Category Archives: books

Three good books

Finished a debut novel last week called, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.” Not sure why Reese Witherspoon called it “incredibly funny” because it relates the experience of a thirty year old woman with severe PTSD who suffers a breakdown. The character sometimes makes wry observations or off-beat statements, but they don’t rise to the level of even cringe humor, never mind hilarity.

Eleanor Oliphant is an unlikable protagonist at the novel’s outset. Having built defenses reliant on rigid adherence to rules, she is smug, anti-social, and arrogant. Until a guy from work takes her on as a friend, she seems doomed to a lonely and essentially vapid life, and we don’t really care.

But then, a series of circumstances loosens something inside our heroine, causing her armor to slip and soon we are routing for her, cheering on her recovery while at the same time gaining more and more details about an unimaginably awful childhood (with a surprise twist at the end).

Too often in tales of recovery, the healing process is given short shrift. Not here. The author provides grit and descriptions of credible growth. Oliphant’s recovery stands as something more than a literary band aid in service of a happy-ish ending.

“Happy-ish.”  Like that?

A worthwhile, relatively quick, read.


Skip the following if you read my captions on Instagram.

The next book, “Song Yet Sung,” by James McBride, is another quick and worthwhile read. McBride creates tons of suspense for a historic novel. There are really great characters, like the Wooly Man (a huge African American living wild in the swamps). the Dreamer (enslaved clairvoyant making a run for it), Patty (a ruthless slave catcher, owner and trader) and Gimp (another slave catcher with notorious skills who comes out of retirement to catch the Dreamer). There is flight, child theft, secrecy, hope and corruption. The story is vividly set along the Chesapeake Bay. As a side benefit to following a captivating tale, I learned about the oyster economy, ‘watermen,’ and was treated to visual details of the unique boggy, watery landscape.

One of my favorite parts of the story is McBride’s description of the intricate, secretive and effective ways that the enslaved communicated with one another.

James McBride wrote another piece of historic fiction more recently in 2013, “The Good Lord Bird,” which won the National Book Award. I think I liked “Song Yet Sung” better.

Another prize-winning novel featuring enslaved characters is Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” I won’t comment on the story so much, because there are so many reviews online, but, I heard the author speak a few months back in Brookline, Mass., and thought I’d share some of my notes.

First you should know, Whitehead was hilarious — I mean, seriously funny — which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me, but did. He started with some comments on how he got into writing, noting that he’d have ‘preferred to be a sickly child, but it didn’t work out that way.’ He was not into sports growing up, but loved comic books and Stephen King, making his first literary ambition, apparently, to write ‘the black Salem’s Lot.’He offered a lot of sober, self-deprecating biography about rejection, noting how early on in the life of a writer, “No one likes you. No one wants to read your crap.” After taking on the subject of slavery, he naturally picked up Toni Morrison. “Thirty pages into ‘Beloved,'” he said, “I said to myself, ‘Fuck. I’m screwed.'” But then he noted that there will always be someone more talented and smarter than you that has already done it — not a reason to stop.

Before taking questions from the audience, he answered a couple that are frequently posed. The first is: “why another novel about slavery?” His first response was funny: “I guess I could’ve written about upper middle class whites who feel sad sometimes, but there are a lot of those books.”

More seriously, Whitehead pointed out that slavery lasted for a couple of centuries; World War II lasted for six years. No one asks, “why another novel about World War II?”  There were two movies about DUNKIRK alone last year. So, let that sink in.

To charges that slavery stories must be told in a historically factual manner, he said he felt no responsibility to the reader to tell the story a certain way. “I’m not a trustworthy person,” he said, “but I trust my reader to tell it’s fiction.”

Apparently, this trust is not always warranted for he has been asked on more than one occasion if there really was an actual underground railroad (in the novel, there is).

He defended his approach by saying: “I won’t stick to facts, but I’ll stick to the truth.” The construct of a physical underground railroad, apparently, facilitated his conversation with history.

Three GREAT books!

What have you read lately that really impressed you — anything?
[no links at the moment, sorry! have some glitchy issues with the internet at the moment].

 

Follow through

Finishing books that I abandoned after reading 100 or so pages is having a curiously strong impact on my sense of self. Who’d have thunk? It’s empowering! Since the New Year, I’ve completed a handful of books that, absent the #theunreadshelfproject (Instagram), I might never have finished.

With that in mind, I’d like to experiment with follow through here.

This is me: tomorrow I’ll post about unreliable narrators. Then: silence.

I may then write about the topic privately; I may not. But the point is — here there’s a hanging intention, a risk left unmet.

They are often tricky topics about race or my writing or both. I get nervous talking about my novel as if to do so is to jinx it or, almost as bad, to publicly shame myself for not being done yet.

Because some planned posts involve historic references and/or nuanced ideas about ownership of stories, I can’t bang them out the normal way. “The weather’s this. Patchwork is that.” I need time. And courage.

But, the posts don’t have to be perfect, either. The ideas don’t need to be fully fleshed out. And, though this is not best practice, I don’t even have to include all the necessary attributions at the time of publication. This isn’t scholarship, after all.

I’ve already had the experience of readers giving me important clarifications or details. And encouragement. Why wouldn’t I keep availing myself of that?

So deep breath.

Austin Kleon, from “Steal Like An Artist” speaks to this.

Jude Hill models this day in and day out. One way of looking at my intention here is that I want to apply a spiritcloth approach to historic fiction. In so doing, I hope to exemplify another of Kleon’s big ideas (one that is often misunderstood) which is to say that “Stealing like an Artist” means trying to think like people we admire. It doesn’t mean trying to copy what they make (although he attempts to normalize that as well, noting that all artists learn by copying and if you want to be good copy, not one, but many).

Well, this turned into a little Kleon book review which was not my intention!

Bye!

PS We got more than a foot of snow and a fourth nor’easter is on the way. Honestly, as long as K is not in Asia (which he was for the first two), I don’t care.

Hold the sugar

This pink t-shirt emblazoned with a pithy statement supports The Slave Dwelling Project. Don’t you love getting bling for your contributions? I do. Or maybe this was a straight out purchase. I don’t remember. In any case, this is a particularly good cause, one offering experiences like the one I had with the group in Medford, Mass. in 2014 (posted about here).

Revealingly, when I looked for the shirt this morning I mis-remembered the statement as, “I like my history Black with a little bit of sugar.” Hmmmm. Probably accurate, though my reading list would suggest otherwise (PS, I finally finished all 500+ pages of “The Warmth of Other Suns”).

I love it when friends challenge me. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a FB friend from high school pointed out two important facts: 1) the number of school shootings being reported by Everytown for Gun Safety is highly inflated, counting, for instance, a suicide in the parking lot of a school that’d been closed for seven months and the accidental discharge of a weapon in a man’s glove box in a school parking lot (no one was hurt), and 2) there are more gun laws in areas with high numbers of POC (which is to say, whites are scared shitless of black people carrying weapons).

Article about Everytown’s inflated numbers here.

Atlantic article about race and gun laws here.

Neither of these points, while well-taken, change my view that Americans are in urgent need of sensible gun regulations.

The non-inflated number of school shootings in the first seven weeks of 2018, by the way, is FIVE. Isn’t that shocking enough?

Meanwhile on a more personal front, the list of items I cannot find is getting annoying. I located the notebook from writing class, but still can’t find my earbuds (I wore them yesterday) or the external hard drive that I back my manuscript up on (I’ll save to a thumb drive ’til I locate it, but really?). That’s been missing for at least a week.

Speaking of manuscripts: there’s a solid chance that my first foray into the publishing world will be a bust. If so, I’m prepared to accept the rejection as a badge of honor. If it comes, the ding will stand as a sign that I’m putting myself out there, while also initiating me into a literary club absolutely littered with rejection notices.

Not a prediction and not feeling of defeat. Just saying.

We rearrange

It’s a mistake to think people are creative. They don’t create anything. What they do is rearrange things.

Novelist Mark Helprin interviewed 10-5-17 on the podcast, “The Avid Reader“.

Prior to that, he said, “You have to have models [to write about]. We have only what we are given in creation. We don’t create anything. All we can do is interpret it.

He’s one of those superb writers who’s had an incredibly interesting life, like Louise Erdrich (with her 1/2 German, 1/4 Native, 1/4 French ancestry (talk about a cast of characters!)). Turns out that as a boy, Helprin lived in a Parisian house that had safeguarded a Jewish family in its attic for years. Imagine what those walls had to tell a young child!

It’s important to remind a person like myself that every life is interesting in some measure. And besides, my life, to use his logic, is what I was given.

He also talked about how often writers’ first novels are autobiographical. He didn’t think so at the time but now sees it to be true.

His new novel is the first he’s ever set in contemporary time. I can’t wait to read it.

Meanwhile, my antique-dealing neighbor who sold his house put even more treasures on the curb today. I snagged a triptych — with hinges that work in both directions! I’ve wanted one for years. I mean, years. Our family room has a large opening to the cellar stairs which acts as a conduit for cold air. The temperature issue’s been partly resolved by hanging one fluffy blanket over the cellar door and another over the dog gate. But still, I’m thrilled.

I’m going to make some collage packs for Newton Open Studios and include some of this gorgeous Chinese-scribed paper. If you, dear reader, would like to receive a collage pack, leave a comment below saying so and I’ll draw a name next week.

There are no reliable narrators

“There are no reliable narrators,” said writer Matthew Klam recently.*

Even the stories we recite about ourselves shift with every telling, according to recent neurological studies (TED talk; no cite yet).

Add a dash of race, the legacy of slavery and questions of voice and you come to even thornier questions regarding authorship.

I’ll have some (more) rambling thoughts about this topic tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a link to the podcast, “Still Processing: Detroit and Confederate and Who Owns Stories about Blackness?” Two culture critics for the NYTimes, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, attempt to answer some of these questions.

PS. I may’ve already shared this link. If so – forgive! It’s a signal of how good I found it!

* I haven’t read this novel yet but did hear the author interviewed by Teri Gross.

2019 Reading List (in progress)

Trevor Noah memoir. I just love him. What else do I need to say?

I read Frank for her wonderful descriptions of the Lowland landscape.

Read Myles’s “Afterglow” after getting it for Christmas. I’m going to be a die hard fan. Why hadn’t I heard of her? She kinda blew the top of my head off.

(Already have an e-version of this. Husband reading, January ’17).

(2017 Christmas gift) (read “Remains of the Day” years ago)

(2017 Christmas gift) (read “Bel Canto” years back).

The novel begins with an illicit kiss that leads to an affair that destroys two marriages and creates a reluctantly blended family. In a series of vignettes spanning fifty years, it tells the story of the six children whose lives were disrupted and how they intertwined. Wikipedia

These two books on writing came from article listing 16 texts on subject.

Choose Listen

A fluffy snow fell. I slept late. Tried not to feel guilty. On our walk (trusty ear buds in place) a little of my soul was restored by the smart pundits behind “Pod Save America”.

(this morning’s main point: pleeeease people! It’s not the fucking profanity that offends, it’s the underlying racial animus).

Off to the page. This morning already written a few paragraphs wondering what it’ve been like to see your breath for the first time as an underdressed bondwoman from Africa?

I will leave you with with an excerpt from this week’s reading:

“We follow the speaker and their shifting states, look at their shirt (do I want it?) carefully examining their shoes, taking their pulse in terms of the rhythmic pitch, the seismic by which we know what is going on in the ocean on earth right here in the room in terms of information mattering. Each of us is a cell of that potential knowledge cluster, that mammoth great dog being lead right now through the cosmos.

More and more of us came and the patterns got swifter and the knowing entirely disassembled and we will never reassemble it again but instead we now return to knowing’s just before. It is attractive.

To add. I did this in my childhood too. And you too else you would not be here. In adulthood we must relearn the wisdom of the young who feels her inside while she is being taught she is wrong. To abide in the totalitarian, to survive one must look straight into the face of the nun or whoever and muse. Yet this brought so much upon me. Warily I learned not to absorb their enmity. Choose listen.”

Eileen Myles, Afterglow (a dog memoir).

PS if you’re an SNL fan, there are strong echoes with Aidy Bryant’s recent Weekend Update performance, in which Aidy Bryant apologizes every other second and tries to craft her message about equality in a manner palatable to men.