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July 30, 2021

July is my favorite month. I love the comfort of the heat, the way it lets my muscles stretch out and relax, and the humidity that curls my hair and turns visible at dawn and dusk. I love the green of everything, the long days, the sunshine, cicadas, lightning bugs, butterflies, grasshoppers, birdsong, gladiolus, sunflowers, roses. So I saved Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet to read in July, since everybody knows the boy dies. I can feel sad without getting depressed in July.

And indeed, it was sad when he died, very sad, put down the book and blow your nose sad. The rest of it was a revelation, though. There were so many things to enjoy and admire, most particularly the way O’Farrell makes Agnes and her family the focus of most of the action, with her husband at the periphery, and the way we see how it could have all happened around the few details that we do know (the second-best bed makes an appearance).

This novel is a good example of how to skip from the present timeline to a previous one and then go back and forth to make it narratively suspenseful. We are introduced to Hamnet when he is in the house alone with his twin sister, who has just fallen sick, and then we skip back to the story of his grandmother, Agnes’ mother, who wandered in the forest and grew herbs. After that we get the story of how young Will Shakespeare met Agnes, the oldest daughter on the estate where he was tutoring, and they fell in love.

The details make the story come alive, like the changes Will’s mother Mary sees in the house after Agnes comes to live there:

“the candlewicks are trimmed, without Mary having to remind the maids. The table linens are changed, again without asking, the wall drapes free of dust. The plateware is spotless and shining….There are holly branches in a jar in the hall. Cloves studded into sweetmeats in the cookhouse, a pot of fragrant leaves that Mary doesn’t recognize. There are gnarled and soil-heavy roots drying in the eaves of the brewhouse, and berries on a tray. A pile of starched and pressed collars lies waiting on the landing. The pigs in their pen look suspiciously scrubbed and pink, the hens’ trough is clean and filled with water.”

The characterization of Will’s father as short-tempered and controlling helps to explain why he has to go off to London despite his love for his wife and children. And the characterization of Hamnet as a twin who can’t imagine living without the other one is an interesting way to tell this story. Hamnet thinks he can’t live without Judith, that “it is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.” In this version, Hamnet is the mischievous twin who decides “to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.”

The grief of Hamnet’s mother is described at length and with details that will shrivel up the soul of any mother, like that “she, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again.”

As Agnes washes her dead son’s body “she runs her fingers over the scar on Hamnet’s arm where he fell from a fence at Hewlands, over the puckered knot from a dog bite at a harvest fair. The third finger of his right hand is calloused from gripping a quill. There are small pits in the skin of his stomach from when he had a spotted pox as a small child.” It seems like such a comfort, one I’ve experienced when preparing a pet for burial in the woods in back of our house. Am I the only one who reads this passage and wishes we could still do it for the people we love, too?

The novel ends with a performance of Hamlet, providing a perfect ending and an epitaph to a boy’s long-ago and too-brief life. It was so long ago. Look, today the sun is shining and the river is running over rocks so merrily, making an age-old music.

A review of Postcard Poems

July 29, 2021

Serena at SavvyVerseAndWit reviewed my book Postcard Poems.

World of Wonders

July 27, 2021

“Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.” –popularly attributed to Ernest Hemingway

As you know if you’ve ever read anything posted on this blog, I’m an advocate for personal writing, and for personal reviews. But recently I had to reassess that stance because I read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, which should probably be subtitled “a memoir in which animals are used as metaphors.” I hated it, not because it isn’t well-written, but because reading about how she feels about the animals and plants she mentions brings up my own associations with them, which are less pleasant.

It could be that she begins with the catalpa tree, which is burned into my memory as the source of the long, stiff pods my mother once used to whip my younger brother. Aimee’s comment that “my mother always kept her calm…without losing her temper” does not make it better.

It could be that her next memory, of fireflies, is from “rural western New York,” while mine are from central Arkansas and southern Missouri, where we call them “lightning bugs.” There are two essays about fireflies, and although Aimee and I share the wish that more college-age students could see them, Aimee glosses over the reasons they haven’t, briefly mentioning “screens” along with “lawn pesticides and light pollution.”

It definitely is that her story about drawing a peacock–something I did obsessively up until high school, when I organized a “peacock farm” club and took my friends out to scream with the peacocks kept at a local memorial park–entirely missed its target with me. Aimee’s story is about how drawing peacocks set her apart as a foreigner. Poor little Aimee was told she had to draw something more American, so she drew a “ridiculous, overly patriotic eagle” and won first place in her school’s drawing contest. This turns out to be emblematic of the rest of the book. Aimee often has some kind of small, temporary setback which turns out to be a preface to her greater triumph.

I found the essay about comb jellies interesting until Aimee’s declaration that “I have always been drawn to color,” as if the rest of us are only capable of discerning shades of gray and she’s special. I liked reading about the touch-me-not plant until Aimee made it metaphorical, saying “how I wish I could fold inward and shut down and shake off predators with one touch….touch me not in the green room right before I go onstage, touch me not at the bar while I wait for my to-go order, touch me not at a faculty party, touch me not if you are a visiting writer….” Aimee seems to be drawing specific examples from her own experience, showing us how exquisitely desirable she is. Okay fine, we get it—she’s attractive and she’s a faculty member who is wealthy enough to order from bars, consort with visiting writers, and appear onstage.

When an elementary-aged boy teases Aimee, it must be learned racism (and not what the rest of us experienced, the aimless cruelty of small boys who let loose their darts until they see one hit a target). (I remember a boy who got so desperate to make fun of me that he resorted to switching the initial letters of my first and last names and repeating the resulting nonsense syllables like a taunt.) When a girl in “the junior high locker room” pretends to be an expert on what shade of “Wet n Wild lipstick” Aimee should wear, it must be about Aimee’s skin color, not about the other girl’s attempt to establish a pecking order. When we hear that “butterflies have always been special to my boys” I guess we’re supposed to believe that Aimee is a better mother than any of us who have taken our children to countless butterfly gardens, planted milkweed, and watched a chrysalis to see what would emerge.

We’re supposed to feel sorry for poor Aimee because she spent one year being “the new girl in high school” and had to eat lunch by herself: “I ate lunch in the library. I ate lunch in a stairwell hardly anyone used. I ate lunch in the dark enclave of the only elevator….Once I ate lunch—my sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich—while standing up in a scratched and markered-up bathroom stall.” Who here didn’t spend more than one year finding places to avoid the high school lunchroom? And who feels sorry for a girl who actually got to eat some lunch? My memories of high school lunchtime are memories of being hungry and not eating, because a girl who wasn’t thin wasn’t supposed to eat in public. “This was my cephalopod year,” Aimee says, as if no one else in high school ever wanted “to disappear or sneak away into the deep sea.” And, predictably, for Aimee it was only one year. After that “I did end up making friends….people noticed when I had to leave parties early….They didn’t want me to go.” And she’s grateful for that one year of friendlessness, Aimee says, because “if not for that shadow year, how would I know how to search the faces of my own students?”

We’re supposed to believe that Aimee is one of the only people in the world who appreciate the chance to see a blooming corpse flower, when in actuality we know that there are always people eager to see them in arboretums and conservatories. This attitude was written into an episode of a tv show called Scorpion, about a group of people who are self-described geniuses. One of them, Walter, takes a girl to see a corpse flower opening and is surprised she doesn’t know what will happen. They are standing in a line of people waiting to get close to the flower, showing that Walter is not the only person in the world who wants to see it.

When she gets into a tank with a whale shark, Aimee says “I was simply unprepared to submit myself so completely to nature.” Although she subsequently acknowledges that this is “humans’ interpretation and preservation of nature,” I think this is the point in my reading where I started thinking about writing a parody of her book.

This book is by a woman so lucky that she not only got to go to Greece, she once got to experience a “month-long stay where I spent mornings teaching poetry to students from around the world and afternoons snorkeling with my young sons and husband in turquoise-colored coves.” This is a woman so fortunate that she admits “I felt guilty for even daring to hope I could lend a tenure-track job—all I knew was that I wanted to stay in the classroom, but I also wanted to be able to spend time outdoors and write.” Well who doesn’t? But how many of us actually find a tenure-track job?

So favored that she can watch other people from “my blanket on the beach,” Aimee contorts a metaphor about the sound a cassowary makes to say “Boom to the man in the truck in front of me on Highway 6, who tosses a whole empty fast food sack out his window and then, later, a couple of still-lit cigarettes. Boom, I want to say to the family who left their empty plastic water bottles on a bench.” Rather than identify the manufacturers and distributors of plastic water bottles, Aimee is content to lie on her towel and think about the way those few individuals she can see from the beach should be acting.

Aimee’s final question is “where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet”? Perhaps, for once, she’s convinced me that the place to start is not with the personal. What means a lot to me won’t mean the same things to you, and it might well irritate you for me to try to tell you how I feel about these animals and plants.

It can be easy to criticize, but I think what irritates me most about World of Wonders is the failed attempt. Rather than identifying it as a memoir, Aimee and her publisher are trying to make us think that we can join in the way she’s fond of the world and its wonders when in actuality the number of people who can join in her rarified society are few.


July 24, 2021

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, is a literary science fiction book. Hyperion is a planet, and its biggest city is called Keats. The original Keats was a poet and he lives again in this novel, although the manner of his rebirth is so technical that it’s hard to call it necromancy. Like the life of the Romantic poet, the life of the cybrid who calls himself Johnny is brief and beautiful.

The novel is told in a series of tales, reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales, as the characters are all on a pilgrimage to Hyperion. It took me a while to get interested in the tales; the first one, by a priest, is slightly reminiscent of the priest’s tale in Mary Doria Russell’s SF novel The Sparrow. As the tales went on, however, I got more interested in them than in the overarching plot, which has to do with the relationship of the Ousters, the Hegemony of humans, the datumplane of AIs, and a rebellion based on the planet Maui-Covenant against those who have been murdering any species with the potential to be a competitor to humans.

About Hyperion, the priest says that “the whole planet reeks of mysticism without revelation,” and the same can be said about the novel itself, although the world-building and character development tell enough of a tale to satisfy almost anyone. In the first story, the priest’s, we learn about some of the flora on the planet Hyperion, like its “flame forest” with “groves of tall Prometheus, trailers of ever present phoenix, and rough stands of amber lambents.” The forest also has the “tesla tree,” which opens in “spasms of violent energy” so that “a Prometheus less than thirty meters from us exploded, dropping flaming brands fifty meters to the forest floor.” We discover secrets important to the plot, like what a “cruciform” does (it’s necromancy-adjacent and therefore the priest abjures it) and what the “legendary Shrike” looks like to a human:
“it was vaguely man-shaped but in no way human. It stood at least three meters tall. Even when it was at rest, the silvered surface of the thing seemed to shift and flow like mercury suspended in midair. The reddish glow from the crosses set into the tunnel walls reflected from sharp surfaces and glinted on the curved metal blades protruding from the thing’s forehead, four wrists, oddly jointed elbows, knees, armored back, and thorax….it extended four long arms, hands extended but fingers clicking into place like chrome scalpels.”
So much of the mystery is revealed in the first tale that a reader can’t be too impatient for more but settles in to enjoy each tale and see how the individual pieces come together.

Some of the most interesting pieces are the references to old Earth literature, like when the characters go to a bar in Keats called Cicero and they think that it “was not named after some piece of pre-Hegira literary trivia.” Readers get the sense that this exceedingly advanced civilization doesn’t remember all the things they know, and this keeps us interested in why what is remembered is remembered at all. We also get a little bit of editorializing on how things have turned out as they have in the future, like when we learn about “the obscenities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries on Old Earth, when military leaders had committed their nations to strategies wherein entire civilian populations were legitimate targets while their uniformed executioners sat safe in self-contained bunkers fifty meters under the earth” so that now, in this future, “the repugnance of the surviving civilians was so great that for more than a century the word ‘military’ was an invitation to a lynching.” At other points it becomes less editorializing and more humorous, like when a character says that “in twentieth-century Old Earth a fast food chain took dead cow meat, fried it in grease, added carcinogens, wrapped it in petroleum-based foam, and sold nine hundred billion units.” One character, a poet, remembers a three-day party thrown by his great-aunt on Old Earth: “guests ferried in by dropship from Orbit City and from the European arcologies. I remember the Empire State Building rising from the water, its many lights reflecting on the lagoons and fern canals; the EMVs unloading passengers on the observation deck while cooking fires burned on the overgrown island mounds of lower buildings all around.” And we wonder with the poet why “the traces of intelligent life we have found—the blimps on Jove II, the labyrinth builders, the Seneschair empaths on Hebron, the Stick People of Durulis, the architects of the Time Tombs, the Shrike itself—have left us mysteries and obscure artifacts but no language. No words.”

We learn a lot about the universe of this novel in the section told by a private investigator, Brawne Lamia, who falls in love with a cybrid re-created to be John Keats. She describes “TC2, the age-old nickname for Tau Ceti Center…the most crowded world in the Web. Besides its population of five billion people scrabbling for room on less than half the land area of Old Earth, it has an orbital ring ecology that is home for half a billion more In addition to being the capital of the Hegemony and home of the Senate, TC2 is the business nexus for Webtrade.”

The unfinished epic poem by Keats, “Hyperion,” is germane to the plot of the novel even though the cybrid, Johnny, never goes to the “outback world” of Hyperion. And damn if Dan Simmons didn’t make me sad all over again about the death of John Keats when the cybrid dies in Brawne’s arms, murmuring “Fanny.”

With the last story we get a wider perspective on what has been going on from a character called The Consul. He sees that the future human race has not changed enough, still fighting with the alien Ousters: “barbarians, we call them, while all the while we timidly cling to our Web like Visigoths crouching in the ruins of Rome’s faded glory and proclaim ourselves civilized.” There are many secrets in the stories that comprise this novel but they don’t add up to an easy answer about what to do, where to go, or how to communicate with beings unlike ourselves. Oddly, it’s very satisfying.

The Windhover

July 20, 2021

We went on vacation last week. It was wonderful.

We rented a house on Isle of Palms, where we’ve been going since before our kids were born. The other family who has always gone with us came and all our children were able to come! I hadn’t seen my youngest since before the pandemic but he flew in, and his girlfriend came with him, and my older child came with her girlfriend and we all had a fabulous time together.

We watched the waves come in and made sand castles, as in my two postcard poems about Isle of Palms. Our first sand castle effort was the sphinx with two pyramids as background.

Our second was an octopus’ garden, dominated by a big octopus.

We went to a few restaurants and sat outside: the Boathouse, the Wreck, 82 Queen Street, Coconut Joe’s, and Shem Creek Crab House. We took the boat to Fort Sumter. Although we didn’t do a few of the things we’ve enjoyed in the past (crabbing, kayaking, boat rides to Capers Island) we had enough time to do lots of nothing.

And we played games in person, the ones we couldn’t play over the internet during the last year: Charades, Telephone Pictionary, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, Codenames, the Forehead game, Rage.

One morning, along about noon, as we were sitting under beach umbrellas thinking about going in for lunch and watching the pelicans and sandpipers and seagulls, one of us pulled up the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “The Windhover” and another of us read it out loud, there on the beach. It was wonderful—wonderful that I got to hang out with people who think of that poem when they see birds wheeling and wonderful that the words of the poem are so good out loud.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Hearing it out loud, on that beach, made me appreciate anew the pause between “the achieve of” and “the mastery of the thing!” It’s marvelous that we can hear the pause for effort, that intake of breath before something takes off.

Now we’re back home, but I feel that for a while I was soaring.

Postcard Poems publication day!

July 15, 2021

My book is out today! You can order it here

$18.50 at ($22.95 from other booksellers)

If you’re interested in writing a review (even just a two-sentence reaction for Amazon or Goodreads), get me your address and I’ll send you a copy.

Good for reading by the pool.

Emily Starr and Jane of Lantern Hill

July 7, 2021

On a roll with reading L.M. Montgomery, I finished the books about the other two characters that were recommended to me when I wrote about the Anne of Green Gables series, Emily Starr and Jane of Lantern Hill. Jane’s story is a standalone, and although it has some charm, I liked Jane less than Emily, who appears in Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

Maybe I would have liked Jane better if I’d met her when I was much younger, but since her main interests are cooking, cleaning, and gardening, we were never going to get on. I think this may be the spot that made me throw up my hands:
“Dad wanted to help her wash the dishes but Jane would have none of it. Wasn’t she to be the housekeeper? She knew how Mary washed dishes. She had always wanted to wash dishes…it must be such fun to make dirty plates clean.” Nope.

Emily is a writer, so I felt some affinity there, although at some point I tire of reading about what it’s like for a writer to write, and there’s a lot of that in the three books about Emily.

The other thing that irritates me about Emily is that she is much too interested in other peoples’ opinions of her writing; I wanted to strangle her when she burned an entire novel she knew was good, just because the man she was seeing told her it wasn’t good. He was lying but she didn’t see it, caught up in the romance of the way he always spoke to her. The first time they meet he wonders if he has been “tricked into meddling with fairies, and will I discover presently that twenty years have passed and that I am an old man long since lost to the living world with nothing but the skeleton of my dog for company?”

I liked Emily’s moments of confidence much better, as when she declares “I’m not afraid of anything. At life’s banquet of success I may not be the guest of honour, but I’ll be among those present.” What a good thought.

The best part of Emily’s story is about how people are afraid of her pen:
“Then there was the episode of the local theatricals in Shrewsbury which were written up with vitriolic abuse in one of the Charlottetown papers. Shrewsbury people blamed Emily Byrd Starr for doing it. Who else, they demanded, could or would have written with such diabolic cleverness and sarcasm? Every one knew that Emily Byrd Starr had never forgiven Shrewsbury people for believing those yarns about her in the old John House affair. This was her method of revenge….Emily protested her innocence in vain. It was never discovered who had written the report and as long as she lived it kept coming up against her. But in one way it worked out to her advantage. She was invited to all the social doings in Shrewsbury after that. People were afraid to leave her out lest she ‘write them up.’”

Probably because I read the Anne books first and there’s a good deal of repetition of themes with the plucky orphan girl as a main character (Jane isn’t technically an orphan, but she certainly has to work hard to create parents) I prefer the ones about Anne to these about other characters.

The Brothers Karamazov

July 3, 2021

There’s nothing I love more than reading books that people I love give me or recommend to me. Lately I’ve been reading and re-reading Russian novels, trying to remember why I was fascinated by them as a teenager and also trying to think about the ideas they suggest as my son is in graduate school studying Russian literature. In addition, I wanted to hop on this summer’s book blogger discussion of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I read the Constance Garnett translation, since that’s one of the ones my son recommended, saying that Garnett is very clear–the only criticism of her is that she “cleans up” some of Dostoyevsky’s messier language.

I didn’t remember how much of the novel is about religion and class society, and I’m pretty sure that the first time I read it, I didn’t appreciate some of the characterization, like the curmudgeonly fellow who “had a high opinion of his own insight, a weakness excusable in him as he was fifty, an age at which a clever man of the world of established position can hardly help taking himself rather seriously.” Or the prosecutor who is suffering from imposter syndrome–he “was vain and irritable, though he had a good intellect, and even a kind heart. It seemed all that was wrong with him was that he had a better opinion of himself than his ability warranted. And that made him seem constantly uneasy.”

There’s not a lot of plot—the novel centers on a dissolute old father, Fyodor Pavlovitch, who has three sons: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexey. There’s a fourth illegitimate son too, Smerdyakov. The oldest son is trying to claim an inheritance left to him by his mother and both he and his father have declared themselves to be in love with the same woman, Grushenka. When the father is found dead, Dmitri, the oldest, is put on trial for his murder. Ivan is searching for the truth while Alexey is trying to do what’s right.

Two of the women in the novel, Katarina Ivanovna and Madame Hohlakov, have access to money and try to manipulate the Karamazov brothers, hoping to change their own lives. Some of the things Madame Hohlakov says have a comic effect, as she repeats something that has previously been said seriously–like when she throws up her hands at the idea of judgment, saying “Let them acquit [Dmitri]—that’s so humane, and would show what a blessing reformed law courts are….And if he is acquitted, make him come straight from the law courts to dinner with me, and I’ll have a party of friends, and we’ll drink to the reformed law courts. I don’t believe he’d be dangerous; besides, I’ll invite a great many friends, so that he could always be led out if he did anything. And then he might be made a justice of the peace or something in another town, for those who have been in trouble themselves make the best judges.”

One of the memorable characters is a poor father who has been hired by Fyodor Pavlovitch to threaten Dmitri into paying his debts and who Dmitri has insulted. Alexey tries to help the father as his son, Ilusha, is falling ill, seemingly because of his father’s shame at Dmitri’s insult and partly because he feels guilty about hurting (perhaps even killing) a stray dog. Ilusha’s sickness and eventual death indicate that even small actions can have a big effect on others.

Most of the ideas of the novel are carried by a series of statements. Some of them are worked out in discussion while others are qualified or refuted by what follows. At one point, for example, Ivan gives a long speech about the Russian character, saying that
“our historical pastime is the direct satisfaction of inflicting pain. There are lines in Nekrassov describing how a peasant lashes a horse on the eyes….it’s peculiarly Russian….But men, too, can be beaten. A well-educated, cultured gentleman and his wife beat their own child with a birch-rod, a girl of seven. ….I know for a fact there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely….it’s just their defencelessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain.”
His speech takes a theological turn when he asks what the meaning of children suffering can be:
“what do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”
This is Ivan’s introduction to what he calls “his poem,” the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.” And it is this story that leads Ivan to his conclusions about “the strength of the Karamazov baseness,” the corruption that all three brothers fear, in varying degrees.

The novel is so dense with speeches, observations, and philosophy that the unwary reader might be forced into the attitude of a half-comprehending peasant watching the antics of the nobles, whose actions are absurd and comic, if that reader skips from one observation to another without understanding the causes of such extreme reactions. Alexey is at one point described as he
“threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever….what was he weeping over?”
Dmitri, at another point, “was at that moment in a condition of feverish agitation and activity. For the last two days he had been in such an inconceivable state of mind that he might easily have fallen ill with brain fever.” Grushenka, when she declares her love for Dmitri, says “what does money matter? We shall waste it anyway…folks like us are bound to waste money. But we’d better go and work the land. I want to dig the earth with my own hands. We must work, do you hear. Alyosha said so. I won’t be your mistress, I’ll be faithful to you, I’ll be your slave, I’ll work for you.” A girl who sends Alexey with a message to his brother Dmitri declares that he must “give it to him, you must give it to him….Today, at once, or I’ll poison myself!” When Ivan meets a peasant who is singing on the road, he “felt an irresistible urge to knock him down” and indulges in it, finding him “without movement or consciousness” afterwards and thinking to himself “he will be frozen” as he “went on his way.” At the end of the novel, Ivan almost entirely succumbs to “brain fever” and hallucinates in such detail that he has an extended dialogue with the devil.

When he is arrested for his father’s murder, Dmitri’s reaction is that of a half-comprehending nobleman who has always believed his privileged position will protect him from any consequences. He says to the arresting officers
“I am, after all, in the position of a criminal, and so, far from being on equal terms with you. And it’s your business to watch me. I can’t expect you to pat me on the head for what I did to Grigory, for one can’t break old men’s heads with impunity. I suppose you’ll put me away for him for six months, or a year perhaps, in a house of correction. I don’t know what the punishment is—but it will be without loss of the rights of my rank, with loss of my rank, won’t it?”
A bit later his indignation is also based on his idea of what is due to a person of his rank, when he says
“if I had really been the murderer of my father, when the very thought of having accidentally killed Grigory gave me no peace all night—not from fear—oh, not simply from fear of your punishment! The disgrace of it! And you expect me to be open with such scoffers as you, who see nothing and believe in nothing, blind moles and scoffers, and to tell you another nasty thing I’ve done, another disgrace, even if that would save me from your accusation! No, better Siberia!”
Even when he appears for his trial “he looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock coat. I heard afterwards that he has ordered it in Moscow expressly for the occasion from his own tailor, who had his measure.”

We find out who committed the murder, having concluded from things Ivan said that “all things are lawful….For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it.” The devil himself comments “that’s our modern Russian all over. He can’t bring himself to swindle without a moral sanction.”

The prosecutor makes a great speech about “this Karamazov family, which has gained such an unenviable notoriety throughout Russia….it seems to me that certain fundamental features of the educated class of to-day are reflected in this family picture—only, of course, in miniature, ‘like the sun in a drop of water.’” When he focuses on Dmitri, the prosecutor says that
“while his brothers seem to stand for ‘Europeanism’ and ‘the principles of the people,’ he seems to represent Russia as she is….he is spontaneous, he is a marvelous mingling of good and evil, he is a lover of culture and Schiller, yet he brawls in taverns and plucks out the beards of his boon companions. Oh, he, too, can be good and noble, but only when all goes well with him. What is more, he can be carried off his feet, positively carried off his feet by noble ideals, but only if they come of themselves, if they fall from heaven for him, if they need not be paid for. He dislikes paying for anything, but is very fond of receiving, and that’s so with him in everything. Oh, give him every possible good in life (he couldn’t be content with less), and put no obstacle in his way, and he will show that he, too, can be noble.”

The speeches, observations and philosophy are summed up by Dmitri’s courtroom defender, who observes that “it’s a fearful thing to shed a father’s blood” but also that “some fathers are a misfortune.” The novelist distills ideas from the panorama of human nature he presents–not to live by, but of use to readers like taking a drink at the end of the day can be of use in helping us to live with what has been revealed.


June 29, 2021

Having postcards on the mind lately (because my book Postcard Poems is being published on July 15) made me pick up Annie Proulx’s first novel (published in 1992), Postcards. Each section begins with a postcard, some handwritten and personal, others typed and from businesses. They add to the story, especially the increasing plaintiveness of seeing postcards sent home by the son, Loyal, who is roaming the U.S. and has no idea that his parents have lost the farm and there’s no one at their address anymore.

The novel is ostensibly the story of Loyal’s travels, but it’s also a history of the U.S. and a record of the small and sometimes inconsequential things that get lost, sort of like postcards. We save them for a while, but then someone dies and they get tossed out.

Like a few of the people whose things I’ve had to help toss out, Loyal is not a person who is always easy to love. We’re introduced to him in the wake of a fatal accident (or murder?) he is trying to cover up, and as he flees, we see that he’s left his dog “up in the field right where he’d told him to sit. Still waiting.” But as we learn more about Loyal’s life and his travels, we get to seeing things from his point of view. We want to warn him when he meets some hitchhikers who are inevitably going to rob him, but all we can do is take note of their names, foregrounded for us by the author:
“Loyal,” he said. “Loyal Blood.”
“Third Mate Donnie Weener,” said the sailor, “and he’s Blue Skies, no shit, that’s his name.”
“Skies for short,” said the Indian. “Don’t sing the song, please.”
Identifying one character by his military rank and everyone knowing the song “Blue Skies,” a favorite of my father’s, also centers the reader in the immediate aftermath of WWII.

As we learn the small things about the people Loyal has known and the ones he meets along the way, we see how everyone accumulates losses. I particularly noticed one, a fancy watch Loyal had given his girlfriend Billie (the person who is dead at the start of the novel) because it reminds me of a line in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”: “I lost my mother’s watch.” When I would teach the poem, I would ask my students what it’s like to lose something that valuable and personal belonging to your mother, and they would respond with stories about what trouble they were in when they’d lost or damaged something of their mother’s. In the novel, Loyal’s girlfriend lets “the watch slip down her wrist to show it off. Looking like a million. So careful of her things, keeping them polished and fine.” But then one day when they’re at a pond, Loyal’s younger sister says “please, Billy, can I wear your watch while you go swimming? Please, Billy!” And we see afterwards that sister’s “arm coming up out of the water, the watch face already so fogged they couldn’t see the diamond chips.” We’re careless, with each other’s things and with each other.

Often we can’t imagine what it’s like to be another person. Loyal’s mother thinks that “men understood nothing of the profound sameness, week after week, after month of the same narrow rooms, treading the same worn footpaths to the clothesline, the garden.” When she learns to drive, she finds a freedom no one even knew she wanted, least of all her son, who is still sending her postcards and imagining her treading those same worn paths.

Even though this is her first novel, Prouxl’s spare descriptions of people are a delight: “Emma, tanned almost black from two months of digging in Arizona, was decorated to her knobby elbows with silver and turquoise. Finger rings rayed, eyes glittered in the cocoa-colored face. Horsley and the students were the academic color of wet rice.”

Some of the people Loyal meets are aware that they’re the last people who know something. One of them tells him “I’m one of the remnants of a dying species, the amateur astronomer….I am not owned by a university. I do not depend on the publication of articles packed with incomprehensible mathematical formulas for my advancement through life.” Late in life, Loyal’s mother tells his younger sister that “there’s nothing so tender and good as home-canned beef. You can’t buy it for love nor money. There’s nothing else tastes like it. Deer meat, too. That’s the way we always used to do the deer meat….Now people, flatlanders, they get a deer, what do they do with it? They cut it up into ‘venison’ roasts and steaks and complain because it’s tough or too much tallow. They put it in the freezer. Toughens it up, I’d say. The way we used to do, it was always as tender as custard and you could skim off the tallow just by letting it set in a cool place before you put it up.”

Others have no idea how ignorant they are. There’s a harrowing story set in North Dakota about the consequences when a man who’s not thinking about it sets fire to a tumbleweed. They manage to save the dog during that adventure, as Loyal mentions that “there’s a dog as well. Stuck in the house unless she’s learned to fly” and his friend replies “many dream, few manage it” on his way to rescue her.

When Billie’s grave is finally discovered, no one even realizes its significance. The man who uncovers her bones believes it is “a pioneer grave. Some early settler’s wife, exhausted by childbearing, or, perhaps, scalped and slain by Indians, or killed by typhoid or pneumonia or milk fever.” He covers it back up and tells no one, thinking “he would not desecrate a grave.”

How many unmarked graves are there across this country—of people, of hopes, of trivial things like a collection of hats, or of postcards—that have been lost, and if they were ever to be uncovered, would be misunderstood? This novel will make you wonder.

Dusk Night Dawn

June 24, 2021

Anne Lamott’s newest book, Dusk Night Dawn: On Revival and Courage, is not what I’ve come to expect from her. She made me think about writing with Bird by Bird, helped me through young motherhood with Operating Instructions, and led me to explore ideas about belief with Traveling Mercies and Grace (Eventually). But it seems like she’s finally run out of new ideas, which is a shame because I’m used to enjoying whatever she writes and started out this book being amused by her repeated references to being in the “third third of my life” because yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

The book begins well, with a description of how ordinary marriage can be, when you’re doing laundry and “you leave a pen in your pants pocket and Dalmatian the whole load.” But there’s not enough of her trademark specificity.

In her collection Boss Broad, Megan Volpert reviews Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway and defines “literary particularism” as what allows Lamott to “write another single motherhood or alcoholism or religion or whatever other big idea through the insights uniquely afforded by her own experience and its particulars” and points out that this makes her definition of mercy too vague to be helpful.

In Dusk Night Dawn, Lamott’s definitions of “revival” and “courage” are similarly too vague to be helpful. I started reading the book because the first sentence is so promising: “here we are, older, scared, numb on some days, enraged on others, with even less trust than we had a year ago.” But we don’t get any specifics about how to move forward, just generalities about how “the hardest work we do is self-love and forgiveness” and more of the same stories about how Lamott likes to go to church and used to be an alcoholic.

The best parts may actually be Lamott’s quotes from others. She quotes Cameron Esposito as saying “I remember a close friend’s mom asking me if I really felt comfortable wearing a swimsuit next to her daughter’s much more slender body. I was eight. When you are a little kid, you can’t protect yourself from this shit. You think the shit is you.” She quotes her son as saying “you’re carrying too much and you’re going too fast.”

Lamott pretty much writes her own epitaph as a writer in this book, quoting her friend Terri Tate as saying “I have made a life and career of being a good sport…and I am worn out” and adding “all I could think to do in the moment was to agree.” She tells some stories about exhaustion and they all have a theme, which is that there’s no real cure for exhaustion but rest. Just like there’s no real cure for not having anything new to write about but stopping.

If, like me, you’ve been fond of reading everything Anne Lamott writes, be warned. This is the book that will end that fondness.

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