Sunday, March 19, 2017

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been working my way through the books in my house, the ones sleeping on shelves and teetering in stacks everywhere, in the usual random order. Rather than gearing up to write actual book reviews*, I’m more in the mood for talking about the books I’ve read lately, a very unscholarly, subjective business, rather like you and I are having drinks and dishing on the books we’ve read. So here now is some dishing.

A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin (1996)

I picked up this book during one of my Goodwill book sweeps, where I grab a bunch of wildly popular books for $2 each and pile them in a stack under my bedside table for snack-reading because sometimes, folks, snack-reading is called for. And one night I was in the mood; I wanted an entertaining page-turner that would immerse me in some other world. So I started this saga of the Starks and the Lannisters and the—oh, I forget, some other white-people-sounding names. It was a page turner, and it did immerse me in another world (a sort of medieval Britain, with magic), so it fit the bill fine. The story lines moved quickly and kept me interested. And as I finished it (well, you don’t really finish; it just propels you into the next book in the series), I pondered the best way to lay my hands on the sequel—Kindle, right now? Used bookstore tomorrow? I had an impulse to keep plowing through the books because I wanted to know what happened to these people—the blood-of-the-dragon lady, the brilliant but overlooked little man, the girl who’s good with a sword.
            But…here was the thing. I was tired of living in that world where pretty much no animal, except for some cool wolves, made it out alive. Animals die horribly in this book, all the time—cut down in battle, executed for maiming hapless humans, sacrificed in gruesome rituals that don’t seem to help anybody. It was like being immersed in a world where non-human life had no value (again, except for the wolves, who had the advantage of being royal pets). 
            And then there was the relentless violence against women. Martin and the HBO show’s producers have taken a lot of heat for that, and I find their excuses feeble—well, it was a different time, they say, and we wanted to portray the reality of it. I’m sorry—a fantasy book has some historical truth you have to portray? Since you’re making it up—it’s a fantasy—how about portraying a world where women aren’t constantly devalued, scorned as being too weak to rule, and referred to in terms of their body parts and weight? How about a book where masses of women aren’t institutionally raped during battles and conquests? Or where rape isn’t constantly tossed off with casual euphemisms like “he entered her” or “four of them took her”?
            I really had to ponder this after I finished the book. Truly, the story lines were so well crafted that I was tempted to pick up the next book and start reading. But I just…couldn’t. It’s like a video game that lets kids shoot people and blow up buildings. I despair of all the kids reading these books and internalizing messages like this. I have to stop and ask: As a culture, why do we do that to ourselves?

All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren (1946)

You know, that Robert Penn Warren, he could write. Holy smack. Exquisite, read-out-loud lines. Sentences that ran for entire paragraphs. Three Pulitzers, one for fiction (for this very book) and two for poetry. A writer’s writer. I mean, look at this, a little treatise on the obligations adult kids have when visiting their parents:

When you got born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can’t get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can.

            Thoughtful, beautiful, surprising writing. But I’m embarrassed to say I only got about 50 pages into this and had to put it down. I could not take the bleakness of this world. The meanness. I was in a bad place emotionally for it, I guess. Corrupt governor Willie Stark and his hangers-on were just too brutal, too Jim Crow South, too right-now America. Even the narrator, who seems like a decent guy, is so jaded and jaundiced that I felt like I was sitting in a hot, fly-infested bar, listening to him drone on and on and trying to figure out how to diplomatically dump him. In one scene some people are even mean to a really old, arthritic dog. And the n word is used endlessly. Yes, it was the times and all—I get it. But I tried reading this right after A Game of Thrones and just couldn’t do the mean-white-men world again. Maybe I’ll try this American classic another time. I mean, the guy could write.

Marilynne Robinson (2004)

After Thrones and King’s Men, I needed a major change of pace. And I can say—though I just started it and am only partway through—that Gilead is the perfect antidote to those bleak worlds. It starts slow, then kicks in with a great story about a man in the late 1800s going on a fool’s errand with his 12-year-old son, looking for a grave out in the wilds of drought-stricken Kansas. That story is so crazy and wonderful—what sane grown man would do that, with a kid in tow?—that it pulled me right into the book. And the structure of it, a series of stories from the past, interspersed with glimpses of the present, that a kind but pragmatic father is writing for his small son to read years into the future, makes me want to write the story of my own life this way, tale by tale and impression by impression. Absolutely brilliant storytelling.
Just look at that book block. Swoon.
            My copy is a first edition, hardback with elegant cream binding and headbands. And its layout—the block, as it’s called in the book biz—is so beautiful and readable, the font size versus leading so perfect, that I had to take a picture of it. It just lives and breathes in the hand. Bravo, designer Jonathan D. Lippincott and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sometimes I read books on Kindle, but books like this make me happy they still exist in physical form.

Out of Range
C. J. Box (2005)

My friend Steve shares my love of Westerns and smart mystery novels; he got me addicted to the Longmire series**. Recently he loaned me this mystery, book 5 in a series about a game warden in present-day Twelve Sleep, Wyoming. Honestly, when I started this book I didn’t know what game wardens do (they enforce hunting laws), and it’s weird for animal-lover me to be reading a book about hunting. But it’s not about hunting, it’s about hunters—who, in a place like this where there is a lot of hunting, can be practically anybody. And in this story there’s endless intrigue among hunting guides, land developers, law enforcement, and politicians, all taking place in the magnificent and changing landscape of modern Wyoming. C. J. Box has a deft touch for characterization; in this book there’s an ongoing feud between a husband and wife that’s as real and painful as life itself, and even the smaller characters are developed with compassion and complexity. And it’s all anchored by a deeply moral hero who’s dead serious about his job but not always sure of himself. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I’ll definitely pick up the others in the series.

And I realize, reading over this, that it’s all white authors. My next job: Remedy that.

* Have you ever written a scholarly book review? They’re hard.

** I like both the Longmire book series and the TV show. And they’re quite different. The books are tidily plotted and beautifully descriptive, but they tend to use the same tropes too often, like Longmire getting injured and being a big he-man galoot who will go to superhuman lengths to catch the bad guys. And in the books it seems like every middle-aged woman who crosses his path falls for him. On the TV show he’s more muted, moody, and real, and the female characters are more three-dimensional than in the books. This whole blog post has turned into a treatise on gender in literature, hasn’t it? I seem to have a bone to pick.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Peace, in Batches

Peace. Poetry. Postcards. Three great things, but do they taste great together? I honestly wasn’t sure, but I decided to find out.

Rut & funk
It began a couple of months ago, when I was in a writing funk—not just uninspired but anti-inspired, if that’s a thing. The election, inauguration, and attendant tangle of terribleness had me questioning whether writing was even worthwhile. An all-pervading depression had settled over my literary life, a suffocating blanket that whispered, “Who cares if you do this?

Then I saw an announcement that a group of Seattle poets were organizing a “Peace Poetry Postcard” event, a month-long writing marathon akin to the August Poetry Postcard Fest. Like the August fest, the Peace Postcard project invited participants to write a poem on a postcard every day for a month (February) and send it to another participant. But all of the poems had to have the theme of “peace.”

I admit I blanched. “Peace” is one of those poetry themes, like “memories” and “moon” and, oh, I don’t know, let’s just throw in a really bad one—“feelings”—that have been done to death. I couldn’t imagine getting too far down that road without skidding into Trite Gulch. But I felt like a kick-in-the-butt poetry marathon might be a good thing to spring me out of my rut, and I liked the challenge of trying to write peace poems that didn’t make me want to hurl. And though I knew the impetus of the project was to write poems about peace, as in not-war, I was intrigued by other interpretations of the word. What did “peace” mean in my day-to-day life? In the life of my town? In our larger culture?

Teeth, pulling
So I signed up, gathered some postcards, and got ready for February 1st to arrive. It did, and…nothing happened. No poem came to mind. Days went by—nada. Not interested. In my defense, February is one of the busiest times at my day job, but I could feel that stubborn depression still sucking the enthusiasm out of me—“Peace poems? Oh, please.” By February 10th—still no poems, or even the impulse to write one—I had to admit that I was on the verge of blowing off this perfectly nice project, this show of solidarity that those kind people in Seattle had worked hard to set up. I was going to be a lazy-faire inactivist. Yep, that was me.

Then one night around the 15th, the guilt got to me. I’d received a trickle of postcards—sweet missives, musings, rants—from other people in the project. And while I didn’t imagine anyone would miss getting a postcard from me—we didn’t even know each other!—still, I figured I could jot down some lines on a few postcards to ping back a signal to these good-hearted people. Some haiku-ettes or something—how hard could that be? So I grabbed a notebook and started writing little poems. I thought I might try five or so; I ended up writing about ten that night.

A wilder gear
An interesting thing happened while I was writing that batch of poems—the first few were forced and clunky, but around poem #4 they kicked into a higher gear and got more interesting. As I found last year during the August Postcard Poetry Fest, after my engine was warmed up, the topics and tones got wilder and more risky. In other words, better. So for the rest of the month (well, two weeks, with such a late start), rather than sit down every day and try to crank out a poem, I’d wait a few days, then write a batch of 5 or 6. And every time, it was the same: The first few were serviceable; the later ones took the leaps.

By February 28th, I’d written and mailed the full complement of 28 poems. Goooooal! And out of those, maybe 8 or 10 were worth polishing up and doing something with. For me, 8 or 10 possibly okay poems is a good haul for a month’s worth of work. And I have a pile of sweet postcard poems that I got from other people. I don’t know if we fostered more peace in the world—I’m guessing most of us aren’t the type to take up arms to begin with—but there’s something to be said for anyone trying, pen in hand, to stave off the oily waters lapping up against us. Or the heavy, depressing blankets whispering their nonsense. Yes, it’s not enough—there are still phone calls, petitions, marches, donations, and mid-term elections to deal with. But with so many fronts to fight on, making art of it is still worthwhile. It makes us, maybe, a thing worth preserving.