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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history of his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

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This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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After wasting two evenings on a book I could not get into (One Part Woman — unlikeable characters, glacial plot), I turned to another Europa Editions book: The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. It’s a page turner, unlike many of Europa’s titles. In fact, last night I put my iPad down and tried to go to sleep and then tossed and turned for a long time, wondering what was going to happen and why the main character couldn’t see what was happening.

This book has a LOT of moving parts. It’s mainly the story of Jay Gladstone, a very wealthy real estate magnate and NBA owner, and how his life — and all his good fortune — falls apart. But woven into Gladstone’s story are many smaller stories, casting a bright light on a number of unsavory aspects of modern American society.

There’s an ambitious DA who wants to run for governor and makes decisions on two cases of white men killing black men based only on her electoral calculations, and not on justice. There is a ridiculous, expensive liberal arts college where people create their own majors and children play at being revolutionaries — until it isn’t play anymore. There is media that is out only for the sound of its own highly amplified voice, regardless of whether the stories it reports are true in any way. There are callous, spoiled rich wives, conniving family members, a hacker for hire, a radicalized ex-con Imam, overpaid athletes and the entourages they support. There is racism, anti-semitism, and all the other tensions and biases our culture holds around gender, sexual preference, class, power and its lack.

Jay Gladstone is a pleasingly complicated character, but he’s a man who truly tries to be good, and for a fair bit of the book I was waiting for him to be vindicated. Yes, he’s a little pompous, and a little too sure of his own position in life, and he blunders around making things worse, but it seems like his being brought low might have caused a transformation. Readers, however, don’t get to see what happens when he hits bottom, for reasons I can’t explain without giving too much away. Still, watching him fight to hang onto life as he knows it is a challenge (I found myself telling him to wake up and stop being stubborn), given that his rotten, conceited, dishonorable, selfish cousin seems to get away with his most grievous transgression.

A villain worth despising, a hero who isn’t perfect but makes the reader want to root for him, some terrific supporting characters you’ll love to love and hate. The frothy world of the rich and influential, with enough regular people to draw a contrast. It’s a novel Jane Austen could love — full of references to culture and society and brimming with the vagaries of human nature.  I enjoyed it, even though I thought the end was a little rushed, and a bit of a let down. But overall, a smart, sharp-eyed, entertaining, engrossing story.  Just don’t read it right before bed, or you’ll be mulling over which twists and turns Gladstone should have seen and what he could have done differently until late into the night.

 

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually put the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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