Saturday, August 30, 2014

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

"I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast.  And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it's too much.  The current's too strong.  They've got to let go, drift apart.  That's how I think it is with us.  It's a shame, Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives.  But in the end, we can't stay together forever."

Ishiguro has a talent for writing self-denial.  The narrator, Kathy, in this book, as with Remains of the Day (which I loved), is in complete denial about what is going on around her and her friends, Ruth and Tommy.  This happens in layers: she is in denial about the cruelty of the organ-donor farm in which she is being raised, she is in denial about how genuine her friend Ruth is, she is in denial about her feelings for Tommy.

Time and time again, the reader is presented with Ruth's cruelty.  Nonetheless, Kathy seems unaware or, when she is aware, seems unwilling to confront Ruth.  Never does Kathy do what the reader wants--breaking free from Ruth.

Instead, Kathy holds on to her time at the school where she, Ruth, and Tommy grew up.  Kathy idealizes her time at Hailsham, remembering it as this peak of her life.  This is not unusual for many people who remember fondly their high school or college years.  I myself tend to do this with law school.  As time passes, Kathy becomes increasingly concerned about how everyone from Hailsham is going their separate ways:
I thought about Hailsham closing and how it was like someone coming along with a pair of shears and snipping the balloon strings just where they entwined above the man's fist.  Once that happened, there'd be no real sense in which those balloons belonged with each other any more.
As time has passed since law school, I wonder if this kind of inevitable parting and separation is inherent to life.  Kathy sees it and is bothered by it throughout the novel.  Earlier, she describes her feelings after having a kind of fight with Ruth and Tommy:
But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task  If we'd understood that back then--who knows?--maybe we'd have kept a tighter hold of one another.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea of holding on is a consistent theme throughout the novel.  If someone told me there was a book entitled Never Let Me Go and "holding" was a prominent theme, I would probably think it was a tacky novel undeserving of any serious consideration.  However, Ishiguro weaves the theme in and out seamlessly.  The reader is left with a powerful emotional tug as Kathy bemoans the impossibility of holding on.  Tellingly, though, it's not Kathy who acknowledges this impossibility; another character has to point it out for her:
"That's most interesting.  But I was no more a mind-reader then than today.  I was weeping for an altogether different reason.  When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else.  I saw a new world coming rapidly.  More scientific, efficient, yes.  More cures for old sicknesses.  Very good.  But a harsh, cruel world.  And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never let her go.  That is what I saw.  It wasn't really you, what you were doing, I know that.  But I saw you and it broke my heart.  And I've never forgotten."
 The "Reception" section of the wikipedia article on this novel describes critics who read this book as horror or science-fiction.  I think both labels are inappropriate: this is a novel about a group of friends who, once close, get separated as time passes.  The science-fiction elements of the book are, more than anything else, an excuse to explore these characters' relationships.  For that reason, the book worked well for me and I was moved by it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lower terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

 Small guy, small house.

Apparently John Updike wrote about Walden that it "risks being as revered and unread as the Bible."  That's a good line, but not as good as a lot of lines in Walden that those who revere it are missing.  On the other hand, I think the opposite has become an equally valid risk: that Walden has become a book that is unread and mocked.  It seems like there's always some jagoff wanting to point out that Thoreau's cabin was, like, a mile from town, and that he went into Concord and ate at restaurants and stuff all the time.  (Am I the only one that hears that stuff a lot?)  Both attitudes--the mockery and the reverence--are silly because they misapprehend what Walden is about, and having not read it, I think I misapprehended it a little as well.

First of all, it isn't really transcendentalist in the way that I think of Emerson as being.  Thoreau gets a lot out of Nature, but there's no Wordsworthian sense that a communion with nature lifts Thoreau to a higher plane of existence.  Rather, living the kind of simple life that Thoreau leads in his two-year experiment at Walden Pond allows him to observe his natural surroundings more closely, and to appreciate them more intensely.  Some of the most beautiful passages of Walden are Thoreau's description of animal life.  I especially like his account of a war between red and black ants:

Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.  The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black.  It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other.  On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.

But again, communion with nature isn't really the point of Thoreau's experiment.  He says: "If I were confined to the corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me."  Thoreau goes to the woods to rely on himself as much as possible, and to reduce his need to depend on other people as much as possible.  Walden is really an experiment in hyperindividuality, part and parcel with the irascible libertarianism of "Civil Disobedience."  As he writes, "I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead."

Thoreau's grave, Concord, Mass.

Thoreau's version of this philosophy is quite extreme.  Sometimes it leads him to (hilarious) crankism.  Among the things he hates are: farms, politics, post offices, clothes, philanthropy, and other people.  But elsewhere it leads to observations of persuasive beauty:

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.  Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation.  I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.  What company has that lonely lake, I pray?  And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters.  The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appears to be two, but one is a mock sun.  God is alone,--but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.  I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee.  I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a Jaunary thaw, or the first spider in a new house.

That paragraph indicates to me a strength of mind I know I don't possess.  Thoreau only managed to live like this for a couple of years before he rejoined society--but that's more than I think I'm capable of.  Certainly others have tried, some extremely so, and failed.  But I do think Thoreau's experiment is worth admiration, and Walden worth reading.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

In a constellation that poses the threat of total annihilation through war against the hope for the emancipation of all mankind through revolution--leading one people after the other in swift succession "to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"--no cause is left but the most ancient one of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.

Hannah Arendt starts her book discussing the dichotomy between mutually assured destruction (through nuclear fall out) on the one hand and liberty through revolution on the other.  This makes sense: she was writing in 1963 when the cold war promised a grave and threatening future.  But, the book is not about the cold war.

Rather, she moves backwards to compare two revolutions.  Those of you who know your Declaration of Independence well can probably guess one of the revolutions; the other is the French.  Why these?  She presents the two as distinct.  Thus, although the two revolutions are often understood as thematically similar, Arendt argues they are in fact very different.

And, although hailed as more important historically (I recall my sophomore year English teacher, teaching A Tale of Two Cities, exclaiming that We Think the American Revolution Was Important, But No, The French Revolution Is the One that Matters), Arendt argues that the French revolution was deficient, and should be seen as a revolution that failed.  This is because the French Revolution eventually abandoned its goal of maximizing liberty and instead focused on "social welfare."

In contrast, the American Revolution lead to the Constitution, which, for Arendt, creates a space of political engagement for every citizen.  Thus, the American Revolution was a success because the founding fathers focused on creating a political system which empowered every citizen; it is a system that values and accommodates collective action and political dialogue.

The problem with the French Revolution's turn to social welfare is that it fit into a Hegelian/Marxist political meta-narrative.  That is, the French Revolution set the precedent for revolutions that appealed to the concept of History as justification.  For Marx & Co. (e.g., Lenin, Mao), this provided a model for revolution at any cost, because History would vindicate the revolution--because History required the revolution.  Arendt's issue with this form of revolution is that it justifies atrocities under historical necessity.

In contrast, the American Revolution did not appeal to any kind of historical meta-narrative.  Rather, the framers were simply interested in liberating the people and ensuring they stayed free.

Arendt's writing can be dense.  I'll be honest: I'm afraid much of this book's meat was over my head.  However, as someone interested in the U.S. Constitution, Arendt offers a fascinating view of our history.  My intent is to come back to this book someday when I have more time for philosophical pursuits.  As an aside, I am obsessed with Arendt (this is the fourth book of hers I've read).  The Origins of Totalitarianism remains, for me, the most important analysis of World War II, fascism, and the holocaust.  Similarly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is an extremely important book, both for its historical value and its musings on the existence of evil.  This book, too, stands out as an original and important work.

Recommended for anyone interested in political history, philosophy, and the American Revolution.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, not because it's particularly meaningful, but because it's hilarious:

To sound off with a cheerful "give me liberty or give me death" sort of argument in the face of the unprecedented and inconceivable potential destruction in nuclear warfare is not even hollow; it is downright ridiculous.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief.  Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it, as would the next day, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be be borne.  The days of the far-off future would toil onward; still with the same burden for her to take up and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.  Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of a woman's frailty and sinful passion.  Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

A student that I deeply respect told me at the end of the year that she hadn't enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter.  That's sadly typical, I think--even students who like reading don't often like to read Hawthorne, who is an accomplished stylist but also a ponderous and stuffy one.  I told her that I had felt the same way about it when I read it in high school, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned to appreciate it, when I realized just how profoundly weird it is.  The lurking Satan-allied witch Mrs. Hibbins, the comet shaped like an "A" in the sky, the destructive, yet difficult to describe force that Chillingworth exerts on Dimmesdale--it's all bizarre.  Of course, we live in a world where Hester Prynne's "A" has become the dominant image of social ostracism, but for those who can approach The Scarlet Letter fresh, it's am immensely rewarding book.  (And much better than The Marble Faun.)

Moreover: Is there any book by a male writer in the history of American literature with a female protagonist as strong as Hester Prynne?  The letter on Hester's breast is meant to reduce her to a symbol, a warning sign--to make her a literary trope instead of a person.  Reading it now, I was struck by how that ostracism, by alienating Hester from her society, makes her a better person:

For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.  The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.

Hawthorne is pretty down on Puritan society, and in part Hester's strength is a result of her alienation from it.  But comparing her with the Reverend Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, reveals just how strong she already is.  As he yearns to unite his public face with his private one, and undergo the kind of atonement that keeping his adultery secret has denied him, he withers into a sickly mess.  Many critics have noticed the flipping of gender roles here, and I think that's an important contrast even to today.  How many films and television shows have you seen just this year in which a principal female character, no matter how strong she otherwise may be, requires saving by another male figure?  Here, Dimmesdale clings to Hester when he can, so much that the rescue plot--their escape back to the Europe--is her plan, and it only fails because of his own weakness.

Ultimately, the symbol of the "A"--and the symbol of Hester--refuses to remain unchanged.  Her life of solitude and hard work causes some to interpret it as "able," and critics have subsumed many other "a" words into it as well.  (My favorite is "America.")  Hester herself is something of a Moby Dick--the symbol that keeps slipping in meaning.  But Moby Dick can do it because he is inscrutable, unconquerable; Hester can do it because she exerts ownership over herself in a way that Dimmesdale never could.  She refuses to be inscribed upon, to be turned into text, and in this way The Scarlet Letter is a powerful assertion of individualism against the community.

Here's Brent's review from earlier this year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Rafe Esquith

A former coworker posted this to Facebook:
"That was Mrs. D. She cared a lot. She tried. She worried. And then one day she just died...She was not an old woman. But she had taught for twenty-five years, and the frustrations and difficult days can wear down a classroom teacher. You pay a price for constantly dealing with mean children, apathetic parents, and the pressure that you must do better. I am not a doctor, but I shudder to imagine an autopsy that concluded "Death by teaching."

When I asked what book it came from, she said Real Talk for Real Teachers. Really, any teacher who is willing to admit that this job can literally kill you, is a teacher I'm willing to listen to. Rafe knows. He gets it. And of course, he should. Unlike so many people who tell teachers what to do when they've never taught or haven't taught in years, Rafe is still in the classroom at the same urban school teaching children of immigrants who are almost all Free and Reduced Lunch kids. When I taught at a similar school, I was the obnoxious teacher who, at every staff training, felt compelled to ask, "So where do you teach? Oh...well what did you used to teach? Ok...and how many of your kids were ELL?...Oh...well yeah, I can see why you wouldn't have that population at an exclusive private school..." I had no patience for the Pearson employee selling my school a reading program or for the AP trainer who had never taught ELL students in an AP class telling me how to run my classroom (okay, the AP trainer was actually great, but he would have been better if he had experience teaching my kind of students so he could help me improve).

I really really wish I had read this book when I was still at that school. I really needed to hear things like:

  • Having a bad day does not make you a bad teacher.
  • There are many well-meaning policy makers and bloggers demanding that teachers reach every child. But some children cannot be helped, even when a teacher is willing to sacrifice her life to do so...All students deserve to be given our best. Good teachers never give up on an individual. But please balance your efforts to help a child with the knowledge that you cannot, and should not, be responsible for solving all his problems.
Much of the book is this: real talk about things that education classes, staff development, and other teachers are reluctant to admit. Not because it's not true, but because admitting it makes it seem like it's okay to not try or it's okay to write off kids because of their circumstances - that's not the point of this book. Rafe has been in the classroom for OVER THIRTY YEARS in a country where 17% of teachers leave the profession every year (20% of teachers in schools like Rafe's) - it's just not sustainable. I'm sure Erin Gruwell (of Freedom Writer's fame) is a lovely woman, but she only taught for four years before leaving the classroom. I'd rather take advice from the teacher who has elementary students putting on an entire Shakespeare play every year, who takes kids on field trips to the opposite coast every year successfully, who prepares them for standardized testing while still giving them a PE period he has to teach himself, who is at school before and beyond his contract time every day AND every Saturday, yet who still says things like, "I still care deeply about doing a good job; I just don't have to kill myself to do it."

I have taught for five years and consider myself a good teacher - sometimes I'm even a great teacher - but I don't yet identify as a Master Teacher. Anyone who considers themselves anything less than a Master Teacher could take lessons from this book. In spite of the fact that Rafe teaches fifth grade and I teach high school and college English, I still feel like I learned strategies to use with my own students.

It is all the best things of a good teachers' lounge: hilarious anecdotes, incredibly inspiring stories, some terribly sad ones, ideas that are workable in any classroom, and reminders of attitudes that I totally believe in yet occasionally forget to enact 100% of the time. 

When he describes the frustrations of trying to put together his first Shakespeare play (which involves after school and Saturday rehearsals), he quips "Naturally I faced the typical roadblocks teachers encounter when they try anything original, but eventually the school district was kind enough to allow me to stay after school and teach some of the students for free." It's this mix of realism with humor with brilliant teaching that makes this an excellent read for just before the start of a new school year.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

"Nigger boy, what are you doing here?"

Marshall had been standing under the sweltering sun on the far end of the platform.  He had stomach pangs from hunger and he tried to make himself look small, but the white man had come straight toward him, eyes cold and firm, the gun on his hip in plain sight.

"Waiting for the train," Marshall told him.

The man eyed him up and down, suspicious of the suit.

"There's only one more train comes through here," the man told him, "and that's the four o'clock--you'd better be on it because the sun is never going down on a live nigger in this town."

His appetite gone, Marshall's eyes followed the man as he turned away.  "So I wrapped my constitutional rights in cellophane, tucked'em in my hip pocket...and caught the next train out of there," the lawyer recalled.

Gilbert King has done a great service by writing this book.  He captures an important moment in the legal fight for equal rights that gets overshadowed by Brown v. Board of Education and the end of Jim Crow laws: the struggle over executions of African-Americans in the south.

This book describes the Legal Defense Fund's defense, led by Thurgood Marshall, of the Groveland boys, four African-American men accused of raping a white woman, Norma Lee Padgett.  The story is one of racism, mob-violence, and perseverance.

After making her accusations of rape, three of the four men were arrested and taken to the jail.  A mob immediately formed and demanded that the rapists be released to them, so they could get "justice."  The sheriff, however, had already moved and hidden them at a nearby orange grove.  Realizing they wouldn't be able to lynch anyone, they went to the black section of town and started burning houses down and shooting into buildings.  The fourth Groveland boy was shot by a sheriff-organized posse.

At trial, the victim identified the perpetrators:

When [the prosecutor] asked Norma to "rise and point out" her rapists, she seemed first to take a few seconds to compose herself for the task as she directed her gaze toward the defendants.  She glanced steadily at each of them in turn before she stood up and straightened her dress.  She eyeballed the Groveland boys, then . . . Norma slowly raised an arm and extended her index finger, which, again in turn, she pointed at each of the defendants unhurriedly she drawled: "The nigger Shepherd . . . the nigger Irvin . . . the nigger Greenlee."

Hilariously, this photo from Barnes and Noble's
website has been photoshopped to remove
the bodies of Shepherd and Irvin.  Compare with below.
Two of the defendants received death sentences, the third received a life sentence.  On appeal, the two death sentences were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  But, here, the plot thickens.  While driving the two prisoners from the prison to the jail, where they would be retried, the sheriff shot both prisoners.  He claimed that both had tried to escape.  Unfortunately for the sheriff, one of the prisoners lived to claim otherwise.

The director of the Florida NAACP called for an indictment and full investigation of the shooting; he was rewarded with a Christmas day bomb that killed both him and his wife.

At trial, the remaining defendant again received the death penalty.  Appeals did not reverse this sentence, but eventually, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to be sure of guilt, the governor commuted this sentence.

What makes this book special is that it's about far more than a trial.  King describes an exchange between defendant Shepherd and his LDF attorney, Franklin Williams:

"Mr. Williams," he said, "when the trial is over, be careful."

More words followed, most of them lost by the dazed attorney after he'd heard Shepherd say that someone was "going to get that nigger lawyer."

Where did he hear that? Williams needed to know.

"Willis McCall," Shepherd told him.  "Said he was going to get that nigger lawyer."

Willis McCall was the sheriff who would eventually shoot two of the defendants.  So, the book becomes about more than a broken justice system, but a book about a southern population wanting to maintain the pre-existing social order.  As King points out, many communities, like Groveland, were not accustomed to black attorneys talking back to judges and disagreeing with any white folk.

And King presents the Groveland case, and its important to the white citizens of Groveland, as being less about the guilt of the defendants and more about the need to put African-Americans in their place.  That is, the Groveland boys needed to be executed so that African-Americans would remember that they belonged to a lower social order.

In this regard, the NAACP's participation, through the LDF, in fighting the death penalty makes more sense: by arbitrarily executing black Americans, society condoned the idea that the lives of black Americans were less valuable than that of white Americans.  This principle, of course, is unacceptable.

The book reminds me of words from Justice Marshall's opinion in Furman:

At a time in our history when the streets of the Nation's cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens.  But the measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis.  No nation in the recorded history of man has a greater tradition of revering justice and fair treatment for all its citizens in times of turmoil, confusion, and tension than ours.  This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system.

Flag outside the NAACP Offices.
It's noteworthy to me that Marshall, in writing this opinion and (obviously) many others had actual experience defending death cases at the trial and appellate level.  Thus, his opinions benefited from the wisdom gained from the front lines of cases like the Groveland Four.  Our current line up of justices lack such experience; would they, I wonder, come to the same rulings if they had some?

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated sizes that fit one roundness inside another, round windows and rice bowls--these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family.  The villagers came to show my aunt and her lover-in-hiding a broken house.  The villagers were speeding up the circling of events because she was too shortsighted to see that her infidelity had already harmed the village, that waves of consequences would return unpredictably, sometimes in disguises, as now, to hurt her.  This roundness had to be made coin-sized so that she would see its circumference: punish her at the birth of her baby.

Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried a set of interconnected stories, and also a book I'm supposed to teach in my eleventh-grade American Lit class this year.  They are similar, too, in the way that they say all plots are either "a fish out of water" or "a stranger comes to town."  That old canard is really too clever by half: whether you're the fish or the stranger depends on your perspective.  O'Brien's soldiers are all fish, in a world that they fear and cannot understand, but the characters of Kingston's memoir are strangers, grappling with the transition from China to America over many generations.

Kingston structures the stories in a way that is both chronological and relational: The first story, "No Name Woman," is about a Chinese aunt who committed suicide whom Kingston never met, the next about her mother and father, and so on until the final story, about Kingston's own experiences as a Chinese-American in California.  "No Name Woman" is the most famous, I think, because it's the only one I had read before.  It's a remarkable story, about a woman whose house is destroyed by her neighbors in a small Chinese town because she has become pregnant out of wedlock.  The baby is a product of rape, but no one knows this, and it wouldn't matter; the instability of the family and community that a fatherless child represents is, for the villagers, reason enough to enact a harsh punishment.  When the woman drowns herself and her baby, Kingston remains equivocal:

Carrying the baby to the well shows loving.  Otherwise abandon it.  Turn its face into the mud.  Mothers who love their children take them along.  It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.

What impresses me about Woman Warrior is its complexity.  We are horrified by the actions of the villagers in "No Name Woman," and Kingston doesn't ask us to excuse them, but she does ask us to understand them in a way that is difficult.  It also enables her to depict such an act of cruelty as deeply ingrained within rural Chinese culture, and at the same time write a story like "At the Western Palace," which depicts the tragic consequences when that culture is lost or abandoned.  In that story, Kingston's aunt (this time on her mother's side) comes to America after decades of separation from her husband, who immigrated long ago.  But her husband is married to another woman, and in California, the rights she would have as a "first wife" over her rival are not, cannot be honored.  There's some great humor in this story, mostly Kingston's mother's absurd encouragements to her sister--she imagines her walking in the husbands house, and declaring the children he had with his second wife to be her own, as would have been in the case, it seems in China--but the depiction of this aunt, for whom there really is no place in this new existence, is deeply sad.

About half of my students are East Asian, and most of these are Chinese-American, many from first-generation families.  I'm a little bit fearful to read this book with them--am I supposed to educate them on the finer points of Chinese culture?--but excited to see how they connect with these stories.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

This novel was recommended to me by my old AP English teacher, so I ordered it without hesitation - without even reading what it was about which was a lovely way to enter this book. Its allure is equal parts compelling plot and compelling characters. It's difficult to describe because it does so many things well at once.

The book begins with an Acknowledgements page that tells a moment from The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. While he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp he was brought to a dying SS soldier who wanted to be forgiven by a Jew - this anecdote inspired the novel. The acknowledgements page makes it clear that Picoult did her research, talking to everyone from bakers to dancers to people who work with grief groups to lawyers to Nazi hunters to Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein (whose book All But My Life is absolutely worth a read) to Germans to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum staff. 

The book itself is structured in chapters with alternating points of view which is a quick and easy way to my heart. The perspectives are:

  • A fairy-tale-esque story about a baker girl in a small village and a vampire-like creature written by Minka, Sage's grandmother
    • "My father trusted me with the details of his death. "Ania," he would say, "no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies." A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious...The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I have eaten."
  • Minka, Sage's grandmother, daughter of a baker, Holocaust survivor who finally shares her story with Sage
    • "So you see, this is why I never told my story. If you lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn't, you will never understand."
  • Sage. She's a baker in grief counseling after her mother's death who makes pretty terrible and typical bad life choices like all of us in our 20s and 30s
    • "On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group. It's just past 3:00 p.m., and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I've brought a plate of baked goods...and just as I am setting them down, Mrs. Dombrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. "This," she tells me, "is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She's the one I told you about, the baker. I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I'm sure there's a protocol for meeting a spouse who's been cremated, but I'm pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?"
  • Josef Weber, a former SS officer in hiding. 
    • "You will notice I say nothing about the Jews. That is because most of us didn't know a single Jew. Out of sixty million Germans, only 500,000 were Jews, and even those would have called themselves Germans, not Jews. But anti-Semitism was alive and well in Germany long before Hitler became powerful. It was part of what we were taught in church, how two thousand years ago, the Jews had killed our Lord. It was evident in the way we viewed Jews - good investors, who seemed to have money in a bad economy when no one else had any. Selling the idea that the Jews were to blame for all of Germany's problems was just not that difficult."
  • Leo Stein, Nazi hunter
    • "My car has, I am sure, the world's last eight-track cartridge player...I'm thinking of this, and whether I should tell my blind date that I'm so tragically hip I buy my music on eBay instead of iTunes.The last time I went out...I spent the whole dinner talking about the Aleksandras Lileikis case, and the woman begged a headache before dessert and took the Metro home. The truth is, I'm lousy with small talk. I can discuss the fine points of the Darfur genocide, but the majority of Americans probably can't even tell you the country where that's taking place. (It's Sudan, FYI). On the other hand, I can't talk football, or tell you the plot of the last novel I read. I don't know who's dating whom in Hollywood. And I don't really care."

Within each plot line are characters that I wish were real. Mary DeAngelis is a former nun who left the order to become a pink haired hiker on the Appalachian Trail where she had a vision of Jesus who "told her there were many souls to feed." She opened up a coffee shop - Our Daily Bread - and hired Sage as a baker. Our Daily Bread's barista, Rocco, speaks only in haiku ("Lennon was brilliant/ if he were alive today/ Can you Imagine?" "Ran out of baguettes / Gave angry folks free coffee/ Tonight make extra.") Josef's sensitive brother who doesn't join Hitler's Youth because his Jewish friend can't and he doesn't want him to feel left out. Minka's best friend who talks her into putting on totally out of character clothes to sit at a hotel bar and smoke and drink and chat with men. Leo's...well, just Leo. He regularly made me laugh out loud, and I frequently stopped my boyfriend's reading to share gems. 

At one point, as he tries to mentally slow down during a sexual encounter: "Think of baseball, I tell myself. But I know nothing of value about baseball. So I start silently listing the justices of the Supreme Court, just so that I don't scare her off by moving too fast."

Anyone who is at all interested in the Holocaust should read this book. It's so well written, moving, funny, tragic, and terrible. After closing it I felt like I needed to think for hours and hours and hours about how I felt about it all. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tune: Vanishing Point by Derek Kirk Kim

The book is available on Amazon and hopefully at your local bookseller, but you can also check out the Webcomic of the story located on Derek Kirk Kim's Tune Website!

Original image is a page from the book that can also be found HERE on the Tune Website.

I arrived at San Diego Comic Con without a book. A terrible tragedy that's easily fixed. I found a bookseller on the floor and told the hipster behind the counter that I liked young adult lit and sci-fi. She handed over three that were not at all what I said I wanted, and then as a last ditch effort handed me Tune before she found someone more important (someone who knew enough people that he didn't have to pay for silly things like books) to talk to. I finally found someone else to pay attention to me long enough to take my money and proceeded to devour this graphic novel.

If you like comics along the lines of Questionable Content or Gunnerkrigg Court, then you'll love Tune. They all share a world filled with people that we've all met (the not-doing-anything-with-his-life-but-wearing-obscure-T-shirts Marten from QC, the over-achieving-science-nerd Kat from GC) in the sci fi settings that we wished we lived in (who doesn't want a cute little porn obsessed AI companion a la Pintsize?!?)

Tune's main character is Andy Go, the art school dropout featured above who believes that he can find a well paying drawing job (haha) and finally just tries to find ANY paying job (in today's economy? haha). His art school friends, the female friend he has crushed on forever, (stereo?)typical Korean parents, and aliens make up the rest of the cast. 

The book is so funny because it is so real. Who can deny the power of Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, reruns of Grey's Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer when there is actual work to be done? Not I - and probably not you. 

Chapter 3 begins with a dictionary definition of "aigoo" (interj.) 1. Korean cry of lamentation. Often repeated in an unending cacophonous loop when one's child fails to become a doctor. 2. Korean cry of lamentation. Often repeated in an unending cacophonous loop when one's child is discovered to be a homosexual.

Andy's mom lets out a steady stream of Aiiii-gooooooos along with things like "Why you not major in computer?! Huh!? Why you not major in computer?! My friend's son, he go to med school - be doctor!! *sob*"

I texted fotos of these panels to a friend whose parents are Korean immigrants to get her take on the realism. She LOL!!ed several times and was like "Oh yeah, that's real."

Amidst all of this realism is the sci-fi adventure part of the book. Andy is approached by aliens to take a very special very well paying job with weekends off, vacation time, health insurance, and a retirement. 

My only critique is that the first installment is too short and the second installment isn't out in print yet. Fortunately, it is available on the Tune Comic website (where there are no banner ads? I hope Kim is making money off of it somehow!), where I will probably click through the rest of the story when I should be sleeping, lesson planning, or grading papers. 

Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened

It's weird for people who still have feelings to be around depressed people.  They try to help you have feelings again so things can go back to normal, and it's frustrating for them when that doesn't happen.  From their perspective, it seems like there has got to be some untapped source of happiness within you that you've simply lost track of, and if you could just see how beautiful things are...

Of course, I've read Hyperbole and a Half before, and I've always enjoyed it.  This book is simply a collection of some of her work (much of it overlaps with her blog, but for all I know some of the content is original).  

Brosh's comics on depression (available here and here) are her at her best.  She writes frankly about her depression and how unhelpful the people around her in a way that is both hilarious and heart-breaking.  

She is also hilarious describing less heavy topics, like the time her mother, her, and her sister got lost in the woods.  Her and her sister did not understand they were lost because, not wanting to scare them, their mother acted like she wasn't ready to go home.  Trying, to solve the problem, Brosh describes her attempt at convincing their mother they should go home:

I imagine it would be pretty terrifying to be wandering through the forest at night when, out of nowhere, your eight-year-old child begins describing the plot from the horror film you watched the other night, which, as far as you know, she hadn't seen.  but my mother maintained her composure very well--until a twig snapped, at which point she whirled around shrieking, "WE HAVE A DOG!" As if Murphy's presence were enough to deter a homicidal maniac with a chainsaw.

I find the style of Brosh's comic interesting: they're not straight panel-by-panel comics and (obviously) they're not straight narrative.  She combines the two, going back and forth as it suits her.  This works because she uses the narration to move the stories forward and weave in context between panels.  She then uses the comic panels to depict things, as above, like facial expressions or silence.  As novels and entertainment in general, become more multi-media, I wonder if this is an early example of mixed-media writing.  With things like Kindle and other pads/e-readers, it's only a matter of time before a novel can incorporate music, film, and other forms of media.

Hilarious and worth reading.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.  While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.  Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.  "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before."

Listen, you want to know how to incorporate symbolism into your work?  You couldn't do much better than the scene above, one of my favorites from The Great Gatsby (and one of the better scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film, I'd say).  There's the most superficial symbolism, that of Gatsby throwing his newfound wealth in Daisy's face, piling it up beyond taste or reason in the same way that he has been piling up wealth for years, all in the name of getting back into Daisy's graces.  But there's also the strange intimacy of it, the many shirts giving the reader the impression that Gatsby is actually disrobing, revealing himself--but there's no end to the shirts, because Daisy isn't actually capable of seeing Gatsby as he truly is.  The one person who is capable of it--or thinks he is--is Nick Carraway, the peeping tom they won't let get away, present during Gatsby and Daisy's liaisons for no very sensible reason.  And then why is Daisy crying?  Is it because the shirts represent an entire life that Gatsby's built up that she's had no share of, and the deep, unspeakably knowledge that she can't really share in his life now, after all of these years?

What a great, layered scene.  It seems crazy to say it, but I was surprised, re-reading it, how good The Great Gatsby is--I hadn't read it in years, and remembered it as being a little over-written, and my last experience with Fitzgerald was decidedly underwhelming.  I also remembered being a little put off by the immense man-crush that Nick has for Gatsby, and that much at least is true:

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced--or seem to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Jeez, Nick.  But not only is the writing almost perfect--and the book is short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome with floweriness, as it otherwise might--I was really surprised on this reading at how well drawn the characters are.  Gatsby does in fact "believe in you as you would like to believe in yourself," with Nick and Daisy at least, but that's part of the problem: Gatsby's endless devotion to Daisy and unflagging hope for their reunion cannot see how awful Daisy is.  He cannot see what Nick sees, that she and her husband Tom are "careless people... they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."  He's so smart, but so foolish, and his dedication to the impossible is both his tragic error and the very thing that Nick wants us to admire so much about him.

But Daisy's the better character, in a literary sense.  I really enjoyed her disaffected sarcasm, and her aimless wealth--something about it rang truer than anything else in the book.  She tells Nick that she always waits for the longest day of the year and then misses it--so perfectly the statement of someone so utterly bored with their own existence, but somehow also too busy with money and dinners and polo matches and whatnot.  When she says she wishes her daughter will turn out to be a "perfect little fool," what is she getting at?  Is it sarcasm, reflecting on her foolishness for marrying Tom?  Or a sincere, perhaps half-sincere, admission that she has foolishly stumbled into a situation she tells herself is what she wants?  She doesn't seem to mean half the things she says--though perhaps when she's with Gatsby she means three-fourths.

If anything strikes me as off, it's the giant glasses of T. J. Eckleburg that are watching in the Valley of Ashes when Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, mows down Tom's mistress, Myrtle.  (I haven't really bothered to outline the plot--hope you'll forgive me.)  Apparently they were written in when Fitzgerald saw what is now the book's iconic cover, and loved the image.  But the symbolism--the eyes of God--is too heavy-handed when compared to everyone else.  Besides, we already know Gatsby's being watched; it's Nick that really has the eyes of God in this novel.

Is it the "Great American Novel?"  If so, it has a particularly jaundiced view, I'd wager, of America, and of the "American dream"--which I'm sure will be thrown around about a kajillion times when I teach this book later this year.  If for no other reason, it's about a bunch of people who are wildly wealthy, and are deeply, deeply miserable.  Gatsby's quest for wealth is perhaps something nobler, imbued with the hope Nick pushes on us, and tinted with his love for Daisy, but it destroys him in the end.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens.  They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more.  Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with ice beer and soda pop.  They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity... They shared the weight of memory.  They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded and the weak.  They carried infections.  They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards, imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself--Vietnam, the place, the soil--a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.  They carried the sky.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is probably the most famous literary book about the Vietnam War, of which there are surprisingly few.  (Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a vastly different book, comes to mind.)  Is it that the Vietnam War was so psychologically injurious to so many that it became difficult to write or talk about?  O'Brien is clear throughout this series of connected, semi-fictional stories, that he feels as if writing about his experiences in Vietnam saved him from the kind of rootless madness that destroyed so many of his friends after the war--like Norman Bowker, whom he describes driving around his Iowa hometown, wanting but unable to tell his story to anyone he sees.  Bowker, we learn in a subsequent chapter, hanged himself shortly after.  But we also learn that one of the linchpin moments of Bowker's story--his inability to save his friend who is dragged down and suffocated in a feces-filled river, where they had mistakenly set up camp--is O'Brien's own, grafted onto Bowker's experiences.

So what's the deal?  Are these stories fiction, or non-fiction?  O'Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That's what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Norman Bowker is no more, but O'Brien's appropriation of him, in a way, I think, is meant to keep him alive, to subsume his own story into O'Brien's in a way that justifies what he must have felt was the sad wastefulness of his life.  In other places, O'Brien is cagey about what "really happened," as when he hedges on whether or not he was actually responsible for the death of a young Vietnamese man.  The death rattles him; he sits in shock over the man's body and imagines a life in which he has a girlfriend, wants to teach math--not a true story, of course, he knows nothing of the man, but a story which serves an important purpose amid the abject purposelessness of war and death.  In the same way, O'Brien suggests that it doesn't matter if he pulled the pin on the grenade which killed the man; he must take responsibility for his death in the same way that, writing his story, he takes responsibility for his life.  (It reminds me also of the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul Baumer kills a man in his foxhole, and then has to stare at him for hours until he goes nearly mad with regret.)

Still, there's no doubt the details are rooted in fact.  The Vietnamese who died died, the man who drowned in shit drowned in shit.  The bullet in O'Brien's rear was real.  Even in their slipperiness, these stories make the reader face the really awful reality of war, as well as any book I've ever read (with the exception perhaps of The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front).

This, like the next few books I'm going to review, I read because I'm supposed to teach it next year.  That's going to be hard.  Partly because it is graphic, and so horrific, but I expect my students will be frustrated also by its anti-realistic elements, too.  It'll probably be good for them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald

'If you choose to go on the stage,' he said, still pondering, 'you pass your life in a series of impersonations, some of them quite unsuccessful.'

'Of course they're bound to fail sometimes.'

'They earn their money that way, and in fact they want to earn it that way.  Do you know Hannah that causes me some astonishment.  It seems to me a sufficient achievement to be an individual at all, what you might call a real person.'

Man, I love Penelope Fitzgerald.  She draws characters so minutely but so perfectly.  At Freddie's barely cracks 150 pages but in that space it manages to pack in five or six really memorable, quite human characters and the complex relationships between them.  Ford Madox Ford called it "getting a character in," and I can think of few writers who do it better.  There's Freddie, the proprietor of the Temple School that provides the theaters of London with a steady supply of child actors.  A charismatic older woman, she's one of those people who somehow always get what they want:

Certainly she could create her own warmth, a glow like the very first effects of alcohol.  As to what she wanted, no mystery was made.  She wanted to get the advantage, but on the other hand human beings interested her so much that it must always be an advantage to meet another one.  When she smiled there was a certain lopsidedness, the shade of a deformity, or, it could be, the aftermath of a slight stroke.  Freddie never tried to conceal this -- Take a good look -- she advised her pupils -- I'm not nearly so amusing as you're going to be when you imitate me. -- But the smile itself was priceless in its benevolence, and in its amusement that benevolence could still exist.  One had to smile with her, perhaps regretting it later.

There are the child actors themselves, especially Mattie and Jonathan, who Freddie points out as the difference between talent and genius.  Mattie is highly successful, snagging several high profile roles, but is fascinated by and obsessed with Jonathan's mercurial genius.  Their relationship is defined by Mattie's mix of love and resentment, and Jonathan's indifference:

He could not be satisfied until Jonathan had got into some sort of trouble.  Then would be the moment to rush luxuriously to his assistance.  But there were so few opportunities, one must be continually on the watch.  Prompting, for instance, was never needed.  If Jonathan didn't know his lines (and he was not a quick study) he smiled, and read them from the book.  If he had no dinner money, the girls gave him Fruity Snack.s  Once or twice, however, he complained of a stomach ache, although in a detached way, as though the pain was the responsibility of someone else.  Then Mattie was in his glory.  Lay him down near the radiator, Miss, and keep him warm.  I know just what he has to have, I'll go down to Miss Belwett for the Bisodol, you want to be careful, he might get a lot worse quite suddenly, we had to get a stomach pump to one of the cast on Saturday. -- He was thanked, of course, but never enough.  He could not master the half-sleepy mysterious gum-chewing little rat of a Jonathan, or exact the word of approval he wanted.  Later he rolled him over on the washroom floor and banged his round head on the concrete as though cracking a nut.  'Has that cured your bellyache?' -- Jonathan considered, and said he would tell him later.  Mattie was outraged.  And yet his dissatisfaction showed that he was not quite lost.  It was the tribute of a human being to the changeling, or talent to genius.

I especially liked reading about these two, and the other child actors, because I have a lot of students who fancy themselves actors, and though mine are much older than Mattie and Jonathan, I recognized a lot of them here: their habit of breaking into impressions, or song, and the frequent theatrical air that suggests they are not being quite sincere.

Then there are the teachers: Hannah, who is attracted to the glamor of the theater world, and Pierce, who is utterly aware of his lack of talent, sociability, or sheer competence, but who approaches his own shortcomings with stolid resignation.  He is a bad teacher, cannot understand or relate to the children, though Jonathan takes a liking to him.  He is, of course, in love with Hannah.  That's him at the top of the review, struggling to make sense of those who can act like any number of people when he is so profoundly bad at being himself.

These characters are so interesting and vibrant that it feels as if, rather than devising a plot, Fitzgerald merely put them together so she might record what happens.  And indeed, there's not much of a plot--Hannah falls for a roguish actor, breaking Pierce's heart; Mattie tortures Jonathan; Freddie charms her way through the financial insolubility of the school.  And yet At Freddie's is always surprising, because people are surprising.  The novel resolves in a way that feels deeply sad, though in such a low-key way that it's hard to pinpoint where the sadness comes from, wringing more pathos out of the everyday than even the final paragraph of The Bookshop, when Florence Green boards a bus carrying the burden of her shop's failure.

The central idea of At Freddie's is a well-worn one: our selves are theatrical performances of a kind, and to be an actor is to master the self in a way.  Pierce doesn't understand it, but is naturally himself in a way that other characters in the book cannot be; perhaps that's why he appeals to the enigmatic Jonathan, whose acting genius is tied up with his aloofness and detachment.  Freddie's charm is a kind of bravura performance, a more comprehensive and assured one than any of her students can conjure.  In the end, she makes a surprising move--deciding to dedicate the school to training students to act in commercials--that seems out of character, but suggests that like any performance, it can be stopped, or changed, if the performer knows what he or she is doing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Perhaps there is a distance that is the optimum distance for seeing one's father, farther than across the supper table or across the room, somewhere in the middle distance: he is dwarfed by trees or the sweep of a hill, but his features are still visible, his body language still distinct.  Well, that is a distance I never found.  He was never dwarfed by the landscape--the fields, the buildings, the white pine windbreak were as much my father as if he had grown them and shed them like a husk.

A Thousand Acres is the other Iowa book I read on my trip, though by the time I started it, we were driving through the red rock formations of southern Utah and it no longer made much sense.  Interestingly, it shares more with Marilynne Robinson's Home than just a setting.  Like Home, it is in part the story of a black sheep's homecoming, except Jess Clark isn't an alcoholic like Jack Boughton--worse, he's a draft dodger, and a vegetarian.  Like Home, A Thousand Acres is concerned with the difficulty of coming home again, and the way that putting things back together can be as disruptive as tearing them apart.

But where Home takes its literary archetypes from the Bible, A Thousand Acres is a straight up re-telling of King LearJess is the Edmund figure, come home to threaten his brother's inheritance, but the focus of the story is on Ginny, whose name is an echo of "Goneril."  The plot is set in motion when Ginny's father, like Lear, prematurely leaves his immense farm (the thousand acres of the title) to his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline.  (Guess which one is which.)

I have said before that adapting Shakespeare is a dangerous move, because it's not likely that you're going to be able to do it better, and even when you do it well half the time the reader is simply reminded of how good Shakespeare is.  What makes A Thousand Acres work in spite of this is a simple tweak Smiley makes in the story: all of the "good" characters from Lear are bad, and the "bad" characters are good.  Ginny's father, Larry, is a cruel and inscrutable old man, who quickly realizes that he has given away his livelihood and responds by lashing out at everyone and driving around Iowa piss drunk.  He rediscovers his love for the distant Caroline only because her demurral of his offer means that she doesn't share in his resentment.  Ginny, on the other hand, does her best to please her tyrannical father, who responds with this parodic version of Lear's epic "Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend / To make this creature fruitful" speech:

He leaned his face toward mine.  "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house."  His voice modulated into a scream.  "Or tell me what I can do and what I can't do.  You barren whore!  I know all about you, you slut.  You've been creeping here and there all your life, making up to this one and that one.  But you're not really a woman, are you?  I don't know what you are, just a bitch, is all, just a dried-up whore bitch."

[Spoiler alert for this paragraph.]  This soliloquy hits especially hard because Ginny has tried and failed for years to have a child, suffering through multiple miscarriages, and her father's accusation that she is a slut becomes tragically ironic when Rose helps Ginny remember late in the novel that their father sexually assaulted them both as children.  The switched valences don't end there--even Ty, Ginny's husband and the Albany figure, is reimagined so that his sympathy with Lear is conceived as a kind pusillanimous avoidance of conflict, and a failure to support his wife in any meaningful way.

Smiley is no Robinson, and the writing itself is nothing to speak of, but the plot spirals out of control in an especially Shakespearean, and violent, way that was refreshing after the plodding pace of Home, which is mostly about people crying around a kitchen table.   I'm not sure, though, what a reader who wasn't familiar with Lear would get out of it--half the fun for me, or even most of it, was seeing the way that each of the characters was flipped. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Home by Marilynne Robinson

What does it mean to come home?  Glory had always thought home would be a house less cluttered and ungainly than this one, in a town larger than Gilead, or a city, where someone would be her intimate friend and the father of her children, of whom she would have no more than three.  Then she could learn what her own tastes were, within the limits of their means, of course.  She would not take one stick of furniture from her father's house, since none of it would be comprehensible in those spare, sunlit rooms.  The walnut furbelows and carved draperies and pilasters, the inlaid urns and flowers.  Who had thought of putting actual feet on chairs and sideboards, actual paws and talons?

She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiance, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent.  She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross that threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust.  Ah well.

Until my recent road trip, I had never been to those corn-strewn centers of the American Heartland: Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa.  I decided that I would only take with me books that took place in those states that were new to me, to immerse myself in them twice over.  I brought Willa Cather's O Pioneers, which I did not read, and two books that take place in Iowa: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Marilynne Robinson's Home.  I was reading the latter when we drove through the southwest corner of Iowa on our way to Omaha from Kansas City.  We were there for only about five minutes before entering Nebraska.  Ah well.

Home tells the same story as Robinson's amazing novel, Gilead: Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the Boughton family, comes home at last, carrying the burden of his estrangement from his wife in St. Louis, who is black.  But instead of telling the story through a first-person narrative, as with the Boughton's friend and neighbor Reverend Ames in Gilead, Home uses the third person, focused on Jack's sister Glory, who has herself recently "come home."  But Ames' voice and reflection were the strength of Gilead, and their absence drains the story of what was most appealing.  Glory, while sensitively and carefully rendered as a character, cannot make up the lack.

I'm not sure what the point of this novel is.   Gilead is the Abraham story, I suppose--the old man blessed with a child late in life, concerned with what kind of inheritance and legacy he will leave.  Home offers the prodigal son story that is ancillary in Gilead, the main focus instead of a B-plot.  And yet, outside of the (pretty vanilla) relationship between Jack and Glory, Home fails to offer any fresh viewpoint on what's already been told.  The most interesting gap in Gilead--the relationship between Jack and his wife in the racially charged St. Louis of the 1950's (sad to say that it seems not much has changed on that front)--remains a gap.

Robinson's writing is characteristically stellar, but the humble Heartland nature of the story bleeds into the prose, which is lacking in the kind of show-stopping pyrotechnics of Housekeeping and, to a lesser extent, Gilead.  Ultimately, however, it's a frustrating read, unsatisfying and unnecessary.  The good news is that Robinson's newest novel, which is about Reverend Ames' wife Lila, comes out in October.  Her character is so mysterious and lightly sketched in these novels that a whole book about her should be illuminating in the way that Home wants and fails to be.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Boris--mildly--cleared his throat and lifted his water glass. "Sorry, may I say something?"

"Is it speechmaking time?  Were we meant to prepare toasts?"

"I thank you all for your company.  And I wish us all health, and happiness, and that we all shall live until the next Christmas."

In the surprised silence that followed, a champagne cork popped in the kitchen, a burst of laughter.  It was just past midnight: two minutes into Christmas Day.  Then my father leaned back in his chair and laughed.  "Merry Christmas!" he roared, producing from his pocket a jewelry box which he slid over to Xandra, and two stacks of twenties (Five hundred dollars! Each!) which he tossed across the table to Boris and me.  And though in the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, words like day and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn't seem quite the doomed or fatal idea.

Theo Decker is in an art museum when a bomb, placed by terrorists, blows up.  In the confusion immediately following, and at the behest of a dying old man, Theo grabs a painting, the Goldfinch (pictured below).  He takes it home, hides it, and then later learns that his mother died in the blast.

After his mother dies, Theo has to deal with child services while they try to figure out what to do with him.  Not wanting to admit that he took this painting (for fear that he would get into trouble), Theo tells no one.  Of course, the longer he does not tell anyone, the more difficult it is for him to come clean. The painting begins to represent Theo's failure to confront and overcome the tragedy of his mother's death.

Although the plot points are not exactly surprise-turns, I nonetheless don't want to spoil anything because much of the dramatic tension of the novel is witnessing Theo's life progressively spiral out of control.  Instead, I'll focus on two points about Tartt's writing that deserve extra attention.

I was pleased to see that this
is an actual painting.
First, Tartt is excellent at writing a character's experience in a way that the character is unaware of something that's going on while the reader is aware.  That's to say, much of this novel revolves around the devastation Theo feels because of his mother's death--however, Theo only rarely narrates his thoughts on his mother's death.  Usually he is narrating whatever is happening, with the reader to interpret how his mother's death is affecting his choices.  This applies too, with other characters in the novel--Theo may be too young, too in self-denial, or too naive to know what other characters are doing, but the reader isn't.

Thus, Brittany told me she heard a podcast where they criticized this book because it's really "young adult" literature.  And, it's true: this is a coming of age novel about a young boy growing up.  However, the "young adult" label is inappropriate here because I think most young adults would fail to understand much of the backstory that Tartt presents.

Second, this novel reminded me of her first novel (and the only other novel of hers that I've read, The Secret History, a novel I adore).  In both, the protagonists lack the self-confidence to assert/affirm their own lives; rather, they need to fall in with other, more assertive characters.  This following of others leads to much of the dramatic tension.  I'm not sure why this speaks to me, but in both novels I sympathized with the protagonists while disagreeing with many of their life choices.  I make this point because often I hate reading novels with bad-life-choices-protagonists.  This novel (and The Secret History) are exceptions to this rule; the quality of Tartt's writing deserves the credit for this.

I can't speak for most Pulitzers, but this book certainly deserved special recognition: it is one of the finest novels I've read in years.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me.

I was thumbing through the recent collection of Muriel Spark's essays, The Informed Air, and was struck by something she said about contemporary literature.  I can't recall it exactly, but her point was that not all good literature is a social good, singling out what she saw as a glut of literature exploring victimization and suffering.  She believed that if we really wanted to see social change through literature, writers must abandon tragedy and turn to comedy and satire; they must make the powerful look ridiculous.

I was reminded of that when reading Invisible Man, because I couldn't help but notice how similar it is to Black BoyRichard Wright and Ralph Ellison were friends, and had strikingly similar experiences which are recounted in the two books: they are Southerners driven north by racial animus (Wright to Chicago, Ellison to New York) where they flirt with Communism before becoming disillusioned with the way that it suppresses their individuality and intellect.  Ellison's unnamed narrator is invisible because, as a black man, whites don't see him--in the opening chapter he talks about savagely beating a white man who bumped him on the street, literally not noticing that he was there--but also because those who claim to want to help him and help black communities are incapable of seeing him as anything but a political tool.

But where Black Boy is the kind of book that Spark warned against, intensely focused on Wright's individual suffering and victimhood, Invisible Man is something wildly different--not a satire, really, but grimly comic, sometimes bordering on the fantastical.  The opening paragraph establishes the narrator (in a mode cribbed from Notes From the Underground) hiding out in a forgotten basement, stealing electricity to power the thousands of lightbulbs with which he has decorated his sanctuary.  That warped sense of not-quite-realism pervades the book, but in a way it is more appropriate than the hyper-realism of Wright, who wants the reader to know exactly what happened to him, when, why, and who.  It is the mode of someone who is shut out from the conventional structures of power, society, and literature.

The narrator begins as an eager young student at a predominantly black Southern university who, as a consequence of an ill-fated job chauffeuring a major donor around town, is sent to New York under false promises of employment by the university president.  There he becomes involved with an organization called the Brotherhood--I'm not sure, but I don't think the book ever uses the term "Communist"--who need his public speaking abilities to advance their cause.  Summarizing the plot this way makes it seem rather straightforward, but the actual experience of the book is chaotic.  In fact, Ellison writes about chaos with a facility that I've never seen before.  A couple scenes stand out: one in the beginning of the book in which the narrator and a number of other black boys take part in a "battle royal" for the prize of a university scholarship, and the brilliant end piece in which Harlem erupts into race riots.

But the one that amazed me the most is the story of the narrator's chauffeuring job.  He inadvertently drives the donor past the house of a poor black man who is reviled for impregnating his own daughter; the donor insists that they stop and talk to the man, who tells them his story.  This is gruesome and outlandish enough, but when the donor becomes faint from shock at the story he's been told, the narrator has nowhere to take him but to a nearby tavern which has been overrun by a group of black veterans from the local insane asylum.  This series of events is preposterous, hilarious, captivating, tragic--utterly ridiculous, but perfectly done.  In the end, the donor is treated by a half-mad veteran doctor who, as the mad do, sees things better than either the donor or the narrator:

"A little child shall lead them," the vet said with a smile.  "But seriously, because you both fail to understand what is happening to you.  You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see--and you, looking for destiny!  It's classic!  And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you.  Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other.  To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less--a black amorphous thing.  And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force--"

The novel is full of terrific stuff like that, but the one other terrific thing that seems necessary to mention is the figure of Ras the Exhorter (laster Ras the Destroyer), a Harlem demagogue who urges the black community to complete separation from whites as well as racial violence.  He pops up now and then opposing the Brotherhood's efforts in Harlem, and his influence leads directly to the race riot of the book's climax.  Check out this description of him at that point:

They moved in a tight-knit order, carrying sticks and clubs, shotguns and rifles, led by Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer upon a great black horse.  The new Ras of a haughty, vulgar dignity, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain; a fur cap on his head, his arm bearing a shield, a cape made of the skin of some wild animal around his shoulders.  A figure more out of a dream than out of Harlem, than out of even this Harlem night, yet real, alive, alarming.

Real, alive, alarming--the poisoned racial atmosphere of America, Ellison shows us, has a way of dredging up nightmares and turning them into reality.  I think this is what Spark was talking about.  For all of Wright's honesty, there's nothing as universally frightening in Black Boy as the image of Ras the Destroyer in his warlord's outfit, wreaking havoc on a Harlem night,