Thursday, January 28, 2021

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

 Source of book: I own this.


One of the reasons I decided to read this book when I did was that some friends got me a copy of Walden Two by B. F. Skinner, and I figured I should read the original first. Like most American high schoolers, I read excerpts in my teens, and learned some basics about the Transcendentalists. Of course, since I was homeschooled using Fundie curriculum, a lot of the “information” about the movement was just propaganda about how the Transcendentalists lost their way by forsaking Fundie theology (and Capitalism) and getting into Unitarianism, Eastern influences (and Feminism and Environmentalism.) It would have been helpful to have seen the more complete picture - namely, the reaction to the Industrial Revolution and Calvinism, the egalitarian impulse, and the connection to Kant. In retrospect, it is pretty clear, reading between the lines, that the beef with Transcendentalism went beyond theology - although that was a factor, particularly given the Calvinist commitments of most branches of Fundiedom. Fundie discomfort with the Transcendentalists was primarily cultural. Fundies still harbor a lot of sympathy for the eras of slavery, manifest destiny, and Jim Crow, so the Transcendentalist causes of Abolition, Feminism, justice for Native Americans, workers’ rights, and so on run counter to the ideal Fundie societies of the past.  


The Transcendentalists, thus, are one of the original Social Justice reformers in the American tradition, as well as the forerunners of all the environmentalists that would come later. In those senses, I find I have a lot in common with them. There is a lot to like about the ideals that Thoreau stood for and fought for, along with Emerson. Walden also contains some great passages, wonderful descriptions of nature, and interesting philosophical musings. 

The 19th Century and weird whiskers...

That said, I find Thoreau personally irritating for a number of reasons. When he gets philosophical, his writing gets more turgid and opaque and repetitive, and often ends up using a lot of words to say virtually nothing of substance. Even as he relied on others to support him, he advocated for a “do little to no work” approach that really only worked for a privileged person. I rather dislike asceticism in general, so his love for tasteless food, disdain of beverages other than water, his lack of interest in books beyond a narrow range, his ambivalence about other humans, and his dismissal of sex as animalistic grated on me. (Thoreau was likely asexual. While there has been plenty of speculation based on his writings, his actual life seems to have been devoid of actual sexual or romantic relationships. Unfortunately, unlike fellow asexual Henry James, he seems to have mostly looked down on his more sexual fellow humans.) 


Oh, and the dude is a shameless and smug morning person, and well, blah to that. 


When it comes to nature writers, I very much preferred reading John Muir, Wendell Berry, or Loren Eiseley. Or, for that matter, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Oliver. That said, there was good in this book, and I am glad I read it. If nothing else, it gives crucial background information on one of the most influential movements in 19th Century America. 


Let’s start with arguably his most famous quote from the book:


The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped by unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. 


On the one hand, Thoreau is on to something here. On the other, dude, maybe you should hang with some ordinary folk and play some...whatever they called soccer back then. You might see people having fun, not just fighting off despair. 


Perhaps as famous, and also the heart of the book, is this passage. 


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life; to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it prove to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. 


Also both amusing and, honestly, unexpected, was this passage, proving Jack Weinberg wasn’t the first to express distrust of older people. His observations seem particularly on point in our present cultural moment. 


It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What every body echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new...Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost...Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing, to the purpose. 


There is a lot to unpack in this one. First, I completely agree that it is never too late to give up our prejudices. In fact, people who wish to grow need to actively fight their prejudices their entire lives. We need to test ideas, whether they are old or new. Ideas considered “venerable” all too often just turn out to be defenses of an unjust status quo. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what I have seen from most of my parents’ generation. Instead of growing and changing in a positive way, so many have retreated into racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in response to a changing world. They have rejected evidence and embraced insane conspiracy theories. Thoreau makes a fascinating statement here on that as well: sometimes age hasn’t profited from experience, but lost the good it had. It has ossified, not grown. One of my personal sorrows of my last decade and a half has been to realize that I cannot go to those I once trusted for advice. I won’t get anything of value or use anymore, just a lecture to return to the old ways, which would, in practice, mean the rejection of my wife and children, who do not fit in a 1950s or 1850s world. Like politics, it is recycled platitudes from a past that no longer exists - if it ever did. 


Speaking of that, later, when Thoreau builds his chimney out of used bricks, he notes that old sayings tend to stick around, whether true or not. 


The mortar on them was fifty years old, and was said to be still growing harder; but this is one of those saying which men love to repeat whether they are true or not. Such sayings themselves grow harder and adhere more firmly with age, and it would take many blows with a trowel to clean an old wiseacre of them. 


I mean seriously. If I had a dollar for every worn out 1980s political cliche (most of which aren’t true) I have had thrown at me lately as if they were an actual policy argument rather than a slogan...


Thoreau goes on to ridicule materialism, and the expression of “virtue” by display of wealth. Three lines here are great. 


No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.


Even in our democratic New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect. But they who yield such respect, numerous as they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to them. 


Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. 


Thoreau hits on some universal truths here. We may give lip service to “the clothes don’t make the man,” but in practice, we Americans tend to worship wealth, and ascribe virtue to what is mere privilege. And, of course, fashion. I bet that dates back to the first time a human put on a skin to keep warm. 


Thoreau himself, though, is not immune to weird prejudices. I mentioned above being particularly irritated at his assumption that being a morning person equals virtue. For example:


That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he as yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way...All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.”


Yeah, yeah. Bully for you. I do my best work later in the day, thank you very much. And many of my most memorable events have been afternoon, sunset, or even after dark. I’ll get up early to go hike, or for something time critical. But I don’t have to like it. 


I also have to take issue with Thoreau’s view of the elixirs of the gods. 


I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!


What the hell, Thoreau? Coffee raises the hopes of a morning, not dashes them! And a cold evening with a hot cup of tea? He totally lost me in this passage. And I am one who likes water plenty. 

I literally take a French Press camping with me. It's glorious. 

I also found Thoreau’s belief that only the Greek classics were worth reading to be annoying. Yeah, I know, he is of his time and place, and the “classical education” was a sign of wealth and class. But, as much as I enjoy old books, I do not believe it is necessary to be able to read Homer in the original to be educated or thoughtful. And, for that matter, Thoreau read more broadly than he argued for. For example, classics of Eastern thought make appearances in Walden quite often. And, how about this observation?


Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture.


That has been one of my arguments with Fundies, who believe that God only spoke to one small group of people, and that their own religious tradition is the only One True Truth™. Even as a matter of basic logic this seems absurd, let alone in the light of their own deity’s reminder that “The time will come when all will worship in spirit and in truth” in response to a question of which sect was correct. 


Thoreau was definitely an introvert. I can sympathize with him in this, even though I am definitely a more social introvert than he was. I liked his observation of quiet conversation.


If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. 


There are a few people I know well enough that we can literally sit in silence for hours without feeling either awkward or unconnected. 


Thoreau also made a pointed observation about, ahem, the United States, which seems ever more on point. 


The gross feeder is a man in the larvae state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them. 


While the US has good points, we seem to be in a state of conspicuous and indiscriminate gluttony, devouring everything whether it is good for us or not, consuming and consuming without a thought for the future. As Thoreau puts it, just like a caterpillar, whose only goal in life is to ingest. 


The best passages in the book were definitely the nature descriptions. The “pond” itself (actually a decent sized lake) is beautiful in real life, and Thoreau’s enthusiasm for its beauty comes through in his writing. It is when he describes, rather than when he lectures, that he writes the best. There are far too many good descriptions to quote, but I thought his account of how thaws produced leaf-like patterns in the sand and soil to be particularly good. The musing on the relationship of the inorganic and the living is good. 


The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit, - not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. 


I’ll end with one of my favorite nature passages, one which expresses my own feeling. 


We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. 


It is pretty hard to top that as an expression of why I need my time in the wilderness. 


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

 Source of book: I own this.


I am a big fan of James Thurber, and devoured most of my extensive collection (figuratively speaking) in my teens and twenties. I haven’t read as much since starting this blog, mostly because I have already read a lot of it, and have been reading new things, rather than revisiting the old. Too many books, too little time, alas. You can, if you wish, read my thoughts on Alarms and Diversions


It has been some time since I read The 13 Clocks, although I did encourage my older children to read it themselves. This time, however, my youngest expressed interest in having it read to her, so, I braved the tongue-twisting phrases and did my best to read it with aplomb. (My next-youngest listened in as well.) 


The 13 Clocks is a fractured fairy tale, with the usual tropes: the cruel (and cold) duke, the beautiful princess, the dark (and cold) castle, the handsome and daring prince, the quest, and the comic relief. But, this being Thurber, everything is just a bit...different. And the wordplay is delicious. (More about that below.) 


In this case, the Cold Duke is so cold and cruel that he has frozen time itself. His thirteen clocks are stopped, and nobody can restart them. The princess Saralinda has been courted by dozens of hapless suitors, all of whom have perished after failing to complete their quests. (The duke slits them “from the guggle to the zatch” and feeds them to his geese.) 


Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives on the scene, disguised as a rather untalented minstrel. He is befriended by the Golux, an enigmatic old man with an “indescribable hat,” who is prone to forgetting things, making things up, and generally being unreliable. Although he is at least loyal and somewhat helpful. After Zorn sings some decidedly unflattering verses about the duke, he is arrested. The Golux vanishes, and the duke discovers Zorn’s true identity. Zorn is given the task of finding a thousand jewels in an impossibly short period of time. As this is a light-hearted fairy tale, we know he will, somehow or another, through the aid of the Golux. 


The beauty of this story lies in the way it is written. Thurber constantly plays with his words - very little in this story is a mere narrative. Even more than that, it is, despite its prose appearance, written in poetry. Rhymes are common, although not constant - it is perhaps like an occasionally rhymed blank verse. The rhythm, however, is unmistakable when read out loud. The book makes extensive use of approximate rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance throughout, another tell that it is poetry disguised as prose. Occasionally, it rises to the level of sublime absurdity, as in the following passage, which made my kids giggle.


The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deem in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets. 


That was a tongue-twister for sure. The description of the Golux is also classic. 


A soft finger touched his shoulder and he turned to see a little man smiling in the moonlight. He wore an indescribable hat, his eyes were wide and astonished, as if everything were happening for the first time, and he had a dark, describable beard. “If you have nothing better than your songs,” he said, “you are somewhat less than much, and only a little more than anything.”

“Who are you?” the minstrel asked.

“I am the Golux,” said the Golux, proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device.”

“You resemble one,” the minstrel said, “as Saralinda resembles the rose.”

“I resemble only half the things I say I don’t,” the Golux said. “The other half resemble me.” 


Later, the joke about being a Device returns, after the duke discovers that the Golux has been posing as one of his spies. 


The Duke’s smile showed his upper teeth. “I cannot even trust the spies I see,” he muttered. His eye moved glassily around and saw the Golux. “You mere Device!” he gnarled. “You platitude! You Golux ex machina!”


Many of Thurber’s books are illustrated by himself, and his whimsical line drawings are part of the fun. By the time he wrote this book, in 1950, Thurber had gone blind, and could no longer draw. Thus, he turned to his friend Marc Simont (probably best known for illustrating The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinison) to create illustrations. Thurber insisted that Simont draw the hat in a way that he couldn’t describe to Thurber. My hardback is the second printing of that original edition. It was later reissued with illustrations by Ronald Searle - which are quite good, actually. The hat in those is equally indescribable. Either set of illustrations adds to the story. 

 The Golux, his indescribable hat, and a slightly irritated Prince Zorn.
Marc Simont illustration

The Golux and his indescribable hat.
Ronald Searle illustration

I should give a warning that this story, like many of the original fairy tales (before Disney got to them…) is a bit violent. I mean, people fed to geese and stuff. So, your kids may vary. Mine have always had a high tolerance for scary stuff, and found this one hilarious rather than gruesome. 


One bonus illustration, from my book (Marc Simont): 

Something very much like nothing anyone had seen before came trotting down the stairs and crossed the room. "What is that?" the Duke asked, palely.
"I don't know what it is," said Hark, "but it's the only one there ever was."


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Source of book: I own this.


….So it goes…


Slaughterhouse-Five was our book club’s selection for this month. We more often pick newer books than classics, but this was the rare exception. For some reason or another, I have never read a Vonnegut novel before. I vaguely think I ran across a short story or essay way back in the day, but never really read anything else. I am not entirely sure why, either, because he seems like he was a witty, thoughtful, and countercultural sort, and I don’t remember having any negative feelings about him. I enjoyed this book, and intend to read others. And so it goes…


Speaking of that line, “And so it goes” is repeated 106 times in the book - one of our members counted. Most of the time, it is after someone dies or something horrid happens. Except for the few times it was for something good, like the protagonist marrying the rich girl he isn’t in love with. 


I guess I should back up and explain the book a bit. Slaughterhouse-Five is (along with Catch-22) one of the two significant anti-war novels written about World War Two. (Although both are really a critique of the Vietnam War more than anything, according to their authors.) Vonnegut served in WWII, was captured, imprisoned in the titular slaughterhouse, witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, and suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences. (Not diagnosed, but he describes it so well in his books, particularly this one.) Vonnegut became opposed to war, and disillusioned with American politics, which he saw as covering up the deeper war between the wealthy “winners” and everyone else, who were “losers” in the system. He lamented that socialism had become off limits in American politics. (As it is today, even as “socialism” in the sense of social democracy, which is very different.) 


The central character in this book is Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant who becomes a POW. Later in life, he marries a rich (but unattractive) woman, which leads to his wealth and successful career as an optometrist. He is the sole survivor of a plane crash, his wife accidentally gives herself carbon-monoxide poisoning and dies, and...oh yeah, he is kidnapped by aliens and spends time as an exhibit in a zoo on another planet. 


Whether the alien kidnapping ever occurred has been a subject of much debate, including in our book club. One could certainly read it as a true event, of course. The Tralfamadorians are in various of Vonnegut’s works, he wrote plenty of science fiction, and the narrative is consistent. 


However, one could also read the story as one of PTSD and irrational beliefs as a means of self-protection and an attempt to make sense of one’s trauma. As one member of our club pointed out, every part of the alien episode has a connection to a real-life incident in Pilgrim’s life. His companion in the zoo is a porn star that he ran across in a picture in an adult bookstore, for example. Everything connected to the aliens has its root in his “real” life, including his “foreseeing” his death at the hands of the crazy fellow POW who said he would kill him someday in the future. 


The narrative itself is disjointed, out of sequence, and loops back and forth and around an changes as it unfolds. As a couple members of our group who have had family members with some combination of PTSD or dementia or brain damage noted, the book very much reads like the experience of talking to someone with that kind of damage. At first, I found it irritating, but as it went on, things became clearer, and at the end, I was impressed by the craft involved in creating that kind of a mental journey. 


I should also mention that the book was intentionally written to trigger the sorts that want to ban or challenge books. From the kind of icky sex scene between Pilgrim and his wife, to the then-shocking acknowledgement that the Nazis tried to exterminate LGBTQ people to the gratuitous line drawing of boobs, it is clear Vonnegut was trolling. And he is so good at it. Personally, living in the 21st Century, the stuff that got Vonnegut in trouble in 1969 seems a bit tame, but he lived in the transition in the law regarding obscenity, and genuinely took a risk. 


Another structural oddity is that the first chapter reads like an author’s preface, with the author inserting himself in the story with “I was there.” And yet, because it is labeled as a chapter, it also serves as a framing story as well as what could be the opinions of either the author or of a character. I do not believe I have ever seen that particular technique used like that before. There is an interesting aside in the chapter that I noted. 


I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. 

I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. 


That’s a pretty succinct summary of Vonnegut’s view of war. Another moment explains his belief that soldiers mostly exist to serve the powerful and inexorable forces in society.


There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.


Vonnegut is also pessimistic about America and American culture. Looking at things over a half century later, I think he was on to a few things about us. For example, his description of Billy Pilgrim’s mother, who substituted as an organist at various churches, but never committed to one - she wanted one that she felt was “right.”


She never did decide. She did develop a terrific hankering for a crucifix, though. And she bought one from a Santa Fe gift shop during a trip the little family made out West during the Great Depression. Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops. 


Another observation in one of the more absurdist passages involves an acquaintance of Billy’s, who marries a high school dropout working as a go-go girl. 


He didn’t know that she couldn’t read much. He knew very little about her, except that she was one more public demonstration that he was a superman.


I have seen plenty of similar cases, where a man marries a woman who makes him feel smart, or strong, or wealthy, or whatever. Often the marriages end up breaking up, of course, because humans usually don’t like being used to make others feel better about themselves..


I was also haunted by a particular description by Billy of the effect of his PTSD. He is unexpectedly upset by a song, and his wife realizes he is not okay. 


“Really-I’m O.K.” And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.


There are a few other things that I found interesting. Vonnegut loves to employ black humor, and he indeed is a master of making the most horrible things sound funny, and the funniest things horrible. So it goes. 


Apparently, the character of Kilgore Trout in the book is a recurring one throughout his books - and is a poisonous jab at his real-life rival Theodore Sturgeon. Likewise, the Tralfamadorians pop up in various books, along with their view of time as non-linear. 


Speaking of that, the idea that time is non-linear has been explored both seriously by physicists and philosophically by, well, philosophers as well as science fiction authors. And, for that matter, theologians wrestling with how time appears to an eternal divine being. For the Tralfamadorians, they are able to experience all of life at once, as a collage of “moments,” rather than a linear progression. This leads them to focus on the good moments that are occurring rather than the bad ones. Pilgrim still lives life as a human, and thus cannot see all at once, but he is able to randomly travel between moments, and having experienced everything, tries to focus on the good ones. But, as the book’s narrative reveals, he isn’t successful, but keeps finding himself back in the horrible moments. (This is a good argument in favor of the time travel being PTSD, not literal.) 


We had a fascinating discussion about the meaning in the book of the fatalist viewpoint. The Tralfamadorians laugh at humans for believing in free will. Pilgrim embraces this fatalist viewpoint as well. Does Vonnegut? It is hard to say. And what is this viewpoint? Some felt it was “radical acceptance,” others “apathy,” others “fatalism,” - and all of those are defensible views. Perhaps one sign of Vonnegut’s genius is that he doesn’t impose a particular interpretation. 


I am sure I am missing a bunch of things I meant to say. We had a solid two hours of discussion about this book. A number had read it before, and found it deeper this time around. Others had avoided it because of the title. I also got plenty of suggestions for other Vonnegut novels to try in the future. 


I am glad I got to fill in this missing piece in my education. The chance to discuss it with thoughtful and enthusiastic friends made it that much better. 




Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. A few of the books were “optional” second books for a given month.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Broad Band by Claire Evans

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore



Friday, January 22, 2021

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This year, having spent most of the last in some state of “stay-at-home” and meeting by zoom, our book club decided to informally do a second optional book in addition to our monthly selection. Even less formally than that, my friend V and I decided to read this book after it lost the vote to be a main selection for the club. 


Ocean Vuong is a Vietmamese-American refugee, whose family fled first to a camp in the Philippines, then to the United States when he was a child. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel, but it has significant autobiographical content. The family history, for example, matches his actual life and family history well. Whether his account of his first romantic and sexual relationship is fully factual or not is less clear, of course. 


The family history is fascinating - and a story that I have actually heard a couple times in my personal and professional life. Vuong’s grandmother married an American serviceman and had children with him. Saigon fell when Vuong’s grandfather was home on leave, and he was unable to return to his family. Vuong’s grandmother supported herself (in the book, as a prostitute) and placed her children in different orphanages so they wouldn’t starve. They reunited after the children grew up, but Vuong’s mother fell under suspicion as being of mixed race (and therefore legally ineligible for employment), so they had to flee. After eventually coming the the US, they were able to reunite with Vuong’s grandfather, who had remarried an American woman. Vuong would eventually complete college and become a teacher, poet, and writer. 


The origin of his unusual and delightful name is fun: his mother wanted to name him Beach, but with her accent, it….came out as something else. One of her customers suggested Ocean instead. 


The book itself is in an interesting form. It is written as a letter by the protagonist, nicknamed “Little Dog” (essentially Vuong himself) to his illiterate mother. The story is non-linear, flashing back and forth between the past and present, and includes the family history as recounted by the grandmother. It takes a bit of time to piece all of the history together, particularly the middle section involving the narrator’s abusive, then absent father. The style also switches around a lot. Parts of it read like a stream of consciousness poem, while others are more traditional narratives. 


The central event, if you will, is Vuong’s romantic and sexual relationship with Trevor, a white boy that, if he lived in my part of the country, would be described as an Okie. (This being set on the east coast, not quite the same thing, but still the mobilehome, farmer stock, redneck attitude thing.) Trevor, for cultural and masculinity reasons, insists he isn’t gay, and will soon grow out of this relationship. Little Dog, on the other hand, is able to embrace his sexuality, and comes out to his mother as a teen. Trevor’s story is achingly sad too. His mom abandoned him, his father is an abusive drunk, and Trevor gets addicted to opiates after a broken bone. It is an all too familiar story in rural white America right now. The whole relationship is written with an honesty and gentle affection. 


There are some other scenes that stood out for various reasons. Little Dog’s relationship with his grandfather is touching and awkward. In the book (not sure about real life), Paul is an old hippie who grows a lot of his own food - and some illicit substances too. He is not biologically related to Little Dog, as it turns out. Grandma, kicked out of her house for refusing an arranged marriage with an old man, has had to sell her body, and is already pregnant with Little Dog’s mother when she marries Paul. The scene where this is revealed to Little Dog is again, brutally honest. Paul himself seems unable to really figure out his feelings, which is why he decides to make the revelation, but then insists to a neighbor that Little Dog is indeed his grandson. Both of them eventually appear to come to peace with the realization that family is what you are, not your genes. 


Another touching yet uncomfortable scene is when grandma dies of cancer. The family is, shall we say, deeply dysfunctional. Grandma suffers from mental illness, probably a combination of schizophrenia and PTSD, and mom has a combination of traumas and displacement that leads her to alternate between loving and abusive, functional and unable to function, and combined with her difficulties with English and the change in culture leaves her more isolated than either grandma or Little Dog. It’s very real, and the complexities of family and human relationships and even the human psyche are portrayed memorably. 


The worst scene, in terms of horror, is the one where some soldiers eat a Macaque’s brains while it is still living. I am guessing that this was a real story that Ocean’s grandmother told him, and it is traumatizing on multiple levels. As I am sure it is intended to be. And it is mixed up with the flight from Vietnam and a strongly implied rape. I’d be tempted in another context to say it was gratuitous, but it actually does tie in with both the story itself and the philosophical points that Vuong hits - trauma eats our brains alive, and the powerful, whether young men with guns or the systems which grind the poor, feed their own virility on the destruction of others. 


The language itself is often beautiful, sometimes a bit turgid, and the ending drags just a little with more musing than I think necessary after the narrative hits its peak then apotheosis. That’s not a huge flaw in a book this short, but I felt like the last ten or so pages would have either been better omitted or placed elsewhere in the book. That said, there are some real highlights where the writing is lovely. Here are some examples, starting with a few from the opening chapter, which is an explanation to his mother of why he is writing the story. 


I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence - I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey. 


And later:


The time I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. 


Little Dog’s mother cannot handle this “reversal in hierarchies” and explodes at him. This is, alas, all too familiar. Bill Gothard taught that the hierarchy never reversed - that God literally talked to parents to tell them what their children should do, even as adults. Even with parents who didn’t believe they believed this, it caused difficultly in the inevitable change from parent-child to equals, and in some things, a reversal. 


Later in the book, Little Dog explains how he became responsible for being the public face of the family. 


Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war. That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours. 


Growing up in California, which has more foreign-born residents than any other state, I was in constant contact with immigrant families. This sounds so familiar. Long before I knew the term “code switch,” I saw it in action. The children do straddle both cultures - usually amazingly well - serving as the way that the whole family finds its way in a new culture and language. 


The explanation of “Little Dog” was fascinating. 


What made a woman who named herself and her daughter after flowers call her grandson a dog? A woman who watches out for her own, that’s who. As you know, in the village where Lan grew up, a child, often the smallest or weakest of the flock as I was, is named after the most despicable things: a demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalo head, bastard - little dog being the more tender one. Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child. To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched - and alive. 


Speaking if interesting cultural differences, there is one about reticence to talk about female genitals. Apparently in Vietnamese culture, speaking of them between mother and son is taboo. So…


“That’s my mom. I came out her asshole and I love her very much.” 


Let’s just say that American women didn’t know how to respond to this one....


There is also a great line about the military checkpoint that the family had to pass. 


A woman, not yet thirty, clutches her daughter on the shoulder of a dirt road in a beautiful country where two men, M-16s in their hands, step up to her. She is at a checkpoint, a gate made of concertina and weaponized permission...A woman, a girl, a gun. This is an old story, one anyone can tell. A trope in a movie you can walk away from if it weren’t already here, already written down. 


That term, “weaponized permission” is devastating. It encapsulates the refugee’s powerlessness. Those with the guns (and the money) can grant or withhold permission for the helpless to flee for their lives. Our who immigration “debate” really comes down to “what should the people with the guns and therefore the weaponized permission do about desperate people?” Should we use our guns to deny permission to live? The answer for too many is “yes.” When we should be asking instead “what gives us the right to deny our weaponized permission to live?” You can see more of this in one of the poetic sections. 


I’m not with you ‘cause I’m at war. Which is one way of saying it’s already February and the president wants to deport my friends. It’s hard to explain. 


Even though I am white and a born citizen, I feel this one. I too know people that Trump and many of my Right Wing acquaintances and relatives want to deport. And horrified that there seems to be no way to make them see the tremendous damage they wish to inflict on real human beings. I cannot seem to find a way to explain why they should care about other people. But even those who are sure they are good people seem to have this hesitation, as the book notes later, in an extended section on success as a poet and the condescension he experienced even from those who encouraged him.  


They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write your names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent


Ironically, on the back cover, Celeste Ng (author of Little Fires Everywhere - which is excellent) notes that the book will indeed be called “necessary” and “urgent” - and her praise is definitely not condescending. After all, she too has likely experienced the same things as an Asian American immigrant writer. There is one final passage that I really found perceptive. 


Once, at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it. 


But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration? 

This kind of hopefulness in the midst of trauma and tragedy pervades the book. Even in the maelstrom of his messed up and often abusive family, Little Dog (and presumably Vuong) finds the good, finds relationship, and finds a way forward. His attitude toward his family remains affectionate, even as he airs the laundry, so to speak. And likewise toward Trevor and his equally messed up, racist and bigoted family, and toward our messed up, racist and violent America. (Another great poetic line is “The truth is one nation, under drugs, under drones.”) Vuong’s approach reminds me a lot of James Baldwin’s famous line:


“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”


In the last decade, there has been an explosion of new, diverse voices, insisting on the right to love America, to be embraced as American, and to criticize her when she fails to live up to her ideals. These voices are young, non-white, often LGBTQ, immigrants or children of immigrants, and what is truly the face of America for the 21st Century, no matter how much the older, whiter bigots hate that reality and try to fight against it. Vuong is another of those voices, with an intriguing story, a beautiful skill with the language, and a tenderness that refuses to be hardened by trauma and tragedy. 




On that note, while an incomplete list, here are some of those young voices that I have enjoyed over the last few years:


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

There There by Tommy Orange

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi   

Refuge by Dina Nayeri

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi