Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

When the days are numbered, everything seems clearer, as if the time between preparation and departure possessed a particular magic. The endless stretch of time on the other side always struck me as evasive and treacherous. But the very limited period between now and then held a liberating peace and quiet. This allotment of time was an island. And the island became, later, a measurable moment. 
Sjöberg is a Swedish entomologist, and this is the first of three installments of essay collections. He writes about hoverflies (his specialty), collecting, and (Swedish) island living, but the most notable thread throughout is his fascination with Rene Malaise. Malaise, another Swedish entomologist, was also an avid explorer and art collector; Sjöberg weaves his own experiences collecting on his island with Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka and throughout the world.

The books that are hardest to review are those that you feel ambivalent about. I love essays but am often bogged down by essay collections, and this one wasn't any exception. Sjöberg has interesting observations to make, and he described worlds I know nothing about: Sweden, the art and science of entomology, Kamchatka, Burma. I enjoyed exploring new horizons, and was especially taken with Sjöberg's descriptions of his island and the intricacies of collecting, but I found him somewhat repetitive. Malaise, while interesting, didn't quite seem worth the obsessive attention Sjöberg pays him (although there is mystery-ish piece at the end about his art collecting later on that I enjoyed). His adventures are chronicled with just the wrong level of detail; they go one for a little too long with not enough scenery or personal relationships to keep the reader hooked.

The best essay by far "The Man Who Loved Islands." Named after a D.H. Lawrence short story, it details Sjöberg's love of his own island and his general fascination with them:
Whichever way I go, sooner or later I come to the sea. That's a banal observation, but within it, I think, lies a security that for many islanders is greater than the feeling of being trapped. Maybe it's no more remarkable than sleeping better with the door closed. 
Sjöberg is at his best describing his own work and life. He is understated and funny, has an eye for detail, and makes an odd profession (collecting flies?) accessible. He writes about things he loves, and that love shines through in his writing. His deviations into history are less readable and more frustrating, although my sense is that this would have been more enjoyable read in installments rather than all at once.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Security.  Was it just a word?  If not, then was it only be the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy that she had never known, that it could be obtained?  And did too much striving, too much faith in safety and permanence, unfit one for these other things?

It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of black Americans in the first few decades of the 20th century "passed"--that is, they took advantage of their light skin and mixed heritage to pass for white.  Nella Larsen's Passing is a novel about the allure that passing presents, and the consequences it exacts.  Clare Kendry has been passing for white for decades, ever since the death of her father, a poor janitor, and is even married to a man who crows about his pride in his unblemished white heritage.  He jokingly and unsuspectingly calls her "Nig," because she's growing darker as she grows older.

Clare is alluring; men fall for her, both black and white.  Is she alluring because her actions are transgressive, or does her willingness to transgress racial barriers come from the special quality of her daring?  Clare's foil is the protagonist Irene, a well-off Harlem woman, once a friend of Clare's in high school.  They chance upon each other when Irene herself is engaged in a kind of passing herself, dining at an upscale Chicago restaurant knowing that no one will question her racial identity:

Absurd!  Impossible!  White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.  They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy.  Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Ironically, Irene's ability to "pass" in Chicago before returning to her life in Harlem among blacks makes her freer, in a way, than Clare, who has come to see her white life as a kind of prison she can't escape.  She begins to insinuate herself into her old friend's life so that she might vicariously return to the black communities she left behind long ago.

The drama in Passing is largely sexual and psychological.  Clare thinks of herself as a prisoner, but Irene fears Clare's transgressive nature and convinces herself that her unhappy husband has fallen in love with Clare.  Some critics (the intro to this copy says) find a repressed homosexual desire in Irene's anxiety over Clare; I find that plausible but not totally necessary.  Clare's passing has positioned her at the exotic edge of both whiteness and blackness; I read Irene's obsession as a fear borne out of her own committed domesticity.  All this comes to a head when Clare's husband shows up to a party to confront her with his discovery about her racial identity, and she falls--or is pushed--out the window.  Larsen allows Clare's death to be ambiguous: did she kill herself, because she realized she no longer had a place in the world, white or black?  Or was she pushed?  And if so, was it her white husband or her black friend?  The ambiguity serves to underscore the precarious positioning of the "passing" woman, threatened on both sides by expulsion and rejection.

Passing is very slim, and stuffed with minor characters whose uselessness undermine the elegance of the central narrative.  Irene's conflict with her husband is underexplained and unconvincing, even as her obsession and anxiety over Clare makes perfect sense.  It reminded me most of the kind of Wharton novel where rich women--Irene and Clare are well-off black women, rare birds in fiction--come to see their social situations as confining, though perhaps with more reason than those Wharton women.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.
This was my third time reading The English Patient. I have a handful of books that I re-read over and over, and this one ages beautifully. Ondaatje's novel weaves between a present day in Italy at the end of World War II and flashbacks to each character's experiences before and during the war. Hana, a nurse, tends to a nameless patient in an abandoned villa after Allied forces have left the town behind. As the novel progresses, they are joined by Carvaggio, a former thief, spy, and friend of Hana's father, and Kip, a bomb diffuser dismantling bombs and land mines left in the wake of battle. It's a love story--Kip and Hana quickly become involved, and the nameless patient reveals his own saga through stories and flashbacks--but it's also a story about memory and history and the marks we leave on each other.

The love stories are particularly sad and beautiful, and Ondaatje has a gift for the tiny moment. The reason I keep coming back to this novel how artfully Ondaatje can be with a sentence. He writes largely in the present tense, but slips backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time seamlessly. Each character gets a chance at these moments of introspection, and each gets their own voice. This, from Carvaggio as he watches Hana and remembers his wife: "Nowadays he doesn't think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weight of her wrist on his heart during the night." His sentences are spare--often void of conjunctions or adverbs--but still evocative and descriptive. This isn't Hemingway leaving us to fill in the emotionality of a scene. Another slip through time when the patient and his lover part for the last time:
From this point in our lives, she had whispered to him earlier, we will either find or lose our souls.
How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled.
I was in her arms. I had pushed the sleeve of her shirt up to the shoulder so I could see her vaccination scar. I love this, I said. This pale aureole on her arm. I see the instrument scratch and then punch the serum within her and then release itself, free of her skin, years ago, when she was nine years old, in a school gymnasium. 
I love everything about this. The tiny moments of intimacy, the last sentence tripping through fragments and time. There are hundreds of flashes like this throughout the novel, and each time I read it I find a new one.

One of the relationships that really struck me this time through was Hana's and her father's. He appears only in bits and pieces, but Ondaatje gives their bond the same love and attention he gives the romantic relationships. This one cracked me up:
In Canada pianos needed water. You opened up the back and left a full glass of water, and a month later the glass would be empty. Her father had told her about the dwarfs who drank only at pianos, never in bars. She had never believed that but had at first thought it was perhaps mice. 

And this one:
A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She had read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father--whenever she collected the moments of him--stopping his car under one specific bridge in Toronto north of Pottery Road at midnight and telling her that this was where the starlings and pigeons uncomfortably and not too happily shared the rafters during the night. So they had paused there on a summer night and leaned their heads out into the racket of noise and sleepy chirpings.
Ondaatje's handles memory skillfully--over half of the book is made up of flashbacks or people's own accounts of their pasts. The details are smaller, more fleeting than those in the present tense, but they're that much mroe evocative.

One of the joys of this blog has been discovering new books; it has reminded me of the thousands of books out there for me to fall in love with. I almost felt guilty reading this over with so many others on my list this summer, but it was fully worth it. It reminded me why I love writing and words and sentences, and of the power of the tiny moment.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

“Fair enough,” said Thor. “What’s the price?”
“Freya’s hand in marriage.”
“He just wants her hand?” asked Thor hopefully. She had two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give up one of them without too much of an argument. Tyr had, after all.
“All of her,” said Loki. “He wants to marry her.”
“Oh,” said Thor. “She won't like that.
Gaiman's retelling of the Norse myths came out of a lifelong love of mythology. His other books are steeped in mythology, so this more literal exploration of myth doesn't come as a surprise or a particular deviation. Gaiman immersed himself in both the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and came away with his own versions of his favorites.

Loki and Thor, the two characters I already knew from the Marvel universe, are vastly different from their movie selves. Thor is impressively dense and Loki more nuanced than his villainous comic book avatar. Thor is more funny but less interesting as the muscle of the team, but Loki was a little harder to read. He's deceptive and underhanded, but his motivations are a little fuzzy. He also is continually welcomed back into the fold and the gods seem to trust him despite his constant betrayals.

Gaiman is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to the supernatural, so each of the chapters reads as a beautiful, stand-alone story. The myths are dark: there is bloodshed and deceit in each one, and the women don't come off as particularly powerful or interesting, but none of that is particularly surprising given the source material.

I knew very little about Norse myths going into this, and it was an enjoyable, highly readable primer. It's geared at a more adult audience, but would be readable for mature myth lovers/nerds of most ages.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Image result for the green road enright

The Green Road  Anne Enright

His mother seemed smaller than he remembered.  Her skin was so thin, Emmet was afraid to touch in case she bruised.  Not that anyone ever touched her – except Constance perhaps.  Rosaleen did not like to be touched.  She liked the thing Dan did, which was to conjure the air around her, somehow, making it special.  When Hanna went to greet her, there was a big mistimed clash of cheekbones.

Anne Enright’s ninth work of fiction uses a collection of short stories and a novella to tell the story of the Madigan family of Ardeevin.  The first half of the work consists of stories depicting each Rosaleen’s four children – Hanna, Dan, Constance and Emmet, at vastly different moments in their lives and in very different settings.  We see Hanna as a child at home in Ardeevin hiding from the family crisis that ensues when her older brother Dan announces his intention to become a priest, then we check in on an older Dan who has moved to New York and is negotiating his sexuality in a world plagued by AIDS, Constance is a middle-aged housewife when we see her waiting for the diagnosis of the lump in her breast, and Emmet is working for an international aid organization in poverty-stricken Mali in a story about his girlfriend’s love of a stray dog.  These four stories set up the difficult balance of emotions Enright creates for this family:  none of these children care much for their mother, Rosaleen.  They certainly do not like her – and she is portrayed as specifically unlikeable, self-centered and needy – but are oddly compelled to filter their actions and feelings through her constant demands and expectations.

In addition to the creation of four unique individuals, Enright embeds this complex family dynamic in a changing Ireland.  By beginning with Hanna and the family crisis that involves Dan’s decision to join the priesthood calls up expectations of an older Ireland, hidebound and parochial.  The title is a reference to a road that cuts through the burren, a famously barran and desolate stretch of rocks and scrub that evokes the hard life of pre-boom Ireland so that as we follow the other characters through much less conventional experiences, we become aware of a different culture. 

When we rejoin the family in the novella, it is Christmas, 2005 and Rosaleen has brow-beaten her children into joining her for the holiday so that she can announce that she is putting the family house up for sale and going to live with Constance.  In this section we are living with the family at a different pace, allowing character dynamics more room to develop and for the setting of the family house to become more complex in its associations.  We get to know extended families and neighborhood character much more intimately.

The house and Rosaleen’s memories call up that pre-Celtic Tiger version of Ireland,  but the crisis here is not the loss of the house – none of the children cares much for the house, nor its associations with family history.  It is Rosaleen’s plans to with her children, to force them into greater involvement with her that provokes their fear.

There is near tragedy and a nearly-happy ending.  I must admit that I was compelled by neither of these, but that when the book was finished I missed these characters and this family, even the compellingly unattractive Rosaleen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

Here, in the Hotel Tichota, I also learned that the ones who invented the notion that work is ennobling were the same ones who drank and ate all night long with beautiful women on their knees, the rich ones, who could be as happy as little children.  I always used to think that the rich were damned, that country cottages and cozy little parlors and sour soup and potatoes were what gave people a feeling of happiness and well-being, and that wealth was evil.  Now it seemed that all that stuff about happiness in poor country cottages was invented by these guests of ours, who didn't care how much they spent in a night, who threw money to the four winds and felt good doing it.

Ditie is a waiter in one of the finest hotels in Prague.  The headwaiter tells him that the job of a waiter is to see everything and to see nothing--that is, to hone his powers of observation so that he might know each customer and serve them perfectly, but to be discreet about what he sees.  From his vantage point Ditie sees everything, coming to understand the wealth and power of sausage salesman, witnessing the childish love affair of the president of Czechoslovakia himself, but his keen eye is balanced by a boyish innocence and naivete.  Another waiter, who can anticipate everything a customer will order, always says his perspicacity comes from the fact that he once served the King of England.  And so Ditie, once decorated for his exceptional service to the visiting Haile Selassie, is able to say in moments of great vision, it is because I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.

I Served the King of England is a funny book, characterized by a lighthearted skewering of the wealthy as it follows Ditie from one hotel to another.  Its satirical tone is a step removed from reality, closer to something like a Wes Anderson movie than real life (and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Anderson was thinking of this novel when he made The Grand Budapest Hotel).  But at the novel's midpoint, Ditie falls in love with a gym instructor who has accompanied invading Nazi forces, and the novel transforms from the picaresque into something more tragic and fraught.  Ditie is incensed by the way his hotelier superiors snub his fiancee, Lise, simply because she's German.  But at the same time, when he's prodded by Nazi doctors assessing whether he's "worthy of inseminating an Aryan vagina with dignity," he can't deliver a semen sample because he's too shaken by the image of his countrymen being executed by the Nazis.

Hrabal's version of occupied Czechoslovakia is a bloody farce.  His Nazis are obsessed with physical fitness; Ditie finds work at a ridiculous hotel designed to serve pregnant Teutonic women in preparation of the future master race.  He does something similar with the post-war Soviet occupation: Ditie emerges from the war as a hotel owner and a millionaire, but he's quickly thrown in prison for it.  He's delighted; in fact, Hrabal includes a funny scene where Ditie practically begs to be arrested simply so that the world will recognize his achievement and stature as a millionaire.  The prison itself is an extended joke, a kind of vacation resort where the millionaires rule the guards and the locked gate is unconnected to any wall.

I Served the King of England does a great job satirizing the place of Czechoslovakia in twentieth century history, but its most affecting scenes are smaller and more personal.  Ditie, disillusioned by the lack of satisfaction becoming a hotel owner and a millionaire have afforded him, takes a position mending roads in a remote mountain town.  Alone with a set of animals--a horse, a dog, a goat, and a cat--he is at last satisfied.  The townspeople find him after a snow storm in his old waiter's tuxedo and sash:

I invited them into the inn, and when they looked at me, I saw they were alarmed.  Where did you get that?  Who gave it to you?  How come you're dressed up like that?  And I said, Sit down, gentleman, now that you're my guests.  I used to be a waiter.  As though regretting they had come, they asked, What's that sash and that medal all about?  I said, I was given them many years ago, because I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.  And who are you serving now? they asked, still uneasy.  My guests, as you can see, I answered, and pointed to the horse and the goat, who had stood up and wanted out, butting their head against the door.  I opened it for them, and they filed out and walked down their corridor to the stable.  But my tuxedo and the sparkling medal and the blue sash upset the villagers so much that they just stood there.

I love this final image of Ditie, no longer dreaming about his future renown as a hotel owner, but resuming the life of service and humility, not for the powerful and the wealthy, but for a horse and a goat.  It's silly but also poignant, which is a great way of describing the power of I Served the King of England.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

"The king is coming!" she said, suddenly raising her arms.

"People have been telling me that for years and years," said Clarence.

"But this time, he really is coming!  He is leaving his palace, and he is coming.  He is sitting on his steed, and his pages are all riding beside him and all his vassals are making way for him.  The great red cloud is rising straight into the sky, rising high and straight as a pillar, and covering the whole sky... Do you follow me, you poor white man?  The king is on his way.  He no longer gets ready to come: he has already started!  He is coming!"

Clarence is a white man in Africa.  He's a penniless white man in Africa, on the run from his gambling debts, and cast out of genteel white society, but he thinks because of his whiteness he'll be able to find an audience with the king, who will provide him some kind of employment.  He befriends an old beggar, who says he will help succor the king, but whose intervention fails, leading them to go south where they expect the king will visit next.  There, Clarence waits for years, enduring the boredom and repetitiveness and inscrutability--as he sees it--of West African society, all hoping that the next day will be the one where the king finally returns and grants him an audience.

The Guinean Camara Laye makes a bold choice to write this novel from the perspective of a white man.  At its most basic level, Clarence is a parody of the protagonists Africa novels written by white men like Hemingway, Conrad, and Saul Bellow.  He hears the drumbeats in the public squares of the towns as indeterminate noise, unable to "read" the messages they pronounce.  He suspects the beggar of walking in circles through the jungles each day on their journey to the South, depositing him in the same hut every night.  He fails to differentiate between the two scampish young boys who are their traveling companions--though the fact that their names are Noaga and Naoga probably doesn't help.  In the southern town of Aziana, where he waits for the king, he fails to realize even after years--years!--that the women who visit him in the night are all different members of the town magistrate's harem, and not the wife he's been provided.  For similar reasons, he fails to understand where all the half-white children in the town have come from ("They get darker as they grow older," he's told), or that the beggar has sold him to the magistrate as a slave.

Camara's point seems clear enough: there's a lot of nonsense about the "dark heart of Africa" from white men who either refuse to take the time to understand it, or because they need the symbolic darkness of Africa as a canvas on which to paint their own normative whiteness.  (This is Achebe's exact point about Heart of Darkness.)  But I'm struck by the bravery of Camara choosing to abandon his own subjectivity as a Guinean to inhabit a mind as idiotic and priggish as Clarence's, even declining to name the African nation where the book is set.  From Clarence's eyes, after all, it's all the same.  Even to satirize the "white gaze," that must have been difficult.

The results owe a lot to Kafka, but the faceless bureaucracy that controls the lives of men is replaced by a symbolic Africa that Clarence is forced to inhabit but in which he can never find rest.  The Radiance of the King is often surreal, as when Clarence has a vision of being adrift in a river, hemmed in on all sides by women with the faces of fish (are they manatees, as his friends insist, or is this another dupe?), or when he visits a fortuneteller who operates by having sexual intercourse with snakes.  In Kafka the state always wins because power is so imbalanced; for Camara, the Kafkaeseque is a consequence of an inversion of power--if the white man could only listen, and see, what might is life in Africa be like?

At the end, Clarence is aghast at the life he realizes he's been living, as a prostitute and a slave.  When the king arrives, he feels too ashamed to request the audience he's been awaiting for years.  He hides, naked, in his own hut.  But the king--a slender young man who walks through the town like a god--seeks Clarence out with his eyes, rests his gaze on Clarence, and calls him out of his hut.  I don't want to apply Western, white, or Christian readings where they're not warranted, but I was amazed by how much this read to me--a Western white Christian--as a Christian allegory of total depravity and indiscriminate grace.  Perhaps that's wrong.  But it does seem like a message of hope in a postcolonial world: a white man, shook free of his pretensions once and for all, called into reconciliation by the spirit not of the Africa he's imagined but the Africa that is.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote's crazy, we're sane, and he walks away healthy and sane, while your grace is bruised and sad. So tell me who's crazier: the man who's crazy because he can't help it or the man who chooses to be crazy?

Somewhere in Nevada, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a lady and gentleman lived not long ago, one of those couples who keeps a smooshy face dog and a terrier mutt for entertainment. The gentleman of this pair, decided that, for their honeymoon he would embark on an adventure, that being to read Don Quixote in its entirety, so one and only one book would need to be transported.

Generally when I read a piece of "classic" literature, I have a degree of apprehension because...sometimes classic literature is, like, boring, and stuff. Which is to say, a novel can enter the canon of literature because of its importance to the history of literature. This historical importance is, well, important, but for me, a more casual reader, it is sometimes uninteresting, particularly if the historical relevance is as to a literary movement I just don't care that much about.

I picked up Don Quixote to solve a practical problem: I needed something to read during our 3-week honeymoon to China, but did not want to deal with an e-reader or carrying multiple books. Don Quixote allowed me to carry one, large book that would be impossible for me to finish during the trip. I'd also started wondering about it because of its beloved status among writers I happen to love (e.g., Kafka, Nabokov).

At first, I was worried it'd be a slog. The first one hundred or so pages gave me the impression this would be 900 pages of anecdotes that follow this formula: Quixote's madness causes him to misinterpret a situation, he acts as he believes a knight-errant would in the situation, and he suffers physical or emotional punishment as a result. The initial anecdotes are amusing, but hardly something that can sustain engagement for so long.

But then something interesting happened. The anecdotes started getting funnier and funnier. For example, the famous windmill incident (130 pages in) is laugh-out-loud funny. And as the episodes got funnier, the relationship between Quixote and the other characters became more complicated. I started wondering if Quixote's madness was meant to reflect idealism of any sort, if the implication was that any kind of idealism is madness. And, I also started wondering if Quixote's madness was any worse than the madness of the characters around him, reflected in this quote:
Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools . . . .
And then (umm...spoilers ahead) the ending, which I cannot decide is meant to be tragic or ironic (or both?). Quixote's loved ones--in attempt to bring Quixote back to home life--engineer a duel that loses him his right to be a knight-errant. Quixote abandons knight-errantry and returns home with the plan of becoming a shepherd. At home, promptly falls ill, and sees the error of his ways; he realizes his entire journey of chivalry has been a waste. That everything was wrongheaded. After 900 pages in which the reader sees Quixote stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that knight-errantry is a false ideal, this is quite a shock. He disavows knight-errantry, repents, and then dies.  Yet, he death is heroic, one of the characters writes this for his epitaph:
Here lies the mighty Gentleman
who rose to such heights of valor
that death itself did not triumph
over his life with his death.
He did not esteem the world;
he was the frightening threat
to the world, in this respect,
for it was his great fortune
to live a madman, and die sane.
What are we to make of this? Is this the tragic death of a man who realized his ideals were wrong? Or the ironic death of a man whose idealism was not appreciated until he died? I don't know, but I'll close with Mr. Nabokov's opinion: "He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant. The parody has become paragon."

Shrill by Lindy West

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time--that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women's safety and humanity are secondary to men's pleasure and convenience. 
My two-word review of this book is: "YASSS QUEEN." Here is a longer review:

West won me over with her op-ed the day after the election. It was funny and serious, poignant, articulate. She put on paper all the feels that I had been feeling and then some. This book was a longer, funnier version of that piece with the added bonus of moving my thinking (rather than just reinforcing and elaborating on my own thoughts more eloquently than I ever could). West covers a lot of ground here: fat shaming, rape jokes, periods, white privilege, abortion, internet trolls, female solidarity. She's funny--like genuine, belly-laugh-out-loud funny--but also can drill down to the core of an issue in clear, straightforward terms: "I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future." (Show me a shorter, more ironclad defense of pro-choice values).

She is able to shift from hilarious to serious in the same paragraph (sometimes in the same sentence), and the whiplash that those shifts create makes her writing that much more compelling. West lays out so clearly how deeply flawed our attitudes towards women are that I actually went from laughing to crying several times (partly because I wished so badly that I could have had her in the room for any number of past conversations about misogyny, rape jokes, period jokes, etc).

While I loved the parts of the book that I already agreed with, I think the most useful parts for me were the pieces I hadn't thought about yet. West is fat (not overweight, a word that implies that there is one, specific "weight" we should aim for), and her discussion of our attitudes about fat women was really eye opening for me. I bristled at her direct attacks on arguments I have used (at least in my own head) and was made uncomfortable more than once, but this is the argument that really won me over:
Please don't forget. I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece. I am also not a uterus riding around in a meat incubator. There is no substantive difference between the repulsive campaign to separate women's bodies from their reproductive systems--perpetuating the lie that abortion and birth control are not healthcare--and the repulsive campaign to convince women that their and their body size are separate, alienated entities. Both say, "Your body is not yours." Both demand, "Beg for your humanity." Both insist, "Your autonomy is conditional." This is why fat is a feminist issue. 
This parallel is so powerful and so moving. Our bodies so often feel like they are not our own, and fat shaming is, on some level, another form of removing that ownership and severing that connection between body and self. I've been indoctrinated enough into our society's obsession with thinness being synonymous with health that I struggled with some of her other arguments, but this hit close enough to home to get through. I still have a few reservations--I do think that some fat people are unhealthy, and I struggled with her anger and frustration at various public health attempts to tackle obesity, but I also think that some thin people are unhealthy, so I'm coming around to fatness being a poor proxy for ill-health.

This book was fabulous. I could go through and write a detailed review of each section--her take down of rape jokes was especially satisfying--but West says it all better than I could, and it would devolve into a series of paragraphs-long quotations interspersed with YASS QUEENS, and no one wants to read that. It's dark (perhaps my favorite quote: "But in a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you), but West's ability to pin down and articulate the darkness gives you hope.

Note: I read this for my (all ladies) book club, and it was a perfect pick for lady discussion, but I also made my husband read it. It's an empowering book for women to read, but I almost think it's a more important book for men to read. Yes, it mentions periods. Yes, you can handle it.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card

Jane could feel it, the anguish of the bodies that she ruled now.  They were in pain, something that she hadn't felt before, the bodies writhing in agony as the myriad aiuas rebelled at having her to rule them.  Now in control of three bodies and three rains, she recognized amid the chaos and the madness of their convulsions that her presence meant nothing but pain and terror to them, and they longed for their beloved one, their ruler who had been so trusted and so well-known to them that they thought of him as their very self.  They had no name for him, being too small and weak to have such capacities as language or consciousness, but they knew him and they knew that Jane was not their proper master and the terror and the agony of it became the sole fact of each body's being and she knew, she knew she could not stay.

I know it's been said before.  But I'm going to say it again.  The strangest thing about Orson Scott Card and his Ender books is how unable he has been to practice their simple message of empathy in the real world.  Here's a passage written by the anti-gay marriage Card in Children of the Mind:

But that was absurd.  Her body was a woman's body.  And where did the choice of loves come from, if not the body?  Was there something male or female in the aiua?  Before it became master of flesh and bone, was it manly or womanly?  And if so, would that mean that the aiuas composing atoms and molecules, rocks and stars and light and wind, that all of those were neatly sorted into boys and girls.  Nonsense.  Ender's aiua could be a woman, could love like a woman as easily as it now loved, in a man's body and in a man's own ways, Miro's own mother.

The anti-gay reading of this passage is that we are all in a sense servants of our own bodies, that our physical maleness demands a certain sexual orientation that gayness perverts.  But it's hard to square that with the notion of the aiua, the soul, which in Card's universe fills even the "rocks and stars and light and wind" and has neither gender or sexuality, but is the font of love.  In Card's mythos, it's the aiua that has the power, and is the primary motivating spirit of the human being, and which demands empathy--not the body, which, like in Xenocide, crumbles into dust without it.

Children of the Mind is the last of the "Ender" novels (though there have been many more that focused on ancillary characters like Peter and Bean) because in it, Ender dies.  That's sort of a spoiler, but it's also part of the book's central conflict.  It's a bit convoluted, unless you've read the prior novels, so stay with me: The planet of Lusitania holds three sentient species, the "piggies," the Hive Queen whose race Ender nearly destroys in Ender's Game, and human beings.  All three are subject to a mysterious virus, the descolada, which may or may not be a species of its own.  The ruling body, the Starways Congress, is sending a fleet to destroy the world and commit the second "Xenocide" of entire species because of its fear of the descolada.

Ender and his associates are trying desperately to save the piggies and the Hive Queen with the help of faster-than-light travel, which only they possess.  It's facilitated by the friendly supercomputer Jane, who lives in the faster-than-light network of communications devices known as ansibles.  She takes the ship to a mysterious place known as "Outside," where the aiuas, or souls of things not yet born, live, and then teleports it back "Inside."  This process, in a way I don't really want to try to explain, ends in Xenocide with Ender creating versions of his sister and brother, the altruistic Val and the cynical Peter, though they are really projections of himself and thus his own aiua split in parts.  The Starways Congress is trying to kill Jane by shutting down the ansibles, meaning to save Jane they must "download" her aiua into one of the new vessels, Peter or Val, and use the other to house the aiua of the dying Ender.  (The brave version of this would be to have Ender in Val and Jane in Peter, but I'll let you guess how it turns out.)  Okay.  So the attempt to save Jane by putting her in a human body is basically the plot of his novel.  Got it?

The convolutedness of Children of the Mind isn't what makes it such a disappointing ending.  It's actually the opposite: all the complexity of the plotline is steadily built over the course of the three previous novels, and once there's nothing left to introduce, Children of the Mind kicks its tires for several hundred pages.  There's no radical challenge to what sentience might mean, as represented by the piggies and the Hive Queen or the aiuas.  Card introduces one intriguing possibility, that the descolada itself is a kind of language used by a species that communicate by manipulating genes (neat), but this plot is left unresolved.  (Is it resolved in another book, perhaps?  I'm not sure I want to know.)

I want to talk a little bit about something else that bothers me about the series.  In Card's planetary system, most sovereign worlds reflect a twentieth-century national identity.  There's Path, a Chinese-Confucian world, and Divine Wind, a Japanese-Shinto one.  There's a Nordic one called Trondheim and a Pacific Islander one called Pacifica.  Lusitania is Brazilian.  Card stresses, intriguingly, that these worlds are racially diverse; no one thinks it's weird that a white guy like Peter is on Divine Wind, because what matters is that it is culturally Japanese, not racially Japanese.

But the result is a strange projection of twentieth-century politics 3000 years into the future.  Think about what the world was like 3000 years ago.  We might retain, for example, the influence of ancient Egypt, but the idea of a polity that represents an abstract form of ancient Egypt as it was snapshotted in 1000 BC would be absurd.  On Divine Wind, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki help to inform the choice to use the "Little Doctor" planet-destroying device on the Lusitanians.  But as the events of the past week remind us, this only makes sense in a world in which humanity has been sane enough to keep its hands off nuclear weapons in the 3000 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which seems increasingly optimistic.  Card places these cultural fiefdoms light-years away from one another, preserving them, as if in amber, and the result is that he can avoid imagining the way cultures might communicate or cross-pollinate.  What it shows is a quality anathema to the highest-quality science fiction: a lack of imagination.

All that was easy enough to put aside when the Ender novels were providing new and interesting things to think about.  But Children of the Mind is so rote, relatively speaking, that the series' flaws loom larger.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view
Roy's The God of Small Things is one of my all time top five favorite books, so I've basically been waiting the 14 years since I read that for Roy's next novel. In the interim, Roy has been a prolific writer of nonfiction, documenting the injustices of the caste system, anti-Muslim fervor, and the turbulence in Kashmir. Her years of research and passionate outrage shine through in this novel. Her return to fiction gives us the intertwined stories of Anjum and Tilo. Anjum--to whom the first half of the novel is dedicated--is a hijra. Born a hermaphrodite and raised as a boy, Anjum leaves her family to join a Khwabgah where "Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated." She is surrounded by women on the fringe and is able to build herself up until her depression and desire to be a mother is so strong that it forces her exile. Tilo, around whom the second half of the book centers, is a woman at the center of various love triangles who also refuses to fit into India's mold of a woman. She is headstrong and brilliant and alienates herself from all of those who love her over the course of her life.

The book is massive and about so, so many things: gender, class, religion, and, at its core, belonging. This is a novel about India, but even with relatively little cultural context, it can be read and internalized as a novel about finding and creating spaces of belonging and support. Specifically, it is about women creating and sustaining those spaces for each other--a theme missing not only in literature but in society in general.

Even though Roy writes eloquently about war and suffering and loneliness, my favorite moments in her novels are when she takes a break from devastation to touch on love. She writes about it with a violence and sadness that echoes her other themes, but the push-and-pull is that much more beautiful when she surfaces for a moment for air. One of the narrators describes the moment he first sets eyes on Tilo this way: "The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains." She doesn't dwell on it--there aren't paragraphs of swooning, just these tiny, suckerpunch moments.

The novel delves pretty deep into the Kashmir conflict, and I did find myself consulting Wikipedia repeatedly to keep track of the atrocities described. On some level, it is a novel about the human manifestations of a centuries-old conflict, and Roy is able to synthesize and humanize the conflict well if you go into it with some background knowledge. I went in with almost none, so I needed a lot of support. Early on, she offers this description of the chaos raging inside the hijras in the Khwabgah:
I don't mean you, but grown-ups like you--what makes them unhappy? Price-rise, children's school-admissions, husbands' beatings, wives' cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war-outside things that settle down eventually. But for us the price rise and school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can't.
Roy's protagonists carry their history within them and it spills out throughout the novel, sometimes messily.

There were parts of this that felt like Roy trying to do too much--in some ways, this felt like three or four novels worth of ideas, and there were digressions that I had trouble following or tying back in later. There are letters and journals and manifestos sprinkled throughout that are jarring and often un-introduced. At one point, I fell asleep reading with my bookmark about 100 pages ahead of where I actually was, and it took me 25 pages the next day to realize that I had skipped a fifth of the book--as with The God of Small Things, disorientation is part of the experience of reading this novel, and sometimes it can put the reader distractingly off-balance. That being said, Roy is such a gorgeous wordsmith, that even those digressions were perfectly formed and poetic.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

We might enroll in school, but not always.  Mom and Dad did most of our teaching.  Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math.  He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code and how we should never eat the liver of a polar bear because all the vitamin A in it could kill us.  He showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom's bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock.  By the time I was four, I was pretty good with Dad's pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces.  I'd hold the gun with both hands, sight down the barrel, and squeeze the trigger slowly and smoothly until, with a loud clap, the gun kicked and the bottle exploded.  It was fun.  Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.

The first surprising thing, for me, about Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle was the epigram: "Dark is a way and light is a place."  It's from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday," and I have the very same line tattooed on my left arm.  When people ask what it means, I tell them it means, "everything is going to be okay."  But it can't mean us much for me as it does for someone like Walls, whose story of her tumultuous childhood with her shiftless, selfish, and frequently homeless parents, has a lot of dark ways and very few light places.  (Makes you wonder if she considered, and rejected as too mean, Philip Larkin's line about parents: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.")

Her father Rex is an autodidact, a self-proclaimed genius who loves to live off the grid.  They flit from one small town in the Southwest to another, where her father takes odd jobs as an electrician so that he can support his more important efforts, like building a machine called "The Prospector" to help them pan for gold.  The titular "Glass Castle" is a home with transparent windows and walls that Rex promises Jeanette they'll build one day.  A lot of dads make hollow promises, but how many carry actual blueprints in their pockets?  His real intelligence blurs with selfish bragging; much of the time he claims to be investigating the nefarious unions that keep him out of work, he's actually at the bar, nursing his alcoholism.

Rex Walls is so similar to some of the other "bad dads" in the books I've read the last couple of years--Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children and Allie Fox in The Mosquito CoastLike those two, he may actually be a genius, but his brains are dwarfed by his vast selfishness which puts his family repeatedly at risk.  But, unlike those two, he has the special and curious quality of having actually existed.

Walls' mother Mary is an artist and sometimes teacher who makes it clear to her children that they are a burden, part of a life that she never really chose for herself.  When the Wallses move back to Rex's home of Welch, West Virginia, she refuses to find work, even though teachers are in short supply and her family is nearly starving.  That's not an exaggeration--at times, Jeanette and her siblings surreptitiously pull food out of the trashcans at school just to make it through the day.  Jeanette and her sister Lori start a fund to help them move to New York and escape the turbulence of their life, only to have their father break their piggy bank and steal the money for booze.

Later on, when Jeanette finally does make it to New York, her parents follow her there and become effectively homeless.  They sleep in parks, or in shelters, and end up squatting in an abandoned apartment on the Lower East Side.  Jeanette tells her mother that she's worried about her, but her mother counters, "I'm worried about you"--as if the bourgeois values that Jeanette aspires to are a violation of the spirit of adventure with which she had been raised.  There is a faint suggestion that things were not all bad--we get a sweet story of her father "claiming" the stars for her in lieu of a birthday present, and another where they traipse around the desert fighting an imaginary demon.  The trailer for the upcoming film suggests to me that the rascally-but-free-spirited qualities of Jeanette's parents will be played up, in contrast to Brie Larson's dour boogie face.  But it seems to me that whatever value is in the Wallses' free spirited nature fails to balance letting their children go unschooled and hungry.  As difficult as her life was, Jeanette is no more able to detach herself from her parents, or condemn them, than any daughter might.  I suspect other readers like me don't have any of those compunctions.

Not that she absolves them completely.  There's an interesting parallel between this and another non-fiction book making the rounds this year, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, partly because Walls' story ends up in the Appalachia that is the setting of Vance's book as well.  But just as Vance, having grown up among broken families in Ohio, is reluctant to lay the blame on structural problems rather than personal failures, Walls confronts a professor at Columbia who claims that the poor don't really want to be poor:

"I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."

"Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?" Professor Fuchs asked.  "Are you saying they don't want warm beds and roofs over their heads?"

"Not exactly," I said.  I was fumbling for words.  "They do.  But some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet."

Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern.  "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?" she asked.  She was practically trembling with agitation.  "What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?"

The other students were staring at me.

"You have a point," I said.

The professor's not wrong.  But there's a lesson here about judging books by their cover, and a deeper lesson that warns us about some of the condescending and infantilizing language of our most cherished liberal platitudes.  But mostly it's a condemnation of Walls' parents, whom she loves despite the chaos and ruin they inflicted on her.  That takes quite a bit of strength of character, I think.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Image result for otis redding gould

I am a sucker for a good "life and times" biography - the kind of book that uses a single life to give focus to what is really an interpretation of a complex chapter in history.  This is a great example of this approach.  Redding was an undeniably great singer whose impact was undeniably limited by his early death.  However, Gould uses that short life as the center of a cultural history of the civil rights movement.  Redding's career begins in a pre-teen gospel quartet at approximately the same time as Brown v Board of Ed and he dies a month before Martin Luther King is assassinated.  His career is built from the tenuous and challenging relationships he forms with white managers, recording executives and session musicians as well as his determination to forge his place among the soul and R&B musicians he considers his heroes.

Gould is a fine writer and in this volume we get histories of the careers of Ray Charles, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and scores of others.  He is able to place myriad sub topics into his narrative of race relations – for example there is a fascinating chapter on how improvements the technology of recording and transmitting music for radio play in the 1940s affected race relations in the South.

In his short life, Redding produced hours of some of the finest American music ever produced.  Reading this book with the power to stream that music is a truly great cultural experience.