Monday, July 3, 2017

Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford, and Don DeLillo: An Accidentally All 90's Post

I was originally going to write about the experience of re-reading Richard Ford's The Sportswriter followed by Don DeLillo's White Noise earlier this summer, but I kept wanting to write a paper about racism and sexism in The Sportswriter, and the relieving feminism of White Noise after spending so many pages with Ford's clammy, semi-unconscious character Frank Bascombe. I happen to love The Sportswriter, but the first time I read it, in my early twenties, I appreciated its torqued relationship to suburban anxiety and peace. Reading it close to forty, I had a lot of problems with it.   

However, I wasn't sure you guys wanted to read a literary analysis of these mid-90's works, and also, Richard Ford started making headlines in ways that could make even Jonathan Franzen, with all his media blunders, run for the hills.  Contemplating the sins of Ford's generation while reading The Sportswriter - how were women so consistently dismissed as pretty things, or put on pedestals as distracting, pretty things?  Didn't anyone teach these men how to find the dignity within themselves and others? - made me feel somehow part of the zeitgeist, though, like how I had just finished worshiping at the feet of Jesus' Son a day before the legendary Denis Johnson passed away in May. 

Look, I know there's nothing more pretentious than telling people you are re-reading a book, but the distinction between a first reading and follow-up reads feels so distinct to me, I am going to be an a-hole about it every time.

Recently, Tim brought home Sherman Alexie's memoir about his mother, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.  Geez, how's that for a brutal title?  It's so good, though: the title, the book, and Alexie's vulnerability and openness about his relationship with his mother, with whom he had much in common, including an undiagnosed mental illness and fits of rage that made life more than just interesting. 

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me isn't a perfect book.  In fact, it's completely unfair to compare it to reading the first third of White Noise, which I submit as one of the most perfect collections of irony and editing in the English language, but I'm going to do it anyway.  I'm sorry to say I get antsy when The Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise actually begins, which is like saying I start to mourn the whole of Legends of the Fall when the three brothers go off to war, which is both true and unfair because there's still about two hours of the movie left after that.

Side-note: It feels irresponsible to write about the film Legends of the Fall without mentioning the novella Jim Harrison wrote of the same name which led to the film.  The novella is great.  One of my favorite things to do, pre-motherhood, was watch the movie and then read the novella, letting my mind ping-pong back and forth between all the different writing choices.

When I first started reading You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, some of it felt too soon, too therapeutic, too under-edited, to be a final book.  But by the end, some of that was what I appreciated about it.  It felt really generous, and also risky, to reveal some of the more tender feelings inside.  Alexie was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so it also feels extra important that he is choosing to be as open as possible about the struggles he's faced as a son, a Native American, and a member of a dysfunctional family.  As this totally legitimate piece of journalism in People states - about Carrie Fisher's autopsy report, which revealed she died with cocaine and other substances in her system - to keep silent means to keep shame inside, and shame begets shame begets shame.  I'm grateful for Alexie's honesty and also, because he's one of the few writers I've followed from the start of his career when I read his poetry in college, to now, I'm happy that he seems to be tracing paths of healing in his life, whatever those paths may be: literary, personal, medication, etc. etc. 

Of course, this is a book, not a therapy session, but its pages contain all the rage, truth, and narrative processing that make books healing for me.   

Speaking of truth, and Jim Harrison who in his books does not shy away from the topic of governmental genocide in our own country, I really appreciated Alexie's insistence on telling the truth about Indian relocation movements, the abuses that Indian education systems fostered, and the rapes. assaults, and violence perpetrated by priests, teachers, and officials responsible for handling Native American affairs, which led to rapes, assaults, and violence within Indian tribes themselves. 

How are we not talking about these things every day? (Happy Birthday, America!)

There's a surreal page in a book Samantha picked up at a library sale about the canal system inside The Great Lakes.  Okay, I picked it up for her, because I'm obsessed with water and newly intrigued by Lake Michigan, since we are land-locked and it is the closest thing I have to the ocean these days.  (For clarity, the pictures directly above are of the Atlantic, my first real love.)

Here's the page:

I'm pretty sure that's the cleanest, most white-washed definition of colonization I've read in my life.  Like many things in these old library books we pick up from time to time, it gave me chills. 

The Great St. Lawrence Seaway was published in 1992. I really hope it would read differently if it were published today.

On that note, in one excerpt from You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie writes about the fact that there is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which he says is "a vital place.  It is a grievous reminder. A warning.  It is as necessary as any museum ever built." 

But, he says, the fact that we don't have a United States Native American Genocide Memorial Museum, "also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused."  Later, he writes: "The United States wants all of us to forget the crimes it committed against the indigenous.

The United States wants us to forget.

The United States wants us to forget.

The United States wants us to forget." 

Well, I don't want to forget. 

I was going to include some of Alexie's poetry from the memoir, but when I typed it into my computer, it didn't save, and maybe that is a sign because he tends to use profanity and this is a family blog.  JK!  It's not a family blog but I'm not sure strong language is what people come here for.

I do want to say that I watched O.J.: Made In America and it blew me away with its thoroughness, narrative skill, and absolutely essential education about the history of racial discrimination in L.A., something I didn't really understand when the O.J. Simpson trial first unfolded in 1994.  When I read Ann Patchett's book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, particularly her essay about trying out for the LAPD, she alluded to that history, but I was still pretty fuzzy on the details.  The murders in O.J.: Made in America are lurid and disturbing, obviously, and it has the most haunting trumpet music you'll ever hear in your life, but I'm so glad I watched it, and I wish everyone would see it.

That's my Fourth of July post, you guys!  I obviously didn't set out to discuss genocide, violence, and racial discrimination but in a way, it feels fitting.  Some people don't want to talk about these things, and I understand not having the capacity to look at pain - your own, and the pain you inflict on others.  It's not something we're taught, really, at least not by the larger, hypermasculine culture we live in. 

Speaking of hypermasculine, check out this slide!
In my own life, I've watched adults do a dance when my child cries, hoping to distract her back to silliness.  I know a child's frustration is fleeting, but I want her to know: it's okay to be mad, it's okay to be sad.  It's okay to feel these things, because when you don't allow yourself to feel difficult emotions, you shut out half your life.  This shutting off of your experience is, I believe, what really causes suffering, not the initial pain you feel, which eventually recedes when you learn to integrate it all the way.

I'm done with the lecture.  What do you guys think of DeLillo for a baby's name?  Maybe just The Don??


Friday, April 28, 2017

Summer Books (Already!)

After a glut of strange reading choices this winter, I've finally found some nice footing. At one point, I had a book of intricate knitting patterns, a generic instructional on interior decorating, exercises for pregnant woman, and dozens of birthing books I had no intention of reading all crowding the corner of my desk.  It was sad, not because there was anything wrong with the books themselves, but because my days felt unfocused without the driving pleasure of being attached to one.

For some reason - I guess it's because lilacs are blooming - I started craving summer books: characters puzzling through their lives while gazing at the water, sunburns and sandy toes and sweaty, tinkling cocktails on porches at the end of the day.  When I happened upon Summer People, a debut novel by Brian Groh, on one of Tim's bookshelves, I dove right in.

I mean, give me a book with oars on its cover and the promise of snobby New Englanders from the perspective of an outsider, and I might just be your friend for life.  This particular water-front story, about an aspiring graphic novelist who takes care of an ailing woman one summer in Maine, was full of humor, strong, clean prose, and genuinely surprising twists.

I also read Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, which was seriously addictive.  The prose is electric and the story, about a young woman who moves to New York City and gets a job in a high-end restaurant, is about her education in both love and life, and takes readers along on her discovery of how much flavor exists in both palate and mind (and body) when she gives herself the chance to explore it.  Usually I'm annoyed by narratives of excess, especially when driven by young characters who keep ignoring their inner compass, but the intelligence behind this novel felt like a serious anchor, and I frankly wanted the sentences to never, ever end. 

Similarly, I read a new novel called Marlena, written by Julie Buntin, which I discovered through Twitter somehow.  I think it caught my attention because parts of it are set in northern Michigan.  I put it on my list because Buntin's writing is so clear and unflinching.  This piece about her mother's reaction to the mom character in Marlena took my breath away. 

Marlena is another story about a young woman testing her limits of self-control, this time as a fifteen-year old whose newly divorced mom moves back to the place she grew up, taking her adolescent children with her, where they are exposed to people who cook meth, deal drugs, and worse. 

The main character's best friend, Marlena, is a girl whose family life is less than ideal, and this basically drives her to grossly self-destructive behavior.  But it's the narrator's thoughts on her friend's behavior which ultimately kept me reading, and while I'm not sorry to have read a book about teenagers behaving badly (whatever that means), I do struggle with narratives about experimenting with drugs or playing adult in ways young characters aren't emotionally ready for, because I personally want to hold space for a different way of growing up.

I don't know if my middle grade years are a gold standard for kids: there were plenty of hours spent reading terrible books like The Babysitter's Club while eating too many Pecan Sandies at my parent's kitchen table.  I can recall doing strange Jane Fonda-like exercises while watching Saturday Night Live and Arsenio Hall on my basement floor when I was in sixth and seventh and eighth grade.  These are not things that make a great person.  Even though I had a few very close friends, I tended to choose solitary activities like walking in the woods and suntanning to the point of exhaustion, and by the time I got to high school where I went to for-reals parties where parents were out of town, and I started dating seriously, the hours I still watched movies by myself became some of my fondest memories later. 

Give me a blanket, a sinky couch, and a Brad Pitt movie, and I will calm like a swaddled babe, still. (These days it's probably more a Billy Crudup or Mark Ruffalo movie, to be honest.)  This might be a privileged perspective, but I don't feel like self-destruction is as necessary to learning who you are in the world as our culture may believe.  I mean, of course, we're all going to do dumb crap and no one can be in tune with themselves at every second of every day, especially a young person figuring out who to trust and who they want to be, but I appreciated the eventually sober take in Buntin's book about the chaos and loss of those adolescent days, because I believe in sanity and healthy boundaries for everyone: adults, children, and everyone in-between. 

Speaking of sanity, we celebrated Samantha's third birthday with a day at the beach and ice cream because the kid eschews cake.  After a day of reading library books on our stoop and playing under the sun, she fell asleep in one of her presents (which isn't as funny as it sounds because it was a shirt).  The next day, we were all so sleepy and worn out, Samantha and I spent the day in pjs.  She built "nests" out of blankets around the house and read books to herself while I cooked various meals.

It was heaven.

Finally, we've been Red Boxing it because Tim and I are both 102 inside and can't deal with things like cable or Netflix. The Great British Bake Off, however, is seriously rearranging my mind about Netflix, which we once had at the end of grad school and then went away for the summer, carting an overdue DVD around national parks for three months because we cannot be trusted.

About a month ago, Tim rented Manchester By the Sea and then fell asleep on the couch leaving me to sob sob sob, all by myself.  While I don't agree with some of the writing in Manchester, and this article about Casey Affleck disturbs me - as I think it should disturb all of us, I loved the technical skill of the director and could watch footage from a camera positioned on dark, cold water all day long.  (See also: Olive Kitteridge.)  

The real gem for me, though, has been 20th Century Women, which was directed by Mike Mills, who wrote and directed Beginners, starring Christopher Plumber and Ewan McGregor.  Tim thinks McGregor is only as good as the director he works with, something I hadn't really considered before, but might be true.  Thoughts there?  Actually, it was either my husband who said that or my movies-podcast partner, Lukis.  Is it bad that I can't remember which?  It's okay, I think.  They're friends and either one of them could have said it.

I knew nothing about 20th Century Women before Tim brought it home - are you getting a picture of my life yet, where Tim goes out for things and I lie in a hammock being waved with palm fronds? - and was delighted to see Billy Crudup in it because Billy Crudup is my woobie. 

Annette Bening is also high on my list of actors I would watch eat cereal or read a book or wash a car, and while Greta Gerwig can go either way for me, I really admire the writing in 20th Century Women and appreciated her character by the end.  The actor who most impressed me was perhaps Elle Fanning who is, what, eight years old now?  Just kidding, she's nineteen.  I last saw her in Sophia Coppola's truly perplexing Somewhere (which felt an awful lot like nowhere, didn't it?) and was pleased to see her with tons of lines and complexity in this film.

I'll spare you the podcast jag I've been on, except to say that I found S-Town truly mesmerizing and wasn't too conflicted while listening to it.  Missing Richard Simmons, on the other hand, feels underdeveloped, gimmicky, and sometimes just plain rude.  (I also can't get over how many trips the creator of MRS takes that result in no material.  What kind of budget were they on?)

Happy Spring, people!  I'm off to hang half a dozen boat oars around my bedroom walls.  Just kidding.  (Mostly.)  I'd probably do it if sleeping under solid oak clubs weren't such a hazard.  Then again, there's a whole blank wall facing the bed right now.  Hmm...