Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, March 23, 2012

Gene Luen Yang, _American Born Chinese_

A GRAPHIC NOVEL/MEMOIR, braiding the Chinese folktale of the Monkey King, who sought to pass as human; a sit-com-parody about Danny, an all-american kid whose life is disrupted by an endless visit by Chinese relative who embarrassingly embodies all the oldest clichés about the Chinese (pigtails, buck teeth, random switching of liquid consonants); and Yang's own story of his school years, born in the USA but "Asian" to his white suburban peers. As the title suggests, all three stories connect to the theme of being situated between cultures, of finding a way to negotiate identity.

Nothing about that negotiation is easy, but the Monkey King, Danny, and Jin (Gene) all wind up in one and the same story as they work their way towards the realization that you are best off being who you are.

Loved the look of the whole book--clean lines, cartoony in a kind of Hanna-Barbera style but bolder, inspired use of white space and other design elements.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Heather Christle, _The Trees The Trees_

WHAT A KICK to see this volume by the estimable Heather Christle from the estimable Octopus Books on the short list for poetry honors in The Believer.

These might be prose poems; they tend to be regular quadrilaterals in appearance on the page, both right- and left-justified á la prose poems, but they also have distinct spaces in the text that fall in places that line breaks might well occur:

anyway it's not like we are
going to lie down all day on the tarmac though
we do love the tarmac it is so responsible and
landed upon and from it we can count airplane windows

Nary a punctuation mark throughout the book, but the line breaks where the lines actually break interact cross-rhythmically with the "line breaks" created by the spacing in a particularly rewarding way, I think, so that the sound of the poem is always in motion, always teetering a bit, as the speakers of the poems always seem to be teetering a bit, balancing (precariously, but successfully) consensus reality (it would be foolish to lie down on the tarmac) with private truth (something there is that wants to lie down on the tarmac).

Over the course of the book, something bad seems to be happening or to have happened (the final poem ends, "oh hands cannot keep / anything together pretty baby oh it beats me why / we try") but the poems keep finding beauty in surprising places.

what were we
doing sorting buttons braiding each other's
long quiet hair the trees all the time grow

A good long stride beyond The Difficult Farm, delightful as that volume was. And now there's a new one. Good on you, H.C.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver, _The Lacuna_

I APPROACH NEW novels by Barbara Kingsolver with just a little trepidation, thinking this may be the one that's a little too earnest, a little too granola-crunchy, a little too politically correct, but no--they always turn out to work for me.

The Lacuna purports to be the journals (with some samples of correspondence, newspaper clippings, and some chapters of fictitious editorial explanation) of Harrison Shepherd. Teenaged child of feckless/indifferent parents, living with his mother in Mexico, Harrison by chance becomes plaster-mixer and then factotum for Diego Rivera, which brings him into association with Frida Kahlo, and in turn with the exiled Leon Trotsky, whose secretary he becomes.

After Trotsky's assassination, Harrison moves to Asheville, NC, where he writes a series of successful popular historical novels on Mexican themes, with possible allegorical intentions reflecting on American politics of the 1940s. In the McCarthy era, however, Harrison gets labelled a fellow traveler and falls from the public's favor, making his complicated life--he's a closeted gay man--even more complicated.

Seeing that the United States' relations with Mexico, Rivera's relations with Kahlo, Trotsky's relations with Stalin, McCarthyism, and the closet are all topics with lots of potential for venting conventionally enlightened and righteous opinions, I was a little worried, but Kingsolver's instincts as a novelist are too sure-footed, her politics too canny, her humanity too genuine for this to turn into the bloviating fest it could all too easily have become.

And the theme of the lacuna--in the first place, a lagoon in Mexico that comes to figure as the heart of Harrison's secret, but then the sign of any number of gaps, omissions, erasures: what the 1930s left really had been before it was demonized by McCarthy, what history includes and excludes, what people looking at paintings see and fail to see, what the life of a pre-Stonewall gay man was likely to be--gives the novel, compelling enough for its plot and characters, a whole other kind of strength.

Harrison's novels, set in ancient Mexico, are in some sense about the 1940s, and The Lacuna, set in the middle decades of the 20th century, is in some sense about the first decade of the 21st, when fear, incomprehension, and denial were again the fuel of politics as they were in the years immediately after WW II.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Julian Barnes, _The Sense of an Ending_

WELL, IT HAS been a while. We--by which of course I mean "I," proprietor, management, and sole employee of Loads of Learned Lumber, but I have been at this long enough that I feel entitled to the editorial "we"--have been awfully busy lately, and of course you've been busy yourself, no? We've all been busy.

For reasons that would be too time-consuming to explain, I had to write a paper on the pernicious influence upon our public life of Ayn Rand, which required a lot of reading--of which you may hear more later--and no small amount of writing, but even so I have had time to read a few other things, so let's start catching up.

Even though I include Julian Barnes on my mental list of living British novelists I like very much, I had not read one of his books since Love, etc., which was two or three or four back. But how do you say no to a Booker winner? So I read The Sense of an Ending back in January.

It's a quick read, not just short (163 pages) but quick-paced, once the dominoes of revelation about the past start falling. The story is narrated by Tony Webster, who seems to be in his early 60s; the mother of an old university girlfriend of his dies, leaving in her will that Tony--whom she has not seen in decades--be given the journal of another university friend of his, a young man who was the ex-girlfriend's post-Tony boyfriend, and who for unknown reasons committed suicide.

However, the ex-girlfriend, who is in possession of the journal, does not want to hand it over. Why not? The book from that moment on is an unspooling of memories of Tony's twenties interspersed with thwarted investigations in the present as he tries to piece together once and for all what happened among his ex-girlfriend, her parents, his friend who committed suicide, and himself.

He gets his answer. But the book's real power lies in our deepening sense of Tony. The novel is like one of those satisfyingly lengthy dramatic monologues by Browning--Sludge, Bishop Blougram, Prince von Hohenstiel-Schwanganau--where layer after layer of self-justification is peeled off until you are left with that bare, shivering thing itself, the meager self. Tony is educated, articulate, and intelligent, but we gradually see he uses his intelligence most energetically not in trying to understand but in trying to fend understanding off, to muffle the raw and bloody stuff, to keep the truth at arm's length.

Tony seems very British in his habit of mocking the earnestly analytical, in his dismissal of those (like his friend the suicide) who want to dig all the way down. But he keeps going even though the truth he eventually learns is, among other things, proof of his own callousness and obtuseness. "There is accumulation," he reflects in the novel's last sentences, "There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."