Book chat


Furniture & wedding cakes

An online book group I belong to has spent the past month discussing Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, and I’ve been thinking of the book as a “coming of middle age” novel. The novel’s protagonist, Ray Carney, is a grown man–married with a child–when the novel begins, but he grows into middle age (and his family expands) as the story continues. Readers see Carney’s social and professional ambitions unfold over the course of the novel–his successes, shortcomings, and disappointments–as he settles into the realities of middle age.

There are two quotes about middle age that kept coming to mind as I read the novel. First is Thoreau’s remark about the difference between young and middle-aged men: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” Thoreau, who died in his forties and thus didn’t have much firsthand experience with the indignities of middle age, recognized the way that youthful idealism ripens into more mature practicality. Instead of shooting for the stars, Thoreau’s middle-aged man is firmly fixed on earth.

I also kept thinking about the quip that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust. In youth, we are told (if we are lucky) that we can be anyone we want to be: the sky is the proverbial limit. But in middle age, we are far down the particular path we’ve chosen, and we’ve dug our own ruts. It’s no longer feasible to pursue the road not taken. We’ll never finish all the books on our to-be-read list, never reach the bottom of our to-do list, and never become the superhero, astronaut, or dinosaur-tamer of our childhood dreams.

In a traditional coming-of-age novel, a youthful protagonist gains wisdom and experience from a series of adventures and encounters. Said protagonist loses their childhood innocence during a crisis of faith where they question what they’ve been told or taught. Big lessons about mortality, betrayal, and disappointment are learned the hard way. By the end of a traditional coming-of-age novel, the protagonist will never be the same because they’ve learned the world is more complicated than they’d realized.

In Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney has youthful dreams of succeeding in ways his father, a petty criminal, couldn’t…but because of his childhood as a criminal’s son, Carney was never entirely innocent. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur who runs a mostly respectable furniture store that occasionally sells used (read: stolen) goods. Carney wants to make it as a law-abiding, “straight” businessman in order to impress his respectable middle-class in-laws…but he is occasionally tempted by the crooked ways of his youth.

Ray Carney doesn’t have a turning-point crisis of faith; instead, he gradually realizes the difficulties of social climbing. Carney wants the American dream–he wants to provide his wife and family with the comfortable middle-class lifestyle he never had as a boy–but as a Black man in 1950s Harlem, he knows the path to success has never been straight. It’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow when a crooked system is stacked against you.

Still Life with Mary Cassatt prints and Lego orchid and bonsai

I’m about halfway through Sarah Winman’s Still Life: A Novel, and I’m completely enthralled after taking a good long time to get into the story.

I have a theory about books and readers. All books have a setting, plot, and characters, but not with equal emphasis. Some books, like mysteries, are primarily fueled by plot: you keep reading to see What Happens Next. Other books focus primarily on characters: not much might happen, or the story might meander, but you keep reading because you become emotionally invested in the inner lives of imaginary folk. And some books are centered in place: you might not connect with the characters or you might not follow the narrative thread, but you keep reading because you’ve been transported to a place–actual or imagined–that intrigues and fascinates.

This is my theory of books, and here’s my corresponding theory of readers: some readers are drawn to plot-driving books, and others are primarily interested in character and/or place. If you’re a plot-focused reader, gaps in the story, tricky timelines, or narrative details that don’t make sense will bother you to no end. But if you’re like me, plot is almost irrelevant as long as a book’s portrait of character and place are strong.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe the meandering plot of Still Life, which spans decades to unfold the aftermath of a chance meeting between a soldier and art historian in wartime Italy. Such a synopsis tells you nothing: what enchants me about Still Life is its ragtag cast of characters, those characters’ loves and losses, and the novel’s evocation of both Italy and England.

Since I’m only halfway through Still Life, I don’t know how the story will end, but what keeps me reading are the characters I’ve come to care for.


Maple leaves and reflected sky

I have fewer than 50 pages left in Richard Powers’ Bewildermentt, which is breaking my heart in profound and complex ways. The human and natural worlds are troubled and broken–deeply wounded and traumatized–and yet both are the site of great joy. Powers’ novel somehow captures all these emotions–the whole human gamut, from ecstasy to rage–while expressing the cosmic loneliness of these almost-end times.

Does it seem extreme to call these days apocalyptic? In some ways, Powers’ book is dystopian: he takes the political realities of the present moment–including climate denialism, anti-science conspiracy theories, and a xenophobic slide toward authoritarianism–and exaggerates them only slightly, which makes their impact that much more devastating. The world of Powers’ novel isn’t exactly the present moment, but it certainly could be.

Robin, the child protagonist who feels too much, has an empathetic connection with endangered creatures great and small. Robin embodies the limited emotional options for those of us living with open-eyes in an environmentally devastated world. Do we rage against the dying of the light as species disappear and the planet warms? Or do we ecstatically embrace the wondrous creatures who somehow, miraculously remain, endangered but still surviving (for now)?

If you knew the planet was dying, would you rage or grieve or make the most of your remaining time…or would you oscillate among all three? If you chose the latter, would that make you crazy and disturbed–a person in need of treatment–or one of the only humans on the planet who is clear-eyed and sane?


Recent reads

I just finished reading Miriam Toews’ Fight Night. I’d enjoyed Women Talking, and Fight Night is similar in theme albeit completely different in plot and tone.

Women Talking was a novel told in conversation: the minutes of a meeting where women from a Mennonite colony discuss what they should do after discovering they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped in their beds by several men in the community. Should they stay and do nothing, flee, or fight? The novel sketches the personalities and relationships among the women, who in many ways live a life entirely alien to that of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Whatever the women decide to do, they must decide together.

Fight Night shares this theme of female community, but in an entirely different context. Nine-year-old Swiv lives with her pregnant mother and sickly grandmother: a household of women. Swiv is precocious and feisty: she has been suspended from school for fighting, and it quickly becomes apparent where she gets her fire from.

Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, is an aspiring actress and single mother; Swiv’s grandmother, Elvira, is a freewheeling force of nature who talks to strangers, laughs in the face of pain, and regales her granddaughter with meandering stories of her youthful exploits, some of which might actually be true.

It is Elvira who tells Swiv she must learn how to fight, and it is Elvira who also encourages Swiv to write. Swiv’s family has a history of mental illness and suicide–many of Elvira’s stories center on people who are dead–and long after the family can no longer afford therapy sessions, Elvira holds “editorial meetings” where she encourages Swiv to write letters to her absent father in an attempt to make sense of her life.

Swiv is irrepressible and endearing. She clashes with her mother and adores her grandmother, chronicling their life together in a rollicking stream-of-consciousness Jack Kerouac would envy. Elvira is plucky, unapologetic, and entirely undaunted by physical ailments that require her to take fistfuls of pills each day. Even Gord, the unborn child who is taxing every last ounce of Mooshie’s energy and patience, has both presence and personality.

Whereas the women in Women Talking had to decide whether they wanted to flee or fight, in Fight Night it is clear that fleeing is never an option.

Caught

I’m currently listening to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, and the repetitive nature of Addie’s immortal life is reminding me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I’d read in 2014.

How often in November I wish for more time–for more hours in the day, or at least more hours of light–but both novels make me think I should be careful what I wish for.

More hours can mean more monotony, more chances to make the same mistakes over and over. Addie is given immortality but is doomed to be forgotten; the protagonist in Atkinson’s novel, on the other hand, has to die and be born again and again until she lives the one life that proves to be her destiny.

Instead of wishing for more lives or more time, maybe we should learn to cherish the moment we currently find ourselves in.


Noiseless, patient spider

This weekend I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, which I have wanted to read since hearing him interviewed on NPR months ago, before the pandemic, when we took delights for granted.

Gay’s short, almost-daily essays about life’s simple pleasures read like blog or journal entries–in one of them, in fact, Gay talks about how his sentences unspool differently when he writes by hand, relishing what he calls the “the loop-de-looping” of written language.

I agree. Handwriting a long, wending sentence–a sentence that flows and meanders like water–feels different than typing a long, complicated sentence. The cursive of handwriting rolls and curves in a sinuous, continuous way that clackety-clack keyboard strikes do not. A typewriter or computer keyboard is a percussive instrument, whereas cursive words written by pen on paper are like woodwinds, melodious and fluid.

Reading Gay’s book reminds me of the days–the good old days–when I blogged frequently, almost daily, versus infrequently if at all. My blog used to be my online Book of Delights, each entry capturing the immediacy of daily life and its small joys.

I still faithfully write in my journal, but those pages don’t always capture delights. Instead, too often (especially during this pandemic) my journal has been a repository of worry and dismay: a Book of Frets and Grievances. And although Instagram is occasionally a place where I share photos of tiny delights, I save my blog for longer essays, and in so doing, I too often find I don’t have much to say or time to say it in.

I’d like to return to a more faithful practice of delight–an intentional practice of noticing, cataloguing, and sharing the things that bring me joy. Gay makes the process seem easy to do–it doesn’t take many words or much time to capture life’s simple pleasures.

Books read in 2019

Recently in one of the reading-related Facebook groups I’m in, a debate arose between readers who set goals and those who don’t. Some of the goal-setters had linked to their Goodreads “Year in Books” lists, and some of the goal-avoiders complained, arguing that reading is a pleasurable activity that is ruined and made too stressful if you set numeric goals.

This is a debate that repeatedly arises in this and other groups I’m in, and as a goal-setter, I’m perpetually mystified by it. Yes, I set reading goals for myself, but just because I set a goal doesn’t mean you should, too. For me, setting and then tracking a goal makes it more likely that I will actually do the thing I’m tracking. I an ideal world, I’d have plenty of free time, and during that abundance of time, I’d simply fall into a comfortable chair and begin reading spontaneously, without the nudge of a goal.

My life, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way. I keep daily to-do lists because I am apt to forget and thus neglect any task not on my list, and it gives me an obscene sense of accomplishment to cross something off said list. But if listing doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. I’m not going to tell non-listers how they should organize their lives, and I’d love to receive the same consideration in return.

What perplexes me about the goal-or-no-goal debate is the assumption that counting an end-result automatically robs that process of its pleasure. Do golfers, basketball players, or video gamers enjoy golfing, basketball, or video games less if they keep score?

There are plenty of fun activities that people track and monitor. I know marathon runners, for instance, who religiously record their times against their own personal best, and they don’t seem to enjoy running any less because of this habit of keeping-track. To the contrary, I’d argue that runners who keep a log of their times have an extra incentive to train and improve. The process of keeping score, in other words, turns training into a kind of game, and it makes running even more pleasurable by adding a sense of accomplishment to the activity.

The non-goal-setters in this particular Facebook group would probably be horrified at the sheer number of things I log and track on a given day. I habitually count both my steps and calories, though a quick check of my waistline would reveal I’m not slavishly attached to either number. I keep track of the number of times I meditate, write in my journal, and blog each week, and I have goals for both postcard- and letter-writing, museum and Zen Center visits, and the doing of some sort of Fun Activity each week.

Again, in an ideal world, these things would happen naturally and spontaneously…but I don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, I live in a world where things that aren’t on my schedule get bumped to tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I’ve learned that tomorrow and the next day and the next quickly becomes Never. Yes, Spontaneous Sex is the most exciting sex, but even Scheduled-On-Date-Night Sex is better than No Sex At All.

So every year since 2014, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books a year, and every year I’ve met that goal without feeling unduly pressured or stressed, my love of reading surviving unscathed. On any given day, I try to read 50 pages, usually at night after my evening chores are done; I even go so far as to list on paper how many days it will take to read any given book at that rate. This not only gives me a daily reading goal to cross off the list, it helps me manage my library loans: when multiple holds arrive at once, I can roughly estimate how many books I can realistically finish and which ones I’d be better off returning and checking out later.

To me, tracking the books I read is almost as fun as reading itself. In a life where too many days feel Too Busy and Too Hectic, it’s reassuring to know I’m not neglecting the things I want to do in favor of the things I have to.

Two lilies

I recently started reading Jeffrey Cramer’s Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One benefit of 19th century literary friendships is the wealth of written evidence they leave behind. Future biographers researching friendships between modern-day writers will have to pore over emails, texts, and tweets rather than the letters and journal entries Cramer read in writing his book.

Asiatic dayflower

Both Thoreau and Emerson kept journals and maintained voluminous correspondence, albeit not always with one another. In the portion of Cramer’s book I’ve read so far, Thoreau is more emotionally intimate with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, than with Emerson himself, sending her letters that could pass as journal entries, so intricately do they chronicle his thoughts.

Front yard ferns

The problem with writerly friendships–especially friendships between two journal-keepers–is that writers are very good at talking to themselves. Isn’t a journal entry nothing more than a letter to an anonymous audience that is never sent? When you are accustomed to pouring your heart on paper for an audience of none, it’s easy to think–erroneously and egotistically–that anyone willing to receive and read such correspondence actually understands and empathizes with you.

But while the blank page has no desires or concerns of its own, friends are not blank pages. There is a very real way that two friends who are also writers can correspond at cross-purposes, even when communicating face-to-face. Each person wants their own needs met–each speaker longs to be listened to–and these desires can clash rather than finding a complement.

Smartweed

In a radio interview about his book, Cramer said Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views of friendship. Emerson had many friends and drew different things from each, but Thoreau had few friends and strove (unsuccessfully) to have all his social and emotional needs met by one. This difference is a recipe for relational disaster, perhaps, and it helps explain the tense complications of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s friendship. What started as a conventional mentorship between an established writer and an idealistic protege deteriorated as it became clear that Thoreau would always be his own man, a nonconformist who marched to a different drum.

Enchanter's nightshade

But longevity is not the only (or best) way to judge a friendship. Although their relationship would ultimately grow strained, both Emerson and Thoreau were forever influenced by the insights of the other. In a passage Cramer quotes near the beginning of his book, Thoreau compares long-time friends to two trees who stand apart but whose roots intermingle. Above ground, two venerable trunks might seem distant and disconnected, but beneath the surface, they take sustenance from the same soil.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

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?

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