This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.
Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns
I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.
I should have known better.Continue Reading
A Doubter’s Almanac
Random House, Feb 2016
576 pp; $28
Buy: hardcover | eBook
Mathematicians toil in obscurity, often for years, at work that will probably come to nothing. It doesn’t take a Fields Medalist to understand why a novelist, that most uncertain toiler of all, would be drawn to such a plight.
Milo Andret, the genius at the center of Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, sacrifices domestic tranquility and ignores social norms in the pursuit of solving “mankind’s great puzzles.” His Princeton colleagues hate him, and for good reason. Milo is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, and an egomaniac. Tragically, his single-mindedness is no guarantee of success. Milo loses a cushy job, alienates his wife and daughter, and suffers through a grotesque late life illness, all while chasing that one elusive accomplishment he needs to secure his legacy.Continue Reading
There are many benefits of cynicism. But there’s also a certain kind of knee-jerk, armchair cynicism that lets those who subscribe to it reduce complex political and social events to doomed exercises in futility, and to pretend to know the totality of their worth. That kind of thinking is the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s “Easy Chair” column, “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.
Solnit muses that the full effect of the Arab Spring might not have yet come to pass—we can’t ever be certain. Some people, though, seem to be very certain about this or that, immediately after it happens.
Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.
Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.
Naïve cynicism, Solnit goes on to say, is so hasty to brand everything in the world as black or white—so eager to give the impression that it cannot be taken in—that the full depth and nuance of any situation viewed through this lens is immediately lost. Naïve cynicism, then, discourages people from caring, from trying; it is that voice that says there’s no point in getting your hopes up, you’ll just be disappointed, no matter the context. Naïve cynicism would stifle the passion and emotion that led to the Arab Spring, as it dismisses the unknown impact the uprising may yet still have.Continue Reading
Last month, I mentioned John Steinbeck’s famous declaration about the forgetfulness of his beloved Salinas Valley in matters of water and drought. He is fortunate that the valley has not forgotten him.
The National Steinbeck Center commands one end of Main Street in downtown Salinas, and a walk through its sprawling exhibits leaves little doubt that the city, the valley, and the whole of California’s central coast has reclaimed all iterations of its native son. There were times, framed newspaper spreads are quick to note, when Steinbeck’s portrayals of the valley were read harshly for his immigrants and migrants, workers and woebegones, producing varying degrees of local disavowal. Yet now, with Steinbeck enshrined a Great Man of Letters, his many legacies seemingly assured, the Center raises the question, for me at least, as to how a museum—visual, interactive, available to all and assuming broad levels of visitor familiarity with the work—can remember, celebrate, and perhaps, reimagine.
Does the Steinbeck Center, one might ask, need a human-sized model of an iPhone to make a comment about modern communication? Does lifting an old phone receiver to hear different accounts of a fruit pickers’ strike allow me to better understand In Dubious Battle, or for that matter, East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath? Does harnessing a plastic horse let me “help Jody do his chores” and read The Red Pony anew with experiential insight? Do I need to believe, even for a second, that the display of a chirping canvas bag actually holds frogs for Doc in order to appreciate the wayward generosities of Cannery Row? Do I affirm the richnesses of Lenny and George by lifting brims affixed to a wall, finding names beneath, and quizzing myself as to which Of Mice and Men head filled which hat? Did the Nobel Prize committee finish the massive wall of a Steinbeck crossword puzzle before awarding him the prize in literature in 1962? For all of it, I’m not so sure, but I admire the effort at accessibility, and there is something undeniably engaging in the mixing of media. (Do I feel transported to old Mexico and into Viva Zapata! by the stucco village and piñatas and faux fruit carts leaping out behind a bend—no—but I am usefully unsettled by the film photos of Marlon Brando’s mustache and, ah, skin color. Did the hilarious Yelp reviews of the nearby Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum convince me to skip the zombied bodies displayed in the basement of a strip mall in favor of a longer visit at the Center? Yes, but no more than the sign at that register, defensively pre-declaring no refunds.)Continue Reading
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is often considered one of the great Victorian romances, mentioned in the same breath as classics like Pride and Prejudice and her sister Charlotte’s most famous work, Jane Eyre. But where Jane is a love story through and through, from the early meet-cute to the closing “Reader, I married him,” Wuthering Heights is a “love story” only in the most literal sense. The narrative turns on the love between two people, but ultimately, it is the story of a dysfunctional relationship between highly destructive people, whom we’re not meant to “root for” any more than we are the central couples of Tender Is the Night or Revolutionary Road.
The character Heathcliff, in particular, has been remembered as the quintessential Gothic romantic hero. And there are trappings within the novel that encourage this interpretation; Heathcliff suffers a truly tragic childhood, he is a social outcast through no fault of his own, and while he demonstrates a capacity for cruelty early and often, he always refrains from victimizing Catherine. So as a result of conditioning from the tropes of countless romantic novels, the reader is primed to spend the entire novel waiting for Heathcliff’s inevitable redemption.
But the novel is brilliant precisely because it never indulges such romantic fantasies. Brontë shrewdly plays on the reader’s vicarious desire to “save” Heathcliff’s sensitive, tortured soul by opening with a stereotypically romantic premise, and then continually disabusing the reader of any notion that Heathcliff is somehow redeemable. His abusive relationship with the naïve Isabella, especially, is a indictment of his innately sadistic, even sociopathic character. She is an innocent, but he exacts psychological torment on her for sport, even going so far as to throw a knife at her at one point. In this episode, he himself admits that he is incapable of mercy or remorse: “The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.”
Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.
Political campaigns, like novels, have a beginning, middle, and end. Hard as it may be to believe, we are still in Act Two of the story that will come to be the 2016 presidential election.
Act One is comprised of everything that happens in an election prior to the first primary and caucus votes being cast. Normally, that covers a lot of ground, but this election cycle it was positively Tolstoyian thanks to more than a dozen Republican candidates in the field.
Act Three won’t begin until the nominees have been confirmed after the conventions. For the Democrats, former Secretary of Hillary Clinton is virtually assured to carry her party’s banner into the fall. The Republicans are a separate matter. There is some uncertainty as to whether Donald Trump will acquire the requisite number of delegates to lock up the GOP nomination. Even if he does, the distaste for him even within the GOP is so deep that efforts by so-called “party leaders” are underway to thwart him. This may happen before the convention in Cleveland in late July. It may happen during the convention. It may not happen at all.
This is of enormous benefit to Clinton because it gives her a head start, by a couple of months at least, to control the themes of the final act of the 2016 election. History shows that the candidate who controls the terms of the discussion—i.e. the themes—has the best chance of being victorious.Continue Reading
Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.
A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.
By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.
As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading
From the announcement of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners to Prince’s death, here’s last week’s literary news:
- The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners have been announced. Literary winners include The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen for Fiction, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles for History, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan for Biography/Autobiography, Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian for Poetry, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick for General Nonfiction, and Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Drama.
- The copyright infringement lawsuit against Google was brought to a halt last week after the Supreme Court denied The Authors Guild’s appeal. The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court in February after it was ruled that Google’s scanning of books “constituted ‘fair use’, and that ‘Google Books provide significant public benefits.’” The case has been in the courts since 2005. Following this ruling, The Authors Guild legal counsel, Jan Constantine, announced her resignation. The timing is not a coincidence: in a letter to guild council members, Constantine wrote, “It is only fitting that I take leave of the Authors Guild a week after the lawsuit was over.”
- The beloved musician Prince passed away on Thursday, April 21 at the age of 57. Just one month ago fans received the news that Prince would be releasing a memoir in fall of 2017. Now, it’s uncertain whether the memoir, which held the working title The Beautiful Ones, will ever reach publication. Bustle noted that Prince was probably still “very much in the process of writing the memoir.” Random House has not yet commented on the status of the memoir, including whether there will be a posthumous release.
For years, I finished every book I started. Short collections, slim volumes of poetry, novels fat with lyricism, the latest tome from Neal Stephenson—I soldiered through them all. Then, a few years out of grad school, on my morning bus ride to work, I found myself falling asleep in the same three paragraph stretch of a short, award-winning novel, waking up and trying to reread it, and falling asleep again. That book—a book my writer friends raved about—put me to sleep three times before I gave up on it. It was the first book I had stopped reading that I could remember, and it felt incredible.
Juliet Lapidos, writing for The Atlantic, argues that a reader should finish every book she starts. Lapidos proposes three reasons for continuing to read a book even when you’re dying to put it down:
- Pleasure. Because some books are late bloomers. “I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages,” she writes, “only to later amaze me with their brilliance.”
- Fortitude. Because it’s a sign of strength to finish a novel you hate. “[Reading Atonement] built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor,” Lapidos writes. “This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.”
- Respect. Because somebody worked hard to write that book you hate, and literary people support writers. My favorite zinger from the Lapidos piece: “Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’”
I support Lapidos’s project; most people do stop reading books too easily, and they’re likely depriving themselves of the pleasure of completing them. What bothers me about her argument, however, is that it assumes that difficult books often end up being rewarding (sometimes they don’t), that finishing bad books builds character (this seems draconian), and that just because a writer finished a book, their endeavor is worthy of respect (guess how many storybooks Donald Trump has written).Continue Reading
In the term short story, “short” is a little baggy. You might find, within a collection of short stories, some that are a few pages, some that are thirty or more. Compared to a five-hundred-page novel, of course, neither of these is a long piece of writing. Both are compressed worlds. But the very short short story and the very long short story have different ways of folding a whole world in.
To me, very short stories often have the feel of stunts: daring balancing acts, high up on ledges. Once the pose is successfully struck—creating the kind of image that lingers on the insides of the eyelids—it’s time to back away. This kind of intensity is only briefly sustainable. To create such a picture in so few words, sentences sometimes have to cover vast swaths of life. Grace Paley is the master of this. In her short story “Wants,” only a couple of pages long, the narrator runs into her ex-husband while returning some years-overdue library books. He tells her their marriage ended because she never invited a couple they knew over for dinner.
That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore.
By the end of the story we can see this decades-long marriage, and the narrator’s current life.Continue Reading