Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Report: When the Emperor Was Divine

18. Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) (7/15/18)

In this short, spare, lyric book of five parts, Otsuka tells the story of a family of four who are caught up in the removals of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. The family remains nameless throughout, their story told by an "omniscient" narrator.

It all begins with "Evacuation Order No. 19," in which the mother and her two children—the father having already been taken away immediately after Pearl Harbor—prepare to leave their Berkeley home. We see the normalcy of their life, and what is precious to them. We watch the mother pack things for storage, and the very few necessities that they can take with them; we watch her bury her silver in the yard under the small stone Buddha; we see her give their cat to the nextdoor neighbors, snap the neck of their chicken, release their pet macaw into the night sky, and cave in the head of their little white dog and bury him as well—because who would want to take in an elderly half-blind dog? There is a hopelessness mixed with heartbroken tenderness about these preparations.

The second chapter is "Train": exactly that—the long train ride from their first detention facility, Tanforan race track south of San Francisco, to the camp that will be their home for three years, Topaz in Utah. This chapter is more intimate, consisting more of conversations among the family members and other passengers.

The longest chapter is the eponymous "When the Emperor Was Divine," about camp life, told mainly through the boy's eyes. We learn about the tedium, the repetitiveness, the difficult physical circumstances. Life in the camp is very bleak for this small family. We do not get much of a sense of community, whether friendships or other relationships were made. It's a highly focused perspective.

"In a Stranger's Back Yard" relates their coming home, back to their house, which they were lucky still to have, though it is hardly a "homecoming," for animosity against the Japanese remained very high as everyone tried to adjust to the new normal of the postwar years. In this chapter, too, the father returns to the family, but he is a broken man. The mother, too, has changed, being forced to take a job as a housecleaner—though she later confesses that she was glad to have somewhere to go each day, something to do.

And finally, "Confession" is a communal howl about stereotypes and injustice. The book ends like this:
So go ahead and lock me up. Take my children. Take my wife. Freeze my assets. Seize my crops. Search my office. Ransack my house. Cancel my insurance. Auction off my business. Hand over my lease. Assign me a number. Inform me of my crime. Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud. Put it down in writing—is nervous in conversation, always laughs loudly at the wrong time, never laughs at all—and I'll sign on the dotted line. Is treacherous and cunning, is ruthless, is cruel. And if they ask you someday what it was I most wanted to say, please tell them, if you would, it was this:
 I'm sorry.
 There. That's it. I've said it. Now can I go?
It's a beautiful, sad book, and a timely one to read just now, in this country.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Report: Liar

17. Rob Roberge, Liar: A Memoir (2016) (7/12/18)

This book, told mostly in the second person and in a random chronology, relates the truths and lies—something the narrator has some difficulty parsing—of Roberge's life, a life divided between addiction and sobriety, a life marked by bipolar disorder and possibly CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy—which, if true (the only real way to diagnose this disease is after death), may cause Roberge to progressively lose his mind. I found myself strangely engaged by the narrator, despite his sometimes awful behavior: he's darkly humorous and eloquently, painfully honest as he describes such pivotal events as the murder of his childhood first sweetheart, years spent bouncing from one place to another in a haze of alcohol and drugs, other years of being clean, his marriage and his best-friendships, his family. It's written in bite-sized fragments that flit around in time, taking us from Boston to Florida to Humboldt County to Holland to the California desert. Interspersed are short accounts of people who have committed suicide—for the bracketing event of this memoir is Roberge's own would-be suicide.
You're forty-three years old. You've been a college professor, a good husband, a good friend, an honest person. The disgrace of being arrested for heroin would burn even worse than taking a newcomer chip. Everyone would know. Shame is an endless white noise of pain in your head. You're confused and overwhelmed and you are as alone as you have ever felt.
 You can't go to rehab. You can't admit your weakness to anyone, even though you know, god you know—what addict doesn't?—that addiction's not about intelligence and it's not about strength. Your whole life has been a lesson in this: Knowing something may make it a fact, but feeling something makes it a truth. And the truth is you are trapped. You have nowhere left to go that doesn't make you feel like your life has added up, in the end and despite some great moments, to you being a loser who just can't stay clean. Who can't keep people happy. You can't function in this world. You're done. Defeated.
But in fact, he's not really done, but keeps rising again, keeps stumbling along learning new things about himself, about life. As one of the book epigraphs, by his best friend Gina Frangello, puts it, "Meaning isn't made only in a moment but in how it is processed over a lifetime." This is Roberge's processing.

One reason I picked up this book is that I "sort of" know Roberge: he taught at my low-residence MFA program (though I did not have him as an instructor) and he's a Facebook "friend," as are several of the people he mentions in the book: Gina and Tod and Patrick (Patrick I actually know in person). So it's as if I'm hearing the confessions, pain, struggle, and confusion of a friend. He makes me care, deeply, that he'll be okay.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book Report: Burning Down the House

16. Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997, 2d ed. 2008) (7/6/18)

I picked up this book because on July 1 I started participating in a six-month-long online writing workshop, and this month the directive is, simply, to read—and write, of course. I thought, "Okay, I'll read about writing." I scanned my shelves, and this book jumped out at me. I have enjoyed Charles Baxter's fiction, and his short book The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (which I might just have to reread), so I figured this book of eleven essays on various aspects of the craft of fiction would be illuminating.

Boy, and how. Baxter is amazing! He's super smart, extremely well read, incredibly perceptive, and funny. I feel not only enlightened from having read this book, but enlivened as well. Cheered up! Dare I say, happy!

I started out flagging passages I enjoyed (as is my habit), but halfway through I realized that to do the text justice I'd have to flag pretty much every page, sometimes every paragraph, so I broke out the pen and (this is something I typically do not do) started underlining. There's just so much juicy stuff.

Of the book, Baxter says in his preface:
We often pretend, these days, that public lying by politicians has no effect on the stories we tell each other, but it does; or that our obsession with data processing has no relevance to violence in movies, but it might. In almost every essay in this book I have tried to set forth a widespread belief or practice—the belief in Hell, for example, or the recent mania for happy endings and insight—as a precondition to the way in which storytellers (and that means almost all of us) come up with narratives and then tell them. Most of the topics arose from questions that seemed to me both social and literary, both obvious and in some sense unanswerable. Why have we come to think that most of our important memories must be traumatic? What has happened, in this century, to the way in which we think about inanimate objects?
What he is taking on, he says, is nothing less than "the storytelling of everyday life." And he does so by means of "the wild claim." As he puts it, "There are a number of wild claims here, an occasional manic swing toward the large statement. Most of them are meant to be playful rather than ponderous, but they were intended to set fire to the house. Gertrude Stein talks about 'the excitement of unsubstantiated generalities.' Yes, exactly."

The "generalities" that he takes on are these: dysfunctional narratives ("mistakes were made": the art of taking responsibility for our failures; avoiding the "fiction of finger-pointing"); defamiliarization (juicy, contradictory, paradoxical detail and emotion: the opposite of the obituary write-up; "the way in which we recognize ourselves in an action and simultaneously see someone we don't recognize"); epiphanies (against the therapeutic model); the inner life of objects (the estrangement, or solace, of the familiar); counterpointed characterization (parallel visions, as opposed to protagonist-antagonist story lines); rhyming action (dramatic repetition; echo effects); melodrama ("the invisibilities of power"; "the recognition, dramatically, that understanding sometimes fails, articulation fails, and enlightenment fails": the dramatization of villainy); Donald Barthelme (the poetry of inappropriate longings; the yoking of the "virtuosic-articulate with the flat banal"); stillness (as an intensifier, as a mood creator; the importance of wonder); happiness (and the twin problems of innocence and blindness); and double-voicing (saying what one would like to be true as if it were true, even though one knows that it probably isn't).

And now I'm going to mine the New York Review of Books for more of Baxter's essays. His approach to the world gives me hope.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Report: The Crossing Places

15. Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (2009) (7/4/18)

I picked this book up thanks to a Bookshop Santa Cruz shelf recommendation—I'm always in the market for a good new mystery writer. And yesterday I was in the mood for a page-turner.

The protagonist here, a forensic archeologist named Ruth Galloway, lives on the edge of a bleak, isolated marshland in North Norfolk, England. The story involves her assisting one Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson when the bones of a child are discovered in the bog, which might be the bones of a young girl, Lucy, who disappeared ten years previously. No, turns out the bones are just Iron Age bones, possibly a ritual offering. But shortly after this discovery, another young girl goes missing—and is subsequently found dead in the middle of a "henge," or ancient circle made of upright timbers. Ruth's Norwegian mentor comes back to the area, as does her ex-boyfriend, and a local "druid" pops up, all of whom were working on excavating the henge ten years before when Lucy went missing. Old harms are aired, and old loves as well, and there's lots of ancient lore and even some T. S. Eliot. It's all rather convoluted, as mysteries so often are.

With this one, though, I twigged to the bad guy pretty much as soon as he was introduced. Okay, maybe the second time. It's a delicate balance, tossing red herrings around among solid clues. And even if the action and some of the motivations (but by no means all—including the bad guy's, in the end) were adequately written and paced—the twists and turns leading up to the terrifying nighttime chase through the one-false-step-and-you'll-get-swept-away marsh, in a cracking good thunderstorm to boot, carried one right along—I found this book, overall, unsatisfying. The writing was fairly pedestrian, and as I said, much of the motivation was, for me, hunh? Many of the characters, moreover, seemed to have remarkably little self-awareness: the friend of Ruth's who trips from married lover to married lover, for example; the ex-boyfriend who leaves his wife to woo Ruth back, though she no longer loves him (can't a fellow tell?); Ruth's own inability to say just why she loves living where she does (though she does know she prefers coffee to tea, so there's that). 

I love a page-turner, but I love one that makes me suspend disbelief (this one did not) and where I can get lost in the words, the characters, the story (this one lost me, but not in that good way).

The one area where I did appreciate Griffiths's way with words was in her descriptions of that land, as here:
Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marsh-land, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate.
Except for those pesky seagulls contradicting the "not a living creature" statement, and the cliché of the "wheeling" geese, this is quite lovely and makes me want to experience that place myself. A couple of key landscape markers, such as bird-watching hides, are left out as well, but they'll come up later as things get cooking.

Despite Bookshop Santa Cruz's enthusiasm for the Ruth Galloway series, I think I'll be leaving my experience of it at this book, and move on in search of something more substantial.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Report: There There

14. Tommy Orange, There There (2018) (7/1/18)

There There is a book crackling and popping with urgent energy, about urban Indians—specifically, some dozen individuals whose lives are hurtling toward a culminating powwow in the Oakland Coliseum. These people have been variously injured by addiction, desertion, or death—and always enshrouding racism—and we hear their stories in both the past and the present, first person and third (and in one case, second), as they struggle to find their identity and their way in life. Some of these people are related—though we (and they) only learn that as the story unfolds. Their webs are tangled, and there is plenty of rage and confusion in their lives, but there is also considerable love and hope.

Orange really shines in his rendition of conversations and relationship, and in internalities, and the Prologue and an Interlude contain little gems of lyric essay about Indian history and, you might say, the Indian condition. The language, in many spots, is simply gorgeous—though occasionally I found myself wondering if certain sections hadn't been written as MFA exercises. (Which is not to say they didn't still work. There was just so much variety, as if everything was being tried out—including that single second-person chapter, for which I saw no real reason.) Some characters—especially a pair of somewhat estranged sisters—were especially strong; others I had to keep flipping back to earlier sections to recall just who they were.

The final part, "Powwow," brings all the characters together, in very short chapters all in the third person that build to a culminating boom. It's magisterial to see how Orange orchestrates the events and the pacing and the perspectives.

Here's an example of the use of interiority:
Jacquie isn't listening anymore. She always finds it funny, or not funny but annoying actually, how much people in recovery like to tell old drinking stories. Jacquie didn't have a single drinking story she'd want to share with anyone. Drinking had never been fun. It was a kind of solemn duty. It took the edge off, and it allowed her to say and do whatever she wanted without feeling bad about it. Something she always notices is how much confidence and lack of self-doubt people have. Take Harvey here. Telling this terrible story [about getting lost in the desert while drunk] like it's captivating. There are so many people she comes across who seem born with confidence and self-esteem. Jacquie can't remember a day going by when at some point she hadn't wished she could burn her life down. Today actually, she hadn't had that thought today. That was something. That was not nothing.
Here's a lovely bit of description:
Opal is large. If you want to say bone-structure-wise that's fine, but she's big in a bigger sense than big-bodied or bone-structure-wise. She would have to be called overweight in front of medical professionals. But she got big to avoid shrinking. She'd chosen expansion over contractoin. Opal is a stone. She's big and strong but old now and full of aches.
Though that said, I often had little sense of what these people really looked like, how they dressed, how they comported themselves. It may have been mentioned, but such basics seemed to get lost in the lushness of the prose. Same goes for place: I couldn't really see people's kitchens or yards, I didn't have a clear sense of the look and aspect of the neighborhood. When a "brown-and-black tiger-striped pit bull baring its teeth and growling a growl so low she can feel it in her chest" is described, the passage skips straight into metaphor: "The dog is collarless and time seems the same way here, time off its leash, ready to skip so fast she'll be dead and gone before she knows it. A dog like this one has always been a possibility, just like death can show up anywhere, just like Oakland can bare its teeth suddenly and scare the shit out of you." It's beautiful, but I might have appreciated seeing whether the dog stood growling in a dirt patch full of thigh-high weeds or a garden with carefully tended roses.

Finally, here's a passage from the Interlude—an example of Orange's more essaylike prose that is oh so very pertinent today:
When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like "sore losers" and "move on already," "quit playing the blame game." But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they're winning when they say "Get over it" This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that's how you know you're on board the ship that serves hors d'oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who've never even heard of the words hors d'oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, "It's too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings." And then someone else on board says something like, "But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d'oeuvres." At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs . . . [and the shaggy story of mythmaking continues until] the boat sails on unfettered.
 If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don't know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Report: The Lost Words

13. Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words (2017) (6/28/18)

This book arrived today. I bought it because I enjoy Macfarlane's writing—for example in this article from the Guardian, "The Word-Hoard: On Rewilding Our Language of Landscape"—and I figured that, even though I have another couple of books of his that I (ahem) haven't yet read (The Old Ways and Landmarks), well, you just can't have too much Macfarlane. Especially when I saw how highly recommended The Lost Words was.

Little did I know it was a book of spells. For children. In oversized format and exquisitely illustrated by Morris in amazing watercolors. (Yes, I can be a rather impulsive book buyer . . . —and in this case, I am very glad I am.)

Here's the introduction:
Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren . . . all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children's voices, no longer alive in their stories.
 You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold—the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms—and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind's eye.
The spells are presented in triplet: an introductory page of jumbled letters and pencil sketch, in which the creature or plant to come is spelled out, as here (can you see it? d a n d e l i o n?) (click on the images to see them larger)


Then the spell, with its illustration (each poem also spells out the word in the initial letters of the stanzas):


And finally a full-spread illustration:


The spells are incantatory, absolutely demanding to be read out loud. And the illustrations are lushly, gorgeously alive.

I follow Macfarlane on Twitter (to the extent that I "follow" anyone on Twitter . . .) and was delighted to see this exchange between him and a primary school teacher who was having his students use the spells to make their own poems. His response underscores what a generous soul he is. Having his druidic spirit in the world gives me hope.


And now that I've been reminded of his word-of-the-day practice on Twitter (amid much other tweeting), I might actually start to follow him without the quotation marks. Oh, and pick up one of those two books that sit unread on my shelves . . .

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Report: Tribe

12. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) (6/23/18)

In Tribe, Junger explores, in four chapters, ways in which societies both exclude and embrace. It's a rather rambling journey, combining personal anecdote, journalism, interview, and secondary sources. Its scope is broad, touching on various Indian tribes—such as the Iroquois Nation with its alternating peacetime leaders called sachems, whose job was to enforce civil affairs, including justice and harmony, and its warrior leaders, whose sole concern was physical survival of the tribe; the war in Bosnia and the London Blitz and the ways they brought people together in common cause; the Righteous Among the Nations roll, which recognizes individuals who saved Jews during WWII; PTSD and victimhood; rates of suicide in various cultures; the financial crisis of 2008; fraud by defense contractors or Medicaid recipients; a 1958 mining disaster; and so forth. The alienating effects of wealth and modernity are one major theme, coupled with the unifying impacts of adversity.

Junger presents his ideas straightforwardly (if rather incoherently—that rambling thing) as if they were fact—or, perhaps better, the only fact. He frequently relates a story, whether from his own experience or research, then extrapolates it into a universal value. The apparent simplicity and obviousness—not to mention gloomy, and occasionally sentimental, self-righteousness—of his arguments are deceiving. He wants, in the end, to find tribe chiefly in a dark place, that of warfare and hardship that draws people together through urgency. But doesn't tribe exist in light as well? Sure it does. That said, he does provide plenty to ponder, especially in terms of where and how we, as individuals, families, and communities, find our own tribes.

Here's a longish passage from near the end to give an idea of his thinking and mode of argument:
I know what coming back to America from a war zone is like because I've done it so many times. First there is a kind of shock at the level of comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realization that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about—depending on their views—the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It's a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it's applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.
 The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, and it's a dangerous waste of time because they're both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a nonworking "underclass" has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival, and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion that cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today's terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account. Those two driving forces have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two-party political system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs—and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought—will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.
 . . . The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America's ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn't acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals. That is exactly what media figures do when they go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn't, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.