Category Archives: reading

At 3:00 am

When I rise in the early hours, I love to look out the window on my way downstairs. It’s quiet out there. Dark. Unlike a sunshine shadow, a streetlight shadow carries an air of mystery and force, as if it might unhitch itself from its creator (in this case a bent maple branch) and walk off — probably to work mischief somewhere.

Last night sleeplessness might’ve been caused by an unshakeable sense of unease about not going up to Salem this weekend (a feeling my sister graciously dispelled this morning). Or, it might’ve been the bombshell NYTimes reporting late yesterday about our president being under surveillance as a national security risk (which sounds like the same old same old but certainly isn’t).

But mostly, it’s this body I inhabit, this time of life. Sleep just doesn’t come sometimes.

After reading twitter and watching Maddow, I finished reading this debut novel in the wee hours. Tommy Orange graduated from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

One of the characters tells us early on that Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland, the novel’s setting, and upon her return after being away for many years, said (in her inimitable style): “There is no there there.”

When those words are quoted by a white gentrifier in passing to one of the Native characters (who is both Indian and native to Oakland), it takes on the weight of history. “There is no there there” could be the catch phrase for genocide. The Oakland Native character is well read enough to know, too, that Stein used the phrase to describe change and not really to say something about the place itself and so the remark is both insulting and ignorant. That gives you a feel for the book’s themes and occupations.

The novel is haunting, sad (really sad), and at times funny. Family is central. There are parents who vanish and parents who are doing the best they can but falling far short of the mark. There are the lingering scars of a devastating history. In one review, Orange said, “We are the memories we don’t remember.”* The book’s main and final event, a first-time powwow in Oakland, provides a canvas to explore a range of relationships to Indian culture — from celebratory to ambivalent to predatory.

There were a lot of characters to keep track of, so this novel would benefit from a second read. By the time of the denouement, I had trouble remembering who everyone was which makes me think this story would make a better movie than novel.

But it’s a good novel.

* NYTimes review by Colm Toibin.

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 rooting for her 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 alongside the punitive, degrading structures of slavery. The story is vividly set along the Chesapeake Bay. We are treated to visual details of the unique boggy, watery landscape and its oyster economy.

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. He said, “Thirty pages into ‘Beloved,'” 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 was: “why another novel about slavery?” Whitehead offered a two part response. The first part 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 then offered the second part of his answer. He 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, Whitehead said that 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].

 

Weekend getaway

My home for the next three and a half days is in Plymouth, Mass. along with between seven and twelve other women, depending on the day. The house sprawls up three floors with bathrooms at every turn, but not surprisingly, the favorite spot for everyone is the east-facing porch.

The day is breezy. Not hot. Not cool. With that briny smell of the Atlantic.

I’ll finish the novel I brought along, cook a few dishes, enjoy conversation, walk on the beach, and if I’m lucky, compete in a couple of rousing games of Scrabble.

This was planned ages ago, but it turns out to be a well-timed respite after: two grueling days of planting trees (more on that later); suffering a minor crisis of confidence from which I have yet to fully emerge; and holding down the fort while K traveled around Asia for twelve days.

To end with a laugh, check out the snack I just set out. I’m calling it: Kitty Litter Surprise. It’s delicious organic pumpkin seeds and almond-coated dates, but oh what an awful presentation!

Enjoy the weekend! I’ll be back with more pictures later.

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.

Ward and Northup

I finished four books in the first week of 2018, a fact that’s a little less impressive given that I’d already read 2/3’s of one and 1/2 of another and that one of them was a slender volume of poems. And Shakespeare? The text is limited to the facing pages, so that went fast, too. Also: I tend to be terrific out of the gate, flag at the mid-range and die towards the end. The real test for this challenge (#theunreadshelfproject2018) will be mid-summer and fall.

Jesmyn Ward’s book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has everything (except sex): addiction, death, redemption, a road trip, one character’s coming of age, parenting (both deficient and exemplary), prison and release, the long shadow of slavery, and ghosts.

Set in contemporary Mississippi, the story features three generations and centers on themes of caregiving, racism, and secrets. There are acts of self-destruction and acts of mercy. The author also takes an interesting look at the porous line between death and life.

The elders, who are both African Americans, take care of their two bi-racial grandchildren. Their drug addicted daughter, Leoni, drives north to pick up her white husband, who’s about to be released from Parchman Prison. Leoni gathers up her 13 year old son, her toddler daughter, and a friend for the drive. That journey parallels two others that are happening simultaneously: the journey of her cancer-ridden mother toward death and that of her son, who approaches adulthood by grappling with the harsh truths around him, some of which have previously been secret.

I can tell you without spoiling too much that the novel features two ghosts. Early on, we learn that Leoni’s brother was “accidentally” killed by her husband’s cousin (we are meant to see it otherwise). She can see her brother’s ghost, but only when she’s high, a fact that made her addiction both more complicated and understandable. The other ghost appears to her son during the drive to Parchman. He is a former inmate and will be instrumental in releasing a long-held secret of Leoni’s father.

The 13 year old boy is a better caretaker of his sister than their mother, something that causes Leoni no end of defeated bitterness. The scenes of mother lashing out in frustration are rendered well and, for obvious reasons, hard to take. We see one of the costs of drug abuse up close and personal.

The author shifts point of view by chapter so that we get different perspectives throughout, but every chapter features haunting, gritty, and lyrical prose.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To follow Jesmyn Ward’s book with a slave narrative made for powerful and damning echoes. [Trump’s “shithole countries” comment came two days ago, so there is no escaping the specter of white supremacy these days, said a person with white privilege].

One of the most startling parallels between Ward’s novel and Northup’s narrative can be found in the labor scenes. It was shocking but not shocking that the field work scenes depicted at Parchman Prison were barely distinguishable from those of a plantation (think: patrollers and dogs; unpaid labor. Think: Ava DuVernay’s “The Thirteenth”).

Both Ward’s novel and Solomon Northup’s story contain details of racially animated violence almost too awful to bear.

I won’t go more into the slim and eloquent “Twelve Years a Slave” because I imagine many of you have seen the film, except to say this : reading the narrative is very worthwhile even if you’ve seen Steve McQueen’s movie. To hear the words of this free black is powerful. To slow down and see the world through his eyes, also powerful.

Also read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an issue of the literary journal, Rattle.

Literary intentions

Here are the books I want to read this year. They’ve been culled from the many, many unread books in the house.

There are two complementary goals in #theunreadshelfproject: one is to read books already in possession and the other is to put the brakes on book-buying. For me, there’s a tertiary goal: to finish books I’ve already started (about 1/3 of those pictured).

And of course, I want to read more.

Our current political nightmare has turned me into a news consumer, a fact both good and bad. Good, because I need to know what’s going on. Bad, because — well, you know why — because it’s all so overwhelming, alarming and disturbing. Also bad, because it means sacrificing other reading.

Seeing “Top Ten Books of 2017” on Instagram this week made me wonder: had I even read ten books over the previous twelve months? (I had and then some, but lax tracking also wants improving).

So. My shelf is sagging with weighty non-fiction, and since I prefer as a rule to read fiction, these 30 books represent an unbelievably ambitious goal.

And look at the size of the James and Mathiesson novels!

That’s okay. This is about intention and focus and not about making myself miserable. It’s also about changing my relationship to COMPLETION.

Each of the two books that I’ve already finished this year (yes! that’s two books in two days!) spawned ideas for future reading. I could just line titles up on an Amazon wishlist or a Goodreads TBR shelf, but the former is inescapably a shopping site and the latter bugs me for a bunch of reasons, so I’ll make a standing post here instead.

Bear with me while I figure this out.

Meanwhile, we’re bracing for a “bomb cyclone” : up to 12” of snow is on the way, along with nearly hurricane force winds (more the Cape and the Islands, but also here), all to be followed by record shattering cold (they’re predicting -10 to -20 for the weekend). Because of the Super Full Moon two days ago, flooding from storm surge is a real possibility along the coast, too.

I just hope we don’t lose power.

At 17 degrees, Finn and I worked up a good sweat playing fetch this morning. I sniffed the air. Doesn’t smell like snow yet!