We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.
Shape the lips to an o, say a.
One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood.
When I look up, the yellow house on the corner
is a galleon stranded in flowers. Around it
the wind. Even the high roar of a leaf-mulcher
could be the horn-blast from a ship
as it skirts to the misted shoals.
We don’t need much more to keep things going.
Families complete themselves
and refuse to budge from the present,
the present extends its glass forehead to sea
(backyard breezes, scattered cardinals)
and if, one evening, the house on the corner
took off over the marshland,
neither I nor my neighbor
would be amazed. Sometimes
a word is found so right it trembles
at the slightest explanation.
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.
November for Beginners
Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.
So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!
It seems I only managed to read 23 books in July, even though it felt like more. But there were many skipped days; many days when reading seemed out of my grasp and more of a grim prospect. Why? I don’t know. Was it the unrelenting heat that didn’t let up for more than two months? Was it other concerns? Was it the length or other demands of the material I did read? I can’t answer these questions. I can say that though I enjoyed most of the things I read in July, I wasn’t as immersed in my reading – perhaps because there really were more things taking my time and focus.
Many things I read brought my late grandmother to mind. Seeing as how she is the one who instilled a near-obsessive love for reading, it seems appropriate.
Thoughts on reading for July:
The last book I read in July, Sex at Dawn was certainly the most engrossing. While I didn’t find its organization to be entirely logical, it was full of such fascinating information that … well, organization be damned. It was hard not to devour this book in one sitting. One might argue that it’s just because this book is about sex, which automatically makes it more titillating than anything else. But no, it’s more that this book uses scientific inquiry/discovery, evolutionary biology, anthropology and a broad range of studies in multiple fields to question the western (and highly American) approach to sex, which is to tether it to moralizing and, moreover, monogamy.
Some observations are particularly relevant at this point in history, i.e. things we’ve been indoctrinated to perceive as ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural’ are conditioning:
“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”
And who doesn’t want to see almost primitive drawings of the great apes that illustrate their penis and testicle sizes?
I am not usually a short story kind of person, but Kingsolver’s collection had a few deeply poignant stories. And even the most surface-level among them had resonance. Kingsolver breathes life into her characters, even in a brief story; she makes their dialogue (both verbal and internal) so true to reality, even when they express things that are difficult to capture (and she makes it seem so effortless).
“It’s frightening, she thinks, how when the going gets rough you fall back on whatever awful thing you grew up with.”
“You know what I think? Immortality is the wrong reason,” she said, and suddenly there were two streams of tears on her shiny cheeks. “Having a child wouldn’t make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal. It’s just one more life you could possibly lose, besides your own. Two more eyes to be put out, and ten more toes to get caught under the mower.”
“A friend of mine, new to extramarital sex, said she loved how condoms kept everything neatly packaged up, but I didn’t. I knew I would wake up in the morning missing the stickiness, proof that someone had needed me in the night.”
It’s Audre Lorde. It’s poetry. Do I really need to say more?
“A woman measures her life’s damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
a woman begins to weep.”
“We passed through on the way to anywhere else. No one lived there but silence, a pale china gleam, and the tired eyes of saints aglow on velvet. Mom says things are made to be used. But Grandma insisted peace was in what wasn’t there, strength in what was unsaid. It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind.”
Poetry, of course.
I loved this thought: “It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind”. I loved that the grandma in the poem said it because it made me think… my grandma would have said something similar (probably likening reading to a room you enter only in your mind, opening an invisible door to imagination). Also, it made me immediately think of a book I read some time ago – The Room by Jonas Karlsson. Was the main character mad/insane because he believed he was entering a room that no one else could see?
Good – really good
Not having enjoyed the only other book of Oyeyemi’s I read not too long ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Boy, Snow, Bird… but I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know until after I read it that it was inspired by the Snow White fairy tale and taken as a departure point from there. Looking back on the book now, it’s quite clear – the obsessive relationship each character has with mirrors (‘mirror, mirror…’) and her (in)ability to see herself clearly (or at all) in the reflection is a clue.
“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.”
I can’t describe what I found as engaging as I did with this book – I felt that the characters were rich and intriguing, and this is probably what guided me through. There are bits that feel underdeveloped (e.g., the somewhat abrupt and almost inexplicable shift to ice-queen evil stepmother – this is not really explained fully by the birth of the stepmother character’s own child; also the end-of-story reveal about the stepmother’s father’s identity – it’s not shocking but seems to be delivered in a bundle, quickly, all of a sudden, and that doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the storytelling and its pace).
I think the treatment of identity, shifting identity and “passing” (whether it’s passing within another race, another gender, as another person when you move to a community as a complete stranger, and particularly taking on the title and identity of being a mother) are important and fascinating aspects of how this book is written.
For many years, I’ve intended to read Graham Greene. In my reading frenzy of the last two years, I tried a few times but couldn’t find e-books until now. I started with the two best-known (to me) because both were made into relatively well-received films some years ago. Neither film could delve as deeply into some of the more philosophical aspects covered by the books, but both films were decent representations of the stories and their characters.
“To me comfort is like the wrong memory at the wrong place or time: if one is lonely one prefers discomfort.” –The End of the Affair
While both books held my attention, I think The Quiet American struck me as more powerful at the time of reading – perhaps because the questions of faith in The End of the Affair were tedious to me; perhaps because the objectification of the Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American took on a fascinating edge as I compared it against real-life developments in the lives of people around me. Who knows?
“‘But she loves you, doesn’t she?’ ‘Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children—but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.’” –The Quiet American
While TQA does not exactly rob the female character of all agency (she does make choices), her voice is not heard as an active part of the story. Two men claim to be in love with her and fight for her in their own ways – but neither can possibly know her. The older, more cynical of the two (the book’s narrator and anti-hero) knows he cannot know her and acknowledges and accepts the transactional quality of their relationship. The “quiet American” (Pyle) meets the woman one night and claims, after having shared a virtually wordless dance (they don’t speak any of the same languages) that he is completely in love with her and wants to marry her. (I’ve seen variations of this ‘insta-love’ played out among people I know, particularly in cases with these non-communicative dynamics at play – when lust is essentially the only factor the lovesick individual can be relying on.)
On an entirely different note, The Quiet American is set against a backdrop of post-colonial Vietnam – the French are leaving and the Americans are rolling in. The titular quiet American is the… all-American/pro-American, naive, anti-Communist, black-and-white type who sees none of the nuance of the culture or the conflict, i.e. insisting that the Vietnamese “don’t want Communism”, not seeming to grasp that many Vietnamese – like people in any country – aren’t for or against ideologies. They just want to live.
“‘They don’t want Communism.’
‘They want enough rice,’ I said. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’
‘If Indo-China goes …’
‘I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does “go” mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember—from a buffalo’s point of view you are a European too.’
‘They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.’
‘Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?’
‘You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?’
‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘we’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut. We deserve to have them cut. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he’d relish it.’
‘York Harding’s a very courageous man. Why, in Korea …’
‘He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation.’
…They didn’t answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. ‘They think we are French,’ I said.
‘That’s just it,’ Pyle said. ‘You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.’
‘Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?’
‘It is colonialism. York says it’s often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system.’
‘Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists…” – The Quiet American
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
I reread Cancer Ward after about 20 (or more) years, and this time read it in English and Russian. When I read it in English so many years ago, I found it engrossing but, as with all translations, wondered what nuances I was missing. Just like with Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, which I reread a few months ago, I found that the sentence structure in translation is very different. There is usually such clean simplicity in the Russian – that’s not to say it is simple language or prose. Rather, it just isn’t the verbose and over-egged English translation that marks most translation of Solzhenitsyn that I’ve read. Not that I want to go about attempting to translate anything myself – more power to those who take on such labors professionally. It’s just a blessing to be able to read the originals myself and compare the two.
“It was simply that we grow dull with the passing years. We grow tired. We lose all true talent for grief or for faithfulness. We surrender to time. Yet every day we swallow food and lick our fingers—in this respect we are unyielding. If we’re not fed for two days we go out of our minds, we start climbing up the wall. Fine progress we’ve made, we human beings.”
Once upon a time, my family moved into a house that had some hideous wallpaper adorning the walls of the extra bathroom. Apart from its obvious yellowing from age and being in a household of heavy smokers, it featured depictions of classic cars from the teens and 1920s, one of which was a Stutz-Bearcat. I don’t recall any longer what some of the other motors were, but the Stutz is fresh in my memory because every time my grandmother came to visit and went into that bathroom, she would emerge to tell the story of how infamous murderers Leopold and Loeb were, in part, caught because of their Stutz-Bearcat.
I am not sure how many times in my life I heard the story of the 1924 crime in which two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, conceived of committing the “perfect crime” and then kidnapped and killed a young boy with whom they were vaguely acquainted. At some point I saw a film called Compulsion, which told the story of the crime, the ensuing investigation and the eventual trial that spared both Leopold and Loeb from received death sentences (thanks to their attorney, the famed Clarence Darrow). I didn’t know at the time (I must have been in high school) that the film was based on a fictionalized account of the crime and trial, also called Compulsion, written by Meyer Levin. I also had no idea that Levin’s book served as a kind of template/model for later true-crime writing that came later, e.g. Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. I eventually also saw a low-budget indie, Swoon, which dramatized the Leopold and Loeb story, and focused on the fact that the two men were involved in a homosexual relationship, which is something that the film version of Compulsion ignored and the book dealt with to some extent but, given the time of its publication, homosexuality was still widely referred to as some sort of sickness, mental illness or perversion.
It’s only recently that I decided to read the book – and found it to be a fascinating and more detailed look at the case and how it unfolded. I am sure my grandmother would be thrilled.
Something about how the main character in this novella reacts and has increasingly violent, disruptive and unpredictable outbursts (“I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely.”) feels too familiar – reflections of all the people I have known (there have been too many) who throw fits about seemingly nothing and overreact to everything. It’s always frightened me, but it has come to anger me as well.
“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candor, a closemouthed straightforwardness.”
While I can feel compassion for those who are clearly struggling with something – probably some form of mental illness – it always feels oppressive to live in the shadow of these kinds of people. In that sense, if it’s not mental illness that drives them to behave this way, it’s a way of being that robs others of their sense of security, safety and comfort and plants within them such fear that they never trust or can never, by extension, truly experience intimacy in their lives.
Reading this I was not as interested in the main character/narrator as I was in his wife and her inner life, about which, of course, we learn next to nothing. (Not unlike how I always want to dig deeper into Sonia in Crime and Punishment.) How does the narrator’s wife choose to stay with him, support him and live on edge all the time, never knowing when one of his outbursts is going to create a scene, turmoil in their lives (e.g. getting them kicked out of their house) or ultimately add to her already heavy burden?
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
Recommended to me, I was hoping for something… else. I don’t know what that something else is/was, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s not that White Tears was bad – there are some compelling thoughts in it about cultural appropriation, about authenticity, exploitation and privilege. But I felt at times that it was just too taxing to read about these unlikable characters whose only identities (as was the point, I suppose) were intertwined with this endless search for this (artificial/non-existent) pinnacle of the real, the authentic… to the point of complete madness. However, poking fun at hipsters is always welcome.
“When you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened. For you, it happened, but somehow they remember it differently, or don’t remember it at all. You can tell them, but it slips their minds. When you are powerless, everything you do seems to be in vain.”