Saturday, May 28, 2011

Books to Read

There are too many. Not too many. Lots. An endless supply. This is a good thing.

Esquire put out a list of seventy-five books every man should read. Shockingly, they included one book by a woman. She's Flannery O'Connor, but still!

There was much buzz, and Joyland magazine retaliated (that isn't quite the right word, but it'll work) with this list of 250 books by women all men should read.

Now I have even more books on my list. Not a bad thing. An overwhelming thing, but not a bad thing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Strength in What Remains

I will read anything Tracy Kidder writes. I don't care what it's about. It helps that I trust him--the only one of his books I couldn't get through was his very first one, The Soul of a New Machine, but what I love about his other work is the people in it. The people in it, and how he gets into the story by knowing them and appreciating them also by recognizing how much he can't understand about them. He puts himself into the narrative and one thing I love is how he never claims or even implies neutrality, he gets so close but he always recognizes that he is Tracy Kidder with a perspective on the story, and he always remains aware of that perspective and keeps his readers aware. It's part of what makes me trust and respect him. And admire him.

I taught his book Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), my first and only time teaching a college-level intro research/writing class. I didn't do a very good job, and one of the consequences was that my students didn't love this book anywhere near as much as I do. There was a lot of "Why are we reading this? I don't even care about Haiti! This isn't a class about Haiti and doctors!"

I've gotten better--and stricter, and more confident--about helping students understand that reading about any subject can make you a better and more critical reader, and researching any subject can make you a better researcher, and writing about any subject can make you a better writer. But yeah.

If I ever taught Mountains Beyond Mountains again, I would approach it so differently. I have learned so much about teaching since I tried that.

I didn't read Kidder's next book until now. A teacher friend at school loaned it to me months ago, and I told myself I had to get it back to her before the end of the school year, so this weekend I moved it to the top of my list and read all weekend. It was chemo weekend, so that was part of it, but it's also just such a good story. I don't read much non-fiction, but Kidder's books flow so beautifully that I don't care, and that's often one of my main problems with non-fiction. I like an arc.

Strength in What Remains
is the story of Deogratias, a refugee from Bujumbura who ends up in New York City. I didn't know jack about Bujumbura before I read this book--now I know a lot about it, and it made me think (again, some more) about how big this world is, and how little I know of it. But all around the world they hear too much about the United States--how can I not even know Bujumbura exists?

Bujumbura is next to Rwanda. Both were colonized by Germany in the late nineteenth century, then became Belgium's after WWI. Apparently the European colonizers inflicted a racial system on Bujumbura, persuading them that their two major groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, were essentially racial groups, not castes. Kidder says in a historical note at the end,

European colonists brought a myth with its own long history, a myth tailored to account for what looked to them like an anomaly: civilization in darkest Africa, kings and aristocracies and peasants, an advanced social order a little like Europe's. Tutsis, many colonists seem to have believed, descended from the biblical Ham, the banished son of Noah. Tutsis had degenerated through long contact with the inferior race of native blacks, the Hutus. But Tutsis were still Caucasian under their black skins.

I'm sure Kidder came to this story because Mountains Beyond Mountains is about Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, and Deo was training as a doctor in Bujumbra, and eventually discovers Farmer's books when getting his undergraduate degree at Columbia. (Deogracias has a terrifying, horrible life in so many respects, but he is also one of those hugely blessed people--first of all, he has a friend wealthy enough that his family is able to buy him a plane ticket to NYC and get him out of Bujumbra. Then, flying into NYC from Bujumbra, he meets an immigrant from Senegal who works at the airport and brings Deo home with him and finds him a job. A lousy job, but a job. The luck and coincidences continue--he ends up living with a couple in their SoHo loft, attending Columbia, then he goes to Harvard's School of Public Health, then Duke for med school! Certainly, he deserves every bit of this, but who ever gets the luck they deserve?!)

This is a captivating, beautifully written book, about so many things I am able to live my life without examining. I am so glad I spent a weekend with it. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Chronology of Water, a memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch

I initially was interested in this because my friend Cheryl Strayed was talking it up on Facebook. Though I just checked and it turns out Lidia and I have six mutual friends.

Anyway. So I put it on hold at the library, and I just picked it up last week, and I had another book I had to read first because someone else had a hold on it, and it made me crazy to have to wait. So I read the other book quickly and then read this one in two days.

This is definitely a more pomo book than what I'd usually turn to, but it's beautiful. I started reading it, and cried a lot, and thought oh shit I'm going to have to read this all at home and have another book I'm reading at school when my students are doing silent reading. But then I finished it, so not an issue. But I did cry a lot.

It's one of those books that's hard to summarize, because it manages to be about a lot. Lidia's early life, and her love of swimming, which helps her make it through a lousy childhood and get the hell out. All the sex and drugs, starting in high school. (In the intro, Chelsea Cain says that "some really famous edgy writer--I didn't recognize her name, but I pretended that I did--had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she'd said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Luknavitch." It's odd to have that be one of the few things you know about a book before reading it, but there is a lot of sex in this book, and it is well-written.) It's also hugely about writing, being a writer, and how writing can help save you. In what is right now my favorite segment, "Dreaming in Women," Yuknavitch talks about a bunch of the writers who've been important to her, and ends with, "I am not alone. Whatever else there was or it, writing is with me."

She opens the book with the story of the daughter she gives birth to in her 20's--stillborn.
After the stillbirth, the words "born dead" lived in me for months and months. To the people around me I just looked... more sad than anyone could bear. People don't know how to be when grief enters a house. She came with me everywhere, like a daughter. No one was any good at being near us. They'd accidentally say stupid things to me, like "I'm sure you'll have another soon," or they would talk to me looking slightly over my head. Anything to avoid the sadness of my skin.
So true. I haven't known that kind of grief, but people's response to grief--she nails it.

She talks about how she thought about opening the book with her childhood, but "Your life doesn't happen in any kind of order. Events don't have cause and effect relationships in the way you wish they did. It's all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common." This is an idea she returns to again and again, and it was especially interesting encountering it as I'm reading The Things They Carried with my students, and realizing this time around that the non-linearity of it is so hard for them. They're used to beginning, middle, end. But it's a book about memory and living with memories, and that doesn't happen beginning, middle, end. I'm doing a much better job teaching it this year. It's still a hard book--it will always be a hard book, one of those amazing hard books that I love watching them experience and take something away from--but hopefully it's slightly less frustrating for them this go-round, or at least they understand why they're frustrated, which makes a big difference.

In an interview at the end of The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch is asked about forgiveness, specifically forgiving her abusive father and her alcoholic mother who didn't get her and her sister away from the dad. She says,
When my daughter died I broke. Open. Into stories. For the first time in my life, I wanted to know what my mother's story was. Badly. So I asked her. When I explored what my mother's story had been all I felt was compassion for the girl of her. Someone should have done something to save her. No one did. It's a wonder she was alive at all.

Maybe forgiveness is just that. The ability to admit someone else's story. To give it to them. To let it be enunciated in your presence. It's your job not to flinch.
She has a lot to say about forgiving her father, including this:
...forgiveness isn't the best I have to give him. Even as a dead man, the best I have to give him is an acknowledgement that I came from him. And I did not kill myself. I am living beyond his life, his end and pulse. I am trying to put things into the world that alchemize the dark and turn it to something beautiful and smooth you can carry in your hand. A small mighty blue stone.
I'm glad I read this book. It's not the kind of book I'd usually pick up--I'm not such a memoir person, and I like me a more conventional narrative, usually--but I'm glad to have this inside me. I could say so much more but I think that's enough. Read it, and I think that what will jump out at you will be other lines, other pieces. There's so much here.

Also from "Dreaming in Women":

"Make quiet for Emily Dickinson. Sing gently a hymn in between the heaves of storm. Let the top of your head lift. See? There are spaces between things. What you thought was nothingness carries the life of it."

"I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way."

That chapter might ultimately be why I'll need to buy myself a copy of the book.