Friday, October 6, 2017

Glory and Tenderness

We had a baby and his name is Ellis.  He is sweet sweet sweet, man, a little bundle of trust and glow. Sometimes I forget how special he is, like when I'm running around putting laundry away, trying to get dressed while Samantha is doing gymnastics on my bed ("Wanna see sumthin?") and then I stop to hold him because he's all Moooooom, I'm huuuuuungry, and I look down at his chubby face and my whole body melts. It's especially fun with a preschooler around. Her manic play and catastrophic demands contrast nicely with his cuddly ways. Also, they are in love with each other which is not something I was expecting. 

Since having a baby in August, I've traveled a little, slept a lot, watched some movies, read compulsively, drank coffee, eaten caramels, and taken approximately two walks. Every time I have a minute I straighten up or eat or write a letter, so this post has been months in the making.

read Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam even though I was miserable through most of it, because the characters themselves are in misery and do nothing useful to pull themselves out of it. It's a satire, so it's supposed to be painful, but it just felt mean at times. It does get some things right, like what a gathering of artists feels like ("The girl had bright pink hair and sparkly blue fingernails. The guy wore a clean white T-shirt and a Palestinian scarf.") which was one reason why I forced myself to keep reading. (That and to find out if the characters ever do anything useful. Spoiler: they do not.) 

The narrator in Who Is Rich? also has some hilarious thoughts about making art, like when he says: "I'd given up everything for cartooning, and for that alone I deserved to die. Then I gave up on cartooning. I suffered psychic grief, low output, self-mockery, obscurity, isolation, depression, all of the deprivations of the artistic sacrifice - without making any art."

See? Cheery.

I also read Claire Dederer's newest memoir, Love and Trouble, which I really enjoyed. Dederer's prose is electric to me, and while her tone is sometimes darker than I normally prefer, her intelligence is so undeniable, so grave and probing and impressive, I sort of burn with envy while reading her. 

Love and Trouble
has a somewhat rambling structure that I was very into, for some reason - perhaps because you can feel the author's playfulness and presence behind its experiments. The book revisits 90's Seattle in ways I found deeply satisfying and explores how women use their sexuality as a form of power, in both good and bad ways.


I've been wanting to read Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces for years, and I finally got around to it on a trip with my family. Read it in patches while Samantha slept, with mugs of steaming coffee next to me, Ehrlich's account of herding sheep and her descriptions of cowboys and ranches may forever be married to the condo where I stayed, where my dad watched baseball and held Ellis and everyone took turns at the laundry. (Also, where one of us may or may not have slept all night with the television on. Twice. You haven't lived until you've gone to bed with the late late hosts and woken up with Matt Lauer, IMHO). 

Ehrlich's prose is something to behold, and reading this book I understand why her name looms large in nonfiction. She was first a filmmaker before turning to writing - this book started as a series of letters to a friend - and I wonder if her eye for scenery is partly responsible for her visceral essays. There is a clarity to her writing that is matched by the wind-scraped Wyoming landscapes about which she writes. Of a decision to winter alone in a one-room log cabin after the man she loved died, she writes:

"Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures - like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations. The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce."  

The book that got me the most excited in the past two months, however, was Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh The Glory of It All. Wilsey was born to a high-society family in San Francisco.  His parents divorced when he was young and his father remarried his mother's best friend. (Note: his mother wasn't exactly thrilled about this.) Sean's stepmother - formerly ridiculously kind - turns manipulative and cold overnight. This, as well as his parents own neglect, throws young Sean into a series of identity crises and, eventually, corrosive boarding schools. Descriptions of the book inevitably talk about how it "has it all" - from socialite parents who run in famous circles to a genuinely evil stepmother, wealth, glamour, bla bla bla.  It's true all that is there, but Wilsey's unbelievable attention to detail and the quality of his writing - playful, precise, and maximalist all at once - kept me coming back. That, and his clear devotion to his parents despite all their shortcomings. His tender feelings for his father are especially compelling, and you can't help but root for the boy - and man - who just wants his father's love.
The hardcover has 482 pages and I never once wished Wilsey would cut to the chase.

Okay, maybe that's not true. There were scenes during his boarding school years when the tender, loveable, lonely child turned into a grody, scheming, punk adolescent and I missed the sweetness of the earlier pages, where Wilesy pined for his absent father and painted sharp portraits of his dramatic mother. You can hardly blame a kid who was treated the way he was by the adults around him for acting a little crazy, though.  Eventually, the genuine and sober narrator returned, leaving me more than a little grateful, and impressed by Wilsey's generosity and compassion for the people who let him down. 

Speaking of lovable derelicts, I was shocked to hear about Tom Petty's death this week. RIP maestro.

Finally, I loved this essay by Pam Houston about the price of irony in modern life and finding an abandoned elk calf before a snow storm. It echoes some parts of Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces nicely, but works on its own, as well.



P.S. What do you think of my new header? Did you even see it? JUST KIDDING. It's humongous. I'm working on it.  And by working on it I mean I ignore the sticky note regarding it on my way to breakfast every day.  

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??