Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Anne Boyer, _The Undying_

THE QUICKEST WAY to describe this book is to call it a memoir about having and being treated for breast cancer, but unfortunately that description gives you next to no idea of what the book is actually like.

 "I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way I have been taught to tell it," Boyer declares, and she succeeds. Memoirs about illness do seem to have only a few default settings; they are going to be about resilience, persistence, holding onto hope, learning what is really important, cherishing the present moment...all excellent qualities, needless to say. Boyer simply isn't interested in any of that. No tributes to the doctors and nurses who worked with her, nor to friends and family, nothing about lessons learned or values affirmed. The book is unsentimental to the point of astringency. Unlikely to be tapped by Oprah.

If Boyer is not interested in any of the usual ingredients of an illness memoir, what is she interested in? The literary record of illness, for one thing. I had never heard of Aelius Aristides, for instance, but he sounds worth reading, and I did not know that Frances Burney, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Martineau had all written vividly of being ill. 

She is also interested in writing about the horrors of being a patient in the time of late capitalism:

You can't drive yourself home the same day you have had a double mastectomy of course, whimpering in pain, unable to use your arms, with four drainage bags hanging from your torso, delirious from anesthesia and barely able to walk. You are not supposed to be alone when you get home, either. But no one really asks how you manage it once you are forced out of the surgery center--who, if anyone, you have to care for you, what sacrifices these caretakers might have to make or the support they require.

For another thing, she is interested in letting you know exactly what is involved in her treatment, as in "the brain damage from chemotherapy is cumulative and unpredictable," or "a nurse in a hazmat suit inserts a large needle into my plastic subdermal port."

And, in her case, the treatment works: between the double mastectomy and the drugs, "the cancer is gone." You may be expecting Boyer to break out the familiar tropes at this point. Nope.

With that news, I am like a baby being born into the hands of a body made only of the grand debt of love and rage, and if I live another forty-one years to avenge what happened it still won't be enough.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Boris Pasternak, _Doctor Zhivago_, trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari

 MY WIFE AND I belong to a group called “The Big-Ass Book Club.” Rather than read one normal-length book a month, as most book clubs do, we pick very long books and read them at a rate of about a hundred pages a month. This not only allows us to choose books that would be impractically long for most clubs, but also gives us time to steep in them. The slower pace is helpful since the BABC inclines to novels with a lot going on—The Magic Mountain, Middlemarch, Infinite Jest

Another fun thing about the BABC is that my wife and I have an established tradition: I read them aloud while she knits. This takes a while, but probably not as long as it would for us both to read the book ourselves separately, and it’s a nice thing to do together. Also, she gets a lot of knitting done.

So, the BABC just finished Doctor Zhivago. I had not wanted to read it, since I had read it long ago, very quickly, for a class I took as an undergraduate, and did not recall much liking it. But the others preferred it to tackling Brothers Karamazov, so there we were.

My wife and I started off with the new (2010) Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, mainly just because it was newer and presumably an improvement. (We had gone with a more recent translation of The Magic Mountain, the one by John Woods, for the same reason.) Funny thing—it was awkward to read aloud. A lot of sentences just did not land right and had to be read twice. (Were P&V trying to be scrupulous about following the Russian word order?) So, I found my parents’ old copy of the first English translation, published 1958–and it was a very clear, natural-sounding read. So we just stuck with that.

And to my own surprise, I liked the novel a lot this time. 

Pasternak has a curious trick of hopping over the scenes most novelists would dwell on. We do not get the scene at the party where Lara shoots at but misses Komarovsky, for instance, even though Zhivago is at the same party. Much later in the book, the commencement of Lara’s and Zhivago’s affair is similarly slipped by without being narrated. Instead, we get minute accounts of, for example, a train journey out to the Urals. The revolution, the enormous historical upheaval during which the novel is set, occurs almost entirely offstage.

When I was 20, I would have found that narrative strategy frustrating in the extreme. But this time, it seemed brilliant. All the drama was elsewhere, in the intervals between chapters, off in the capital, and instead we saw people getting haircuts, looking for firewood, talking...and talking, talking, talking. And it struck me now, yes, that’s exactly what it would have been like. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Farid ud-Din Attar, _The Conference of Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

 DEEP THANKS TO Dick Davis, without whom I likely never would have read the Shahnameh nor this.

The Conference of Birds is a mystical narrative poem written in the twelfth century C.E. A gathering of birds is considering how they might contrive to see the great Simorgh, a legendary birdlike being who in the poem figures God (or divine wisdom, spiritual understanding). They pose their questions about the journey to one of their number, the hoopoe, who uses tales and parables to answer them while also sifting the inquirers a bit, determining who is really down for the rigors of the journey. 

Eventually a group sets out through seven (allegorical) valleys, each valley with its own set of tales and parables.Most of the birds fall by the wayside before the end, but eventually they do reach the Simorgh, who turns out to be....

Well! I don't want to spoil the ending for you. You can get all the details on Wikipedia, anyway. 

But my point is, The Conference of the Birds is a Persian classic whose magic would likely evaporate in translation, and evaporate all the more quickly if the translator was trying to write in English rhyming couplets--but Davis and Darbandi actually make it work. The poem reads well and the tales (most of which are traditional Persian ones, but given a Sufi dimension by Attar) emerge with glittering clarity. 

So thank you, Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jia Tolentino, _Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion_ (and Lauren Oyler)

 JUST DAZZLING. I know it's a cliché, almost a reflex, to invoke Joan Didion when praising an emerging female master of non-fiction prose, but the comparison is just too apt to pass up in this instance. Tolentino walks the tightrope between the reporter's self-effacement and the essayist's self-exposure more nimbly than anyone save Didion herself, and her cultural radar is as keenly attuned as that which took Joan to Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. 

Tolentino's essays about the cultural landscape (social media, MDMA, self-improvement regimens, weddings, the "difficult woman") occasionally include glimpses of a background that makes her a bit of an outlier, so far as writers go. Writers were often the kid in the back of the class, a bit alienated, contemptuous and held in contempt, dying to get away to college and once in college dying to get away to New York...but Tolentino went to a Christian high school in Texas, where she was a cheerleader, then the University of Virginia, where she was a sorority member, having been a reality TV star in between. Her parents are from the Philippines, so she no doubt knows about being marginalized, but she has had an insider's perspective in worlds the insides of which are generally under-reported in American letters.

Her style has the high sheen of New Yorker prose ("Amazon is an octopus: nimble, fluid, tentacled, brilliant, poisonous, appealing, flexible enough to squeeze enormous bulk through tiny loopholes"), but with nubbly personal detail ("I'm a repulsively fast eater in most situations"). She does journalistically precise, she does witty, she does confessional, she does lyrical.

So, I'm wondering why Lauren Oyler did such a hatchet job on this book in LRB back in January. Oyler offers Tolentino as Exhibit A in a case against "the rise of a style that I've taken to calling hysterical criticism [...]." 

These critics aren't hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they're saying is important. If you don't believe that yourself, don't worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice that they are doing fine.

Oyler leaves the impression that there is a lot of this sort of thing in circulation, but she does not name anyone else, leaving me not only wondering whom she had in mind--Leslie Jamison? Patricia Lockwood?--but also baffled as to what her objections were. I've decided that what she mainly objects to is that Tolentino is "doing fine." Tolentino is a little too canny, a little too on top of her game, a little too synchronized with the zeitgeist, and Oyler just has a bad feeling about the whole Jia Tolentino thing

I don't.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Marilynne Robinson, _Jack_

 I REVIEWED THIS under my own name on a (much) more legit blog back in September, and said there essentially all I had to say about this excellent novel, but I would like to note here that not many reviewers (other than me) appreciated the extraordinary extended episode in the beginning of the novel when Jack and Della--about whom the reader who has not read Gilead and Home will know virtually nothing--find themselves locked into a cemetery and spend the night there, wandering and talking.

Dwight Garner in the NYT said it was "implausible." Jeez. Compared to what? I don't suppose people on the brink of falling in love find themselves locked into a cemetery overnight on a daily basis, but it certainly seems well within the realm of the possible. 

 Hermione Lee in NYRB: "readers may well feel they too have been locked in all night." Ouch. I, on the other hand, was hoping the episode would last for the whole book.

Only Anne Enright in LRB gets it right, I think. 

The cemetery episode gets at the real magic of the novel as a form: its ability to find the something in the almost nothing in which we pass the larger parts of our lives. Novels can be action-packed, of course, with pursuits and escapes and battles and noisy doings of all sorts, but the real genius of the novel, from Defoe to Austen to Joyce to Robinson, is in its scrutiny of the perfectly ordinary, the quotidian, the unremarkable, and seeing into into so deeply that it opens up and reveals the heart of the mystery. 

As Jane Eyre is truly born in that window seat when she stands up to John Reed, and so her novel begins there, so Jack and Della, both adults, are truly born when they are finally free to open up to each other, and so their novel begins there.

Jack and Della in Bellefontaine is a prolonged moment of grace, an iridescent bubble that magically holds for seventy-some pages. It's a miracle. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Michael Cavanagh, _Paradise Lost: A Primer_ (ed. Scott Newstok)

I GAMELY ATTEMPTED Paradise Lost on my own the summer I was nineteen and actually made it all the way to the end, though I would not have been able to tell anyone anything coherent about it. About three years later I read it again while a student in Michael Cavanagh's course on Milton, and that did the trick. In grad school, I was willing to credit almost anything Eliot said in his criticism, but I never bought into his attempt to dethrone Milton. I had been inoculated.

Reading Michael's posthumously-published book on Paradise Lost is a bit like taking the course again but actually much better, since Michael had taught and thought about the poem a great deal more in the twenty-odd years after he had me in class, and I have had the benefit of another dozen or so times through it myself. 

As the subtitle indicates, Paradise Lost: A Primer is not a contribution to the specialist literature on the poem. It is not exactly a Dummy's Guide, either, though--Michael does not explain who William Blake is or what the English Civil War was. 

It may be the perfect book for someone in my situation, actually, as a teacher whose specialty lies well outside the early modern period yet who often teaches Paradise Lost in our small department's undergraduate survey course.

The MLA guides to teaching this or that canonical text are rarely helpful, I've found; they are usually too interested in throwing whatever the fashionable shapes of the moment are. Reading a raff of recent articles will usually leave you lost in the weeds with nothing in which an undergraduate audience's attention will find purchase. 

My fallback tactic--read everything in the back of the Norton Critical Edition--worked reasonably well. But to any non-specialist teaching the poem now, I would say: read Cavanagh. You will get a tour of the poem's most universally discussable themes and an introduction to its most influential critics in the utterly engaging voce of someone who has lived with and loved the poem for most of a lifetime. And that is exactly what will help you the most.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Jeanine Cummins, _American Dirt_

THIS FALL, I gave a talk to a local group about the controversy surrounding this novel and about cultural appropriation. As someone who aspires to being thorough and fair, I included in my preparation for the talk the actual reading of the novel I would be talking about. 

Given the widespread condemnation American Dirt has met with, it would be fun to report that it turned out to be a fine novel. Unfortunately, it didn't. Run-of-the-mill book club fodder at best. 

Heroine Lydia seems designed to appeal to US book club readers. Thirty-something, middle class (she owns a small bookstore in Acapulco), wife of a crusading journalist, devoted mother of a special-needs son. Book clubbers like a hooky opening, so in the first chapter almost all of Lydia's family is murdered at a niece's quinceañera. She and her son survive by hiding in a bathroom. They flee northward.

The murder has been ordered by a local drug cartel kingpin. enraged by the crusading journalist's exposé of his corruption. Soapy enough for you? No? Okay, let's throw in that the kingpin was a favorite customer at Lydia's bookstore without her ever suspecting what he did for a living, that he shows her his poetry and seems to have a crush on her, devoted husband and father though he is. Still not soapy enough? Okay, his daughter, away at university in Spain, is so ashamed of her family after reading the crusading journalist's exposé that she kills herself. Hence the kingpin's bloody rage. That's got to be soapy enough for anyone.

So. Northward they flee. On la Bestia, Lydia and her son become friends and traveling companions with a pair of teenaged Guatemalan sisters. They deal with corrupt officials, potential informers, possibly untrustworthy coyotes. By the end, we have a pile-up of thriller plot clichés.

The writing is not good, though occasionally entertainingly bizarre. For instance: "the prickly, unbalanced gate of the diarrhetically infirm." I'm pretty sure she meant "gait," not "gate," but even the corrected version sounds strange. Or: "Lydia funnels gratitude into the slow blink of her lashes." The funnel ensures the gratitude goes right into the lashes, I suppose, with none spilling over wasted into the eyebrows.

The resentment of any number of Latinx writers against Cummins and against Oprah's Book Club, whose anointing of the novel was guaranteed to make it the best-selling novel about immigrants and refugees this year and perhaps ever, is all too easy to understand.