Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Hunters - by Claire Messud

 Read February 2009
This 2001 book contains 2 Novellas, "A Simple Tale" and "The Hunters." It was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and is Messud's third book after When the World Was Steady and The Last Life.

The NYTimes review called it "a work of near-miraculous perfection," but a week after reading it, I recall very little of it. "A Simple Tale" traces the life of a Ukrainian woman from her capture by the German army as a teenager, her survival of Krupp's labor camps, marriage and emigration to Canada, and then her disappointment in her only son's "bad marriage." Through most of her adult life she comes in as domestic maid for families that eventually die out until she only has one left, a Tuesday at the home of Mrs. Ellington where she has worked for 46 years when the story actively begins.

The closing event of the narration, a purchase of a brightly colored painting, and the catharsis it seems to represent failed to follow or"signify" to me. What is simple about "A Simple Tale"? Perhaps the author means to refer to the socially insignificant status of Maria--peasant, labor-camp slave, wife and mother, cleaning woman. Her writing is not simple in syntax, certainly; see below for a sample in the story. It is not simple in lacking dramatic incidents, although they mostly left me curious, not involved emotionally.

Of "The Hunters," I recall little but irritation. The language is more intricate than the first story but without charm. Again, my curiosity was awakened but not my empathy. Despite myself, I was hooked on the author's elaborate concealment of the fictional narrator's gender. I believed I deduced it, but I disliked all the characters, and felt neither surprise nor satisfaction nor sorry when the overly foreshadowed "tragedy" was revealed.

The fussy complexity of syntax was just one more stylistic "delay" of revelation: "But in that summer so far from all that was familiar to me, in which I barely believed in my own flesh, which I could bite or pinch or draw blood from, in that summer of strange enclosedness, in which the vast panes of glass in my flat, through which I could observe so much about which I felt so little seemed to travel with me outside into the city, like an invisible protective pope-mobile, I viewed the entire world at a muffled remove, without emotion."

My sentiments exactly.

PS, January 2017:  Curiously, although I was miffed at the way the writing obstructed my easy passage only to end in non-revelation, I find that these stories which I thought failed to make an impression are deeply recalled after 8 years. !!??

I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Numerologists would boggle at this book’s various numerical coincidences, as does Gould himself. First, as the title suggests, this is the last of his books of essays from the journal Natural History. It is also neatly the tenth such book. Moreover, there were exactly 300 such essays, one published in every issue for 30 years, with not "one missed," as Gould says, “despite cancer, hell, high water or the World Series.” There is also a quarter-century between his first popular book and first scientific book in 1977, and this book and a new major scientific title in 2002.

And then--numerologically speaking-- there is the fact that January 1, 2001, the date of the last essay, was the first day of the new millennium. And that essay was the title essay for the book, and celebrated a personal centennial: Gould’s grandfather arrived, a young Hungarian immigrant, in NYC in 1901. In Gould’s library was a book of his grandfather’s, an English grammar with an inscription celebrating the day: “I Have Landed, Sept. 11, 1901.”

While the book was being prepared, that date sadly took on a different and opposite connotation for Americans, so a separate section was added at the end of I Have Landed to balance the celebratory opening.

And as a final coincidence, one completely unforeseen, in 2002, Gould died swiftly of a previously unsuspected cancer, so that the title I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History could also be the title of a sober eulogy. The dedicatory invocation at the end of the first essay, especially, takes on haunting connotations: “Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful,” it begins, and it concludes, “I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next.”

All this is irrelevant to the content, but I pass it on because in pursuing my intention to read all of the books of Stephen Jay Gould I have developed such respect and gratitude for his devotion to the task of educating the non-scientists of the world without patronizing or simplification that his death at the comparatively young age of 60 still saddens me, ten years later. He was that rare thing in America today, a public intellectual with wealth of knowledge plus a passion for a just, rational and humane world. I also have developed that most dangerous of reviewer attitudes, an odd kind of personal liking, and even, on occasion, irritation with his quirks and imperfections. He is so overt, so open, and so enamored of his sense of humor, his delight in the ‘signifying’ detail, his classicism, and his antiquarian books. We can ill spare him.

The great value of the book, of course, is impersonal and extensive: it consists of intelligent and articulate writing, a passion for explication, thorough knowledge of science and the history of science, almost the history of knowledge. With Gould, every fact becomes a doorway to an interconnected universe, and as one reads, these connections light up illuminating previously concealed significance. I'll take, for instance, his acute ability to find concrete examples of his perhaps favorite theme, that of the often invisible influence of social assumptions and hidden preconceptions upon the conclusions of scholarship, including the sciences. As Gould tries again and again to persuade readers, when something just "feels right," then the need to examine one's premises and reasoning is even more imperative. What it "fits" may be something completely unrealistic.

In an essay called "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs," Gould examines two very different examples of the way facts can be—and are—blinked in the human need to make events conform to a pre-existing mental idea or pattern. At the site of the Alamo, Gould found a letter written by Bowie to the Mexican general Santa Ana exploring a negotiated surrender. This letter contradicts the popular legend that Bowie joined his impulsive co-leader William B. Travis (widely recognized as impetuous and vainglorious) in declaring the intention to fight to the death rather than surrender or escape. The letter is prominently displayed in glass at the historical site in San Antonio, Texas, but official information–even in the Tom Wolfe novel, A Man in Full—maintains the legend. Gould points to this example of myth-perpetuation with contrary evidence "hidden in full sight," as only one small example of what he ventures to call a trait of the human brain, its operation as a device to recognize patterns. Depending on the patterns generated by the beliefs and fables of a society, its members will tend to see facts through a selective bias that pushes the facts to fit the patterns.

But it's not just patriotism or heroic great-men narratives that are so influenced. The second example in this essay deals with a sports myth: that of the catastrophic failure of Boston Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner to snag a grounder to end a ninth inning in a sixth World Series game in 1986 that –had the Sox won—would have brought them their first World Series ring since 1918. And had Buckner picked up the ball, the Sox would –well, that's the point at which the "story" ignores the facts: they would only not have lost yet. The score was already tied. Had Buckner gotten the third out, the game would have continued into extra innings. And that's Gould's point. The Mets had already gained their two-point deficit.. So if Buckner had picked up the grounder, and stepped on first base, there's no guarantee that the Sox would have won.

How did the story come about that Bill Buckner "lost" the game for the Sox, and "lost" the Series? This was, as I said, the sixth game. For you who don't follow American Baseball, a World Series is the last round in a series of playoffs. The two teams play for the best of seven games. So at least four games must be played. The Red Sox had already won three games by this game, the sixth in the 1986 series, so if they had won the game, the World Series would end with them the champions. But even if they lost this game, there was still a seventh game to play. How did one play in the sixth game "take away the Series"?

Gould collected the evidence of this revisionist history—much of it in sports journalism,
where writers seldom have time to track down details of apocryphal stories that "everyone knows." The revelatory fact, however, is that the story of Buckner's Disaster occurs also
in "rarefied books by the motley crew of poets and other assorted intellectuals who love to treat baseball as a metaphor for anything else of importance in human life or the history of the universe." (Gould himself has used baseball as a major metaphor, in Full House, an investigation of how statistics are so poorly understood that evolution can be seen, wrongly, as a story of increasing complexity, and therefore an inherent dynamic with humans as the apex.)
As he says, "something deep within us drives accurate messiness into the channels of canonical stories, the primary impositions of our minds upon the world." Neither story, perhaps, is of great importance, but these "common styles of error—hidden in plain sight, and misstated to fit our canonical stories—occur as frequently in scientific study as in historical inquiry."

I will add that because they "fit" patterns, these fictional versions of reality are widely employed in political discourse. If you want to persuade people, and animate them to emotional investment in political decisions, you can't bother with the "accurate messiness" of reality. For instance, yes, crime has decreased as prison populations have increased, for instance, but there is not a one to one correspondence from state to state, or in types of crimes, or even over time. That two phenomena co-occur is no clue to causation. And yet, how does one answer false conclusions?

Then we must also deal with the problems caused by who writes or concocts the stories we hear. It is true that the victors tell the world their version of what happened. And so we think that what is coincides with what ought to be; might therefore creates right. History, sociology, psychology, as well as science, are all infected with this seemingly inevitable "silly and parochial bias." Thus we read of the first land animals as having been "a conquest," and hear the story that dinosaurs were "doomed" to fall "in favor of" the triumph of mammals (us). But fish still constitute a good 50% of all vertebrates, those lucky victors on land not having gained any advantage (yet). And dinosaurs only died because of a once-in-known-history collision of an extraterrestrial object with earth. Dinosaurs had held pride of place for over 130 million years. Mammals didn't "vanquish," but were an accident of history, "for reasons. . . that probably bear no sensible relation to any human concept of valor"or " intrinsic superiority."

All this is a summary of the meaty gist of just one essay among thirty-two, dealing with everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to theories of human race, from the mosaics at San Marco in Venice to the landscape paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, from Freud's evolutionary fantasies ("the penis as a symbolic fish, so to speak, reaching toward the womb of the primeval ocean") to Nabokov's "other" vocation as a lepidopterist, and several analyses of racism both toward Jews and blacks ("Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking").

Especially because this book was published posthumously, I must just add my regret that for all Gould's vast knowledge he never found the occasion to study Post-Colonial theory seriously, a rubric which includes gender studies, culture studies, ethnic studies, philosophy, and significant portions of post-modern thinking. He would there have found ample support for his arguments about human tendencies to think in terms of super-imposed social story forms; in general, the term in the humanities for these forms is "Master Narratives." As a historian of science, however, and –as he will humorously say, a 'white professor over sixty,'—his cultural idols remained uniquely European, and overwhelmingly male, although he recognized gender bias as one of those patterns which compromised accuracy only too often. Gilbert & Sullivan, Bach, Handel, Shakespeare: all worthy arts, but not comprising all the worthy. He admits in another book* that this Eurocentrism and devotion to European classics all too often occurs among "folks like me...who don't wish to concede that other 'kinds' of people might have something important, beautiful, or enduring to say." This generous acknowledgment of the desire of some scholars, professors, intellectuals and scientists to "maintain old privileges" is thoroughly indicative of what I, with some hesitation, call Stephen Jay Gould's intrinsic goodness; he may sometimes make light of certain vices, joking about the Baconian metaphors of "masculine science" "ravishing the formerly innocent Miss Nature," a crudity that estranges me, but he is, was, and now will always be, the quintessential man of good faith.

*The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox.

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Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon

Aug 12, 12

"Mentally retarded. Words we said about my sister, but never said to her."

As children it hadn't mattered to Rachel Simon that there was "something wrong" with her sister Beth. Beth was only eleven months younger and they were good playmates. But over the next two decades their lives went very different ways. Rachel was shamed and embarrassed at school where other children laughed and mocked the "retards," which led her to a sense of separateness and difference, even resentment. Then their father, a college dean, left the family, pointedly not taking the four children: he'd "met someone." The profoundly depressed mother eventually lost all semblance of function and one by one the older children left, but Beth stayed with her. The mother's circumstances disintegrated, until at last Beth was rescued by her father from a nightmarish situation, but not unscarred or unscathed. Rachel was nearly fortywhen she began to get to know her "retarded" sister  again.

There was far too little in the book about the father's ordeal over the next twenty years as he tried to do his best with the maturing Beth. She was not docile; she was not cooperative; she definitely did not fit that cliche about the retarded: "God's little angels." Rachel Simon tells maybe too much of her own personal story instead of the larger picture, but it's the larger picture—with Beth as the heroine, not Rachel—that makes this book worthwhile.

Beth is at last living independently in an urban setting when her sister, the author, decides to try to get to know her again. It is not an easy decision because Beth is neither mild nor sensitive. She is—at 39—overweight, loud, very often obnoxious, especially to anyone from whom she detects criticism. She wears the clothes an unsupervised nine-year-old might choose, including shorts and flip-flops if the weather's "over forty." Her diet is also similar to that of a nine-year-old. She is not healthy. Her main interest and activity is the city buslines which she rides from early morning to night. Its drivers are her social world and their schedules are her schedule. Although Beth has learned to read and write, and could conceivably hold a menial job like clearing tables at fast-food restaurants, she doesn't, and from what we see of her, it would be unlikely that she would work in public smoothly. What she does is ride the busses. Her other friend is her boyfriend Jesse, also mentally retarded. Jesse rides bicycles instead of busses. And yes, they are lovers—that is, the forbidden and fearful topic of "sexual congress" is part of their lives.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is what seem to be accurate transcriptions of the bus trips Rachel takes with Beth; Beth's behavior and conversation were vivid in Simon's writing and certainly underlined the main point of the book: there is no easy categorization of people afflicted with "mental retardation" according to some abstract scale--"mental age," extent of disability, or any other single factor.

But in the same way in which the narrator hovers on the threshold between loving acceptance and frustrated rejection of Beth, so the book also hovers on the line between an empathetic portrait of Beth and objectification. It's tricky any time a writer tries to sketch someone whose experience is foreign to both writer and reader. However well Simon succeeds in disabusing her own ignorance and thereby the reader's, she remains—and thus the book does—noncomprehending. She learns, and communicates, why "mental age" is an inadequate measure of the quality of life for any given individual and just how individual, even unpredictably eccentric, a developmentally disabled person can be.

She also learns how little she actually had ever understood the challenges facing Beth at every level, as well as how difficult is any assistance effort that respects the individual's freedom of choice. And why such respect for that freedom is important. The beginning of coercion is always the beginning of a bad story. The portraits she draws of Beth and of her boyfriend Jesse enlighten us about those challenges. Beth is childish in her resistance to seeing a dentist, choosing a healthier diet for her weight and cholesterol, dressing "sensibly," or foreseeing danger or sickness, or understanding how her behavior offends and bothers other people because of the boundaries she violates with an almost utter lack of empathy. But she is also childlike in her indifference to appearances, to judgments of others based on her manners and niceties; she is childlike in her energy and enthusiasm, her enjoyment and eagerness, her tenacity and her concern for those she cares about.

We don't get to know Jesse as well although he seems more serious, more aware of consequences and sensitive to the nuances of relationships. A display of his startling skills in a martial arts routine gives both Simon, and the reader, tangible evidence of the unpredictability of each "disadvantaged" individual. and of the complexities that should unsettle easy stereotypes.

Moreover, to add to the ambivalence, Rachel Simon is only too well aware that at the same time she finds Beth pitiable and criticizes her insensitivity, she sees that Beth has devoted friends among the bus-drivers and her caretaking social workers, and unlike her older sister, does have a settled love relationship. Simon on the other hand was unhappily single, a workaholic, and at burnout flashpoint when the bus-riding year begins.

There are at least four storylines at work here. First, the portrait of a complex adult with mental disabilities; second, the difficulties encountered within the Simon family in relation to Beth; third, the particular dysfunctionalities within that family that further complicate their lives, and fourth, the author's use the story to increase readers' comprehension of the multiple realities of lives of the "retarded." A fifth storyline cuts across these and blurs them: that of the author's evolution and emotional "salvation" during and because of this year of "Riding the Bus" from a lonely, unhappy workaholic to a blissful woman about to be married. True or not, it seemed sappy and detracted from Beth's story.

All of the stories, in fact, come at some expense to the others. The author's happy reconciliation with an ex-fiance was irrelevant hokum to me, no matter how true; I would have preferred more reflection on the general theme of the functionally disadvantaged and their impact on families of origin and vice versa. Her happy ending seemed to me to be of a piece with the "easy cliches" she seems to want to debunk. Now her happy ending probably goes quite a bit further: with the Rosie O'Donnell film directed by Anjelica Huston, the happy ending probably went all the way to the bank.

The book made me ponder how our "advanced" civilization, our "progressive" society, has made wounded, injured, invalid or nonfunctional family members an impossible or nearly impossible burden in the busy nuclear family or its remnants. In Nebraska several years ago legislation was passed which was meant to save unwanted infants' lives by offering safe haven for parents to surrender children at hospitals without penalty. Within less than three months fourteen children were left at hospitals: seven of them teens. Legislators and other conservatives called this irresponsible: "they [such parents or grandparents] were tired of parenting," one person sniffed. The truth is that severely depressed or manic or otherwise mentally ill or disabled children are almost unmanageable by parents, especially since almost all adults must be working to support the family. Laws designed to protect children from abuse sometimes go so far that the guardians are prevented from using the only recourse, physical restraints. And with the absence of universal healthcare so that psychiatric help could be obtained and, of course, since the complete dismantling of public psychiatric care in these neo-con decades, the situation is desperate. If you have not witnessed first-hand the craziness of a grandmother or a single parent trying to help defiant and depressed, and sometimes aggressive, children, you probably cannot imagine the circumstances. The Nebraska guardians surrendered those fourteen children hoping that those young humans would therefore get the care they needed. Of course, Nebraska—the last state to pass a safe haven law—quickly adjusted it to rival the strictness of the law in other states: it now applies only to children under thirty days old. And the discussion of the desperation that had been uncovered was quickly silenced.

I've digressed. This book will make you do that. Which is to say that it is a compelling non-fiction examination of a largely hidden and mysterious corner of society to those of us who don't have intimacy with the mentally retarded, the developmentally disabled.

It was a good book to read for the insights and information it offered. Evaluating books is like evaluating tools. It's not just whether or not it's "good." It's what it's good for. This won't thrill you as literature. But you will probably be glad you read it. 

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

I wanted to like this book. I am convinced that the more books published by women and by non-European men, the more possible it will be to see the world from multiple perspectives, and the easier it will be to discredit any claim that "we," of course, "know the world," where WE is some monolithic imaginary prejudice.

 I wanted to like this book.  But I didn't.

I couldn't interpret the characters at all. I did not understand why Sophie hated sex with her husband; I didn't understand that what was referred to as "testing" her virginity was experienced as, or intended as, or interpreted as sexual abuse which caused her horror of sexuality. I didn't know until more than halfway through the book that she supposedly was bulimic. I didn't even really understand the overall family dynamics. I hardly understood anything about Tante Atie when Sophie goes back to Haiti, nor about Louise and her pig. I only belatedly perceived there was supposed to be a lesbian relationship involved, or was there? I couldn't empathize with Sophie's fury at her mother's lover after her mother goes berserk, as it were.

In short, I didn't "get it." (I even misplaced the book for awhile—a subconscious passive-aggressive attempt to avoid finishing it?)

This is my first Danticat. I hope if I read another, I will better understand it. I kept thinking of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and wishing I were reading it again instead of this one.