Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In the later afternoon, Saeed went to the top of the hill, and Nadia went to the top of the hill, and there they gazed out over the island, and out to sea, and he stood beside where she stood, and she stood beside where he stood, and the wind tugged and pushed at their hair, and they looked around at each other, but they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her, and they were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times.

This is the most beautiful book I've read since Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.  Hamid's writing is poetic, but deliberate and matter of fact.  Exit West tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, who fall in love in an unnamed Middle Eastern city as it descends into civil war.  Saeed and Nadia escape the violence through one of the mysterious doors that begin to appear all over the world and throw global order into chaos.  No one knows where the doors will appear or where they go, but when one steps through, they can find themselves in Mykonos one minute and the bedroom of a vacant mansion in London the next.  As a result, the refugee crises we know now are amplified by virtually unrestricted migration.  Nadia and Saeed's world becomes more and more dangerous and uncertain, but their story is told on a personal level, which both detaches the reader from the global disorder and heightens the drama, for when it is seen through the eyes of individuals who aren't omniscient, it seems more realistic. 

Exit West doesn't try to take on too much and is better for it.  Despite the violence all around, there isn't a lot of action and nearly no dialogue.  Still, Hamid's descriptions paint vivid pictures of his characters and the changes that they must confront.  In addition, through his characters he is able to consider what it means to be a migrant and what it means to be a native, and how those descriptions can shift over time.  This is really a spectacular book; one of the best I've read in a long time.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Brittany's Top 5 in 2018

I have never waited this long to write my end of the year post, and I really wish I hadn’t. I have already read 8 books this year and now 2019 and 2018 are swirling in my head. The way I feel right now in this moment about reading is clearly not how I felt for almost all of 2018. I read 22 books, which is just two more than my lowest year and a whopping 45 fewer than my highest year. I wrote 1 book review (joining the chorus of bloggers saying Sorry Chris!). In spite of my mostly lackluster year, I spent the last week of December at home with a large stack of books and fell back in love with reading.
By the Numbers
  • 22 complete books read (8 audiobooks, 9 non-fiction or memoirs, 10 young adult, 1 book of poems, 1 book of short stories, 1 re-read
  • 22 authors (the only repeat was Neal Shusterman)
  • 16 women authors, 6 men authors
  • 21 living, 1 dead (RIP Michelle McNamara)
  • 14 authors with nationalities/ethnicities besides white American: Nigerian American (Nnedi Okorafor), Senegalese African American (Issa Rae), African American (Roxane Gay, Rebecca Hankins, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colson Whitehead), Latinx (Miguel Juárez, Celia C. Pérez is Mexican Cuban American, Elizabeth Acevedo is Dominican American, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Erika L Sánchez are Mexican American), Creole and white (Nina LaCour), and British (Kate Atkinson)
    • Note: every author in Where Are All the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia is written by a person of color, but for the ease of numbers I only included the editors in my calculations for this book

Things that stand out compared to previous years: I am no longer reading for grad school which definitely changes what my reading looks like. As it has every years since I finished my MA in English literature, the percentages of women authors continues to increase (57% in 2015, 62% in 2016, 66% in 2017). In 2018 72% of the authors I read were women. This year, like last year, about two-thirds of my authors were non-white or non-American.

Top Books

1 . Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I have nothing new to say about this short non-fiction book except that it is as excellent as everyone continuously says it is. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone who is not Black in America. It was especially important for me because I do read many books by Black women, but not very many by Black men. In 2017 I didn’t read a single book by a Black man, so I definitely need to hear what Coates is saying.

2 . Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
And yet, this year I picked up my first Roxane Gay book, and I can’t believe it took me so long. I read a lot of books written by or about women, but it is still a total luxury to pick up a book of short stories and know that every single one will center a woman’s story. I liked some stories more than others, but all of them made me feel something powerful.

3. The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
This middle reader (recommended grades 3-6) is a top book for me because it does something almost no book has done: it reminds me of me. Like Malú, I have a white parent and a Mexican parent and I spent my youth listening to punk music, making zines, and getting dresscoded.

In the past few years I keep having these moments where I see a woman on the screen doing something that women never get to do (Ghostbusters, A Wrinkle In Time, Wonder Women) and think, “This is what men feel all the time.” Or I would see a person of color on the screen doing something POC never get to do (A Wrinkle In Time, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and think, “This is what white people feel all the time.” Reading this book brought me to tears because it was seeing me and my identity and my experiences on every single page. It was wonderful to read this in my 30s, but it would have been absolutely magical to read it when I was in school. Representation is so important, and I really hope the publishing pipeline starts valuing #ownvoices and #weneeddiversebooks.

4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I am almost always a fan of a novel that has interconnected stories and shifting narrators, so I was interested in this book both for both its structure and subject. Randy and I read this book together in between watching Roots (the 1977 version). The novel and the miniseries helped contextualize each other, especially because I received a standard white American education when it came to slavery (which is to say I knew almost nothing until I went to college and started taking literature classes). I appreciated that I read it with Randy - it is a hard heavy book, and I am glad I didn’t have to process it alone.

5. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
I originally read this in 2010 or 2011. I have a vivid memory of finishing the book because friends were picking me up to go see a movie, and I sat in the backseat and ignored them while I finished the last few pages and cried. I have no idea what movie we saw. When I was teaching English, if I ever had the need for a perfect opening page or a perfect paragraph or a perfect sentence, I would reach for this book:
On the counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges.
I cannot look at a block of butter without thinking of this book, and I love lemon cake. Randy took this book on our annual two-week camping/road trip, and he finished it in Congaree National Park. I immediately picked it up and didn’t put it down until I was finished, sighing in the tent and turning off my headlamp. It’s scary to reread a book you love so much, especially if your life is very different than it was when you first held it to your chest, but this book is one that always feels like home.

Honorable Mentions
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: a young adult novel told in verse by our protagonist, Xiomara Batista, a Dominican American living in Harlem. I listened to this as an audiobook, so I missed out on the pleasure of seeing the poems laid out on the page, but it is narrated by Acevedo herself which is a treat.
  • Where Are All the Librarians of Color edited by Rebecca Hankins and Miguel Juárez: this edited volume has 13 chapters written exclusively by academic librarians of color. Librarianship is 86% white, but academic librarianship (librarians who work in colleges and universities in various capacities) is even whiter. I make up part of the 3% of academic librarians who are Latinx, so this book meant a lot to me.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. The book follows eight people and families in Milwaukee, WI, one of the most segregated cities for renters in America. Six people are being evicted and two are landlords doing the evicting. I have been privileged enough to never face an eviction notice, so this book was particularly eye opening for me.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

American Indian Writings, Legends, and Other Writings by Zitkala-Sa

The melancholy of those black days has left so long a shadow that it darkens the path of years that have since gone by.  These sad memories rise above those of smoothly grinding school days.  Perhaps my Indian nature is the moaning wind which stirs them now for their present record.  But, however tempestuous this is within me, it comes out as the low voice of a curiously colored seashell, which is only for those ears that are bent with compassion to hear it.

We all saw it: the kid from a Kentucky Catholic school smirking at and staring down a Native activist of the Omaha tribe.  I won't link to it or post the picture; I'm sure you can bring it to mind.  It was one of those small moments that in and of themselves mean very little, but become targets of nationwide scrutiny because they capture so well the central conflicts of our current era.  And of course they bring out whiteness' committed defenders, armed with excuses and rationalizations: It's the Native who started it; it was the Black Israelites who started it; it's not a smirk; he's just a kid.

The he's-just-a-kid brigade especially fails to see that the kid's youth is exactly what disturbs those of us who are disturbed; what we see is the perpetuation of oppression, mockery, and racism into new generations.  That perception was subsequently confirmed by the kid's manufactured apology and his talk show tour and the predictable dissecting of every mistake Phillips ever made.  But despite the spin the image remains.  The smirk that puts a man in his place, draws him out of political invisibility only to isolate and reduce him, to turn him into a joke, something like a cigar store Indian or the crying Indian of the old "Keep America Beautiful" campaign.  The Indigenous People's March, the Native American's claim for a political and cultural voice, recedes, superseded again by the narrative that whiteness wants to tell.

Anyway that was the context in which I read this collection of the writings of Zitkala-Sa, a Sioux activist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was one of the first Native Americans to claim a cultural voice in American culture.  Zitkala-Sa was born as the United States was completing its long and bloody campaign to remove Native tribes from their land and place them on reservations; she was fourteen when hundred of men, women, and children were killed at Wounded Knee.  She grew up in the era of assimilationist boarding schools; she attended and later taught at the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  (Overlapping with football legend Pop Warner, but not Jim Thorpe, who came a little later.)  Leaving Carlisle behind, she became an activist and writer whose work appeared in The Atlantic and who later founded the National Council of American Indians.  This collection brings together several of her works: a series of traditional Dakota stories, poetry, political speeches and polemic, and pieces of memoir and fiction.

There were three sections here that I really loved.  First, the traditional Dakota stories.  They focus mostly on the figure of Iktomi, a "spider fairy" and trickster god who actually seems to spend most of his time getting tricked by other people.  Iktomi gets bested by the avenger, a brave with a magic arrow born out of a clot of buffalo blood.  Other stories tell about Iya, the camp eater, who appears as an abandoned baby, then waits until his rescuers are asleep to devour the entire village.  Native American myths like these--if I can generalize here--have an irregular, discursive quality that make them continually surprising and fresh.  And these tales are where Zitkala-Sa's skill as a writer shien most:

"To ride on one's own feet is tiresome, but to be carried like a warrior from a brave fight is great fun!" said the coyote in his heart.  He had never been borne on any one's back before and the new experience delighted him.  He lay there lazily on Iktomi's shoulders, now and then blinking blue winks.  Did you never see a birdie blink a blue wink?  This is how it first became a saying among the plains people.  When a bird stands aloof watching your strange ways, a thin bluish white tissue slips quickly over his eyes and as quickly off again; so quick that you think it was only a mysterious blue wink.  Sometimes when children grow drowsy they blink blue winks, while others who are too proud to look with friendly eyes upon people blink in this cold bird manner.

The next is a three-part memoir that details Zitkala-Sa's childhood on the plains, her departure to Carlisle on the "iron horse" (the railroad, that is), her abortive attempt at teaching and her eventual return.  The cycle of leaving and return is literal and symbolic; the stories are structured to show the progression from enthusiasm about white civilization to disillusionment and psychological return, a process sometimes derisively called going "back to the blanket."  Zitkala-Sa presents boarding school as bewildering and humiliating for the young Native: her language is disallowed, though she knows no English; her symbolic hair is cut.  "During this time," she writes, "I seemed to hang in the heart of chaos."  And yet only partial return is possible, even Zitkala-Sa's mother, skeptical from the beginning of the motives and methods of white schooling, has moved from her wigwam to a log cabin by the time that Zitkala-Sa comes back home.  The memoir illustrates how Dubois' idea of double consciousness applies to the Native American as well as to black Americans, and how strange it is to feel alienated from your ancestral home.

The final piece that stood out to me is a story called "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman."  It has something of the strange discursiveness of the Dakota myths; it doesn't quite fit traditional Western notions of story and conflict and climax.  Blue-Star Woman is a Sioux woman who has been unable to prove her membership in the Sioux tribe, and has been dispossessed from her share of tribal land.  Two schemers, both also Sioux, come to help her be added to the tribal rolls in exchange for half the land she receives.  But the tribe, who doesn't know Blue-Star Woman, feels once again dispossessed of their land.  The chief, High Flier, writes a letter, thinks better of it, burns it, and is arrested for arson--and while in prison has a dream in which an animated Statue of Liberty finally turns her lamp toward the tribal lands.  It's weird and complex: couldn't it suggest American power turning its vision toward the land it wants to take, rather than providing liberty to Native Americans (most of whom weren't even American citizens)?

The dream is emblematic of Zitkala-Sa's ambivalent attitude toward the U.S. government: even while her memoir rejects the assimilationist attitudes of the Indian schools, elsewhere in her polemical work she appeals to traditional American notions of greatness, even in ways which seem strangely nationalist to my ears.  One piece, appealing for citizenship, is called "Americanize the First American."  "It is a tragedy to the American Indian and the fair name of America," she writes, "that the good intentions of a benevolent Government are turned into channels of inefficiency and criminal neglect."  That seems like a wildly generous characterization of the government who killed Sitting Bull and perpetrated the massacre at Wounded Knee.  Is it a sign of a woman who knows her audience, or a sincere vestige of her assimilationist schooling?

Either way, while this incredibly dumb and infuriating news cycle played itself out, it felt necessary and gratifying to turn to a Native voice speaking for itself.  If Zitkala-Sa's polemical writings are spin, at least they're her spin and nobody else's. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans

The migrants were unique in a felicitous way: they were dreamers. They could imagine what they could do in an unformed America, and their dreams inspired them to take risks. They wondered what they could become, unfurled before the winds of change and challenge . . . . Ah, but the world is big, others warned them: Do you know the meaning of immensity? And they answered: We will tell you someday when we get back. The migrants felt their hearts tugging them toward an alluring America as they separated themselves from the graves of their ancestors and from a world where there were common points of reference and where people looked like them and spoke their languages. They reached for "what persisted."

Ellis Island, yes, but what of Oahu or Angel Island, the immigration stations where immigrants from Asia first entered the United States? And what of their history, a history going back to the mid-nineteenth century and accounting for roughly 7% of the current U.S. population?

Professor Takaki seeks to tell this story in his history of Asian Americans: it has the familiar elements of immigrant stories: racism, exploitation, resilience, strength. Professor Takaki describes two waves of immigration.

The first wave describes immigration from China, Japan, Korean, the Philippines, and India from the 1850s until the start of World War II. For each group, the story is similar: the poverty of their home country coupled with the promise of the United States spurred the immigrants to leave. Many found themselves working in farms in Hawaii. There, plantation owners used ethnic divisions between each group of immigrants to prevent them from organizing together and demanding better working conditions. Nonetheless, Professor Takaki explains, the groups of immigrants and the native Hawaiian population still constituted a majority of the population of Hawaii. A fact that matters because racism against immigrants in Hawaii was, compared to the mainland, tame.

The immigrants who found their way to the mainland--whether from California or directly from their home countries--encountered virulent, and often violent, racism. Asian immigrants were perceived as a threat to white manual labor. This financial anxiety helped fuel racial fears of an Asian invasion of the West Coast, leading to the series of exclusion acts that eventually prohibited immigration from each of the Asian countries.

Although I've generalized each group's story for this summary, Professor Takaki describes each separately, providing explanations for how differences in each group's immigration and culture caused differences in how they settled (mainland v. Hawaii; which groups immigrated with women v. not; why some groups created enclaves of their own economic development; etc. etc. etc.). For me one of the highlights (there were many) was answering a longstanding question I've had about film noir: What's up with all the references to Chinatown (see, e.g., here, here, and here)?  By the 1920s, Chinatowns had become a tourist destination:
Tourists were shown a fantasy land, a strange place they had read about in Bret Harte's stories and had seen in Hollywood movies about Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Guided through the narrow allies of this "wicked Orient," tourists were warned by white guides to stick together and not to stray from the group lest a hatchet man get them. The visitors peered into the dark shadows of the dimly lighted alleys "lit by flickering gas jets, which increased the sense of mystery" and saw "evil looking Chinaman, in the employ of the guides, slink back and forth, carrying knives and hatchets and providing atmosphere and local color." The tourists were told about dark, underground tunnels filled with opium dens, gambling joints, and brothels where slave girls were imprisoned. They were even taken to fake opium dens, led down ladders to a strange subterranean world where smokers were "sunk" in the bestial lethargy or the ecstatic dreams inspired by the drug." They were also shown "false lepers," and as they toured the markets of Chinatown, they were told that certain cuts of meat in the Chinese butcher shops were "carcasses of rats."
This all a show, of course, and much objected to by the Chinese community that was powerless to stop what the tourist industry was forcing upon them.

World War II was a watershed for Asian immigration. For all but Japanese immigrants, World War II motivated many Asians in the United States to start thinking of themselves as American. The war also caused the United States to rethink its immigration policies: Japanese propaganda criticized the exclusion acts and acts of racism against Asian immigrants; U.S. policy makers realized the criticisms were a little too accurate, and so repealed most the exclusion acts. For the Japanese population in the United States, World War II was more complicated. Internment was unjust, but how to overcome? Some reacted by trying to fight the internment (a la Korematsu), while others reacted by trying to prove their patriotism.

Following World War II, and the United States's self-perception as a world leader of democracy, civil rights and treatment of Asian Americans improved, leading to a second wave of immigration of Asian Americans. This second wave, Professor Takaki notes, differed from the first wave of immigration. Where the first wave of immigrants were mostly laborers in their home country, the second wave included large numbers of professionals. This second wave also included large numbers of Vietnamese refugees fleeing fall out from the end of the U.S. presence in Vietnam.

Professor Takaki covers much more in his 500+ page book (e.g., what's up with the model minority myth; why is affirmative action a difficult issue for Asian Americans). But, this review is already too long.

In his introduction, Professor Takaki explores how must students learn about East Coast immigration, but West Coast immigration is usually unmentioned. This was the case for me. Although, if asked, I would have said, "Yes, obviously Asian immigration is part of the American story," I never thought about it or the stories behind it. This book fills this gap in an important way. I would not say that everyone needs to read it, but at least parts of this history should be included in how U.S. history is taught. Not only is this book important for its substance, it's also beautifully written. Professor Takaki fills it with poems and excerpts of letters written by Asian Americans; he also includes personal notes about himself or his family. The fact that this is so well written is part of why Orientalism, which I started long before starting Strangers, is sitting untouched on my nightstand while this book is now finished.

One final point, by way of conclusion: I started reading this book about four months ago. The debate over the border wall was not in its current high fever state. But, as I was wrapping up this book, it struck me how little progress we have made. The fears of yesteryear are the fears of today: they'll take our jobs; they'll bring crime; they will ruin us. These fears were groundless then, and with hindsight easy to dismiss as ignorant.

But, alas, history repeats.

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

He had used his power in the most extraordinary way.  Used it by not using it, as it were; allowed others to decide exactly as they liked; refrained from interfering and yet had got his own way all the same: to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

They spoke of his having died for them.  That might be.  But he really had died for Barabbas, no one could deny it!  In actual fact, he was closer to him than they were, closer than anyone else, was bound up with him in quite another way.  Although they didn't want to have anything to do with him.  He was chosen, one might say, chosen to escape suffering, to be let off.  He was the real chosen one, acquitted instead of the son of God himself--at his command, because he wished it.  Though they suspected nothing.

In the Gospels, Barabbas is a "notorious prisoner" held by Pilate at the same time as Jesus.  Pilate asks the crowd which of the two they would like to see released as part of a Passover rite of pardon, and they choose Barabbas.  Par Lagerkvist's novel Barabbas imagines the life of Barabbas after his pardon, traveling up to Golgotha to see the man who is crucified in his stead, hanging around the empty tomb.  Barabbas is haunted by Jesus, a man he's never met, but who literalizes one of the core facets of Christianity by dying in his stead.

At first, Barabbas has a kind of didactic fable-like quality to it.  The contours of the novel seem pretty apparent: Barabbas, obsessed with this man who is linked to him by sacrifice, learns to become a Christian.  Lingering around the nascent Christian community of Jerusalem, he's told that their only ideology is "Love one another," and as hard as it is for the criminal and murderer to understand, it seems to us both simplistic and doctrinaire.  But the early Christians are not great at living this creed; they are suspicious of Barabbas, both for his connection to Jesus and his aloofness.  Is Barabbas lovable, even by the Son of Man?  It seems almost impossible, but such is the mystery of the crucifixion.

The book is best when it leaves Jerusalem, and the immediate context of Jesus' death, behind.  It flash forwards several decades: Barabbas, having returned to a life of crime, has been captured and enslaved in the copper mines of the East.  He's chained to a fellow criminal named Sahak, a Christian who has Jesus' name scrawled in Greek on the back of the golden medallion that identifies him as a slave.  One of the best things about Barabbas is its insistence that Christianity is essentially a slave religion, one that upturns traditional notions of power.  "I too have long been thinking of believing in this god," says their Roman overseer when he catches them talking about Jesus, "But how can I?  How can I believe anything so strange?  And I who am an overseer of slaves, how can I worship a crucified slave?"  We, for whom Christianity has been wedded to power for decades, if not centuries, forget that it is a slave religion at heart: disdainful of worldly power, predicated on its abnegation.  Jesus paradoxically uses his power "by not using it," as Barabbas notes.

When Sahak explains that the mark on his medallion professes Jesus as his true master, Barabbas has a realization: "Now Barabbas knew that he too was a Christian and that he was God's own slave."  But it's not the pat transformation the beginning of the book made me expect.  Sahak becomes God's slave of his own free will; Barabbas feels like Jesus' crucifixion in his stead has given him an involuntary claim over him.  When the Roman asks if, like Sahak, Barabbas is a Christian, he says no, and he doesn't lie.  He is not a believer, he doesn't want to "love one another"; his relationship to God is exactly as voluntary as his relationship to his slavers.  Barabbas lingers outside Christianity, drawn to it because of his pardon but never embracing it.  He is aloof from everything.  Can Jesus redeem such a man, Lagerkvist asks?  And if not, how do we make sense of the fact that Barabbas is the first man for whom Jesus sacrificed himself?  Is the Barabbas who claims not to be a Christian really the first one?

The novel ends with Barabbas being crucified for another crime.  Does this nullify his pardon?  Does it suggest that Barabbas, unwilling to accept his reprieve, has God's favor withdrawn from him?  At the last he speaks not to God, but to "the darkness" of death, saying, "To thee I deliver up my soul."  "Very negative ending," the former owner of my copy wrote in a very polite script.  But I'm not so sure.  Barabbas reminds me of nothing more than the whiskey priests and lapsed Catholics of Graham Greene, who somehow always find themselves loved and absolved despite their intransigence and apostasy.  Barabbas represents something of that central mystery.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Florida by Lauren Groff

Still, what would bright-eyed Puc-Puggy have seen of Florida before the automobile, before the airplane, before the planned communities, before the swarms of Mouseketeers?

A damp, dense tangle.

An Eden of dangerous things.

Lauren Groff's Florida isn't the Florida of Disneyworld or Sea World or strip malls or even South Beach: it's a kind of primeval jungle that lurks at the edge of civilization and threatens constantly to overtake it.  It's the snake- and reptile-collecting hobby of the brutish father in the story "At the Earth's Round Imagined Corners."  In these stories dogs are always wandering and off and going wild, as the title of "Dogs Go Wolf" implies, and children too, when they're abandoned on an island in the keys.  A panther prowls through the cover and past the cabin of "The Midnight Zone."  And eventually, the stories abandon Florida, stretching out to Brazil and France (twice), though even the main character of "Yport" admits that "[o]f all teh places in the world, she belongs in Florida.  How dispiriting, to learn this of herself."  She needn't feel embarrassed; it's the old and crumbling civilization of the Normandy coast that doesn't quite measure up to the allure of Floridian wildness.

The protagonists of Groff's stories tend to be disaffected women.  Some are mothers, one is a caretaker for her own mother, but they run the gamut from mildly to deeply unhappy.  The narrator of "Ghosts and Empties" gives an account of the landscape she jogs through because she can't bear to consider the unhappiness of her own marriage.  They imagine intimate relationships instead with historical men: In "Flower Hunters," it's early Florida explorer William Bartram; in "Yport," it's Guy de Maupassant.

Their disaffected nature leads to a kind of paralysis that gets unfortunately reproduced in the narrative.  "Ghosts and Empties" is the worst offender, a slice of Floridian atmosphere that goes around and around like the jogger-narrator, and I thought it was an unfortunate opener for the collection.  But you see it also in "Above and Below," in which the narrator whose acedia is so strong she drops purposefully out of polite society and into homelessness, and "Salvador," which begins with an interesting premise--a woman visiting Brazil by herself is caught in a vicious rainstorm, where she is saved by a local who may or may not have sexual designs on her--but descends into a wan fever dream.  Better is "For the God of Love, for the Love of God," which, while a little bit overstuffed, manages to tell a tight little story about adultery and alienation among four friends in a chalet outside of Paris.

There are some inspired moments here.  I liked especially the moment in "The Midnight Zone" in which the mother-figure, having received a dangerous blow to the head without a way to get to a hospital, imagines herself projected into the panther slinking outside.  My favorite is probably "Snake Stories," a bloodred little story that uses the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and its Floridian descendants, as a metaphor for rape.  But most of the stories left me wanting more: a little more danger rather and less threat of danger, a few more snakes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

I myself am an ex-poet.  My friends the poets like me better now that I no longer write poetry.  It always got in the way of our friendships, my being a poet, and writing poems.  The one thing that can get a poet irritated and upset is the thought of another poet's poems.  Now that I do not write poetry, I am better able to watch the spontaneous combustion of poets at a distance.  The poets even invite our contemplation of their stormy lives, and perhaps this accounts for their recent production of memoirs.  If you didn't read about this stuff in a book, you wouldn't believe it.

"There are a number of wild claims here," Charles Baxter says in the introduction to his collection of essays, Burning Down the House, "an occasional manic swing toward the large statements."  They are "meant to be playful rather than ponderous," but they are meant to perform the title action of dismantling the understanding we have of literature, the kind that is so ubiquitous that we barely notice it.  You can see that kind of fence-swinging in his statement on poets, whose lives are rarely the kind you would "wish upon your children."  That seems a little more Ezra Pound than Mary Oliver to me, but it serves as a preface to a thoughtful essay that examines the way that narrative fiction, like poetry, has its own kind of rhyming, and like poetry it suffers if the rhyming is too clunky or exact.

I don't know if Baxter succeeds in burning down anything, but I did come away from these essays feeling like I had noticed things about modern literature that were beyond my sight.  "Against Epiphanies," for example, shows just how reliant we have become on sudden realizations, though they are only rarely to be found in life as it's really lived.  When we begin to expect epiphanies from our fiction we create false expectations and a kind of staleness: "The old insight train just comes chugging into the station, time after time."

Several essays deal with the ways in which our narratives have become deprived of meaningful action, especially wrong or villainous action.  In one, he connects this symptom to the passive Nixonese that is still the lingua franca of the political class: "Mistakes were made."  "In an atmosphere of constant moral judgment," he writes, "characters are not often permitted to make interesting and intelligent mistakes and then to acknowledge them."  Instead, we write fiction as therapy, in which characters unearth traumas that explain their actions but rob them of agency.  "The injury is the meaning" in these agentless narratives, "although it is, itself, opaque."  A Thousand Little Acres receives special opprobrium.  In another essay, he links our distaste for melodrama--defined as something like the work of evil for its own sake against innocence--to the cultural disappearance of the devil:

Satan as a figure is dead, but evil continues, without, however, someone to answer for it.  Evil is more evil than ever, even when we have no name for it and no Satanic figure to blame for it.  We still have melodrama, however: the honorable narrative house of horror and the unforgivable.

I got this book because it was on a list, somewhere, of great books about writing.  It is a great book about fiction, but I'm not sure it's a great book about writing.  Really interesting writing books are often full, I have found, of useless advice.  Not necessarily wrong, but not useful, at least not for my purposes:

As an undergraduate I was taught that when a writer starts a story, s/he must begin with a character, an active, preferably vivid, ideally sympathetic, character.  It takes a bit of time to see that stories don't in fact begin with characters, not from here, at least, not from behind this keyboard.  They begin with words, one word after another.

Although I would never tell a student to make a character sympathetic (much better to make them a nasty little shit), I do tell them to begin with character.  And it's not because that's what good fiction always does--though I don't think it's true in any meaningful sense that it begins with words, one word after another, either--but because it disorients students from the way they see writing as about plot and action.  Baxter wants to return action, and moral agency, to the center of fiction, but students have trouble when it comes to retrofitting characters to the kinds of stories they want to tell.  If they want to write a story about an alcoholic dad (and they do), they will fit the character into that box, but if you have them think about what kind of person the dad is and what he wants and how that manifests in action, the story begins to look more like life.  And in fact, I think teenagers are especially susceptible to the kind of void in agency that he critiques, partially because they have yet to develop a critical eye toward the kind of narratives they consume, and partially because their own lives are pretty free of meaningful agency.

Anyway.  The essays here are thoughtful and clever, wry and colloquial in style, and filled with illustrations from Flannery O'Connor and Marilynne Robinson and Donald Barthelme and Sylvia Townsend Warner in a way that seems mostly borne out of love.  (Not poor old Jane Smiley, though.)  It gave me a lot to think about in my own writing, even if it didn't make me want to burn down the whole house.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism:  Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis.

The former slaves economic status had not undergone a radical transformation - they were not less impoverished than they had been during slavery.  It was the status of their personal relationships  that was revolutionized.... Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed.  Sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation.

I noticed a pile of these books at The Strand while Christmas shopping and thought it was kind of published with me in mind - a prominent 60's radical writing literary criticism about blues music?  What's not to love?

And I did enjoy this very much, though it is thinner than it appears.  Literally, it is a 200 page essay with another 220 pages of lyrics, endnotes and sources, so you appear to be reading a tome when the whole thing is very brief.  It is solidly argued, but some of it is a testament to the academic practice of taking common knowledge and re-stating it in intellectually precise terms.  Take the final sentence quoted above - "Sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation."  No one who is even briefly familiar with the blues will be surprised to think of sexuality as an important area of freedom within that art form (Think Muddy Waters, "Mannish Boy" or Duke Ellington's "Rocks in My Bed" or, more to the point, Bessie Smith singing "Gimme a Pigfoot" or "Nobody's Business if I Do."  However, it is worth the effort to read a really smart person think this through.

Davis's argument about the last song I just mentioned "Nobody's Business If I Do," is that Smith and Rainey and Holiday use the song to proclaim the importance of their freedom, their agency to engage in whatever relationships they want, whether they meet conventional social standards or not.  She finds an unusual strength in Rainey and Smith's laments about abusive, disappearing lovers in that she sees these women owning their own pain and proudly surviving it.  The pains of love are real, but they are not the pains imposed by white men, they are pains of free life and these women can handle that freedom.

Davis does an admirable job of discussing how Rainey and Smith, Smith in particular, opened up a space for African Americans to think about love and autonomy, abusive relationships and homosexuality in a popular forum.  Davis is unshakeable in her belief that these gutsy, raw performers were artists of the highest order and that their influence on American culture has gone under appreciated.  The history of black musicians being urged to take up more European, symphonic styles is harshly critiqued here.

Her inclusion of Billie Holiday in the title is somewhat misleading.  There are two essays that touch upon Holiday, whose output was more American Songbook than classic blues.  In the first, Davis argues that Holiday's artistry lay in taking mediocre material and making it art.  A fine point, but it amounts to fandom more than analysis.  She closes with a very solid article on "Strange Fruit" arguing for its place in the center of American protest songs.  It is a good essay, but not a hard point to make.

On the whole, this is a great book for the streaming age - spend a day reading about and listening to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, with occasional excursions into Alberta Hunter and Sippie Wallace.  Not a bad way to pass the time.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

All through my life I never did believe in human measurement.  Numbers, time, inches, feet.  All are just ploys for cutting nature down to size.  I know the grand scheme of the world is beyond our brains to fathom, so I don't try, just let it in.  I don't believe in numbering God's creatures.  I never let the United States census in my door, even though they say it's good for Indians.  Well, quote me.  I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of.

One of my favorite stories to teach is Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible."  It's about Lyman Lamartine, a Chippewa in North Dakota, and his brother Henry who goes to the Vietnam War.  Before the war, Lyman and Henry co-own a beautiful red convertible that they take on a road trip to Alaska.  After the war, Henry is different, violent, darkened.  Lyman tries to bring Henry back to life by banging up the convertible, pretending he's neglected it, and letting Henry fix it.  For a while, it works.  But then Henry admits that he knew all along it was a ruse, and like all ruses it falls apart once named, and the car follows Henry into the river after he drowns.

It's a beautiful story and good for students.  It has a strong voice and a clear central image worth unpacking.  It has a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I like to use it to talk about narrative economy: no sooner does the hitchhiker they pick up tell Lyman and Henry she's from Chicken, Alaska, than they're up there: "We got up there and never wanted to leave."  2,500 miles compressed into three words--here's an author who knows what matters.  The story is as efficient as the convertible itself, and as familiar to me as the car is to Lyman.

I enjoyed seeing it with new eyes, then, in the context of Erdrich's debut collection, Love Medicine.  The back of the book calls it a novel, and you could make that argument, since the handful of stories here end up dwelling on a few events from different angles.  But maybe because I knew "The Red Convertible" first, I was unable to see it as anything but a collection of loosely connected stories.  It begins with "The World's Greatest Fisherman," in which June Morrissey--Lyman's cousin, if I'm reading the Byzantine family tree correctly--dies in a snowbank.  June's death brings together her large extended family, the Kashpaws and Lamartines all recognizable from Erdrich's other novels.  I found the cast of characters as difficult to keep straight here as in all those sequels--is Gerry the charismatic criminal who keeps escaping from the pen, or is that Gordie?--but I'm amazed how completely developed the whole set was from the very beginning.

If there's something like a central narrative to these stories, it's the love triangle between Nector Kashpaw, his wife Marie, nee Lazarre, and Lulu Lamartine.  As a teen, Nector is in love with Lulu, but a chance encounter with Marie, a white girl and ward of the local nunnery, hooks him for life.  Yet he returns to Lulu, even as an old man, and at one point sets her house on fire by accidentally dropping a cigarette ash into a love letter he's brought around.  It's the fire, not the snowbank, that the book really revolves around: we get to see it from the perspective of each of the three characters.  The title story, narrated by Lipsha Morrissey, the lucky and magical narrator of The Bingo Palace, is a masterpiece of high farce in which Lipsha's attempts to return the attentions of Nector, his now senile grandfather, to Marie from Lulu.  (Nector ends up choking to death on the turkey heart meant to snare him--I guess you'll have to trust me that that's funny.)  I liked Lipsha's canny observation about love among the elderly:

I saw that tears were in her eyes.  And that's when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him.  And it gave me a real shock to the system.  You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good.  I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it.  I thought it curled up and died, I guess.  Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.

I really like Lipsha's voice--casual, a little undereducated, but humble and wise.  It's part of what makes The Bingo Palace my favorite of the Erdrich novels I've read.  And it really sells "Love Medicine," as well as the final story, in which Lipsha is a third party to a tense standoff between his half-brother King and Gerry the escaped criminal (not Gordie) who is angry at King for snitching on him--and by the way is Lipsha's real father.  (See what I mean about the family tree?)  The image of the car comes back, this time a sportscar purchased with June's life insurance.  Lipsha wins the car in a card game, and drives Gerry to safety across the border, in a car suffused with the spirit of June, his mother.  It all feels a little bit like one of those vaudeville routines where ten minutes of setup is required for the punchline, but it's so elegant and effective you can't help but marvel at it.  And it works because Erdrich isn't hasty to get there; each story has its own cohesion and independence, but they build on each other in effect--would that final story be as effective if we hadn't the lovely character sketch of the three-hundred pound Gerry, who can disappear like a ghost when the cops come around, in the story "Scales?"

In the end the book's friability, the ease with which it can be separated into parts, ends up making it seem a little less than a novel.  The multiplicity of perspectives in Tracks and The Bingo Palace seems a little bit more to a purpose.  But perhaps it's more accurate to think of those novels as all part of a greater piece, like the stories here are also.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Billy's top 5 of 2018

What my 2018 year in books lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality.  At first I thought of only doing a top 3 so as not to include nearly a third of the books I read in my year end list, but there were just too many good ones to leave out.

5. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Sometimes you just need a big old novel that you just fly through.  I still read a lot these days, but it's mostly news (and twitter).  As a result, I'm reluctant to delve into anything longer than 500 pages because I worry I'll get sidetracked and never finish.  I took The Nix to the beach, though, and devoured it in about three days.  The story of a writer/professor trying to exorcise the ghost of his mother's abandonment of him when he was a child, The Nix sometimes goes a little off course, but the writing is so transporting that you forgive him.  For example, the paragraphs about the protagonist's gamer friend spending hours trying to level up his secondary characters in an online role playing game weren't really necessary, but the character was so well developed that I didn't mind.

4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
There's nothing else that I can really add about The Hate U Give that someone else (probably on this blog) hasn't said before, but I'll just say that just because a book is about young people shouldn't make it YA (and there shouldn't be as much stigma attached), and that when I read the list of people who had been killed by police at the end of the book, I sobbed.

3. Evicted by Matthew Desmond
I used to think that education was the number one most important social issue facing the country, but after reading Evicted, I'm convinced that housing is.  Desmond tells the stories of landlords and tenants and exposes the realities of housing insecurity in America.  It's clear that without a stable, dependable, habitable place to live, it's almost impossible to achieve anything.  How can you get a job if you don't have an address?  How can you get an education if you're sleeping in the third dilapidated shack you've been in that year?  How can you have a healthy diet if your refrigerator is broken and your landlord won't fix it because you're behind on your rent?  How can you pay your rent if you're sick and can't keep a job?  There are villains, but mostly everyone is just trying to struggle by, and it's tragic.  Just give everyone somewhere to live and so many other social ills will disappear.

2. Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass Sunstein
Hopefully this will be even more relevant in 2019!

1. Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride
Speaking of books that made me openly cry (including three days in a row in the cafeteria at work).  Sarah McBride is an activist who came out as trans in her senior year at American University (as she was finishing her terms as student body president).  Since then she has fought for trans rights, spoken at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (the first openly trans person to do so), and endured the death of her husband.  She's younger than me, but already has lived enough life to have a memoir, and it is as inspiring at parts as it is heartbreaking at others.  She is a great writer and I expect wonderful things from her in the future.  Highly recommend.

John's Best of 2018

Sing Unburied Sing. Jesmyn Ward
Lincoln in the Bardo. George Saunders
The Beautiful Struggle. Ta-nehisi Coates
Revolutionary Song. Russell Shorto
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Kevin Wilson
The Vegetarian. Han Kang
Lonely Avenue. Alex Halberstadt
Gay New York.  George Chauncey
My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Otessa Moshfegh
Brown. Kevin Young

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Thank you, dear Commandant, for the notes that you and the commissar have given me on my confession.  You have asked me what I mean when I say "we" or "us," as in those moments when I identify with the southern soldiers and evacuees on whom I was sent to spy.  Should I not refer to those people, my enemies, as "them"?  I confess that after having spent almost my whole life in their company I cannot help but sympathize with them, as I do with many others.  My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard, which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy.  Many bastards behave like bastards, and I credit my gentle mother with teaching me the idea that blurring the lines between us and them can be a worthy behavior.  After all, if she had not blurred the lines between maid and priest, or allowed them to be blurred, I would not exist.

I wanted to read Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer as a complement to Tree of SmokeDenis Johnson's novel is about the bewildered American in Vietnam, and Nguyen's is about the bewildered Vietnamese in America: specifically, an unnamed narrator working for an exiled South Vietnamese general in Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon.  The narrator has a secret, though: he's really a committed communist, sending reports back to his North Vietnamese handlers.  His unique position allows him to sympathize with both sides of the conflict, his northern colleagues and his southern friends.  The dominant imagery in the novel all points to a split identity: Northern vs. Southern Vietnam, the East and the West, his French father and his Vietnamese mother.

Like Tree of Smoke, The Sympathizer makes explicit references to Graham Greene.  The highly educated narrator, we learn, wrote his masters' thesis on the novelist's depiction of Vietnam; he's an expert in the way that the Western eye looks at his home country.  It mimics Greene in its reliance on intrigue and spy stuff, as well as its interest in the psyche of a double agent.  Its moral questions are very Greene-like: How can the murder of a communist by a communist be considered the right thing?  If it helps the narrator keep his cover, is that enough?

But The Sympathizer is at its best when it's in high satire mode, like when the narrator reminisces about how he learned to masturbate with his mother's fresh squid as a child, or when a pompous Orientalist professor encourages him to write down and compare his "Oriental" and "Occidental" qualities.  (There's a lot of satisfying tension in the way Nguyen mocks the reductive nature of binaries, while acknowledging that they have a real impact on the narrator's psyche.)  A big chunk of the book is taken up the narrator's experience advising a movie production about the Vietnam War in the Philippines that is a clear analogue of Apocalypse Now.  He wants to chip away at such propaganda from the inside, making a space for Vietnamese actors and tinkering with the script.  He advises the director, called only the Auteur, that Vietnamese people don't go AIIIEEEE!!! when they scream, but AIEY-AAHHH!!!  His efforts amount to very little; the Vietnamese Potemkin village mocks the absence of his home, and he ends up, in characteristic fashion, becoming part of the very machine he wants to work against.

It's not The Sympathizer's fault, but I found myself missing Johnson's anarchic prose style.  The language in The Sympathizer is very staid and prim.  It's a way for the narrator to exert control over the warring factions of his mind, and to assert an essential dignity in the face of Americans who would reduce him to ethnic stereotypes.  Sometimes it works toward satirical ends, as when he tells us, "Perhaps I went too far when I invited him to perform fellatio on me," or when he calls sex the "oldest dialectic," but at other times it feels stilted or forced.

Ultimately, The Sympathizer is a book I respected more than enjoyed.  I liked it most when it was at its silliest, and less when it was in its more serious mode.  I thought that the end, which details the narrator's capture and torture by his own northern colleagues and is clearly inspired by the end of 1984, to be unfortunately muddled when the narrative needed clarity most.  But the larger tragedy of the book is inescapable: the narrator has been exactly what his colleagues wanted, a convincing spy, but his strength becomes his weakness.  His sympathy must be cleansed out of him; there is no room in the world for someone who can see both sides.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

I hated this book, partly because it took me about two third of the way in to realize I hated it, and by then I had passed the point of no return.  I'm not the kind of person who HAS to finish a book once started, but at that point I had gotten so far into it that I felt compelled to hate read it to the end.

The Book of Speculation tells the twin tales of Simon, an unemployed librarian who is randomly gifted a book that contains the business journal of a travelling circus from the late 1700s, and the people who make up that circus, some of whom have a mysterious connection to Simon and his family.  It also turns out that they're all cursed, which Simon must defeat before it's too late.

The problem is that most of the drama in the book feels unearned.  No spoilers, but every time something tragic befalls the characters, it's hard not to wonder why they didn't take a totally obvious and easy different course of action.  In order for any of the second half of the book to make sense, we also have to believe in curses.  Not mystical curses, this isn't a fantasy or anything, but more like bad vibes.  Deus ex tarot deck, basically.  As a side note, the relationships are shallow.  Why does Alice put up with any of Simon's nonsense?  What is the point of Doyle other than to tell Simon and Enola that they're worried about each other?  Why is Churchwarry so blase about the revelations at the end of the book?  It doesn't make any sense.  Don't read this book.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Folktales of Okinawa

When Agaripatoruma opened his eyes, he found himself inside his castle. The woman on the horse was now a dead mosquito, He carefully put the mosquito in his hand and went to the room where his wife's body lay. He placed the mosquito under her nose and soon her cheeks were pink and she began to breathe like she was sleeping. He waited and finally Fumukaji opened here eyes and looked upon him.

About four years ago I became motivated to read more about Okinawa. I bought a collection of modern fiction, a history of written in English, and this collection of folktales. I finished the fiction three years ago. I never finished the history, and I mostly ignore it on my nightstand. The folktales, however, I've been picking up on and off whenever the mood strikes me. A couple days ago, I finially finished them off.

The collection is remarkable. Professor Shoji Endo, of the Okinawa International University, moved to Okinawa in the early 1970s and began conducting a field survey of these stories. At the time that the book was published in 1995, he had 55,000 collected. (This collection includes a mere twenty-eight.).

And then, apparently, the Bank of the Ryukyus International Foundation thought it'd be a good idea to publish the book, with alternating English and Japanese translations. I remembered seeing this book because my mother borrowed a copy from her friend and showed it to me when I was home from college, maybe fifteen years ago. I always wanted to read it, so I found a used copy online.

I'm glad I did. I'm not going to say the folktales here are better or worse than other folktales; I don't feel comfortable having an opinion in that regard. They were, however, fun to read. The greedy characters always got their comeuppance; the good characters always suffered some tragedy, but were ultimately rewarded for their steadfast reliance on whichever virtue the folktale happened to be extolling.

As an example, in Agaripatoruma and Fumukaji, excerpted above: Agaripatoruma and Fumukaji are happily married, but Agaripatoruma must go off to war; to comfort his worried wife, he leaves a dish of water, instructing her that as long as the water remains clear, he is safe and healthy. But then he gets injured and the water turns red; Fumukaji, fearing the worst and knowing that she can't live on without him, commits suicide.

This leads Agaripatoruma on a quest to bring his wife back from the dead. After consulting a shrine maiden, licking pus from a leper (this sounds gross, but it was cool, trust me), riding between two bulls, kidnapping a woman from the godly realm, transforming the kidnappee into a mosquito, and then, finally, using that mosquito to resuscitate his wife.

A fun read, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a low-key way to learn about Okinawan culture.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Not All Dead White Men by Donna Zuckerberg

The men of the Red Pill use and abuse classical antiquity in a variety of ways.  They have found ample material from ancient Greece and Rome to support their ideology, from Stoic self-help manuals to Ovidian seduction advice to ancient models of patriarchal marriage.  Although their analyses of ancient sources rarely display much understanding of context and nuance, Red Pill writers nevertheless are adept at manipulating ancient sources to make them speak meaningfully to contemporary concerns.  They have appropriate the tests and history of ancient Greece and Rome to bolster their most abhorrent ideas: that all women are deceitful and degenerate; that white men are by nature more rational than (and therefore superior to) everyone else; that women's sexual boundaries exist to be manipulated and crossed; and finally, that society as a whole would benefit if men were given the responsibility for making all decisions for women, particularly over their sexual and reproductive choices.

Why are right-wing nutjobs obsessed with the classical world?  In the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot explains that Greek and Roman statuary were painted, not white, but that the myth of their whiteness is seized on by the extreme right so they might project their ideas of race and racial threat onto them.  What Talbot does (it's a fascinating article, go read it) for race, Donna Zuckerberg does for gender in her book Not All Dead White Men: she traces the way that the alt-right (what she calls the "Red Pill community") uses ancient literature to support their ideas about gender politics.

The book comprises three brief essays.  The first describes how men use the philosophy of Stoicism to bolster claims of male intellectual superiority.  While Zuckerberg claims not to be interested in "debunking" the right's readings of classical literature, she does suggest that they misread, or at least selectively read, Stoic philosophers, ignoring their assertion that women are as capable of virtue as men.  She even suggests that Stoicism, used correctly, could be a valuable philosophical outlook for men who feel dispossessed and estranged.  But in practice, she explains, Stoicism is a way for the right to indulge in anger-based rhetoric while denying that they are angry, claim emotionlessness while projecting heated emotions onto their opponents.

The second essay is about the pick-up community.  (Does anyone remember when Mystery, one of the original pick-up artists, had his own reality show where he taught men how to pick up women?  That certainly seems misbegotten now.)  For pick-up artists, the classic text is Ovid's Ars Amatoria, a mock didactic poem about how to seduce women.  Zuckerberg concedes that Ovid's notion of women's sexual boundaries is pretty permeable, and often Ovid advocates what we would consider rape, even if it's tongue-in-cheek.  But whether pick-up artists read Ovid rightly or wrongly, their use of Ovid is meant to suggest a continuity between the past and the present that validates their own ideas and actions: because Ovid sees women as little more than machines of conditioning, universally receptive to the right stimuli, pick-up artists can claim that all women are "that way" and have always been, to the chagrin of modern feminism.

Zuckerberg emphasizes this point in the final essay, in which she reads modern rape culture through the lens of the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra.  Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of rape when she spurns his advances, leading to disaster for them both.  While Zuckerberg doesn't find this myth discussed much by Red Pillers, she claims that it illustrates the kind of world in which they want to live: one in which women's sexual boundaries are controlled and mediated by fathers and husbands, like Phaedra's are by Theseus.  Again, the rhetorical claim is one of continuity: Red Pill activists want to return to a system of male coverture like the Roman paterfamilias or Greek kyrios, because its ancientness gives it, and them, legitimacy.  Red Pillers want to position themselves as the inheritors of an old tradition from which modern mores have deviated, rather than the reactionaries they are.

Reading this book meant wading through a lot of really disgusting horseshit.  I imagine it was tough for Zuckerberg, having to read through all the "rape is good" blogs and the "women aren't intelligent enough to make decisions" blogs and distill all of that.  It makes you long for the pre-Elliot Rodger, pre-incel, pre-2016 feeling that all of these folks were fringe crazies with no real purchase in the world.  Zuckerberg's style is pretty academic and dry, and I wish there were a little more righteous fire in it, as there is in the conclusion when she talks about the way that her work in this area has made her the target of sexualized and anti-Semitic threats.  She also spares a last minute zing toward reformers on the left who want to reject and replace classical literature in the university canon for their tacit agreement with Red Pill folks who think that Ovid and Marcus Aurelius and Euripides belong to them.  That'd be a book I'd like to read, the one that shows, in love and detail, how that cultural inheritance is for everybody, not just the fedora-topped rape apologists of the modern internet.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Chloe's Top 6.4 of 2018

Welp. As stated earlier, this was not my most successful year of reading; I had a kid, got a new job, started biking to work (and lost my subway commute/primary reading time), and generally destroyed any spare time/brain hormones/energy I had left. I made it to 32 right at the buzzer, and, despite that being the fewest books I've read in years (and probably one of my least intellectual line-ups), I'm pretty impressed that I made it that far. I'm hoping 2019 leaves me with a little more time (haha) or at least a little more ability to read in bed for more than a page at a time, but I'm not hugely optimistic. I may just pad my stats with kid books and start flooding this blog à la Chris with reviews of Sandra Boynton masterpieces. I definitely read more than 75 Sandra Boynton books this year. Watch out, buddy. I'm coming for you.

As is the fashion these days, I tried to read more women writers (I briefly tried for exclusively women, but I succeeded in well over half) and more writers of color (I did less well on that), and also tried to borrow as many as possible from the library (which somewhat dictated what I read when, but was also a surprisingly pleasant experience). I will say that, despite how much more difficult it was to find time to write these reviews, I appreciate them even more than I used to because I genuinely don't think I would have remembered reading any of this if I hadn't taken the time to jot down my ramblings. (Although I accidentally also reviewed the same book twice, so who knows how much I actually remember of anything at this point...)

Top 10/32 is hardly an endorsement, so I give you my top 6.4 in chronological order:

1. The Power by Naomi Alderman-This has stuck with me all year and floats back through my mind constantly. It was haunting and creepy and totally badass.
2. The Idiot by Elif Batuman-I love everything Elif Batuman does, and am glad I got this one in before the baby came and destroyed my brain and ability to process literature.
3. The Gardner and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik-I've been enjoying Gopnik's takes on parenting and child development as Nathan gets bigger and seems more and more susceptible to being totally destroyed by my poor parenting choices. I may read this again next year just to remind myself that Science says I'm doing okay.
4. Angels in America by Tony Kushner-This made me want to read more plays (which, come to think of it, happens with most plays I read), and was sad and funny and immeasurably complex. I loved it.
5. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver-Kingsolver might be my sweet spot of plot-driven and thought provoking big picture thematic right now. Her stuff is usually pretty divorced from current events, but this was topical in interesting and scary ways.
6. Becoming by Michelle Obama- This was a total guilty pleasure, but I just loved immersing myself in Obama nostalgia. This was way better written than I expected and gave me all the feels.
.4. Fifteen Animals by Sandra Boynton- Great counting practice, relatable content, and strong, unexpected twist at the end. 10/10 will probably read again tomorrow.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Brent's Top 10 of 2018

Another year, another 50+ books, another embarassing review shortage--but what a great year of reading! I think 2018 might be the most exciting set of books I've tackled yet, and I attribute a lot of that to my decision at the end of last year to read at least half books by women. I also made a concious effort to read less mainstream "classics", and branched a little--into biography, economics, politics, history. But, as usual, the most illuminating works were fiction. So without further ado, the 10 best books I read this year, in no particular order.

Middlemarch - George Eliot
I've read a lot of the classic  doorstops, but Middlemarch sits right at the top of the list  alongside The Brothers Karamazov and Don Quixote. A wonderfully written pastoral with plenty of drama, humor, and fantastic characters, Middlemarch is really in this spot because it was the warmest, most human book I read this year. In spite of its scope, the action takes place on the ground, in kitchens, libraries, chilly estates, taverns, and the people--Dorothea, Casuabon, Lydgate, Rosamund--whose lives revolve around these seemingly mundane things.

The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead
If Middlemarch was the warmest book I read this year, The Man Who Loved Children was probably the second chilliest (Anna Kavan's excellent but inscrutable Ice was the first). In addition to the incredibly dysfunctional family at its center, Stead's dialog is both prevalent and cryptic--the book teaches you how to read it but it never goes down smooth. I don't even know if I entirely liked it. But it's so singular and so true somehow, so cruel and unsettling, it deserves to read.

The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Stories - Leo Tolstoy, trans. Pevear/Volkhonsky
My wife Liz read Anna Karenina this year, and it inspired me to pick up this collection fo Tolstoy's short stories and novellas. And boy, were they (mostly) bleak. This collection was laregly composed in the twilight of Tolstoy's life, and, having read War and Peace (an optimistic, early work) and Anna Karenina (a later, mixed bag on the optimism front), I felt I could see Tolstoy's faith in humanity dying. But almost every story ends with a burst of something ineffable, and those bursts--and Tolstoy's unfailing sense of how people act--make everything he wrote worthwhile.

Lives of Girls and Women - Alice Munro
This is, I believe, the fourth collection I've read of Munro's, and it might be the best overall. It's certainly the most consistent. It's basically a novel where every chapter can be read as a standalone. The average Munro story already feels like a novel waiting to happen--it was nice to read a collection where it did.

The Odyssey - Homer, trans. Emily Wilson
This was a bucket list book for me, and I'm so glad I read it first in Wilson's incredibly readable (but still very elegant) translation. It's much less of a pure hero story than I expected--Odysseus might be the first antihero. But the journey's fantastical and encompasses SO MUCH Greek mythology. It's really a lot of fun. Even if you've read The Odyssey before, it's worth picking up Wilson's translation for her great introduction, where she discusses the challenges of translating such a well-known work.

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
I don't love reading about landscapes but I DO love reading about priests. And I actually did love reading Cather's landscapes which, like McCarthy's, capture the feeling of the western US like most can't. The most impressive thing about this slim novel though is the way its loose structure comes together at the end to present a beautiful picture of a life well-lived and a death that feels like bliss instead of terror.

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
And speaking of death, George Saunders' fictionalization of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son was probably the most moving thing I read this year. I lost an aunt I was very close to unexpectedly in a car accident and the chapter near the end where Willie finally finds peace for himself and the other wandering souls in the Bardo graveyard has come to mind many times. And of course, Saunders is in contention for greatest livign American writer so the prose is inventive and wonderful.

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
This book is everywhere and they just made an HBO series about it. But it's still good, a brilliant (see what I did there?) realistic novel about two girls in Italy and their complicated relationship in a time of political and social turmoil in Italy. Really looking forward to reading the other 3 volumes, and Ferrante's other work.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Malcom X and Alex Haley
What can I say about this? Certainly one of the most influential autobiographies of the 20th century, Malcolm's rags-to-riches story is given extra dramatic weight due to Haley's decision not to allow Malcolm to rewrite the earlier sections of the book after his acrimonious break from his spiritual mentor Elijah Muhammad, and the result is an autobiography with the dramatic structure of a novel. Malcolm touches on everything--religion, race, class, civil rights, Muhammad Ali--and the final chapter, which Haley wrote after Malcom's death, hits like a brick.

Warlock - Oakley Hall
I love a good western. And Warlock is a very good western. I actually reviewed this one so I won't say much about it here, except that it's really a joy to read about cowboys, outlaws, blood feuds, and all the rest, and still find space to be surprised.

And that's a wrap. I could include almost every other book I read this year in my honorable mentions, but instead, I want to mention Current Affairs, the great online magazine that I spent about half my time this year reading on my journey out of American Capitalism. So on that note, please join us for 2019! It's going to be a good year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

...Kathy reflected, certainly not for the first time, that the war hadn't been only and exclusively terrible.  It had delivered a sense, at first dreadful, eventually intoxicating, that something wild, magical, stunning might come from the next moment, death itself might erupt from the fabric of this very breath, unmasked as a friend...

Why did the U.S. bother itself in Vietnam?  Tens of thousands of Americans dead, ten times as many Vietnamese, the great waste of life and money and time, for what?  To say that it was to stem the tide of Communism sounds right in a high school history sort of way, and the protagonist of Tree of Smoke, CIA op William "Skip" Sands, sure seems keen on beating Communism.  But the line between the ideology and the great material fact of war seems to have a gap in it somewhere, not at all like the great war of the previous generation.  Tree of Smoke is a novel that presents the Vietnam War as a kind of immense fever dream, not just in the confusion of the jungle, but in the bungled ethos of the war itself.

At first, Tree of Smoke seems like a loving homage to Graham Greene.  Kathy Jones, a Canadian missionary, makes the allusion explicit by comparing Skip, masquerading in the Philippines as a corporate stooge for Del Monte, to the Quiet American.  Skip bristles at the comparison, his motives are not so rigid and his methods, he'd like to think, not so brash.  Skip is part of CIA's Psy Ops--psychological operations, that is--under the tutelage of his uncle, Colonel F. X. Sands.

The Colonel is a living legend, a former POW and war hero who has developed unconventional ideas about how to wage war.  "War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it?" he says.  "In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God.  It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter."  The Colonel advocates complete immersion into local culture and turning myth, "the other fellow's gods," into a psychological tool.  He also advocates a philosophical separation from the CIA chain of command, with predictably problematic results.  For the Colonel, myth and mystery, enemies of clarity, are the only way to wage war:

He woke from an hour's nap and went to the veranda to drink hot, strong coffee less reviving than his thrilling vertigo before the vista of his mistakes, all the wrongness he'd wandered into on the tails of his uncle, the aboriginal Man of Action.  Neanderthal, had been Rick Voss's term.  Mr. Tho came out with a burning mosquito coil in a dish and set it on the arm of the opposite chair, and there you are, simplicity itself, the ember of the foul-smelling incense bead, orange bead tunneling along its spiral path toward extinction and nonentity.  He felt surrounded, assailed, inhabited by such serpentine imagery--the tunnels, Project Labyrinth, the curling catacombs of the human ear... But over all loomed the central and quite different image: the Tree of Smoke.  Yes, his uncle meant to unfold himself like a dark wraith and take on the whole Intelligence service, the very way of it, subvert its unturnable tides.  Or assault it on the handball court.

The Greene pastiche halts early on; the whiskey priest-figure, a Catholic gun-runner for the Communists, is murdered by a blowgun.  If Skip is assigned to keep tabs on the priest, who kills him and why?  Another faction of the CIA?  The Filipinos?  Like Greene, Johnson's warriors are self-defeating, but it's not at all clear that what happens is a mistake rather than a grand mystery.  Johnson's language, with its touches of Beatnik mysticism and high prophecy, are far from Greene's deflating realism.

All of that is prologue.  When the action moves to Vietnam, things get worse and worse.  The project that the Colonel has Sands working on--cultivating a double agent to infiltrate the North Vietnamese--never really gets off the ground, which is impressive in a book that stretches to 700 pages.  It blows up, the Colonel dies under mysterious circumstances, but becomes a kind of myth himself, rumored to have let himself be captured in order to promulgate false info to the Viet Cong.  What info?  Does it matter?  As one character says, "I'd venture the truth is in the legend."  In a different book, that would be a platitude.

Tree of Smoke fills out its considerable bulk with several minor characters.  Besides the Colonel, Skip, and Kathy Jones, there's Bill and James Houston, a pair of down-and-out Arizona brothers who bring the desolation of their lives to the jungle and then bring the madness of the jungle back to Arizona.  Both are petty criminals, frightened children, irresponsible addicts, and while Tree of Smoke doesn't argue that Vietnam ruined them--they were pretty fucked up in the first place--it does want us to see that the war provides no better way.  Johnson, with his loving attention toward junkies and lowlifes, refuses to give us a Vietnam novel without the grunts.  Their connection to the main narrative is tenuous, but they remind us that the Colonel's spooky mythologizing engenders true violence.  But neither does Johnson ignore the Vietnamese: several locals, all of whom are mixed up with the Colonel's double agent scheme, get their turn in the narrative.  And while not all of these are worthwhile (I didn't need to linger so long with the mysterious German assassin, who returns to muse about his Nazi father), the scope of the novel mimics the way the war grows and spins out of control.

I can't tell you what I'd give to be able to write like Johnson.  He's one of those rare writers whose every word seems perfectly considered.  Every now and then, out of the morass of war, a perfect phrase emerges: A bowling ball "traveling away like a son, beyond hope of influence."  James' fear that a man caught by an exploding grenade would "splash around him like paint."  A corpse is described--horribly, but memorably--with its "rag of brain."  And the dialogue zips, right at the edge of sense, as really good dialogue often does.  It's hard to find a book of this immensity where the writing seems so precise and sharp, especially one whose big theme is confusion and mystery.