What Does It Mean to Be

A Calculated Life

By Anne Charnock

Published 2013

Read 3/12/2017

I’m not sure when I bought this book for my Kindle, but likely shortly after I got it in 2014.  I certainly don’t remember why I bought it, but likely it showed up on the screen and I was compelled for some good reasons to purchase it.  Fortunately I bought this book before I reigned in the tendency to purchase ebooks in such a manner.  Much more importantly, however, it’s fortunate that 47North, a publishing arm of Amazon, saw this book after it had first been self-published as an e-book and then as a paperback and decided that much more of the reading population ought to get to read it than might find it otherwise.

I started reading this book without knowing anything about it or its author.  I actually really like starting books under these circumstances although to increase the probability of it being a useful journey I generally reserve this approach for recommendations from reliable sources, specifically a few friends with whom I spend many hours discussing books.   Although this book didn’t come from one of my reliable sources, I heartily endorse it for others.

My experience with this book was not dissimilar from my experience with “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.   In each case, you are introduced to a character doing what seems to be a usual type of job living a usual nondescript life.  In both cases the novel slowly unwinds a different reality.  In this book the job is to find relationships between things so predictive algorithms can be developed.  We slowly learn the algorithms aren’t just about predicting trends in financial market but also such events as violent acts and very unexpected measurable variables such as wind speed.  The goal is to develop predictive algorithms of value to someone or some organization that will purchase it, although how they exploit it is apparently not of great concern to the employer and certainly not the to the analyst.  The person doing the job isn’t actually a human being but rather a “stimulator” created, programmed, and made available via contract to her employer by the Constructor.  Jayna is a version which has benefited from learnings from earlier versions, some of which are still functioning in different roles under contract to various employers.

In each case, the world around the characters is a not inconceivable and doesn’t even seem terribly distant in time from our own.  This characteristic is what, for me, separates “speculative fiction” from “fantasy/science fiction”.  Margaret Atwood has spun a number of terrifically well-written novels in this genre and Anne Charnock is certainly committed to playing in this territory and does it very nicely with this offering.

The plane that both Ishiguro routinely visits and Charnock’s “A Calculated Life” is now on is the one in which the primary questions being addressed are “what does it mean to be x” and “what role does memory play in our being x” (x=human or otherwise).    Not surprisingly, perhaps, these authors help us realize answers to these questions are ones they don’t claim to own and ones that will keep us reading great literature as we continue to consider them.  Like “Never Let Me Go”, in “A Calculated Life” the plot evolves slowly.  Some readers have found this trying.  I think it’s a helpful attribute because the questions being poised are profound and require slow careful consideration which is supported by the slow speed of the novels.

I will not further compare and contrast these books as they do take different trajectories with their characters and plots and to say more there will further spoil it for readers.  Take the dive yourself and consider “what does it mean to be x” (human or otherwise).

Can We Ever Say the Unsaid

My Name is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout

Published 2016

Read 3/3/2017

I was walking through the library on the campus where I am an adjunct faculty member and saw this book on the “new books” shelf.  I previously experienced the author through her books Olive Kitteridge, a novel written through a series of short stories, and Abide with Me so I immediately checked out this new offering and devoured it quickly.  Then I  re-read parts of it more slowly, savoring its form and content, as I try to provide this column some ideas about it.

Strout draws the reader in quickly with a description of the view from the hospital room of the narrator and how the narrator longs to be on the street with the other young women instead of being where she is, and how she expects to give thanks when she was again.  The narrator tells us her story is a “simple” one–recovery from a simple appendectomy is stalled mysteriously resulting in a nine week hospital stay.  Her mother visits for five days, the visit being arrange by her husband who visits infrequently both because he is functioning as a single parent for their two young daughters and because he doesn’t like hospitals.  That he arranges the visit by the mother is somewhat remarkable for several reasons.  The narrator’s parents disapproved of the narrator’s chosen life—to attend college, to marry a man clearly descended from German stock, and to live in New York City.  The disapproval has led to little contact between daughter and mother and no contact between daughter and father since her marriage.  In addition, the narrator’s family is desperately poor and they have led a very isolated life outside a small town in Illinois.  Travel of any sort, especially plane travel, is far from the ordinary for her mother.  But the mother suddenly appears in the narrator’s room and spends five days and nights there. The book primarily describes their conversations and corresponding various thoughts of the narrator about topics including the characters in the gossipy stories she and her mother share, her family, her childhood, and her marriage.

Their family lived outside a small poor rural town, first in the garage and eventually in the house of an uncle.  They were even poorer than most and certainly considered oddities.  They lived in isolation physically and socially.  The narrator lets us know she is haunted by dark memories and slowly meters out the source of some of them but always in an incomplete way, leaving much to be imagined but not verified.  This is classic Strout which we saw in Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me:  childhood forming us; memories from that time keeping us in that form unless and until we find a way to free ourselves from them—realizing them for what they are—memories but not life policies.

In Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me we saw the characters only from the outside.  In My Name is Lucy Barton we are deep within Lucy.  She is our narrator and she chooses what to reveal to us, or actually keep to herself.  We are witness to her as she unwinds her memories.  The conversations with her mother are primarily about people they knew when Lucy was growing up.  Lucy learns about her mother’s view of these people as the mother describes them and fills in their history since the narrator left home.  The narrator tells us directly that she is unreliable in telling us about the conversations.  She says “but maybe that wasn’t what my mother said”.  But she also doesn’t tell us what might have been more accurate nor when and why she is inaccurate.   The narrator does tell us, however, that she specifically chose not to ask her mother the questions for which she most desperately wanted the answers, including “do you love me” and “does her father ask about her”.

This is the first book Strout has written via a first-person narrator.  She crawls inside the character so far that one of course wonders if the book is autobiographical.  Both Strout and the narrator wanted to be writers from a reasonably young age.  However,  Strout was surrounded by books her whole life in her home while the narrator only had books at school where she stayed to do her homework and read when finished to avoid going home to where it was desperately cold.  The narrator was also so socially isolated that when she attends college, possible due to the intervention of a counselor who recognizes the promise of this girl with nearly perfect academic performance (because if you just stick to doing the work, it gets done), she imitates people to learn how to do things.  The narrator decides to become a writer because she takes the learning that books make you feel less alone and she wants to make other feel less alone also. Strout takes us fairly quickly through later years of Lucy’s life—writing, publishing, leaving her husband and the impact that has on her relationship with her children, which is far less than she hopes it would be.   At least one trace of Strout show up here—-Strout indicates publically that while her family was growing, she only had a few hours a day to write.  Lucy Barton also tells us “the two or three hours a day in which to write were terribly important to me”.

We learn about Lucy’s last interaction with her mother as the mother lay on her deathbed.  Once again Lucy doesn’t say what she wants to say.  Once again she hopes her mother hears what Lucy says to her in the hallway.  Once again we see a real relationship between two people as we do when Lucy recounts, with acknowledged lack of reliability, her last encounter with her father.

Strout has a remarkable way to telling us stories about real people and their real, painful relationships where so much remains unsaid but not unfelt.

I look forward to reading more from this author.

Best Sellers from Sinclair Lewis

Mainstreet (published 1920) (finished reading 10/28/2016)

Babbitt (published 1922) (finished reading 4/30/2016)

by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

Babbitt was the first Sinclair Lewis book I read, being drawn to it to learn directly about the character that led to the term “Babbitt” becoming part of the English language.   Oxford English Dictionary 3rd edition:  Babbittry is “behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.” Meriman-Webster:  Babbitt is “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.”  I am glad I went to the “source”—Lewis’s book– to directly understand Georg e Babbitt and the meaning of this expression.

Many reviewers speak to the nearly complete lack of plot it this book and in his earlier Main Street. Lewis spends many chapters describing George Babbitt’s daily routine, residence, family, and his interactions with business associates.  Lewis enjoys painting his character, George Babbitt, and his surroundings– physical, social, and professional.  After a detailed description of his five year old Floral Heights house which possessed “laudable architecture and the latest conveniences” Lewis add this lament:  “in fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house:  It was not a home.”  But eventually George Babbitt does engage in a story—he goes through a painful mid-life crisis during which he turns away from social norms and expectations, has an affair with a beautiful client, attends parties with her and her non-business and non-professional friends, “the Bunch”, and even wonders if Seneca Doane, a candidate for mayor of Zenith on “an alarming labor ticket” has some useful things to say.  He nearly earns complete scorn and disowner ship from his colleagues and isn’t initially invited to join the new Good Citizen’s Club.  Eventually he returns to and is accepted back into the fold and he is mainly happy to have returned to popularity and security.  However, at the end of the book he has interesting words for his son who is more interested in mechanics and inventing than business and earning a college degree.

Having been well engaged by Babbitt and interested in reading more of Sinclair Lewis, I turned to his previous novel, Mainstreet.

Mainstreet is also said to have minimal plot but my view is slightly different.  The story covers the main character’s evolution from early girlhood through about ten years of marriage.  Lewis’s style is to focus in a detailed way on particular instances and string these together to progress the story.

Mainstreet centers on Carol Miliford who we meet as a young college senior, orphaned in early adolescence, to whom we are introduced as “a girl on the hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life.  The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth”.    While attending Blogett College, a small religious college on the edge of Minneapolis, she considers a number of occupations (teacher, law, nursing, motion picture writer, marrying an unidentified hero), turns down a marriage proposal from a school mate who sees her as a great lawyer’s wife, and finally decides to attend professional library school in Chicago.  She spends a year or so as a librarian in St Paul where she is disappointed by the patron’s less than lofty interests.  She meets Dr Will Kennicott at a dinner party given by friends of Carol’s older sister.  He is a doctor in a small town (Gopher Prairie) in the Minnesota plains, is about 12 years Carol’s senior, and is besotted with Carol.  Kennicott paints an appealing picture of Gopher Prairie and suggests that the town would welcome her assistance in improving it.  She is eventually convinced and marries him without ever actually visiting Gopher Prairie until after their honeymoon trip.

Once arrived, she is appalled at the state of the town—tidy but extremely dull– and is convinced she’s made a mistake.  She steels herself to enjoying becoming a homemaker in her own home and sets off to improving the town.  Of course the town is not so interested in her assessments and plans and she suffers a number of blows.   She should find comradery with Vida Sherwin, an unmarried but well educated school teacher, and does to some extent, but Vida understands the pace at which things can happen in Gopher Prairie and is willing to press her plans for a new school at the rate the town will tolerate. Even Kennicott moves from his courtship declaration of “Come on! We ready for you to boss us!” to his statement the day after arriving in Gopher Prairie “Scared? I don’t expect you to think Gopher Prairie is a paradise, after St Paul.  I don’t expect you to be crazy about it, at first.  But you’ll come to like it so much—life’s so free here and the best people on earth”  Fortunately he is quite tolerant of his wife’s pursuit of intellectual stimulation and interest in improving the town, and the town is willing to have her fit in to the various social circles, but she finds them generally unsatisfactory and boring.   Carol befriends the town handyman, Miles Bjornstam, “The Red Swede”.  He is content to be totally unobligated to anyone and anything and freely speaks his mind.  Miles marries Carol’s maid, Bea, who was as new to being a maid as Carol was having a house and a maid.  They became friends while Bea was in her employ and Carol remains friends with Miles and Bea after their marriage.  Carol becomes friends with Erik Volborg, a Swedish farm boy who is working for the local tailor.  He is desperate to become educated and pursue a career in fashion design and seeks her mentorship.  There are some town tongues that cluck about their interactions.  Carol is tempted to pursue an affair with Volborg, but stops after Kennicutt picks them up in his car while they are taking a walk one evening.

The story fast forwards a few years after Carol bears a son and becomes enamored with him, although she was not interested in hearing that this would be true from the various town women.  She sets up a room of her own in the extra bedroom of their house.  She eventually can no longer bear what she feels as oppressive but dull town life and takes a leave from the town in Washington, DC where she takes a job and lives with some other women working in Washington, DC during the war.  She and Kennicott correspond and he visits her after a separation of over a year.  Carol eventually decides to return to Gopher Prairie and Kennicott welcomes her back as does the rest of the town.   She retains a spark to improve the town and declares things will change eventually and her new daughter will see a very different world from the one in which they live.

Unlike Babbitt, Carol does not revel in being part of a great community.  However, like Babbitt, at the end of the story both Carol and Babbitt return to their initial relationship with their community—want to be change agent and booster.

I initially engaged with both of these books via audiobook editions.  For Babbitt, this was very helpful as the narrator delivered the slang of the 1920’s that Lewis documents in this book to a greater extent than in Main Street.     Lewis’s view of his characters—-the Mainstreet of Gopher Praire and the city of Zenith—can be missed if only listening, however.  Lewis’ use of capitalization (“a thousand Sam Clarks and a few Widow Bogarts were to be identified in the Sunday motor procession…”) so visual reading to at least supplement audiobook reading is useful.

Both Mainstreet and Babbitt gained best-seller status when they were released.  Mainstreet sold 180,000 copies within six and more that 2 million copies within a few years.  Babbitt also found wide commercial success.  I find this quite interesting since Sinclair’s writing is quite biting and his disdain for the Mainstreet of Gopher Prairie/all small towns and for George Babbitt and “booterism” in small cities is quite clear.  This tone was likely instrumental in Columbia University’s decision to overturn the judges’ recommendation to award Mainstreet the 1921 Pultizer Prize for The Novel which they did again regarding Babbitt in 1923.  The timing of their publication—when serials in magazines and novels were primary forms of entertainment (in addition to “stunts” performed at parties) is likely a driver for the commercial success of these novels.   I’m not sure these books would have achieve this same level of success today but I am glad they were published and became “must reads” for me as they give a view of life of that time, certainly through a particular lens.

Finding the Value of Literature in Trash

The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright

Published 2012

Read Feb 27, 2017

This book was inspired by the documentary, River of Victory, written, directed, produced, and photographed by Cameron Wright’s son, Trevor Wright.  Trevor Wright’s film explores a young family, mother Sang Ly, father Kim Lim, and their son, Nisay, as they live in and make their living from scavenging recyclables from Stung Menchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia.  Nisay is chronically ill with diarrhea and Sang Ly believes living among the stench and filth of the dump is a driver of that illness.  However, the family seems to have few choices for making a living as revealed when the family returns to their homeland to visit a healer.  As she reunites with family and friends there she is reminded that the financial situation in her homeland is as dire as theirs.

Cameron Wright decided to take this real-life story and retell it adding a fictional story regarding the woman who collects rent on their shack in the dump.  This framing provides Cameron Wright a platform for describing in words and book form the difficult life the documentary reveals:  the filth and danger in just existing on and in the dump, the hand-to-mouth level of existence of collecting and selling bits of material “picked” from the dump.  The book includes the trip Sang Ly and her family make to their homeland and the trip to The Healer.  The treatment is not discussed, but apparently it is effective while treatments received in the city from both western and homeopathic medical practices have not worked.

Sang Ly discovers that the dreaded, usually drunk, and mean Rent Collector can read.  Sang Ly and asks the Rent Collector to teach her to read.  The Rent Collector eventually agrees and Sang Ly progresses from learning the alphabet to reading words and eventually reading stories and poems and experiencing the riches that great literature can provide.  This is possible as it happens that the Rent Collector was a teacher educated in the US and, most probably, a professor of literature.  Soriyan (the real name of the Rent Collector) lost her husband and baby to slaughter by the Khmer Rouge during their “cleansing” missions to rid Cambodia of all intellectuals.  Soriyan’s housekeeper, Sopeap, is killed instead of Soriyan when she pretends to be her so Soriyan is doomed to live under a false name and pretense.  Soriyan eventually is able to provide for Sopeap’s family and does so for many years without the family knowing the identity of their benefactor.  This story allows Cameron Wright the ability to remind us of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and other similar regimes that have risen to power in various times and places in history.  It touches on the theme of self-sacrifice and  the reality of the resulting survival guilt and the burden accompanying it.

A primary purpose Cameron Wright seems to have for bringing together the Rent Collector and Sang Ly is to discuss the role and value of  literature:   the universality of many of the important stories that various cultures tell in various ways (ie Sarann in Cambodia, Cinderella in North America, Ye Xian in China,  etc); dreams as inspiration for and subject of various works of literature; the indistinct boundaries between good and evil, heroes and villains,  and especially the ability of literature make us think differently than we ordinarily would or could.

Through teaching Sang Ly, the Rent Collector regains her connection with humanity.  Although she had provided for her housekeeper’s family, she had isolated herself from everyone and everything, finding solace only in alcohol.  The Rent Collector leaves Sang Ly a collection of essays and stories as lessons for her after the Rent Collector leaves for a reason she is unwilling to articulate.  Cameron Wright decides to tie everything together for us and the characters; I won’t detail the ending here.  He does let us know, however, that Sang Ly and her family remain in the dump although Sang Ly is certainly in a different state than we found her at the beginning of the book.

I was sometimes unconvinced by the tenor of the Sang Ly’s voice as narrator and had to accept the seemingly rapid rate of learning of Sang Ly to progress from alphabet to the study of serious literature.  I also found some of the subplots almost distracting as they were not fully developed so we only got a very brief hint of the theme they carried.   Cameron Wright touches on multiple human themes including:  what a mother will do for a child; what a father will do to protect his family; surviving dire financial circumstances; self-sacrifice; survivor guilt.  Cameron Wright’s book was primarily written to enable us to learn about life in Cambodia post- Khmer Rouge and the challenges the Khmer Rouge wrought on the population.  An even better version would have more fully developed all of the themes which interest him while telling it within the framework of the post-Khmer Rouge situation.

Some describe the book as one with a message of hope.   An apparent goal of the Khmer-Rouge was to wipe out all sources of education and thinking not authorized by the government. There is certainly a warning in this book that all must diligently oppose any kind of force that seeks to fulfill such a goal.   However, if there is a trace of literature available and any willingness to share it, that literature will enable humankind to continuously grow, learn, and expand its capability and capacity to make a positive difference in the world regardless of current circumstance.  That is truly a hopeful message.

Addendum: My Sunshine Away: Dark, Engaging and an Appeal to Be a Good Man

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Published 2015

Read 2/14/2017

Book Club discussion:  3/14/2017

As I routinely experience, Book Club discussions enhance my understanding and/or appreciation for the books I read, especially ones with which I’ve struggled a bit.  That was the case again for My Sunshine Away.

The references to the Challenger explosion and the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murder case help establish the time of this story for many readers in 2017.  I anticipate the Challenger explosion will do that for readers for many years.  I don’t think that’s the case for the Dahmer murder case, and may actually “date” the book, or maybe I just hope it won’t be a universally recognized event.  I guess I’m hoping that we don’t perpetuate the stories of deeply inhumane acts of serial violence but that’s probably not realistic since we’re all familiar with the existence of Jack the Ripper.

I now do see a useful role of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murders and why Lindsay is so interested in discussing it.  This is a public case of an evil set of crimes and, importantly, it’s not about her.  The narrator is willing to discuss primarily because of his obsession with Lindsay.

A substantial theme I hadn’t fully digested is  the importance of a male adult/boy relationship in the development of a boy into a man.  The narrator has limited interaction with his father, especially after he leaves the family for another woman.  The brief time his mother’s brother stays with the family (while he is sorting out his own problems) provides the only relationship the narrator calls out as one that has an influence on the way he views things.  The narrator reveals the true audience for his narration in the last chapter.  Exploring this theme in this way certainly elevates the novel light-years above the SVU type story it uses to start the book.

The short (50 min) but amazingly effective book discussion I attended about this book enabled me to recognize this substantial them, almost buried within the description of male adolescence and impact of a sex crime.  It’s prompted me to consider finishing “The Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks especially since there was a clear lack of positive adult male figure in the life of that book’s protagonist.   I’ve previously read and have moved by earlier novels by Banks but put this one down due to the topic of sex offense.   I haven’t yet obtained it again from the library and perhaps I won’t.  I continue to hope there are ways to discuss important human themes without involving human evil.  I continue to hope that our society hasn’t been overly numbed and requires vivid depictions of evil to be moved.  I continue to hope that Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction doesn’t continue to predict so well society trends….

Dark but Engaging Debut by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Published 2015

Read 2/14/2017

This book is the subject of a book discussion group to which I belong.  If it wasn’t I might not have finished it but, as is the case with most books that are the subject of book groups in which  I enjoy membership, the book was worth pursuing to the end.

The book starts with the rape of a 14 year old local track star, Lindsay, an attractive, but not ravishingly beautiful, nice neighborhood girl who attracts the attention of many boys in the neighborhood and school.  This lets us know immediately that this book won’t be a breezy read.  As expected, the event profoundly impacts her, her family members, and their family relationships.  But we only experience these impacts through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, a boy neighbor who is 13 years old at the time of the event and in the full throes of a crush—on Lindsay.  Our narrator is initially a suspect but his ignorance of what “rape” means and involves is so clear that he is quickly dismissed as a suspect.  The reader’s opinion of his innocence is tested, however, as he reveals the kinds of feelings he has for Lindsay and the things he does to observe her.  The crush is better termed an obsession and his innocence is thwarted through associations with a neighbor who is the adopted son of a family who has fostered many children.  The narrator obtains, from this neighbor boy, a disturbing photo of Lindsay taken by the boy’s adopted father, and thus brings another person into the list of potential rapists. We’re given hints that that this family’s fostering involved likely horrendously damaging hurt inflicted on the children by at least the foster father, with minimally the knowledge of the foster mother.  The author also spends a number of pages discussing the Jeffry Dahlmer serial killing case that occurred during the time of the story.  Thus the book has a Law and Order SVU type plot serving as an overarching plotline for the book and ventures well into other types of horrors that humans can inflict on one another and on children.  This is the source of my discomfort with this book.  Despite being a fan of law/order procedurals, I don’t appreciate the SVU version or stories involving serial killers.

Fortunately, the book dramatically departs from Law and Order SVU-type offering on several accounts.  First, the crime remains publically unsolved, although the narrator may have discovered implicating evidence that isn’t shared, and no one gets resolution or closure as a result. This is perhaps not satisfying for the reader, but the impact of lack of resolution on the narrator both personally and as a result of its impact on those around him, including Lindsay, is more interesting.   Second, a central focus of the book is the life and development of the narrator.  We learn about the rhythms of life in the suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood pre-rape as see through the eyes of the narrator, including the games the neighborhood kids (including Lindsay) played and the lushness of the wooded area in which their neighborhood was set.  We learn about the breakup of the narrator’s parents’ marriage and the further damage inflicted on the family by the death of the narrator’s sister.  We see the narrator grow in his understanding of the impact of the rape on Lindsay through their late night phone calls and we see the evolution of the narrator’s obsession with Lindsay.

The third aspect that separates this book from a typical SVU story is the homage the author pays to his hometown of Baton Rouge.  He spends a fair number of pages on the differences between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and works to fill in the gap of most readers’ knowledge about Baton Rouge.  In particular he works to fully convince the readers that Baton Rouge should not feel guilty that it isn’t like New Orleans.

An interesting question is whether the narrator really ever understands the impact of the rape on Lindsay—both the physical rape itself and the revelation to her schoolmates that she had been raped.  Since the rape occurred during the summer and since it was so quietly investigated, the kids at school were unaware of the event until it’s revealed by the narrator in the school yard.  The revelation is not intended to be hurtful and neither Lindsay nor the school kids are supported by adults at the school in how to work through how to digest this information.  Perhaps this would be different in 2017 or at least one can hope it would be.  The narrator does get a small glimpse of the depth of despair to which Lindsay has fallen and remains several years after the event when she states she sometimes wishes she were dead and the narrator recognizes that she means it.  Of course he is not equipped to help her nor is he inclined to think he might aid her in getting some help.  Only when he is in his thirties and runs into her at a football game does he seem to begin to truly understand the long-term effect this event and corresponding exposure of it has had on Lindsay.

M.O. Walsh has told interviewers that he feels he “got lucky with this one” that his book received exposure and recognition in the face of a vast number of other books published in the same year.  Kirkus Reviews concludes its review of the book with “Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.”

I do look forward to future offerings from the author although I also hope he doesn’t feel compelled to follow a trend I’m seeing in recent literature and which he used here—to use deeply evil acts as a device to explore human nature.

 

An Interesting Taste of India

The Inheritance of Loss (published 2006) By Kiran Desai

Read Dec 1, 2016

Desai’s lush writing reveals the stories of her characters and the political unrest that infiltrates them in the Darjeling district of West Bengal in 1986 in carefully designed aliquots.  Sai is the daughter of parents estranged from their families.  She is raised in a British convent until their death when she is left at the doorstep of her grandfather, a retired judge.  We meet her at age 17 as she is enjoying first love with her local math/physics tutor, Gyan, who becomes partially radicalized by the Gorka National Liberation Front.   The judge was trained in Britain and served as a travelling Chief Justice for the Indian Civil Service.  We meet him while he is leading a solitary life “with the solace of being a foreigner in his own country, for this time he would not learn the language” in a decaying mansion built by a Scotsman in the hills with a view of the Himalayas.  Prior to Sai’s arrival, his only interactions after taking residence in this house are with his native cook and his beloved Mutt.  The cook’s son, Biju, is an important character as we learn about his immigration to the US, his miserable existence in New York City as an illegal alien, and his strong connection to his father.  Rounding out the character list are the closest neighbors of the judge and Sai—a pair of Anglophile sisters and a household made up of a Swiss priest and “Uncle Potty” who is generally drunk.

Desai starts us with the intrusion of the judge’s home by young men and boys, local members of the GNLF, to steal his guns and other possessions of possible worth.  She proceeds to unwind the story of the various characters and their various relationships to this intrusion.

She exposes us to the challenges of being a foreigner—whether actual (Biju), chosen (the judge, the sisters, Father Booty and Uncle Potty), or accidental (Sai).  We are exposed to the impact of prejudice against minority members of society and lower caste members in Indian society and the extreme strategies they apply to break into a better life.  We get a taste about the complexity of India—a single country forged from nearly countless sets of cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

While not an easy book for me to initially connect with, it has turned out to be one that is hard to leave, and one that has opened a new set of things to ponder.  Can one ask for more from a book?

Hilbilly Elegy Provides Important Lessons

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

(read 12/18/2016)

“Memoir” according to Merriman:  1)  an official note or report; 2) a narrative composed from personal experience; 3) an account of something noteworthy. 

J.D. Vance provides an apology in the introduction—he has written a memoir although he is only 31 and has not accomplished anything of note, save graduating from Yale Law School.  He does indicate that is an unexpected accomplishment by someone from his communities—Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY, the town from which his grandparents migrated in the early 50’s for a better life and to which he and his family remain strongly connected.  He certainly has an interesting story to tell regarding his challenging path to this accomplishment.  He doesn’t simply give us his own story, however.  Dispersed through the narrative, he provides some reflections on the drivers of those challenges which are both specific to his case and fellow hillbillies migrating to industrial communities, but also help us understand the challenges faced by those participating in the black migration detailed in Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and those faced by all immigrants trying to make a better life than the one they left behind in a community foreign to their culture.  He provides some lessons he may or may not have intended regarding challenges faced by anyone trying to move onto and up the socioeconomic ladder and who is unfamiliar with the expectations of that new ladder.

Vance calls this an Elegy.  All of the definitions of elegy I found speak to a mournful poem of serious reflection, expressing sorrow of someone dead. 

He does a less crisp job communicating exactly what he is mourning. He appropriately includes the phrase “crisis in culture” in his title.   He does certainly lament the current state of Middletown, OH which is no longer home to Armco, the steel company that recruited so many from his grandparent’s Kentucky community, nor to its high paying jobs.  Unemployment is high, drug use is rampant, and many of those who could move away already have.  He notes, almost sadly, that although there are jobs that remain there, some of which are fairly decent paying ones that also feature health care and other benefits, these jobs go unfilled by local residents for lack of interest.  He laments the current state of his family’s neighborhood in Jackson, Kentucky, which is now sufficiently run-down and unsafe that his cousin doesn’t feel he can keep the grandmother’s house if it will be vacant for any period of time. He laments the assumptions he heard and hears in his community that those who “make it” are just really smart—that raw talent alone, not hard work is the cause.   He laments that his community seems to have lost their will to earn a living and their ability to recognize the inconsistencies they live by, in particular, the importance of taking responsibility but then never actually doing it.   He laments that his community has deep distrust of traditional media while eagerly believes unsubstantiated “news”.  He notes, however, that they retain a huge love for country.

His book qualifies as a serious reflection, not in fully academically scholarly way, but definitely in a way that can engage a broad readership and convey some useful research by others that he describes. Topics of others’ research that he cites, and has clearly digested personally, include challenges faced by participants of the black migration and the biological and psychological impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

He notes that Armco (like other “rust-belt” companies) recruited heavily in specific areas, instigating migration of many families from a single county to Middletown in the case of Armco.  While this preserved aspects of the overall culture of the area they left, many young families, like his grandparents, were away from their parents and extended families.  Since his grandparents were only 14 and 17 when they migrated, that isolation from older family members and friends meant they did not get the usual (although sometimes unappreciated) oversight and guidance about becoming an adult and a parent.  His own mother and self-father moved from Middletown at one point to be away from the guidance her parents were giving, although it would have been useful to listen to it.  Like blacks immigrating from the rural south, these immigrants brought aspects of their rural culture (such as raising chickens and having extended families share a single dwelling for extended periods of time) to an area that didn’t appreciate or would tolerate them so separation between immigrant and local cultures became more distinct and the immigrants increasingly isolated from the rest of the community.

Vance learned that subjection to Adverse Childhood Experiences (such as abusive language, being pushed/shoved/having things thrown at you, separated or divorced parents, living with an alcoholic or drug user, etc) has significant impact on children and can influence brain development.  This can lead to a situation where the part of the brain that deals with stress is always activated and the child/person is always in a ready state for self-defense or flight.  Vance notes that both he and his sister have fortunately married people with low ACE indices who are helping Vance and his sister move away from this tenacity and associated behaviors.

Vance discusses a situation not specific to Middletown or the Hillbilly culture but that this country and others have and are facing.  His grandfather and others working at Armco counseled their children and grandchildren to “do better than they did” and to seek white color jobs that used their head vs their body.  It’s natural to want better for your children.  However, these grandparents and parents were ill-equipped or incapable of promoting a home environment that stressed what is needed to be able to successfully pursue this path.  Coupling this issue with general distrust of the outside community, and fueling it, according to Vance, by conservative political heads indicating “this is all the government’s fault” provide at least some drivers for the current employment state of Middletown type communities.

Vance sprinkles learnings about what saved him and could save others throughout the narrative including:  a quiet house promotes studying and learning; a stable home life (same place and adults) for several years enables developing long-lasting friendships; parental/adults in the home having high expectations for success in school matters; working a job helps you learn about the world and clarifies what you want; getting outside your own community to see other ways of being and thinking about life opens your eyes to new possibilities;  networking is critical; mentoring makes a difference—you have to learn about things, how they work, what is expected, etc; you have to learn how to get ahead.   Although his grandparents weren’t great parents when raising their kids, they matured into grandparents that provided a stable home life for Vance during his later high school years, a situation he hadn’t had previously.  This enabled him to concentrate on studying, get placed in an advance math track where he made friends with high achieving students, and learn some fundamental work ethics.  He knew he wasn’t’ ready to go to college immediately upon graduation from high school, so he joined the Marines.  He credits them for teaching him how to be an adult.  He finished a degree at Ohio State University in two years by overloading credit hours and going through the summer and then followed advice/encouragement to apply to Yale University.  There he met his future wife who is a terrific stabilizing influence and he has the good fortune to get excellent mentorship from a professor who also used some social capital to help him get beyond a poor interview.

Vance does not provide a prescription for solving the crisis of his home communities.  He suggests the solution needs to come, in large part, from people switching from an approach of avoiding uncomfortable truths by avoiding them or pretending better truths exist to a more honest one that accepts responsibility for them.  His one request to government is to more willingly utilize family members to care for children that need to be separated from parents rather than sending them into a foster care situation with strangers.

His comments about feeling somewhat sad about having moved out of his “home culture” as he’s made a better life for himself resonated with me.  He only provides a small hint regarding the losses that accompany assimilation and/or economic achievement. That wasn’t his intended topic but it’s an open one for exploration.

Vance provides a useful look at a community and culture little known or understood by others and helps improve that understanding.  The understanding that is possible, however, is not specific to that culture alone but is applicable to the more general situation of a foreign culture moving into a community with the intent of making a better life.

On the Road with Ivan Doig

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Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan DoigPublished 2015; Read Jan 5, 2017

The world lost Ivan Doig in 2015 to multiple myoloma.  Fortunately he left behind 15 novels and several non-fiction books that will continue to provide us good literature to read and ponder.   In the Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig starts this story in Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a setting for his previous work, and in fact the location is the Double W ranch owned by Wendell Williamson, nephew of Wesley Williamson who we met in Doig’s Prairie Nocturne.  The story takes us on a trip east to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and then back to the west, all via Greyhound bus or its feeder lines.

We accompany Donal Cameron on these adventures that take place in the summer of 1951.  They are initiated when Donal’s grandmother, a cook at the Double W ranch, needs an operation for “female trouble”. (He’s been living with her since his parents died in a car accident. ) Gram sends him to her sister, Aunt Kate, who lives in Manitowac, WI with her husband Herman.  We enjoy Donal’s adventures on the Greyhound bus and his willingness and ability to spontaneously manufacture stories about himself, his family, and his travel plans.  His cross-country travel to Wisconsin takes about the first third of the book.

Once arrived at the last station of his trip, we meet Aunt Kate, who turns out not to be who Donal assumes she is (Kate Smith) and eventually turns out not to be who we, and perhaps Manitowac, assume she is.  His stay with Aunt Kate and “Herman the German” is an interesting strain for Aunt Kate and Donal while  Donal and Herman the German strike up a nice companionship. Eventually  Aunt Kate decides she can’t handle Donal anymore and she sends him back to Montana.  What she didn’t anticipate was that Herman would go with him, showing up in the seat next to Donal shortly before departure.

For the last third of the book we learn more about Herman and Kate as we follow their travels, but we mostly enjoy watching the relationship between Donal and Herman grow and the ways they manage through a number of interesting obstacles.  They’ve decided there isn’t a real need to take a straight line trip back to Two Medicine Country of Montana so they take a meandering course across the west.   Herman has been a major fan of Karl May, a German author specializing in western novels.  He has an interesting viewpoint of the American West and a desire t to see “the Karl May territory of Indian knights and pistoleer cowboys”.   Donal decides Herman must experience Crow Fair, here a fictionalized version of a real annual event and similar to an event Doig attended with his parents in the 1950’s.

Sprinkled throughout the book are the contributions Donal is getting in his autograph book from the various characters he meets during his travels.  Along with the signature, most contributors offer a rhyme or other catchy phrase that may include useful advice which sometimes comes via the interesting vernacular of the writer.  Donal even catches an entry from  Jack Kerouac, the encounter fictionalized of course, but with some of Kerouac’s actual, acknowledged, words.  Doig also uses a quote from Keroac to open the book.

Doig eventually ties together some plot lines and finds a way to get his pair of characters out of the very hot water they find themselves as a series of mishaps toss them into stormy seas of the Great Plains.  Donal must make a very significant decision at the end and tells us “I heard my decision the same instant the two of them did.”

Doig took the initial plot line from his own history—-he was sent to live with an aunt when his ranch-hand father was recovering from surgery and his ranch-cook

grandmother was going to the hospital to address “female problems”.  But he indicates that his aunt and uncle were nothing like the characters he invents for us and Doig’s bus ride was completely unmemorable.  He demonstrates that while his stories may be set in the west, he’s not a “western writer”.  He gives us unforgettable characters and stories of how they deal with trying times and issues and does it with language we wish he could continue writing.

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Pursuing a Dream Against Many Odds

Prairie Nocturne  By Ivan Diog; Published 2003;Read Dec 27, 2016

This book comes to us from Ivan Doig who was awarded the Wallace Stegner Award in 2007 by the Center for the American West among other accolades.  This story is set in Montana and New York during the Harlem Renaissance and tells the interlocking story of its three main characters:  Wesley Williamson, powerful business leader of a cattle-empire family, Susan Duff, former singer and now voice instructor, and Monty, Wes’s black chauffer with a remarkable voice Wes employs Susan to develop.  As Doig unfolds the story we gain insight into the past of the characters—Wes a successful military leader in the Great War, Susan’s loss of a brother in that war while under Wes’s command, the relationship between Wes and Susan that impacts Wes’ political career, Monty’s boyhood in the Montana fort commanded by John J. Pershing, and the connections they have from childhood.  Wes’s Catholic faith, Monty’s color, Susan’s instruction of Monty, and Monty’s possible success all become targets for the local KKK both in Montana and New York.   Doig’s beautiful writing carries us through this saga of struggle, loyalty, grip of the past, and the pain and rewards of career and passion.   The ending surprised me and, at first disappointed me, seeming in some ways “too nice and tidy”.  However what happens for each of these characters next will remain challenging and some will carry forward a deeper sense of loss than they possessed at the beginning of the story.