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?

conquering death to spite english | 2019.01.21

Census by Jesse Ball | Review

Ball, Jesse_Census

Publication: New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2018]

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Pages: 241 | 4 hours 54 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

What thoughts wash through a person’s mind as they approach death? What we usually think of and what’s presented in most literary explorations of the end stages of a human life are of course memories, albeit cautiously viewed only through the lens of backward looking. Yet unlike Granny Weatherall and many others, the unnamed main character of Ball’s novel does not seem to be plagued by these all-too-common shackles of regret.

Instead, Ball’s narrator completely embraces the more pleasant-leaning memories of what he, his recently deceased wife, and their son have accomplished as a family unit during their life together. At the same time, the main character makes the very conscious decision to turn his family’s last hoped-for accomplishment into a reality, and this in the shape of a long car trip with himself and his son in the flesh, while they both carry his wife along for the ride in their memories. As a result, the narration artfully traces the characters’ journeys of standing still in the contented contemplation of the past while they simultaneously strive to take one last brave step forward together both in life and in death.

In Census, the narrator is newly diagnosed with an undisclosed terminal illness sometime after the death of his beloved wife. In response to the news of his impending passage off this celestial plane of consciousness, the main character, as mentioned above, decides to spend the remaining weeks of his life taking his son on the very road trip their little family had always longed for. Yes, very much yes, the writing captures well the bittersweetness of the main character and his son (who we know from the author’s introduction has Down syndrome like the author’s own brother) having missed this road trip opportunity while the main character’s spouse was still able to join them in the flesh. However, it is this melancholy that embodies the backward and forward sway of pushing would-be regret toward fulfillment. The book struck me as the subtlest portrayal of time travel in this way. And, this is exactly how the book is able to relate the essence of calm reflection at its core.

To call a road trip where the journeying duo task themselves with the solemn duties of tattooing census marks on various citizens may seem an odd choice at first. But this is where the novel distinguishes itself from the usual verge-of-death stories we often find in literature. For not only is the narrative filled with memories, it also offers a view of the lives being currently lived within that same narrative of the father and son being featured, as well as of the many varied people they meet (and tattoo) along the way.

I loved the other reviews I found of this book. They pointed out Ball’s literary echoing of the writing styles of Kafka, Calvino, and Whitman, each in turn, with which I agree on unrealized-until-now reflection. The landscape being described is vast and unknowable except through the people who populate it in turns with excitement and apprehension at the idea of being “counted” with the unexplained tattoo ritual associated with the census taking task. In the midst of these literarily gorgeous descriptions, Ball straddles memoiristic and fantastically-almost-science-fictional prose. Not a small accomplishment, to be sure.

And then there are the repeated references to the writings of the fictional Mutter and her sweet obsession with cormorants. Ball explains this inclusion as his solution for relating to his readers the philosophical highs and lows of his main character’s emotional states. In an interview with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, Ball states that “having Mutter allows for emotional peaks of various sorts to be reached by reference,” instead of leaning all the weight of philosophical pondering on the main character.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the above-mentioned Down syndrome of the main character’s son and Ball’s normalcy-demanding handling of this topic. This, I feel, is too huge a part of the novel to be ignored. How do we respond with adequacy to the categorically “abnormal” when abnormal is really where everyone lives constantly if we are brave enough to admit it? We use, clumsily as they come, the words available . . . but even these efforts so tragically fail, it seems. Ball has the firsthand experience, in his relationship with his now deceased and very much-loved brother, to tackle such a topic, however. He knows enough about the failings of our English language to still convince his book’s prose to give praise to the beauty inherent in an “other’s” perspective of seeing the world. Pulling again from the Powell’s interview, I deeply appreciated Ball explains the following:

“It’s difficult to speak about subjects who do not participate in a substantive way in the creation of the language that you’re going to speak about them in. I had to find a way to write about people like my brother in English, when the language itself is an enemy. That was one of the reasons for writing the book, and one of the problems that I had to navigate in writing it.”

Because the English language, the language in which this book seems to be apolitically written, is the language of the historically oppressive. If you feel this book review is a little tiny bit judgmental then perhaps you’re ready to take another look at what really matters, with a simultaneously backwards and forwards glance.

why books matter | 2019.02.09

The Library Book by Susan Orlean | Review

Orlean, Susan_The Library Book

Publication: New York : Simon and Schuster, 2018

Genre: True Crime Stories

Pages: 317 | 12 hours 9 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

The morning of January 30th, earlier this year, I burst into tears in the shower while listening to Susan Orlean describe in horrifying detail the fire that consumed the L.A. Central Library branch in April 1986. It’s not that the description was a surprise, as I knew making that particular library fire famous was in a way the point of the book Orlean was presenting to her enthusiastic readers (there are still 308 holds on my local library system’s 78 copies of the hardcover version, not to mention 170 holds on their 29 copies of the downloadable audiobook version). But somehow the word-spun images she conjured of the white-hot flames gobbling their way through the library stacks left me sobbing with one hand on the cold, steam-crested tiles and the other covering my mouth’s perhaps overly-dramatic distortions of grief.

I’d like to talk about the structure of Orlean’s content in this one, especially since I’ve been studying the various options any storyteller, be they playwright, author, documentarist, composer, or other, has at their disposal for putting one piece of a tale in front of another so as to best lead an audience through some semblance of the experience desired.

In her initial chapter, Orlean introduces the possible culprit of the legendary L.A. Central Library branch fire, the fire that the reader knows will be the catalyst for the rest of the book, from which the rest of the spokes of wandering historical investigative writing will extend. Let’s call this portion of the book the “hook” with which Orlean catches her readerish prey.

Second, Orlean lets the reader know she believes in libraries and definitely in books. To accomplish this stage-setting, which will ultimately serve as a harsh bed of smoldering book pillows into which her audience will, pages later, be able to bury their tear-stained faces, she talks about her own history with libraries in the experiences of her youth, retelling how her mother used to take her to the library every week so she could claim a new stack of books to pile in a cherished tower on her lap during the car ride home while she and her mother would discuss with utmost seriousness what reading order would allow them to beat the already impending due dates. This is undoubtedly the empathy tactic that all writers should know, which allows the curiosity of the first part of a story to be inextricably linked to the emotions of the audience.

Third, Orlean speeds the reader through the trauma of the legendary fire itself, a breathtaking description I cannot add to, and so won’t try here. In this way, Orlean pulls the line tight around the hook of the initial part of her storytelling. We’ve been given intrigue, we’ve been given a reason to care, and then we’re subjected to the terror of experiential description that merges the first and second parts so that we can’t stop turning the pages to try and find the justice of explanation.

Next, Orlean takes her readers with her on a deep-dive investigation of the alleged L.A. Central Library branch fire-starter’s history, from his family’s narrow escape from the Midwestern dust bowls of the Great Depression, to their struggles with a simultaneously promising and yet fleeting Californian economy during the initial stages of the space race era. Here she adds a human element to the outrage her readers might well be feeling.

Finally, Orlean leaves the reader to conjecture about the who-done-it aspect of the story and moves on instead to talk about the science and slog, at times, of running a library, what this takes, how it’s been approached through history, and how librarians today view their calling with all its implications of stewardship and social justice activism. Among this portion of the book, the reader is given a view into Orlean’s almost religious ponderings about the place of books and the written word within human history. This was, by the way, my absolute favourite part of the book. What better way to give credence to the topic you’ve chosen to have at the heart of your book than to pay the highest homage to that topic, building it up to Olympus’s summit?

“A book feels like a thing alive in this moment. And also, alive on a continuum from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press, a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it. And it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue. They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books, ‘the potency of life.’”

For the rest of the book, Orlean moves back and forth through time, detailing the variant destruction and rebuilding of not only the L.A. Central Library but libraries around the world as a pastime and point of intellectual, as well as social, pride. All the while she doesn’t let the reader lose sight of the question of the great fire’s origin. These final sections, if we’re continuing to follow the structure of Orlean’s book, give the perfect climactic rise of emotions as Orlean follows the court cases surrounding the alleged fire-starter’s later life adventures, pulling a Capote in a way so that the reader almost wants the accused to escape. Then the denouement clasps gentle hands around the audience so that solving the mystery is outshone by the need for the revitalization of the cathedral of books that is the true heart of Orlean’s work here. (I’ll let you explore the ultimate conclusions she reached regarding the case itself in your own reading adventure of this book.)

looking over the fence of hatred | 2019.02.06

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of A Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow| Review

Saslow, Eli_Rising Out of Hatred

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2018]

Genre: Biography

Pages: 288 | Audiobook: 9 hours 2 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I have the Portland Book Festival (previously and ever-enduringly known to native Portlanders as Wordstock) to thank for putting this book on my radar. On first review, the aspect of this book that impressed me most was the author’s ability to show not only the divisiveness of hatred-driven beliefs like white supremacy, but also how discussions that demand accountability can lead to change.

Saslow’s book, at its core, is a journalistic account of how a young white nationalist, Derek Black (son of white supremacy leader Don Black and protégé of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke) escaped his white supremacy roots to see the light of equality and inclusion. The story also explores the inner struggles (and rightly so) of Derek’s fellow college students as they tried to decide how to react to Derek’s presence on their New College campus in Florida. Many of these individuals had every reason, by the fact of their categorically “non-white” heritages, to hate those, like Derek, who were working to further white supremacy ideas. Yet, a few of these same students made an effort (after very careful consideration of the risks they might be taking in allowing someone like Derek to feel comfortable in his daily life) to include Derek in their circle of friends and to see him as a person with the potential for individual thought that might push him toward curious development.

While I found this astonishing, as I continued reading Saslow’s description of Derek’s journey out of hatred, the term accountability kept ringing in my mind. For it can’t be denied that Derek’s work during the time he was still an extremely active part of the white supremacy movement helped to push the harmful rhetoric of white nationalism into the mainstream of our current “patriotic” American culture.

In his introduction, Saslow explains Derek’s initial reluctance to provide interviews regarding his personal journey out of his white nationalist background. Then, in the wake of the Trump election, Derek found himself needing to be more publicly vocal against the racial prejudices he knew his past life had helped introduce into the mainstream of American opinion. While it may be difficult to reject the mantras of one’s youth, which can masquerade as comforting truths, it is arguably ten times as difficult to stand up against them in a public setting such as this book provides, not to mention the multiple news interviews Derek has given since he renounced his white supremacy upbringing starting with a letter published on the Southern Poverty Law Center website in 2013.

After marveling at Derek’s conscious decision to publicly reject his past ideas of hatred, I began thinking again about the bravery of those who helped him toward this radical change. We live in a society so quick to align, so quick to say, “You’re the enemy.” Saslow’s book, however, seems to argue that standing at impassible odds forever with our “others” only strengthens the lines of division to the point that the “us” and the “them” have no chance to see over each other’s fences. I guess we have to ask whether seeing past one another’s prejudices and opinions is the goal. When there’s a clear wrong being advocated, how do we make room enough to converse with those advocating for that wrong?

As stated above, Rising Out of Hatred is as much about Derek Black’s coming to the realization that the goals of his white nationalist upbringing are harmful, as it is about the people who had the patience to walk him through his transformation. And these were college students, no less, protégés in their own right to the millennial changes of societal awareness that have continued to push forward such awakenings as the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT movements. These are the real rock stars of this book, I feel. For these individuals were willing to see Derek as a person beyond the lines of “the enemy” while still persistently demanding Derek reject his white supremacy ideas. Their persistence seemed one of the primary catalysts that eventually led Derek to his conversion, in a way.

Overall, reading this book made me realize I have some patience to learn in seeing my own ultra conservative family members (and all ultra conservatives, who I perhaps unwittingly equate with supporters of our current incumbent) in light of the people that they are and the reasons for their philosophical tendencies instead of as pure embodiments of an “evil other.” While I personally am not quite there yet, I hope that society will continue to learn from our up-and-coming generation the practice of constructive and open conversation as well as the power of daring to take accountability seriously.

grokking a wrongness in micro aggressions | 2019.01.19

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein | Review

Heinlein, Robert A_Stranger in a Strange Land

Publication:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 408 (New York : Ace Books, ©2003 publication has 525 pages, introducing the original manuscript) | 16 hours 17 minutes

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

This book excited me in its initial stages. Jo Walton’s main character recommends this writer in Walton’s Among Others, so I ran as fast as I could to the local library to check out Heinlein’s work (late to the party, I know, but what’re ya gonna do). After reading through multiple other reviews, I think I may have picked up a poor example of Heinlein’s literary prowess. (And it seems, from her review on, Walton agrees.)

While basking in ideas of grokking the mysteries of the universe and the serenity of the main character’s alien view of human interactions, the following line from this book’s otherwise main feminist character (for her time, maybe . . . not without room for growth in that area) sucked all the air out of my personal safe space: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.”

Looking for solace, I found the GoodReads discussion about this quote runs the full gamut of possible responses. Just to be clear, I don’t believe in banning or editing works of art (I’m throwing literature in the art category here), and I understand fully this book might be quite simply a product of its 1960s time. Free love was on the rise as a natural backlash to a country steeped in conservative straining, for sure. But I think the discomfort that other (largely female) readers had with this, granted, very small piece of the book also shouldn’t be pushed to the sidelines.

Over the last month, the term “micro aggressions” keeps cropping up in my mind, especially when exploring anything written or created by cis white (Western mostly) male artists, be they old or new. Micro aggressions, as I’m coming to understand them, refer to any subtly accepted social norms that actually perpetuate disrespect (a.k.a. aggression) toward a specific group of people or ideas. So, to brush over such a quote as the one I’m honing in on for this review seems an agreement in perpetuating such mentalities, however subtly they may be presented.

Who’s to blame for this type of blatant disregard of every other perspective, meaning every perspective other than the perspective of the cis white male? Probably not Heinlein in and of himself; but I strongly believe that the aggregate of literary (and artistic in general) endeavors that push out (again, however subtly, since the devil truly is in the details) this type of mentality to their audiences has assisted in the formation of societal views on topics of rape and the general disrespect of women in the grander practice of even our current daily lives. And that impact of what we allow as the acceptable norm, acceptable even if it’s “a product of its time,” should still be held to some level of accountability, I feel.

Okay, so, Heinlein bit the dust with regard to that one sentence in this book. I’m not convinced the book doesn’t have maybe other important social commentary to offer (“grokking a wrongness in the poor in-betweeners” may really take the goddamn cake, however . . . not a fan of that one either, for the same reasons noted above), but I also don’t think these types of quotes don’t bear a ton of discussion either. Another great review of the book exists at The Outline, if you’re interested.

magical memory carpets | 2019.01.07

Among Others by Jo Walton | Review

walton, jo_among others

Publication: New York : Tor, 2011, ©2010

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 302

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

This is going to be long and obnoxious, however . . .

“It makes me melancholy to remember, but a little bit of the security and excitement comes through from the way I was feeling in the memory. Memories are like a big pile of carpets, I keep them piled up in one big pile in my head and don’t pay much attention to them separately, but if I want to, I can get back in and walk on them and remember. I’m not really there, not like an elf might be, of course. It’s just that if I remember being sad or angry or chagrined, a little of that feeling comes back. And the same goes for happy, of course, though I can easily wear out the happy memories by thinking about them too much. If I do, when I’m old all the bad memories will still be sharp, because of pushing them away, but all the good ones will be worn out.”

As my dearest friend and I met last weekend to muddle through drafts of our memoiristic essay collection that we hope will manifest itself into something someday worth sharing, I asked for her thoughts on this quote. We’re writing our book together to wear out the less pleasant memories, she agreed with another cheers of our glasses. Of course, there’s always melancholy when it comes to memories, and the writing seems to encapsulate the cringing in a type of sainthood sometimes. I love Orwell’s caution to fellow writers in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” where he states simply that “whoever writes about his [or her] childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity.” Because memories are slippery, and if we try to rush to the climax, we’ll miss the ecstasy of orgasm that often mirrors revelation.

If this book had been available when I was fifteen, I think my life might have turned out different, but that’s what we say, I’d wager, whenever we find a text (or any type of artist endeavor really) that resonates. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower before the repressed memories of my abuse-filled childhood came back, and it didn’t jar those memories loose or change the forefront (a.k.a. consciousness) of how I saw the world at that time. But the change was probably there, brewing just beneath the surface. Maybe it’s not that a life’s course can necessarily change in its subsequent curves between this or that circumstance, but that a person’s perspective of those twisting paths might be turned ever so slightly aside to better perceive the options inherent to living in and of itself. Perhaps this is the magic of books particularly, in that they provide a kaleidoscope through which the reader (and sometimes the writer) can view and, hopefully, understand better the intricacies of not only the lives of others but of himself or herself. Any book or piece of art that accomplishes this depth of wondering introspection possesses the magic of time travel, which rings of both science fiction and fantasy together (I think we’ve found your magic carpets, Walton, huzzah!).

Yet such a journey is not to be rushed, I’ve become convinced (as I’ve stated above with probably too much boldness). Among Others took me just over six months to finish. I savored each fictionalized journal entry, not wanting the music of Walton’s reflective prose to end. While some reviewers expressed being overwhelmed by the endless stream-of-consciousness references to all the science fiction and fantasy books a mind could possibly hold, I’m excited to have Walton’s book on my shelf as a kind of experiential reading list. Not only does she give recommendations of authors and titles (some recommendations more flattering than others . . . Le Guin, Heinlein, Delany, and Zelazny seem to be among her favorites), but as I worked through Morwenna’s lists of her and Walton’s choice literary pieces while taking intermittent breaks from Among Others, I found the storyline of Walton’s book grew in depth and richness. Because reading is an experience that the reader can hold in his or her mind for eternity if the right notes are struck. Sharing those experiences through the sharing of great, or even just memorable (some might say you can’t have one without the other) books and writing and art in general can calm the anxiety of loneliness.

And loneliness is what Walton’s book is all about. This theme comes up again and again. The main character even chides herself for wishing (to the point of magic) for a group of likeminded friends, fearing that comrades gotten by selfish wish-making might negate the authenticity of such meetings of kindred spirits. So I found the book to be more than a collection of the author’s favorite sci-fi and fantasy recommendations. It’s immovably rife also with coming-of-age motifs, including the finding of the self in the face of mother-daughter relations, rumors among classmates, the desperation of trying to capture fresh memories before they go stale, and magic . . . always the magic of youth and what it means to hold onto that while the years gather.

ulysses’s evil twin | 2018.12.22

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany | Review

delany, samuel r._dhalgren

Publication: Bantam Books 1975

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 801

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Last summer, a lowly, long-distance sci-fi book group picked this one out their usual scramble for fodder to inspire great, or at least amusing, literary and scientifically-charged discussion. At the book’s half-way point by late October, two out of the three members were ready to throw in the towel. This is not an uncommon response, it seems. A good number of the book reviews I found online that tackle Delany’s masterpiece (I’m just going to boldly put that out there) focus, much like my book group in our initial stages, on the difficulty of this book.

Yes, it’s 800 goddamn pages. Yes, the writing tends toward the experimental both in style and format. Yes, the sex is explicit and detailed without the familiarity of superfluous erotica expectations, and, yes, the plot is as shadowy as Bellona’s cityscape, which Delany describes with the repetition of a rower’s oar trying to surge its owner’s escape through a haze of on-the-verge-of-continuously violent friendships that seem to offer little to no edification. (That last one was a terrible attempt at emulation, by the way. More practice needed.)

By mid-December, my book group agreed (or perhaps we agreed to disagree after we’d quit towel-tossing and got back to the business of intellectual debate) that to ask, “What happened?” in the midst of this book’s circular-reasoning mire of philosophical quandaries was to miss the point of the book completely.

Instead, we found this is the type of book that pulled out all the stops, tackling race, sexual expectations, social norms, the sham of economics, the impenetrable fortress of humanistic religion (is there any other kind . . . really?), identity, gender, ageism, literary form, and every other stereotype imaginable. Perhaps there is a way to scale this type of philosophical mountain other than with experimental prose and plot structure, but in reading Dhalgren, I came back to my old prejudices about this topic. Clockwork Orange couldn’t have the same gut-punching impact if it used the language of the average Joe Schmo. It is in the poetry of language that the soul, or whatever you want to call the intangible element of sentient beings, finds its true voice–to be too clear is to put the potential of interpretation in a straitjacket.

Let’s not forget also that Delany was writing Dhalgren on the heels of multiple cultural revolutions that drastically changed the face of the United States, or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves over and over again. Reading Delany’s giant, which has been called “Ulysses’ evil twin,” made me wonder if the author had left the 1960s with bittersweet regard.

To say this book is a metaphor for the mayhem of American culture, with all its self-absorption, inescapably demoralizing money-grubbing, overly-concerned religious frittering, and endless identity crises, seems a bit on the nose. But to hell with it: I’m pretty sure this book is a fucking metaphor. If you’re not into metaphors or allegories or lyrically gorgeous philosophical wonderings, well, there’s always Rocky Flintstone.