Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

I'm generally a big fan of short stories. I love how a skillful short story writer can pack a whole lot into a small space. Strout has taken that format and made it much tougher for herself by linking the short stories in "Anything Is Possible."

Everyone in these stories is somehow related to the main character in her previous novel, "My Name Is Lucy Barton," which is a clever choice. I read an interview with Strout in which she said she wrote both books at the same time, moving back and forth between them as a scene occurred to her. I'd think that was a tough way to write a novel, but whatever works!

Her writing it spare, which fits with the bleakness of her characters' lives. This is my third Strout novel, and I've yet to read about anyone chipper and carefree. These are some tormented people! Every type of malady and misfortune has beset these folks, and most of them don't deal with their troubles very well. Nearly everyone should be in intensive therapy, but some of the characters are too far gone to have even great therapy help much.

I know this sounds like a book no one would want to read, but she's a great storyteller, able to weave in little pieces of the characters' personalities to make each of them whole. They're not very likable, they wouldn't be fun at a party, and your life would not be enriched by knowing most of them. But she does such a great job of creating them and making their horrible lives interesting that you can't put the book down. If you want to read a book where you can say, "Boy, my life is sooooo much better than all of those people," this is the one for you.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

It's not often you read a book written in a style you're unfamiliar with, but "Outline" was a new experience for me. It's not really a novel, and it's not really short stories. I suppose you could call the chapters "conversations," since each focuses on an interaction between the narrator and another person, or group of people. But that's not really accurate, since the conversations aren't traditional conversations. They're more like summaries, with the narrator sometimes slipping between tenses.

Cusk breaks a lot of rules, but she's breaking them intentionally and carefully. Her powers of description are excellent, and the conversations are mostly interesting. But it's not the kind of book that draws you in emotionally. Part of that is the style, since she's created an emotional distance between you and the characters. But part of it is because no one's really that appealing. Every character has something or many things that make them hard to like. Clearly, she's doing this on purpose, and that allows her to create very realistic characters. But when you dig beneath the veneer of most real people, you find things you wish you didn't know, and that's exactly what happens in "Outline." The characters seem like real people you wish you didn't have to interact with .

So if you'd like to read very thoughtful, deep conversations between vaguely unlikeable people, with beautiful descriptions of where they are, you're in luck!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I loved reading Anna when she had a regular column in the NY Times, and I still think she's a very good observer of this place, in this time.

Alternate Side was easily as good as her other work, and reading it was a pleasurable experience. But... This year, I decided that I was generally only going to read books by women, then I changed my rule to include men of color. That's going pretty well, but I'm coming to realize that I've read the story of a middle-aged, upper-class New Yorker more times than I can count. The books are good, but they're not telling me much I don't already know. So I'm going to narrow my list down a little more. My new goal is to find writers whose lives are different than mine in some significant way. Even though I have a decent amount of time to read, I don't have enough to tread the same ground over and over again.

So I give two thumbs up for Alternate Side if you aren't overly familiar with the indignities of owning a full-floor brownstone on the Upper West Side, while aging slightly, but not enough that rich and powerful men still chase you. I know that sounds snarky, but I don't intend for it to be. I think books like this are very popular with straight women who can empathize with the narrator's small trials and tribulations. I suppose they're like romance novels for lesbians, but with less sex and more ennui.

I'm not going to post an Amazon review for this because I'm not enthusiastic enough about it to praise it. I'm not averse to slamming a book that's sloppily edited or carelessly researched, but I never do that to a good book that wasn't quite for me.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

I got woke a little bit more at "Get Out."

Yesterday, I paid cash money to watch a horror film. This was the first time in my life that I’ve done that, and I surprised myself when I handed over the dough. But I really like Jordan Peele, and I’d heard good things about “Get Out” from people whose opinions I respect, so I took the leap.

Let me preface by saying I not only don’t like horror, I don’t much care for violence in movies, especially gratuitous violence. And even though I’m not a student of the genre, gratuitous violence kinda seems like the point to a horror film.

A crisp 103 minutes later, I was very pleased I’d gone to see it—particularly in the theater, rather than at home. Partly, that was because the audience, familiar with the tropes, warned me to shut my eyes right before something bad happened. Thanks, people at the 3:15 showing at the 34th St. Loews! 

But watching a movie that’s actually a very clear-eyed take on race with a largely black audience reminded me again of how I can never view the world in the same way a black person can.

It’s not that I wouldn’t like to, of course. I just can’t. That was brought home to me again during a critical point in the movie when the protagonist(s) (no spoilers!) were in the soup and a police car rolled up. 

Yeah! The cavalry had arrived! But the audience let out a collective, weary sigh, clearly signaling they agreed “they’re screwed now.” That hit me like a slap. 

Of course I’m very aware of the way people of color are often singled out for increased scrutiny/harassment/violence from security personnel of all types. But being aware isn’t the same as having the experience. I will always be a person who’s treated with a certain amount of deference by security guards and peace officers. And many, if not most, black and brown people will not be. 

Given the issue didn’t get better in any measurable way during eight years of a president and two attorneys general who I believe truly wanted to change this fact, I’m very disheartened. But that doesn’t give me permission to just throw up my hands and write this off as a lost cause.

Those of us with privilege have to use it to try to hold our leaders responsible for this state of affairs. Obviously, this would be easier to do if all of the people who were targets of unfair treatment voted. We’re going to be a minority majority country soon, and if every member of a minority group fought for their rights, they’d be able to make some significant changes. 

But it’s hard to convince people to take part in a game they’re convinced is rigged. Again, that doesn’t mean we get a pass to ignore the issue. 

I’ve been cheered by President Obama and former A.G. Eric Holder working together to make some progress on doing away with gerrymandering, which keeps minority populations from being able to win more legislative seats. But that’s just a very preliminary step on the long road we have to cover.

We have so many critical issues to care about right now, with our current government seemingly intent on taking away every bit of progress we’ve made over the last few decades. But we’ve got to keep this issue at the top of the list. Over a hundred and fifty years after the purported end of slavery, it’s long past time to treat all of our citizens with the same level of dignity and respect.

As a GIF I saw yesterday reminded me, "Equal rights are not like pie. There's plenty for everyone."


P.S. One last thing—until 3-9-17, PBS is providing free access to a very compelling Independent Lens documentary on The Birth Of A Nation, called Birth Of  A Movement. It’s only an hour long, and well worth your time. Unless you’re a very keen student of the history of the early 20th century, you’ll learn something. And even if you are, it was nice to have a little additional light put onto this dark piece of film history. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Women's March

Since November the eighth, I've woken with anywhere from a moderate to a severe sense of dread. Many days I labor under a pervasive sense of doom that I've been unable to shake.

I still work, but my work has been pretty lackluster. I still see friends, but nearly all of them are as upset as I am, so we try to ignore our collective ennui and have fun. But that dark shadow doesn't truly go away. It lurks around the edges, taking the shine off otherwise enriching encounters.

I long to talk about how I feel, but it has become a tail-chasing experience. No matter how many times you run around that circle, you never quite catch it.

When I first heard about the Women's March, I was pleased to learn that at least one group of people were getting off their sofas to do something positive. But I never seriously thought of going to Washington, even though it's a pretty easy trip for me. My main worry was that DC would be filled with supporters of the incoming president, and there would be far too many opportunities for me to flap my trap at provocateurs. I have bat ears, and every snide remark can goad me into responding. This isn't good for my mental health, so I try to avoid situations that might be too loaded.

I was very pleased when I heard the march was going to have local branches. Since fewer than 6% of Manhattan voted for the current president, I knew I'd be with my peeps. Perhaps that's not the ideal way to be. It would probably be better to go to Wyoming, where over 70% of the population voted for the current president. Showing up for the 2,000 women marching in Cheyenne might have been helpful, or had a bigger impact. But we can only do what we feel capable of. Self-care shouldn't be something to be ashamed of.

Armed with the knowledge that I'd be among friends, I took off from the wilds of New Jersey for the long ride into the city. Immediately, I was cheered to see that at least twenty percent of the passengers were going to the march, with pink pussy hats, pink scarves, buttons, and signs. Like breast cancer awareness month, but with an angry edge.

As we left Penn Station, a woman rode by on a bicycle, with a sign strapped to her basket, homemade pink hat in lieu of a helmet. My mood continued to brighten. As we walked, we encountered more and more women clearly headed our way. Then we noticed a lot of men in the group. That surprised me, but I was pleased. If you love women, marching for their freedom makes perfect sense.

Nearing Fifth Avenue, I heard one of those ear-splitting police cruiser horns, the kind that rattle your bones. But it wasn't a horn. It was a roar of people, their collective voices echoing off the buildings, a canyon full of outrage.

We slid into the group, immediately surrounded by surprisingly buoyant people. The roar we'd heard was almost like a wave, starting here or there and building strength as it traveled. But there were no words spoken. It wasn't a chant. I'd describe it more as a howl. Then it passed, with everyone smiling.

That's when it really hit me. We'd all been in roughly the same mental space for the past two months. This was our first time to join a group, throw our heads back, and let out a primal scream. It was incredibly heartening! You could feel peoples' moods lighten. Not because we thought anything would change in that moment. More that we we cheered to see how many of us were willing to stand up and be counted. When the president cares only about optics, it's vital to show there's a sizable group of people who disagree with his agenda, and the plans of his cabinet appointees. That's why my favorite chant of the day was "This is what democracy looks like. This is what America looks like."

This is what America looks like: all ages, all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all the points on the socio-economic strata.  

This is what democracy looks like, and the march reminded me that the work of keeping democracy alive isn't done by sitting on the sidelines while a bunch of billionaires dismantles it.

I believe we've gotten lazy. Democrats have let themselves fall into the trap of believing in demographics. We see the country is slowly becoming more diverse, and we've assumed those black and brown people will logically vote Democratic. But that's a lazy way to look at it. We need to do what the Tea Party has been spectacularly successful at--starting small and working their way up.

That's why I recommend getting involved on your local level. There's a group called Indivisible, formed by former Congressional staffers, that's working to do just that. 


They have branches throughout the country, focused on clawing back our state legislatures. That's what we have to focus on. We have to do something. Things won't change tomorrow. We're going to lose a LOT of rights we thought we'd locked up. So we have to be ready to yank them back. Given I'm not an anarchist, I believe the way to do that is to organize and vote. 

We screwed up in November. Now we have to use that defeat as a motivator to swear to ourselves we won't let that happen again. We might lose a skirmish, but we can't afford to lose the war. Our lives depend upon it.

I'm facing this day with a new attitude. It's not over. In fact, the fight has just begun.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Further reflections on election day and beyond

I’ve had some time to digest the events of this week, and I’m feeling better. Not good, of course, but better. Here’s why:

I’ve decided to limit my consumption of “news” and “analysis.” No organization is very good at either, and I don’t need more stimulation of my reptilian brain. I do very well at making myself a nervous wreck. The last thing I need is help.

I’ve going to divert my attention to things that make me feel better. I fully realize that The Affordable Healthcare Act is doomed. That Planned Parenthood will lose its federal funding. That services for the poor and the marginalized will be cut. That tax breaks for those who don’t need them will skyrocket, and that those who can least afford to pay more will be forced to. But…I can’t make those certainties not happen. Watching carefully as everything I care about is gleefully dismantled is something I have no stomach for. 

Instead, I’m going to take the money I gain from having my taxes lowered and give it to organizations that I support. Organizations that are true to the values I hold dear. I’ve just got to find a way to give without having them know who I am, as they’ll start covering me with emails telling me the sky is falling. It’s already fallen.

Longer term, I’m going to try to find and support organizations that work to reach people who feel their votes don’t matter/don’t count. People like Colin Kaepernick. People who are profoundly unhappy with America, yet won’t take a half hour to cast a ballot. I don’t believe these folks are lazy. I believe they’ve lost all hope of change and firmly believe the system I believe in is a Potemkin Village. We’ve got to find a way to reach these people if we ever want a Democratic majority again.

I’m going to continue to limit my consumption of social media. I need to work on being optimistic, and reading how unhappy everyone is isn’t in my best interests.

Lastly, I’m going to acknowledge that someone I intensely dislike is my president. I believe in democracy—even when my side doesn’t win.

This Veterans Day, we should not only acknowledge the sacrifices so many men and women have made to keep this country safe and whole. We should remember that as a nation we’ve survived some very dark times. It’s going to be a very tough few years, but I believe we’ll make it if we as individuals support and care for each other—even if the government tries to cull those who most need its help.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post Mortem

I hope this is just a post-mortem on the election and not our system of government. I'll try to be optimistic, and say it's the former.

I don't think I have anything to say that others have not said better and more clearly. But I feel better when I force my thoughts to coalesce and put them on virtual paper. So stick with me if you're so inclined.

I'm surprisingly not angry at the orange-tinted pile of oily rags we just elected our forty-fifth president. I can't stand the sight of him, and hope to never have to listen to his voice, but I can't say he tricked his way into the job. He said exactly what his unfiltered ego told him to say and it worked! He was the right person for a portion of the electorate at exactly the right time. Add to that his ability to excite the reptilian brains of his followers, then stroke their fear and loathing, and you've got a perfect storm.

In my mind, his voters come in three main buckets: 

One is the large number of white men who used to run the place, or at least be guaranteed a decent, stable job. Obviously, it's upsetting to have once had control of the sandbox then have other kids come in and want to share. The problem is that it wasn't your sandbox. You'd just figured out ways to control it exclusively. 

Over time, your control lessened and you're pissed. Really pissed. You want to go back to the time when every able bodied white man could slack off and quit high school yet still get a good job in a factory, have your wife stay home with the kids, and be fairly sure your kids would have more opportunities than you did. Your wife had your dinner on the table at six, you lived in an all white neighborhood, and everyone spoke English. Bliss!

I don't have a lot of sympathy for these people. They've run the place for over two hundred years and it's time to start sharing. But I have some sympathy for them, only because I know what it's like to have people wrest control from your hands.

The second bucket is the bad guys. Really bad guys. The racists, misogynists, Islamaphobes, anti-immigrants, nativists, fascists, white supremacists, and other creeps who lurk at the bottom of the internet. There aren't tens of millions of them, but it seems like there are. They are now emboldened by the new president of the United States to hold their hate-filled views and express them with pride.

I have nothing but antipathy for these people. They don't deserve to have an audience. With time, they might slither back into their lairs, but that's not going to happen without decent people rejecting their message.

The third bucket is the group I'm most angry with. Those are the well-educated, fairly open-minded, socially liberal people who vote republican just so they pay less in taxes, and hope for less government regulation. These are people who have friends of different races, a gay brother-in-law, a niece who's married to a Muslim, all of whom they get along with just fine. But they don't truly care about anyone or anything but their own finances. They're beyond my contempt because they're smart enough to know better. They think some adults will come in and control the new president. That congress and the courts will stop him from doing anything too crazy. Good luck with that. Thanks for putting democracy at risk on the off-chance that someone can stop us from going over a cliff.

So that's why I think this happened. Those three groups got together--even though their goals are very divergent. The candidate convinced them he heard and understood them. He didn't and he doesn't, but they wanted to believe, so they jumped on board.

Against this, Hillary had to overcome systemic misogyny, thirty years of biased news reporting against her, and her own inability to promise people in Trump's three groups anything they wanted. 

I can understand why she had a tough time doing that. To appeal to them would have eroded her own base. But her base screwed her in the end. Women let her down. Black people let her down. Latin people let her down. Young people let her down. Well, technically, they let themselves down. But each of those voting blocks gave her less support than they gave to Obama. My guess is that many of them just didn't bother to vote. She didn't excite them. She didn't speak to them in a way they could relate to. So they convinced themselves that it didn't really matter. That there wasn't much difference between an old, rich, white woman and an old, rich, white man. I fear they are tragically wrong.

My only thread of hope is that the natural allies of a liberal, social-consious democracy will see that it does matter who holds the oval office and that they never take it for granted again. That's not much to go on, given that the republicans now hold most statehouses, the Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court, but it's all I've got.

Even though we're outnumbered, those numbers can change. We have to do a better job in 2018. We simply have to.