Sunday, November 19, 2017

Our Dirty Glass Castles

photo by Amy Brandon
 
"Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?"
~Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautiful introspectively retrospective novel, but I must admit I had a bipolar relationship with it.  For a while, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it.  The entire novel is a narration of the past by Stevens the Butler, who is the opposite of woke.  I found myself losing patience with his cluelessness and his repression on more than one occasion. Steven’s memory is so colored and re-cast that much of it has become fallacy, a narrative he tells himself as a comfort, as a justification, sometimes almost a celebration, of his existence.  Instead of seeing things as they were, he assauges his own doubts by casting them in a muted, better light, which apparently was his habit throughout his life. Do we all do this, I wonder?  I suppose to an extent, we do.  I suspect forgiveness itself hinges somewhat on being able to forget or at least to temper our memories. How much do any of us have to find a way to excuse and/or justify the choices we have made over a lifetime?  This theme harks back to The Buried Giant, also by Kazuo Ishiguro, where a collective memory wipe was necessary for a group of people to live in peace. 
 
Poor Stevens works so hard to cast his father in the light of the ever-illusive patriarchal perfection and then strives his whole life to live up to the unattainable, imagined standard of a long-dead father. Eventually, Stevens ingratiated himself with me, and I found myself feeling sorry for him, in his bumbling cluelessness, as I often tend to do with bumbling, clueless people in real life.  But now I begin to wonder how much that kind of permissive, maternal sympathy is to blame for the liberal latitudes men have been allowed for centuries? It brings to mind the sociological issue of raising our daughters and loving our sons.  Men like Stevens the Butler want to live in a bubble, and they want the people around them to help them maintain that bubble.  When someone begins to prod at the flimsy walls of self-deception they’ve constructed, they shut down, run away, or lash out.  They use cluelessness or repression or denial or privilege or some combination of these defenses (See Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK) to maintain their slick glass castles in the air, never bothering to look down to see the earth at their feet, where the rest of us stand bearing the burden of their fallacious facades.
 
The Remains of the Day  won me over eventually, and I have now come to miss the voice of Stevens the Butler, but I don't miss his infuriating habit of obsessing on all the wrong things or his constant attempts to justify and explain his past.


 
 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Things You Never Want to Hear Your Mom Say


photo by Amy Brandon
When I was 25, I read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and I fell in love.  I fell in love with Tom Builder and with the story of how he got his name and the history of cathedral building, which felt to me like a history of communal faith itself.  So much of the story felt like something I remembered, as strange as that seemed at the time.  In the age of epigenetics and DNA testing that “remembering”  feels less strange and much more possible now, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Years later, when  the second book, World Without End came out, I was discussing its arrival with one of my friends.  She said, “Yeah, I liked Pillars of the Earth, but I got really tired of all the rape and weird sex stuff.”  I was at a loss for words, because I didn’t even remember any of the sex stuff.   To this day, I have no idea if there is rape and weird sex stuff in Pillars of the Earth, because I haven’t re-read it.  Possibly it’s there, and I ignored it, because I am the Queen of Not Seeing What I Don’t Want to See (again a different post).  Currently, at the ripe old age of 2(25), I now know there is a lot of weird sex stuff out there:  in books, in movies, in TV shows, in comedy routines, and apparently just in life in general.  I do not know why this is.  Do not ask me.  I do not understand because 1. I don’t have a penis (I use penis here in a non-gender specific way as I have met women who, while they don't have a physical penis, have a penis in this regard), and 2. I’m pretty naïve.

Just because I am naïve does not mean I am a prude or a fan of censorship.  I am not easily offended. I love sex. I even like some porn, assuming it's the kind where no one is getting peed on, literally or metaphorically (file that under Things You Never Want to Hear Your Mom Say, so sorry Brandon and Anna).  I can’t think of any kind of sex scene that does not involve one person’s infringement on another person’s dignity that would bother me.  There are plenty of possibilities to write or to draw or to film healthy and inspiring acts of human sexuality.  I am all for all of those. Write them.  Film them.  Draw them.  Share them.  Healthy, consensual sexuality is a beautiful gift worth celebrating. 

But sexual assault is about power.  It is a way for people to empower themselves by asserting dominance over other people.  It is the vehicle by which people attempt to assert dominance by saying,  “It is my right to use your presence, your body, your personhood, your existence in this way, and you have no agency to resist.”  Even within those words lies the power of the disenfranchised. When we resist, when we speak, we take back our power.  When we assert ourselves, when we say, both to ourselves and to the world at large, “You did this. You are the problem.  This was your problem until you spewed it all over me.  I did nothing here except exist,” we are reclaiming our own right to be who we are and to think what we think and to want what we want, separate and apart from any one else.

When we, as a society, consume unhealthy sexuality as entertainment, whether it’s in the form of phrases like “boys will be boys,” or “that’s just locker room talk,” or rape jokes, or the glorification of any person’s non-permissive domination over another person, we perpetuate the myth that domination is acceptable, that somehow, when it becomes art, it becomes above reproach. Art is just like life. There is beauty, and there is perversion. Whether it’s art imitating life or life imitating art, it’s time to stop pretending like any kind of domination is just part of who we are.  Speaking for myself, I'm pretty sure I'm going to punch the next person who grabs my ass without permission.  I'll risk the battery charge.





Sunday, October 29, 2017

Fuzzy Thoughts Are Happy Thoughts?


photo by Amy Brandon

Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did?  Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal. ~Axl in The Buried Giant

I keep telling myself one of these days (soon, I hope, as I am well out of girlhood), I am going to get old enough to be comfortable telling my truth with no carefully chosen language.  I am amazed at how hard it is for me to offer anything that feels like criticism without feeling guilty and second-guessing myself.  My good-girl, hush-girl, smile-girl, play-dumb-girl, Southern Baptist rearing worked a little too well.  I mean for god’s sake I had to preface this blog post with a mini-psychological analysis just to be able to say that my reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was, well…meh.  How do I dare criticize a Nobel-prize winner?

I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy the book, or that I believe the book has no merit.  Not at all.  I have finally, at least, starting abandoning books I do not enjoy at all.  This book I finished in a week, which is a normal time frame for me.  I read a lot of different books at once, so I don’t usually finish a book in less than a week.  Also I think people who pride themselves on  speed-reading are compensating for something.  I don’t even care what. 


I understand  the symbolic lesson of The Buried Giant, and I like it.  If individual memory is a small-time con man, collective memory is an international pyramid scheme.  And the philosophical argument to be had over what’s best:  knowing the truth always versus sometimes maybe fooling yourself or being fooled to assure your own sanity, peace of mind, ability to be happy?  I get it.  I really do.  I suspect there is no constant, dual answer to this question.  The thematic concepts in this novel are great and are well worth the time spent thinking about them.  The presentation didn’t work for me though.  The plot felt disjointed, the dialogue contrived, and the characters just felt confused.  I guess it’s hard to write characters who can’t remember their own past without having them seem addled and confused, but that construct doesn’t do a lot for character development.  Has a character developed just because that character has reclaimed its own memory?  Who are we without our memories?  Ah…but see there we get back into one of the philosophical themes.  So maybe this is a brilliant book.  Maybe I just need to be more enlightened to see it.  Maybe that will come with age.  Oh wait, I’m already old.  So maybe not.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Same Snake, Different Scales

 
 
“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none…It’s like a snake that sheds its skin.  The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.”  ~Richie in Sing.Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing,Unburied Sing turned me inside out, put another crack in my heart, and turned on another light in my brain.  How can one small book harbor so many of  today’s heart-breaking headlines:  the tragedy of how we treat one another because of something as shallow as skin pigmentation, the epidemic of rural drug addiction and the damage it does to families, the never-ending scourge of poverty and the way it leaves its victims voiceless for generations, and the unjust, ineptly named judicial system in America and the damage it does to us all.  Somehow, Ward shines a light on all of these while telling an engaging story and creating complex, nuanced characters that I expect we will remember for a long time.

Before I was through the first chapter, I loved JoJo as a precocious, wounded, strong, promising 13-year-old young man.  By the time I reached the scene where the sheriff’s deputy pulls the gun on him, I was floored by my own shocked, naïve reaction.  My mind went to “No, you can’t do that.  He’s just a child.  That’s not right.  That couldn’t happen.”  And then I remembered that it happens every day somewhere in America, very often with more tragic results than JoJo’s luck in that scene.  That’s when I realized how sheltered, how unaware on a visceral level  I am of what young  black men in America live and how overwhelmingly frightening it must be to be the parent of a black child.  Even though I try to be compassionate and empathetic, I don’t have the experience, the ability to understand.  It’s truly unfortunate that the people in power in this situation are also the people who have no capacity to understand the nature of its insidious truths.  How will we ever get anywhere? Maybe by beginning to understand that we cannot understand.

Ward’s recognition this week by the MacArthur Foundation encourages me to look forward to more novels from her in the coming years.  I haven’t read her National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, but I intend to just as soon as I can handle another emotionally wrenching novel.  I understand it too is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  I have a feeling both novels are just two of the stories the lyrical, perceptive Ward eventually will give us, and I know we will be better for receiving them.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Our Shadow Selves


photo by Amy Brandon


“Of course I know what I want, she thought, but when she opened her mouth she found it empty.”
Lydia in Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng


It’s dark and rainy, and I love it.  I’m beginning to prefer days like these, to find comfort and revelation in the dark as well as in the light. My friend, Carrie, said she found Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng a bit dark for her taste.  I remember wondering before I read it if I might feel the same.  I usually don’t like dark books, but for some reason I didn’t have a problem with this one.  Maybe because it is written in such a way that I knew Lydia was dead in the first three words so I never became emotionally attached to her.  I read the book more as an interesting study of the dysfunctional way we interact with each other, especially within our families. 


I liked the structure of the book – the way Ng seems to scatter random pieces of the plot and then slowly pick them up and tie them together. Even though you know the main plot point from sentence one, tension, uncertainty, and suspense still build as Ng reveals the how and why of Lydia’s death.  The reasons we hide our truths from one another are various, but the end result is the same:  dishonesty leads to discord and sometimes to tragedy.  Like Lydia, many of us aren’t even able to admit our truths to ourselves.  It seems all of the characters in Everything I Never Told You are hiding both from themselves and from those closest to them.  Hidden truths become bent in the hiding and what was beautiful becomes disfigured.  There are few things more beautiful than a fully-realized human who has the courage to live her truth, and there are few things more dangerous than its opposite. Why do we feel compelled to hide from each other as if any of us is anything other than fully human? This book is a study in what happens when we repress our truths and don’t learn to express them before it’s too late to prevent tragedy.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Just Mind the Freaking Sheep




"There are larger rhythms than just our human rhythms.  It's when we think our rhythms are the only noise, that's when we get in trouble.  How do we stop jabbering long enough to hear something beyond ourselves?" ~John Hay

"In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger."  ~ Annie Dillard


I’ve had a hard time getting my thoughts together about David Gessner’s The Prophet of Dry Hill:  Lessons from a Life in Nature.   As I understand it, Gessner began the project intending to write a biography of John Hay, the naturalist author who lived and wrote on Cape Cod in the Twentieth Century.  Lived and wrote may be an understatement in Hay’s case, as it seems John Hay embodied all that was best about Cape Cod prior to its being infected with the cultural equivalent of small pox. Eventually, Gessner decides to write mostly a recording of his conversations with Hay instead of a true biography.

So many ideas are presented and in such a tangential, conversational way that it has taken me about a week to begin to get a handle on them. The most important idea I took away from these conversations is that we keep getting it all so wrong.  Generation after generation, we mindlessly misunderstand our role here and in so doing continue to defile the planet.  We keep running after the wrong things:  money, power, prestige, control, domination, chasing the ever-illusive golden fleece when the whole time we simply should be tending the sheep.  John Hay was one of few people who realized this, thus the word prophet in the title, bringing to mind something Enrique Martinez Celaya said when Krista Tippet interviewed him a few months ago:  "The prophet is not a martyr or mystic who seeks transcendence but one who turns humbly and curiously toward the world."  I would ask that we all try to remember that anything that is beautiful even for one moment and touches the soul of just one person has value and purpose and deserves to be treated with respect.












Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Innocent Murderess



 
How many times have I aimlessly wandered the aisles of a bookstore picking up and putting down books whose covers catch my eye? How many of those times have the books I've bought either collected the dust of years on shelves unread or been read and completely forgotten?  One mislaid day in 2002, the book goddess smiled on me, and I happened upon my first Margaret Atwood. I had no idea who she was at the time and have no idea to this day why, on one of my rambles through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of Alias Grace. What I do know is that for the next 15 years, if pressed to choose a favorite book, this random treasure was it. All my life, I've read so much that I struggle to choose a favorite book, but somehow and for reasons I still don't fully understand, this one caught me.  After all the intervening years and so many more books, including new Atwoods, I will have to revise my assessment to say Alias Grace is now one of my favorite books.

This summer, my daughter read it for the first time and urged me to re-read it. As usual, in Alias Grace, Atwood defies easy categorization.  Psychological thriller, historical fiction, gothic mystery, interpersonal drama, character development and study, elements of all those fill the pages of this entertaining read. Just like many of the novel’s characters, I found myself captivated and haunted by the ever elusive Grace. Is she a cold-hearted, calculating murderess or a naïve, innocent rube?  Or, as I suspect, like most of us, is she much more complex and nuanced, harboring some qualities of both?

Maybe the not knowing, the uncertainty is the point. Once again, Margaret Atwood proves to be prescient. With all the recent discoveries about the fallibility of memory, with all the current failings of justice in our country and our world, and with some of our deepest spiritual leaders finally beginning to address the darkness as well as the light in all of us, we would all do well to learn to pause and think and reserve judgment more often than passing it.  The cautionary tale of Grace Marks teaches us, if nothing else, that the voiceless and the vulnerable are always the easiest to blame.  But is that kind of easy injustice what we want to embrace?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Second Half-Century

 
Anna at Guedelon
photo by Amy Brandon


As I have neared and now passed age 50 over the last couple years, I find myself changing slowly, like a jagged mountain eroding into a smooth stone, more likely now to be prone to naps than to tempests.  As my emotions settle, my mind seems to wake and clear, and my reading interests move in different directions.  Often,  I find myself reading ten or eleven books at a time now. This became possible only when I learned to let go of goal-oriented reading.  Usually, eventually, I will finish what I start, but not always.  Even if I don’t finish, I still find I take something positive away from most books.  I look at reading now more like mining for gold dust than like searching for the Hope Diamond.  Not every book is a diamond, but most contain at least a little pretty dust.

Right now, at this point in my life, I feel like I’m reaching the end of the person I was and am on the cusp of a new and different person.  I hope this new person will be able to write more. I’ve missed writing about what I’ve read.  For a time I came to feel like I either didn’t have anything new to say or wasn’t able to express what I was thinking. Maybe we all have to get quiet and shut down for a while to clear our minds for new thoughts and new ways of being.  Wisdom seems to come at a glacial pace, if it comes at all, no matter how many books I devour, but I will keep on devouring them, looking for those traces of gold dust.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Miss the Log in the Mirror Every Time



"The high point of my day was seeing Frank emerge from the chrysalis of his closet to unfurl his sartorial wings." 

My Book Guru is three for three so far this year.  It's time for another dinner and book discussion so I can get some more ideas! Her third recommendation, Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is an entertaining little novel about a reclusive author and her ten-year-old autistic son and their "forced" cohabitation and interaction with an assistant from the author's publishing house.

MM Banning (Mimi) is a literary one hit wonder. Upon publication, her only novel becomes a huge hit, quickly earning its place in the school canon, and its author just as quickly retreats into herself, literally and figuratively, and is not heard from again for many years.  (Shades of Harper Lee's life.) During this reclusive period, Mimi mysteriously becomes the mother of an autistic son.  He is her only relative and she his, and for a while, all is well, until she becomes the victim of a scam artist and realizes she needs to produce another book to provide financial security for herself and her son, Frank. In order to write, Mimi needs help tending Frank, thus the presence of Alice, the assistant who serves as the book's narrator, in Banning's home.  Given Frank's propensities, this task becomes almost Herculean in the effort it requires. Most of the book centers around Alice's attempt to find a way to develop a relationship with Frank. I won't say more.  If you want to know how this turns out, read the book.

Several of the novel's themes resonated with me, especially given our current cultural climate. Both Mimi and Frank, each in her or his own way, are almost too sensitive to exist in our society as it stands now. When are we going to learn not only to accept but to embrace and celebrate difference?   It's way past time for us to grow up and stop being threatened by and afraid of difference among us. That's what our bent toward tribalism and isolationism really is...fear.  We are so afraid of those who are different that we band together en masse to expel them from our sight.  How far removed is this from the practice of leaving our weak for the wolves?  Think about that every time you find yourself telling someone to find a way to fit in or to "get over" injustice.  How do we, as a society, respond to people who perpetrate banal and sophomoric cruelties like the ones Frank has to endure in this lovely little novel? Do we reject them, or do we elect them?  Funny how we seem to be able to see the cruelty in others' stories but not in our own.  To paraphrase one of my favorite teachers:  we see the splinter in someone else's eye from 50 feet but miss the log in the mirror every time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Undermajordomo Minor


photo by me

"His heart was a church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows."

Thanks once again to my friend, Jennifer, for a fantastic reading recommendation!  I think I'm going to appoint her my Book Guru.  I hope she will find the title pay enough.  Feel free to use it as a resume builder, Sister.

When she recommended Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, she said that she had no idea how to describe it or how to explain why she liked it.  I completely concur with that assessment.  It's a quirky novel full of likable characters and witty, engaging dialogue, but I don't really know how to explain exactly what it's about or even why I found it so compelling.  The best description I can come up with is an allegorical fairy-tale-type coming-of-age story about a lovable, dishonest and somewhat self-centered young man who leaves home, gets robbed, gets unrobbed, gets a job, falls in love with his robber's daughter, makes friends with said robber among others, makes enemies, gets murdered, gets unmurdered, finds himself abandoned, becomes unjobbed, and embarks on a quest to find his love and life.  How's that?

Here's what I know for sure:  I loved just about every minute of this book and miss the characters and their snappy dialogue and insouciant attitudes like people I wish I knew.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Norwegian By Night


photo by me
"Most things are both true and absurd." Sheldon/Donny 

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Jennifer, I started 2017 off with an entertaining, quirky little book.  Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part introspective journal of an 82-year-old, Jewish-American, Korean War vet named Sheldon who is also named Donny.

In the last few years I seemed to have been drawn to anything set in Scandinavia, so I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside as Sheldon/Donny attempts to elude both the Norwegian police and the KLA mafia-type bad guy whose son Sheldon/Donny has inadvertently kidnapped.

The book kept my interest and was a great diversion during the snow storm this weekend. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I will definitely read his other work.  If you need a quick and entertaining read, I highly recommend this one.  Even better, I found it on Kindle for $1.99.

Our Dirty Glass Castles

photo by Amy Brandon   "Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?" ~Miss Kenton in The Remains of the...