Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's new book, A Gate at the Stairs, is her much anticipated novel and is getting great reviews for good reason. I started reading it and 20 pages in thought: This can't go on! She writes so beautifully, with so much wit and pleasure in language - and it does go on - she maintains this absolutely brilliant tone and language throughout the whole book.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a young college student who gets a job as a nanny, ostensibly. But what it's really about, and I don't think I'm ruining it for you, is what it's like to be a young college student. And more specifically, a mid-western college student - a subject rather dear to my heart, as I myself was but a lithe, young, art history major a mere mumblemumble years ago. Moore captures Midwestern Culture (you may laugh, but, it's does exist) with all it's feigning humbleness and linguistic creativity:
Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said "on" accident instead of "by." They said "I'm bored of that" or "Wanna come with?" They pronounced "milk" to rhyme with "elk" and "milieu" as "miloo," as in skip to my loo - when they said it at all. And they used tenses like "I'd been gonna." As in, "I'd been gonna to do that but then I never got around toot." It was the hypothetical conditional past, time and intention carved so obliquely and fine that I could only almost comprehend it, until, like Einstein's theory of relativity, which also sometimes flashed cometlike into my view, it whooshed away again, beyond my grasp... Who else on earth spoke like this? They would look at the tattoo on my ankle, a peace sign, and, withholding judgment but also intelligence, say, "Well, that's different." They'd say the same thing about my electric bass. Or even the acoustic one - That's different! - and in saying it made the same glottal stop that they made pronouncing "mitten" and "kitten."

Moore skewers the misdirected good intentions of a group of well-meaning but ridiculous adopted parents of multi-ethnic children in a series of interactions only overheard by the nanny, upstairs, watching a brood of interracial children. Those parts were exhilarating - Moore really sets an incredible pace in this story.
"'I Been Working on the Railroad.' I've heard her sing that. There's just two things I'm worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor."

I wasn't sure I was hearing things correctly. Her sense of humor was still not always explicit or transparent of of a finely honed rhythm, and it sometimes left me not in the same room with it but standing in the hall. The words "You're serious?" flew out of my mouth.

"Kind of." She looked rigth through me. "I'm not sure." And then she went upstairs, as if to go figure it out. When she came back down she added, "Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It's an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road."

While Moore's book reads like a structured story, it's really not - what you think is the main plot is not, themes emerge and then gently fade back, following not that pleasing arch of the classic story, but the one we're all more familiar with: the unpredictable twists of everyday life. I think Moore's a real deconstructionist at heart - and just as I was forming that theory, she verified it for me:
What had I learned thus far in college? You can exclude the excluded middle, but when you ride through, on your way to a lonely and more certain place, out the window you'll see everyone you've ever known living there.

I had also learned that in literature - perhaps as in life - one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient - God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!

I learned that there had been many ice ages. That they came and went. I learned there were no mammals original to New Zealand. I learned that space was not just adrift with cold, flammable rocks. Here and there a creature was riding one, despite the Sufic spinning of the rock. The spores of lightless life were everywhere. I think I learned that.

It's one of the finest books I've read this year and I'd recommend it to ALL my Midwestern friends and anyone who's looking for a really incredible read. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People of the Book

People of the Book is Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, recently released in paperback. Brooks won the Pulitzer a few years ago for March (pov: the dad of the Little Women). I didn't read it but I gave it to my sister and she was totally ga-ga over it.

People of the Book's premise was very appealing to me - rare book expert examines ancient Jewish text - neatly combining my love of things Paper and things Jewish History.

Brookses' story is loosely based on the real-life story of the 14th c. Sarajevo Haggadah - an illustrated Jewish prayer book (the fact that it's illustrated in "Christian" style is quite unique) that was only somewhat recently in human history re-discovered. In the book, the paper conservator examines the book, finding a few anomalies (a hair, several fluid residues, a bit of insect wing) which she unravels as far as she can. Interspersed with these histories are the stories of the people who handled/protected/guarded the book. If I'm remembering correctly, each story is first-person pov narrative.

Brooks tells the story in a backward narrative, from finding the person to the previous owner and so on until (no surprise) its creator. That particular structuring didn't work for me, I thought it was ambitious and I appreciate that. What Brooks seems to excel at, beside wonderful storytelling and a few great ideas, is capturing the voice of a variety of characters, not afraid to find the simplicity in some characters' language, and the poetry of intellectual thought in another. Explores Jewish mystisicm and kabala (a similar theme is found in another great book about language: Bee Season come to play. She writes:
It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp; suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. East character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.
A reoccurring theme throughout the book is how how the book, the Haggadah, was created under the influence of multiple cultures and religions, and how both the past and future are guided and protected by the cooperation of seemingly incompatible relationships. Brooks illustrates the power of books to connect us and provide common ground in an engaging and challenging way.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Margaret Atwood

This weekend we saw Margaret Atwood read from her new novel, The Year of the Flood at DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre. It was so exciting to see her - she's one of my favorite authors and I think she's an absolute genius. The reading was very unusual - there was a choir and a small band and a group of three actors. Atwood and the three actors took turns reading from the text and the choir sang the songs that are part of the book.

The songs were of that rather horrible Sunday-morning-on-tv evangelical crap that's really cheesy and not what I'd call "good". I'm quite sure that the music was meant to be ironic because a certain faction of the characters are called God's Gardeners and I believe they're meant to have a sort-of extremist attitude which I'm sure Atwood doesn't let off the hook easily. She looked like an indulgent granny watching this rather rag-tag group of (I believe) DePaul students singing along to her verses. I really appreciated hearing the songs, even though I didn't enjoy the music, because it will be nice, when I read the book, to know what kind of sound they were meant to have.

I think it was a very clever idea to share the reading with the actors, giving the almost 70-year-old Atwood's voice a break. And, let's face it, not all great writers are great readers (although Atwood was very good - very funny, very dry, just like you'd expect.) The tour is going around the world, and actors and singers are found in each host city, making each performance unique. According to my playbill, all proceeds were donated to environmental groups.

Afterward she signed books - I'd taken my old Handmaid's Tale - my favorite book of all-time! and she signed it for me while I swooned.

I can't wait to get my copy through inter-library loan (I'm more and more opposed to buying books in hardback.) The idea of a waterless flood has been intriguing me.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

How to Help your Child Grow Up

So, we've been helping M's gran clean out her house, and she gave us a number of books. A couple of them, I hate to tell you, I took for the sole intention of mocking them for their outdated information, such as How to Help Your Child Grow Up (Angelo Patri, 1948).

Aside from the ridiculous title (whether you "help" them or not, child are going to "grow up" - how about helping them "grow up to be emotionally intelligent"... or somethin'?), I found the book disturbing from the moment I opened the cover. Inside the flap is a montage of photos of shiny, happy, white people with little boys doing woodworking and little girls washing dishes. Turn a few more pages: To the Mothers of America's Children. To me, that says:
A. You fathers can go fuck off
B. Mother's of other countries, fuck off
C. Children from other counties, fuck off

Well, you don't need ME to do a critical analysis for you of the bizarre-o world of the American mid-century, where the acknowledged audience was white, middle-class, Christian, heterosexual and healthy. I found it rather alarming that, at over 300 pages, the book failed to address any real and quite common issues like illnesses, sexuality, or mental or physical challenges.

The author's advice varies from hilarious to downright dangerous. A bit that, by all rights, should have been titled "Dealing with Bullies" was instead called "Cowardice Can Be Cured" and speaks of the "shame" of a young Freddy who "couldn't not seem to hold his own." Parents are told to contact a physician because "cowardice" is most likely a glandular problem. (!!!)

I got a real kick out of the section on kids who have trouble sleeping at night because my sister's 2 year old has been having trouble with that lately. The mother (specifically) is encouraged to "put courage in it's [fear's] place. Teach such a child to say his prayers to himself when he wakes." There you go, C! Just teach that 2 year old to say his prayers!

It's only relatively recently in human history that mankind has acknowledged childhood as we do today. This book, with it bottom-of-the-barrel advice, reminds me that our grandparents and great-grandparents had few resources for raising their kids - perhaps this book was a major step forward in that it didn't advise people to beat the hell out of their kids when they misbehaved and send them out to work in the fields as soon as they were able. Thank god the bar's a little higher now.