Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

In case you have been under a rock that does not have any teenagers anywhere near by, here's what you need to know about the trilogy:
"Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life." I think of the motto I read in my Faction History textbook: Faction before blood. More than family, our factions are where we belong. Can that possibly be right?

Young adult novels seem to come in two genres lately: the Normal Kid Who Discovers a Secret World That They're Suddenly a Part Of (a la Harry Potter, Twilight, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) and the World Run By Suspicious Government That Teenage Hero Must Fight (a la Uglies, Hunger Games, Maze Runner) - this trilogy falls into the latter category. 

Beatrice (later changed to Tris) begins the novel as a member of the Abnegation faction. Abnegation wears grey. Abnegation takes the stairs so that other factions can take the elevator. Abnegation lives in cinder block homes without decoration. Abnegation does the service work that no one else wants to do. Abnegation is completely selfless. Abnegation members are the only people who can be trusted to have power because they are the only ones who don't want it. 

"To some the sight [of my plain neighborhood] might be gloomy, but to me [its] simplicity is comforting. The reason for the simplicity isn't disdain for uniqueness, as other factions have sometimes interpreted it. Everything - our houses, our clothes, our hairstyles - is meant to help us forget ourselves and to protect us from vanity, greed, and envy, which are just forms of selfishness. If we have little, and want for little, and we are all equal, we envy no one. I try to love it."

Couples are made within a faction and kids are raised in their faction until their 16th birthday when they take a virtual-reality-type test to determine which faction they are best suited for. The results are known only by the test giver (a stranger volunteer) and the teenager. A few days later the entire community comes together to watch teenagers pick their new factions: will they stay with their family and the faction who raised them or will they leave everything behind - including almost all contact with their parents and siblings - to join a different faction?

Beatrice's results are inconclusive - she COULD be Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite, but she doesn't REALLY belong in any of them. She's labelled Divergent, her tester falsifies her results, and warns her that she cannot tell anyone - ANYONE - about being Divergent which also means she can't find out what it means and why it's dangerous. She immediately eliminates Erudite as a possibility and is stuck between Dauntless and Abnegation. Of course, no one is going to read 1500 pages about providing food for the factionless (homeless) and not having strong emotions and not asking questions because they indicate curiosity which is a selfish desire and not touching or kissing while flirting, so I don't think it's a spoiler to say she decides to join the badass, tatted up, pierced, punky Dauntless. 

The first act of her initiation is to jump off a speeding train onto a rooftop - one kid refuses and chooses to become factionless, and one kid dies. The very next step is to jump several stories into a dark pit without knowing what's at the bottom. Dauntless initiation involves self defense, combat, and mental stamina (more virtual reality - except instead of having to make choices you're stuck in scenarios with your worst fears - the more scared you get, the worse it is for you) with real violence occurring. No character is safe in Veronica Roth's world - she isn't afraid to hurt, maim, or kill. If any of this is intriguing, you should absolutely read them, particularly as the pages fly by (I finished all three in less than a week). The trilogy follows Tris's discovery of what exactly it means to be Divergent and where Divergent fit into the government as a whole. A heck of a lot happens that is not worth spoiling.

Outside of the interesting premise, what makes the trilogy awesome (without saying too much about the plot) are a few things which are outstanding in their own right but also outstanding in comparison to the more recent popular young adult novels:


  • the protagonist is a real - not accidental - badass 
Bella never kills a human, not even as a baby vampire, and one of the so-called redeeming traits of Katniss is that in the first Hunger Games she doesn't *really* kill anyone in a hand-to-hand person-to-person way - she's always a step removed from the action. These are cruel government regimes; our heroes are not going to escape without getting dirty and it's selling the audience short to not give them an honest view of what are essentially war stories. Tris is trained as a combatant and acts like one which is what ANY person in her situation would have to do to survive. 
  • the protagonist isn't pretty 
I am tired of the protagonist girl who is soooo pretty, except she doesn't know it, except the really Impossibly Hot Guy does know it, and thus she gets the really Impossibly Hot Guy without being conceited or having any of the other pretty girl personality traits that no one likes in real life. Tris tells her Love Interest, "I'm not trying to be self-deprecating. I just don't get it...I'm not pretty...I'm not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty," and he responds, "Fine. You're not pretty. So? I like how you look. You're deadly smart. You're brave. And even though you found out about [that horrible thing from my past]...you aren't giving me that look." Teenagers - and screw it, all people - need to understand that we are not all supermodels AND WE WILL ALL STILL FIND PEOPLE TO LOVE US. I love that she accepts her face and is honest, and he accepts her face and is honest. 


  • the romantic relationships are healthy
There is no Bella/Edward/Jacob or Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle filled with unhealthy obsessions, lies, and deceptions. You know how in Twilight and the Hunger Games characters are always lying to each other for each other's benefits? And then fighting about it but accepting that the lies were okay because they stay together and keep lying? Yeah, that doesn't happen here. 

"I'm reliable. You can trust me. And you can let me be the judge of what I can handle."
"Okay. But no more lies. Not ever."
"Okay."
I feel stiff and squeezed, like my body was just forced into something too small for it. But hat's not how I want the conversation to end, so I reach for his hand.
"I'm sorry I lied to you," I say. "I really am."
"Well," he says. "I didn't mean to make you feel like I didn't respect you." 

A mature conversation about their legitimate not-over-dramatized feelings that ends with an honest apology - THIS is the kind of relationship problem solving that I want to see in my own relationship, in my students' relationships, and in my books. More of this please. But wait! Twilight is based on a toxic relationship that creates horrible depression and co-dependence, surely this book has that because it's such a popular formula, right? Wrong-o my Twihard friends. 

"If we stay together, I'll have to forgive you over and over again, and if you're still in this, you'll have to forgive me over and over again too, so forgiveness isn't the point. What I really should have been trying to figure out is whether we were still good for each other or not."

I love that these teenagers who have gone through incredibly traumatic experiences together (we're in book three at this point) have actually matured because of those experiences and are able to have an adult idea in their head of what a relationship is made up of and what the purpose of one is. Forgiveness is maybe an overstatement, but a part of a working relationship is definitely the ability to choose to let some things go. Not every incident needs to be a dramatic fight, and the more important question is always whether the relationship is still positive and healthy and productive.


I applaud Roth for creating an incredibly compelling series that breaks many of the formulas set up by the previous generation of young adult books. The fact that this series is verrrry  popular warms my heart. She gives the audience their full credit and assumes that if we're reading a book about an oppressive government regime then we are probably capable of handling the details of all the effects of that system. She also gives the characters their full credit. These teenagers have to grow up fast in this world and they do; they're not so overly mature as to be unbelievable, but she doesn't treat them like they're little kids or dumb teenagers either. They make hard decisions, they do what they think is right, sometimes they make mistakes - like we all do - and have to deal with those consequences.

This series will, however, wreck your soul. I finished the third one sobbing. I'm a crier anyway (the LEGO movie made me cry), but I haven't cried like that since the epilogue of Harry Potter. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand

For many white Americans after 1865, the abolitionists were the century's villains--not only because they were thought to have been responsible for the way, but because they and their heirs were thought to have been responsible for the humiliation of the South during Reconstruction.  They had driven a wedge into white America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with an idea.  They marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the name of an abstraction.  The United States in the 1890s was a society fractured along many lines: the South against the North, the West against the East, labor against capital, agriculture against industry, borrowers against lenders, people who called themselves natives against new immigrants.  In a time when the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that warned against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted.

In the late 19th century, thinkers were presented with two problems.  First, the civil war was a national tragedy: thinkers needed a philosophy that both allowed for reasonable disagreement and allowed for one side to be correct.  Second, the introduction of Darwinism threatened theological foundations.

So how to reconcile the idea of Truth with the idea of disagreement?  How to reconcile Darwinism with Christianity?

Menand's The Metaphysical Club explains how thinkers starting in the 19th century sought to answer these questions, focusing on four thinkers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey.  The book also incorporates a large cast of side-thinkers, who make appearances along the way.

Enter pragmatism: rather than an absolute truth, truth is relative.  Instead, pragmatism preaches tolerance for other views.  Philosophical Darwinism will sort out the good ideas from the bad.  Applied, this leads to interesting practical results.  Rather than a search for truth, focus shifts to process.  The idea is that, a good process will ensure a good result.  A good, robust democracy, then, leads to a good, robust society.  It also means no more civil wars.

Of course, it also means that the minority has to be ready and willing to defer to the majority.  Such deference may seem desirable today, with an overly enthusiastic Tea Party and constant calls to end Obama-care.  However, such deference is difficult to muster in situations where the majority's will subjugates the minority (e.g., Jim Crow).  And as Menand describes it, this is why pragmatism fell out of favor: as the civil rights movement unfolded, a philosophy preaching the virtue of good process felt antiquated--faith in the process did not help if the process itself was broken.

This is a good book and worth reading for anyone interested in the U.S. intellectual climate between the civil war and the first world war.  Also worth reading for anyone interested in a primer on pragmatism, or the philosophies of Holmes, James, Pierce, or Dewey.  As someone interested in Holmes, I enjoyed the portions devoted to him especially.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ladies Whose Bright Eyes by Ford Madox Ford

"Surely it is pleasant," Mr Sorrell said, "but I cannot see that it is well, and pleasantness is not the whole of life."

"Is it not?" the Lady Dionissia asked wonderingly.

"No, surely not," Mr Sorrell answered.  Are there not such things as duties, ambitions, and responsibilities?"

"I do not know what those things are," she answered.  "In the spring the moles come out of the woods and the little birds sing, and we walk in the gardens and take what pleasure we can.  And then comes the winter, and shuts us up in our castles so that it is not so pleasant; but with jongleurs and ballad-singers we pass the time as well as we may.  And what is there to do?"

Ford Madox Ford wrote Ladies Whose Bright Eyes as a sort of response to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Twain's time-traveling protagonist becomes a hero in the Middle Ages because he comes to it with a wealth of modern scientific knowledge that is seen as magic.  Ford's Henry Sorrell, sent back to fourteenth century England in a horrific train wreck, also has fantasies that his modernity will make him a powerful man:

"Why, good Lord," he said, "if it's the fourteenth century I can do anything.  Just think of the things I can invent!  Why, we can begin right bang off with aeroplanes.  There's no need to go through any intermediary stages.  How would you like to go flying through the air, my lady?  I've done it, and there's no reason why you shouldn't.  Why, we can terrorise every city in the world.  We could burn Paris down in a night.  They couldn't do anything--anything at all."

Of course, Sorrell, like most people in his day and ours, has no idea where to begin building an airplane.  Ford's out to mock Twain's notion that a man is wiser or more knowledgeable simply because he was born later in time, and repeatedly stresses how little Sorrell knows about the world he finds himself in.  He has no scientific knowledge to amaze with, and no historical knowledge to help him navigate his surroundings, as he shows in a long and funny riff where he tries to figure out if the fourteenth century had eggs:

He did not know much about history.  He thought eggs had been introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh, along with potatoes and brandy.  He did remember--the fact had somehow impressed itself on his mind because it was philological, and he had always taken an interest in the study of languages, which was a sound commercial pursuit--he remembered distinctly having read somewhere that Chaucer or Caxton, taking a voyage from the coast of Kent to Suffolk, had landed in search of eggs.

And yet, despite Ford's send-up of Sorrell as out of his league, he does somehow manage to become widely known as a worker of miracles.  This has nothing to do with his modern knowledge, as in Twain, and everything to do with his mysterious combined with dumb luck, and centers around a valuable golden cross given to him by a woman in the 20th century for transport that he refuses to let go of.  The cross--as much for its monetary value as its religious symbolism--puts Sorrell in the middle of a conflict between the mistresses of two quarreling castles, the conniving Lady Blanche and the beautiful and patient Lady Dionissia.  He pledges his fealty to one, and then, realizing his mistake, to the other.  At the same time, he becomes known as a mystic and religious healer.

Ford has Sorrell receive wisdom from his time-traveling experiences, rather than impart it.  It strains credulity a little to see the Sorrell who once thought eggs came from the Americas suddenly say this to an old knight who asks him for healing:

"Ah, gentle knight, we are in the hands of God and His little angels.  Of how much I may cure or of how little, that I cannot tell you, but I think that surely the cure under God lies more in you than in me.  For your faith will make you whole, or more, or less, according as it is great or little.  This I believe to be the truth of the very truth.  And in this way only, and in no other that I know of, do I think that you could find the fountain of youth.  But for the cross, surely take it into your hand and feel what it is like."

Sorrell's newfound appreciation of Providence is in stark contrast to modern--Ford's modern, and our own--pride about our ability to exert control over the natural world and even over ourselves.  Even though Ford's medieval denizens are particularly gullible when it comes to Sorrell's powers, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes is a serviceable rebuttal to the prevailing idea of the Middle Ages as "Dark Ages" bereft of knowledge.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The New American Road Trip Mixtape by Brendan Leonard

Happily semi-rad. That's what the sticker said. I ran into this sticker and its creator, Brendan Leonard, at Red Rock Rendezvous - a rockclimbing festival outside of my own stomping grounds. The pricetag is absurdly expensive - $100 for two days of climbing where I climb every weekend? - but it's a chance to work with AAI guides for super cheap (a private guide would cost upwards of $350), and it's so much more than climbing. 

It's drinking free beer from Fat Tire, watching Steph Davis BASE jump into the festival grounds, drunken slacklining in the dark, having a dance party where everyone is wearing a puffy and a headlamp, watching a dyno bouldering competition, being surrounded by people who love doing what you love doing. I also won a totally sweet little pack in a raffle. I also bought an amazing tent off an older couple in the parking lot - that tent went with them all across America and Europe as they climbed the world, and in the two years since it has been with me to Indiana, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and California. 

But back to the dude with the hair and the stickers. I took one and slapped it on my car having no idea what I was advertising. Semi-rad is a blog that covers everything from The Rules for Dating A Dirtbag to A Big Shout Out To Rocks to life's most important question: Do You Have the Stoke?  (For real - in my friend's group you are judged based on your Stokemeter. Randy and I have had a conversation about Billy's stoke levels - don't worry, they're high). In the two years since, I have read every article on his blog. It is also how I found my favorite podcast, The Dirtbag Diaries, which Brendan is on regularly.

Of course I was going to buy this book, and I knew I was going to love it before I even read it, and I also would probably not recommend it to you. Not because there's anything wrong with you. It's really the book. It's disjointed, illogical, unorganized, repetitive, and if I were his editor we probably wouldn't be friends anymore. It's hard to tell who people are because they are undeveloped and pop in and out of the story out of order - even if both memories come from the same time period. Nonetheless, I am totally going to gift this book to my friends. If you're a climber, hiker, backpacker, biker, camper...if you absolutely are jealous of dirtbags who live out of their car...then you'll totally dig this book (particularly if you like your climbing with some philosophy and failed relationship therapy which is how I started my climbing career). It's part Road Trip book, part Getting Over Her, part Dirtbag. 

Brendan can be totally disarmingly charming at times
"Cellulite is fine. Sweatpants are fine. You can snore, sleep with your mouth open. You can take all those moments of your life that you are not sexy, and you can multiply them all by 100 and add them together, and they disappear when I'm lying behind you and I put one hand on your hip and kiss the back of your neck."

He can also be totally hilarious
"Mountain goats love pee. Our urine is salty, and animals love salt. At high altitudes, we pee on rocks instead of plants, because mountain goats will eat pee-salted plants until an alpine meadow is barren. So I walked away from the goats because I wanted a little privacy. It was if the sound of my zipper was a dinner bell. A narrow white face, curious, popped over a ridge 20 feet from my crotch. Then another one. Jesus Christ, talk about stage fright or performance anxiety...A few months earlier, the National Park Service had advised hikers not to urinate near trials in Olympic National Park, after a mountain goat attacked and killed a 63-year-old man on a trail there. It was the only known fatal mountain goat attack int he park's history...I zipped my pants and briskly walked away. I could wait."

He spends a lot of the book asking the question
What is a life?

Is it what he's doing? Is it what his friends who are childfree but coupled and adventuring are doing? Is it what his friends who are having babies are doing? 

Unfortunately, I do think his writing is better suited to shorter essays and stories, and I think it would be stronger if it were presented as a collection of short stories with a little bit more exposition about the characters in each bit rather than details about his inner/outer life (his toothbrush is mentioned maybe four or six times - put all the toothbrush bits together in one toothbrush section of one story and be done with it!)

This book is a book to read if you want to be inspired, reset your stoke, read ramblings about love, life, and relationships from someone in their 30s, and be reminded of all the reasons you love live an outdoors life and a few reasons why you live an indoors life. I am already planning out a few routes for this summer's camping trip which will be, I hope, semi-rad. 

Hours before meeting Brendon Leonard, we enjoy a birthday toast at Red Rock Rendezvous (we have the same birthday, and it was our birthday, which we announced to every person.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

"So, like I was saying, as that owl was just about to smash into our winshield, it slanted its wings, and slanted up into the dark...And I said something like, "That was magnificent," and my girlfriend - you know what she said? She said, "I'm breaking up with you because you are not an owl."

"Yeah, it was on Okinawa, an we hit the beach, and well, it's hard to talk about it - it was the worst thing...I'm not a poet - so I don't have the words - but just think of it this way - that beach, that island - was filled with sons and fathers - men who loved and were loved - American and Japanese and Okinawan - and all of us were dying - were being killed by other sons and fathers who also loved and were loved."

I am in love with Sherman Alexie. His laughing face with his long hair flowing is one of the hand-made posters that hang up in my classroom. I teach "Indian Education" basically every year in every grade that I can get away with it. "Hey Victor" is something I say sometimes to people not named Victor when I want to have an inside joke with myself. In spite of all this, I have only read two of his books - The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (one of the books on my comps list that was not discussed at all much to my sadness) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. I recommend both of them all the time to everyone. I need more Alexie in my life, and this came to me in pristine condition from Goodwill. It is his most recent work (from 2009) and is a collection of short stories and poems.

This collection has a few different narrators, including an American Indian named George Wilson who accidentally kills a black teenager, a white senator's son, an ethnicity-free Paul Nonetheless, and Sherwin Polatkin whose surname will be familiar to anyone who has read his other works. It's great to see stories that stray from his feels-very-autobiographical works and that are still delicious and wonderful. This collection is very much focused on masculine experiences and men's relationships with their girlfriends, wives, sons, and fathers.

One line in the book gave me utter joy above all else. 

"Frankly," my doctor said. "Your brain is beautiful."

I couldn't say where I picked up the expression, but 'beautiful brain' is something that I use often enough that a student once doodled this in her warmup notebook. (That was a very accurate depiction of what I used to look like). 


If you've never read Alexie before, I would recommend one of his more popular books to start with - not because this one isn't good, but because the other two are AMAZING and much more typical of what people associate with his writing style and content. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

"Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood." . . . It swore every boy to stick to the band, and. . . if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn't eat and he musn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued; and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever. 

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath."


Seeing how often this novel has been reviewed on this blog (Chris's 2007 review, Brent's 2007 Review,  Chris's 2013 Review) makes me even more ashamed that I have never read this novel (or if I did, I was too young to remember). Go ahead and put on your Judgey Pants - I deserve it. An MA in Literature, an AP Lit teacher for four years, an American Lit teacher at one time and another and not read Huck Finn? The problem is that I didn't get it in high school, and my undergrad/grad classes didn't offer it (assuming probably that I had read it in high school), and as a first year American Lit teacher (who had two other subjects to teach) I was not going out of my way to read a book I had never read before just to teach it. There are just so many books....However! My freshies have the option of choosing this as a companion novel for To Kill a Mockingbird and my juniors also have the option of choosing this if they are unwilling/unable to get more contemporary American Lit (their other options include Alexie, Chabon, Tan, Egan, etc), so I really needed to read it.

When I began, my first thought was "Really? It's the n-word that is the MOST offensive thing and the reason why kids shouldn't read this book?" 


(Siderant: a student who is not my student found a slightly cut down version of this article by a Harvard Law professor on the n-word and was very offended that I was teaching it. I found out because they complained to their teacher. The teacher pointed out to the student that my MLA citation showed my source as being The Journal of Blacks In Higher Education and that such a journal would probably NOT print anything that was racist. I actually did white out the 'igger' for every word not in a quote because I found it to be a bit much; I hand-wrote a note at the top saying that although I didn't feel I had a right to change the author's diction, I did feel like it was acceptable to leave the blank space to give students the space to determine their own feelings on the word. I feel like this student's knee-jerk reaction - that any paper that has the n-word on it must be racist and any teacher who passes out any papers with the n-word on it must be racist - to be so depressing because it showcases how adults can have the same knee-jerk reaction about a book - that any book with the n-word in it must be racist.)


Needless to say, I found the alcoholic father and the child abuse to be a much more compelling reason to keep this out of children's hands. "He chased me round and round the place with a clasp-knife, calling me the Angel of Death, and saying he would kill me...By and by I got the old split-bottom chair and clumb up as easy as I could, not to make any noise, and got down the gun. I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip-barrel, pointing towards pap, and sat down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along." Here we have a 12 year old pointing a loaded gun as his drunk father because he is rightfully afraid for his life...and the n-word is what we are all concerned about? It makes me sick the way Americans don't even notice violence but will get all up in arms for a word (or any kind of sexuality). My grandfather (who was himself an abusive alcoholic) gave my older brother beautiful copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when he was in elementary school, and in retrospect I really can't imagine what he was thinking.


As a former teacher of wayward youths, I immediately fell in love with Huck. He's had such a shit time at life because of circumstances totally beyond his control, and my heart really went out to him. I found his journey to be fun and funny and sweet and heartbreaking, and I really just wanted to be the older-but-not-a-parent mentor figure for him. His narrative presence is often beautiful ("And how slow and still the time did drag along" - come on! he builds a slow and still sentence that is so lovely). His struggle to develop a morality when everything around him is a complete moral paradox is at times baffling because I'm so far removed from his reality, but considering the setting I don't actually find it problematic when Huck thinks things like: "Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children - children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm." 


What made me crazy throughout the book though was Huck's hero worship of Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer would have done it better, more elegantly, more interestingly, smarter, blah blah blah. His self esteem is so low that all of his endeavors have to be measured up to (and fall short of) the great Tom Sawyer. Huck can never measure up to his smarter, richer, better off friend who wants to slum it and play at scary situations and violence because he has had the luxury of not having to actually deal with scary situations and violence. 


When actual Tom Sawyer shows up, I started to really dislike the book. Tom Sawyer is a monstrous teen of the worst kind. Scientific American has an interesting article about the psychology behind why Huck Finn turns into such a terrible person at the end, and it does a solid job of explaining Huck's actions (TLDR: peer pressure and awareness of low social status as well as Jim's role as a parental figure that needs to be rebelled against), but it also just reminded me why I don't teach middle schoolers. They're evil, and Huck is one of them even if he's not in school. He will probably be a kid I'll love in high school, but I can't stand the meanness of those 8th grade boys, and I hope that Huck grows up to realize that even in 8th grade he was a better man than Tom will ever be. 

As for Jim, how can you not love Jim? I do. I love every brave moment he has: running away, trusting a kid, taking care of that kid, not telling him what he saw in the ship, standing up to Huck and telling him when he's being a dick, trusting other slaves to pass information to Huck. All of these things could mean a return to slavery at best, lynching and mutilation at worst. Every time he does one of these things, I see the images of every lynching photo I have ever seen floating before Jim's eyes and him deciding to do it anyway. The power of that is moving. It's also heartbreaking to see his continued failure to find freedom. "Yes; en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, and I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

Because I love Jim so much, it's hard to forgive Huck, even if Jim does. I am completely okay with him being a more loving person than I am. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart, and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth.  Gold!--his own gold--brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!  He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure.  The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze.  He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered warm soft curls.  In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child--a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.

The question that struck me before I picked up Silas Marner was: can George Eliot write a short book as well as a long book?  Some people seemed inclined to write one or the other, so it's strange to me that Eliot was able to pump out something as tome-like as Middlemarch as well as this little under-200 pp. book.  Silas Marner, as expected, doesn't have the complexity of Middlemarch, but it shares a concern in the vitality of communal living, and effectively gives the impression that its characters are only one glimpse of a larger story of the town in which they live, as in Middlemarch.

Silas Marner is a weaver and a miser who adores the pile of gold he keeps beneath his floorboards.  He was once a religious man, but an instance of betrayal--his closest friend blames on him a horrible crime--made him shun society, and horde the proceeds of his weaving.  One night, his gold is stolen and his world unravels.  But a few days later a young golden-haired child appears mysteriously in its place, as if the gold has been transformed.

We know the provenance of the child--a woman trekking through the snow has died and the child sought shelter in Marner's cabin--but to Marner and the other villagers, this is a mysterious occurrence.  Eliot is concerned with the nature of Providence: what is it, what does it mean to be given it and what does it mean to be denied it?  The young Marner's guilt is determined by drawing lots, and the result drives him away from God and church.  But the transformation of the gold into the girl, whom Marner names Eppie, is a different kind of Providence.  Eliot lets us see the human striving and action behind the mystery, and this way manages to suggest that we are the engines of God's beneficence--which Marner, cut off from his community, has long been starved of.  Eppie reconnects him to other people:

The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of coin.  And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to his earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.

There's a cloying cuteness to this story.  This "adorable-child-redeems-an-antisocial-lout" conceit is surprisingly popular these days, and most often is a sign of laziness.  (It even happens to Tim Riggins.)  But perhaps the idea was fresher in Eliot's day.  Even still, Silas Marner has the air of a fable, neatly packaged with a moral at the end.  It seems to owe a definite debt to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  But Eliot is such a masterful writer--at times she reminds me of Hardy, but with a better sense of authorial control--that it never seems cheap or overly didactic.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph













This book is actually a collection of three plays, but I'm going to treat them as one text and do mini-reviews of each from my least to most favorite.

I'd See It, But It's Not On My Play Bucket List: Animals Out of Paper
(Joseph's fourth play, but the earliest play in this collection)
This play follows a newly divorced origami master, the science teacher who is enamored with her, and the origami prodigy teenager he's discovered at his school (who is also just a regular prodigy) who he wants to be an apprentice to the master. 

This play has a few funny moments, like when Andy (teacher) goes to Ilana (origami master)'s studio: 

He points to a Chinese take-out box.
ANDY: Hey did you do that? That's great.
ILANA: Those are take-out boxes.
ANDY: Oh.
ILANA: Yeah, that's Szechuan beef.
ANDY: It's just that there's so many. I thought it was conceptual. 

It's WORKS, but it's also a cheaper laugh because it's a joke that's been made with a lot of conceptual artist's work - it just works better because of the origami/Chinese take out box connection. It's too bad that it's one we've heard before. 

It's also a little heartbreaking, like when Andy accidentally leaves his book of blessings (yes, he counts and writes them down) behind at Ilana's apartment and she reads them all, discovering many things about him including his uncomfortably huge crush on her (uncomfortable because he idolizes her and they've had very few interactions).

ANDY: I really like you. I mean, I have a really big crush on you.
ILANA: I know, it was in the book.
ANDY: Oh man!
ILANA: Andy, listen . . . 
ANDY: People have two sides, okay? They have their inside and their outside, and I don't really need for everyone to be reading my book!
ILANA: People have more than two sides.
ANDY: Some people. But not me. There's this. And then there's this. 

He feels like she already knows all the little stories, moments, and anecdotes that a person would normally have the opportunity to share while getting to know someone. The motif of sides, paper, and folds is repeated throughout the play at different intervals, often beautifully (I am a little geeky about origami and have had dreams about folding and teaching and usually make at least one origami piece with my students every year, so I am very much biased - I think most things having to do with origami are beautiful). 

ILANA: Look at this paper. It has no memory, it's just flat. But fold it, even once, and suddenly it remembers something. And then with each fold, another memory, another experience...It probably can't remember it's still in one piece. Probably feels like too many things have happened to it. It's all twisted into something so far from what it used to be. 

The idea is great, the writing is beautiful, but I wasn't satisfied with the arc of the plot and where Joseph decided to end it. Because it is such a new and (at least in my circle of readers) relatively unknown text, I don't want to give anything away, but it made me want to origami, and I think I'll indulge for my Valentine's Day cards. 

I Want to See This So Badly and Was Ecstatic to See an Ad for It in San Francisco Only to Have My Soul Crushed When I Found Out it Was Put on Five Months Ago: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

This play is THE Joseph play. It was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2010 under drama, but lost to "Next to Normal" by Tom Kitt which I cannot speak to as I've never read/seen it. 

This play showcases the Iraq war in a really interesting and brilliant way. The title character, the Tiger, is played straight as a person who watches the horrifying events unfold before him (although he IS a tiger and doesn't necessarily find killing problematic). We also get the perspective of two American soldiers as well as an Iraqi translator, his murdered sister, a handful of civilians, and Uday Hussein. Living characters interact with dead ones, and time and space are sometimes blended. 

Including Uday Hussein is a really interesting choice. I did a little research to see if he's portrayed accurately, and it turns out he was in fact a really awful person (you are surprised, I know). TIME Magazine did a profile of the Hussein brothers and it begins with an anecdote about Uday seeing a 14-year-old girl, kidnapping her, and keeping her for three days while he raped her. The girl's father was an ex-governer and reported the rape. Uday told him to drop the charges and send the girl back to him with her 12-year-old sister, which (according to the article) the ex-governer did. So. There's that, and that part of his personality is included in the play. 

UDAY: (truly aggrieved) But people don't like me. They say I am a bad man. Evil. A torturer. I tortured people. (beat) Of course I fucking tortured people. When you have people who have wronged you . . . you would torture them. . . And then once they have [tired of the torture], you bring in their women. And you have your way with them. Because to watch your wife get fucked by a man who is about to kill you, well, that is a piece-of-shit day you are having, my friend. 

The American soldiers are struggling to keep it together psychologically and morally while still upholding their masculine military values. Kev is a compulsive liar who has to make himself seem braver, more impressive, more important than he is. 

KEV: (near tears) Jesus! Everything I see every day is just one crazy thing after another. 

The play does have funny moments - one of my favorite is when Musa, the translator, addresses one of the soldiers as Johnny (after being repeatedly called Habib by the Americans). In the way that "Animals Out of Paper" uses origami as a metaphor, this play uses topiary as a metaphor, and again - I might have a bias because my mom is into topiary and I grew up with it - it's a really lovely metaphor. 

This is one of those texts where I feel like there is so much happening below the surface, and I think I really will need to see it in order to start to have an idea of what I've missed. One thing I am very excited for in production is the use of Arabic. In the script, we the reader get the phonetic, the Arabic, and the translation, but stage directions specify that the audience only hears Arabic. 

I Saw This Play Twice In One Week and Will Never Turn Down a Chance to See It: Gruesome Playground Injuries 

My favorite Las Vegas local theater company, Cockroach Theatre, included this in their last season and I was immediately blown away and saw it twice. After reading it, I am still in love with this play. Joseph is really into these metaphors that take over the whole play (see: origami, topiary) and in this play it is injuries. The play features two people: Kayleen and Doug, and shows them from age 8 to age 38. Every scene jumps forward fifteen years or backwards 10 years, thus in the first scene they are 8, in the second they are 23, in the third they are 13, etc. They have a will-they or won't-they friendship that is showcased mostly in the nurse's office and hospital rooms, but sometimes in other places. 

The most interesting aspect of this play is that the costume changes and makeup changes are done on stage in front of the audience, so they get to see the actor cover themselves with mud or blacken a tooth or put on an eye patch. This play has to be one of the most difficult for actors to do because they are playing this huge range of ages and experiences, but Joseph's writing so wonderfully captures their ages. 

KAYLEEN (age 8): The rest of the castle is loud and has bright lights and flags and hot oil because of wars. But the dungeon is where people can go to languish and get some peace and quiet. 

After having sex for the first two times, she describes the second time with: 

KAYLEEN: It wasn't fun. It was . . . It was just like, you know. Like you have to pretend you're not even doing anything, like you're just playing around. . . wrestling around and everything and then suddenly we're not, suddenly, he's like. . . you know . . .
DOUG: He's like what?
KAYLEEN: Nothing.
DOUG: You didn't want to?
KAYLEEN: I mean . . . not at that exact moment . . . 
        Doug stands up, stares at her. 
DOUG: Kayleen . . .
KAYLEEN: Don't get all crazy. You're always so dramatic.
DOUG: I'm going to fucking kill him. 

Oh, this moment. This moment where a girl doesn't feel comfortable calling her experience rape or inappropriate or anything, and the person who loves her is ready to fucking kill that person. I feel like this is *such* a woman moment, teenage moment, human moment, and way too common, and perfectly captured. 

I don't know if I would have loved this play so much if I hadn't seen it done SO well in an intimate black box theater with really amazing actors who were perfect for the parts (and really excellent decisions in sound choices - the stage directions just say to play music in between acts while they're changing, and the director had era-appropriate music that made it feel very much like these characters were on MY timeline, although I am a wee bit younger). However, I do think that the writing is THAT strong in order for two people to carry the entire weight of a play on their shoulders. I would recommend this to everyone, but especially to women and men in their teens, twenties, and thirties who spent part of their youth and maybe part of their present being broken and damaged. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings

Questions of English reverberate through our daily lives.  When we use a language, we may be making a social connection, answering a question, enjoying ourselves, passing time, or showing off, but fundamentally we imagine that the interest of the person or people to whom we are speaking is engaged.  The desire to shape and emphasize this engagement is crucial.  How do I get you to listen to me?  Can I persuade you to like me, hire me, trust me, come and see my etchings?  Manipulations of our language -- by the state, advertisers, salespeople, factions, preachers, prophets, poets, cheats -- are legion.  Then there are other questions.  How do we refer to social groups other than our own -- people of a different ethnic background, say, or people with disabilities?  How do we address strangers, which words are hurtful, and when is it okay to swear?  Is the language of an email different from the language of conversation?  What songs can we sing, and how should we pray?

Though Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars declares itself a history of arguments over the nature of proper English, it's really a polemic.  That's okay; The Language Wars is never more engaging than when Hitchings revels in a vigorous defense of a descriptive way of looking at the English language, whether it's exposing the dangerous jingoism of "pure English" or pithily observing that "[t]o expect a natural language to behave like mathematics is akin to expecting a child to behave like an iPod."

Of course, I find Hitchings persuasive partly because I was already persuaded.  Like Hitchings, I believe that carping about the "rules" of English is not only irritating but the product of a mistaken view of how language works.  Several times in the past few months I've been caught in arguments about the news that certain dictionaries have decided to include "figuratively" in their definitions of the word "literally."  Most people are surprised to find that I think the decision is the correct one.  The purpose of a dictionary, I say, is to act as a record of English usage, not a set of fiats to follow.  It is possible to lament the shifting usage of the word "literally"--I too cringe when I hear it used as an intensifier--without pretending that offenders are violating some invisible rule of ironclad law.

Hitchings surveys the history of the English language from its "modern" roots in the fifteenth century to shows that these arguments have always been going on.  Taken as a whole, the book reads like a pantheon of pedants, from crusty old coots inventing rules from the premise that English should act like Latin to crackpots who want to "purify" English spelling and grammar to make it more rigid, scientific, English, or American.  Sometimes it's funny--did you know that eighteenth century grammarian Lindley Murray argued against using the relative pronoun who when referring to children because "We hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection?"  Humorous too are the lists of words that were once thought of as pernicious, including mob, which Jonathan Swift hated, or electrocution, gullible, standpoint, and autograph.  Sometimes it's frightening--instead of giving an example from the book, maybe just recall this.

The most powerful thing, in fact, about The Language Wars, is how well it details just how entangled the idea of "proper English" is with some very nasty assumptions about race, class, nationality, gender, and power.  Still, I have to voice my admiration a little for nineteenth century writer and favorite of Thomas Hardy's, William Barnes, whom Hitchings pokes fun at for his attempts to eradicate Latinisms from English in favor of Anglo-Saxon words:

Barnes preferred wheelsaddle to bicycle -- a detail quoted by Hardy in his obituary of Barnes in 1886 -- and nipperlings to forceps.  More alarming, perhaps, was his suggestion that leechcraft was better than medicine.  But not all his proposals were shunned: it was Barnes who revived the Old Enligh term Wessex, steeped in associations with paganism and Saxon kingship, and we can see a Barnesian flavour in the use of foreword and handbook instead of preface and manual.

Attempts to return English to its Anglo-Saxon roots, as Hitchings points out, have often been tinged with xenophobia and racism.  But foreword IS better than preface, and sunprint more evocative than photograph.  I could get behind using inwit rather than conscience.   But I don't know that Barnes even lived to see the worst of Latinisms, which really clog up academic, legal, and professional writing--expedite over hasten, deracinate over uproot, et cetera.  (Excuse me--and others.)  Hitchings' goal is to expose the shoddiness of prescriptivism, I know, not give style advice, but for such a clear stylist, I think he's often reluctant to identify genuine good advice about language.  "Avoid using literally when you mean figuratively" is not a rule.  But it is good advice.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Symposium by Muriel Spark

'Perhaps', said Dan, 'you can't be a friend.  Maybe in fact you're our worst enemy.  It may be.'

'Undoubtedly,' said Magnus.  'In families, one never knows.'

Muriel Spark's Symposium starts with a very basic plot: A collection of well-to-do Londoners meet for dinner, including the newlyweds Margaret and William--whose mother can't make it, because she's being murdered in her apartment on the other side of town.  From there it branches off disparately, through the recent histories of all the dinner party's guests.  That's a particularly Sparkian trick, to pack as much disparate information into a tightly sealed space, and here, as in The Finishing School, another "late" Spark novel, the sparseness struck me as a bit excessive.  I think that Spark grew only chillier and more ascetic as she grew older, and parts of Symposium seemed jarringly rote.

The best parts--most of which have to do with Margaret, who might just barely be called a "main character"--are shuffled unceremoniously in and out without time to really appreciate their fertile weirdness.  There's Margaret's mad Uncle Magnus, who everyone in the family seems to agree is not always mad, and who is the family's principle adviser in his lucid moments.  And the Marxist sisters of Mary of Good Hope (Spark loves nuns!) who take Margaret in as a novice before a murder forces them to dissolve.  Here's a letter Margaret writes:

Sister Lorne is furious because the Bishop sent a dictionary to Sister Marrow.  He said he had been given to understand she was at a loss for words, how to express herself.  He wrote something like that.  And he recommended she should study the dictionary or look it up when the accurate epithet was called for.  We had a meeting about the letter.  Sister Lorne has written back to the Bishop that this was an insult.  She said that four-letter words were the lifeblood of the market place, the People's parlance and aphrodisiac, the dynamic and inalienable prerogative of the proletariat.  Sister Marrow added a PS. Fuck your balls Bishop, you are a fart and a shit.  I posted the letter myself.  The Bishop can't do a thing.  Sister Lorne remarked that there is no power in Church or State that can stop the inexorable march of Marxism into the future.

Are the sisters of Mary of Good Hope a humorous diversion, or integral to the themes of the novel?  As I always find with Spark, it's hard to tell.  Margaret, we find out, has a bad knack for being around people when they are murdered, including her own grandmother.  That's why she's in the convent.  But, naturally, even her own family suspects that she may somehow be implicated in these murders, and for a moment, we are led to think that, too.  Ultimately, Margaret decides that if she's going to be thought of as a murderer, she might as well have the fun of murdering, and she sets her sights on William's mother:

'I'll tell you what,' said Margaret, 'I'm tired of being the passive carrier of disaster.  I feel frustrated.  I almost think it's time for me to take my life and destiny in my own hands, and actively make disasters come about.  I would like to do something like that.'  She sat on the sofa beside Magnus, tossing back her red hair, rather like a newly graduated student seriously discussing her future with her college tutor.

'Perpetrate evil?' Magnus offered.

'Yes.  I think I could do it.'

'The wish alone is evil,' said Magnus with the distant equanimity of a college tutor who has two or three other students to see that afternoon.

'Glad to hear it,' said Margaret.

Ironically--SPOILER ALERT--it's not Margaret that kills William's mother.  She's done in by a ring of thieving butlers who swoop in on empty homes when they know their occupants will be at swanky dinner parties.  The black comedy of it all is that Margaret, who has tried unsucessfully for so much of her life to bring good to others--she lives by philosophy she calls Les Autres--makes a sudden switch to the pursuit of evil, and she's foiled even in that.  Spark wants us to laugh at Margaret's utter failure to practice any sort of morality at all.  It makes sense, then, that she opens the novel with a quotation from Plato's Symposium:

...the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.

Fair enough.  But Symposium is only infrequently funny, and the digressions to the other members of the party--of which there are eight or so, and whom I have addressed here not at all--enervates the central plotline of any real tragedy.  The ironic comparison of the dinner party to a Platonic Symposium is cute, but as a writer's ethos, it seems more well matched to, say, Loitering with Intent(Incidentally, the book that Fleur Talbot writes in Loitering shares a plotline with this novel.)  Don't get me wrong, I loved reading it--I always love Spark's novels.  But I wouldn't recommend it to a novice.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

"Could a Negro ever live halfway like a human being in this goddamn country?"










This is one of those classics that has never made it onto my nightstand which is a little strange because of my reading preferences. I have read what I would consider to be an inordinate amount of literature by African-American woman (compared to an average American reader) with a comparative lack when it comes to African-American men. I did read Native Son as an undergrad, and it took me a few years to get over the experience which my overly-privileged self felt I really didn't need to experience (I have a much greater appreciation for it now).

In choosing companion novels for To Kill a Mockingbird that are appropriate for freshman, I realized I didn't have a single book by a black male author that I wanted to offer as an option, so I decided to preview Black Boy and felt the way I almost always feel when reading a book I know I should have picked up earlier in my life: how have I not read this?

The quote above is striking because it's one of the VERY few times Wright utilizes a colorful word - he makes it clear early in the text that words are powerful and he is not interested in expressing himself with coarse words which of course makes this usage feel like the slap in the face that his whole life has felt like.

The autobiographical novel begins at around age 4. As someone who has almost no memories until I was well into elementary school, the early memories make me incredibly envious. The whole first part of the book which follows Wright growing up in an incredibly religious household that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly divisive school system that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly racist town that he doesn't fit in with. His family lives in poverty and he's constantly starving, hungry, and obsessed with food.

"I lived on what I did not eat."

It is maddening and frustrating and illuminating. Although I obviously graduated from high school and college with American history credits, took Modern African-American Lit as an undergrad, teach American Literature, and prepped for teaching TKAM, the details of his daily life were still a surprise. I wonder if it's just something that is impossible to get over? Today as my students read about Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow etiquette, I found myself paraphrasing Wright to them. One freshmen said that he couldn't imagine having to wait for white drivers to pass through intersections before him because he doesn't pay enough attention to people's race, and I said that's a luxury he has because he's a Caucasian appearing man in 2014, and if he were a black man in the early 20th century he would think about race every moment of every day.

"This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

The second part of the book showcases Wright's migration to the North and the freedoms and difficulties found there. One of the most striking moments in this section is the desperate loveseeking that a young woman engages in and her mother encourages. They are tirelessly trying to convince Wright to marry the young woman, engage in sexual relations, connect with, etc, in spite of the fact that she is illiterate, they have just met, and it's unknown if they have anything in common. The mother tries to dangle the fact that they own their house as a prize for Wright to settle with her daughter. This economic carrot is one that appears later on in the text as well. 

"But people have to find their own way to each other."

As Wright becomes an insurance salesman he reveals that some women don't pay their insurance premiums, and the salespeople have sex with them in exchange for paying their dime or nickel premium. This ugliness is written about as though it were nothing, and Wright takes on a haughty tone against prostitutes as though his kept women are something besides women who are trading sex for money.

One critique a coworker said about the novel is that she gets to the point where she feels like "I get it, let's wrap this up." Although I feel like every aspect of the novel is there purposefully, and similar sections are included to show the nuance of experience, but he does get INCREDIBLY nuanced when it comes to what happened with him and the Communist party.

Throughout the novel I kept finding myself taken in by a perfect turn of phrase, and I wonder how much of the beauty of Native Son I missed because I was so disturbed by the content.

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo...to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The face of a man contemplating revolution.
"My point is that one person is responsible.  Always.  If H-bombs exist--and they do--some man controls them.  In terms of morals there is no such thing as 'state.'  Just men.  Individuals.  Each responsible for his own acts."

"Anybody need a refill?" I asked.

Nothing uses up alcohol faster than political argument.  I sent for another bottle.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was excellent.  It tells the story of three characters who start a revolution to free the moon colony, Luna, from its tyrannical Earthside rulers.  If this sounds a little familiar, it's because it is.  Heinlein's scholarly character, the Professor, notes the similarity between their revolution and that of our founding fathers.  This is one of the reasons the book is good: the political angle.  The plot is driven by a libertarian revolution and the characters' various reasons for seeking freedom from the Earth.  A number of chapters include poignant debates between the characters.  Also quite a telling account of the legislative body.

Nonetheless, the book is also extremely funny.  The characters all have a great sense of humor and on multiple occasions (including the passage above), I was laughing out loud.  Another example:  "'I must confess,' said Prof, 'that I find these conflicting reports very conflicting.'"

The highlight of the book, though, is Mike, the recently turned sentient super-computer that gives the revolutionaries their edge.  Mike is a super computer that manages everything in Luna.  After becoming sentient, Mike plays pranks just to see what happened.  The narrator meets Mike/learns of his sudden intelligence because the narrator simply starts talking to Mike.

What is striking about Heinlein's presentation is that, although Mike is wildly intelligent, he does not understand basic human interaction.  As a result, in the beginning of the novel, Mike acts like a child.  For example, Mike asks the narrator to explain humor to him; throughout the novel Mike is as interested in understanding humor as he is in winning the revolution.  I liked this idea: a suddenly sentient intelligence won't know how to act, or why.  It would need guidance.

Highly recommended.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something.  Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.  I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from.  There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it.  Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted.  I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.

From 1946 to 1947, Flannery O'Connor--long before her writing became synonymous with the "Southern Gothic"--kept a prayer journal in a composition notebook, which a month or so ago was published in the form of a book.  It's a wonderful record of stark honesty, although peering into someone's personal life of prayer seems voyeuristic.  In his introduction, O'Connor's friend W. A. Sessions' says that the Prayer Journal should be taken as a document of a "craftswoman of the first order," and not necessarily spontaneous moments of intimate reflection.  But that belies a persistent anxiety in the Journal about the conflict between craft and honesty.  The very first page seems to have been torn out, leaving this fertile fragment as an opening line: "[...] effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had."  Yet, look at the beautiful--and quite writerly--metaphor that follows:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.  You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.  The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

O'Connor vacillates between the deep desire to be a professional writer and self-chastisement over the practice of writing: "But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so."  I don't think this is an ironic gesture; in fact, much of the Prayer Journal reads as intentionally plain, stripped intentionally of artifice.  The truer, and more wonderful, irony is that the flares of guilty craft are often the lines that inspire the most thoughtfulness and reflection in me--like the lines about the moon above, or the banal specificity of "floor wax and pigeon eggs" as a route to prayer.  And yet, O'Connor seems to understand this possibility and dismisses it:

There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead.  Writing is dead.  Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness.  I bring my dead want into the place, the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing.  This has its purpose if by God's grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.

That, like much of A Prayer Journal, is deeply sad.  It almost makes me feel guilty for being inspired by any part of it.  I hope that O'Connor found something vital for herself in the career that she so earnestly desires throughout it, that it wasn't all a "dead want" in a "dead place" for her.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Life is nothings; I heed him not.  But to fail here, is not mere life or death.  It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him--without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best.  To us for ever are the gates of heaven shut; for who shall open them to us again?  We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God's sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man.  But we are face to face with duty; and in such case must we shrink?  For me, I say, no; but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music, and his love, lie far behind.  You others are young.  Some have seen sorrow; but there are fair days yet in store.  What say you?

It is easy enough to give Bram Stoker credit for establishing the way we think about vampires.  Really, Dracula is the vampire, the unquestionable model for every cheap costume and bad CW show today.  But the early film adaptations, like F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, have as much to do with that conception as Stoker's novel, and the Dracula of Dracula is at times unrecognizable.  For every detail that Stoker popularized--a vampire's ability, for example, to turn into a bat, his lack of a reflection, or aversion to crucifixes and garlic--there's an aspect that has been forgotten, like Dracula's bestial hairiness, or his ability to climb down a wall like a lizard.  Stoker's Dracula walks around freely during the day--but he doesn't do any sparkling of note.

The first part of Dracula is a lot of fun.  Jonathan Harker, tasked with traveling to the Count's remote Transylvanian castle to oversee the sale of some English property, becomes the Count's prisoner.  He is almost eaten by Dracula's sexually aggressive wives; he discovers the Count sleeping in a coffin filled with dirt; he escapes but with a fair amount of psychological trauma.  The second part, in which Harker and a group of others, including his wife Mina and Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, try to prevent Dracula from setting down roots in England, is regrettably more tedious.  The Count is mostly absent, save for one memorable scene in which he forces Mina to drink his own blood out of his chest wound (establishing a psychic connection between them, naturally).  The plot is mostly concerned with locating and destroying the boxes of Translyvanian earth the Count has brought with him, and where he must sleep.

There's a wearying earnestness to these chapters--which really pound in the goodness and sacrifice of the cadre of heroes--that belies the essential weirdness of the Dracula figure.  Dracula works best when the weirdness punctuates the stodgy heroism, like the half-mad foreign-y ramblings of Dr. Helsing, or scenes with totally mad Renfield, who helps to fulfill Dracula's nefarious schemes from inside a mental asylum, and eats a lot of bugs.

One thing I didn't expect from Dracula was its extreme conservativeness.  As a story of an Eastern European ruler trying to set up shop in England, it's a parable of the threat of foreign invasion.  (It's never clear to me why Dracula, who has difficulty passing over running water, would even want to travel to England instead of merely feasting on the blood of continental Europe.)  Vampirism becomes a stand-in both for the terrors of homosexuality and female sexuality.  Here's how the darling, chaste Lucy Westenra is described when she becomes the Undead:

My own heart grew cold as ice, and I could hear the gasp of Arthur, as we recognized the features of Lucy Westenra.  Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed.  The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.  Van Helsing stepped out, and, obedient to his gesture, we all advanced too; the four of us ranged in a line before the door of the tomb.  Van Helsing raised his lantern and drew the slide; by the concentrated light that fell on Lucy's face we could see that the lips were crimson with fresh blood, and that the stream had trickled over her chin and stained the purity of her lawn death-robe.

In that short passage, Stoker uses the word "purity" twice to describe Lucy's former state, and emphasizes with the white robe which is daubed with blood--I don't think I'm reading too much into it to see in this description a loss of virginity, especially with her "voluptuous wantonness."  To make matters worse, Lucy's taken to preying on young children.

Much of the novel's tedious second half is concerned with protecting Mina, who is Dracula's next chosen victim (he works on one person at a time, apparently, not converting them until all of their blood is drained), and whose "purity" is threatened in turn.  Mina, of course, has no place in the heroes' schemes besides that of a talisman to be protected, and the final scene in which Dracula is defeated is described in her diary as she watches from hundreds of feet away.

Besides relegating its principal female character to the sidelines, this is a peculiar and anti-climactic way to end the novel.  We've been wanting to see Dracula again for a hundred pages or so, and the final "battle"--such as it is--is described at a safe remove which lacks intimacy and immediacy.  It's typical of Dracula, which I liked quite a bit, but wanted to like a lot more.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous by Trav S. D.

I love Vaudeville.

Not that I love every goofy, borscht belt joke or watch the 3 Stooges on a loop (I swear!), but there’s something so strange and appealing about the scene, Hollywood before Hollywood was a thing, a massive cultural phenomenon that, aside from the filmed work of some of it’s bigger stars, has been largely forgotten by the public.

Trav S. D., who apparently runs a modern Vaudeville revue of some sort, gives the whole movement a popular history that anyone could enjoy. Thoroughly sourced and pithily written, Trav spends time with not only the most well-known stars of the Vaudeville stage, such as the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Buster Keaton, but he also turns his eye to lesser performers--sword swallowers, contortionists, freaks, weirdos and lunatics--and, in doing so, brings out what a strange, wonderful world Vaudeville really was.

I particularly enjoyed the first couple chapters, where Trav traces Vaudeville’s history back to the travelling minstrels and theater troupes  in the Middle Ages, and even further, to the wild bacchanals of ancient Rome. While it seems like a little bit of a stretch to view Caligula as an early P. T. Barnum, if the shoe fits... From these inauspacious beginnings, Vaudeville developed from “Men Only” burlesque beginnings to the biggest show on earth, and then, in the span of only about a decade, was completely wiped out by motion pictures.

Although it’s doubtful that most of us would trade, say, Scorcese’s output to watch a man set himself on fire onstage, there is something sad about the disappearance of Vaudeville. Nowdays, unless you live in a large city, you probably don’t have much access to live theater and you certainly can’t see the large variety of things present in the average Vaudeville program. Trav also makes a fairly convincing, if somewhat rose-colored, case for Vaudeville’s inclusiveness of minorities and women and posits the movement on the whole as a net positive. I’m inclined to agree. In many ways, the rise and fall of Vaudeville seems like a uniquely American event, one brief moment when the melting pot came together to watch the world’s fattest lady do... whatever she did.