the art of relatability | 2018.06.26

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen | Review

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2013]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 353

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

I’ve been thinking a lot about the attraction of the memoir. This year’s Wordstock (rebranded as the Portland Book Festival) a couple weekends ago gave testimony again to our culture’s currently heightened obsession with this genre. There were endless sessions it seemed with writers talking about their latest memoir or autobiographical work of fiction. We are a people who need to tell our stories, and we need them to be heard.

So, I began thinking about why our culture has been feeling so egocentric lately. But then I realized that a memoir, a really good one that is actually doing its job well, while it may be about the author, sure, is probably not so much for the author as much as it is for the readers. Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special, in this way, probably carries more significance for some of its audience members than even for Christensen herself (which, I understand, sounds ludicrous since the book is after all about Christensen’s very personal experiences).

What I’m talking about is the power of relatability. When a reader reads about an author’s experiences that mirror that reader’s own experiences, this means that reader is suddenly not alone anymore in their experiences. I deeply feel that some of the topics Christensen’s book addresses (such as domestic violence, relational infidelity, and childhood molestation) are the ones that so often need the voice of solidarity.

The book uses the author’s endless love of food, flavors, and cooking to find touchstones amongst the harsher topics that the author deals with throughout the story. I loved the imagination of the recipes at the end of many of the chapters. They felt like exemplifications of personal victories in the realm of self-actualization.

a dr. seussian tragedy | 2018.04.30

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff | Review

Rakoff, David_Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish_ A Novel

Publication: New York : Doubleday, 2013

Genre: Humanity Fiction, Fiction in Verse

Pages: 113, with color illustrations

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook

Source: MCL

David Rakoff envelopes the heart of sadness with this Dr. Seussian novel. I’m terming Rakoff’s book after the author of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! because, in it, Rakoff has an almost religious devotion to timing his characters’ tales along traditional rhyming schemes. And it’s the lulling sound of this book’s prose that creates a sense of security in which Rakoff can then bring his readers face to face with some of the most profound horrors of human experiences.

To be more specific, even at the risk of having my last statement judged as overly dramatic, the opening character-story of the novel involves a violent domestic rape for which the preteen victim is then blamed and thrown out of the house by her mother. Using such an example of humanity’s underbelly and misappropriated morals to set the stage, the novel’s very blue hue contrasts with the bright blush of its often devastating narrative twists. Because of its unabashed approach in connecting readers on a very visceral level with the lives of its twelve main characters as they march through the twentieth century, I highly recommend this book to anyone trying to understand the humanity behind how the United States has come to its current state of affairs and what that means for its individuals.

To be sure, Rakoff certainly doesn’t apologize for shocking his audience awake. In our current political and cultural climate, utilizing shock value might be more advisable than in periods of actual genteel rest (what peaceful periods of gentility those would be, in particular, can probably be explained by someone of a more hopeful resolve than I could ever dream of possessing).

If you listen to the audio version of this book, please be prepared for another layer of heartbreak. For while the story itself danced so gracefully through the darkest parts of our cultural history (and ongoing realities), my throat constricted at the sound of Rakoff’s cancer taking over his rasping voice as he struggles (and more so in the later chapters) through each set of rhyming couplets. We lost Rakoff in 2012, and the world is poorer without him. For more on his graceful, yet not without justified frustration and sadness, battle with cancer: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ldqjM7x6NhE.

In memoriam: How is it, both this novel and the loss of its writer cry, that the important pieces of society should pass us by with such subtle depths of lasting calmness while we blink in unending thoughtlessness?

hiding from the masses | 2018.09.01

This Star Shall Abide by Sylvia Louise Engdahl | Review

Engdahl, Sylvia Louise_This Star Shall Abide

Publication: New York, Atheneum, 1972

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Pages: 247

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: Sylvia Engdahl’s Site

This book proved quite a rollercoaster for the emotions. Having given it my first read as an adult, I found myself wishing I’d come across it in my youth. This book is geared toward a YA audience, to be sure, but I feel the foundational concepts it explores would also do most adults some tremendous good. The plot is centered around questioning the nature of societal rules and traditional beliefs.

Engdahl does a very convincing job of pulling the reader along with her main character’s struggles (hence the emotional joy, and sometimes disparaging, ride) as he tries to stay true to his mission of . . . well, pursuing truth. Noren isn’t fooled for a minute during the first half of the book by the traditions he’s been spoon fed from birth. When he’s forced to accept these same ideals, albeit for reasons he’d never before suspected, near the end, I found my stomach churning with his at the dire proposition that humanity in its majority can’t often handle reality. Most of us need our comforts while those brave enough (or simply curious enough) to face the truth are left to deal with the consequences.

I remember years ago a mentor, in response to my endless stream of philosophical quandaries, warning me, “Most people don’t care that much.” In the over-hopefulness of youth, I disregarded her cautioning, but Engdahl seems to have been on the same page. I like how Jo Walton put it in her comments about this book, that even though some of the premises might stand on a precarious knife’s edge, “it’s a book that does encourage that most essential element of science fiction: thinking about it.”

While racing through This Star Shall Abide, I simultaneously consumed Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I can’t help but be amazed at the parallels between these two books with regard to protecting the masses through veiled explanations of scientific discovery and the power of religious feelings that often overtake new discoveries. When themes keep popping up in literature, those are probably the ones to stop and consider.

I still wish the world didn’t carry so much evidence in favor of the assertion, as proclaimed by both Engdahl and my mentor, that the masses don’t give a shit about reality or about the possibility of understanding truth (even if that truth is predicated on  relativistic perspectives). As exemplified in Hitchcock’s Rope, people who don’t want to dig deeper on the philosophical plane certainly aren’t of less value. If the world were made up entirely of theoretical philosophers, the homeless and those overwhelmed with addiction or mental illness probably wouldn’t stand a chance.

Certainly this book inspires all types (Villagers, Technicians, and Scholars alike) to at least think about it, even a little. This is the beauty of books, as they enable a window of influence to seep into our subconscious, if we’re willing to at least take the time to engage. Caveats, always caveats.

grieving the last page | 2018.10.23

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_No Time to Spare

Publication: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Genre: Essays, Selections

Pages: 215 | Audio Length: 6 hours, 33 minutes

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: MCL

There are some books that I find do not lend themselves to binge reading. Instead, they demand a more carefully plotted pace, with long rests in between so that a reader might catch her breath and reflect.

I purchased Le Guin’s No Time to Spare on Audible some time this spring and just finished it last Tuesday. The irony of the title versus my drawn-out consumption of its contents is now giving me pause. My finishing was not without a regretful sigh, as if the last syllables of the text were punctuating a farewell from a dear friend. Sure, this feeling was probably heightened by Le Guin’s passing this year, but I find this experience of loss at the turning of the last pages of a book has more to do with a particularly perfect coupling of the essence of what was said in the text itself and the reader’s state of mind when she approached that specific piece of writing.

For myself and this book, I think it was the cats. My cat gave up on this world in May this year, and my trips to the vet with her on the number 20 bus up into the West Hills above Portland during a very long, dreary weekend were accompanied by Le Guin’s essays about her many feline companions, the sorrows of losing them, and the curious joys of getting to know the next. While I tried to sooth my cat in the final days of her nearly twenty-something years, Le Guin whispered distractions of insights about what it must mean to write “the great American novel” and how The Grapes of Wrath will always be her favourite in that category. Her comments about answering fan letters from children, as well as how she never liked the grammatically nonsensical phrase about not being able to have your cake and eat it too, were a welcome reprieve from my perch on the curb outside the vet’s office while I waited for the tests that I knew would show Nadia had already reached a state of incurability.

After that difficult month, I got sidetracked by other books and projects. My partner and I filled our weekends with camping to stay away from an apartment now devoid of its most (between the three of us, anyways) pleasant presence. Then a couple months ago, I realized I had been stealing snatches of time between all these other activities to tune into Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, but usually only in moments of distress. I realized this book had become like some sacred text that steadied my nerves and calmed my whirling thoughts to a more predictable rhythm each time I picked it up. And, again, I think it’s both because of the state of my mind in this phase of my life along with the poignance of her essay topics.

As my curiously reverent attitude towards the book dawned on me, I found my favorite pieces were her essays about anger in the relation to feminism and politics, along with the one in which she explains how belief really has absolutely no place in the argument between science and religion. In taking one’s time with a piece of literature such as this (the irony of the title against this recommendation for a slower reading aside), I think the reader gains a greater ability to connect with the writing, its author, and the thoughts behind them both. Some books are for sipping rather than gulping, it seems, but they are usually the ones that will stay with a reader the longest.

the true naming convention | 2018.04.07

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_A Wizard of Earthsea

Publication: 1968 (Parnassus Press)

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Pages: 205

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: MCL

So, what the hell’s in a name, anyways? (Sorry, Ursula, if you’re still listening from some celestial plane, I know curse words seem tired exclamation points for you. May the irony not be lost.) But what are we trying to say when we talk about the importance of language if we are not speaking of a devotion to relate the true essence of our surroundings and our co-inhabitants in some fashion or another?

“To summon a thing that is not there at all, to call it by speaking its true name, that is a great mastery, not lightly used,” for “then you may learn its true name, knowing its being.”

Those of you who know this book inside and out are no doubt all too keenly aware those quotes are taken a bit out of context. But, honestly, what is this book if not a searching for identity? Before there was the epic of Star Wars or the thrill of Hogwarts, there was the Wizard of Earthsea. And may he live forever in our culture as the trend-setter of “he who shall not be named.” Ged’s journey (breaking all the true names rules there) is one we’ll forever recognize. For while this is an expertly illustrated coming of age tale, Le Guin seems to want her however young or older readers to stop and consider the true nature of what it means to find oneself. Being true to yourself is never easy, especially in the face of our many cultural expectations.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect with this book, after having surged headlong through The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness. Early into the book, however, I noted the Harry Potter similarities poking through with eery starkness. One of my dearest hopes in this life is to learn the art of calling others to account without anger or complete degradation. In her blog post “Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion,” Le Guin quite diplomatically calls out the creator of the Harry Potter series as she discusses her preference for “writers who…have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-writers in the salt mines of literature.” But this is not a diatribe against an author who let her critics praise her supposed invention of an already well-established genre so much so that she promised to bring copyright lawsuits down on the heads of her fan-fiction writers.

My hometown recently showed the wonderful filmmaker Arwen Curry’s documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin,” and I caught my breath at Le Guin’s laughing admittance that she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea as a nod to the power of words themselves. For fantasy readers, magic has always been assumed to be buried in the depths of the most carefully chosen words, as well as in the true names for things, for “he who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.”

This maxim brings to mind William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read Each Other” in its “appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider–lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

And therein lies the true magic of Le Guin’s novel. For while it is advertised as a classic YA book of high fantasy, the deeper lessons it offers regarding the might of our words, the identities they give us, and our understanding of the world within our often-times all too rigid cultures are such crucial reminders of cautious stewardship not just for the youths of our society.

presumptions of innocence | 2018.04.24

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer | Review

Krakauer, Jon_Missoula

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2015]

Genre: Investigative Journalism, Nonfiction

Pages: 367

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: MCL

I’ve been avoiding this review for personal reasons but now feel some comment must be made in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court Justice confirmation.

This book details the rape and sexual assault crisis at the University of Montana from 2008 to 2012 and details the repeated failings of the justice system in its inability to appropriately respond. Krakauer’s research, alongside his own investigative journalism, gives this book a measured voice. It certainly hits the nerve needed to pull our country out from its hiding place behind white male rage so we can try and have a more productive discussion about sexual abuse.

The same friend who recommended Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, to me also recommended Krakauer’s. While my friend’s encouragement for me to read Partanen’s book was based on her own feelings of frustration about the United States’ current political and economic situation, her holiday gift to me last December of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town felt more like a gesture of understanding and attempted solidarity.

When non-victims of sexual abuse (and mind you, the national statistics show victims of contact sexual abuse are as high as one out of three women, and that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday) practice compassion by offering up tools for possible real understanding, they give room for those of us who are victims to have an impactful voice. And, please note, the type of understanding I’m talking about is not the kind that non-victims tote around in a prayer bag of self-aggrandized ideas of healing and reconciliation. I’m cheering for those non-victims who have the humility to actually clear their minds and listen to those of us who have survived sexual abuse in one form or another.

(Disclaimer: I am extremely lucky in that I have not experienced rape. However, a male authority figure in my family did sexually abuse me on repeated occasions beginning when I was about eight or nine years old. That’s all I’m going to say on that subject at this time, as there are better mediums where these details can be brought into the focus that I may utilize someday. I’m happy to talk with anyone about the details offline if you’d like to message me on Twitter @agathaagnusblac.)

The number one takeaway from the Kavanaugh-sexual-assault debate has been that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony (as well as those of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick) could not be proven true and therefore, according to the tone from the right-leaning media and Kavanaugh himself, all accusations of sexual abuse should be deemed as ploys by one political party to destroy American values. But this entirely misses the point. Specifically, this type of thought process is an infuriating example of misused inductive reasoning, in that it allows one specific observation to inform a broader conclusion, such as “Sally’s grandfather is bald, therefore all grandfathers are bald.” We need to remember that Ford’s accusations were also not disproven, and that the mantra of the U.S. justice system that trumpets the presumption of innocence needs to apply to the accuser also.

Certainly, the highly aggressive, victim-stance that Kavanaugh took on when questioned about his possible past misconducts should not put confidence in the minds of the undecided about his case. Yes, being accused does not equate to being guilty, absolutely. But when/if someone is falsely accused, one would hope they would have the decency to remember the larger conversation and to handle such grave accusations with more maturity than to shout such a childish threat like “what goes around, comes around.”

And what is that larger conversation? Coming back to Krakauer’s book, which gives some very soberingly explicit examples of sexual assault, that larger conversation is about how our nation’s culture does not seem to understand sexual abuse, how to talk about it, or how to respect those who have been its victims. We are so scared to falsely punish those accused of sexual crimes that our knee-jerk reaction has instead been to criminalize the victims. On the last page of his book, Krakauer states that “rapists [and other types of sex offenders] rely on the silence of their victims to elude accountability.” By allowing the silence to continue, we have let gross and damaging acts of sexual aggression become the norm. Krakauer’s narrative and the recent conservative responses to actions like the #MeToo Movement or the Kavanaugh hearings showcase that our society has lost all moral perspective on this issue (if we had any to begin with).

Remembering my initial reaction to Krakauer’s book earlier this year and then watching the Kavanaugh debate this last month has reminded me of how quick our justice system is to do nothing, or at least as little as possible, in the name of “the presumption of innocence.”

no gender needed | 2018.02.27

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_The Left Hand of Darkness

Publication: New York : Harper & Row, [1980], ©1969

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 213

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: MCL

Let’s talk about world-building, shall we? To start out: What if gender weren’t a thing? No, seriously. Don’t glaze over that too quickly. What . . . if . . . gender . . . weren’t . . . a . . . thing? Well, there goes chauvinism right out the window. But also, there goes feminism and “nagging wives” and “distant workaholic husbands” and pay inequality, not to mention prescribed and presumed roles within the work place, the home, social engagements, everything, baby! And (this is my favourite part) there goes all the pent-up anger at all these bits of our anthropology that we’ve been struggling against or clinging to for, well, the existence of recognizable culture within our species. This is the premise of the world Le Guin creates in her award-winning (both the Nebula and the Hugo) book.

Grethen is truly a fantasy planet, covered with intricate mysteries beyond yet also linked to the absence of fixed genders among its populace. Le Guin understands the root of prejudice is difficult to escape wherever culture abounds. For Grethen also has that, i.e. prejudices, in abundance. Along the main character’s journey, he (being a foreigner, sadly stuck in a forever-gender body since birth) meets residents of the planet who take drugs to suspend their otherwise monthly gender cycles (please note that Le Guin doesn’t entirely preclude gender, but the planet’s residents are certainly gender-fluid, if nothing else). While these drug-induced gender-benders are seen as spiritual savants by some of the populace, they’re also stigmatized as highly unnatural. Le Guin seems keen on showing that individual choice will always be a hard one for any self-identifying “cultured” species to get over.

Okay, so looping back to world-building, Le Guin (are you missing her as much as I yet?) doesn’t leave her environment with only this androgynous-leaning landscape of culture. She makes sure to bring other fundamental understandings of the characters’ universe into the reader’s view. For example, while the land is covered in endless layers of falling snow and shifting ice for much of the planet’s revolving year, there are no flying species (no mosquitoes, no flies, no birds) so that concepts such as space ships, airplanes, and even angels are met with baffled wonder. Spirits fall like delicate flakes of snow instead of floating upward to the atmosphere like doves. This planet is filled with a people well-grounded, with the literalness of that concept permeating how they conduct all their affairs, both in the comforts of the homes they occupy and their sometimes frightfully harsh political arenas.

And then there’s shifgrethor. What? That’s the constant question of the story’s main foreign narrator. In a world without flying anythings, where fixed gender is viewed with curious disgust, Le Guin showcases the primary cultural differences between the two dominant nations on Grethen through this word. Coming out bit by bit, shifgrethor is all about the security of a type of knowing that comes by contrast. This exploration of contrasts seeps through Le Guin’s work, as she seemed highly intrigued by ideas like shadow versus light (taking her Earthsea series as another primary example), for one without the other has no meaning, just like flight or feminism have no meaning without their opposites. How would you even begin to be able to describe a concept like grounded without the fundamental understanding that another mode of transport was even possible? How could a person be offended at presumed gender roles if everyone shared responsibilities because gender was not a thing?

Le Guin’s book is the best example I’ve read yet (and probably ever will) of how a culture’s foundational perceptions drive expectations. There’s so much in this book that it’s a challenge to comment with even the semblance of intelligence on its complexities. Let her always stand as a model world-builder, friend, for I challenge you to find better.