The torrential rain woke me repeatedly last night and each time in my half-awake state I thought, The world is ending, isn’t it?
I can’t take the gummies as a sleep-aid anymore because of what they do to my stomach. Maybe this second purchase is contaminated because the first order didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know. Last night I was awake past two. The same two nights before, except maybe it was three o’clock. And one night recently I didn’t sleep at all.
My phone always has a book on it. Library-kindle is a boon. It means I can stay in bed and read.
Yesterday I finished Oh, William!: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout and started a Maggie O’Farrell. Some of you have read O’Farrell’s extraordinary Hamnet, I know. This one, I Am, I Am, I Am, is a memoir told through a series of near-death experiences.
The Strout book was told by Lucy Barton. She is looking back on her first marriage and spending time with her ex in NYC where they both live. They make a road trip to Maine. Her second husband has recently died and her ex’s third wife leaves him early in the narrative, so it isn’t that odd that they might seek each other out. The novel has this distinctive voice, with frequent insertions of phrases like, is what I mean to say or I’m not going to write another word about that. And even though not much happens really, it was hard to put down.
I read acknowledgments now. Lo and behold! One of the agents Strout gushed over at the back of the novel supplied my most recent rejection. That soured me on the book a little. Aren’t I mature?
Finished Ann Patchett’s gem of an essay collection this week too and it left a slightly bitter side note as well. She describes winning this and that prize like I talk about running to Home Goods to pick up a cake platter.
I’ll get over myself. Honest. The essays are very much worth reading.
In other news, the lake afforded a cool reprieve yesterday. I made a delicious potato salad and so-so brownies (old chocolate?). We finished watching The Outlaws.
We’ve been taking Finn around the “figure eight” after dinner lately. I’ve hit over 10,000 steps quite a few times recently because of it.
“She observes that caste ‘is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.‘”
“A caste system, she writes, is ‘an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.‘”
In an interview with Teri Gross, Wilkerson called caste the bones and race the skin. Class is the clothing and accessories.
Racism cannot completely capture all that is wrong in our society, she says.
She uses Nazism and the caste system in India to explore the American version.
In the interview, I learned how much the Aryans relied onearlyAmerican studies in eugenics to develop their theories on race. Here in the States, the “one drop rule” was adopted in order to keep mixed race offspring enslaved. Interestingly, such a construct was deemed too extreme by the Germans.
The book doesn’tcover South Africa but in the interview Wilkerson briefly discusses how the fact that Blacks were in the majority in South Africa led to the creation of a third category of “coloreds.” This was designed to keep Black Africans out of power. I wondered about that when reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood, which is by the way, a compelling and intimate look at the last days of apartheid.
I am still reading three important books on race, butCaste will be up next. I ordered it from an independent bookseller in the Bronx: The Lit. Bar. If you can afford the postage, I recommend that you do too. They raise money for other independent book stores.
Part of why Ihaven’t finished the non-fiction books on my night stand is because of my preference for fiction.
This novel looks at the issue of colorism through the lens of identical twins who are light enough to pass for white.One makes the decision to do so and vanishes from her twin’s life while the other makes an opposite decision by having a child with a very dark Black man. The idea of erasure and transformation is further explored through a transgender character.
Desiree and Stella Vignes were once inseparable, fleeing their small southern town to build a life together in New Orleans. But when Stella makes the decision to pass as white—disappearing from her sister’s life in order to pursue the “American Dream” of whiteness—the twins’ paths diverge, determining not just their own futures, but the futures of their daughters and their relationship to Black womanhood. As the sisters mature into mothers and their daughters into adulthood, each woman must confront her own relationship to her past, to family duty, and to her own autonomy.
Lest you findme too serious, let me admit in closing that my new guilty pleasure is a reality show called, Blown Away.It’s a glass blowing competition that fills the void left by The Great British Baking Show.
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].
After another excursion – this time to Canada – I am determined to get back into a blogging rhythm without letting weeks slide by. That’ll be tricky, however, as K. removed the video card that eliminated many of the summer’s computer glitches, in order to give it back to C. (whom he pilfered it from in the first place).
Can’t stop myself from typing this observation — The city of Montreal, right smack in the Latin Quarter, is more quiet on a Thursday in the middle of the day, than Newton Center (where I live) is at 7:08 on a Sunday morning.
I know they are rushing to finish to elementary school renovations (why exactly did they wait until mid-August to seriously get to work?!), and that it will be over soon — but it is tiresome, this invasion of noise. And it has been all summer long — between road repairs, Route 9 development, tree care, and the endless rounds of lawn crews.
After finishing “Freedom” and wondering, “Who WRITES a book like this?” I couldn’t help but order Franzen’s memoir from Amazon – “The Discomfort Zone“. In one passage he describes how much easier it is to tolerate noise in NYC, because you expect it, whereas the assault of sound in the suburbs rankles. I couldn’t agree more! I hate, too, having all the windows closed for whole swaths of a day, especially when the air is as fresh and cool as it is today — just to keep the noise down. (BTW, the memoir goes a long way to understanding “Freedom”).
Speaking of books, moments ago I finished Kevin Barry’s dystopian novel of West Ireland, “City of Bohane“. Fantastic! “Rip snorting” says one blurb, and I couldn’t agree more. For one thing, I absolutely loved his devotion to describing his characters’ outfits. Sprinkled throughout the book is the line “He wore:” followed by detailed descriptions of clothing in a new paragraph (fanciful, wild, colorful clothing). The book has a Clockwork Orange feel, but distinctly Irish.
Finished this book about a month ago: “Forging Freedom“. First half read like a PhD thesis, but I really enjoyed the second half where the author highlights two particular women. As a scholarly treatise about freed black women in Charleston before the Civil War, it is informative. I am learning that in Charleston, one of the nation’s first cities and one with a huge population of African Americans in its early years, there existed a surprising variety of statuses for black people. Not that gaining manumission was easy, nor could it be counted on to be permanent in any way shape or form, but there was more fluidity than one might expect, and certainly more than one might find in other parts of the country at the same time. Myers notes that a Northerner landing on a Charleston Wharf in the antebellum years would have been surprised to see the black artisans, shopkeepers, hawkers, seamstresses, inn keepers, pastry chefs, etc., who were ‘free’ and going about their business.Back to fabric tomorrow. I’m adding pickets to the ‘Trayvon Martin quilt’. And more red. And more moons. I have pretty much decided it does not belong on the pieced rectangle made up of the ‘Middle Passage’ scraps.
* There are two local pix, actually — the quilts above; and the backside of the bleachers further up.
Everyone being home and the absence of schedule and a head-achey tiredness have suspended time in a peculiar but needed way… shouldn’t the darkest days of the year contain a bit of quiet? I made a most delicious soup today (with chorizo and beef stock made yesterday by simmering vegetable scraps with ox tails). Read and read, with and without the heating pad. Steps outside to give Jack the needed business breaks. Not much else.
Read two books since Christmas – “Nightwoods” by Charles Frazier, and “The Sense of An Ending” by Julian Barnes. Both well worth the time. Plus, I’m creeping through Joseph Ellis’s “American Creation”, Eliza Pinckney’s letters, and a book about fashion in colonial America. Getting a picture of a distant time, added to by re-watching the first in the John Adams series on HBO.
It feels good to be quiet. And to not run around.
And even swathed in quiet, I managed to complete Schedule C today – about six weeks earlier than usual because financial aid forms will be due in a few days.
What I have not managed to do, is reflect back on the year and ask the usual questions – that is, what would I like to let go of? What would I like to invite? The thing I MOST wanted to let go of — my 9 to 5 job – is already gone, and there’s not been a single day since September when I haven’t bumped into profound gratitude about that. I wish I was a more patient person… but there probably aren’t enough drugs in the world to make that transformation happen (my running friend would counter, “exercise, Dee, exercise”). So there’s that.
If anything of interest pops up in terms of framing artistic endeavor for the New Year, you will be the first to know! I do know that I want to draw and write more. Maybe that’s enough. “I want to draw and write more”. Right now the whole idea of finding some edge to articulate a commitment toward feels like way more work than I’ve got it in me to do. I hope that’s the bug speaking.