Sunday, September 30, 2018

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Already, I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting; and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk, at last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life.  The gross vapours of earth were gathering around m,e and closing in upon my inward heaven; and thus it was that Mr Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning-star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness; and I rejoiced that I had now a subject for contemplation, that was above me, not beneath.

My favorite depiction of teaching is in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow: the sensitive Ursula takes a job as a schoolteacher only to find herself pressed between the needs of students, parents, and administrators.  The pressure acts on her geologically, transforms her into something she doesn't want to be, and she quits because she can't accept the transformation.  Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, about a young woman who becomes a governess, understands that pressure, too, though she's far too  sure of herself to give into its transformative powers:

But either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

Agnes first takes a job with a family whose children are avowed troublemakers, and whose character is perpetuated by their parents, who foist responsibility for their actions onto Agnes.  (There's a familiar dynamic for you.)  They set her papers on fire, throw them out the window, then escape when she goes to retrieve them.  The little boy has captured a nest of baby birds and is saving them to torture; Agnes smashes them with a rock in a stone-hearted act of kindness, much to the boy's displeasure.  Agnes loses the job, because the job itself is impossible; in fact, Agnes has served her purpose exquisitely, which is to serve as a convenient scapegoat for both children and parent.

Her second job is much better, but comes with its own difficulties.  Her charges are two women, both a little older than the monsters in her previous gig: Matilda, a stubborn tomboy, and Rosemary, a shameless flirt.  Agnes tries her best to rein in Rosemary's tendency to play with the hearts of local men, whose hopes she inflames, then discards.  When Rosemary sets her sight on Mr. Weston, the kindhearted local sexton, Agnes suffers silently and represses the love she feels for him.

But Weston is too wise and generous not to see through Rosemary's attempts at flirtation.  Rosemary herself comes to a bad end, married to a man she chooses for social status rather than character.  Agnes, though humbler, is wiser, and though both her love and Mr. Weston's is slow to kindle, it seems inevitable.  The love affair, like the one in Persuasion, happens at a distance through a kind of subatomic force.  Unlike the one in Persuasion, though, it's a little boring; since Rosemary is no real threat, the only barriers to it are time and a tedious reticence to express their feelings that both Agnes and Weston share.  It's Rosemary, actually, venal and thoughtless Rosemary, who is the most interesting character in the novel.  Her wealth and beauty allow her to flout social sense with impunity, and even though we're convinced that Agnes' slow and steady practicality is wiser, Rosemary's just a lot more fun.

Being a governess, like being a teacher, was a job reserved for young, unmarried women with little wealth.  Agnes Grey shows how soul-squeezing it can be, especially for those who are of stiff moral fiber and deep sensitivity.  But in the end, marriage comes for Agnes, to rescue her from labor, without the menacing threat of a loss of independence.  Weston reminds me of St. John Rivers from Charlotte's Jane Eyre in many ways, but perhaps the way St. John himself, as a good and generous man who offers stability and a shared service to God.  Jane considers that and rejects it, returns to the wildness and strangeness of a life with Mr. Rochester; for Agnes, and seemingly for Anne, that kind of bourgeois piety is both safety and success.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin.  Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin begins with the title character, a Russian professor and emigre in America, on the wrong train to deliver a guest lecture.  He chases down another train, a bus, hitches a ride, and the whole time you feel like Pnin is headed to some blackly comic disaster, the kind of thing that cruel-hearted novelists do to punish minor flaws: a car accident or a mugging, maybe.  But Pnin makes it to the college all right, a little later.  Later on in the novel, we see Pnin from above, in his new car, having just learned to drive, moving like a beetle, ineptly trying to find the house of a fellow emigre.  But ultimately, Pnin lucks out and finds a sign, which he follows to the house.  At the novel's end, Pnin is washing his dishes--yes, this is a novel where the climax is a man washing his own dishes--when he drops a nutcracker and hears the crack of glass.  Heartsick, he reaches in to find it's only a goblet that's broken, not the expensive and beautiful punch bowl given to him as a gift by his dear stepson.

It's not that nothing bad can happen to Pnin.  He's a refugee from the Russian revolution, after all.  We find out about an early beloved who became a victim of the Nazis, and in some of Nabokov's most heart-stopping prose:

One had to forget--because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman, with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past.  And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood.

But for better or worse, there's no country for forgetting the past like America.  Pnin seems so vulnerable--his English is poor, he's been abandoned by his wife, he lives in a succession of rented rooms--but he is also charmed.  Disasters loom but never happen, the house appears, the punch bowl doesn't break.  Though his transition into America is long and difficult, he seizes it with a kind of gusto.  When he has to have his teeth replaced, he is first sad at the loss, but comes to love the new false teeth, which he calls a "firm mouthful of efficient, alabastrine, humane America."  And while Nabokov positions himself as a "friend" of Pnin's, inserting himself at rare moments into the narrative, it seems clear that Pnin is a kind of idealized version of Nabokov himself, for whom America is a kind of unalloyed blessing.

Hardly anything happens in Pnin.  Scenes are set, and then seem to stall.  His ex-wife, Liza Wind, begs him to take in her son for a while, and the scene between the teenager and Pnin, both equally bewildered, is very touching, but by the next passage the teen is shuffled off somewhere else.  (He's the one that later sends the beautiful punchbowl.)  Mostly, Pnin is a series of character sketches.  They show us a Pnin who is a little absent-minded, mostly ignorant of the threat of disaster, who speaks English poorly but with great charm, who is somehow both roundly mocked and well-liked, who is a bad but well-respected teacher.  Nabokov was certainly capable of writing a gripping plot (both Lolita and Despair are pretty tense!) but here he seems content to sit with his creation in the small rooms he occupies on the edge of a Northeastern college, and trusts that Pnin is charming enough that we'll feel the same way, too.  And mostly he's right.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

The truth is that things do not work out, that there are no solutions, and you can go a year, a whole year, and be no better, no more healed, maybe even worse, be so skittish that if you’re walking down the street with Anna, and if someone opens a car door and gets out and slams the door you turn around, honest-to-god ready to kill them, turn around so fast that Anna, who knows what is happening, cannot even open her mouth in time and then you’re standing there, crying, and there’s some guy in a leather jacket and a fedora getting out of his Volkswagen Rabbit staring at you like, is this girl all right? and you want to be like, this girl is not all right, this girl will never be all right.
I picked up this novel after my sister recommended the movie; I watched the preview, inferred that the book was about a father and his daughter living off the grid, challenging the status quo, etc. I could not have been more mistaken. Tallent's novel is the most brutally violent book I have ever read. It is a story of abuse more than anything else, and nothing prepared me for the gore and specificity of the violence Tallent lays out. Turtle (or Julia), the heroine, is interesting enough that you want to keep reading to see whether she emerges on the other end, but I had to repeatedly put the book down because the prose was so graphic.

The writing itself was bizarrely uneven. In some places, Tallent's descriptions are lyrical and beautiful. This was especially true when he was describing Turtle as she moved through the lush forest surrounding her home:
She holds her breath and sinks to the bottom and, drawing he knees to her shoulders with her hair rising around her like weeds, she opens her eyes to the water and looks up and sees writ huge across the rain-dappled surface the basking shapes of newts with their fingers splayed and their golden-red bellies exposed to her, their tails churning lazily. 
Moments like this are scattered throughout, a welcome relief to the graphic violence. But then he does things like using the phrase "gathering rain" three times on the same page; sometimes his prose was so stilted that it took me out of the story entirely.  Turtle (and, I can only assume, the author) has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, and the sections detailing the maintenance, care, and use of guns read almost like instruction manuals which I also found distracting. The many, many moments of violence are so incredibly sharp and precise that they feel almost pornographic in their specificity. Overall, the writing felt choppy and disconnected and the brutality of the text made it almost unreadable.

Overall this was just too much for me. It wasn't paritcularly redemptive, it wasn't beautiful or interesting enough to make the violence worth enduring. Maybe that's the point? Sound and fury signifying nothing, etc, etc, but Tallent tries for a resolution that he doesn't quite land which muddles the whole thing.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

And he had to acknowledge that their months of desultory wandering from one Italian hill-top to another must have seemed as purposeless to her as balls and dinners would have been to him.  An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife's spirit fluttered.  Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it.

(The second in my totally coincidental "C______ __ the Country" series.)

"Poor Undine!" Ralph Marvell thinks of his wife, "She was what the gods had made her--a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure."  Formerly Undine Spragg, she appears on the New York social scene as a teenager fresh from the Midwestern town of Apex City, having cajoled her parents into relocating, desperate to climb her way into the ranks of the elite.  She marries Ralph, a socialite and poet, but soon realizes that his social status doesn't coincide with wealth, and that he's unable to keep her in the style she requires, or keep up their social calendar.

Undine's need to be in the right "set" obliterates everything else: compassion, decency, Ralph himself.  She melts down when she finds out she's pregnant, wailing the loss of "a whole year out of life!"  She abandons Ralph and her son Paul, absconding to Europe as the mistress of a richer and more well-connected man, but he abandons her.  She divorces Ralph, but later blackmails him for custody of Paul so that she might pay off the pope, have their marriage annulled, and marry a French count.  But the French count is in much the same position as Ralph, and the needs of his estate prevent exactly the same kind of social life that Undine's marries in an attempt to secure.  This section of the novel is a Jamesian comparison of American and European social mores, and Undine's French husband savages her for her crass American social-climbing:

'And you're all alike,' he exclaimed, 'every one of you.  You come among us from a country we don't know, and can't imagine, a country you care for so little that before you've been a day in ours you've forgotten the very house you were born in--if it wasn't torn down before you knew it!  You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about--you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they're dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have--and we're fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!'

Undine is a terrific character, one of Wharton's best.  But she is a difficult character to love.  Ralph isn't wrong about the narrowness of her mental life, and her expanding capacity for cruelty is buttressed by a willful blindness toward her own actions.  The dissolution of her marriage with Ralph is thanks only to "dark machinations," and she feels no need to consider the pain and labor involved in the creation of the money she consumes because it is only what she feels she deserves.  In other books, Wharton provides characters who feel trapped by the cloisters of the upper class even as they crave moneyed society, like Newland Archer and Lily Bart.  Undine doesn't have those kind of compunctions.

But consider: What kind of sympathy is owed to Ralph, the poet who is tortured because he has to go into business to support his wife's profligacy?  There are poets everywhere who do much duller work.  And isn't Undine a prime example of the way that capitalism intertwines with patriarchy, rewarding women for being beautiful, idle, and well-married?  We want Undine to be a better person, but the kind of person Undine wants to be is the kind of person newspapers tell her she ought to want to be every day.

In the end, Undine returns to her first husband: an American from Apex named Elmer Moffatt.  Their marriage is a secret to almost every one, even after he turns up in New York to use his cunning as a financier to strike it rich.  Years ago, Undine gave up Elmer because he was a no one from a nowhere place, the embodiment of the provinciality of the Midwest.  By the book's end, he's one of the wealthiest men in America.  His money intelligence does it for him, but also his utter disregard for the complex systems of politesse that govern society.  When he's amassed enough money, he floats above them.  Undine has believed that money is incidental to social standing--that's the kind of lie your Marxist friends might call a false consciousness--but the truth it, when you have enough of it, you can buy all the standing you want.  Elmer becomes a collector of the kind of European treasures that the French count Chelles hoards, and he re-collects Undine along with the Count's ancient tapestries.

Do we want Undine to win, in the end?  America certainly wins; all of Europe's history and society and manners crumble before the good old American dollar.  But Undine is only on the precipice of understanding what so many characters in American fiction have to learn: money will buy you everything you want, and in the end, you discover the things you want don't scratch whatever primal itch is there inside you.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
by Jeanne Theoharis

This fable - of an accidental midwife without a larger politics - has made Parks a household name but trapped her in the elementary school curriculum, rendering her uninteresting to many young people.  The variety of struggles that Parks took part in, the ongoing nature of the campaign against racial injustice, the connections between Norther and Southern racism that she recognized, and the variety of Northern and Southern movements in which she engaged have been given short shrift in her iconization.  Park's act was separated from a community of people who prepared the way for her action, expanded her stand into a moment and continued with her in the struggle for justice in the decades ht followed.

This is an excellent piece of scholarship and an important contribution to our understanding of history.  Theoharis has done a monumental amount of research and synthesized it carefully in the service of her central thesis:  that Rosa Parks was a committed political activist, radical in her thought and consistent in her activism; that the myth of the tired seamstress who just wanted to sit down is designed to re-imagine her in a way that is safe for America to embrace; that that re-imagining of Parks is part of a larger project designed to defang the civil rights movement - to make it seem safe by making it appear peaceful, inevitable, and - most importantly - over.

Theoharis makes clear that Parks had been  involved in radical politics since her teen years.  She was a longstanding member of the NAACP and her husband was closely associated with the Communist Party, though never himself a member.  She gives a detailed accounting of previous protests and movements Parks had been involved in - especially around the Scottsboro Boys case, during which the CPUSA was a driving force of resistance.  She also makes clear that the NAACP decision to focus attention on Parks' arrest grew out of a years long search for an appropriate, politically viable case - a search that Parks herself had been involved in.  Her portrait of Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teenager who got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus a few months before Parks' arrest is at least as compelling as the Parks story itself.

Theoharis gives a very serviceable account of the bus boycott that grows in response to Parks' arrest, though she makes clear that Parks was only peripherally involved in its leadership.  She goes on to account for Parks' continued activism in their final months in Montgomery and her many years living in Detroit.  In the end, her thesis appears not just valid, but unassailable.

In fact, if the book has a flaw it is that it is too thesis driven.  While Theoharis complains that there has been no scholarly full biography of Parks, she herself has essentially used the Parks story to make her point about the nature of the civil rights movement.  We come away with a clear understanding that Parks was not some naively gentle old lady with sore feet, but we don't get a clear picture of who she was.  Theoharis does recount other episodes of defiance Parks engaged in - refusing previous orders from bus drivers to enter through the back door or drinking from white water fountains.  She quotes Parks discussing her refusal to take part in her own humiliation.

That is a striking phrase - both in that it characterizes Jim Crow so effectively as a system requiring African Americans to participate in their own humiliation and that it offers the clearest window into the character of Rosa Parks.   I ended the book wondering what it would be like to live a life under those circumstances and refuse to take part in your own humiliation.   Unfortunately, it is not a central focus of the book.  Ultimately, Theoharis is more interested in expressing her own ideas about history than in capturing Parks' character.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider

Craft is essential; I will work all my life at my craft.  But craft is not the same thing as art.  Craft is the knowledge of how to mix blue with yellow on my palette, but art is the courage to dip the brush into the paint and lay it on the canvas in my own way.  Craft is knowing when to revise a manuscript and when to leave it alone, but art is the fire in the mind that put the story on the page in the first place.  To grow in craft is to increase the breadth of what I can do, but art is the depth, the passion, the desire, the courage to be myself and myself alone, to communicate what I and only I can communicate: that which I have experienced or imagined.

I read Pat Schneider's How the Light Gets In a few months ago.  The summer--or the beginning of it at least--is time for my writing, and I really loved Schneider's thoughtful meditations on how writing is connected to the inner spiritual life of the writer.  But fall is back, which means school is back, which means I'm returning to the more didactic Writing Alone and With Others to prepare.

Even though the book is instructional, not fictional, Schneider's style reminds me most of Marilynne Robinson.  Schneider's vision of the workshop is full of the same kind of generosity, borne out of a deep regard for the intrinsic value of people.  Schneider draws deeply on her experience leading workshops for women in housing projects in western Massachusetts, and while she insists that writing "isn't therapy," she sees it as a vital step in recognizing one's own voice.  "You are a writer," she reminds the reader.  She encourages her participants to reflect on the ways they have been writing their whole life, and on the power of their own voice.  I was touched by a story in which a black woman, highly educated, writes a poem in the vernacular of her close family, a voice truer to her childhood than the one which she has painstakingly learned, and says, "No one has ever wanted that from me before."  I have been thinking for the past few weeks about how those kind of moments can happen in the crucible of the high school classroom.

A lot of what's in Writing Alone and With Others gets developed more fully in How the Light Gets In.  There's a shorter version of the story in which her writing teacher tells her a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling of her impoverished home is "cliche," even though that's the way it really was for Schneider growing up poor in the Ozarks.  I was more affected by the personal touch of How the Light Gets In, because it gives a convincing model for how self-actualization can actually happen through writing, but the practical side of Writing Alone has already made it an invaluable tool for my classroom.  Among other things, she's convinced me not to give grades on writing assignments, and to allow students to deviate more from assignments when they feel empowered to.

Her collection of exercises is mostly pretty commonplace--write using a photograph, write to someone you haven't seen in a long time--but others are so bizarre I can't help but bookmark them for future use.  I like the one where she invites her students to imagine a person with whom they have unfinished business as an animal, and then themselves as an animal, and then they meet, as animals.  I also really liked the comment from a participant who relishes in simpler prompts, saying that they'd rather describe "God's hat" than reflect on God.  I'm excited to ask my students to describe God's hat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Coming into the Country by John McPhee

In Alaska, the conversation is Alaska.  Alaskans, by and large, seem to know little and to say less about what is going on outside.  They talk about their land, their bears, their fish, their rivers.  They talk about subsistence hunting, forbidden hunting, and living in trespass.  They have their own lexicon.  A senior citizen is a pioneer, snow is termination dust, and the N.B.A. is the National Bank of Alaska.  The names of Alaska are so beautiful they run like fountains all day in the mind.  Mulchatna.  Chilikadrotna.  Unalaska.  Unalakleet.  Kivalina.  Kiska.  Kodiak.  Allakaket.  The Aniakchak Caldera.  Nondalton.  Anaktuvuk.  Anchorage.  Alaska is a foreign country significantly populated with Americans.  Its languages extend to English.  Its nature is its own.  Nothing seems so unexpected as the boxes marked "U.S. Mail."

John McPhee's 1976 book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, is divided into three sections.  The first is about canoing the tributaries of the Kobuk River, which begins on the western coast at the city of Kotzebue.  The second is about the attempt, now aborted, to replace Juneau as the state's capital with a new city in somewhere more centrally located.  The third, title essay, and the longest, is about those who live in the bush country of the Yukon River, in old pioneer towns like Eagle and Circle, and out in subsistence-level cabins miles and miles from other human beings.  Where McPhee canoes the Kobuk is about six hundred miles from Eagle, and from Eagle to Juneau is another six hundred.  Coming into the Country is not so much about Alaska but Alaskas, the several landscapes that, when laid over the continental United States, would stretch from Florida to California.

The three essays capture a specific Alaskan moment.  It's been a state for less than two decades.  The Native Claims Act has entitled to the federal government millions of acres for the use of future national parks, none of which has been established yet.  (Two years after the book's publication, that land on the Kobuk River would become part of Kobuk Valley National Park.)  The white settlers in the title essay feel threatened by the parceling of land, and cling to the belief that by building cabins on the remote creeks that lead into the Yukon, they exert more claim to the land than the government that owns it but administers it from five thousand miles away.

McPhee sympathizes with them, and there is a kind of admirable extravagance in the settler who rails about the Fed, "They think they own this country."  In 2018, after the anti-B.L.M. terrorism of folks like Cliven Bundy, however, these views seem less charming.  But in 1976 they are emphasized by the surprising impossibility of the task of finding the perfect site for a state capital: the needs to avoid permafrost, to construct roads, to be centrally located, they eliminate so much of the state that you come away shocked by how precious land is in this wilderness.  In Eagle, a town bordered by nothing for a hundred miles in every direction, you can barely buy a plot of land.

Much has changed in Alaska since Coming into the Country was published.  McPhee's assertion that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline means that "for the first time in human history, it will be possible to drive a Winnebago--or, for that matter, a Fleetwood Cadillac--from Miami Beach to the Arctic Ocean," has proved true.  But his assertion that you would be able to drive also to Kotzebue has not.  I wonder what he would say, or Alaskans would say, about the fear that something is close to being lost with the development of Alaska:

And a very few will then jump free, going deep into the roadless world.  By the time they reach Eagle, their momentum is too great to be interrupted by an act of Congress, even if they know of it and understand what it says.  What the law now calls for is the removal of the last place in the United States where the pioneer impulse can leap from confinement.

It's a cliche, almost, to call Alaska our last frontier, but in doing so, McPhee argues that we claim something psychologically vital to our national character.  He really hates the attempt to bring to Alaska the modes and patterns of urban America, as represented by Anchorage.  He says, not quite fairly, I think: "Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders."

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I really enjoyed the ease and subtlety of McPhee's style.  He has a knack for sarcasm that's so light, you can almost miss it, and he goes out of his way to trust his reader's intelligence.  There are several moments, like this one, when he discusses a settler's pet dog Tara, who's half-wolf: "She once got out, and slit the throat of Andrea's pet dog, Lazarus.  Lazarus survived."  I love how he refuses to make the irony plain.  I can barely resist doing it now, writing this sentence.  But McPhee is so self-effacing, so eager to get out of the way that he manages to capture the size of the landscape and the peculiarity of the characters living within it with a special grace.  And when he does make himself seen, freaking out about grizzly bears, say, or meditating on the claims of the white settlers against the federal government, it comes as a small, human, surprise.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
Juliet Ashton is a writer and lover of books and stories who made a name for herself writing a column about life in London during World War II. After the war, she finds herself searching for new book ideas and stumbles upon the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club that arose out of necessity on the island of Guernsey during Nazi occupation. Her letters back and forth to its various members form the bulk of this novel, along with her correspondence with her various love interests.

There is nothing new or groundbreaking here, but it was very adorable and just what my addled brain needed. There are several love triangles, some mysteries, enough tragedy to make you feel like your reading a "serious" book (when really you aren't but that's okay too...). The strongest bonds between the characters come from their mutual love for and appreciation of literature, and while the human love stories are engaging, everyone's love affairs with their various favorite books were even more endearing.

It's now a movie on Netflix (yes, I do have it playing in the background right now) and it's absolute perfect fodder for that. Even as an epistolary novel, it's vivid and cinematic, and Juliet is funny and acerbic and makes for a very relatable female lead. 10/10 would read again while emerging from the fog of motherhood!

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Descendents of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names, you do not live in America, no such place exists. Your clay is the clay of Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes. Because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home. 

My only previous experience with Angels in America was watching some of the HBO miniseries while home on Christmas break from college. I can admit now that most of the nuance was completely lost on me, and that I didn't make it far. As an older, more careful reader (and not casual TV watcher), I still feel like some of the nuance was lost on me, but I was blown away by Kushner's poetic ease and the layers upon layers upon layers in each and every scene.

Angels in America is, on the surface, a play about the AIDS crisis. It centers around a gay couple in the late 80's, one of whom has AIDS, and it spirals out to touch on everything from the national politics of AIDS to faith, religion, race, and what it means to belong. There is a lot going on here, both thematically and physically--scenes often involve two or more geographically and even temporally separate conversations happening simultaneously and weaving in and out of one another. The many narratives of the play, some fictional, some pseudo-biblical, and some historical, are all tumbling out onto each other and lending new dimensions to one another as they go. I feel like I could read it three more times and still pick up on more subtlety.

The primary reason why I feel the need to re-read (or at least watch) this at least once more is that I really struggled with the various layers of religion/spirituality/subconscious that are woven throughout. Only one character, Harper, is portrayed as mentally ill; her (many) visions and dreams were relatively easy for me to process and fit into the context of the play, but there is an entire "angels" plot arc that seems to push in and out of reality and draws in even the most pragmatic of the characters. It's clearly a narrative arc that is central to the theme of the play, and it's interesting, but it really threw me for a loop. I like knowing what's real and what isn't, and when literature or film messes with that line, I have trouble engaging (magical realism and I are not always the best of friends). That particular issue was not a good one to have while reading this play where everything descends into a grey area of spirituality/drug and illness-enduced madness that leaves a lot up to the reader/viewer to interpret.

Despite the fact that this is a play written nearly thirty years ago about an epidemic which is largely under control (at least in the white gay community), it still feels relevant (explaining why audiences are still willing to sit through seven and a half hours of theater to watch it). The characters, even when they were hallucinating, were relatably flawed and Kushner is able to portray shades of personality impressively quickly and concisely (this is something I'm always impressed by with plays. I should read them more).