Monday, June 23, 2014

Walking Through Fire by Nawal El Saadawi

"The gist of the report was that Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, the medical doctor in charge of the health unit of Kafr Tahla, had exhibited a signal disrespect for the moral values and customs of our society and had incited women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam."

"'Inciting women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam.' This became the accusation that was levelled against me whenever I wrote or did anything to defend the rights of women against the injustices widespread in society. It followed me wherever I went, step by step...irrespective of who came to power..."

I read and loved A Daughter of Isis - Nawal El Saadawi's first memoir - as a graduate student. It covers her female ancestry, her childhood, her adolescence, and young adulthood. The insight it gives into Egypt, female genital mutilation, feminism, sexism, etc as she grows up and becomes a medical doctor, an activist, and a novelist; it is wonderful for an ignorant American reader like myself. 

I ordered The Later Years but pushed it to the bottom of my stack. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I had a craving for this book. I wanted to hear about a culture that attempts to control women's bodies from the perspective of an insider of that culture. 

Unfortunately, I would not recommend this book as an introduction to El Saadawi or even for people who loved A Daughter of Isis. While it has many interesting insights and anecdotes of her life in Egypt after she became a doctor/activist/novelist and her life in exile in America after too many death threats, overall it doesn't stand up. The book has a spiral organization rather than a chronological or topical one. It starts with American exile, circles around to early medical career, circles back to exile, circles to first marriage, circles to medical school, circles to third marriage, circles back to first marriage, circles to exile, circles to second marriage, circles to third marriage, circles to first marriage, etc. 

It is sometimes hard to figure out where we are in time because of the three different husbands and the constant revolutions and wars. Perhaps that is the point - it's hard to tease out whether the scene is the revolution of the 50s or that of the 70s or the imperialism of the British or the Americans or whoever.

Finally, throughout the book El Saadawi expresses the frustration of not being able to very similar language...with very similar metaphors. 

This book just didn't have the staying power of her previous memoir. I do, however, want to read one of her novels and see that side of El Saadawi.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Before I start my review, I have a few things I'd like to remind people of:

The head of the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation is being investigated because he was given the gift of a wife (along with a cow and a calf!)  by chiefs who were asking for more programming in the Venda language (wife picked was a 23-year-old Human Resources Management Student)

A Louisiana bill is trying to make it illegal for any doctor to take any woman more than 20 weeks pregnant off of life support - even if her next of kin makes that decision - unless she has a written will saying that's what she wants

This is related to the Texas case where a family had to sue the hospital and be in legal limbo for TWO MONTHS  in order to get the right to take a brain dead woman off life support (she was only 14 weeks pregnant when she originally collapsed)

Women in Saudi Arabia are still banned from driving

A 13-year-old girl in Tunisia was allegedly burned alive by her father in an honor killing because she had walked home with a male classmate

Alyssa Funke, a straight-A college student who did one porn, killed herself after being harassed online by her former college classmates (who, statistically speaking, probably watch porn regularly)

No one humiliates Thomas Bagley for subscribing to porn sites and watching enough to recognize one of his classmates, but the media loves to shame Belle Knox for being in porn

America's birth rate is at an all time low due to the drop in teen pregnancies and women waiting later to have children

Parents can get a hot deal on hiring an Indian surrogate for $10,000 in comparison to the $63,000 an American surrogate costs (excluding insurance and extra C-section fee). 

And so. I think it's important to keep all these things in mind while reading the Handmaid's Tale. The dystopian future plot may be far away from the reality of many Americans, but it is NOT far away from the reality of many women.

Margaret Atwood herself says that she needed to write a story that was not far fetched: 
"I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the "Christian" tradition, itself."

In the life before the Handmaid's Tale begins, the Feminist Movement seems to be in full swing with more women choosing abortions, more women choosing birth control, more women choosing not to have children and thus a declining birth rate (the book mentions a specific concern over the declining birth rates of white women it should be noted). There are also references to the Feminist Movement in the book as being anti-pornography (with violent bondage porn later being used as propaganda to show why society must be structured the way it is). After an "Islamic terrorist attack," the American government is overthrown, the Constitution is suspended, and women's rights are swiftly taken away.

Early in the timeline, the protagonist Offred goes to the store to buy cigarettes; her bodega lady has been replaced by a man and her debit card is denied. She continues to her job at a library where she, and every other woman, is fired because it's the new law. When she tries to commiserate with her husband about the loss of her job, he says "It's only a job" and "You know I'll always take care of you." As if the possibility of his death, detainment, or illness could NEVER happen (or more likely, the possibility of her existence without him could never happen). Later, after a failed attempt to make love, he asks her what's the matter. She can't quite articulate it, so he tries to comfort her:
"We still have..." he said. But he didn't go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn't be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
And so. The narrator loses access to her money. Her job. The government decides that her marriage doesn't legally qualify as a marriage. The government decides that therefore she has no legal right to raise her child. (5 states explicitly outlaw adoption by two people of the same sex and only 20 states explicitly allow it). However, as a young fertile woman she has the 'option' of becoming a Handmaid (her other options are Death or Slow Death by Working With Deadly Chemicals). Her training is rooted in religion, brainwashing, and propaganda. At one point all the future Handmaids pray:
"What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies. Oh God, obliterate me. Make me fruitful. Mortify my flesh, that I may be multiplied. Let me be fulfilled..."
Motherhood is still seen as the Default, the Reason for Living, the Purpose of Marriage, the Way to Be Fulfilled. A student at my progressive fine arts school asked one of my colleauges what was the point of being married if she wasn't going to have kids? In modern society, it's seen that if you don't want kids, it's because you're selfish (kids make you a selfless and perfect being!), you don't know what you want (no, you can't have your tubes tied, you'll change your mind!), you are short sighted (who is going to take care of you when you're old? every parent has their children's financial and emotional support at all times as they age!), and tragic (there is no love like a parent's love. YOU WILL NEVER EXPERIENCE THAT AND YOUR LIFE WILL BE WORTHLESS). I jest - but only slightly.

As a feminist and a professional who is passionate about my job, I am in tune with and overly sensitive to the expectations of motherhood and child rearing. I see moms completely lose themselves in their children, I see dads taking only a few days off of work after a kid is born and then leaving mom/baby alone all day taking care of everything, I see the double shifts being worked and unacknowledged, I hear the judgement of stay at home moms and the judgement of working moms and the judgement of moms who are doing too much and moms who don't do enough and basically I see that there is no way to win and be a mom.

Bringing it back to the novel (and what this post is theoretically about): The government in the Handmaid's Tale simply formalized a pressure/expectation to have children that most women have felt - even if they choose not to give in.

Women who are too old and poor are delegated to housework as Marthas, women who are too old and rich get to keep their financial power as Wives while letting a Handmaid lie between their legs once a month while their husband tries to inseminate her. Women who are too feministy and unable to play the Handmaid Game...well, they get to be sterilized and put into sexual slavery. The other options, again, are Death or Slow Death By Working With Deadly Chemicals.

The most painful part is listening to the Commander justify why the choices made by the government are in the best interest of the women (if only our teeny tiny brains would allow us to see why it's so much better for teh menz to be in charge!)

Reasons Why The New World Order Is Better:

  1. Singles' bars, the meat market, and blind dates are a terrible indignity to go through.
  2. Some women easily get dates and some women don't - this causes conflict.
  3. Some women have eating disorders because they couldn't get a date.
  4. Some women had plastic surgery because they couldn't get a date.
  5. Women were sad. Look at women's magazines which are filled with problems problems problems.
  6. Husbands would disappear and leave women with nothing.
  7. Husbands would beat their wives.
  8. Working women had to leave their children with "some brutal ignorant woman" in day car that they would have to pay for.
  9. Society doesn't respect mothers.
  10. Now women are protected with full support and encouragement - a man for every woman whether as a servant, wife, handmaid, or prostitute. 

The Commander sees the entire point of women's lives - of MY life - is to find and keep a man. I wish I could say that I have never thought that society felt the point of my life was to find and keep a man, but let's take a look at the Bechdel Test results for the top grossing movies of 2013 (a movie 'passes' if there are two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man).

Hunger Games - totally passes with flying colors
Iron Man 3 - technically passes, but I call bullshit. There is one tiny scene where two women talk about work
Frozen - totally passes with flying colors
Despicable Me 2 - totally passes
Man of Steel - technically passes, but I call bullshit. There are two SENTENCES where women talk (one about the news, one about how the technology will provide air)
Gravity -  only one female character
Monster's University - only one named female character
The Hobbit - only one named female character
Fast and Furious 6 - totally passes
Oz the Great and Powerful - technically passes, commentators say it shouldn't

And so.
4 totally pass - 3 are movies targeted towards kids and young adults.
3 technically pass - 2 pass based on ONE MINUTE of dialogue.
3 don't even come close.

My Final Thoughts
The novel is realistic, terrifying, disheartening, and reflect the subtle attitudes that some people still believe - even in 2014, even in America. Everyone should read this book in the same way that everyone should read 1984 and Brave New World. Even if a person 'knows' the plot, I would still recommend it as a read. The ending was unexpected and a fresh take on how to finish off a dystopian future novel. 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

It's Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion.  She told the same story last week.  She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling.  It may not even be true.  At Testifying, it's safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal.  But since it's Janine, it's probably more or less true.

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on?  Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did.  She did.  She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teacher her a lesson.  Teach her a lesson.  Teach her a lesson.

Offred--that is, the wife of Fred--is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.  This is one of few paths available to women, and in many ways the most appealing.  She's not a wife, of course, but because she can procreate, there is a certain amount of prestige attached.  The job of a handmaid is, essentially, to have sex.  For Offred, that means sex with a man known only as the Commander, while his wife sits behind her and grips Offred's hands.  The symbolism of the position eliminates the handmaid, preserving the illusion of intimacy between man and wife:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher.  Below it the Commander is fucking.  What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.  I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing.  Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.  Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.  There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

The totalitarianism of Gilead is enforced by an Orwellian spy organization called the Eyes, and a system of severe religious instruction, as well as violent force.  In one very disturbing scene, Offred and the other women in her community take part in a ceremony called a Salvaging--a bitter pun on the idea of "salvation"--in which they all hoist a rope connected to the noose from which an accused criminal hangs.  The smartest totalitarians always know that people will work hard to oppress themselves.

This was a difficult read for me.  It took a lot of effort for me to put off my negative reaction to the way that Atwood uses religious language and imagery.  She's clearly well-versed in the Bible and employs Biblical literature with great facility, but in Gilead, the most bitter, hateful, and oppressive readings are the prevalent ones.  Older women past their childbearing years, for example, are called Marthas, after the hard-working sister of Mary and Lazarus.  And if that weren't enough, look what happens to poor John Milton:

I walk to the corner and wait.  I used to be bad at waiting.  They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia.  She made us memorize it.  She also said, Not all of you will make it through.  Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted.

I love Milton's sonnet; I think the parable of the sower, besides being a beautiful piece of literature, is a touching response to persecution and ostracism.  It is not particularly comforting to see them turned into tools for the repression of the individual spirit, for the methodical crushing of half the people in the nation.

I found myself responding to The Handmaid's Tale by questioning its plausibility: I don't see a world like this coming about, I thought.  And I still don't.  But I had to remind myself of something I said years ago, probably about 1984: Dystopian novels aren't necessarily predictions, or even warnings, but mirror images of life as we live it now, with the evils that we overlook magnified so large that we cannot overlook them anymore.

And truthfully, America too often resembles The Handmaid's Tale.  I do not imagine that women of the future will be formally trained to heap shame upon rape victims in classroom settings, but such victims are blamed for their own rapes far too often in this very day and age.  I do not imagine that the future government will want--or have the power--to reduce women to procreative vessels by law, but the association of woman with body/matter and man with mind/spirit is a part of our cultural heritage that remains deeply ingrained in the way we think about sex and gender.  I was affected by Offred's disnatured conception of her own body:

I can listen to my own heartbeat against the bedsprings, I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it's like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it's like snow.  There's something dead about it, something deserted.  I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor.

After a while, Offred begins to make illicit visits to the Commander, in which she's allowed to engage in forbidden activities, like playing scrabble and reading old copies of Vogue.  These meetings aren't sexual--the Commander has that from Offred already--but a sad imitation of real human intimacy, which they both yearn for.  Men, Atwood points out, are not immune from the deadening effects of religious and sexual oppression, though she never lets us forget about the Commander's immense power over Offred and his role in the larger system.  The relationship is as fraudulent as it is transitory--either Offred will conceive and retire as a feted success, or fail to conceive and be disgraced, possibly sent into exile.  There is a third way, of course, that might help her reunite with her lost husband--a path to Canada known as, no joke, the Underground Femaleroad.  As Offred says, "There wasn't a lot of choice, but there was some."

I came around to The Handmaid's Tale because I realized that part of my negative reaction was that there were aspects of the novel that I was happier not to think about.  It didn't strike me as rich as the dystopias of 1984 or Brave New World, or as frightening.  But then again, if I were a woman, perhaps that would be quite different.  That's something, I remind myself, worth keeping in mind.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Possession by A.S. Byatt

The Historian and the Man of Science alike may be said to traffic with the dead.  Cuvier has imparted flesh and motion and appetites to the defunct Megatherium, whilst the living ears of MM Michelet and Renan, of Mr Carlyle and the Brothers Grimm, have heard the bloodless cries of the vanished and given them voices.  I myself, with the aid of the imagination, have worked a little in that line, have ventriloquised, have lent my voice to, and mixt my life with, those past voices and lives whose resuscitation in our own lives as warnings, as examples, of the life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman.  But there are ways and ways, as you must well know, and some are tried and tested, and others are fraught with danger and disappointment.  What is read and understood and contemplated and intellectually grasped is our own, madam, to live and work with.  A lifetime's study will not make accessible to us more than a fragment of our own ancestral past, let alone the aeons before our race was formed.  But that fragment we must thoroughly possess and hand on.  Hoc opus, hic labor est.

"The question with Possession is," my professor told me, "do you read the poetry?"

That depends, of course.  It depends partially on how much you like poetry, and then again on how much you like Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, who provide the templates for Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the two 19th century lovers in Possession. In the 20th century, a down-and-out academic named Roland inadvertently discovers evidence of a secret romance between Ash and LaMotte, who--as with Browning and Rossetti--are not particularly thought of us as being similar poets.  Half of the story is Ash and LaMotte's, told through transcriptions of a cache of correspondence Roland unearths, and through scraps of their poetry, which suddenly, when you're looking for them, resound with traces of each other.

There's a lot of poetry, to be sure.  And like most poems embedded in novels, they're easy to skip over.  (I'm looking at you, Tolkien.)  But to do so misses the most wonderful thing about Possession.  First of all, to my non-expert ears, the Ash poems are an incredibly spot-on imitation of Browning.  (Cliffs Notes: Browning is notable for blank verse dramatic monologues which often took the voice of a specific historical character, like fresco painter Fra Lippo Lippi.)  Here's a snippet from an Ash poem which takes the voice of the 17th century microscopist Jan Swammerdam:

I sought to know the origins of life.
I taught it lawful knowledge.  Did not God
Who made my hands and eyes, lend me the skill
To make my patient copper mannikin
Who held the lenses, variously curved
Steady above the living particles
I learned to scry and then to magnify
Successively in an expending scale
Of dimuniton and magnitude,
Until I saw successive plans and lines
Of dizzying order and complexity
I could anatomise a mayfly's eye,
Could so arrange the cornea of a gnat
That I could peer through that at New Church Tower,
And see it upside down and multipled,
Like many pinpoints, where no Angels danced.
A moth's wing scaly like a coat of mail,
The sharp hooked claws upon the legs of flies--
I saw a new world in this world of ours--
A world of miracle, a world of truth
Monstrous and swarming with unguessed-at-life.

(The LaMotte/Rossetti I am less able to judge.)  Moreover, to pull off such a remarkable impression, and also craft these poems in such a way that they allude to the minutiae of the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte--I'm pretty blown away by that.  By contrast, the prose in the "real time" sections is nothing out of the ordinary, and to ignore the poetry is to ignore the novel's really great technical achievement.

But it's also to miss the larger point of the novel.  Half of it is given over to Ash and LaMotte, the other half to Roland and a LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, who work together to dig up the details of the poets' affair.  Perhaps predictably, Roland and Maud also fall in love.  But they must also defend their work, hiding their discoveries from other Ash experts on their trail, including an American millionaire whose obsession with Ash's life and biography comes off as selfish and predatory.  Roland and Maud are deeply invested in their work, but are also aware of their own personal need to possess the work of their critical icons.

The novel is always asking us to question that titular noun, possession.  To some extent, Roland and Maud are engaged in the same project as Ash, who writes to LaMotte that we have a duty to possess the past and preserve "the life of the past persisting in us."  But where is the line between this and the kind of self-preserving predation that Roland and Maud want to protect their discoveries from?  How can we possess the past and still honor the autonomy of those who lived it?

I'm getting my Masters degree in English literature now; I believe, despite recent reports of its death, in the project of literary criticism.  One of the things I love most about Possession is its defense of "lit crit" as something apiece with the literature it studies, vital and important for reasons both personal and historical:

Most of all, he [Roland] saw her [Maud's] waist, just where it narrowed, before the skirts spread.  He remembered her nakedness as he knew it, and his hands around that narrowing.  He thought of her momentarily as an hour-glass, containing time, which was caught in her like a thread of sand, of stone, of specks of life, of things that had lived and would live.  She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness, into this small circumference.  He remembered an odd linguistic fact--the word for waist in Italian is vita, is life--and this must be, he thought, to do with the navel, which is where our separate lives cast off, that umbilicus which poor Philip Gosse believed had had to be made by God for Adam as a kind of mythic sign of the eternal existence of the past and the future in all presents.  He thought too of the Fairy Melusina, a woman jusqu'au nombril, sino alla vita, usque ad umbilicum, as far as the waist.  This is my centre, he thought, here at this place, at this time, in her, in that narrow place, where my desire has its end.

This is a parody of academic writing, I have no doubt.  The connection straining for cleverness, the name-dropping, the knotted prose, the smug use of foreign languages--three of them!  It's literally a navel-gazing exercise.  And yet it's impossibly beautiful.  Roland is doing what he does best, thinking like an academic, but the result is neither arcane nor useless.  Rather, the little academic exercise he performs in his head leads him to a profound epiphany about his love for Maud, and an understanding of both Ash and himself.

Possession has quite a few flaws.  The Roland-Maud sections are rarely quite as imaginative or carefully conceived as the Ash-LaMotte ones (the above paragraph notwithstanding), and some of the minor characters--Roland's fiancee/es especially--are pretty underwritten.  Worse, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning character gets pretty short-changed, which may dismay those of us who prefer her poetry to her husband's.  (Though I suppose there are narrative reasons for that.)  But it reminded me what I love about reading, and what I love about criticism, which, at its best, lets me know myself and my world a little better.

Did I read all the poetry, though?  You can't prove I didn't.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I feel bad that I've fallen so far behind on my reviews, because I've read some great books this year that are definitely going to get the short shrift because it's been so long since I read them. That includes this one, possibly the most widely-disparaged book ever to find its way onto high school reading lists.

Of course, it's not too surprising that The Scarlet Letter doesn't connect with most high-schoolers. For those unfamiliar, the story concerns Hester Prynne, a single woman in a strict Puritan community, who is discovered to be pregnant and sentenced to spend the rest of her life wearing a red letter "A"--for adultery--as punishment for her transgression. As for the father, well, that's the Reverend Arthur Dimmsdale, the town's most respected citizen and the next thing to an angel in the eyes of the townfolk.

What follows from this is a long meditation on sin, guilt, the nature of love and religious belief, all written in Hawthorne's typically slow-moving and flowery prose. Oh, and the book opens with a fifty-page framing story about an accounting house where the record of The Scarlet Letter is found, to discourage the rare kid who found the adultery story compelling.

And, in spite of all this, I loved it. It might be the best thing I've read so far this year.

Some of this is just my literary taste--I love Hawthorne's baroque verbiage and slow pace, but I can see how it could be a turn off--but there's more to the story than that. For one thing, the novel is full of ambiguity. As I recall, it never even spells out that Rev. Dimmsdale was the father until the very end of the novel, although the reader is expected to have intuited it pretty early. The meaning of the scarlet "A" is never explicitly mentioned either, and those are two of the main plot points of the book! They aren't hard to discern but it does demonstrate the confidence Hawthorne has in his readers.

 Hand in hand with the plot ambiguities, Hawthorne allows a lot of moral wiggle room as well. Until a short speech at the end, which feels shoehorned in to please censors, Hawthorne casts no shade on Hester. In fact, as the story progresses, she sometimes seems like the only moral person in a town full of hypocrites. Knowing how Hawthorne felt about Puritans, it seems likely that he DID feel this way, but it's still strange to see a woman have an illegitimate child and come out of the situation better then she went in. I don't know that I've ever read a book this old that was so loath to pass judgement on its characters.

Also, despite its stuffy rep, The Scarlet Letter is a deeply strange book. Occurrences throughout--Hester's vindictive ex, a vision in the sky, Dimmsdale's ever-increasing torment, and Hester's possibly-demented daughter--point to supernaturalism without ever spelling it out. At points, it feels almost like a Gothic novel, with "ghosts" everywhere, and skeletal hands behind the scenes pushing things along, except in this case, the hands are God's and the devil is a disgruntled ex.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

Take the risk.  Believe what you see and hear.  It's the pulse of every secret intimation you've ever felt around the edges of your life.

Lauren Hartke is renting a beach house on an isolated stretch of coast on what I can only assume is New England with her husband, the famous director, Rey Robles.  She's still there when he drives back to their Manhattan apartment to shoot himself, leaving her alone in the little rented cottage.

But she isn't alone--she soon discovers that a squatter has been living in the attic, a strange, damaged man whom she calls Mr. Tuttle.  His speech is inscrutable, made of clipped, imitated phrases:

He knew what a chair is called and a window and wall but not the tape recorder, although he knew how to turn it off, and not, it seemed, who is mother was or where she might be found.

"If there is another language you speak," she told him, "Say some words."

"Say some words."

"Say some words.  Doesn't matter if I can't understand."

"Say some words to say some words."

"All right.  Be a Zen master, you little creep."

Lauren extends her stay in the house, partly to live in the suspension from ordinary life it provides, and partly because of her fascination, and sense of responsibility for, Mr. Tuttle.  She forms a theory that he lives outside of time, experiencing it, as the Trafalmadorians do, all at once; a theory supported when he predicts days ahead of time the words she will use when she breaks a glass on the floor.  When he begins to speak in imitation of her dead husband, DeLillo suggests that he isn't merely recalling something that he overheard, but accessing a present that is absent for Lauren--linking her to an existence in which Rey is alive and, in a sense, cannot die.

Strangely, The Body Artist echoed something I've been writing about for my master's thesis on Paradise Lost: the idea that God lives in that eternal present, like Mr. Tuttle and the Trafalmadorians, and that intimacy with God can help assuage the inevitably painful experience of linear time.  Mr. Tuttle does that, I think, for Lauren, but aloofly and imperfectly.  Partly, I think my familiarity with that idea is what made the book fail to resonate with me.  But also, DeLillo's prose has a way of being chilly and distant that mutes the power of Lauren's grief, and the novel whiffs on the opportunity to communicate the stakes involved in a liberation from the human experience of time.

Lauren is the "body artist" of the title--something of a performance artist, an interpretive dancer, or even a human sculpture.  Mr. Tuttle, ultimately, fails to provide her any meaningful connection to her husband beyond a few scraps of his speech, uncannily imitated.  But he provides inspiration for her final piece, described by DeLillo in the form of a newspaper review, in which she finds her own power of imitation:

Then she does something that makes me freeze in my seat.  She switches to another voice.  It is his voice, the naked man's, spooky as a woodwind in your closet.  Not taped but live.  Not lip-sync'd but real.  It is speaking to me and I search my friend's face but I don't quite see her.  I'm not sure what she's doing.  I can almost believe she is equipped with male genitals, as in the piece, prosthetic of course, and maybe an Ace bandage in flesh-tone to bleep out her breasts, with a sprinkle of chest hair posted on.  Or she has trained her upper body to deflate and her lower body to sprout.  Don't put it past her.

The imitation--or perhaps embodiment--is of Mr. Tuttle.  Lauren may not live beyond time, as he does, but she can use the power of her art to access another time, another place, another body.  The prose is not quite successful--I find that convincing descriptions of genius in other arts rarely are.  But it seems a fitting conclusion, that having been left alone, abandoned, left behind, Lauren is able to find solace in the multiplicity ("I contain multitudes!") of herself.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

"In the end, that is what this book is about. It will show how the makers of processed foods have chosen, time and again, to double down on their efforts to dominate the American diet, gambling that consumers won't figure them out....Inevitably, the manufacturers of processed food argue that they have allowed us to become the people we want to be, fast and busy, no longer slaves to the stove. But in their hands, the salt, sugar, and fat they have used to propel this social transformation are not nutrients as much as weapons - weapons they deploy, certainly, to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more."

This book is the summer reading for a class I may be teaching, and as a fairly food conscious person, I was willing to give it a whirl even if I don't end up teaching the associated class. If you enjoy books in the vein of Fast Food Nation; In Defense of Food; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; etc; then this book is definitely for you. 

I did a Whole 30 earlier this year (a strict Paleo diet where basically the only thing you can eat is unprocessed meat, fruit, and vegetables. No sugar, sweeteners, gluten, soy, beans, dairy, preservatives, etc) and for the first time really learned how HARD it is to live a whole unprocessed life. Almost all processed or pre-made food is off limits - even at stores like Whole Foods or Fresh and Easy - because there is Sugar and Soy and Crap in EVERYTHING. Nothing is convenient and it is almost impossible to eat out at any place but a nice restaurant which is just not affordable. I know how important and impossible it is to eat whole unprocessed foods.

I also know that as soon as my 30 days was up, I was back to shoving food in my mouth in my car and throwing away the wrappers in shame. Hello McDonald's cherry pies 2 for $1 and Cadbury Eggs and Jelly Belly Sour Jelly Beans and Tiny Boxes of Chocolate and FRENCH FRIES and Sour Patch Watermelon and Ice Cream Every Night. I know better, and I've done better, and still...for some reason...I want that french fry with that sweet tea with that cherry pie bite. (The only lasting effect of my Whole 30 is that I am completely off of fake sweeteners and drink my coffee black.) 

So why can't I (and the rest of America) let these foods go? Why do I have no self control? Is it my mommy issues or my body issues or my teenage issues or do I need even MORE therapy? According to Michael Moss, those things can only be held partly responsible - the food companies are far more responsible than we think.

The book is broken up into three sections: Sugar, Fat, Salt, and each section presents its related information from a variety of sources: scientific papers, food scientists who create special versions of things for Moss to sample, current and former big wigs at various food companies, data and news reports about health and nutrition, etc. The scope of his sources are impressive, and although he doesn't foot/endnote, he does provide a serious list afterwards. The most surprising thing for me as a consumer is how much NOTHING IS AN ACCIDENT. There is nothing about that box of Oreos or that bag of Takis or that bottle of Coca Cola that is accidental - the companies have spent millions and billions of dollars making sure that we keep eating and drinking and snacking so they can keep making more and more money (in spite of the fact that there is only so much any one person can eat and drink - they still need to raise their profits).

Sugar: In this section, Moss describes the research that goes into finding the 'bliss point' or the point of sugary sweetness that is perfect, the CocaCola Pepsi wars, the introduction of Free Refills, the development of Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, the way cereals can be up to 70% sugar and still called cereal, and how sugar has transformed 'healthy' foods into candy (like yogurt! So healthy! Some flavors have more sugar than ice cream!) 

Fat: In this section, Moss details the dairy subsidies that have pushed up American consumption of cheese and milk, how processed cheese came to be, how cheese went from taking 18 months to make to taking 1 day by just adding a ton of different chemicals that mimic the natural aging process, how Paula Deen and Kraft worked together to make cream cheese sales skyrocket, how Lunchables came to be, the pink slime fiasco, and how the FDA and USDA find themselves in contradictory positions (like the USDA takes a fee from Big Beef/Big Dairy in order to create marketing for Beef. It's What's For Dinner. and Cheese in spite of the fact that their own guidelines suggest "The cheese and meat we eat should be of the non- and lower-fat varieties" which is difficult because consumers buy almost no non/low-fat cheese and there are "no whole cuts of red meat...that fall within the USDA's definition of low fat.")

Salt: This chapter is the smallest because at this point we have already seen the factories, tasted in their food science tasting rooms, and interviewed the important players in the previous two chapters because salt, sugar, and fat are inextricable from one another. We meet the company that sells food companies their salt, sugar, and fat in a billion formations - perfect for all their needs, bemoan the amount of sodium in everything, examine why it's so hard to take out (it's not just about taste - salt and sodium products give texture, color, shelf life, etc), and discuss how people DEVELOP a salt tooth (whereas a sweet tooth is totally innate).

The book ends on an anecdote of a community of parents, teachers, and one principal trying to stop kids from shopping at the corner stores on their way to/from schools and how fruitless it is. Sure, the kids can get free breakfast at school, but for $2 they can buy a soda, a bag of chips, and a candy bar, and they would much rather eat those things that have been perfectly engineered to meet their salt, sugar, fat desires and perfectly marketed to their demographic, ethnicity, and class. 

"There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don't generally partake in their own creations...'People who work in these companies have very little in common, frequently, with their audience,' he said. 'They're super educated, and their incomes are much higher, and their lifestyles are frequently very different.'"

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Reviewing Paradise Lost seems like a silly exercise.  It's not merely that it is a classic--so is Don Quixote, but the entertainment value of that novel is such that it seems rational to evaluate it on those terms--but that whether I enjoyed it seems ultimately beside the point of Milton's writing.  In the invocation to Book VIII, the poet-narrator asks his muse: "still govern my song, / Urania, and fit audience find, though few."  This epic is not for everyone; Milton admits as much.  It's not for the dilettante, but rather for the "fit" and "few" readers who will be receptive to its message of glory through obedience to God.  As I wrote in my review of Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin, this goes far in explaining some of the aesthetically dreary bits of Paradise Lost, of which there are many--some of it really sucks, but hey, you've got to eat your vegetables.

In any case, I did enjoy it.  Or rather, I was impressed by it.  It's the most all-encompassing work I've ever read, the most total expression of literary capability.  (Second would be Moby Dick.)  Ostensibly, it's our only notable English language epic, modeled on Homer and Vergil and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata.  But it gobbles up other genres as well: tragedy, pastoral, lyric poetry.  Here's a beautiful piece of lyric from Eve speaking to Adam about her love for him and the bliss of their existence:

With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons, and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of Morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds: pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful Evening mild; then silent Night,
With this her solemn bird, and this fair moon,
And these the gems of Heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn, when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds; nor rising sun
On this delightful land; nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew; nor fragrance after showers;
Nor grateful Evening mild; nor silent Night,
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering star-light, without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?

Paradise Lost is not frequently beautiful in the way that Shakespeare often is; in fact, it is often clunky and can even seem strained.   Milton is not particularly concerned about avoiding the awkward constructions that blank verse can force him into, but the strain often works to his advantage, I find.  It works, I think, when we're talking about the exploits of angels, demons, and God, who are ultimately meant to seem great and alien.  Here's a great description of Satan's shield and spear:

He scarce had ceased when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield,
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round,
Behind him cast. The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.
His spear--to equal which the tallest pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand--
He walked with, to support uneasy steps
Over the burning marl, not like those steps
On Heaven's azure; and the torrid clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire.

The "Tuscan artist" here is Galileo; Satan's shield looks like the moon through a telescope.  The description of the spear operates by a nifty analogy: His spear is to a mast made of the tallest pine in "Norwegian hills" as that mast is to a tiny wand.  Milton is great at describing the ineffable this way, baffling our sense of scale.

The first half of Paradise Lost have proven to be the most popular, for good reason.  They include the story of the War in Heaven (angels and demons throw mountains at each other); Satan's fall, and the construction of the terrifying city of Pandemonium in Hell; the beautiful pastoral depictions of Adam and Eve hanging out in the garden; the serpent's temptation of Eve.  The final books are a little preachy, sure, which are given over to the Archangel Michael teaching Adam about Christian providential history.  But I am also taken by the pathos of Adam's lament about the loss of God's blessing:

O fleeting joys
Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust;
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received; unable to perform
Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold
The good I sought not. To the loss of that,
Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added
The sense of endless woes?

I didn't ASK to be born!  But moreover, I think the most wonderful lines of the poem are the final ones, which depict Adam and Eve walking through the Garden one last time on their way out into the wide world, together but alone, needing each other to face a daunting new existence with bravery and mutual compassion:

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.