Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Darryl Pinckney, _Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy_

AS SOMEONE WHO appreciated and admired High Cotton (1992), I am looking forward to picking up Black Deutschland, but in the nearer term it was high time I read this, published in 2014.

Pinckney's beat as an essayist is more literary-cultural than political, usually, but he's always worth reading. Blackballed surveys the history of African-Americans and the vote, from Reconstruction to Obama, with a lot of attention to the era of the Voting Rights Act. That era, the time of Pinckney's youth and young manhood, was the setting for much of High Cotton, too, and since Blackballed includes several tributes to Pinckney's parents, whose flailing efforts to understand their son make for a lot of poignant comedy in the earlier book, Blackballed will mainly stick in my memory as the book that made me want to re-read High Cotton.

It seems not to be in print at the moment, which I can understand, in a way--despite the title, it's not set in the rural South, and it is not set in a gritty Northern urban neighborhood, either.  It is about growing up black, gay, and bookish with upper-middle-class parents in Indiana, and  thus not the sort of thing that would land you on an ordinary African-American lit syllabus.

It is, though, just the sort of under-the-radar classic that NYRB Classics re-discovers for the benefit of a wider audience (cf. John Williams's Stoner), so given Pinckney's long history with that publication, maybe they will get it back into circulation. With a new Pinckney out, what better time than now?  Let's get on it, NYRB Classics!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Michael Knight, _The Typist_

THIS IS THE first work by Michael Knight I have read, and I enjoyed it--a short, deft novel set in occupied Japan. A historical novel, then, but with its focal point just off the center of events. Francis Vancleave, the typist of the title, does occasional jobs for General MacArthur but spends more time as the faute-de-mieux playmate for MacArthur's son, so whatever future-shaping nation-building MacArthur is accomplishing occurs just out of view.

Similarly, the involvement of Vancleave's roommate, Clifford Price, with a Japanese dance-hall girl leads to his involvement with the Japanese far left and a gun-running scheme, an imbroglio that leads to his dying in a suicide pact, but that sensational affair likewise occurs on the periphery of the story's vision, without Vancleave's being much aware of what is going on until everything is over.

It's a different kind of historical novel, obviously.

Vancleave does not have the momentous impact on Japan that MacArthur does, nor does Japan have the momentous impact upon him that it has on Price, but the effectiveness of the novel lies in our feeling that nonetheless, something important has happened to him. His friendship with MacArthur's son, contrivance though it is, achieves something genuine, and somehow Vancleave is able to work through the gut-sinking news that his hastily-wed war bride is pregnant with another man's child and, at novel's end, arrive at a reconciliation.

Quiet, subtle, walking a line between melancholy and affirmation... I had the feeling that, like Paul Harding's  Tinkers, this could catch on in a large way if it found the right readers.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri, _The Lowland_

FINISHED THIS JUST as her book about deciding to write in Italian started getting attention, and wondered whether the change in language meant a change in subject matter as well, since her fiction has almost entirely been about first- and second-generation immigrants from India to the United States (particularly from Calcutta to New England). The two short stories in the new book, I learn from Tim Parks's review, are (a) very good and (b) not about Indian immigrants. A good way to make yourself do something different, I suppose--worked for Beckett.

So far, I like Lahiri's short stories somewhat better than I did her novels, but the novels are certainly readable...well-crafted, well-observed, emotionally complex...The Lowland has the added interest of a historical dimension, since its main characters are from the Midnight Children's generation.

Parks's review cast the novel in a new light for me, though, in raising the possibility that speaking and writing in Italian would put some distance between Lahiri and her family.

The most riveting moments in The Lowland involve intimate betrayal. Naxalite militant Udayan involves his new wife Gauri in his activities, exposing her to serious danger without letting her know what risks she is running. Then, after Udayan is killed by the police, the pregnant Gauri is taken in by Udayan's straight-arrow marine biologist brother Subhash, but Gauri leaves Subhash and her young daughter behind to go teach philosophy somewhere that sounds a lot like the Claremont Colleges. She doesn't contact them even once--talking about putting some distance.

Gauri's behavior struck our book club as inexplicable, and an interesting thing about the novel is that Lahiri doesn't try to explain it. There are signals enough that Gauri is not that attached to her family or her new circumstances in Rhode Island, but she makes her decision off-stage, so to speak, while husband and daughter are in India, and we do not get any interiorized view of whatever doubts or anguish she may be feeling, leaving one to suppose that whatever doubts or anguish there may have been did not amount too much. She just...leaves. Regrets? Not so much.

Lahiri could well have done a lot more to make Gauri's exit more a Nora Helmer scene, more feminist-tinged, but she just does not. Surprising but interesting.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Judith Rich Harris, _No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality_

HARRIS BEGINS HER book with the story of conjoined Iranian twins who decide to undergo a very dangerous operation--tragically, they do not survive--because, being interested in different things and not even wanting to live in the same town, they wish to be separate.

Since, as identical twins, they are genetically virtually the same, and since, being conjoined, they had the same upbringing, how did they wind up with quite distinct personalities?  That's the question.

Identical twins, it turns out, tend to wind up as different from each other in personality as any other siblings, shared genes and shared upbringing notwithstanding. This goes to show, Harris argues, that something else is having some large kind of impact on personality: not the parents or family so much as other people (peers especially), who distinguish (are designed to distinguish) even twins, begin to respond to them differently, have different expectations of them, make different assumptions about them, and so on, creating for each twin, in effect, his or her own world, in response to which he or she develops a distinct personality.

As with The Nurture Assumption, Harris's previous book (which I haven't read, only read about), No Two Alike goes to show that parental behavior influences their children a whole lot less than we usually imagine it does. As long as the parent is providing an ordinary amount of care (e.g., not locking your kids up in a closet for days at a time), then the community is going to play roughly as decisive a role as genetic inheritance is, whatever environment the parent is providing.

The argument struck me as persuasive. In the words of one mother of my acquaintance, whose daughter was a straight-A student from grade school on, modest, well-behaved, utterly reliable, and whose drug-dabbling son was seemingly unable to finish anything he started, "I'd rather not take any credit for [daughter] because then I would have to take the blame for [son]."

Just as interesting as Harris's argument are her stories of working as an independent scholar.  Without an institutional base or traditional academic credentials, hence liable to quick dismissal by various experts, she nonetheless has the patience to sift through the details of innumerable studies, sometimes crossing disciplinary lines, and thus is sometimes able to catch said experts taking an intellectual short cut or two, or resorting to bullying, or just plain acting in bad faith. I don't know that she is actually such an  underdog as she paints herself here--after all, she is a bestselling author, has won a few honors, and hangs out with the likes of Steven Pinker--but the stories herein of felled Goliaths make good reading.