Sunday, May 20, 2012

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a keen observer of human relationships--most particularly men's relationships (with women, with their fathers, with their children)--and a writer who can make the reader think and laugh simultaneously. War Dances, a collection of poems, short stories, and prose pieces so brief I don't know what to call them, is a fine reflection of his work.

Alexie is Native American, and many of his characters are Native American; their stories shed light on the Native American experience and poke fun at Indian stereotypes, but they're never narrowly about one group--they illuminate humanity. In one of the book's early stories, "Breaking and Entering," the narrator is a film editor who works at home. Once afternoon, he hears someone breaking into his basement. He grabs a baseball bat and runs downstairs to confront the intruder--an African American teenager. As the boy rushes toward him, the narrator hits him with the bat--and kills him. While not charged with a crime, the man struggles with his own guilt and the way in which the boy's parents and the media frame him as "just another white man killing a black child" when he is, in fact, Native American. Yet the narrator and the reader recognize--perhaps too late--that the distinction is meaningless.

One of my favorite pieces in the book in "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," which is the story of a man (married but separated) who is so gobsmacked by the sight of a beautiful woman striding through O'Hare in a pair of red Pumas that he launched into an analysis of American culture, fashion, popular music, and the insignificance of diversity in the American population. While listening to Paul's analysis, I was thinking "This might be the perfect story." Then Paul gets out of his head and runs after the woman--and the story dropped a notch or two from perfection, but was still wonderful.

Two stories--the title story and "The Senator's Son"--deal with troubled father-son relationships, reminding us that beneath the pain there is love. While women are not prominent in Alexie's stories, their absence does not signal an absence of regard. The grieving widow in the story "Salt" is drawn with great care and sympathy--though that doesn't stop her from seriously freaking out the story's 19-year-old protagonist.

My descriptions probably don't sound like the stories offer much humor--but I assure you that they do. As with the work of the most brilliant stand-ups, much of the humor is dark and self-deprecating, but you will laugh when reading War Dances.

I listened to an audio version of the book, read by the author, and while I enjoyed his presentation, at times I wished I could see the words on the page (especially with the poems). Nonetheless, I would recommend this book in any format.

Favorite passages:
Does a healing song lose its power if the singer has no talent?

I would always feel closest to the man who had most disappointed me.

He sang without irony for he was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits.

(There are many wonderful passages in the book, but they are difficult to locate in the audio version!)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hitch 22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens

Those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know I'm not a big fan of memoirs. You may also know that I do listen to the recommendations of my younger son Kevin (after all, he's the only literary scholar in the family, not to mention a major smart guy). So, when he recommended Hitch 22, I read it.

The late Christopher Hitchens, while not from a wealthy family, attended boarding school and Cambridge University in his native Britain. He was definitely bright and well-educated (his vocabulary is prodigious and his literary allusions are drawn from a life of reading that is obviously both broad and deep). Through his activism as an "international socialist" and his journalism career, he was also well-connected (I found his name-dropping simultaneously impressive and annoying).

While Hitch 22 begins with brief portraits of his parents, Yvonne and "The Commander," and covers his school years rather extensively, it is far from an autobiography. We learn precious little about Hitchens'  personal life as an adult or, for that matter, his work as a writer and teacher. Rather, the book is a reflection on his philosophical development--from socialist to . . . well, something else, which seemed to be based on a belief that the United States (his adopted country) should intervene militarily wherever totalitarian regimes threaten their subjects. Hitchens, an atheist, saw religion as one such regime. On the very last page of the book, he says "To be an unbeliever is not to be merely 'open-minded.' It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well in politics. But that's my Hitch-22."

One of the sections that Kevin particularly enjoyed was Hitchens' robust defense of and staunch friendship with Salman Rushdie. And this chapter does, in fact, show Hitchens at his best--loyal to and advocating for both friends and principles. Hitchens at his worst--in my view--was on display in another chapter Kevin found interesting, one about Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist.  Hitchens tells a lengthy story about the need to defend Said as a friend in a conversation with Saul Bellow--the occasion had been arranged by Hitchens' good friend Martin Amis, who had entreated Hitch not to engage Bellow in controversial topics. Yet Hitchens has no problem attacking Said in the most derogatory terms once their differences grew larger. For example, while he objects strenuously to being called a "racist" by Said, he says about an article Said wrote, "I could hardly credit that these sentences were being produced by a cultured person, let alone printed by a civilized publication." QED, Hitch.

Perhaps I might have better tolerated Hitchens' memoir had I read some of his other work first--that is, if I had a prior appreciation of his research, his writing, and his thinking, perhaps his personality would have been less annoying. I'm sure it is a sign of my own shallowness that my response to the work of this public intellectual is based on a gut-level response, but there it is: I don't like this guy!

Favorite passages:

Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of "the flock."
(With apologies to my religious friends, this observation struck me as very interesting.)

It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. . . . It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated  awareness of how little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one's ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, edited by Joseph Galliano

When I saw this book at the library, I thought it would probably be kind of dorky, yet I couldn't resist checking it out because it seemed like there was a slight chance it might somehow be interesting or inspiring or moving in the way the "It Gets Better" campaign has been. Unfortunately, my first instinct was the correct one. Many of the letters offer exactly what you would expect--assurances that the 16-year-old self is smarter/cuter/more talented/better loved than he/she thinks and advice about valuing their parents, working hard for their dreams, not being afraid to fail, etc. While most of the pieces are just rather mundane, some of the writers are so full of their own achievements that it is nauseating (Suze Orman is the worst of these). A few of the writers basically blow the task off (Alan Rickman writes "If, in future years, anyone asks you to give advice to your sixteen year old self, don't.") A few are skilled enough or take a fresh enough approach to make their page or two interesting (Alan Cummings, Moon Zappa, and Sandra Bernhard are three of this)--but there just aren't enough of those.

At the end of the book, the editor leaves a number of blank pages for readers to write their own letters, which can be posted at I thought about trying the exercise, but decided I wouldn't have anything more meaningful to say than most of the writers represented in the book, nor could I speak as movingly to teenagers as many of the folks in the "It Gets Better" campaign. It would seem more useful to me to write a letter to my 80-year-old self to remind me of the aspects of myself that I want to hold onto as I enter old age--but, of course, that's the perspective of someone getting up there!

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

Aaron Woolcott works at the family business--a vanity press that has had success with a series of books titled The Beginner's . . . . (Colicky Baby, Wine Guide, Monthly Budget . . . insert any topic here). As a result of a childhood illness, Aaron's right arm and leg do not work completely, and he walks with a cane. He also has something of a stutter--and he works and lives with his over-protective sister Nandina. He is grieving his wife Dorothy, who was killed when a tree fell on their Baltimore home. Yes, Aaron is a quintessential Anne Tyler character.

In the book's first sentence, we learn not only that Aaron's wife is dead, but that she has somehow reappeared. Through his interaction with her post-death incarnation, Aaron tries to work through not only the issues in their relationship, but the issues he has had in all his relationships--with family, coworkers, friends.

Although Tyler includes her usual melange of oddballs, the focus is squarely on Aaron; for me, this singular focus makes the book less interesting than some of Tyler's other works (e.g., Digging to America, Ladder of Years). Further, while the book has a sweetness about it, the insights Aaron finally achieves through his ruminations on his marriage and the appearance of his wife's spectral self seem fairly obvious (he refuses care from others because his mother and sister overcompensated for his disabilities by mollycoddling him; "we go around and around in this world").  The book is pleasant enough, but it's not Tyler's best work.

Favorite passages:
That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: Your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

I wanted the jolts and jogs of ordinary life. I wanted my consonants interrupting my vowels as I spoke, my feet stubbing hers as we hugged, my nose bumping hers as we kissed. I wanted realness, even if it was flawed and pockmarked.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Wild Geese, by Ogai Mori

Set in 1880 but written at the end of the Meiji Era (1913), The Wild Geese is narrated by an unnamed medical student who lives in a boarding house with a handsome and admirable fellow named Okada. On his walks around Tokyo, Okada has developed a nodding acquaintance with a lovely young woman named Otama. The narrator fills us in on her background (which he says he did not know at the time of the events in the story but learned later). Otama was deceived into marrying a policeman who it turned out already had a wife. Thus "ruined," she had few options. To help her father, she agreed to become the mistress of a man named Suezo; again, she was deceived, as Suezo pretended to be a widower and did not reveal that he was a usurer--a profession that was poorly regarded in Meiji Japan. Otama is horrified, but she swallows her anger and entertains Suezo when he visits her--all the time imagining Okada in his place.When an opportunity arises for her to deepen her acquaintance with Okada--perhaps even to escape to freedom with him--circumstances conspire against them, and he leaves the city the next day for an important new job. Meanwhile, the narrator hints mysteriously at his own future relationship with Otama.

Although the novel is only about 100 pages long, Ogai presents an array of female characters, all with severely limited life choices--geisha, mistress, sewing student, maid, unhappy wife of a man with a mistress. The attitudes of the male characters reinforce the picture of a society with little room for women to find happiness. Okada is fascinated by a woman who makes "beauty her sole aim in life" while Suezo is convinced that his wife's efforts to "keep him near her with sulky looks and resistance" are signs that she wants to be beaten. For the twenty-first century feminist reader, the romantic aspects of the story seem like little more than the escapist dreams of a trapped woman. While the specifics are grounded entirely in
Japanese culture, the basic story could be set anywhere.

Favorite passage:
As a safeguard against obscene thoughts, educators warn young people not to remain awake after going to bed and to get up as soon as they awaken, for in the vigors of youth kept warm in bed, an image like the flower of a poisonous plant blooming in fire is apt to be engendered.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Good Poems: American Places, edited by Garrison Keillor

With apologies to the late Professor Carol Kyle (and the many other English teachers who tried to teach me about poetry), I really do not know how to review a collection of poetry. But I enjoyed many of the works  in Garrison Keillor's latest collection of "good poems." Keillor says  in the introduction to the book, "The world is our consolation. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, we get into our car and drive." He then begins a long and lovely description of some of the places you might drive to in the United States, places that may be subjects of poems in this volume.

Yet many of the poems are only nominally about places, and they are organized into categories that might not be what you'd expect; a few examples: "On the Road," "A Warm Summer" (ha, I say--summer is not a place at all...or is it?), "The Place Where We Were Naked,"  "Good Work," and "Never Expected to Be There" (dead, that is). While the poems vary widely in form, subject matter, and use of language, they are nearly all quite understandable to the person whose main memory of Professor Kyle's fall 1968 Poetry course is how upset Kyle was when Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis.

In this collection, my marked pages suggest I especially appreciated the humor found in many of the poems. A few examples: In "The Church of the Backyard," Chris Forhan brings a large family to life as its members hang around in the backyard on a summer afternoon, ending:

Who would say

through all the little deaths, the separations,
all the long untidy years to come,
each unholy ruckus (the wine glass
smashed against the wall in anger, fists

that pound the steering wheel, bodies
sitting bolt upright in bed with night sweats),
who would say, through all of this,
we're not redeemed by our essential silliness

"Bridal Shower" by George Bilgere is a poetic rant against people on cell phones, in which he says:

I liked it
when people who were talking to themselves
might actually have been talking to God
or an angel
You respected people like that.

You didn't want to kill them,
as I want to kill the woman at the next table

Right on, brother.

In "The VCCA Fellows Visit the Holiness Baptist Church, Amherst, Virginia," Barbara Crooker describes how the experience of attending service at a black church lightened her heart. As she and her friends left:

We step through the door
into the stunning sunshine, and our hearts
lift out of our chests, tiny birds flying off to light
in the redbuds, to sing and sing and sing.

Finally, as a former member of a middle school band and the mother of two middle school musicians (former), I appreciated the humor of David Wagoner's "The Junior High School Band Concert":

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind's ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

Ah, yes. That is, as poet Sarah Freligh says in her bio in the book, "observing the world around you and translating it for your audience through your own unique filter."

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore

If you have refined sensibilities--say, for example, you do not like bathroom jokes, sex played for laughs, foul language, characters who are ethnic stereotypes, and the like--A Dirty Job is not for you. If, however, you can look past lapses into the gross and/or offensive, you will find A Dirty Job an entertaining read that will occasionally prompt you to think about death and the soul.

The book's cast of wacky characters revolves around Charlie Asher, owner of a second-hand shop; as the book opens, he is driving his wife Rachel, who has just given birth to their first child (a daughter they have named Sophie), and the nurses in the maternity ward crazy with his obsessive worry about whether Sophie has too many fingers, a tail, or other abnormalities. Rachel sends him home to get some rest, but when he gets to the car, he realizes she doesn't have her favorite Sarah McLachlan CD and runs back to the hospital to give it to her. When Charlie gets to her room, a tall black man dressed in a mint green suit is standing in the room, shocked that Charlie can see him; Rachel is dead, the victim of an aneurysm (or something similar). Not only has Charlie become a widower and single parent, he has also been tagged to be a "death merchant"--a person who collects soul vessels (objects into which souls escape when a person dies) and makes them available for purchase by people who, unknowingly, need souls.

From there, the plot becomes ever wilder. Suffice it to say that it involves evil spirits living in the sewers of San Francisco,  two "hounds of hell" who arrive unannounced to protect Sophie from those evil spirits, an attractive Buddhist who animates (as in Frankenstein, not cartoons) small creatures made of animal bones and wearing elaborate historic costumes,  a former Oakland police officer who works in Charlie's store but periodically travels to the Philippines to meet women he found on a "desperate Filipinas" website.

I laughed and cringed in equal measure while listening to A Dirty Job (read well by the appropriately snarky-sounding actor Fisher Stevens), but I did find it entertaining and even from time to time thought-provoking and touching.

Favorite passage:
She's been acting like dying was something she could do in her spare time, between hair appointments.

...another hospice worker, another of the amazing women that Charlie had seen in the homes of the dying, helping to deliver them into the next world, with as much comfort and dignity and even joy as they could gather. Benevolent Valykries, midwives of the final light, they were. . . . They became involved with every patient and every family. They were engaged.