Tuesday, January 26, 2021

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

1927. 2021. To the Lighthouse is as modern a novel as anything written now. Woolf gives us complete interiority of (some of) her characters, and as we watch them hesitate, yearn, bristle, struggle, we find each effort familiar, the ways our minds work too. The story takes place at a vacation house, an old manse growing shabby, on the Scottish coast, outside a small town. The Ramsays, Mr. and Mrs., their eight children, and their boarders – scholars, dreamers – spend their summers interacting and avoiding, gathered to dine at one long table but daily scattered.

Through Mrs. Ramsay we see a household run with conscious artistry, anchoring a social world in which every person is suitably paired-off, married and content. Through Mr. Ramsay we see scholarship honored, matters dealt with well, precisely, with thrift and consideration and inevitable though unrecognized success. Through Lily Briscoe, a painter, we see the tension between vision and execution, the moment of recognition followed by years of not bringing it to life. Through William Bankes, the older solicitor whom Mrs. Ramsay hopes to pair with Lily, we see a comfort in taking one’s time, in order, in details. Through Charles Tansley, one of the young scholars, we see the difficulty of relating with ordinary people, coupled with surges of admiration for Mrs. Ramsay. Through the Ramsay children we see expressions of pure freedom and joy, tamped down by their father’s rigid matter-of-factness that yields to enthusiasm only on his own behalf, never theirs. 

Woolf’s sentences are perfect expressions of how interiority is manifested in words: “But now – [William Bankes] turned, with his glasses raised to the scientific examination of [Lily Briscoe’s] canvas. The question being one of the relations of masses, of lights and shadows, which, to be honest, he had never considered before, he would like to have it explained – what then did she wish to make of it? And he indicated the scene before them. She looked. She could not show him what she wished to make of it, could not see it even herself, without a brush in her hand. She took up once more her old painting position with the dim eyes and the absent-minded manner, subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children – her picture.” 

Woolf is experiencing a comeback these days, and rightly so: her ability to parse into words the restless movement of the human mind, helps us to dive beneath the surfaces that surround us, to quest for satisfaction, creative expression, understanding. Beyond what we see lies what it might mean, the myriad possibilities of that search and conclusion. If you read Woolf in high school, as I did, you’d benefit from revisiting her insights in the light of life experience.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Perfect Stranger, by Gregory SETH Harris

This satiric novel by Denver author and poet Gregory SETH Harris, set in a world similar to ours yet degraded in ways the story plays with throughout, offers the observations of a visitor, that Perfect Stranger of the title, “S,” who stumbles upon the micropolis. This place seldom has visitors, and residents’ instinct is to regard any with suspicion. And yet, he is offered a garret room in the mansion of one of the town’s important people, banker Charles Dinero (“CD”) Smolet. Living in that household, S gets to know CD’s wife, Eleanore (“Mrs. Sticky Buns”); daughter Penny, about to turn 17 and thus be eligible for auction for marriage; son William (“Buck”), a high school student at Gladiator U; and spirited child Pearl, whose shadow plays games with S’s. Though S is the primary character, Pearl is the beating heart of the book, intuitive and mischievous. 

The micropolis is divided along class lines according to wealth, corpulence, and race, with ever-new books of codified rules designed to keep it that way. It is the season of the S-election, in which candidates for the ruling council are campaigning. And so we have intrigue: a group of young anarchists planning to disrupt the process; the populist candidate whose chameleonlike appearance and speeches change to fit his audience; and the sudden ambiguity of Buck, who seems set to win the top position by reason of his wealth and his primacy at the Turkey Shoot – of which I’ll say no more here. 

The town Libarian, Neimann Gorge, an erudite misfit who lives with his Auntie McAsser and her nasty little dog, teaches history to the group of anarchists, meanwhile hoping to woo the dazzlingly beautiful Assistant Libarian, Mz Pritt. Here’s a sample of the prose: 

“Saska Swamin,” Neimann began. “Slender as she is, is a tasty morsel.” He pressed her slim spine [an anorexic volume of natural lambskin] to his thin lips, looking inward a moment before proceeding. … “Hombres d’ Garbiage reinforce our mistaken assumption that we are less than we truly are. Some even exalt in their baser nature, convincing others to do the same. Thus we hire ourselves out to stress factories, servants to their (& ultimately our own), less-than-perfect nature. In the evening, we return home to lead lives of quiet defecation. Only the enlightened, the occasional brave, the uncommonly foolish – or the lucky – break thru the chains of the status woe to move ever closer to that wisdom etched in every atom of our beings.” 

Harris holds up a distorted mirror to our times and society, and the warped version of our world we see there should give us pause: that micropolis and its residents are more like us than we might like to admit. And yet, he does it with abundant wit and humor. These strange times call for a reckoning, indeed a reconnoitering, and The Perfect Stranger is a great place to start.

Friday, November 13, 2020

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This magnificent epic novel, a classic upon publication in 1967, in English in 1970 in a masterful translation by Gregory Rabassa, still sweeps readers away to Macondo, a village in the South American jungle, founded by the larger-than-life Buendia family, and ending with them a century later. Seven generations of Buendias struggle with plagues, pestilence, and natural disasters, but their bigger problems stem from their incestuous yearnings, wars, and the encroachments of the world. 

Among the book’s themes is memory, and its antithesis, forgetting. A plague of insomnia descends on Macondo, one of its effects being erosion of memory. To combat this, one Buendia decides to label each item. However, “Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.” 

Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who fought 32 wars and lost them all, eventually retreats from the world to the household workshop. The horrors of war fill his memory; the concentration required to craft tiny gold fishes is his only refuge. He is honored with a Jubilee, with a street named after him, but over generations he fades to legend, then is forgotten entirely. 

Even history experiences forgetting, a devastating form of solitude. For example, a bastard of a younger generation visits the town’s ancient priest to ask about his parentage: “Seeing him lost in the labyrinths of kinship, trembling with uncertainty, the arthritic priest, who was watching him from his hammock, asked him compassionately what his name was. 
“Aureliano Buendia,” he said. 
“Then don’t wear yourself out searching,” the priest exclaimed with final conviction. “Many years ago there used to be a street here with that name and in those days people had the custom of naming their children after streets.” 

This is upside-down, of course: streets are named after people. But it’s also one image in the tapestry of forgetfulness that ultimately seals the town’s fate. Terrible events are erased as though they never occurred, leaving the one who does remember in a state of solitary torment. 

Conversely, memory confers power. The matriarch, Ursula, eventually goes blind, but tells no one, and none suspect because she is so observant and her memory so spotless that she can not only navigate the house as well as anyone with sight, but even locate lost items: “So when she heard Fernanda all upset because she had lost her ring, Ursula remembered that the only thing different that she had done that day was to put the mattresses out in the sun because Meme had found a bedbug the night before. Since the children had been present at the fumigation, Ursula figured that Fernanda had put the ring in the only place where they could not reach it: the shelf. Fernanda, on the other hand, looked for it in vain along the paths of her everyday itinerary without knowing that the search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them.” 

This book is its own paean to memory – you can read it, then read it again, and again, and each time some new detail lodges in your mind. Populated with remarkable characters and told in both exquisite detail and narrative grandeur, One Hundred Years of Solitude will haunt you.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Know My Name, a memoir by Chanel Miller

This riveting account is written by the young woman who was raped by a champion swimmer at Stanford in January, 2015. She leads us step by step through her own awakening to what happened to her, how deeply into her psyche the violation sank, how even now nightmares return, how both the legal system and Stanford University chewed her up and spat her out, making it her task to right herself, to become a recentered and functioning person again.

During the trial of her assailant, she was the one under the microscope. She was isolated, blamed, her actions questioned minutely, every bite and sip taken into account, while his behavior was glossed with “young people, frat party, could be an Olympic swimmer” as though the assault was to be expected and by filing charges she is ruining his life. “One of the greatest dangers of victimhood is the singling out; all of your attributes and anecdotes assigned blame. In court they’ll try to make you believe you are unlike the others, you are different, an exception. You are dirtier, more stupid, more promiscuous. But it’s a trick. The assault is never personal, the blaming is.” 

Every effort to put herself back together is pushing against a tide of anguish, self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness. “My mind is one step behind where it used to be. I call it the lag. Before I was living in real time. Now I evaluate the moment before I can move into it. I am always asking permission, anticipating having to present myself to an invisible jury, answering questions before a defense. When I reach for a piece of clothing, the first thing I think is, “What will they think if I wear this?” When I go anywhere I think, “Will I be able to explain why I am going?” If I post a photo I think, “If this were submitted as evidence, would I look too silly, my shoulders too bare?” The time I spend questioning what I’m doing, turning things over and talking myself back to normalcy, has become the toll.”

Chanel Miller, like her mother, has a future as a writer – her ability to make real for the reader her treacherous path, is phenomenal. And yes, she gives us the whole person she was before this assault, and the person she reconstructs from the shattering. Stanford University built a small garden area where she had been assaulted behind a dumpster, but would not use the quote she chose for a commemorative plaque. “Keep things positive,” they insisted, as though sexual assault has some soothing context. Then she suggests a more appropriate memorial to victims of sexual assault: “a piece called Construction; each victim is given a nail for every day she has lived with what happened to her. There’s a haphazard pile of wood in the center of campus. Victims can come as they please, hammering nails into the wood. All day people hear the banging, all the drilling and incessant interruption. This is a lot of what surviving is like, trying to carry on and get work done, while your past pounds into you, distracts you, makes it impossible. At the end there’d be an immense wooden structure, randomly nailed together, large, useless, pointy, and dangerous in the middle of everything, people forced to walk around it interrupting the pretty view of the trees. This is also what assault feels like, what to do with this, where to put it, what is it.”

If you have ever wondered why sexual assault victims take years, even decades, to come forward, this book makes all too clear the cost of speaking up in a system stacked in favor of patriarchy: “boys will be boys, what did she expect, if you dress like that you’re waving a red flag in front of a bull, etc etc.” And yet, she is not vengeful: she wants him to admit assaulting her, admit it was wrong, and apologize. She recognizes the futility of hatred and contempt: “Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom.”

Friday, October 16, 2020

Weather, by Jenny Offill

This slim novel, told in fragments, covers a lot of emotional and cultural territory. Our narrator, Lizzie, is a librarian at a university – not one of the credentialed people, just a flunky. She has a husband with a PhD in classics who writes code for educational video games from the couch, a six-year-old son, and a mentally ill brother who struggles, as she does, with addiction. And to supplement her meager income, she moonlights as assistant to a woman who tours lecturing about climate change. 

Sound grim? It actually has many laugh-out-loud moments. And Offill’s wry observations are both deadpan and deadly accurate – we can only nod in admiration as she pulls it off: “I remind myself (as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.” – that is, to avoid her brother’s fate. Unlike the relief Lizzie can feel getting toasted in a bar, he is immediately headed down the rabbit-hole with any drug. 

She talks about “the hum in the air” about climate change: “It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone walking around talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at a diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.” 

She has an emotionally-charged affair with a man she encounters on the bus. They spend a lot of time together, but she is married and he is a journalist, a foreign correspondent, taking some mental R&R before his next assignment. So no sex, but their interactions are the deepest intimacy in the book. 

With all the gaps in its narrative, I fell through sometimes. I’m not sure what precisely is grieving her at the end. But the reading to get there is fine – well-placed words, apt observations, a kind person trying to stay afloat in a hurricane. “And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.” 

You really should read this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, by Pam Houston

This memoir was a timely read for me, given that a significant section describes the 2015 fire season in Colorado, during which her ranch was surrounded and narrowly escaped destruction. I was reading about this during our 2020 fire season, in which the largest, Pine Gulch Fire, threatens to overtake the 2002 Hayman Fire as Colorado's largest in history (for now!). I haven't seen the mountains ordinarily visible from the nearby park, for weeks, due to smoke from multiple wildfires, in Colorado and California.

She talks about the courage of firefighters, of friends who help evacuate her horses and burros to a safe location, about watching a wall of flame descend toward her buildings, including the 100-year-old hand-built barn, stopped ultimately by the moisture content in the aspen grove behind her house. And she gives some thought to how climate change and the drying of the western US exacerbates these fires, making them not only larger but more catastrophic, burning even the soil, turning the earth into a barren landscape. 

Starting life as the child of narcissistic alcoholics, she takes refuge in the woman hired to look after her, and flees home as a teenager. With a lot to work out of her system she finds high-risk occupations in the wild: Dall sheep hunting guide in Alaska, whitewater raft guide, had her arm broken into tiny fragments by a rearing thoroughbred's hoof... And becomes a successful author, able to make payments on her property by teaching writing at various universities, participating in conferences, and so on, which require her to spend significant stretches away from the ranch.

Nature and animals have been her refuge from trauma, and on one of the journeys she is gifted due to her writing, she observes: "We may have more complicated language, opposable thumbs, and this dangerous thing called reason, but any self-respecting llama or buffalo or spider knows enough not to destroy its own home.

She is unafraid to call out the insanities of our culture: "It is the Wilderness Ranch Subdivision which remains evacuated (NFS Inci-Web). I pause over the words "Wilderness Ranch Subdivision." What in the f***, I wonder, what in the f*** is wrong with us anyway." Fair question. 

As the Trump administration busily removes all restraints on the most rapacious urges of corporations, which as Bill McKibben has pointed out have only a single purpose, to make money for their investors, and therefore cannot recognize consequences beyond that purpose, we are accelerating the catastrophic damage to our only home. This administration has weakened protections on air, water, forests, public lands - PUBLIC, not "his" - and the creatures who depend on them. He has rolled back regulations on methane capture - methane being among the most potent greenhouse gases accelerating our race toward an uninhabitable planet. There's no polluter, no matter how egregious, he does not support. There is no non-human creature who counts for anything. Endangered species? A wave of extinctions is arriving. The web of life itself? Of no concern to this administration. 

VOTE FOR THE EARTH - tell Trump it's time to go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Little, Big - by John Crowley

Little, Big by John Crowley

This is a novel to savor. It’s the Tale of Edgewood, a five-fronted house in the center of a pentangle of lands somewhere in upstate New York. This house, built around 1900 by architect John Drinkwater for his bride, Violet Bramble, daughter of Theosophists, hosts an ever-widening circle of Drinkwaters, Clouds, and Barnables. Violet as a child was known to have seen fairies, and one of her sons uses his granddaughters to entice and photograph them. The folk of the surrounding woods have names like Marjorie Juniper, Grandfather Trout, Amy Flowers, Robin Bird – while not fairies exactly they are sympathetic spirits. The world they inhabit touches ours, but is not the same as ours. Little, Big of the title refer to the interpenetrating realities variously larger and smaller than one another, and their larger and smaller inhabitants.

City cousin George Mouse hosts a party, at which his quiet noncommittal friend, Smoky Barnable, meets tall red-haired Daily Alice, for whom he leaves everything to join her at Edgewood: having children, teaching school to the neighbors, tinkering with the orrery (large moving brass model of the solar system) at the top of the house. Smoky, a mild rational man who doesn’t believe in fairies, lives with a household who consult an ancient tarot, keep secrets, and pursue dreams. Daily Alice’s father, who wrote dozens of children’s books about animals, confesses to one of his grandchildren that he didn’t make up the stories, he just eavesdropped on the small creatures of the woods and fields.

Society deteriorates. In the City, George Mouse converts a city block of rowhouses into Old Law Farm, the center an open space where he and those who join him raise goats and chickens, vegetables, and burn excess furniture to stay warm over increasingly long bitter winters. Wolves human and canine roam the streets, Old Law Farm is barricaded with locks, bars, and bricked-up doors and windows. Smoky and Daily Alice’s youngest child, Auberon, comes to the City to seek his fortune and takes up residence there, falling in love with Sylvie, a Puerto Rican with a Destiny, whose disappearance hollows out his sense of purpose, all his joy. He writes scripts for a popular soap opera, “A World Elsewhere,” based on his grandfather’s children’s stories.

A Hero wakes from eight centuries asleep, more demagogue than savior, and, questing for his lost Empire, foments war. In the struggle and economic collapse people starve, winters deepen and lengthen, and his Empire shudders along. Violet Bramble’s illegitimate daughter Ariel Hawksquill, a mage in the art of memory, first advises a cabal who seek to control the Hero, then when they turn on her, casts her lot with him. But Ariel’s wisdom lacks the chaos element. Late in the story, at Edgewood she observes, “No memory mansion of her own was built more overlappingly, with more corridors, more places that were two places at once, more precise in its confusions, than this house. She felt it rise around her, John’s dream, Violet’s castle, tall and many-roomed. It took hold of her mind, as though it were in fact made of memory; she saw, and it swept her into a fearful clarity to see, that if this were her own mind’s house, all her conclusions would now be coming out quite differently; quite, quite differently.”

Little, Big is full of joys and sorrows, wonderfully apt names and a multitude of small brilliant observations. One could read it a hundred times and find new connections, new notions, surprises and satisfactions. Like the greatest fictions of invented places, it has unerring internal consistency, integrity. We are the playthings of time and space, and other worlds interweave with the one we’re accustomed to, in ways we might glimpse or may never be capable of acknowledging. If you find “the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth’s poem says, take respite. Dig into this Tale, reimagine life.