Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Maid by Nita Prose


Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I ended up listening to this book on our latest road trip, because my wife is reading it with one of her three book clubs, and needed to finish it before her audiobook loan ran out. 


I think I will start this post out by saying that this book is two-thirds of a good book, followed by one-third of “GAH!!!!” and then by an epilogue of “what the actual fuck was that about - it is completely out of character with everything else!” Yeah, that disappointing. 


The premise of the book is quite good. Molly is a maid at a local fancy hotel. She is pretty obviously on the Autism spectrum, obsessive about cleaning, unable to read social cues, and so on. Her grandmother has just died, when she discovers the body of a long-time regular at the hotel. Did he die of natural causes? Suicide? Or murder? 


Spoiler: this is a murder mystery, so of course he was murdered. 


Through a series of missteps - and some nefarious acts by others - Molly comes to be the prime suspect in the murder. Her too-trusting nature, her inability to sense when others are lying, and her non-typical reactions to events lead the police to suspect her, making it easy for the more obvious suspects to deflect suspicion on to Molly. 


So far, this is actually fun. For the first two-thirds of the book, the author writes Molly as a consistent and believable character. The flashbacks to the past shed further light on Molly and the circumstances that produced her. All this is good.


Then, we have the trial. 


Oh. God. 


There is literally NO EXCUSE for a published author - even if she is Canadian - getting the basics of the criminal justice system utterly wrong. And yes, I checked: the Canadian system works very similarly to that of the United States and the English system that both are descended from. 


Let me make this clear:


The PROSECUTOR does the direct examination of witnesses for the prosecution. An individual witness does NOT have their own personal attorney do this for them. A witness for the prosecution is NOT a party to the case, and thus does not have their own attorney participating in the trial. 


Sigh. This is so elementary that I bet that most people who watch courtroom drama television (as bad as that is at getting the details right) would notice this error right away. How did this get through the editing process? HOW?


This error alone was enough to ruin the book for me. It is sloppy writing, sloppy editing, and a total lack of…I don’t know….asking a real attorney to fact check the courtroom scenes? Seriously. 


And then there is the epilogue. I am going to have some spoilers here. 


The epilogue makes this huge reveal that Molly apparently knew who the real murderer was all along. And somehow, despite her inability to lie effectively, and her difficulty in compartmentalizing things, kept from everyone the entire book. 


This is completely incompatible with how Molly was drawn as a character throughout the entire rest of the book. It makes no sense with her character, her sense of morality, her personality, or literally anything else. It is totally out of left field, and seems added simply to give that one final twist, make a vague feminist statement, or something. I have no idea. 


Now, the thing is, if you wanted that twist, the revelation of the real murderer, it would have been easy to write that effectively. Just leave Molly out of it - she simply saw that standing figure in the room (who she didn’t recognize), then passed out. When she came to, the figure was gone. If you want, even muddle her memory due to the shock and trauma. 


Easy enough, believable, and gives you that final gratuitous twist. See, I just figured out how to make this book better. Just get the legal stuff correct, don’t force a twist that doesn’t work, and you have a perfectly decent bit of genre fiction. 


But the author didn’t consult me, obviously. 


I should also note here that the author’s name is a nom de plume. And that her day job is working as an editor for the Canadian branch of a really big publishing company. 


Which leads me to speculate that the reason that these glaring problems made it through the editing process is that the author probably didn’t have an unbiased eye review the book and check for problems. Kind of like what happens when industry “regulates” itself. 


This is really a shame, because, as I said, the first two-thirds of the book was quite good - a fascinating premise, a well-drawn character, and a mystery that could have been revealed in a satisfying and believable way. 


But that isn’t where this book went, which was quite the disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend it. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Consequences by Manuel Munoz

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Manuel Munoz is a “local” author for me - he was born and raised in Dinuba, one of many small San Joaquin Valley farm towns. Despite his family’s poverty and his missing plenty of school to help his parents with field work, he did well, and got into Harvard, earning a degree from there and another from Cornell. 


Munoz currently teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But really, it is his writing that stands out. He has won a number of awards, and just this year made the news for winning a MacArthur Genius Grant. I put in a request for this book some months ago, and waited in line behind other patrons. It was well worth the wait. 


This collection of ten short stories is all about the experiences of Latino-Americans who feed America through their farm labor. It is also about the losses and the compromises that come with poverty and its aftermath. In addition, about half of the stories involve gay characters - Munoz himself is gay, and his stories reflect the difficulties of growing up gay in a patriarchal subculture. 


First, let me say that these stories are wonderfully written. Munoz shows great skill with his use of words, his careful and spare way of saying more with less, of bringing out the emotional depths of his characters without making lists - true showing rather than telling. 


The characters range from young to old, are male or female as the case may be, gay or heterosexual. There are moments of cruelty, hardship, and pain; but also of care, love, and beauty. The full complexity of the human experience is found in these tales. 


The setting for the stories is mostly in the 1980s of the author’s childhood, and in the small towns that populate California’s farm country. There are some exceptions: Los Angeles and Fresno, and also a similar small town in Texas, but the Central Valley connection ties all of the stories together. 


The title story, “The Consequences” occurs midway through the book, and is connected to the final story, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” as they both examine the death of a young gay man from different perspectives. The first, from the perspective of the man’s final lover, who only realizes his love when it is too late; and the second from the viewpoint of the man’s sister, who has given up a chance at love for herself in order to keep rescuing her brother. 


Several of the stories mention a common practice of cheating farm workers out of their wages. On the day payment for the week is due - Friday - the contractor calls ICE. The workers either escape (and lose the week’s pay) or are caught and deported. The contractor is able to cheat them out of a week’s wages either way. This would typically be done at the end of a job - once the harvest is complete, for example. Having talked with a number of former and current farm workers, I had heard this before. It is an ongoing issue, and will be as long as we have our current grossly unjust immigration laws. 


I’ll mention a few stories here: “Anyone Can Do It,” about a woman whose husband has been deported, who takes a risk to feed her family and is taken advantage of by another equally desperate woman. “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” about a young wife who travels to Los Angeles to meet her husband, who has crossed back over the border after being deported, and who befriends an even younger and more naive woman doing this for the first time. These characters are viewed briefly in a later story. “The Pink House at the End of the Street on the Other Side of Town,” the shortest story and the longest title, which tells of revenge taken for adultery. 


Munoz also looks at teen pregnancy and the sexual double standard which is particularly prevalent in Machismo Culture, in “The Reason is Because.” I particularly liked one line in this story. Nela is the young girl who has had a child, and is now suffering the consequences in multiple ways. She is convinced by her friend Luz to sneak out and go to the carnival, but it turns out that Luz mostly wants cover for meeting her boyfriend Alonzo. Nela comes to realize that Luz and Alonzo have been smarter than her - they look “good” on the outside, which allows them to find subtle ways to get out from under their parents’ control. 


Like Luz, Alonzo was practicing a careful rebellion. Like Luz, he was biding his time until he was out of his parents’ grasp. 


There is a lot of me in that passage. My parents went from being nurturing parents when I was a child to increasingly authoritarian in my teens, as they got involved with Bill Gothard’s cult. I was, at heart, a “good” child and a “good” teen. I didn’t do drugs, drink, have sex, or really get into any trouble. I worked hard, studied hard, did a LOT of things for the family from being the primary grocery shopper to voluntarily doing home maintenance projects. But I was increasingly frustrated by the need to control me, and practiced (in my own way) a careful rebellion until I could get out from under their control. Unfortunately, they never really took my independence as an adult well. 


The stories involving gay men are fascinating as well, with a variety of takes on the experience.


“Presumido” examines the class divide that Juan experiences as part of a largely white and middle-class gay subculture. Particularly frustrating for him is the way these white men act like they never came from poverty or small towns (which they did in many cases.) 


“Compromisos” is a particularly heart-rending story. Mauricio is gay, but married with children. The problem is, like most in his situation, he is still very, very gay, and ends up seeking sexual encounters with other men. He is thus torn between his sexuality and his genuine love for his wife and children. This never ends well, as so many stories have shown. 


I already mentioned the two related stories. 


The collection is rounded out by “Susto,” a ghost story of sorts; and “Fieldwork,” a particularly poignant story of a father who has suffered a debilitating stroke, leading to physical and mental deficits, as well as devotion from his wife and son. (This particular story is semi-autobiographical.) 


I really enjoyed this collection, and intend to read more of Munoz’s writing. The perspective from the San Joaquin Valley is unique, as is his particular insider look at the experience of being a gay Latino from an impoverished background. And the writing is really excellent too. Give Munoz a try. 


Monday, November 27, 2023

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (Bakersfield College 2023)

I will admit that I never expected my first chance to see Waiting for Godot live would be at the local community college. I mean, it is far from the easiest play to understand or pull off. It isn’t exactly a trendy Gen Z kind of play. The cultural references are more “early 20th Century philosophy” than anything. Oh, and the scenes with Pozzo and Lucky are just brutal. 


But, I must admit, Bakersfield College has been taking some risks, and tackling some challenging projects lately. So, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me too much that Kimberly Chin (the “new” faculty member when my wife went to BC - we are dang old) decided to do it. 


Samuel Beckett was an Irish writer who lived in Paris most of his adult life. He also chose to write primarily in French. During World War Two, he became part of the French Resistance (although he downplayed his role as “boy scout stuff”) and had to spend much of the war in hiding. 


As one of the last of the “modern” era playwrights, he was part of the Absurdist movement generally, and specifically one of the giants in “The Theater of the Absurd” - a way of presenting plays where every facet of the production contributes to the absurdity. Waiting for Godot is perhaps the most representative play of this style. 


Absurdism is related to, and an outgrowth of existentialism. Whereas the existentialists would argue that humans do - and must - create their own meaning in life, the absurdist would find this pursuit pointless, absurd, and impossible. Meaning itself is impossible. 


It isn’t difficult to find the philosophical antecedents of Absurdism dating back to antiquity. In a way, Ecclesiastes is a work that veers between an existentialist view of the world and an absurdist one. Everything is meaningless…


In that sense, trying to find a “meaning” to Waiting for Godot is to miss the point. At its core, it is “about” meaninglessness itself. 


Who - or what - is Godot? There has been a lot of speculation about this, naturally. Beckett himself refused to explain the play, and generally dismissed all proposed interpretations. In particular, he denied that Godot is God. And also said, “If I had known who Godot is, I would have written it in the script.”


There is a bit of a backstory here. In the United States, we pronounce the name “go-DOH” - emphasis on the second syllable. In England and Ireland, they pronounce it “GOD-oh” - emphasis on the second. The original play is in French, which would give equal emphasis to both syllables: “Go-Doh.” While the English pronunciation implies “God,” the French word for God is “Dieu,” not at all related to Godot. So perhaps not God…or maybe yes?


In my opinion, Godot stands in for a constellation of meanings, and which one resonates for a given person will depend on that person’s own psyche and life experience. 


The central meaning, in my opinion, is that Godot is death. We are all, in a sense, waiting for Death - and perhaps trying to find or create meaning while we do. In a lesser sense, I would say that Godot also means meaning itself, salvation, enlightenment, something beyond the mere fact of existence. You could call that “God,” or you could call it “transcendence” or perhaps something else entirely. 


From this central metaphor, all the rest of the play is built. The two friends, Vladimir and Estragon, also have multiple valences. On the surface, they are both older men who have fallen on hard times. We know they have been together for 50 years, so they are not young. Their bodies are betraying them: Vladimir has prostate issues and is regularly leaving to pee; Estragon has bad feet and a failing memory. Do they represent aging? Waiting for death in old age? Perhaps.


But you can also read Vladimir as being a metaphor for the intellect. He is restless, always moving, always talking, always searching. His lines are often about philosophy or religion. In contrast, Estragon is all about physical sensation. He sleeps, he is hungry, his feet hurt, he just wants to feel better. 


And then what about the other characters? There is Pozzo, the obnoxious rich fuck, who has gotten bored by his slave Lucky, and is taking him to be sold. I think the telling line here is one by Pozzo, who muses that it is mere chance that makes him the enslaver and Lucky the slave. Together, they represent the meaninglessness of unjust systems, which brutalize and dehumanize both of them. 


Pozzo tells of how he once found Lucky to be amusing and stimulating, and now he only finds him infuriating and disgusting. Perhaps this implies the idea that even oppression of others has lost its attraction, and dominance no longer has meaning beyond the absurd.


One of the most memorable scenes in the play is when Pozzo commands Lucky to “think!” All that results is a word salad combining esoteric phrases and nonsense sounds. Thought itself has been reduced to absurdity. 


Not that Pozzo has it any better. He is figuratively blind to everything in the first act - totally clueless about how horrible he is. When he returns in the second act, he is literally blind, although he cannot remember when or how he became blind - or indeed, that he had met Vladimir and Estragon the day before. He is now unable to even sit up after falling. 


The final character is the Boy - ostensibly Godot’s servant (or is it two different boys?) He doesn’t paint much of a picture of Godot, who remains pretty opaque except for having a beard. Is he a good man? A bad man? Or is he just a disembodied idea? 


The Boy arrives to tell the men that Godot will not be coming that day. But he will definitely come tomorrow. Of course, we know he won’t come then either. In the 70 years since the play premiered, we continue to wait for Godot. 


Since this is a play in which little - or nothing - ever happens, it is the dialogue itself which carries things forward. There are a lot of quotable lines, and some really funny moments - particularly if you know the ideas that Beckett is parodying. 


“Let's go." "We can't." "Why not?" "We're waiting for Godot.” 


You can’t get any more iconic than that recurring bit of dialogue. In the BC production, Estragon gives a primal scream of frustration after each one. 


There is also a recurring gag where Estragon tries to push things in some direction or another, to move, so to speak. He is inevitably shot down by Vladimir, who explains convincingly why they cannot take that route. Estragon sighs, “True.” 


I also took note of these other lines, which I don’t think I really need to comment on; they stand by themselves. 


“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.” 


“In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.” 


“We wait. We are bored. No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone more, in the midst of nothingness!”


“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.” 


“That passed the time.”

“It would have passed in any case.”

“Yes, but not so rapidly.” 


“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”

“Yes, yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.” 


“What's the matter with you?”

“I'm unhappy.”

“Not really! Since when?”

“I'd forgotten.”

“Extraordinary the tricks that memory plays!” 


I should mention some things about the production. This took place in the “Black Box” theater - a small space with around 40ish seats. The set is sparse by design - a tree, a rock, some garbage. 


There are only the five characters. Vladimir and Estragon have by far the most lines - they probably talk for two hours out of the two-and-a-half hour length of the play, with most of the rest taken up by Pozzo. The memorization demands are high, and I give credit to the two leads for strong work in keeping what is a somewhat circular and repetitive text straight. 


Also impressive was the chemistry between the leads. Vladimir was played by Ruka, a relative newcomer to local stage who I had never seen in a lead role before. (She was in Torch Song, which others of my family saw, and had a small part in Love’s Labour’s Lost last year at BC.) Estragon was played by Daniel Lizarraga Ramos, who has been in various small parts over the past couple of years. The two of them played off each other quite well - this is not an easy play, and needs the leads to have that believability when the script veers increasingly into the absurd. 

 Ruka (Vladimir) and Daniel Lizarraga Ramos (Estragon)

Xaviahn Yunior Rodriguez channeled Slash in his portrayal of Lucky. Kind of a limping, highly put upon Slash, I would say. His delivery of the word salad monologue wasn’t as clearly enunciated as I would have preferred - it came across as one big joke rather than the series of jokes that it was written as. Other than that, good physical acting. 


Logan Scott has also been in a number of productions lately, including both of the Shakespeare plays last month. He was lugubrious and vulgar as Pozzo - a memorable version that I think is true to Beckett’s intent. Easton Salazar rounded out the cast in the role of the Boy, with a naive and flat aspect that fit the bland lines. 

 Logan Scott (Pozzo) and Xaviahn Yunior Rodriguez (Lucky)

Overall, I thought Bakersfield College really did a nice job with the work. It is no small feat to keep a sense of direction, of meaning, in a directionless and meaningless script. To live in Beckett’s dystopia of the mind without getting lost requires focus and care. And that is what BC was able to do. For all its unreality, what unfolded on stage felt real, felt true, felt believable. 


In the end, perhaps all of us who experience Godot have to choose whether we will take the existential approach - choose our own meaning, decide what we think Beckett was doing - or the absurdist one - and just let the play wash over us without attempting to see it as meaning anything. Is there a point to choosing, though? Will any of these choices change our fate or enable us to find meaning? 


Expand this to take in life, the universe, and everything, and you have Absurdism in a microcosm. At the end of the day, we are all still waiting for Godot. 




Does this play count as “in translation”? Beckett wrote it in French first, but then “translated” it into English himself. Since it was the author, and not the translator, perhaps both versions are the “original.” In any case, one can assume that the English version represented Beckett’s intent and vision for the play.


Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Aspern Papers and A London Life by Henry James


Source of book: I own this. 


I decided for my annual Henry James selection, I would read The Aspern Papers. As it is a short novella, I figured I would find another one to add, so that I read more than just a bit. A London Life is of similar length - just over 100 pages - and the two of them pair nicely as a contrast. 


Both novellas are from James’ middle period, so they are not as dense as later stories. They both share some common features - Americans living abroad in Europe, morally ambiguous situations, flawed and difficult characters, and endings that are all about the frustration of the protagonists in their desires and goals. 


I might even go so far as to wonder if in the first, the protagonist is the villain. In the second, it is difficult to find any major character who is not deeply in the wrong. All of which is typical James, and are the reasons I find his writing so fascinating. Well, that and his incredible use of the English language. 




The Aspern Papers


As he commonly did, James borrowed from real life for inspiration for this story. Claire Clairmont was the stepsister of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein and The Last Man), and was part of the circle that included Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. She may or may not have slept with Percy, but it is undisputed that she had Byron’s child - Allegra - who sadly died in childhood. 


Clairmont outlived the others, and ended up with a huge collection of Percy’s letters to her, which she kept until her death. As an old woman, she tried to hide her connection to Percy, retreating into secrecy and hiding herself from the public. Her niece Clara married after a courtship of only a few days - something Claire disapproved of. I mention this, because James repurposes this part of the story as well. 


In James’ hand, the story goes roughly as follows: The nameless narrator is a literary editor in search of the “Aspern Papers” - the correspondence between the fictional author “Jeffrey Aspern” and his one-time lover, Miss Juliana, who is now an old woman living in semi-secrecy in Venice with her niece, Miss Tita. 


The narrator poses as a renter, seeking to sublet a few rooms at the “palace” the women are living at. 


He eventually takes Miss Tita into his confidence, but she is torn between her loyalty to her aunt, her attraction to the narrator, and her desire to escape the life she seems trapped in. 


Will he get the papers? What will it take to get them? And, most importantly, how do the various characters wrestle with the moral issues involved? 


The narrator is definitely in a morally problematic position. On the one hand, the potentially lurid details of the affair may well be important to understanding the poet and of interest to both scholars and the public. It would also be a career coup for the narrator. On the other hand, he is very much seeking to violate the privacy of an old woman. 


For Miss Juliana, there are other questions. She is still obsessed with Aspern: she takes out the letters and reads them regularly, and also lets Miss Tita know that they are part of who she is. She never does destroy the papers, and it is unclear if she entirely wants them destroyed. But she also is unwilling for them to be made public, even after her death. Her behavior toward the narrator is also greedy and ruthless - she tries to take him for as much money as she can, ostensibly for her niece’s future support. 


I already mentioned the dilemma of Miss Tita, who is initially the most sympathetic of the characters, but whose gambit at the end is pretty shocking. 


Even at his most verbose, James writes tight plots, and never lets the meanderings of his words become superfluous. Every new perspective on the psychology adds something, until it all comes together at the end. (The Wings of the Dove does this for over 500 pages, and is a masterwork of the technique of the exploration of the motivations of the characters that circles the truth, never stating it outright, but letting the reader slowly draw conclusions from the web of evidence.) 


In The Aspern Papers, James manages to hold off the final twist in the plot until literally halfway through the last page. It is definitely an “Oh damn!” moment too. 


For those who have never read any Henry James, this is not a bad story to start with. It doesn’t require the commitment of his longer novels, but is thoroughly rewarding and characteristic of his art. 


As always with Henry James, the language is a good percentage of the fun. I noted a few particularly juicy quotes. 


I could see she was amused by my infatuation, the way my interest in the papers had become a fixed idea. ‘One would think you expected to find in them the answer to the riddle of the universe,’ she said; and I denied the impeachment only by replying that if I had to choose between that precious solution and a bundle of Jeffrey Aspern’s letters I knew indeed which would appear to me the greater boon. She pretended to make light of his genius and I took no pains to defend him. One doesn’t defend one’s god: one’s god is in himself a defense. 


I love everything about that passage. The ambiguous answer, the understanding that a god that one truly worships needs no defense offered. 


And this one, after the first solo encounter with Miss Tita. 


It was as if she never peeped out of her aunt’s apartment. I used to wonder what she did there week after week and year after year. I had never encountered such a violent parti pris of seclusion; it was more than keeping quiet - it was like hunted creatures feigning death. The two ladies appeared to have no visitors whatever and no sort of contact with the world.


Finally, there is this bit of repartee - combat really - between the narrator and Miss Juliana. 


‘Do you think it’s right to rake up the past?’

‘I don’t know that I know what you mean by raking it up; but how can we get at it unless we dig a little? The present has such a rough way of treading it down.’

‘Oh, I like the past, but I don’t like critics,’ the old woman declared, with her fine tranquillity.

‘Neither do I, but I like their discoveries.’

‘Aren’t they mostly lies?’

‘The lies are what they sometimes discover,’ I said, smiling at the quiet impertinence of this. ‘They often lay bare the truth.’

‘The truth is God’s, it isn’t man’s; we had better leave it alone. Who can judge of it - who can say?’


This is perhaps the crux of the moral question presented by The Aspern Papers. To be clear here, we are not dealing with an attempt to expose abusive behavior by someone in power - I think even a man as private as Henry James would agree that evil of that sort needs to be exposed. Rather, we are talking about intimate secrets of two lovers. And indeed one might ask where the truth lies. 


This is an excellent shorter work by James, and well worth reading. 




A London Life


“Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own.” Proverbs 26:17


The second novella I read has a plot that my lawyer heart enjoyed. It centers around a failed marriage coming apart in a public and catastrophic manner. 


The narrator in this case is Laura Wing, a penniless American young woman who has come to live in London with her sister, Selina Berrington and her husband, Lionel, a wealthy Brit. 


All is not well in the Berrington household. Lionel is a drunk and a boor who seems highly unpleasant to live with. Selina, meanwhile, is having an affair with Charlie Crispin, a military man. 


As this reality becomes clear to Laura, she does her best to morally lecture the parties in an attempt to force them to be better people, at least for the sake of their two children. 


This is about as effective as you would expect. It doesn’t help that Laura’s self-righteousness and officious meddling is driven more by her moral outrage than by any sense of compassion for those involved. Plus, she often seems more concerned that her own reputation will be blighted by association.


The only sensible person in this story is Lady Davenant, an old woman who tries to get Laura to just stay out of the quarrel, and not take it personally. 


In the meantime, another American has come to call, Mr. Wendover, who seems like a basically nice guy, if bland and boring. His relationship with Laura is complicated. He is initially more interested in her than she with him, but this flips when it becomes clear that Selina has run off with Crispin, leaving Laura literally stranded at the opera with Wendover. Laura handles the situation extremely poorly (although the scene is really hilarious for the reader), and they both take their separate ways home, convinced the other hates them. 


Lady Davenant’s attempts to put them back together are not successful, both because of Wendover’s wounded pride and because Laura is hell-bent on “saving” her sister. 


In the end, everything fails, and Laura and Wendover return to America. We are left wondering if they will eventually get together. But one thing is clear: the Berrington divorce case will be tried in the courts and in public opinion, and it will be ugly as hell. 


In this book, while James handles things with his usual craft, he is shockingly frank about the situation, at least by the standards of the time. It caused a bit of a scandal when it was published, and sharply divided the critics. The strong reactions to the story are pretty good proof that James accomplished his goal, and that the story touched on some significant emotions. 


I am on the side of the critics who praised it - I think it is an excellent tale, and I thought that Laura is one of James’ better female protagonists. (And he actually writes women well, although his women are, if anything, more irritating than his men.) She has the assertiveness that many of his young women lack, but has all of the naivety that bring his American young women to grief in so many of his books. 


She aspires to the “sophistication” of Europe, but fails to understand that a crucial part of that is a willingness to ignore unpleasantness by reducing it to gossip and talk rather than moral outrage. On the subject of sex, James is of course correct. We Americans love our moral panics even as we worship the most sexually predatory men among us. (See: Trump, Donald) More than anything, Laura needs to learn to just stay out of quarrels that are not hers. We cannot “save” others from themselves. 


If anything, this story has even more quotable lines. Selina is a great beauty, particularly in contrast to the pleasant, but unremarkable Laura. Perhaps part of Laura’s problem is in expecting the beautiful to be moral - a common enough mistake we humans make. But for me, the description of Lady Davenant is the best one. 


Lady Davenant always had a head-dress of a peculiar style, original and appropriate - a sort of white veil or cape which came in a point to the place on her forehead where her smooth hair began to show and then covered her shoulders. It was always exquisitely fresh and was partly the reason why she struck the girl rather as a fine portrait than as a living person. And yet she was full of life, old as she was, and had been made finer, sharper, more delicate, by nearly eighty years of it. It was the hand of a master that Laura could see in her face, the witty expression of which shone like a lamp through the ground-glass of her good breeding; nature was always an artist, but not so much of an artist as that. 


And then, there is one of my favorite lines from Henry James of all time:


It was not Lady Davenant’s leading characteristic that she was comforting, and Laura had not aspired to be coaxed or coddled into forgetfulness: she wanted rather to be taught a certain fortitude - how to live and hold up one’s head even while knowing that things were very bad. A brazen indifference - it was not exactly that that she wished to acquire; but were there not some sorts of indifference that were philosophic and noble?


Such a Jamesian way of putting it: he states an idea, “brazen indifference,” then says that isn’t what he means….but. So many of his later books use the syllogism, “it wasn’t quite this, but it also wasn’t quite that” - a round-about way of nibbling near the truth. 


I’ll also mention a hilarious conversation between Lady Davenant and Laura, where Laura expresses her contempt for Lionel. Lady Davenant doesn’t exactly defend him - she acknowledges that he is “idiotic as a comic song,” but notes that Laura has enough brains for two. Laura parrys with “I shall never marry a man I can’t respect.” Good advice, that. And one wonders at the end if she respects Wendover or not. 


There is another fascinating passage, where Laura meets Miss Steet, the governess. Whatever Laura thinks of her (and it isn’t flattering), she at least admits that Miss Steet’s sisters are enviable for one reason.


Neither of them seemed destined to go into the English divorce-court, and such a circumstance on the part of one’s near relations struck Laura as in itself almost sufficient to constitute happiness.

There is also a pretty sick burn about the British upper class. She contemplates her nephews, who seem pretty ordinary kids, but with a bit of the snobbery already developing.


[S]he marveled at the waste involved in some human institutions (the English country gentry for instance) when she perceived that it had taken so much to produce so little.


There is another perceptive passage about Laura that I found interesting. 


She was of a serious turn by nature and unlike many serious people she made no particular study of the art of being gay. Had her circumstances been different she might have done so, but she lived in a merry house (heaven save the mark! as she used to say) and therefore was not driven to amuse herself for conscience sake.


And then there is the scene in the house after Selina runs off the Belgium with her lover.


Nothing had been said yet in the house, of course, as Laura knew, about Selina’s disappearance, in the way of treating it as irregular; but the servants pretended so hard not to be aware of anything in particular that they were like pickpockets looking with unnatural interest the other way after they have cribbed a fellow’s watch.


One final thing I noted was James’ reference to “cutting new books.” We don’t see that today, but back when, the edges of the printed pages weren’t cut, but folded and then glued. To read the book, you had to cut the folded edges. 


Both of these novellas were fascinating to me - James writes well in both the epically long works and in the shorter formats. Both books contain tight plots along with a psychological depth that I love in fiction. I’m openly a Henry James fanboy, of course, so take that how you like it. But maybe give James (and his equally talented brother and sister) a chance. 


Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Reinventing the Enemy's Language (Anthology, Part 1)


Source of book: I own this.


A few years ago, I decided to add Native American Heritage Month to my themed reading. As part of that, I started looking for authors and books by Native authors. One of those is this anthology from 25 years ago of writings by Native women, edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird - two of the best known female Native authors. Finding a used copy wasn’t difficult, so I added it to my library collection. 


The book spans a range of genres: poetry, autobiography, and fiction mostly. Because of when it was compiled, most of the writers are of my parents’ generation or older. This makes sense, as I would have been all of 22 when it came out, so we Gen Xers were not necessarily established writers.


I would also say that the writing styles vary quite a bit, as do the emphases. Everyone’s story is different. In fact, I should mention here that each author gives a bit of an introduction to herself. Some of these are very brief, others are longer. All give an insight into the work presented. 


As with my poetry anthologies, I chose to read this book in sections. There are four in this book, with the themes of “origins and births,” “challenge,” “transformation,” and “return.” These track closely to the way the “monomyth” works, and I wonder if the editors consciously correlated them. I started with the first one. 


The title also should be explained. The uncomfortable truth is that white people in North America have waged a sustained war against indigenous peoples for the last 500 years. Since Colombus arrived with his violence and enslavement and rape and all kinds of other horribles, this has been the constant reality. 


From Cotton Mather’s celebration that in killing Native Americans he could also send their souls to Hell, to the long and sordid history of removing Indian children from their families, to the “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” to the destruction of culture and language, the story is the same. The Native American Genocide is the greatest genocide in the history of the planet by just about any measurement, and it, along with Slavery, is our national sin. (Which is just another way of saying White Supremacy.)


For Harjo and Bird, English is indeed the language of those who have tried - and often continue to try - to exterminate Indigenous culture and language. The Enemy’s Language. 


But, because English is now more than ever the first language of Native Americans, it is also the most useful means of expression. Likewise, in our present time, the written word is easier to transmit than oral traditions, particularly if the intent is to spread the word beyond immediate family and community groups. 


As a white man, I grew up in the literary rather than oral tradition. I’m not saying it is better or worse - there are arguments to be made both ways - it is just what I am most comfortable with. In particular, since I have no known Native American heritage, I would be unlikely to have the opportunity to learn from the Native American oral traditions. So I appreciate the chance to do so via the written word. 


For obvious reasons, the most I can do is pick a few works to feature. There are quite a lot of them, and I do not mean to imply that only a few are worth reading. Rather, it is a strong collection that I enjoyed very much. 


First up is a vignette by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel (Cherokee) about eavesdropping on her parents talking to friends and relatives. She comes to understand their wisdom through what she hears. I liked this line:


The story I overheard burned into my mind but I couldn’t share it and give myself away. I was beginning to feel that it shouldn’t be shared anyway. What other silly kid would hide in the barn to overhear grownups talk? Maybe other kids didn’t really care what grown-ups talked about. I cared.


That is totally me, by the way. As a kid, I didn’t just eavesdrop, but actively inserted myself into adult conversations. It probably drove my parents crazy, and it certainly set the tone for my later insistence on being treated as an equal despite my youth. 


Next up is a fascinating poem by June McGlashan (Aleut). It is a long narrative poem entitled “The Island of Women,” and tells of a sort of utopia, where women are honored alongside men. We tend to forget that many Native American cultures had female leaders, and were in certain ways more egalitarian than the Europeans who conquered. In fact, plenty of mistakes were made by white people who insisted on talking to a man, when a woman was in fact in charge. Anyway, this stanza stood out.


Our culture honors women as 

well as men.

A survival technique.

For a woman can be a shaman,

as well as a man.


This is a litmus test for me these days - if your religion does not permit women to lead, then it is shit. Straight up shit. And I want nothing to do with it. McGlashan is spot on too: this is a survival technique. Any culture that relegates half the population to a menial role is working with a hand tied behind the back. It is choosing not to utilize a crucial resource. 


One of the most thought-provoking pieces was by Scott Kayla Morrison (Choctaw). It is all about names and nicknames. For her culture, names are variable, and change throughout a person’s life and circumstance. Nobody goes by their legal given name, and people often change names as they feel a new name better reflects who they are. Given my own family circumstances, this is a refreshing perspective. 


Morrison also notes that the general rule is that anyone without a nickname given by the community is considered suspect. But the exception is that sometimes having no nickname is a sign of respect, as in the case of the author’s Irish mother. It all depends, essentially. 


Also amusing in this story is the discussion of how the two competing origin stories of the Choctaw were misinterpreted by “experts.” The author’s aunt tells her, “White people are so funny. You can’t expect too much from them.” 


The irony here is that the first two chapters of the Hebrew scriptures - “Genesis” as we call it - are literally two competing and contradictory creation stories. It is a modern (and white) affectation to expect myths to form some consistent and coherent “reality” or narrative, rather than be held together as equally valuable. (As my wife put it, Fundies are just terrible at interpreting the Bible, and this holds true for any ancient form of story as well.) 


Later in the story, the author goes to law school, and comes to understand the fundamental absurdity of how white people view minorities. 


My “peers” were clairvoyant: they could tell by my skin color how smart I was. They were right, my skin color does show how smart I am. I am smart enough to live in two worlds, two unrelated, unreconciled, and unreconcilable worlds. I had to learn their world, but they would never, ever have to learn mine. 


This is one reason I aim to read outside of my own “world” - the white European-American world - and work to learn the worlds of others.


Related to this is a line in another autobiographical work, by Janet Campbell Hale (Coeur d’Alene). She is a descendent of John McLoughlin, considered the founder of the state of Oregon. (He married a Native woman, and that story is told in the book.) Her family history is complicated, to put it mildly, with various family members able to “pass” as white, and others not. Here is the bit that really stood out:


[My mother] would often instruct me on being a good Indian, the kind white people approve of (and sometimes, when I was a little older, on being the kind of woman men respect). I would feel the resentment rise in my blood. Why should I care? Why don’t they worry about being the sort of person I respect? 


Another emotion that I very much feel myself. Because, oh god, my parents and their generation. So much expectation that we would and will continue to “be the sort of person they respect,” all the while having zero interest in being the sort of people their children and grandchildren can respect. It’s one direction only. 


The next one is a poem by Jennifer Pierce Eyen (Shawnee). It is presented both in Shawnee and English. I’ll give the English one here. 


A New Dream (Wuski A-Baw-Tan)


I have seen the rain speak

and the wind dance


I have seen the lightning knife

cut the sky


I have seen the hills

at the first light of day

whispering secrets

to the Southwind People’s ear


I am happy now

I am no longer thirsty

I dance a warrior dance

I am not sick, I am free!


This night I dream a new dream!

Now, I come to drink the stars!


I’ll end with the introduction to an autobiographical vignette by Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Sioux). I quote it because it is a better expression of why I write than I could come up with myself. It is, perhaps, why many of us write. 


I write for the same reason that mountain climbers do what they do: because it’s there. As a younger woman I remember a few dreadful weeks when I wept and raged because all I did was write when there were so many ills to correct, so much to be done. Eventually, I came to understand that the pen is mightier than the lawbooks, and that the image is where the action is begotten. 


This is the hope of many of us who stand against the forces of hate, hierarchy, and exclusion which are having a moment here in the Trump Era. Sure, we protest, we vote, and all the rest. But also, since words are a tool that I feel am proficient in using, I do what I can to create those images, those stories that can help change the world for the better. That, and letting others know that I stand with them against the evil that others would do them. 


This book is a good read, and worth adding to any library.