Welcome to my writing blog. Here, I think out loud about what I’m reading and writing, and other things related.
I continue to be puzzled by The Flame Throwers–my response to it and the responses of critics (another “must read,” top ten, etc). I read it, and liked it well enough to finish, but it wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through, when the main character and her boyfriend go to Italy, that I became attached, pulled to finish rather than wondering each time I put it down whether I should. The sentences are good, the story enough to sustain, but while some of the characters, the more minor ones especially, are memorable–the guy who carries a barber’s pole and knocks people with it as art–there is a thinness to the main character, or a distance, I’m not sure. I didn’t really feel her fully living, feeling on the page.
And while it is set in the 70s, mostly in Manhattan, the ironic distance or attitude of the artists described feels very similar to today. And I’m not particularly drawn to or interested in that irony. The men in the novel, too, wield their power over women through distancing themselves. Perhaps that’s why I became compelled at the Italy portion, where Sandro, the main character’s older boyfriend, confronts (or does not) the country and upper class lifestyle he tried to leave, and the main character finds him cheating on her with his cousin, leaves him in anger, and becomes involved in the student protests. Maybe I became invested because the characters became invested, and then it all began to matter more.
Sweet to read a book in an afternoon. I just finished Ben Rice’s first novel, Pobby and Dingan, which tells the story of two imaginary friends who go missing. The novel is told from the point of view of a boy, unclear age, who is the brother of the girl whose friends these are. The narrator, who goes from disbeliever to the one who mounts the search and finds them dead in an opal mine, arranges a funeral at the end that the whole town shows up for. The novel is a bit like the opals that are described, small and streaked with color and serves as a gentle reminder of what’s important in life.
Not having read either of Donna Tartt’s previous novels, I had no idea what to expect when I started in on The Goldfinch. It turns out I chose just the right time to read it–winter break, when I have endless hours and that sort of languid energy for reading a long, immersive novel. Tartt’s book is both. I was sucked in pretty much from the beginning, and even though there were long passages that also felt too long to me, I just skimmed and got to something I found more interesting.
I suppose I was surprised by how readable, how much of a page-turner the book was. When I thought of Tartt before, I thought of the sort of cult-following she has. I guess I did have expectations but they didn’t become explicit until the book defied them. I thought the novel would be more difficult, something peculiar enough to awaken that brand of loyalty. Instead, I often felt like I was reading a young adult novel, engaging, poignant, but also smooth, easy to read.
Because the novel took me in immediately, and because the characters and the story are so engaging, I don’t want to take a critical perspective on this book. It’s a lovely experience to enter another world. It’s one of the main reasons I read.
I put Allan Gurganus’s new book, a grouping of three novellas, down mid-sentence, inspired to finally come back to my blog and write something about it. I was not particularly inspired by the book, or the second novella I was in the middle of, or even the sentence (though I am intrigued by the non-grammatical nature of his sentences, their cut-off style). In fact, I’d just decided to put the book down, as in, not continue reading it.
But I wanted to think about it, to think about what I liked and why I ultimately didn’t like it, and I felt like thinking about it in writing. To have the desire to come back to this blog, and booklog, after a long absence, is a sign that things are opening up in my world. Which is, after what has essentially been one of the hardest years I’ve ever had, an excellent sign.
So I like Gurganus’s sentences. And I like novellas. And I like reading writers I haven’t read before. I started off intrigued, the story within the story of the first novella, the narrator who is a writer sitting next to a couple who make him so curious that he researches and writes their story. I don’t love it when authors withhold some key element, and make it very clear to the reader that they are withholding something which they will presumably reveal toward the end of the story. But I can go with it.
What made me put the book down part-way into the second novella was a combination and accumulation of things: the second had a similar voice to the first–therefore less fresh-feeling, and was employing that similar device of withholding while continuously reminding the reader of that withholding. The pleasure that I suppose this is meant to increase, prolonged waiting for release… I wasn’t feeling it. And looking back on the first story, there wasn’t enough there or enough to think about afterwards to overlook what was annoying me. It felt, suddenly, like an extended party-trick, or stories told with flourish at a party. But in the end without resonance for me.
I read for resonance, for bits big and small that come back to me.
I know how to become angry when the New York Times once again overlooks a world full of women and what we know how to do, even while I’m stunned with jet lag after spending twenty hours traveling home from Berlin, where I knew how to listen and speak in two of my five languages and take photos of cool street art (many of them images of women and learned how to even post a few on Facebook) and think about how Berlin feels like the center of Europe and so being there made me think of history, and war, in a way that we (Americans–one of my identities) might know how to do but aren’t made to, aren’t encouraged to, aren’t even reminded to, and I know how, while taking a taxi to the airport, to ask the young man who was driving whether he thought of himself as only Turkish or Turkish-German, and show that, even though I needed to check into my flight I wanted to hear his answer, that he was Turkish, only, even though he was born and did all his schooling in Germany because Germans reminded him almost every day that he was an Auslander, a foreigner, so I waited at the curb with my suitcase so he could finish even though I had to rush with all my bags, which I also know how to do, travel alone (and move seats when a family wanted to sit together even if it put me in the middle of a row, and not go off on the woman who dropped one of my bags out of the overhead with the plates I’d been carrying since Poland and three of them break) and I know how to appreciate that it’s gotten easier, plates breaking, and the travel, being now, of a certain age and not constantly harassed and sometimes threatened, by men in part because I was alone, though I was able and lucky enough, to stay safe, or within a relative area of safety maybe not because I knew how but because I just did, and I know, now, how important it is that we women put ourselves out there about what we know how to do, especially, maybe, those of us who are of a certain age, that we’ve got to keep talking to each other honestly about the hard stuff like living in war-torn history and the reality of raising kids and how there are some things that have hurt us that we aren’t ever going to get over and how we feel when our friends have breast cancer and our daughter’s friends have anorexia and I know, too, how to write sentences like this one, sentences that seem as if they’re never going to end (because I know how to use coordinating and subordinating conjunctions) and I know I’ve got to do it right away before the moment of inspiration slips out of my fingers even if it isn’t perfect because I’m doing all the other things I know how to do, like get my kids out of bed, drive to work, buy the groceries, like breathe, and breathe again, and do something, say something, even when it’s just this small, long sentence about some of the things I know how to do.
My daughter attends San Francisco Friends School, an independent school in the Quaker tradition. I wrote the piece that follows for the weekly newsletter.
“On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”
I’m as hooked by that opening of The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare today as I was as an eight-year-old girl lying in bed on a summer morning. I can remember hoping that my mother wouldn’t realize that I was awake so I could, at the very least, finished the first few chapters before breakfast. By that night I’d finished the book.
Speare tells the story of high spirited Kit Tyler, who comes to America from Barbados after her grandfather dies and immediately raises suspicions when she jumps into a river and swims to rescue a child’s doll. She is in a foreign place with foreign values, among Puritans, who suspect her of being a witch. Because I am the daughter of immigrant parents, I completely identified with Kit’s confusion and loneliness. But my daughter, born and raised in San Francisco, and my daughter’s friends, as well as countless other girls and boys over the years, have understood Kit, and loved Kit’s story, too. Growing up, everyone experiences social situations where they feel like the outsider.
In this new and harsh place, Kit feels isolated and rejected until one day, on a walk with her cousin, she comes to a beautiful grassy land. As Kit wishes to return to the Meadows alone some day, the narrator provides a preview: “How often she would come back she had no way of foreseeing, nor could she know that never, in the months to come, would the Meadows break the promise they held for her at this moment, a promise of peace and quietness…” Kit sees a small house in the far corner, with a gentle whisp of smoke curling from its lopsided chimney.
“Oh, that’s Widow Tupper,” her cousin Judith tells her. “People say she’s a witch.”
Even eight-year-old readers intuit the parallels and know that Kit has found someone who will help her. What they can’t know yet is that Hannah Tupper is a Quaker.
The next time Kit is in crisis, she runs to the meadow, cries herself out, and is comforted by the grasses and the sun. When she sits up, she sees “a very old woman with short-cropped white hair and faded, almost colorless eyes set deep in an incredibly wrinkled face.” Hannah Tupper tells Kit that the meadow will cure her troubled heart, and invites Kit to her home, where the water is deliciously cold, where the small room is “scoured as a seashell” and the corncakes she’s fed are studded with blueberries and washed down with fresh goat’s milk.
If you haven’t read the novel (or seen it performed at SFFS this fall), I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that Hannah Tupper becomes an important person in Kit’s life, demonstrating Quaker values in such a positive way that Kit even asks if she can become a Quaker.
I’m sure that when I was a child reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I could not only taste those blueberries bursting warm in my mouth, but I also felt less lonely, accepted and understood, in the presence of Hannah Tupper.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul corroborates this feeling with evidence from scientific studies. Apparently, simply reading about blueberries would have made my olfactory cortex light up. Recent findings in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology demonstrate that we experience fiction as, well, real. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
The beauty of novels is that they can take us even one step further. Through a narrator, we learn what is going on inside a character—inside her head and heart and body. We can think what a character is thinking and feel what she is feeling in a way that we can’t in real life, where even the people closest to us remain opaque.
Researchers using fMRIs “concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.” It turns out that people who read more fiction are better able to understand the people around them. In other words, Hannah Tupper not only soothed my loneliness; she taught me to be a more empathetic person.
Apparently, to my expanding neural networks, it made no meaningful difference that the first Quaker I met existed only in words on a page. The lessons she taught me and Kit about the values of the Quaker tradition have only grown more true over time.
Other books with Quaker characters
The Friendly Persuasion, by Jessamyn West
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Mrs. Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, by Marilyn Nelson and Elizabeth Alexander
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
“If I were homeless, I’d have this really sick contraption with compartments and things sticking out to carry the bottles and stuff that I find and make a lot of money taking all of it to the recycling center.”
“But if it’s that cool, someone’s going to steal it while you’re sleeping.”
“I’d make it so I can sleep in it.”