Book chat


Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?

Pan with his pipes

I recently finished David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, a collection of essays that was a perfect follow-up to Theft By Finding, which I’d read last year. Theft By Finding was a collection of journal entries, and the essays in Calypso make perfect sense when you remember that Sedaris isn’t just a comedic writer; he’s a long-time diarist.

Moss steps

Reviews of Calypso invariably point out that the book is darker than Sedaris’s previous books. Many of the essays feature the beach house that Sedaris and his partner, Hugh, buy in North Carolina and the vacations they spend there with Sedaris’s father and siblings. Essays set at the house Sedaris names the “Sea Section” often mention the death of his alcoholic mother decades before, the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013, and the inevitable embarrassments of aging.

Turtle fountain

This isn’t to say, however, that Calypso isn’t wickedly funny. What makes the book striking, in fact, is the manner in which Sedaris writes essays that are simultaneously funny, poignant, and honest without a hint of pity. This emotional fluidity makes perfect sense when I remember Sedaris’s journals. As a diarist, Sedaris has trained himself in the nonjudgmental art of keeping an account of all the intellectual and emotional detritus of his life.

Castor and Pollux

When you keep a journal, you keep track of whatever is on your mind: the profound stuff, the silly stuff, and everything in between. Keeping a journal is very much akin to the litter-picking Sedaris does while he walks the roadways around his home in Sussex: you notice and pick up everything. If you’re not used to walking for miles and picking up trash, it will leave you sore, but it’s just another day’s work if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing.

Turtle fountain

One of the things that makes David Sedaris funny is the way he doesn’t censor himself: whether he is saying something tender, rude, or self-deprecating, he makes a statement then moves on without justification or apology. This is, I’m convinced, a skill honed through long and regular journal-keeping. The mind is like a child’s corn popper toy, where colored balls pop and tumble inside a clear plastic dome. Pop, pop, pop come your thoughts, which are disparate and nonsensical, and the diarist’s hand simply records them, one by one, without stopping to explain or make sense of them.

Faun of summer

When you’ve trained yourself to sit with your corn-popper mind, you learn not to judge or reject: you simply record without shame or blame. You also learn to appreciate the beauty and even wisdom of randomness. Things don’t have to fit to get along, and disparate things can happily coexist. It is this tolerance for randomness–an absolute fearlessness about saying anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t fit or flow with whatever preceded it–that is the main genius of Sedaris’s work.

Faun of wine

I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that Sedaris’ essays aren’t consciously constructed and revised: it takes a good deal of craft to assemble and arrange just the right assortment of anecdotes, and this means knowing what to leave out as much as what to include and accentuate. But if you’ve never arranged a bouquet, you might think the flowers all need to match, whereas an experienced florist knows the value of complementary colors or an occasional splash of the unexpected.

Classical

If you’ve never sat down and watched your corn-popper mind tumble thoughts, you might not realize how humor complements pain and how a seemingly irreverent story can be particularly poignant if includes just a dash of sadness. Readers who aren’t writers might think that sad stories, funny stories, silly stories, and serious stories can’t and shouldn’t mix, but journal-keepers are long accustomed to the way the colors of the mind blur and swirl.

The most tragic stories aren’t necessarily the ones that are solely and unremittingly sad. One of the most poignant moments in Calypso, for instance, is a brief, passing mention Sedaris makes to the last time he saw his sister Tiffany before her suicide, when he directed a security guard to close the door in her face after she’d shown up unannounced at one of his readings.

Forest folly

Many writers would have been tempted to linger on this story, voicing regret or offering some sort of explanation. Sedaris, however, mentions the memory in passing and lets his readers decide what to do with it, the details of his life slipped like a live grenade into his reader’s pocket. Sometimes a serious topic is best approached slantwise, like a wisp of cloud troubling an otherwise sunny sky.

Halcyon Lake

Last night I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’d mentioned earlier this week. Many reviewers have compared Ward with both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and I agree that the novel is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved.

Great blue heron

The other novel I kept thinking about as I read Sing, Unburied, Sing is George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which was also published in 2017. Saunder’s novel is told through a series of historical and ghostly fragments as Willie Lincoln, the President’s newly deceased son, finds himself in the transitional place between the Here and the Hereafter. The narrative format of Ward’s novel is far less experimental, but both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo are ghost stories that speak movingly about loss, grief, family, and compassion.

Solomon's seal

As I read Sing, Unbured, Sing, I found myself wondering why stories about race in America so often feature ghosts. Is it because our history is particularly haunted, or because we so often fail to believe and heed the truth tellers from our past? Perhaps the perspective of magic realism is the only lens that can accurately portray the true nature of time, death, and eternity.

Hiding in plain sight

Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo call into question our conventional view of time. Since we typically view time as linear–moving, that is, from past to present and then to future–we fall for the illusion of progress. How many times (for example) do people respond to current events by exclaiming “But this is 2018” as if the ghosts of the past aren’t still alive and active?

Dogwood

If we take a circular view of time, all eras are now, and with them, all errors. We don’t outgrow or move beyond the mistakes of previous generations: instead, we are tempted time and again to repeat and relive them unless we make a conscious effort to revise and reject. If we take a circular view of time, both individuals and societies carry not only the promise of who they will become but the burden of everything they have ever been.

Star of Bethlehem flower

We want to believe history is a line because we want to believe that Back Then was radically and intrinsically different from Nowadays. But human nature hasn’t changed; we’ve just grown tired of fighting it. Humans were bigoted and cruel during the days of slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and humans are still as bigoted and cruel as they allow themselves to be.

Trillium

So, what should we do with the seeds of hatred and cruelty that lie buried in the soil of our psyche, either dormant or fully sprouted? Earlier today I heard an NPR story on Fred Rogers that featured a vintage audio clip of him explaining to parents how to talk with their children about the political anger leading to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Rogers didn’t suggest denying or eradicating anger; instead, he helped children (and their parents) interpret anger by acknowledging the various ways different families, countries, and cultures might express it.

Eastern kingbird in ginkgo tree

Have we come to a place in history where we need a dearly departed children’s television host to help us make sense of our feelings and where we need novels about ghosts to teach us the true nature of history? Perhaps. It was, after all, Faulkner himself who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Yellow iris

We want to leave the past behind, and in fleeing from it, we tempt it to chase us. What novels teach us, however, is that the spirits of the past are always with us. As the character of Mam in Sing, Unburied, Sing explains as she lay dying, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” When we realize the past has never left us, we can sit face-to-face with our ghosts and learn every song they have to sing.

Grief personified

I recently started reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that several of my online friends have raved about. I saw Ward read from the book at Harvard’s Memorial Church in early May, and I’ve been waiting for the leisurely days of summer to start reading the signed paperback copy I got at that event.

Jesmyn Ward signs my copy of Sing Unburied Sing

Because I’m currently reading several books, I’m reading Sing, Unburied, Sing slowly, which means the story is working its power incrementally. The novel starts simply. Initially, it is a story told by JoJo, a thirteen-year-old boy in rural Mississippi who is helping his grandfather slaughter a goat. Later the narrative shifts to JoJo’s mother, Leonie, who is addicted to drugs and intent on traveling to the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm where her boyfriend–JoJo’s father–is set to be released. For the first half of the book, the narrative alternates between JoJo’s and Leonie’s perspectives, but when the family arrives at Parchman, the “unburied” of the novel’s title start to sing.

Pipe organ

By any metric, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heartbreaking story. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who was killed by her boyfriend’s cousin in a racially-motivated murder, and JoJo is wise beyond his years, helping to raise his younger sister and becoming unusually close to his grandparents, who are his de facto parents in the face of Leonie’s neglect. Because of JoJo’s relationship with his grandparents, the boy is haunted by stories he’s heard about his grandfather’s own days at Parchman. Tragedy, Ward suggests, is hard to bury; instead, it arises again and again, passed from one generation to the next as a family’s most lasting legacy.

Jesmyn Ward and Clint Smith in conversation

Ward’s narrative is like a warm bath: you sink into it slowly, and it seeps into your bones, loosening and opening them. Or, to put it another way, Sing, Unburied, Sing breaks your heart incrementally, each hairline crack seeming small and insignificant until the entire thing eventually shatters.

Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

Peeking rose

I’m currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, a collection of blog entries from her final years. The editor has sorted these entries into broad categories–aging and writing and cultural trends–interspersed with stories about Le Guin’s cat, Pard. Even with the categories, there is a delightful sense of spontaneity as you turn from one entry to the next. It’s the delight that comes from reading a well-written blog or journal. Whatever you encounter is whatever the writer was thinking or reading on a particular day: a direct insight into the writer’s mind, and the intellectual equivalent of a fisherman’s catch of the day.

Multiflora rose

Sometimes, the thoughts Le Guin shared on her blog are deep, as when she writes about utopian novels or the diminishments of age. But as many times as Le Guin’s random thoughts lead to insightful connections, there are times when a given thought peters out, a seed fallen on rocky soil. Whether the topics Le Guin pursues are profound or mundane, however, they are always fresh, the product of an active and engaged mind.

Those thoughts would have never met a reader’s eye if Le Guin hadn’t set pen to paper or fingertip to key. That’s why the first step to good writing is simply showing up. In order to snag the catch of the day, you first have to cast your line.

Angie Thomas at FSU

Yesterday Angie Thomas, author of the best-selling young-adult novel The Hate U Give, came to Framingham State for an evening talk. In both her talk and the afternoon meet-and-greet that preceded it, Thomas described how she wrote the novel, and she fielded questions from (and offered advice to) the aspiring writers in attendance.

Book group flier

In her afternoon talk, Thomas gave two bits of advice that I scribbled in my notebook as soon as I got back to my office. First, write as if you’re getting paid, and you will end up getting paid. Second, write the book you want (or always wanted) to read.

Thomas described her own childhood, when the characters in the books she read didn’t look, act, or talk like her. In order to write the book she would have loved to have read when she was a young black girl growing up in a neighborhood that made the news only when something bad happened, Thomas had work on her manuscript every day as if that were her job.

In her evening talk, Thomas offered a third bit of writing advice: finish your projects. Thomas admitted how easy it is to move onto a new project when you grow tired or frustrated with a work-in-progress, but she advised against this, arguing that your characters–your ideas–deserve an ending.

Poster - Angie Thomas at FSU

I was struck by this image of abandoned projects being like orphaned children who deserve the dignity of a conclusion. I have plenty of half-finished projects languishing on my hard drive; at times, it feels like that is all I have from all these years of faithfully writing. Whenever I revisit the pieces of a half-completed project, I see its raw promise: what a great idea, and what a promising start! But I see, too, the obstacles and obligations that stood in the way: how difficult it is to write as if it were your paying job when it actually isn’t.

In her afternoon remarks, Thomas described the process she used to write The Hate U Give. She was working full-time at a church, and she’d spend her lunch hours typing her draft, hurriedly lowering her laptop screen whenever her reverend boss walking in, not wanting him to see the sometimes-salty language her protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter, uses.

Angie Thomas signs my copy of The Hate U Give.

Thomas’s account of how she wrote the novel reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s account in “A Room of One’s Own” of how Jane Austen wrote her novels in the family sitting room, hiding her handwritten pages under a sheet of blotting paper whenever family-members approached. Woolf argued that no writer–no woman–should have to hide her work or squeeze it into stolen seconds–she should have a room of her own to work without distraction or interruption.

Somehow, however, both Austen and Thomas managed to finish their novels despite frequent interruptions. You might even say the tight constraints of their writing schedules left them no room to procrastinate: like the former colleague of mine who finished her dissertation during the one afternoon a week her mother was able to tend her children, both Jane Austen and Angie Thomas made the most of the scant time they had.

Angie Thomas no longer has to work for a church; she now has that proverbial room of her own that Woolf described. But Thomas freely admitted it’s taking her longer to finish her second book than it did her first. Probably the most endearing thing in Thomas’s prepared speech and spontaneous remarks was something she said during the afternoon meet-and-greet, after offering her sincere advice to aspiring writers. Don’t listen to writing advice, she urged, including the advice she’d just given.

Next Page »