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Orange is the New Black

August 3, 2014

Eleanor and I watched the first episode of Orange is the New Black recently. Not having read much about it, I wasn’t sure, at first, whether the main character, Piper, was going to prison to do some kind of embedded reporter stunt or whether she was actually guilty of something—the episode didn’t show that until after the first half hour, so all I got was the fish-out-of-water feeling that a white middle-class-woman, obviously supposed to be just like me, was going to a scary place.

In a stunning example of good timing, then, my friend Miriam sent me a copy of the Piper Kerman memoir Orange is the New Black, about her year in a women’s prison for a non-violent drug offense. As I started to read it, I was impressed at the way the first episode of the show had been faithful to the details of the book. After I finished reading the book, Eleanor and I watched the second episode of the show. It used a lot of detail from the memoir, making me think that the rest of the show will use the fish-out-of-water perspective in order to focus on the other women, using the memoir as a starting place. The show tries to be funny, but the situation strikes me as terribly sad.

The memoir is detailed and sounds honest, and I read it quickly, in a couple of sittings. Piper’s friends sent her books, magazines, and letters while she was in prison, and one of them sent a clipping of a fashion column from the New York Times in which women were wearing orange with a note saying “NYers wear orange in solidarity w/ Piper’s plight!” This apparently gave her the title.

During her first two months in prison, Piper says she “tore through every book I received…and watched with envy as people went off to their prison jobs.” She describes most of the jobs, including Puppies Behind Bars, Unicor, and Construction and Maintenance Services, where she herself worked.

Although she develops friendships with other prisoners, Piper’s tone is occasionally enlivened by a different perspective, as in her description of behavior the week before Easter Sunday:
“I found the religious prostrations of my saber-rattling born-again neighbors tedious. Some of the faithful had a distinct aspect of roostering, loudly proclaiming that they were going to pray on any number of topics, how God was walking beside them through their incarceration, how Jesus loved sinners, and so on. Personally, I thought that one could thank the Lord at a lower volume and perhaps with less self-congratulation. You could worship loudly and still act pretty lousy, abundant evidence of which was running around the Dorms.”
The tone does not get holier-than-though, however. The longer she spends in prison, the sorrier she feels about her drug-related crime (carrying a suitcase of money through an airport), because she sees the evidence of how drugs have ruined many of these womens’ lives. She says “when I saw in the visiting room how addiction had torn apart the bonds between mothers and their children, I finally understood the true consequences of my own actions. I had helped these terrible things happen.”

What Piper gets across most effectively is the emotional effect of living as a prisoner, when whatever you are told to do, no matter how illogical or cruel, must be done immediately. She tells the story of why she didn’t volunteer for the education program, and readers can see why it wouldn’t have been a good idea at all (there is a list of resources in the back of the book for readers, including those who want to help provide books for prisoners).

Piper claims that the “vast majority of women” in prison are nonviolent drug offenders: ”in the federal system alone…there were over 90,000 prisoners lucked up for drug offenses, compared with about 40,000 for violent crimes.” While she doesn’t advocate for a simple answer like legalization of drugs, she does paint a picture of a legal system broken by mandatory drug sentencing. She also points out how ill-suited most of the women are to being released: “there was no continuity at all between the prison economy, including prison jobs, and the mainstream economy.”

Her conclusion is that “our jailers are generally granted near-total anonymity, like the cartoon executioner who wears a hood to conceal his identity. What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it’s dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?”

I think it’s a book worth reading, especially for someone like me who is not aware of ever knowing a person who was locked up. I hear that some people who do know folks in prison have criticized the TV show for being unrealistic. I’d be interested to hear what anyone who has ever set foot in a prison thinks of the book.

Literary Trivia

July 25, 2014

I’m off for a vacation! I leave you to divert yourselves with a long list of trivia questions from Literary Trivia by Richard Lederer and Michael Gilleland, which I will post the answers for (in the comments) on August 11.
Match each literary locale with the name of its creator:
1. Barchester
2. Baskerville Hall
3. Belle Reve
4. Bensalem
5. Bleak House
6. Brewster Place
7. Brideshead
8. Cloud Cuckoo Land
9. Darkover
10. Devon School
11. Dune
12. East Egg
13. East Lynne
14. Egdon Heath
15. The Emerald City
16. Erewhon
17. The Forest of Arden
18. Gilead
19. Gopher Prairie
20. La Mancha
21. Land of the Lotus-Eaters
22. Lilliput
23. Looking-Glass House
24. Lowood
25. Manderley
26. Middle Earth
27. Middlemarch
28. Narnia
29. Never-Never-Land
30. Northanger Abbey
31. Oceania
32. Pandemonium
33. Pencey Prep
34. Pooh Corner
35. The Republic
36. Salemn’s Lot
37. Serendip
38. Shangri-La
39. The Slough of Despond
40. Starkville
41. Toad Hall
42. Thrushcross Grange
43. Tilbury Town
44. Utopia
45. Walden Two
46. Waverley Honour
47. Winesburg
48. Xanadu
49. Xanth
50. Yoknapatawpha County

Asta in the Wings

July 17, 2014

I got a copy of Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson, last week for my birthday. It had been on my wish list for four years, ever since I read about it at Boston Bibliophile. I’d forgotten the review that got me interested, so when I started reading it, I couldn’t tell if it was set in a dystopian future with two kids and a mother that had survived a civilization-ending plague, or if the mother was crazy. While the text, spoken in first person by Asta, who is seven, indicates dystopian future, the clues—like the way her mother cuts her hair and eats cookies in front of the starving children—increasingly indicate that the mother is crazy.

It turns out that the mother is actually crazy. One night when she doesn’t come home, Asta and her brother Orion find their way out of the house where Asta has lived most of her life, to find that the world is fine, even though the people they meet don’t seem to be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.

Some of the best parts of this novel are the parts about what Asta imagines about the world, having been exposed to her mother’s stories about the stage and the plague-afflicted outside world, an old Dick-and-Jane-type primer, the Bible, a book about movies, and movies and game shows on TV. She believes the stories about a grandmother being an actress and her mother having stage training, and she takes her mother’s advice about acting as advice about how to live in the world: “being someone else allows you to see the whole of things. You have to look at things upside down or inside out or sideways….I remember how exciting it was, standing there in the wings, waiting for my turn to go onstage.”

Asta and Orion spend their days reading and playing games that they take very seriously. At one point, Asta and Orion put tea and pickle juice on the outside of his legs and then wrap him up in blankets so the tea mixture can heal them. While he is “cooking” in a hamper, she goes back to looking at the Bible: “I’d left it open to a plate of thirteen men competing for elbow room at a long supper table. All the men wore robes, and most seemed to have no legs. I looked from one man to the other, mentally comparing their faces to those of the actors in the Big Movie Book. What ripping silent movies they could make, these men! Perhaps the subtitles would reveal that their legs had been blown off in a battle. Perhaps their legs would have to be restored with the help of herbs applied by a clever little girl who would gladly join them for supper in the end.”

When the starved children first make their way outside, Asta says “not everything I saw was new to me, for the world of books and television had introduced me to more things than one might expect” but she is surprised to find “no human limbs jutting from the snowbanks, thankfully, and no men hauling bodies away. The only horror was not knowing where Mother was.”

Once the children are discovered, Asta is taken to live with an aunt she’s never met and sent to school, which is the only place she sees her brother. She says he is living with a doctor, which may be true, although it’s also true that this same doctor acts in an official capacity when he takes them to see their mother, so Orion may need more intensive therapy than Asta does to be able to come out from the wings and onto the world’s stage. They visit their mother and play their old make-believe games with her, but they are newly conscious of the possibilities for interactions with those in the rest of the world.

The story is charmingly told, with an innocence that belies its smallness. To Asta, the house she grew up in, the neighborhood around it, and the next town over, where she is taken to live, feel like the whole world. Her mother and brother have been her world, and now it is expanding. Even though we see that the mother has been living in her own dystopian fantasy world and that she and Orion have been neglected and mistreated, we also see the magic they have created, the foundation of imaginative possibilities that lines from Shakespeare and images out of novels like The Stand, Earth Abides, and The Scarlet Plague have given these two children.

I loved this book, but had to take a brief interval of mourning for the book I wanted it to be, one about imaginative children who actually do emerge into a post-apocalyptic world.

Men at Forty

July 15, 2014

This weekend my father-in-law died. All three of his children were there but no spouses; I get to remember him as he was when I saw him last, at Christmastime, still 6’6”, sitting in a recliner built up on a wooden platform to accommodate his creaky knees and never losing any arguments.

He was a history professor, and I admired and was entertained by him because we met as adults. I think we liked each other from the first time I walked up to his house to find him putting an inch-thick layer of concrete on top of a big picnic table he had built, the only picnic table I ever sat at and could swing my legs.

He was my remaining father after my own father died, and I keep thinking of Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty” now that Ron and I are both left.

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices trying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

If fathers can die, then whose broad shoulders can we see from the backseat? Who’s driving this thing?

Too Close to the Falls

July 11, 2014

Sometimes Ron tells me that other people don’t have so much inner monologue or that they don’t measure a situation in as much detail as I usually do, both before and after. When I went to visit my formerly imaginary friend Nancy, though, I got evidence that a few other people do measure a situation in pretty thorough detail, because in addition to making up a bed for us, Nancy left out a book she thought I’d like.

While it’s true that I usually read before bed, I don’t often manage this while traveling, due to the fact that I need more sleep than anyone else I know so am always running a deficit. However, if you tell me you think I might like a certain book, I will make an effort to read it. One of the most memorable moments in my adolescence came from being told I was the only person my high school speech teacher had ever met who “might actually like reading The Fairie Queene.” So of course, I did like it as soon as I got my hands on it.

The book Nancy left out for me was Too Close to the Falls, by Catherine Gildiner. It’s a memoir, and I don’t read too many of those. When I do, however, it’s usually as a houseguest, and often it happens early in the morning, like the spring morning I woke up in my great-aunt’s Hyattsville apartment and started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which begins with:
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”

We got up early at Nancy’s house and went out for beignets, so it wasn’t until I got home that I tracked down a copy of Too Close to the Falls and began reading it. At first it seems like little Cathy Gildiner’s life isn’t like anyone else’s, but then I started to have the same feeling that Jo Walton once described about reader reactions to Among Others, that the childhood which seemed so different from anyone else’s usually strikes a chord among like-minded souls who have found each other over the internet. Many of us can identify with a child who did peculiar things and didn’t realize they were peculiar. We had mothers who read and perhaps didn’t pay attention to many of the household duties that occupied other mothers. My own mother, for example, never learned to type for the same reason Cathy’s mother gives for not learning to type or cook, because then “you’d be requested to do both against your will forever.” Probably there are other mothers from the 1950’s and 60’s who did the same thing and gave the same advice to their daughters.

Even though I don’t find little Cathy’s upbringing as odd as she seems to want me to, I did find that not many of us can write as well as adult Catherine. I love the part where she describes “normal” life for four-year-olds in a small town near Niagara Falls in the 1950’s:
“other four-year-olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls’ birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass….”

The best parts of the memoir are the details about young Cathy’s life delivering prescriptions from her father’s drugstore with Roy, a kind and intelligent black man who never learned to read, but who knew how to keep a smart and energetic little girl on her toes: “Roy and I made up complicated systems for working together efficiently…..Roy loved to bet, and after I got the hang of it from him, I found that it gave life just that bit of edge it needed. Our days were packed with exciting wagers.”

Roy also gives Cathy her first tastes of perspective on her own family. When he laughingly calls her “the angel of exactitude” to a group of people who laugh knowingly, she “understood for the first time that not all the world shared the values of my family. I thought it was inherently good to be exacting.”

I got tired of the parts about Catholic school. It takes Cathy a very long time to realize “that advertisers only wanted to sell products and nuns and priests and parents only gave the party line but grew up with the same prejudices and instincts that everyone else had.” She is naive about sexuality for what seems a very long time, although her story about the first time Elvis was on TV is brightened up by the sentence she gets out of the long recounting of her prolonged state of innocence: “by this time many people had their own television, but they got together to watch history in the making, I guess in case something lustful happened and it was really scary they could turn to each other.”

The title comes from the kinds of danger an unsupervised and adventurous child could skirt in those days. Cathy gets “too close to the falls” literally, sliding down an icy slope towards them as a child and slipping drunkenly down some steps towards them as an almost-adult.

The geographical marvel I lived near as a child was utterly and completely forbidden–we were told that if any of us so much as put a toe into the Mississippi river we would be pulled immediately under by the current and never seen again, and even as teenagers we retained enough terror of the currents to resist partying on the sand bars, as a few of the bravest did. But I managed to find some pretty dangerous things to do. Most of these involved riding around on cars, in places other than the seats. Once we got stopped by the police for flapping tennis rackets out of the windows of a car to make it fly. Perhaps the police thought we had been drinking, but we had not. My friend Brad was driving, and he asked me to open the glove compartment to get his registration–when I did, a couple of rolls of toilet paper fell out because we sometimes went around t.p.-ing friends’ houses in those days, sometimes by going in, visiting a while, and then asking to use their bathroom. We didn’t always t.p. the yard; sometimes just the room itself.

What’s the most dangerous thing you did as a child?

My Real Children

July 7, 2014

Which are the real children, the four Tricia had with her abusive husband Mark or the three Pat raised with her loving wife Bee? It’s not as clear-cut a question as it might seem.

At the beginning of My Real Children, by Jo Walton, Patricia is near the end of her life, living in a nursing home because of her dementia. The introduction makes you think that she’s confused, that she isn’t remembering much of anything. As the novel’s chapters begin to alternate between the life she has when she says yes to Mark’s proposal of marriage and the life she has when she says no, however, the situation gets more confusing.

Although her life with Bee is as happy as her life with Mark is unhappy, the news in the world with Bee starts to get worse. A few parallels between her two lives seem inescapable as Patricia gets older—her mother always has dementia and she always develops heart trouble. The world in which she lives an unhappy personal life, however, drives her to political activism, while the world in which her personal life is happy calls her to write guide books to Italy.

The worlds diverge so gradually I didn’t recognize that some of the Eurocentric history was skewed until it became apparent that some sort of multi-national alliance had dropped a nuclear bomb on Kiev in the world where Pat lives with Bee.

All the right hints are in the introduction—that Patricia taught a student who might be confused with the artist who “painted the picture of the ruins of Miami,” that she “had never cared for science fiction” and that “she remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange.” It’s just that I wasn’t ready to pick up on the hints; it seems such an ordinary story, in the beginning.

Although it seems unlikely to those around her, what Patricia does has an effect on the world, no matter how small and domestic it seems. In hindsight this may be obvious, as it is in the novel, but one of the questions the novel asks is how many of us get anyone who tries to look at our lives from our point of view? The famous, perhaps, but as Patricia herself points out, “you don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will.”

Not paying attention makes us like Mark, who “was also trying to write a book, a treatise on philosophy. He shut himself up in his room after dinner on most nights to work on it. He refused to discuss it with her.” Being too much bound by the culture of our own time period makes us like Patricia’s mother “who made light of everything and kept repeating that all marriages had these problems.” Taking advantage of a mother’s willingness to put her own needs last makes us like Patricia’s daughter, who “decided to take night classes and catch up on her education. This meant Trish cutting back on some of her own evenings to babysit Tamsin, which she did reluctantly.”

During the life in which her loved ones pay more attention to Patricia, she does different kinds of work, and less of the work for peace. She remembers that “she had written more letters as Trish, but surely that couldn’t have achieved anything? She hadn’t been important, in either world, she hadn’t been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds….But what if she had been?”

This novel answers that “what if” question, a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except with a woman, suggesting that we all seem ordinary except when we’re taken out of ourselves, and perhaps our “real” children are the cumulative results of our efforts over what seem to us a series of ordinary days.

What–besides this novel—has the power to take you out of yourself for a quick look around?

The Piano Player Explains Himself

July 2, 2014

Do you think “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends/rough-hew them how we will“? Sometimes it’s hard to resist that kind of thinking; I’m thinking about a person dear to me who had a mild stroke, and then broke a hip, and then got a kind of leukemia, and then broke another hip and had another mild stroke. At what point do we start to think he’s fighting a losing battle?

And just how rude is it to ask that question, anyway?

There’s a lot of explaining to be done, as in Allen Grossman’s poem “The Piano Player Explains Himself.”

When the corpse revived at the funeral,
The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul
Of the revenant passed into the body
Of the poet because it had more to say.
He sat down at the piano no one could play
Called Messiah, or The Regulator of the World,
Which had stood for fifty years, to my knowledge,
Beneath a painting of a red-haired woman
In a loose gown with one bared breast, and played
A posthumous work of the composer S—
About the impotence of God (I believe)
Who has no power not to create everything.
It was the Autumn of the year and wet,
When the music started. The musician was
Skilful but the Messiah was out of tune
And bent the time and the tone. For a long hour
The poet played The Regulator of the World
As the spirit prompted, and entered upon
The pathways of His power – while the mourners
Stood with slow blood on their hands
Astonished by the weird processional
And the undertaker figured his bill.
– We have in mind an unplayed instrument
Which stands apart in a memorial air
Where the room darkens toward its inmost wall
And a lady hangs in her autumnal hair
At evening of the November rains; and winds
Sublime out of the North, and North by West,
Are sowing from the death-sack of the seed
The burden of her cloudy hip. Behold,
I send the demon I know to relieve your need,
An imperfect player at the perfect instrument
Who takes in hand The Regulator of the World
To keep the splendor from destroying us.
Lady! The last virtuoso of the composer S—
Darkens your parlor with the music of the Law.
When I was green and blossomed in the Spring
I was mute wood. Now I am dead I sing.

The poem came to my attention because the poet (father of The Magicians author Lev Grossman) died recently, which gives the last line even more resonance.

What about those first two lines, though? What kind of person would have mourners who would rise up in outrage, or is the poem saying that any mourners would, because what’s dead should stay dead?

Still, though, I think we all have some impulse to necromancy, to want to hear what the poet will say and see what kind of feelings the piano music will arouse. What we have in mind is so often not what happens.

Is what happens to us what always had to happen? It certainly is what will inevitably happen, no matter how long we struggle—we’re mortal. But we don’t want to have to confront that about ourselves.

Don’t shoot the piano player…. Don’t blame the messenger…. All sorts of comic sayings are implicit in the oddly concrete images of this poem. Do we each do what we were created to do, by one who “has no power not to create everything”?

In the poem, what “we have in mind” is a somber and appropriate response, a gravity about the grave. What we get, however, is a “demon,” an “imperfect player” who plays “the music of the Law”–which might be some kind of blues-infested honky tonk piano–underneath what could be either an old whorehouse wall decoration or some priceless work of art by one of the Old Masters.

It’s the not knowing that gets us. So many of the questions sound rude when you say them out loud.


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