Faye HeavyShield, who Chaat Smith praises.

I especially liked the essay "On Romanticism," which describes romanticism as one of the most singular forms of racism facing Native Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries.  As an example, Chaat Smith discusses the children's book Brother Earth, Sister Sky, which is presented as a transcription of remarks made by Suquamish chief Seattle, but which in reality is a bunch of environmentalist pablum doctored up by white writers.  Chaat Smith suggests that white Americans who are "interested in" Natives are more harmful than those who merely ignore them (I admit that's a remark that might be made directly to me), but it's clear that Chaat Smith is correct about the dangerous effects of romanticizing indigenous Americans, of placing them in amber and denying their right to be living, flawed, complex.

The antidote, Chaat Smith describes, is to remember the Comanche hero Geronimo riding around the desert in his Cadillac.  Although in my last review I talked about how I didn't think that There There really works as a novel, you can see how Orange--by giving us uncertain Indians, listening to Madlib, flying drones, using 3D printers--is plying the same ground.  I'm going to keep "On Romanticism" in mind as I start teaching the novel in a few weeks; it might provide useful context.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

There There by Tommy Orange

The trickster spider, Veho, her mom used to tell her and Opal about, he was always stealing eyes to see better.  Veho was the white man who came and made the old world watch with his eyes.  Look.  See here, the way it's gonna be is, first you're gonna give me all your land, then your attention, until you forget how to give it.  Until your eyes are drained and you can't see behind you and there's nothing ahead, and the needle, the bottle, or the pipe is the only thing in sight that makes any sense.

I'm going to make Cheyenne author Tommy Orange's There There the first book we read in my Contemporary Native Fiction class, which starts next week.  I think kids will like it: it's readable, accessible, and hypermodern.  It namechecks Madlib and Radiohead; a drone makes a starring appearance.  And the drama--long lost parents, grand scale robberies, alcoholism and sexual assault--is pitched at exactly the right level for teenagers, who crave, I think, a high-intensity version of the world because they are waiting on that intensity to appear in their own lives.

Reading it for the second time, I'm struck by a motif I think I missed the first time around: each of the major characters is caught staring for a moment at their own face in a reflective surface.  A mirror, a television set.  It's not the most original motif in the world, but it's effective here because, to varying degrees, the characters are all struggling with their own relationship to their indigeneity.  Some, like Edwin, know they're Native but don't know which tribal nation their heritage belongs to, thanks to their father's disappearance.  Others are told they are Native, but nothing more; they have Hispanic names.  So many of these characters stress about whether they have any right to claim indigeneity at all.  Some, like Orvil Red Feather, seek to embrace it headlong by dancing at the Oakland Pow Wow; others run from the claim on themselves.

Honestly, the second time through confirmed to me that the book doesn't work on a fundamental level.  I stumbled on the same two obstacles: First, there's just too many characters.  The climax of the novel (spoiler alert!) is a robbery at the Pow Wow that devolves into a mass shooting; there are four point of view characters involved in the robbery, and even having read through the book once it's difficult for me to separate them, psychologically and thematically, in my mind.  The other problem is the end itself, which seems gratuitously violent.  I was dreading it while reading, and encountering it again was almost physically repulsive.  Orange gives us, again and again, first-person perspectives on what it's like to be torn apart by a bullet, but no good reason that we should have to hear it again and again.  Violence is always gratuitous, you might say, always senseless, but I can't shake the idea that Orange is grasping at some kind of final statement and whiffing.

But that doesn't make it the wrong book for my class; in fact, sometimes books with big problems are better than books with few flaws.  I'm looking forward to having my students figure out why There There had to end in such a bloody way; maybe they'll have a perspective that persuades me I've been reading it all wrong.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Senseless, you say?  Death is senseless yet makes way for the living.  Life, too, is senseless unless you know who you are, what you want, and which way the wind blows.

So on with the game.  The solution is simple if you know whom you are looking for.  But heirs, beware!  Be aware!

Some are not who they say they are, and some are not who they seem to be.  Whoever you are, it's time to go home.

God bless you all and remember this:

Buy Westing Paper Products!

I swear, when I saw the first trailer for Rian Johnson's movie Knives Out, I thought: Somebody made a movie of The Westing Game!  The cast of colorful characters, gathered in a single place, to solve the mystery of a murder--I know those aren't exactly original tropes but something about the color and tone of the film made me think of Ellen Raskin's young adult mystery, which I haven't thought about in years.  And so I had to go reread it to see if it was as fun and well-plotted as I remember.

The story is this: several strangers are sold apartments in a brand new building overlooking Lake Michigan.  They include impetuous pre-teen Turtle Wexler, her beautiful sister Angela, their selfish parents Jake and Grace; Shin Hoo, who runs a Chinese restaurant on the top floor, his wife and teenage son; the Theotorakis brothers, one of whom is whipsmart but has a debilitating palsy; J. J. Ford, a black woman judge; a pious old woman named Crow.  In addition to these, the apartment building is staffed by a vulgar doorman named Sandy McSouthers and serviced by a genial, slightly idiotic deliveryman named Otis Amber.  When the mysterious paper magnate Samuel Westing, whom everyone thought absconded overseas, is murdered in his nearby mansion, the denizens of the apartment building are invited to a will reading and compelled to put together a devious puzzle in hopes of inheriting Westing's fortune.

In my memory, the mystery is extremely satisfying, a multi-layered marvel of clockwork plotting.  Rereading, I didn't really find that to be the case.  The "puzzle" that Westing leaves is mostly very simple: the residents are paired, seemingly at random, and given an envelope containing words.  The words (as an adult reader will quickly find obvious) are the lyrics to "America the Beautiful," and the secret at the heart of the mystery is found in the words that are missing.

What is really satisfying is the myriad ways in which all the teams wrongly approach the mystery.  the team with the word "Amber" focuses on Otis Amber, of course; Turtle and her partner, a kindly old woman named Flora, actually believe their words are stock symbols and make investments.  What sets The Westing Game apart from similar mysteries is the elegance not of the right solution but of the wrong ones.  The one right strategy, which is of course impossible, given the residents' greed and petty divisions, is to pool the clues.  If they can only bring themselves to pool the clues and the reward the mystery would be revealed instantly.

The Westing Game is an allegory.  The residents of the Westing Towers are America, in miniature.  It's no coincidence that the song in the clues is "America the Beautiful," or that Westing is dressed up like Uncle Sam in his coffin.  The divisions between them are divisions of race and class made miniature; if only, like America, they could put aside their differences, they'd reap a rich reward.  (A more jaundiced take might be this: The Westing Game asks us to believe in a both-sides ideology, in which a struggling immigrant like Shin Hoo is equally culpable for the nation's problems as rich, vain Grace Wexler, and for a solution it gives us a condescending Bloomberg-type billionaire who promises to bring us all together!)  It's cringey at times (I'm not a huge fan of J. J. Ford showing up for the climax in "African robes"), but on a PBS level, it pretty much works.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Brent's Top 10 - 2019

So, big year for reading! On a personal level, this was a tough year in a lot of ways. But for some reason, I still blew past my previous book record of 55, and ended up with 78 books for the year. Only 1 YA book and no graphic novels, but I did bump up the nonfiction considerably. My numbers:

Women: 43/78
POC: 8/78
Nonfiction: 27/78

So POC dropped precipitously from 2018, largely because most of the nonfiction I read was to feed my burgeoning socialism. Here's to reading more diversely in the year to come. Because I read so much nonfiction this year, I split my lists into fiction and nonfiction so I could actually narrow it down. Out of all the books I read this year, I don't think I'd call any of them a disappointment. So without further preamble:

Down Girl - Kate Manne
I don't remember where I heard about this book, but its striking cover and Manne's presence on Twitter led me to add it to my wishlist. It's not an easy read, because the subject matter isn't easy. It opens with an introduction about the ways the physical act of choking women is related to the act of silencing, and it doesn't let up from there. Reading the headlines, it's impossible not to reflect on Manne's concept of "himpathy", unearned sympathy for the men in cases of intersex violence. Powerful, upsetting, and illuminating.

New Seeds of Contemplation - Thomas Merton
This year, I got serious about prayer and meditation and Merton was instrumental in that. But even more than providing much-needed structure to enclose the mysteries of silent prayer, Merton discusses at length the impossibility of building a faith that isn't embodied in justice-seeking and world-changing. More on this below.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee / The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee - Dee Brown / David Treuer
I am, perhaps unfairly, combining these two books because Treuer frames Heartbeat explicitly as a response to Brown's book. While Bury My Heart discusses the truly horrific history of Native Americans in North America, it ends with the end of Indian history. Treuer's book retells the end of Brown's book, but rather than stopping at 1890, it continues moving forward, discussing Indian schools, blood quantum, the reservation system, and showing how Indians have not only survived but even thrived in the years since Wounded Knee.

Thinking About God - Dorothee Sölle
And now, more about Christianity and justice. Solle is a Liberation theologian who came out of the liberal tradition in Germany. She's got the liberal bona fides--she studied under both Barth and Bultmann--and, interestingly, she has no background at all in conservative evangelicalism, which she treats accurately but always with a faint air of disdian (this is a feature, not a bug). But the ultimate takeaway here is that in some ways, liberal and conservative theology are two sides of the same coin in that they attempt to deal with ethics and metaphysics without spending too much time thinking about how faith should be embodied in the real world, in ways that seeks justice for all people. Serving as a mini-systematic, a jeremiad against Capitalism, and a call to action, it does a lot.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus - Fleming Rutledge
This is a huge book and I got a lot of value from it, but perhaps what impacted me the most was the discussion of forgiveness in a Christian context. In a year (a decade) where the church, Catholic and protestant, has been embroiled in scandal after scandal, and calls to forgive have been weaponized against victims, Rutledge makes the case, drawing heavily on Archbishop Tutu's work ending apartheid, that forgiveness and healing cannot and should not happen outside of an honest reckoning of wrongs done. Simple concept, perhaps, but one need only read a few of the "I'm sorry for those who were hurt by my actions" apologies to see how rarely it is applied.

Honorable Mentions:

The Jeeves series - P. G. Wodehouse
I read several of these with Liz and we're having a blast working through them. Very light, very funny. If you want to read one of the best, go with Right Ho, Jeeves.

Grand Hotel - Vicki Baum
Fabulous Lost Generation melodrama, in Berlin. Fun and pathetic.

Event Factory - Renee Gladman
I really had no idea what was happening in this book. Exhilarating and unique.

The Moons of Jupiter - Alice Munro
What kind of year knocks Munro out of the top 10?? Matchless and wise.

Outline - Rachel Cusk
Books about writing where nothing much happens shouldn't be so compelling. Opaque and empathetic.

Iza's Ballad - Magda Szabó
In the first world, we disappear people once they get past 50 or so. Sobering and humble.

July's People - Nadine Gordimer
What do you do when a conflict has no safe sides? Terrifying and merciless.

At the End of the Century: Stories - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Old India meets New India under Jhabvala's unsentimental eye. Brutal and beautiful.

Top 10, in no particular order:

(I know these capsules are shorter than the nonfiction--I was running low on time and brains)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
The greatest gothic novel ever written and much, much darker and weirder than high school kids give it credit for. I read this very early in the year, but it's full of creepy moments and lovely writing.

Milkman - Anna Burns
Like Chris said, this is one of those books that opens new vistas of what fiction can do and how narrators can work. The story of an unnamed woman and the affair she never had slowly breaks a town to pieces, but somehow we never leave her head. 

99 Stories of God - Joy Williams
These stories reminded me a lot of Lydia Davis, but easier to connect with. Very funny, very wise, and mostly very, very short. If you've ever wondered if the Humane Society would let God adopt a dog, read this.

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
I read Mrs. Dalloway years ago, but reading Orlando earlier this year really opened Woolf to me. But this is such a tight, purposeful work, with the best interlude in all of literature, probably. It's also funnier than you think.

Possession - A. S. Byatt
Hard to believe I read this only this year. But it's a fun Victorian doorstop of a novel but only half Victorian. The most fun part is the poetic pastiches of Browning, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti, but the whole thing just moves a lot faster than you'd expect. It's a luxurious read.

The Story of a Name - Elena Ferrante
Even better than the first. Class warfare in modern Italy, disguised as a Dickensian chamber epic.

A Collapse of Horses: A Collection of Stories - Brian Evenson
This was my biggest surprise of the year. Evenson's stories unsettled me very deeply, and almost all of them worked. Not quite horror, not quite literary fiction, and not quite right.

Paradise Lost - John Milton
I mean, it's Paradise Lost. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes boring, occasionally silly (Jesus dropping mountains on demons!), I liked it a lot more after I'd spent some time reflecting on it. 

The Mountain Lion - Jean Stafford
One of the most complex and upsetting coming-of-age stories I've read. The story of two children growing up in a world they don't understand, surrounded by people who don't understand them and don't care to. And there's a mountain lion. But don't read the author's two page intro!

Jesus' Son - Denis Johnson
Johnson writes the kind of prose I expected to find in writers described as "white knuckled". Even when describing mundane situations, there's always a sense of danger, and even when describing those on the lowest rungs of society, there's always a sense of empathy and hope.

What a great year. Any other year my honorable mentions would've been my top 10. They could've been this year! I can't wait for 2020, if Trump doesn't manage to get us nuked.