Reading Everything: Butler, Bradbury, Didion

The air has been sweet, breezy, and clear, the mornings cool and the afternoons bright but not the hot wet blanket that can happen this time of year in this part of the country. We’re in June’s sweet spot right now, a pleasurable time that can’t really be predicted from year to year but it is to be savored while it lasts. Even so, I haven’t taken the opportunity to sit on the porch in the evening and read at length. Last time I tried it was too easy to get distracted by the big puppy tasting the clover blossoms.

Those are for the bees, I told her in a scolding tone. She just looked up at me with a blank expression and spat out a little flower then went right on to the next. She clips the little white cap off with her teeth, rolls it around in her mouth for a minute then makes an audible paah as she spits it back to the ground.  I get the impression she’s annoyed that the little white caps keep coming back, the way she pounces in the center of one of the patches of clover each trip outside. Clip, roll, paah.

Oh well, the bees, what few I’ve seen, seem to prefer the wild strawberries this year anyway. Most of the neighbors would be appalled by so much clover on their lawn. I like the cheerfulness of the blossoms. Wishful thinking or not, I take those cheerful blossoms as a sign of a gentle summer. The sweet spot of June may just be ending today and I never got to read outside. But I did read. In the car at lunch time under a shade tree, in my favorite chair at home. The chair that I sometimes wake in after midnight with the last words of a story still playing through my head. Sometimes I read standing at the kitchen counter when I should be doing dishes. 

This week I finished Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, three short stories in Ray Bradbury’s I Sing The Body Electric, and several pieces in We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, by Joan Didion. All of these are physical books, two of which were borrowed from the library. The Didion collection is a book I’ve lugged from house to house for a number of years and only recently opened. God Almighty that woman can write her ass off. The landscapes she paints all around the varied pieces in this collection are breathtaking and wondrous.

Bradbury successfully mimics such an array of voices in his short story collection that I couldn’t really decipher what his intentions were. The first is so Hemingway it can only be about Hemingway, the second—if it came along a few years later—would have been thought a direct rip off of Monty Python’s style of satire. But it predates the heck out of MP.  Brilliant mimics those first two stories. The third is that voice of his alone that I went head over heels about several years ago—that matter-of-factly presented but still chilling warning against technological progress and the reliance upon it. Hubris and the future won’t mix well, he says in The Veldt, in Fahrenheit 451, and in Tomorrow’s Child.

Clay’s Ark was a great deal more brutal that my first two reads from Butler’s body of work. A different kind of brutal than Kindred. It’s violent, horrifying, and of course, Butler made it delicious. Much as I love Bradbury some of his stories make me squint and catch myself saying eh … come on Ray. Butler’s never do that. I just accept every word as truth.

Last night we sat beneath one of those skies that’s often featured in werewolf movies, eerily wispy white clouds, black sky, and big moon. Today the air is murky and promising storms. The clover has stopped spreading and doesn’t look so cheerful anymore but gardenias are blooming by the front entry. They smell dreamy.

 

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The Road of Learning. And Learning.

In the way way back, back when LiveJournal was my schnizzel, there was a game that came around every year … June 2oth, I think. It went something like this: A commotion outside wakes you, so you take a peek out the window. It’s the Zombie Apocalypse! Oh no! Your mission is to journal throughout the entire day about what you see, what you do, how do you handle this dire set of circumstances OMG WHO IS GOING TO DIE NEXT.

Of course, I find out about this FUN game that first time a an hour before it ends because I was out all day running relatives to the airport, etc. That’s okay though because the game I totally missed gave me a great idea:

My name is Holly and I have a bizarre story to tell …

I diddled with the story here and there, then put it away because it needed to be a novel and I kept shouting at it you’re a short story, and it would say no, novel, and so on. Took it out of the drawer in 2015 thinking maybe I could actually write the novel, but I sucked at writing novels so back it went. Last month I decided to stop sucking at writing novels. Novels are now going to be my schnizzel.

And since the decision has been made, I downloaded Scrivener once Word began to drive me to murder, now Scrivener has me scared to death I’m going to click the wrong clicky, and if I dare veer off to write by hand I doze off.

Uh …

Tonight no dishes will get done, not one floor will get swept, not one plant watered, or hubby conversed with because I’ve got to go show Scrivener who’s boss.

Here’s how to save yourself, your beautiful self.

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Once the decision has been made to read a certain book based on whatever criteria or recommendation has inspired the choice, I avoid reading blurbs and forewords until the end. More often than not, it is satisfying to completely consume the story within before reading other readers’ opinions or the author’s intentions spelled out in black and white on or just inside the cover. Satisfying, because I often receive validation of my own opinion, my own emotions, particularly with good books. So is the case with The Bluest Eye.

I heard of this book many years before I actually sat down to read. A reader and hopeful writer can’t possibly embark on a chosen life of reading and writing without hearing of Toni Morrison. She is out there, generous genius teacher and author, her works waiting for careful perusal, for minds that will absorb and consider and decide. I waited, unsure then how to articulate that instinct demanded I take the time to mature, to hone my blunt mind into a finer, more delicate receptacle for Ms. Morrison’s work. I waited years more after a professor said my piece, “Springtime”, called up the memory of The Bluest Eye, with it’s nursery rhyme refrains. When I finally opened the book, it was immediately apparent that I still wasn’t ready.

Even so, since consuming that story, since delving into the foreword and snippets of interviews with the author, since scrounging around for reviews and reading articles that list The Bluest Eye as one of the most challenged books on national school reading lists, I am grateful that I waited so long to read, grateful that I read when I did.

Consuming all this information, listening to Morrison’s own voice explain why she wrote the book, why she made specific decisions regarding the narration, has brought me to a few conclusions that might make great suggestions for teachers who would like to present this book to senior level high school students (to share it with lower level groups would not be appropriate, in my opinion). Before I get into that, however, I want to share excerpts from the most eloquently informative book foreword I have ever read.

The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female. In trying to dramatize the devastation that even casual racial contempt can cause, I chose a unique situation, not a representative one.

The extremity of Pecola’s case stemmed largely from a crippled and crippling family—unlike the average black family and unlike the narrator’s. But singular as Pecola’s life was, I believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls. In exploring the social and domestic aggression that could cause a child to literally fall apart, I mounted a series of rejections, some routine, some exceptional, some monstrous, all the while trying hard to avoid complicity in the demonization process Pecola was subjected to. That is, I did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse.

One problem was centering the weight of the novel’s inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution—break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader—seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t
work: many readers remain touched but not moved.The other problem, of course, was language.

Holding the despising glance while sabotaging it was difficult. The novel tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty. Because that moment was so racially infused (my revulsion at what my school friend wanted: very blue eyes in a very black skin; the harm she was doing to my concept of the beautiful), the struggle was for writing that was indisputably black. I don’t yet know quite what that is, but neither that nor the attempts to disqualify an effort to find out keeps me from trying to pursue it.

My choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture. Thinking back now on the problems expressive language presented to me, I am amazed by their currency, their tenacity.

Hearing “civilized” languages debase humans, watching cultural exorcisms debase literature, seeing oneself preserved in the amber of disqualifying metaphors—I can say that my narrative project is as difficult today as it was then.

A class study of this book, in my opinion, should begin with studying those last two paragraphs. The question of language considered by the author as she wrote Pecola’s unique situation on the page demonstrates just how vital Morrison understood her story to be, how vital it was to her to express the tragedies humankind brings upon itself. In doing so, she told her side of the story as well as that of several fictional characters. She expressed her own fears, hopes, disappointments, and brought to light the dangers of simply being a child.

Allowing the students to approach the study as if each of them has previously stated their wish to find the words, the language, to express the overwhelming tragedies, hopes, successes, fears, dangers, loves, injustices, and disappointments experienced thus far in their own lives would put them eye-to-eye with this author and her narrator. To do so, would allow the students to step into this story with an important mission—to observe a regional, cultural, socially historical masterpiece unfolding.

That’s what Morrison has created here—a textbook of self and social expression, a social history, a book of language arts.

Nonfiction: An Introduction, by Ann Patchett

I discovered audio books way back in the 90s, then, books on tape, and almost instantly fell in love. STORIES WHILE DRIVING IS AWESOME! Years later, when I had the opportunity to listen to a book read by its author for the first time, I thought, pffft! Now this is love!

That first opportunity came with Eat Pray Love, read by Elizabeth Gilbert, sent to me from a dear friend in 2012. The author’s voice lent something to the story no one else could have, regardless of their talent. It was the depth of emotion and humor and embarrassment that can only emerge from authenticity. I’d already read the book, and truly liked it, but this audio! Wow. By the end of it, I was 100% a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert.

The next book of hers that I was interested in reading came along several years later, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In the second chapter, Gilbert goes into detail about her first meeting with Ann Patchett and tells a remarkable story of what transpired between them. These two brilliant authors believe that from their greeting, with a kiss, inspiration for a book was exchanged. Neither of them spoke of the book at the time, which made the end result all the more remarkable. But for me, this passage was even better because I’d rediscovered Ann Patchett!

About a year before picking up Big Magic, I’d participated in an online writing workshop hosted by Southeast Review, in which an audio of Patchett introducing her book, Truth and Beauty, was shared. Oh, my. Her voice! The warmth and depth of emotion describing her friendship with Lucy, describing her life as a young MFA student, and later, exploring her grief over losing Lucy … to say I was moved is a dreadful understatement.

I put off searching for the book to finish the workshop, but I did share that audio with a couple of friends. And I listened to it at least twice more. Time passed and, blah, blah, blah, writing and reading and seeking out more craft pieces got shoved to the wayside. Thankfully, Big Magic brought Ann back to me. I bought Truth and Beauty, read it twice, then, in an unrelated turn of events, became an Audible customer.

My most recent purchase was The Story of A Happy Marriage, a collection of essays by Ann Patchett. I didn’t buy it because Patchett is the author, but because she is also the reader!

The first in this collection is, Nonfiction: An Introduction. Without going on any longer about her voice, I’ll say that in this piece, we discover how one writer made writing work for her. Intending to be a novelist since leaving her MFA program, she discovered that working day jobs exhausted her too much to focus on writing an actual novel.

It was laboring over tiny word-count articles that became her bread and butter. After a while Patchett realized that besides paying her rent and buying groceries, writing for demanding editors, being the go-to-girl for various magazines, honed her writing skills. She refers to those years as her apprenticeship. Writing nonfiction, as luck would have it, also left her with plenty of time and energy to focus on getting down to the business of writing those novels.

These writers, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert, inspire me every time I read them, every time I listen to them. Gilbert always seems to inspire study, while Patchett makes me write! After reading Truth and Beauty, I began to write daily love letters to my dearest ones. After reading The Get Away Car (also shared in the audio essay collection), I began to submit poems for the first time in two years. Since finishing her essay collection, I have edited two of my old essays and started to apply for freelance work.

Can I get anymore of this stuff, please?

Outlanders & Underdogs

So, here I am two episodes into Season 2 of my favorite TV show since the introduction of Game of Thrones. And I’m miserable.

As with Game of Thrones, I was introduced to the show before knowing about the existence of the books, so I bypassed reading and sit googly eyed for scheduled viewings. (I know, I know. Hush.)

Here’s the main reason I’ve opted to ignore the books, for now: In the past when I’ve read before viewing, murderous rage gets a bit overwhelming. Murderous rage is exhausting. So, yeah, I get why all the fans of Martin’s and Gabaldon’s books sneer and call the shows mere fan fiction. I get it. With that said, leave me to my TV geekgasms. Kthnx.

Or misery, whichever.

What I do see besides utter heartbreak in this season of Outlander, is the attempt to bring Claire out of the muck of Mary Janeness. There were moments in Season 1 that made me quite sick of her. Okay… we get it… she’s a bundle of hotness in bed, she’s a brilliant healer, and a daring feminist among brutal patriarchal assholes. Got it. She’s so awesome she’ll even do favor after favor for the despicable Black Jack. Sure, she’s operating under the guise of ensuring Frank is born centuries later, but come on, anyone can see she’s digging the drama.

Then there’s Jamie’s own threat of Mary Janeness … he’s a bit much sometimes as well. It’s often in the moments of his inexplicable perfection that I long to read the books. Claire, one would think, is the intended protagonist of this story, this series. But it seems to me the directors and writers of the show just might be all about Team Jaime. I don’t see a thing wrong with this, but still, I wonder what was intended by Gabaldon. Seriously, just how much of an underdog can one character be?

More than a few acquaintances on social media have made remarks in past weeks along the lines of “but what about Frank? While all you sluts are swooning over Jamie, take a minute to think about how amazing Frank is!” I agree, to an extent. Still, Frank will never come off as an underdog. Maybe it’s the way he tilts his head when he speaks in that English accent — nobility on the verge of utter snobbery. This guy isn’t going to humble himself. Not completely. Whereas Jamie would, has, will. And so, in this respect anyway, the underdog wins it all.

After a couple decades of soul-crushing misery anyway.

Right?

While I’m twisting here in the conflict of to read or not to read before the series finale, the question of whether or not I could write such an underdog niggles in the back of my mind. Early on in my writing, I found out just how easy it is to write a Mary Jane all the while thinking this was an amazing, complicated, brilliant character. (Totally not, as it turned out.)

She was an underdog that eventually overcame three rather nasty plot twists. But could I, without setting out to, write an underdog of Jamie’s stature? Would I stop myself one day and say, WAIT. How many self-sacrifices do I actually need in this 50k word count? Why am I doing this?

What would be the goal of writing such a character, other than making certain another character, either his foil or one true love, survived to be called hero?

I’ve done really well, remained absolutely strong in avoiding book spoilers and online book reviews/analysis. I’ll stay strong and stick to a promise I made myself in the third season of Game of Thrones — I’ll get the books about five minutes after the series finale.

Read Your Heart Out

50 books in 2016? Let’s!

Brigit's Flame Writing Community

For those of you who don’t know, I can read. Yes, I understand that is not impressive, or at least it shouldn’t be, but let’s not get into the global illiteracy debate just yet.

I mention my ability to read because, as far as 2015 was concerned, there was no proof. I don’t think I read a single book all year. My e-mail inbox at work is probably the most reading action I’ve gotten, and that’s predictably bland material.

I may have mentioned it before, but I’ll say it again. I am going to read 50 books in 2016, and Good Reads and Over Drive are going to be my weapons. Don’t know what those are? Well! Let’s learn together!

Good Reads is a reading app (no way!), centered around an individual’s goals and experiences. You create shelves for yourself, and add books to them. Digitally, of course. Some shelves…

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“About last night….” : The Day After a Good Book

The Day After A Good Book, by RicoChey.

This is a great look at those books that cause enough emotional upheaval to warrant a day of silence (or two). What are some of your most memorable experiences?

Brigit's Flame Writing Community

A couple of days ago, my friend posted a status on Facebook:

“You can’t just go from a sad book to a happy book.”
“Sure you can, you just start reading.”
“No! There’s a grieving period, you don’t understand!”

The exchange was between herself and her husband. My friend is an avid reader. Truly, she puts me to shame. Her husband isn’t really book-y, so it’s understandable that he doesn’t quite grasp the severity of her dilemma. She experiences this conflict often and refers to it, as many do, as a ‘book hangover’. She speaks often of needing a period of emotional recovery between books if an ending is particularly brutal, whether the ending be happy or sad.

The same is true for me, but I experience it far less often. Sometimes it even gets me in trouble, or I’m at least a little less trusted by certain friends. I…

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A Random Movie Scene, An Old Book, And Possible Fodder For Philosophers

Brigit's Flame Writing Community

One of my favorite movie scenes is in The Day After Tomorrow: A super storm is hitting New York, temperatures are dropping, and city refugees are holed up in the Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. Their best bet for survival is to set fires and huddle together in a single room of the massive building. What materials you reckon they use for setting those life saving fires? Yeah.

One librarian, Elsa, notices that the other, Jeremy, is holding tightly to an old bible. Snidely, she asks, “You think God’s gonna save you?” Equally snidely he replies that he doesn’t believe in God. This book is a Gutenberg Bible. He glares at the boys steadily throwing books into the fire and says: I’m protecting it. This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I’m concerned, the written…

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Prequels & Sequels: A Blog Post About Inevitable Disappointments In Literary And Social History

Today I read original reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird from The Telegraph and The San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, an article that quotes one of Harper Lee’s friend’s take on the book, one of Miss Lee’s profound quotes on her goals as a writer. I also viewed a video in which the novel is referred to as “social history” and Atticus Finch is deemed a “moral compass”. All of these are fascinating, but the question remains, after digesting all this information, how is it that Atticus seems to change so drastically from one novel to the next? And, what might be the writer’s goal in depicting that change?

From George McMichael of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, July 1960:

Best of all, Harper Lee has wisely and effectively employed the piercing accuracy of a child’s unalloyed vision of the adult world, to display the workings of a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself — or rarely seeks to.

I’m no literary expert, just a reader. I am not a sociologist, not an expert on cultural/regional influence, just a person who came of age in the post-Civil Rights Movement Southern U.S. Taking all this into consideration, I have a specific perspective on this novel, and a certain appreciation for Mr. McMichael’s statements.

I have an appreciation for “a child’s unalloyed vision of the adult world“. Unalloyed is defined as: (chiefly of emotions) complete and unreserved. Those things that we learn in childhood, those perceptions of significant events, conversations, the emotions that settle around the image or remembered words of a dear one … these stay with us and influence our ideals as we age. Inevitably, as we age, those ideals accepted in childhood, those unconsciously formed absolutes, get tested. They become problematic, regrettably indefensible. Life can be cruel that way. What becomes of these ideals? Do we cling, do we abandon them altogether? Poor Scout.

Atticus was Scout’s moral compass in her childhood. It’s my belief that the widowed father took great care with that responsibility. He was a man of the law, of careful deliberation. And yet, if we pay close attention, he was a man of boundaries. Some of those boundaries he refused to directly impose upon his children, some he didn’t.

“… to display the workings of a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself — or rarely seeks to.” 

What’s most remarkable about the South is that people who have never lived here, people who weren’t raised here and who’s great grandparents weren’t raised here, cannot decipher the coding embedded within the clearly outlined boundaries of old vs. the clearly outlined boundaries of the 70s, the 80s, and today. There’s no codex, no beautifully bound book of definitions or parables that explains the equal importance of the blurred boundaries, the boundaries that wave in the wind, the boundaries that pop up seemingly out of nowhere and only after a new generation’s scenario plays out. The most remarkable thing about the South is that Southerners (in general) haven’t troubled themselves with defining, reconstructing, renaming, or erasing those boundaries. This region is composed of people who generally decide on their own which boundaries they’ll cross or won’t, and those who will either accept what’s relevant today as their personal boundaries, or pick and choose and judge from the comfort of their own porch.

On the outskirts of the town where I grew up, a crossroad slows traffic long enough for a decision to be made. Go left of a grand old oak tree, and you’ll find yourself on a back road that wasn’t paved until the 1990s — it leads on past a plain clapboard church, cotton fields, and the occasional modest house to a small town once thick with factories and car lots.  Go right of the oak tree and that narrow winding road (paved in the 80s) is flanked by hog farms, faded red barns, and eventually, that road crosses the invisible line into another county where passersby are first greeted by a dilapidated pool hall and handwritten signs promising homemade pickles. Scenic drives in either direction. It’s now 2015 and no one has ever raised the proposition to cut down that elderly, bent old tree to erect a traffic light or put up official notifications of which road leads to where. Why? Because the locals are confident where they’ll end up, maybe. And newcomers will eventually figure it all out.

There’s no way to fully explain the stubborn pride of a geriatric Great Uncle who insists humanity as he understands it does not thrive north of the Mason Dixon Line, nor to adequately convey the fact that same old man possesses and lavishly demonstrates an unmatched generosity and kindness to everyone he ever met fitting the criteria of “underdog”. There is no way to justify poker, hard drinking, and target shooting on Saturday night followed by an exuberant eight hours of church fellowship on Sunday.There is no way for me — a person who grew up in a South more economically than racially divided — to help outsiders understand it’s equally acceptable to pay annual homage to fallen Civil War soldiers as it is to pay homage to the spiritual and intellectual strength of a great Civil Rights leader who was slain by a white criminal.

Did Scout live in a place that could be described as “a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself”? Do I?

Don’t we all?

As for seeking to understand (and, thus explain) the region, I think Miss Harper did an amazing job. Other writers should take note of exactly how she depicts the people living in Scout’s small town — they are all complex individuals in spite of what simplistic, ambiguous, or hate-filled ideals they claim.

As for Atticus … well, I’ll speak more on him later.

How newspapers reviewed ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in 1960.