no takebacks| 2019.06.16

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_The Word for World is Forest (2)

Publication: Berkley Books [1976]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 189

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

Source: MCL

“You must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason.”

Le Guin’s anthropological interests scream through this novella. The history of human civilization has certainly taught us, if we have been listening, that cultures influence each other, they bring new ways of seeing crashing into one another, usually with such astounding violence that the participants often don’t understand the true impact until they’re left standing in the resulting rubble. The Word for World is Forest captures this concept with frightening skill, exploring the multitude of perspectives involved in these types of cultural struggles. It is this story’s ability to exemplify various opposing perspectives simultaneously that I’d like to argue is the true mastery of the story.

The caricatures Le Guin uses in this book kept me wondering about the totalities of personalities that are often overtaken by one-sighted goals. In Captain Davidson (a Terran, meaning in this story that he’s from Earth), we have the epitome of self-indulgent evil. In the scientist Lyubov (also of the Terran persuasion, but of a more mediating make-up), the opportunity for an open-ended comprehension of “the other” is made almost possible. In Selver (a native to the planet Ashthe), the spirit of learned violence manifest as outward-facing retaliation is brought to light. These main players within Le Guin’s story move around the plot-line like pieces on a chess board, each given room to present their unique internal perspectives and goals.

How exactly does the conquering, self-appointed dominant species see itself and its actions? How does the mediating scientist become blinded to his place in what he can only foresee (and perhaps rightly so) as the impending doom of a native culture and ecosystem? What will be the eventual responses of the suppressed native culture as it tries to find justice and a way out of the insanity forced upon it? Is solidarity only accomplishable in the face of suppression?

As Le Guin points out within the narrative, “Revelation was lacking. There was no seeing everything at once: no certainty.”

Amidst all the nail-biting tension this book offers, one point in Le Guin’s story caught me completely off guard. Specifically, the Ashtheans’ massacre of the Terran women confused and shocked me as I raced through the pages where Le Guin described the Ashtheans’ attack of the Terrans’ Central encampment. By this part in the story, Le Guin had already made clear for her readers that the female gender role has a distinctive place of honor within the Ashtheans’ society, not to mention that the Ashtheans had, until then, no notion of why any sentient species would purposefully kill other sentient beings. Almost as quickly, however, I realized the significance of cultural influences Le Guin was proposing with this choice of her plot’s direction. The Athsheans had decided (or had, more pointedly, learned from the examples given by their oppressors) that the preservation of their species could only be gained through reactive violence. To the Ashtheans, a species exuding nothing but evil and destruction should not be given the option for reproduction, because to breed a species with the tendencies exemplified by the Terrans would be to breed that same baseline of evil and destruction. And to what I’m perhaps too boldly guessing was Le Guin’s point, the solutions to problems as learned by an oppressed people from such a cultural dominance as she is showing here should be exactly that level of shocking to the reader, to say the least.

Le Guin never seems to shy away from the harsh realities of consequences in her writing. I don’t think it’s off-base to say that this is why her story ends where it does, with the first-noted quote I’ve included above. The impacts each of the species in this story have on each other are certainly sobering. The Ashtheans learn how to end the lives of other sentient creatures when the continuation of those lives poses a threat to their world. And subsequently, the Terrans learn (eventually and with much flaying about in the process) that they are not as privileged as they once would have liked to think, to the end that some of them begin to understand the dangers of their influence on the universe they have been trying so desperately to bend to their will.

These themes show up in many of Le Guin’s other stories and books, so it would be easy to conclude that they were close to her heart. The scene in this novella that connects the plot within her Hainish universe comes in the very third chapter, where not only the ansible (a futuristic communications device Le Guin invented within her novel The Dispossessed, which allows instantaneous transmission of messages over lightyears of distance), but also in the idea that all sentient species across the unknowably vast universe were evolved from a single starting point of life. The idea of the inevitable interconnectivity of the universe is evident here. And further, the Terrans’ refusal to accept these “theories” of connectivity works very well to compound their proposed ignorance within the story’s plot.

Was Le Guin writing this in a fit of anger against the self-destructive behaviors of her own species? (In her essay “On What the Road to Hell is Paved With” she confirms this was in fact true, admitting that this book was her response to the Vietnam War.) Reading this book and some of her others in the Hainish series, it’s easy to see she held an all-out disgust for many of our species’s historical conquests made in the name of ”civilization” and in the name of “peace.” Drawing from another example, Le Guin offers the perspective of the conquered also in her novella Wild Girls, where raping, pillaging, and slavery are shown again within the reality of what they are: self-destructive, and therefore despicable, ways of existing.

I was left with a feeling of deep regret after reading this book in particular. What are we teaching ourselves in the perpetuation of the practices we so often qualify as our natural state of being while we grasp for our own survival, and what are we giving future generations as the examples of the true price for such survival? Is it worth it in the end? Maybe we should try harder and tread much much lighter in the wake of our own rampant ignorance.

At the beginning of this book, I wanted the Ashtheans to wipe the Terrans off the face of their planet. By the end of the book, I was ashamed at my own tendency toward the violent answer to a seemingly insurmountable injustice. (More on this, if you’re interested, can be found in Le Guin’s essay “About Anger.”) Again, the quote at the top of this review rings in my ears like thunder reminding me that I too have a long way to go to curb my own need for violence-driven vengeance (to clarify: I have never contemplated a violence as extreme as murder). Like the Hainish characters in this story, I‘m hoping to someday have the wisdom to know when to step back, and then when to step just enough forward to say to the aggressors, “It’s time for you to stop this behavior.” With her Hainish characters, Le Guin seems to remind her audience of the importance of choice, alongside the importance of looking the consequences of our species’s actions full in the face so that we can, however feebly, move toward (hopefully) a better existence as we begin to understand our place within the ecosystems and cultures we dare to traverse.

the reflection pool of motherhood| 2018.06.29

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Review

VanderMeer, Jeff_Borne

Publication: New York : MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction, Weird Fiction

Pages: 323

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Is Borne a person or a weapon? This is often proposed as the heart of the questions that permeate the identity crises in this book. Are people what they seem or even what they demand to be recognized as in their claimed inherent identities? Or are we all simply subject to what the rest of the world wants us to be without thought of what our individual potential could allow us to become if we were given a choice?

While I’ve found these questions are what most of the other reviews on this book seem to center around, I was also struck by this book’s ability to home in on ideas of perspective as linked to motherhood. To me, perspective, especially as has to do with one’s relationship to one’s parent-figures, is often at the heart of many an identity crisis. Parents, especially mothers, have such power to reflect a projected identity that this phenomenon often leaves little room, as innocently as it may be offered, for any perspective other than that very same reflection. But reflected perspective is often what holds us in the illusion of reality, it weighs us down just enough to allow a semblance of sanity. However, even as we simultaneously try to escape this reflecting pool, new responsibilities of the self-made kind need to arise to keep at bay the confusion inherent in cutting the umbilical cords.

To give an example from this book: Borne is presented as a newly formed child in the mind of VanderMeer’s main character through much of the narrative. This main character takes on the mothering tasks of teaching her new charge the essentials of survival, everything from language to ascertaining what entities in their universe propose danger. The weight of this mother-child relationship gives form to the perspectives this main character uses to bind herself with tasks and goals toward protecting both the child she has found in Borne’s identity and toward cementing her own purpose of “raising” him from seedling-sprout to raging bio-technical defender of the world.

Yet it is the former that demands a releasing of the mothering-identity of the main character, as the weight of her self-imposed responsibilities become at once too much to bear and as unreachable as a piece of fluff battered by a strong wind. I found this aspect of the novel, the breaking away from self-made perspectives to make room for the child-character’s independence, rang with extreme heartbreak in its metaphor of the mother-and-child relationship. The scene where Borne offers protection to his mother-figure by enveloping her as a rock-shield in the face of deathly adversaries could easily be seen as the turning point in their relationship, as the protected becomes the protector. In this scene, Borne is challenged to take up the reins of initiative.

VanderMeer does a brilliant job of letting the reader at this point wonder whether Borne had ever been in need of the main character’s protection to begin with. And, again, this has to do most deeply with perspective. VanderMeer’s main character struggles with this shift of perspective as she has to more and more contend with Borne’s self-imposed independence. This is so similar to the reactions of many (and there are always exceptions) of the mothers I’ve witnessed in my journey on this terrestrial plane. The burden of raising a child often eventually turns in on itself and suddenly becomes the unbearable lightness of being left behind by that same child as they slowly but surely claim their individual identity that can often be so painfully separate from their mother-figure.

There’s a ton to unpack here and the depth of the available themes in this book had me within the first few paragraphs. VanderMeer has a masterpiece in Borne that his earlier books seem to be reaching toward. Or maybe I have a hangup on the level of irresistible intrigue with regard to the concepts noted above. Or perhaps, I’m simply in love with the audiobook narrator who did the honors on this book (Bahni Turpin, you’re truly brilliant). In any case, I found this to be a fantastic novel, on all the measures listed in my previous post about what elevates a piece of literature.

reclaiming personal identity| 2019.05.10

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley | Review

Conley, Garrad_Boy Erased

Publication: New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2016

Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies

Pages: 340

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

In some ways, this book hit close to home for me, as it illustrated how religion can influence not only people’s struggles for individual identity, but also their striving to find a place to belong within society. The story captured in this book is about Conley’s experiences while in the Christian reform program known (ironically, I’d like to argue with my fist planted firmly in the pavement of my frustration at this type of misnomer) as Love In Action (LIA), a kind of pray-the-gay-away organization founded in 1973.

It’s funny (not funny) to me that this organization is the foundational backdrop for this book, as Conley’s initial mention of it immediately invoked memories of my own from when I attended a conservative Christian university back in the early 2000s. There I was in one of the many semi-required chapel sessions, and suddenly the proud college leaders were marching onto the stage a troupe of advocates for a program that we conservative students needed to know about. While the name of that particular program now sadly eludes me, I remember distinctly the focus of the program was to help “poor homosexuals” reject their sexual deviances and come back into the fold of the Jesus freaks (I’m not trying to be disrespectful by using that term, by the way, as Christians have codified the phrase as their own way of reclaiming the would-be insult).

I remember thinking that the program visiting my college that day was proclaiming a rather uncomfortable premise. I remember being even further confused at the, once again, staunch rejection of anything outside the Christian circle. The saddest part of this type of program, which sets itself up to “deprogram” groups of individuals (therefore inherently boxing people into singular and often quite binary definitions of identity), is that, when seen from a non-Christian perspective, it paints religion in such a negative light of intolerance. If your identity is wrapped tightly inside a group-security that demands complete sacrifice and ultimate servanthood to “a higher power” that is constantly being interpreted only by the leaders of that security group, how can anything “other” be allowed room to voice any kind of alternate, personal experience.

As a memoir, personal experience is certainly what Conley’s book brings to light. His story pulls out all the stops and forces the reader to deal face-to-face with the dangers of group-think-identity as driven by religious mantras. I find Christianity’s rejection of personal identity (like whether a person identifies as being gay) to be pretty ironic, because Christianity proclaims itself to be built on individual experience, with all of its praise for the personal testimony (a phrase in the Christian realm defined as a person’s individual “coming to Jesus” story). Christians often pride themselves on being part of a religion that is based on personal relationships with God and Jesus. However, ultimately, the strict code of conduct they ascribe to seems to simultaneously encourage a perspective that says the only experiences (translated as “testimonies”) that seem to matter to the Christian group-think mentality are those that align to the interpretations of Christ’s teachings as proclaimed by the Christian leadership in vogue at that moment in history.

At the risk of turning this book review into my own personal rant against the Christian faith, I’d like to point out a detail that Conley also discusses toward the end of his book, namely the fact that LIA found it had to rebrand itself in 2012 as Restoration Path and had its leaders make multiple public attempts to try and clean up the mess its former leaders had made in the wake of their antigay therapy practices because too many of their students were ending up either victims of suicide or recovering from multiple attempts of suicide. But it should’t surprise us that if we are taught to believe that such an integral part of our identity (such as our sexual orientation) has zero chance of being accepted, the ultimate result will be the deepest kind of inescapable despair.

Conley explains in his book that LIA was very good at isolating its students into a place where they “had to [. . .] leave people behind who were harmful to [their] development, who reminded [them] of the past.” This drips of addiction counseling, as if a person’s “gayness” is linked to some kind of illicit drug that initiates continuous “bad” behavior. To combat addiction, you take away the triggers, as any former alcoholic or smoker will tell you. With LIA, the leaders encouraged its students to demonize past relationships, along with their own sex-drives, in order to isolate out these “masters” of purported deviant behavior. Conley writes of himself and his fellow LIA students, “We had to be willing to give up any ideas about who we were before we came to LIA.”

It took Conley eight years after he left LIA before he felt finally comfortable enough to write about his personal experiences while inside LIA’s teachings. This is perhaps a telling illustration of the despairing power that can be obtained by isolating, so as to then inculcate, individuals into a belief system. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book is that we need to do better at seeing individuals first by accepting them with all the complexities of the intersectionality that makes up their personal experiences and ultimately their individual identities.

striving for awareness| 2019.02.17

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo | Review

Oluo, Ijeoma_So You Want to Talk About Race

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press, Hachette Book Group, [2018]

Genre: Intercultural Communication, Racism

Pages: 248

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Based on her title, Oluo’s purpose in writing this book seems clear enough. Her text reads somewhat like a guidebook for people who may not have had many firsthand interactions with racial issues (or who haven’t been previously aware of the racial issues they have already been a part of), and who want to realize the title’s pretty direct implication. To help her readers with this goal, Oluo tells the story of race within this book by using her personal experiences growing up and living as a black woman of biracial parents in the United States.

The real-life examples she gives are powerful, even as some of the stories may wander into the territory of being a bit uncomfortable for the white reader. On the one hand, I found the stories of Oluo trying to answer her white mother’s questions and “revelations” (emphasis mine) about race endearing, in a way, as the effort of trying to get something right when we’re talking about sensitive topics like race can be embarrassing at first, and hopefully the effort leads to productive results. On the other hand, I think a large part of why Oluo wrote this book was to challenge her readers to look at issues of race and racism even when they may be uncomfortable topics to face head-on.

In reading this book, I felt that discomfort. I am a white (and therefore inherently privileged) cisgender (another privileged position, which society is currently set up to advantage) woman. And I am privileged in so many ways because of my whiteness and because of my gender identity, even with all the non-privileged aspects that that third definition of my being (the sex I was assigned at birth) brings to the table. Oluo calls this type of awareness (or striving for awareness) “checking your privilege.” It can be weirdly cathartic to carry the victim-label (thinking of the many mantras of self-reported “suppression experiences” from white supremacy groups as an example). But Oluo seems to be asking her readers to look at all aspects of what it means to live in our current society. Through this type of open awareness, she challenges her readers to be honest about the complexity that is individual human existence while recognizing how the color of a person’s skin plays into all that they have or don’t have because of the prejudiced way our society is currently set up to function.

So after I took stock of my inherent privileges and dealt with my uneasiness at realizing that a good portion of my advantages in life are not advantages I’ve actually worked to earn, what else did Oluo’s story bring to the forefront? Her story reminded me that anyone not immediately seen by others as categorically white have disadvantages I will never know because of society’s continued prejudiced practices, and that my whiteness will remain a part of this systemic problem as long as society (with myself included in that society) refuses to recognize the manifestations, however subtle, and the root causes of racial prejudices.

In short, Oluo’s book reminded me that we as a species have a very ugly tendency toward deep-seated prejudice against anyone and everyone outside our “tribe,” and that we need to step up onto the stage of admittance before we can even begin to think about taking steps toward change. I learned I have a LOT to learn about intersectionality, and how this concept can bring better understanding to the individual, their race, and the multiplicity of other identities a person can (and has the right to) claim. I learned that being uncomfortable about the structure of our currently inherently prejudiced society (even if you or I may not feel personally responsible) is a needed first step toward driving change forward.

Lastly, and probably most poignantly, this book reinforced for me that the categorical boxes—-the stereotypes, really—-that we wrap around ourselves and others are really just illusions of a neat and tidy perspective on what is in truth very complex and messy aspects of an interracial-transgendered-cisgendered-gay-and-lesbian-black-white-brown-religious-atheist-and-it’s-really-none-of-your-business world. People are certainly much much more than the color of their skin, more than any of the categories we might be tempted to assign to them (especially without their permission). With all this in mind, I’m hoping to be able to focus more on the individual, seeing people through whatever intersectional lenses they want to claim as their very individual and personal identities.

Please note, the last chapter in Oluo’s book may be especially discomforting for some readers who are trying to reject the “categorically-boxed society” model. Again, I think this discomfort may be Oluo’s point in this book so that we can work on extricating the societal-driven prejudices in our midst. I’ll let you read it, however, and decide on your own.

trumpets of nature | 2019.03.24

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer | Review

VanderMeer, Jeff_Annihilation

Publication: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2014]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 195

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audio Book, Paperback

Source: MCL

As I raced through the pages of this book, I kept wondering if the story is supposed to signify ideas of environmentalism in some way. As if the text were repeatedly screaming a planetary revenge against humanity’s destruction of the natural world, a world that would otherwise be our welcoming and sustaining mother. Maybe this is reading too much into the text. Well, shall we give this environmentalist theme a chance and see what floats to the surface?

This environmentalist theme caught my attention in the first chapter where VanderMeer’s narrator talks about her love of the coastline just inside the influence of Area X. She writes (in what the reader can assume is her field journal) that her attraction to the portion of the sea captured in the orb of Area X is linked to some kind of almost magical cleanliness inherent in that part of the ocean, “while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself.” This biologist character goes on to talk about how her work outside Area X had “always felt as if [it] amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.” This to me sounds like VanderMeer is setting the stage for an all-out war between humanity, in all its grasping for control, and the natural realm, in all its terrifying and perhaps unknowable true beauty, with death and life captured in an ever-cycle of revitalizing repetition.

Throughout the novel, VanderMeer continually turns up the tension of this humanity versus nature conflict by lulling his readers into what he artfully presents as the simultaneously deadly and yet overly luscious, and therefore continuously weird, reality of Area X. Through some trick of carefully-chosen vocabulary, he succeeds in creating a mysterious attitude of ultimate acceptance for the story’s trajectory via the beauty of his prose. This use of hypnotic language is not only contained within the text of the book, however, but expands into the reaches of the very plot.

For example, the psychologist character is seen to surreptitiously use trigger words and phrases to gain control of the other members of their expedition. The first of these made known to the reader is, for perhaps the sake of next-book-foreshadowing, “consolidation of authority.” What does this signify in the overall theme of the novel? At this point, my suspicion began to mount about what the overall theme might actually be, if one had been intended at all. Some novels are just adventure stories created to inspire an escape from the normalcy of everyday life. My experience with at least one of this author’s other books (Borne, specifically), however, suggests that letting go of a chance for an allegory like this is not exactly how VanderMeer rolls.

What authority is being consolidated? As much as the text may seem like a metaphor for environmentalist advocates setting their teeth in ready defense against the too-long domination of the overly-expansive human race, maybe there is a joining of the two that is being proposed that can produce an ultimate winning force? Perhaps this version of consolidation is VanderMeer’s idea of compromise, and perhaps it takes a special kind of abdication, or merging of forces, to bring a deeper meaning to the forefront. If only the sea, the rocks, and the trees could talk to us . . . or if only we could listen with their ears.

I’m going to take what may seem like an odd breath and talk about the biologist character’s reactions to the papers she finds left behind by those whose missions into Area X that had come to such mysteriously abrupt endings before the beginning of this book’s narrative. In her readings of these accounts, VanderMeer’s biologist realizes she’s been “looking for hidden meaning in these papers” and that this was “the same as looking for hidden meaning in the natural world around us” so that “if it [a hidden meaning] existed, it could be activated only by the eye of the beholder.” In the written observations of these former expedition members, the biologist narrator confesses she found the oblivion she was endlessly looking for, “a kind of benign escape, a death that would not mean being dead.” If we’re following my above-noted proposal that the book’s primary goal is to awaken environmental consciousness, then maybe this undying, or non-death concept is larger than the biologist narrator’s singular, internal perspective.

But while VanderMeer’s biologist seems the only character initially most predisposed to welcoming or at least not running away from the wild strangeness that inhabits Area X, she also doesn’t want to name her experiences in that place with too much exactness. This seemed odd to me, as I would expect a person with something so exacting as a biologist’s training would want to do just the opposite. I’m not sure how intentional this was on VanderMeer’s part, or if he was using this as a way to relay to his readers a deeper concept to which he wasn’t quite ready to give a more definite form. Although this idea of hiding exact definitions from immediate view seems to come out in VanderMeer’s refusal to give names or individual identifiers beyond their occupational titles to any of his characters in the novel.

Faced with her fears of the categorically unknown, perhaps more easily dealt with by keeping these fears in the realm of obfuscation, the biologist character contemplates ways “to wage a guerilla war against whatever force had come to inhabit Area X.” Yet, she goes on to internally observe that in order for the individual to stay alive and to win her fight against the force that embodied Area X, she “had to fade into the landscape . . .  or [she] had to pretend it wasn’t there for as long as possible . . . [because] to acknowledge it, to try to name it might be a way of letting it in.” (I loved the shout out VanderMeer gave in this passage to The Thistle Chronicles, by the way. Having the characters of any piece of fiction reach around the corners of the readers’ reality always gives me a special thrill of connection when exploring literature.) The biologist narrator also explains in this passage that a true examination of the condition that was taking over her being during her time in Area X——“to quantify it or deal with it empirically when [she had] little control over it——would make it too real.” So we have the battle lines drawn, and our main character seems unsure which side she would prefer to join, so that she is seen hiding in a way from both the realm of humanity she’s slowly abandoning and the forces of nature (as mystical as they may be) that have taken over Area X.

Driving forward this idea of hiding from an unknown potential enemy as well as from oneself, the details of the main character’s childhood came as a surprise to me. Further into the novel, she recalls the orange juice her alcoholic mother poured onto her cereal one morning, her dad’s “incessant chatter,” and the cheap motels they stayed at while on vacations. These memories the narrator holds back from the psychological tests she was put through before being allowed to enter Area X, covering up her fear of being perceived as a possibly disturbed or wounded creature by using the word “normal” as her only voiced self-descriptor in answer to the psychologist’s insistent quizzes of fitness. I think VanderMeer is here trying to show how his main character had a very sad and lonely childhood. Maybe it is her instinctive practice of hiding the history of herself, and therefore her very individuality, that predisposes her to being chosen by Area X as the perfect chameleon that could so readily disappear into its eerie grasp?

At one point, the main character finds that the psychologist has written that “silence creates its own violence” when referring to the biologist. It is as if the psychologist saw through the biologist’s mask of self-proclaimed, quiet normalcy to the war the biologist had perhaps unwittingly already begun to fight on behalf of the natural world that was consolidating its power and authority within Area X. Ideas of identity get muddled in the text as the biologist tries to preserve her own safety by keeping herself simultaneously separated from and yet also merged into the landscape of Area X to the point of almost disappearing completely from the reader’s view.

Around this part of the novel, the biologist narrator finds out that the psychologist’s most dangerous activation phrase “annihilation” is meant to assist any listener of this word toward immediate suicide. Again, our narrator reflects on the meaning of death within the border of Area X, as she observes that “death, as [she] was beginning to understand it, was not the same thing here [in Area X] as back across the border.” Perhaps VanderMeer is proposing that death is not a true ending at all. The ponderings of what it means to fight toward a winner within any battle, as well as possibly what it means to lose to a consolidation of realities toward the possibility of a greater understanding, seem captured in this portion of the text. Specifically to this point, near the end of the book the biologist observes that “we all live in a kind of continuous dream . . . [and] when we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we’ve taken as reality.”

If nature were given a voice we could understand, or if we suddenly developed the patience to allow room for the megaphone of nature’s authority for just a moment, would the above-mentioned pinprick look like the dolphin’s eye that intrigued our biologist narrator again and again during her journey farther and farther into Area X, that eye which was also oh so reminiscent of her husband’s stare that was inexplicably absorbed into the depths of Area X ending in his ultimate disappearance? Is this merging of the past’s consequences with reality’s immediate now the type of consolidation of authority VanderMeer is trying to propose?

perceptions of beauty | 2019.03.09

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates | Review

Oates, Joyce Carol_Blonde

Publication: New York : Ecco Press, 2009

Genre: Biographical Fiction

Pages: 738

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Paperback

Source: MCL

When this book first came out, it received a fair amount of criticism for its fictionalization of the life of one of America’s most iconic women. This I can understand, since we each balance our individual icons precariously on very personal pedestals, and we instinctively shy away from interpretations outside our own.

Despite any of Oates’s embellishments to the truth of the story she tells in this book, I found I wasn’t deterred. I have a particular soft spot for any recognition that can be given to the inner lives of the Marilyns of our society. The icon is often an example of the reality it represents. Oates simultaneously tells the tale of Marilyn the “blonde bombshell” while forcing her readers to see the reality of Norma Jeane the woman and the individual behind the veil of iconography.

I’m turning 36 this year, and the sudden realization that I was reading about Norma Jeane Baker’s own 36-year journey through this world seemed serendipitous, as cliched as that might sound. I recognized, and at times all too acutely so, the ridiculousness (please see the reviewer’s explanation below regarding the use of this word here) of the multiple abusive relationships she endured, from her mother’s mental-health-induced ravings to the disappointments of her subtly crushed and less-than-self-aware husbands and lovers. Through all the raping and pillaging of Norma Jeane’s person, Oates’s book argues that our leading lady strove with seemingly tireless persistence to showcase herself as possessing an intelligence, kindness, and devotion to her craft that might allow her to qualify beyond the limits of her objectified physical beauty.

However, did the objectification of the character the world made into Marilyn Monroe also give the true Norma Jeane some kind of ultimate power? Perhaps this is a power that beautiful women are still trying to develop. And when I say “beautiful women” I mean all women, because every woman is more objectively gorgeous than society is ever willing to admit. But how do women develop this inherent power with a coordination necessary to yield true respect from ourselves and our male counterparts.

Through the reading of this book, I marveled at how Oates’s narrative seems to suggest that her main character was repeatedly trying to escape various levels of blame for the power of her beauty. Far too often women are despised for being too beautiful. And there seems to be a spectrum to this odd hatred. Either women are envied by the female counterparts in their proximity, being subtly scorned for the uncontrollable voluptuousness of their bodies, or they are resented for the perceived competition they pose in relation to the the more aggressive heterosexual males that accidentally (or not so accidentally) brush up against the shining orb of women’s beauty.

As Ani Difranco explains oh so artistically:

“God help you if you are an ugly girl, but of course too pretty is also your doom, because everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room. And god help you if you are a Phoenix and you dare to rise up from the ash. A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy while you are just flying past.”

As a result of all this vying for position, a kind of culturally-induced guilt over being a “beautiful woman” rears its ugly head.

By way of offering what to me is a very embarrassing example, whenever a man on the street calls attention to my “really nice ass” I feel a twinge of that old, damning beauty-guilt, as if I’d just been called out for showing off the curves no amount of exercising has ever been able to minimize. I can’t even talk about this example without giving the above-noted disclaimer to call attention to the embarrassment aspect. And yet, I also have a strange, knee-jerk, rejection-like reaction my own internalized guilt about such encounters because, to me, this guilt and embarrassment comes straight from the bonds of my conservative, religious upbringing. The church my mother handed down to my sister and me taught women and young girls that it’s the woman’s responsibility to not tempt our male counterparts toward sinful, lust-filled thoughts.

This mentality comes up constantly in Oates’s rendition of Norma Jeane’s reactions to all the attention paid to her body, as well as in Oates’s explanation of Norma Jeane’s embracement of conservative Christian values during the early stages of her life as she tries to become immune to society’s more base expectations of the value of her body. On the one hand, she seemed to fear society would look down on her if she was’t constantly trying to be some version of traditionally beautiful. On the other hand, however, she seemed terrified that society would demonize her for being too beautiful, as she feared this would be the only redeeming quality the public would ever be able to see.

Both of these reactions from society toward women can cause undue guilt in the person of being objectified. And this isn’t fair, by any means, because all these weighty reactions are really just a blind kind of seeing until Norma Jeane the individual is lost in all the shadow that is Marilyn the “bombshell.”

Above, I described the abuse that Norma Jeane endured as ridiculous. By this I do NOT mean that abuse is laughable, heaven forbid and shame to the depths of hell such a despicable perspective. Instead I mean that abuse is so absolutely absurd in its very boldness to even exist that its monstrousness should be immediately and violently seen as an unacceptable reality within civilized society. And it seems our species is maybe just waking up to this concept (sweeping judgement there, I know). American culture, at the very least, has spent so much time trying to ignore the reality of abuse in order to preserve the niceties we think we need to hold so dear, that we’re now being forced to find the courage to bring to true light the consequences we’ve allowed for far too long to quietly dominate the objectified and therefore abused persons of our society.

Ultimately, I believe Oates’s book has a wealth of introspection to offer our society’s perceptions of beauty, women, and the power we all too often forget we might be able to use toward a more just world that sees beyond the icon to the true and self-defined individual.

the orangest of prose writing | 2019.03.26

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess | Review

Burgess, Anthony_A Clockwork Orange

Publication: New York : HarperAudio, 2007

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 7 hours 45 minutes

Formats: Audiobook

Source: MCL

After finding myself nestled within several book groups these last six months, I’ve decided I need a better vocabulary to explain more distinctly why I fancy some books more than others. What do I mean when I proclaim loudly that this or that book was “awful” or that it was “one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life,” and what am I using to measure such distaste or praise? In an attempt to give a more specific voice to my all-too tumultuous rating of books, I started thinking about the four primary elements that make up any piece of literature, or that at least bubble to the surface for me. Now I understand fully these so-called qualifiers might shift, fading or waxing in importance depending on the reader, but here’s what has risen to the surface in my own readerish mind.

I’d like to very briefly lay out each qualifier and then show how they perhaps mix and match to allow a piece of literature (and I’ll use Burgess’s novel as the primary example here) to rise or fall within the totality of these probably very crude measuring sticks.

First, there’s the plot. Does it grab the reader? Does it demand a continued turning of the pages? Are you, the reader, fully invested in finding out what happens next? If a work of literature meets this qualifier, but only this qualifier, then I give it a hard-D rating (harsh, I know, but stick with me).

Second, we have character development. Is the reader convinced these are real people? Do their reactions make sense according to our real-life expectations and everyday interactions? Does their dialogue sound true to life? Having this qualifier in addition to the plot element moves the piece of prose, in my mind, into the C-range.

Next, there’s the eloquence of the prose being used. Do the words, not to mention their organization, inspire ecstasy, a sense of flying on the wings of other-worldliness? I’d like to argue that this takes a specific mixture of literary competency and poetic bravery. Are the words being used beautifully and artfully composed while retaining comprehensibility? If “yes,” this type of accomplishment, then, elevates the piece to the B-category.

And finally, there’s the lasting philosophical aspect. Is it timeless in its criticism of societal norms? Does it look simultaneously backwards and forwards in its portrayals of where we as a species have been and what we might be hurtling toward? Did you, the reader, learn something you can take with you through life? Was the reading of this piece of prose a “life-changing” experience in some way or other? And with this element stacked on top of those aforementioned, now we’ve really got a grade-A, fully-fledged, 100-percent gorgeous piece of literature.

Okay. Let’s take a breath after all that. This scale is my own very personal basic-to-ethereal plumb line, for sure. But, how do these weighty judgments all mesh? Well, since this is a book review website, and this post is currently focused on Burgess’s “Clockwork of Oranges,” let’s dive right in.

The plot of this book is the standard hero’s journey, complete with a baseline from which our humble narrator flies, falls, and at last ultimately finds a reason to embrace change. I should warn that I’m going to talk about the full version of this book, without its American editorial exclusion of the final chapter, which the author himself argued strips the story of its true intent.

To preface any arguments for or against Clockwork’s much debated last chapter, please know, this very starry reader read this book for a British literature class (so the last chapter was included on that read-through) while I was still trapped within the Christian bubble of a very conservative Christian university/universe. I remember clearly the moment of truth, when I had to decide whether to discard or continue with all that real horrorshow viddying of the true nature of the world. Well, my melanky droogs (not to be too familiar like), I’m so glad I gritted my teeth very hard and continued on. Even in the height of all those religious convictions, I was not satisfied (so sorry to you, Mr. Burgess) with that last little chapter and all its rejection of the wiles of youth, traded neatly in for the domesticities of grown-up-like perspectives of responsibility and procreation.

To tie this back into commenting on the plot element of this book specifically, yes, perhaps the story becomes more of a cautionary fable than a full-circle hero’s journey when the 21st chapter is removed. However, I personally didn’t feel any loss at ending the story with Alex’s 20th-chapter-day-dream smashing unabashedly the government’s forced reformation project. Perhaps stemming from my bursting-at-the-seams annoyance at the stifling atmosphere of my religious upbringing, I perceived Alex’s ecstasy in the closing scene of Burgess’s 20th chapter’s as a throwing off of all that hinders true free will.

On the other hand, the 21st chapter (leaning more toward the author’s intent here) certainly didn’t ruin the book for me by any means, as it is what, arguably, gives the book’s title its full gut-punch perhaps. In his 1986 introduction called “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” Burgess discusses the importance of free moral choice as the ultimate way the human spirit can avoid being reduced to a mechanical clockwork. For the freedom of choice, Burgess seems to be arguing, is what allows a person to become “an organism lovely with colour and juice.” Certainly, the primary elements of the plot, all wrapped up in Alex’s journey, are so engrossing that to not read the last chapter would have felt like a betrayal of the humble narrator’s final decisions within the very narrative in and of itself.

This leads to the second qualifier noted above, that of character development. I’d like to argue that Burgess does this so exquisitely well that he actually tricks the reader into rooting for little Alex to, at the very least, be okay at the end of the novel, notwithstanding probably every readers’ simultaneous hope that Alex will develop some sense of remorse for all the raping and pillaging he accomplishes throughout the first half of the book. Burgess somehow makes us care about his anti-protagonist (yes, there’s another word for that, which I’d like to argue doesn’t quite fit in this book’s narrative), and perhaps that level of caring manifests differently for different readers, absolutely. But through it all, Burgess never gives the reader cause to doubt the reality of Alex’s existence, even if only in a fabled-like mirroring of the worst of human nature. We all know Alex-type characters, and we all love to hate them if we’re being completely honest.

Yet this genius of character development within A Clockwork Orange goes beyond the story’s narrator, as Burgess’s descriptions of the old ladies at the milk-bar and the lonely writer in his warm “Home,” not to mention the bookworm gentleman at the library, are all very recognizable characters in their own rights. And it is perhaps the repeated meeting of these sidelined characters that lulls the reader into convinced acceptance. Sure, they’re all caricatures of the people we meet, and sometimes avoid at all costs for safety’s sake. But it is the recognition of their outlines that convinces our acceptance. There’s no awkwardness of indecipherableness.

Alright, then, let’s move right along to what might be deemed the most exciting aspect of A Clockwork Orange, that being of course the author’s use of language. Great big sloppy shoutout to Tom Hollander for his voiced rendition of the book on this point, as his reading of all that Nadsat lingo left no need for any peeking at a glossary of the adapted Russian slang that Burgess so artfully incorporated into the text. Was it beautiful? One hundred percent. Was it comprehensible? Absolutely, but only if the reader allows the fury of the plot to carry him, her, or them past any hesitation that might otherwise masquerade in the guise of confusion. We know precisely what Alex means in the connotations of his narrative if not particularly in the exact translation of each specific word used to describe every scene.

So, for myself, this book checks the third qualification’s box. Not only is the language beautiful, but it is also crazily creative. And the latter without the former can’t stand up to the scrutiny of comprehensibility, so Burgess really has something here, especially as he accomplishes both with the seeming ease of breathing (the prose presents itself that naturally to the reader). Now, I know, I know! I’m probably more tolerant than some in my reading of prose writing that is categorically less accessible, so I understand I should be careful in adding this perhaps odd prejudice into my qualifiers of praise for “great” literature. To that end, I’ll readily admit that I sway more toward prose that demands attention and perhaps a little more work than the traditional straight-up and straight-forward writing. But this leads me to the last measurement I’ve mentioned above.

Does the piece of literature transcend into the philosophically metaphysical? “What’s philosophy got to bloody-well do with language?” You might be asking. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, language has never (so many absolutes, I know) been fully able to describe beyond the physical world, except when words are used to convey instead of to absolutely describe. Using literature to give its readers a sense of the world, in all its indescribability, is the real trick of transcendence for an author. By using literary tricks of conveyance, instead of just providing what are all to often over-simplified, outright descriptions of the known world, a writer can invite readers into the realm of philosophical ideas. So Burgess has the music of his book’s language working for him in this way, as mentioned above.

Yet, I’m also looking for timelessness (as opposed to an exclusive exploration of the metaphysical) when I think of the philosophical element in a piece of writing. A Clockwork captures simultaneously the evils of an on-the-verge fascist government, the unbridled violence of youth, the desperate grasping for normalcy (whatever that means), and a place to be safe amongst all of these. To say these themes have not repeated themselves through history is to have glued on the blinders of complacency, I’d like to argue. So for me, this book meets my humble standard of being philosophically relevant through time.

And there you have it! A hands-down amazing book is that terrifically terrifying A Clockwork Orange. To give credit where it’s due, Burgess explains in the 2007 audiobook edition’s introduction (read by the author no less) that of all his endeavors in the world of literature this is the one he really didn’t want his name ultimately associated with. Sobering to think about, for all aspiring writers really. But, oh, but what’re ya gonna do?