One of the things you can do when you’ve been awake since one and puttering about since three, is watch the sunrise.
Earlier: I bathed in moonlight. It’s a waning gibbous moon, but very bright. There were shadows.
In a show of solidarity, Finn followed me out and after sitting close and nudging my hand for scratches, curled up in my armpit. That’s the kind of moment dogs give you over and over, willingly and without reserve.
I was lying on the grass on my hard plastic bolster. It may or may not do anything corrective for my spine, that bolster, but every time I stretch my length on it, I groan with pleasure.
Back release under the moonlight. That’s about as radical as it gets these days!
Usually when I don’t sleep, I don’t have to be concerned about accomplishing much the following day. Today company is coming for a patio dinner.
I worry about these encounters, a little. I keep reading about people who “did everything right” and found themselves sick with Covid19 anyway. One such tale centered around an outdoor dinner, no other known possible exposure.
On the other hand, a psychologist friend seeded the idea this week that a kind of de-socialization is taking place. We’re forgetting how to interact with one another. So it seems important to do this. To visit and connect.
Earlier (but after moonlight): finished a memoir by Abigail Thomas. I’d already read the one where she talks about how her husband was mowed down on a NYC street and left with a traumatic brain injury. A Three Dog Life. Well worth the read.
What Comes Next and How to Like It features really great stuff about aging, friendship, relationships with kids and grandkids. Memory. Illness. She’s a dog person big time, so there’s that, too.
I recommended this book to a friend who’s writing a memoir in part because of how short and sweet many of Thomas’s chapters are — almost like diary entries, often no more than two paragraphs long. Somehow, it makes the business of constructing a memoir seem more doable.
Have to share with you a great new term picked up on Twitter: DOOM SCROLLING.*
No definition required, right?
I did that before I got out of bed. In case you’re inclined to suggest that I not expose myself to toxic terrifying national news while lying awake in the middle of the night — let me just say, I wasn’t gonna sleep anyway.
Don’t mind me. I’m trying to figure out how to organize content. A little. I’ve read some really great books since Christmas and want to force my hand here, so I’m dedicating this week (mostly) to books.
First up: Educated by Tara Westover. This award-winning memoir is a page turner. An inspiration. Like “Hillbilly Elegy,” it’s a tale about the elevating and redemptive powers of education. While JD Vance overcame neglect, poverty, and a community riddled by addiction, Westover overcame the damaging isolation of a survivalist childhood, physical and emotional abuse, and her father’s severe mental illness. I agree with the NY Times review that stated, “‘Educated’ makes Vance’s tale seem tame by comparison.”
A Mormon with eyes on the Rapture, Westover’s father did construction and ran a scrap yard in the hills of Idaho. Probably bi-polar, his mania was fueled by panic about being ready for the end of the world. His frenetic pace created a wanton disregard for the basic safety of his off-spring. Limbs nearly severed. Rebar thrown like lethal spears. Avoidable explosions. The hair-raising mishaps in the scrap yard were truly horrifying.
Tara was not even home schooled. Like her siblings, she worked in the yard or in the kitchen. Thank god Westover aced the ACTs in her late teens or one wonders how she would have fared.
To begin her exit from the family, Westover had to start at the very beginning: obtaining a birth certificate. Her mother didn’t even know the exact month of her birth. A day or two on either side, okay — but forgetting the month? It’s staggering.
One brother escaped and reappears periodically. Encourages his sister. Another brother torments her with both emotional taunting and physical abuse. The classic cycles: battering followed by contrition; shaming followed by gifts. Another reader I know speculated that there was sexual abuse as well. As soon as she said so, it seemed correct. But Westover doesn’t mention it and in a way, it doesn’t matter.
The mother says nothing. Complicit.
Eventually (no surprise), the father is badly wounded. Meanwhile, the midwife mother has generated enough support for her herbal products to be running a small empire by book’s end.
Westover’s education takes up much of the latter part of the book.
Recommend. Starts out with a literary voice and loses that early on, but still a worthy read. Edifying.
Good pairing: JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Frightening current parallels: Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively) are both End Times guys, leading two shrewd political commentators* to suggest that this administration is turning even the future into a commodity, one that most of us don’t deserve and can’t afford. A planet with huge reductions in population would leave more resources for the elite, now wouldn’t it? Denials of climate change, mere ruses. Nuclear war, a means to an end.
Sound like fundamentalism? Sorry to say that while speculation underpins this view, there is also compelling and chilling evidence for it.
PS I make no attempt to provide a thorough review of books and since I’m not being paid to do this, I feel entitled to my idiosyncratic approach. Plenty of official reviews are easily available online.
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.
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].
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.