Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Two (Adolescence)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Sometime during middle school, an elderly lady neighbor in our apartment complex delivered to me a brown paper shopping bag filled with books. I think she said (perhaps I heard this secondhand) she thought some of them were a little too young for me, and some of them were a little too old, so hopefully the result would be just right. I wish I could remember all the books in that paper bag, but one of them was The Cricket in Times Square, an utterly charming book which now feels like a relic from another century (which, I guess, it is). Another was The Hiding Place, which I still feel guilty about not reading. A third was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3, a mass market paperback with a forest green cover and solemn white lettering belying what lay within.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bloody Noses

Yesterday, two news stories of interest to liberal audiences broke: a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school in which two adults and one child were killed, and an incident in which a passenger was dragged forcibly off a United flight after it was oversold. My Facebook feed, which leans very far to the left, offered a ton of commentary on the United flight incident and very little about the shooting.

My husband put it thus: "It's another school shooting."

The United thing is slightly more unprecedented. Though it's part of the larger pattern of the last few years: the contempt and corruption and absurdity in institutions has torn through the last polite veil and it's on the surface now. Nepotism is plain instead of hidden. Swastikas are being spray-painted on churches. Profit comes before people, in Detroit and North Dakota and on the internet. It's always been here, roiling and charred; now it's visible.

I am not anti-gun, but I am not pro-gun. My father kept a shotgun under the bed, which my mother knew how to use. We believed in Constitutional rights in my family, but it doesn't follow that my family thought willy-nilly gun ownership was a good idea. It's kind of funny, because the two issues are at opposite ends of the political spectrum in this nation, but in my view, abortions and gun ownership should both be safe, legal, and rare.

It dawned on me a couple of years ago that plane flights, in a country as large as America, are not a luxury but a necessity. If you need to get home for a funeral, you don't have another choice but to fly. It's another way that the European model of planning a society doesn't fit America: the Eurail is reliable and useful because Europe is small. Copenhagen runs on bicycles because it's small. America can't do it the way they do it over there because our land mass is simply too big, and infrastructure planning for a place as large as America presents challenges that the Eurail doesn't face. (This doesn't excuse Amtrak for its suckiness, but it gives some sense to why lawmakers won't pour money into a rail infrastructure here. The distances are impractical.)

My opinion on gun control approaches apathy. Shootings keep happening, and we ride the roller-coaster of public outrage, and nothing changes. Why should I state and defend my position when lobbying outguns me every time?

If plane flights are a necessity rather than a luxury, why are they so unaffordable for the average person? Why do they run so unsatisfactorily, such that jokes about the unpleasant aspects of flying were already unfunny a generation ago? Why do they have to teeter between regulation (FAA) and deregulation (stockholders)?

Matt said to me once that handguns were designed for no purpose other than to kill human beings. This altered the way I view guns altogether. I see no problem with responsible gun ownership, but unless you're a collector (like some people collect decorative plates - and because of how I feel about cars, I fully understand a 100% unmurdery attraction toward guns, and whatever, you do you, but you probably have a gun safe), why on earth would you want a handgun unless you think you might kill a human being someday?

Why would you want to own a machine gun if you are not a soldier?

Why is overbooking flights okay?

"Because it's my right" is a good enough reason. I'm perfectly okay with that. Very little is more ingrained in the American perspective than my rights. But freedom and danger dance, inseparably, eternally, a tango toward the end of the world. Conscious decisions about which element to prioritize are necessary. You can't just assume you're either free or safe; you need to work it out for yourself, how much of each you want. And there's a point where I think the safety of others lands at a higher priority than the freedom of a few. That point keeps poking our nation in the temple again and again, cold and sharp, twenty children, fifty college students, a dozen moviegoers.

The opposing view on the United thing is that he should have just complied. Sure, I guess. If you think compliance will make people treat you fairly. If you think compliance is a virtue. If you think that overbooking flights is the customer's problem, not the airline's.

After Sandy Hook, I realized that the gun laws in this nation will not change. Ever. If the murder of twenty elementary school children spurs no restrictive action related to guns, nothing ever will.

As long as airlines are running a public utility for profit, shit like this is going to go down. They'll squeeze us into ever smaller sardine tins and charge us $400 for it and nothing will change. As long as we keep paying for what we have to have, and no one in a position to be heard says hey, this isn't right, and it matters to you as well as to me, we'll keep being dragged out of seats we paid for. We'll keep being given bloody noses and told to comply. For profit. For stockholders.

Guns don't cause these deaths. Illness does. If we can't fix illness - and we can't - there must be a way to limit what illness can wreak on the innocent.

The frenzy of being American contributes to it. Being male in America at a weird time, when the comfortable supremacy of men erodes daily, contributes to it. Powerlessness - like the kind that leads you to close your mouth instead of joining a union, like the kind that leads people to accept the phenomenon of overbooked flights so they can get where they need to go - contributes to it. The availability of guns, and the press coverage of prior shootings and the availability of guns to those prior shooters and the press coverage of the availability of guns to the shooters before that and the peaky emotional outpouring of rage and support after each one, these all contribute to it.

To keep the gears moving, to keep the bottom line in the black, to sell subscriptions, to generate clicks, so we can buy things and stone ourselves with television and tell each other how much better the advertisement was than the football game.

Don't you want to be famous?

Don't you want to matter?

Don't you want to get home?



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Me (and Alyse Knorr) on Entropy!

Today marks the launch of an interview series I'm doing for Entropy called "Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like)". The idea is that I interview a bunch of authors about books they hate, and thus comes fruitful conversation about books and perhaps writing generally. This one's been in the works for a while, so I'm thrilled to share.

My first interview subject (and I believe the first person I have interviewed since, oh, 1999) is Alyse Knorr, a poet whose book Mega-City Redux I have been giving to all my friends since late last year. Up next on the interview docket are two more poets, which is appropriate, since 



Because this is the Fictator, and it's what I do here, I'm going to explain how this thing came together, and how what happened to me can benefit you if you are a not-yet-famous writer.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cut-Up

Something I will miss about school is the press of deadlines on my back. On Sunday I wrote 2,700 words because I had to turn it on Monday. I'd've liked another couple of days to work on the result, and then another week or two to let it ferment, before others saw it. But I'd waited too long to start, so I had to roll with what came out on Sunday.

The cool thing about this, and about the associated deadline, is that the thing got written. The not-so-cool thing about this is the feeling that I rushed it, that I didn't say everything I wanted to say, and that I got tangled up in my ideas and made a mess. Of course, those are problems that come out and get fixed in subsequent drafts. The professor said he wanted shitty first drafts, not perfection. But still. I don't like showing unfinished work to others unless I really trust them, and this feels unfinished. 

The gradual evolution of my writing process has left me with early drafts that are closer to finished than they used to be. By this I do not mean that everything I write is perfect. I've come to a writing process that includes such a long time chewing over the topic that when I'm finally ready to write, after the better part of a year, the work comes out like a late draft instead of an early one. All that time I was writing drafts in my head. If I'm not given that time, I come up with garbage, but if I don't have a deadline, I might go on thinking for much longer than I should. 

For my capstone class I'm working on a long, experimental memoir project. It is scary and hard, so I might have set it aside indefinitely if not encouraged by mean, heartless professors to write it now. It's a mess and a half at present, but I turned a corner of some kind on it in the past two weeks. The word count is building. I've figured out a) that I need an organizational strategy and b) what that strategy is going to be. Implementing it will take hard work of the kind that I've been wanting to do this semester, and was finally pressed to do on Sunday, rather than putting in a half hour here and an hour there. 

Life seems all cut into pieces lately. I give too many of them away. I want them for myself. I want to spend a whole day with my notebook, tea, the Brandenburg Concertos and a container of hummus. Not worrying about laundry, exercise, application deadlines, meals, money, nagging health issues, keeping up with friends' triumphs and tragedies, etc etc. Much of this stuff is worth my time, but I want, selfishly, to be neglectful of everything except the work. Is that asking a lot? 

Yes, of course it is. Yoga and meditation are more significant accomplishments when performed out here in the world, rather than in a cave in the middle of nowhere. My friend who wrote a novel 200 words at a time? I admire her a hell of a lot more than me, offering benign neglect to my husband for three months while I write in a trance every day. On Sunday night a dog barking at great length outside my window while I worked was too much and I yelled "Shut up!", which doesn't harm anyone (I was inside with closed windows), but it's not at all like me. I never lose my temper at annoyances like that. When working, I'm a different person - snappish, territorial, egocentric. 




It follows, I think, that I'd be a better human if I found a way to work in the world without overdosing. But I have tried that way and it does not work. I can't do 200 words a day. It makes me wretched. A cut-up life is doing something similar, but unlike with the memoir, I can't come up with an organizational strategy that fixes anything. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part One (Childhood)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Something I didn't note in the prologue post about this series is that this list is in chronological order (when the books came into my life), not order of importance. With that in mind, let's talk about the Chronicles.

I read the Chronicles when I was so young that I no longer remember a time without them. I read them over and over as I grew up, and I loved reading them more than I loved reading pretty much anything else. (I still sort of feel that way. I could read The Magician's Nephew every day for months and not be tired of it.) I believed wholeheartedly in Narnia, and I ached to be as brave and true-hearted as Lucy. I failed to grasp the religious allegory in the books until I was much older, found out kind of offhand about Aslan = Jesus, and felt not a little heartbroken. (I am not the only one to whom this happened.) With cynical adult vision, I can see why I loved them so much:
  • They introduced me to storytelling, a force as powerful as gravity
  • I imprinted on Lucy, who is a semi-blank canvas, designed for little girls like me 
  • They imparted wisdom in fantastical, digestible ways (well-tempered mix of meaninglessness + meaning) 
  • Dry British wit, a mainstay for my sense of humor 
  • I didn't have Jesus, but I had Aslan 
My upbringing bore no religion. The atmosphere wasn't anti-anything, but more of a "nah, thanks" in the direction of churches of all stripes. Without a savior to fixate on, what did I have? I had Aslan, who was good and generous and there most of the times you needed him and not a tame lion. I'm not saying that God is a necessary element to youth, that all children will latch on to God if you feed God to them, but I am saying that if you introduce a flawless Godlike figure, through literature, into the mind of a voraciously reading child who hasn't a rebellious bone in her body, you will probably inspire devotion to that figure. That devotion may last well into adulthood. Part of me still hopes that Narnia will be what awaits me after I die.

The storytelling is the primary thing, though. My mother used to make up silly stories for me (like a champ), and the Chronicles were by no means the first chapter books I read, but they were the first time I'd read something that felt like it had a history and a future. Something that shifted and grew over time, built on itself from book to book. It's like the difference between mystery novels and epics: Hercule Poirot does not change, does not shift in time and space, but Gilgamesh certainly does. I kept reading as Lucy grew too old for Narnia and Jill came to take her place. I kept reading as time circled back to show me how the wardrobe came to exist, after a Narnian tree blew down in Digory's yard. That experience demonstrated to me, for the first time, the heft and the compass of STORY, of narrative, as humans have been spreading it around fires for thousands of years.

And I wanted to live inside that understanding always.

Which is more or less how I got here, into this life, writing the words you're reading. Star Wars had a lot to do with it, too, a phosphorescent javelin of story and mythmaking thrust right into my brain at an impressionable age. But it was Narnia that made me want to keep reading, to make reading into a pillar of my life, and it was reading that made me want to start writing.

How I stared at this cover as a girl. This isn't at all what Jadis looks like inside my mind (though she is exotic here, which is appropriate, since she's from a crazy non-Narnian world), and Digory is dressed right but looks all wrong, and I don't even know what's up with Polly. But any other cover for this book looks even more wrong to me. This was the box set I had, and still have, and no other shall I ever read. 

The cynical adult vision that shows me why Narnia is so appealing to a kid has no capacity to dim my experience reading the books today. When people ask me what my favorite book is, I usually say it's the Chronicles, for a variety of reasons (some of my other favorite books sound hopelessly pretentious, or are too obscure to name without having a long, embarrassing conversation; everyone's heard of this book, and usually the other person has an opinion about it; etc). I can see the seams now, and Lewis's weaknesses as a writer, but his storytelling never falters. The wit still sparkles. The land of Narnia remains glorious, and kind, and surprising. I recognize that the books are extremely problematic, even beyond being a product of their time. Nevertheless, they matter to me more than any other book is ever likely to.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Accents and Attachments

I take notes in my car a lot. I use the voice-to-text feature to do this so I don't kill anyone. On certain words, Siri reveals to me that I have a trace of a Southern accent, based on growing up partially in the South with two Southern parents. It doesn't sound to my ear as if I have it, especially now that some Californian cadence has started to sink in to my speech, but Siri's transliterations tell the tale.

I can't remember the recent text-to-speech example that made this so clear to me, but as an example from long, long ago, in high school I attended a youth journalism conference with kids from all 50 states. The girl from Kentucky was from the mountains (i.e. her accent was very heavy, not modulated by town living), and she picked the letter I in an organizational context. She pronounced it "ah", and the proctor, from Massachusetts, did not understand her the first, second, or third time he asked for her letter. Siri is from California, so she, too, cannot understand me sometimes.

Recently I was taking notes about some titles I'd like to get on audiobook, and Siri recorded me as saying "From Here to Maternity". I'm pretty sure this was not a quirk of my accent, but instead a mistake. An annoying one. No more or less annoying, though, than the Facebook ads about fertility clinics and kids' clothes. I get tired of what other people tell me I should want.

Probably I shouldn't blame Siri. She can't even pronounce Sepulveda.

--

The writing has been going pretty well lately. I'm plugging at a few projects at once: something turning into a novel about Casablanca, a fragmented memoir thing about houses and spaces, and a hybrid essay I'm still dithering about. I need to hand in something for workshop in about two weeks, and I'm either going to write about fraudulence and Singin' in the Rain, or body mutability and Last Tango in Paris. I think the first one would be better for this context, but it might not be fully formed enough. The second one has been brewing for a year or so (part of it for 15 years or so), and I have enough to say about it that narrowing the scope will be the problem. So perhaps it's better to do that on my own time.

Reading has been going even better. I'm in a voracious phase, so I'm getting through an awful lot of books.

And the in-between of those two pursuits has borne some fruit in the recent past. Here's a book review I wrote of two terrific books of poetry, and watch this space for an exciting new project I'm doing with other writers. I can't tell you more than that until it comes to first fruition, and the timeline is TBD.

--

Have you ever dishonestly read a letter of recommendation about yourself that you weren't supposed to read? I did that this week, and I sort of died at all the nice things said about me. It was like a page and a half, closely typed, of pure praise. The past three years have been a gradual process of feeling better about myself, no longer thinking I am the literal worst and starting to think I'm maybe pretty cool (one recent morning I looked in the mirror and said "good to see you," which is, like, enormous progress from 2013), but this letter of rec was insane. Part of the reason it was difficult to read was the source: a professor I admire so much that I am shy of her and don't want to intrude on her time. Maybe I should have worried about this less over the last couple of years.

Them's the times, Fred

--

Last week I finished the audiobook of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I'm going to have to be more careful about checking for "plague novel" status in books recommended to me, because I do not like plague novels, they are scary and they make me lingeringly mournful for weeks, but by the time I realize that's what it is I'm hooked and I can't quit reading. This one was beautifully a novel, fully realized and characterized and interwoven, but on the sentence level I couldn't wait for it to be over. I had a little bit of the same reaction to it that I had to Never Let Me Go, in that I didn't see what all the fuss was about; I could see the seams and had read better books in pure genre reading. But I enjoyed this one more. More ideas in it that resonated with me (Shakespeare, fame, light). The thing that's stuck with me, that I keep thinking as I peek at the news through my fingers, is the endurance in the novel. Humans endure. Maybe the species is in decline - it's possible, it's not crazy, the dinosaurs had their day and passed on, as well - but maybe not. Maybe the species will just change the nature of its influence on this biosphere. Cheery thought, I know, but the Buddha warns against attachment.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sink, Empire, and So Shall Come New Days

Last year, my friend Kathleen recommended that I read a biography of the Mitford sisters, because the adventures of those six women in the 20th century are a truth far stranger and more interesting than fiction. I had never heard of the Mitfords. Their celebrity didn't reach the areas of mid-20th century culture I know best (music, Hollywood), and their biggest celebrity was in Britain, not the States.

In December I began listening to an audiobook about the Mitfords, The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell. I didn't last long. The beginning of the book is about the sisters' childhood, which rollicked with wit and fun, entailing private jokes and humorous catastrophes and, generally, growing up in genteel, intelligent poverty in Britain between the wars.

These stories and circumstances were so light as to be frothy, and I grew frustrated. Since the election, my Facebook feed had become a wailing wall. Everyone seemed to be yelling at everyone else. The ideological landscape of my country was changing, publicly, painfully, and paying attention to the multiple nicknames each Mitford sibling garnered by the time she was two became impossible.

It's funny. This is funny. Because I am the first person to say I'm not sure art and politics relate to each other comfortably. I've been trying to sort this out since 2002, when I watched two Pontecorvo films and found them just very bad, anti the opinions of the textbooks and the professor. The politics were the point. His art, explicitly political, was deemed good art because it was explicitly political, and I couldn't agree. The films were dull and meandering and even (literally) out of focus. From that point I examined explicitly political art on artistic merit, not political merit, and often found it wanting.

Now I am less certain about the purpose of art than I was then. I still believe that art ought to be artistically sound first, not second or third or last. But I've learned that politics and art are often, if not usually, inextricable, and that "pure art" with no political implications is more uncommon than I thought. (It took a lot of historical exploration and education to learn this, so forgive me if it sounds naive.) Plenty of filmmakers and visual artists and writers and singers primarily played artistic roles and secondarily played political ones, but nevertheless, politics creeps in to the strangest corners of art. The personal is political in many more contexts than second-wave feminism.

Still, for me to say this book isn't political enough is incredibly funny. I couldn't read a pundit's book if you paid me. Generally, I believe in the long term, the broom of history sweeping and sweeping us all into the dustpan, and my current sense that everyone in America with any kind of platform is using every possible opportunity to rail politically drives me nuts. And disappoints me. And depresses me. And lots of other effects. I have been watching funny animal gifs and posting beautiful things on Facebook as much as I can, because I cannot be the only person who wants frequent breaks from The American Situation.

But the Mitfords were too much fun for me. I got so mad at their frippery that I abandoned the book for a few weeks. Soon, though, I'd had enough of Benjamen Walker's doomsaying, and organizations saying they needed my voice (and my money) "now more than ever," and I went back to it. Thereafter, the book ventured into the mid-1930s, and its tenor changed completely.

Two of the sisters, Unity and Diana, became close friends with Hitler. Unity spent much of the 1930s in Germany. One of the sisters, Decca, was a radical Communist, and eloped with her husband to Spain at nineteen. These different viewpoints estranged Decca from the family on and off for the rest of her long life, even through her testimony before HUAC and her authorship of The American Way of Death, a book I'd certainly heard of.

Unity attempted suicide on the day Britain declared war on Germany, shooting herself in the head. Diana, until the end of her 93 years, refused to change her opinion of Hitler personally. She abhorred the actions of his regime, once she learned of them, but she didn't encounter Hitler in that context, and personally she found him charming company.* Even though Diana's husband was the leader of the British fascist party before the war, neither of them was particularly anti-Semitic; fascism and evil were not intimately linked at the time. Decca emerged as an eye-wateringly complicated woman, and two of the sisters barely emerged at all. As the Duchess of Devonshire, Debo completely revitalized Chatsworth, one of the greatest estates in England, and in order to keep it afloat, merged nobility with commerce in a way old families had been reluctant to do.

There's more. It's an interesting family.

Clockwise from upper left: Unity, Decca, Diana, Nancy, Debo, and Pam. Click to embiggen.

My feelings about this book changed so many times as I listened to it. The chapters about Britain and Germany during the 1930s were valuable, rich, accumulating in meaning as I compared them with The American Situation. I watched as the entire British servant system fell apart in the face of munitions factories, conscription, and the Blitz. Royalty was forced to adapt to the needs of non-royalty instead of the other way around. The empire sagged to its knees. Is this an unfortunate set of movements, or a satisfying one? Can the fall of an empire - sacrifices untold entailed - ever be nailed down as a plus or a minus for the people and the nation? How long will it take for us to know?

What I walked away with: reinvigorated fascination for the 20th century. Respect for English mettle. Determination not to ignore The American Situation, but to maintain my belief that human life is drawn in small circles, described in details at eye level, not necessarily in galactic movements. "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," says Annie Dillard. The Mitford sisters wrote uncountable letters, raised children, loved their husbands, traveled Europe, followed their own lights. What parts of their days, of their lives, mattered most?



*From the introduction: "She liked and admired him as a man when she met him, and she still believes that 'It is not a question of right or wrong, but the impressions of a young woman in the thirties. Of course it would be easy just to deny these, but it would not be very interesting, or true.'" I find this courageous. To dismiss those early impressions and claim that she knew he was evil, and faked friendship, is the kind of hindsight activity that is unhelpful in attempts not to allow ugly histories to repeat themselves.