Musings on Gloria Naylor & Samuel R. Delany

I have long been a fan of the African-American writer Gloria Naylor, whose career got off to a dazzling start when she won the American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1983 for her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place(The book was adapted as a TV miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey.)  I also admired Naylor’s subsequent four novels, which range in genre from realism to magic realism.  I anticipated each book with the same fervor as the new Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.

But Naylor seemingly vanished from the literary scene  after the publication of her last book, The Men of Brewster Place, in 1998.  When I read her obituary in 2016, I wondered why she hadn’t written more.

Naylor’s  “A Question of Language,” an essay on the deconstruction of the word “nigger”and its meaning to men and women of different races,  is widely anthologized.  When I taught remedial writing at a community college, this essay sparked intense interest and discussion.

But is anyone still reading Naylor’s novels?   The good news is:  they are in print.

Here is one of my favorites:

Naylor is remarkable, and I’ll post more on her later.

Years ago, my book club introduced me to the African-American writer Samuel R. Delany‘s Babel-17, a novel about language which appealed as much to linguists as to SF fans.  The heroine is a telepathic Chinese woman who is a poet and linguist trying to decode an alien language to stop a war.  And Delany’s use of language is breathtaking.

And then I immersed myself in Delany’s 900-page post-apocalyptic postmodern novel, Dhalgren, a kind of counterculture Ulysses set in a dying Midwestern city that has been hit by an undefined catastrophe.  Delany’s linguistic pyrotechnics are impressive, but I gave up on page 400.

So I’m taking it up where I left off.  Wish me luck!

What Were You Reading 10 Years Ago?

What were you reading 10 years ago? Has it held up?

I looked at my 2009 journal to find out.

Stats:  I read 174 books that year, but only 23  new books.  And I must confess that I have forgotten most of the 23, which does not necessarily mean they were bad.  But it might mean that.

Here are Five Memorable and Five Forgotten Books of 2009.

FIVE BOOKS THAT MADE AN  IMPRESSION

1    The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this  brilliant, rich novel is loosely based on the life of Victorian writer E. Nesbit and her circle. The heroine, Olive Wellwood, a Fabian socialist and a  popular writer of children’s books, supports her husband and family by writing.  Byatt interweaves the story of this bohemian family with the  history of the arts and crafts movement, Victorian fairy tales, socialism, and Olive’s tales.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.  So weird, so good! I wrote in 2009:   The Great Gatsby meets Petronius’s Satyricon in a New York stuck in perpetual winter.  Narrated by Chase Insteadman, a wealthy former child star whose astronaut girlfriend is lost in space (their romance is famous), lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom and is celebrated for his charm. When Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone, takes a shine to Chase, the world becomes increasingly more fantastic.   Chase’s hilarious observations about Perkus’s discovery of eBay as the result of an acupuncture session are typically over the top (Perkus has an epiphany about beauty as he gazes at a vase in a photo on the acupuncturist’s wall and decides to buy one for himself.)

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore.  This stunning, lyrical novel tells the story of the Roman poet Catullus and his affair with Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia in his poems (a reference to the Greek poet Sappho, not lesbianism).   The Orange Prize-winning Dunmore was an extraordinary writer, but this book was never published in the U.S.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.  In 2009 I scribbled: Dyer’s entertaining novel is divided into two parts, one set in Venice, the other in Varanasi.  Jeff Atman, a middle-aged freelance writer, hopes never to have to churn out a “think” piece about art again, but he needs the money.  (All freelance writers will understand this.)  In Venice he has an affair with a gorgeous, witty woman who works at an art gallery:  they seem to be the witty Nick and Nora of the peripheral art world.   The second part, set in Varanasi, gives the freelance writer a chance to escape himself as he becomes immersed in the culture of India.

Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  This entrancing popular novel is about one of my favorite subjects, witches.  The narrative shifts back and forth in time between the present and the Salem witch trials.  The heroine, Connie, a graduate student at Harvard, is cleaning out her late grandmother’s house near Salem when she discovers key and a piece of parchment with a name on it:  Deliverance Dane.  Who was Deliverance Dane?  You will find out.

BOOKS I BARELY REMEMBER.

The Spy Game by Georgina Harding.  I remember NOTHING about this book.  I wrote in my journal, “A luminous novel about identity, childhood, and history, centered on the imagination of two English children whose German immigrant mother dies in 1961.”  I liked it at the time.

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane.  Something Irish?  Indeed it seems to be.  I moderately enjoyed this novel about an Irish immigrant family , but remember nothing about it.

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.   The New York Times called this novel “wickedly smart.” I enjoyed it back then, but it did not stick with me. The Goodreads description says:  “The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants.”  It certainly sounds like something I’d like!

Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  I loved Howard’s novels when I binge-read them in the ’90s, but was very disappointed in this late novel by the author of the Cazelet Chronicles.  Perhaps I’d be disappointed in Howard’s other books if I reread them now.

Drood by Dan Simmons.  I love Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so of course I had to read Dan Simmons’s Drood.  Told from the point-of-view of Wilkie Collins, who is madly jealous of his best friend Charles Dickens, it is a borderline novel of sensation, and it is much too long.   Another book that did not stick with me.

I’m so glad I keep a book journal.  It gives me a perspective on decades of the history of the popular novel.

On Dead Blogs and What I’m Reading

Is the blog dead?

My impression is that old-fashioned blogs are our grandmothers’ social media platform now. We have been replaced by BookTube and nugatory Instagram posts.

This is not a crackpot theory.  A 2018 survey at Pew Research does not even mention Blogger or WordPress.  This study of social media found:

Facebook and YouTube dominate this landscape, as notable majorities of U.S. adults use each of these sites. At the same time, younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.”

As the years go by, I find myself reading fewer blogs, clicking on fewer “likes,” and commenting less. It isn’t so much the quality as  it about less screen time. Today I learned that Belle at the splendid blog Belle, Book and Candle wrote her last post in December. Oh no!  I will miss her smart style, humor, serenity, and eclectic tastes in books.  So many of my favorites have folded.

It is a pity that greedy computer moguls have created social networking platforms that rely more on pictures than words.   And I’m not exaggerating too much!   But I might be wrong about the Silicon Valley part.  I don’t know the origins.

AND NOW HERE’S WHAT I’VE BEEN READING.

1. Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a collection of linked autobiographical essays. In 1993, Houston was living in a tent when her agent gave her a check for $21,000  for her debut collection of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, with the advice, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots.”  After traveling around the West, Houston bought a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies. Although she spends half the year teaching, she always comes back to the ranch, which is the home of her Irish wolfhounds, two elderly horses, a bonded pair of rescue miniature donkeys, Icelandic ewes, and chickens. Houston, who has been a skiing instructor and led white-water raft trips, tells fascinating tales of nature, endurance of the cold, and quasi-primitive living. I cried and cried over the death of one of her dogs.

2.   Robert Graves’s compelling historical novel, I, Claudius.  This classic, set in the first century A.D., is the autobiography of the crippled, stuttering Roman emperor Claudius.  He learned to keep his head down to survive the dangers of the reigns of three emperors: Augustus, who brought peace after  civil wars but whose wife Livia poisoned his heirs and many others; Livia’s cruel, perverted son, Tiberius, who was a good general but uninterested in empire and spent long periods frolicking on Capri; and mad murderous Caligula, whose insane cruelty ruined more lives than Livia.  Claudius becomes emperor at the end of the novel, and  the story is continued in Claudius the God.  Many of the events are based on episodes in Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, which Graves translated.

3. Dark Narnia.  This is my nickname for Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first two novels in her much lauded Wayward  series. Every SF publication heralded the publication of McGuire’s fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream, which is apparently based on Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.  (Last year I read a brilliant  Goblin Market retelling, Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood.) I decided to read the others first.

I like the premise:  Miss West’e Home for Wayward Children is a refuge for children who disappeared for years through portals to magical lands and cannot adjust to ordinary life.  These books begin like gentle fantasies and  then morph into Sf/horror.  In Every Heart a Doorway, a series of brutal murders are committed.  In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Mcguire tells the adventures of twins Jack and Jill (two students we meet in Every Heart a Doorway) and their years working for a vampire and a doctor who can bring the dead back to life.

They’re not for me–I don’t like horror–but  many SF fans consider them classics.

Hermann Hesse’s “Gertrude”

The graphic designer Milton Glaser’s psychedelic covers for Noonday Press inspired a generation of hippies and freaks to read Hermann Hesse. And the moody Nobel Prize winner’s philosophical novels reflected the changing values of the counterculture. College students who decorated their dorm rooms with Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster were enthralled by Hesse’s Steppenwolf. “MAGIC THEATER. NOT FOR EVERYBODY.”

And then there was the movie with Max von Sydow.

But at a certain point we outgrew Hesse.

Or so I assumed until I picked up an ex-library copy of Gertrude for $1, with Milton Glaser’ pop art cover.

I loved parts of Gertrude.

This short bildungsroman is simple, spare, and touching. Hilda Rosner’s translation is a gem, every sentence perfectly constructed. The narrator, Kuhn, a composer, relates his history and describes the fluctuation of his moods. He muses on philosophy and theosophy as he tries to make sense of the world.

Crippled in a sledding accident while trying to impress a young woman, he traces his coming of age through his love of music.  He does not regret the accident.  Afterwards he focuses on his music and has an epiphany in the woods:  inspired by nature, he composes his first professional song.   His music teachers grudgingly admit he has talent but tell him he won’t make it as a violinist.   They are wrong.  He breaks his way into the professional musicians’ community, due to his friendship with a successful singer, Muoth.

Are musicians happy? Kuhn enjoys being second violin in an orchestra, and his songs  become well-known. But his relationships with women are difficult, and his moods are often dark. There are also triangles within triangles: Muoth comes between Kuhn and Gertrude, an amateur singer who sings parts of the opera Kuhn is composing.  Kuhn cannot bear to see Gertrude after that.

How Kuhn comes to terms with and moves beyond youth is at the center of this novel. And as I read it, I remembered how much I once loved Hesse.

A great book? No. But worth reading.

Riveting Reads: Sara Paretsky’s “Shell Game” & Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”

This week I discovered an infected molar was causing my acute sinus pain. I swear I was at death’s door until the tooth was extracted.  I took a lot of Ibuprofen, which dulls the pain but made me groggy.  In the rare hours I was awake, I managed to read two engrossing novels,  Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.

Sara Paretsky is at the top of her game in the 20th novel in the V.I. Warshawski series, Shell Game V.I. Warshawki,  a private investigator in Chicago, must solve two cases:  her friend Lotty Herschel’s nephew, a Canadian engineering student at the University of Chicago, is accused of the murder of an unidentified man; and her niece, a prostitute’s daughter with an associate’s degree who recently was singled out by her corporate employer, has disappeared.  The investigation turns up smuggled archaeological artifacts, Homeland Security’s harassment of a group of students from the Middle East, and a corporation’s exploitation of poor people in a stock scam.  Paretsky’s writing is so honed that you admire her style as much as the plot.

The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s lyrical novel Sunset Song (1932) is the first in the trilogy A Scots Quair and one of my favorite books.  A film adaptation of Sunset Song was released in 2015, and there is an excellent 1971 BBC series of Sunset Song (free on YouTube).

It belongs to the subgenre of “the novel of peasant crisis,” along with classics like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, says Thomas Crawford in the introduction to the Canongate edition. Sunset Song, set on a hardscrabble farm in Scotland, opens in 1911.  The heroine Chris Guthrie, a farmer’s daughter,  loves the beauty of the land but has divided loyalties; she is also the best scholar at school, where she studies English, French, Greek, and Latin, among other subjects.  She hopes to become a teacher.

Life interferes, as we know it will.  Her father, a hard-working but moody poor farmer, is verbally abusive, forever raging, and  ignores the toll of childbirth on  Chris’s  mother, who almost dies after having twins.  When she gets pregnant again, she kills herself and the twins.  Chris survives this tragedy but must drop out of school. She falls in love unexpectedly with a farm laborer.  Is it worth it? She thinks so.  Alas,  World War I turns her world to dust.

But life goes on.  Chris is a survivor and an optimist.

Sunset Song (BBC series, 1971)

Polite Primas and Confounded Amateurs: Do We Need Negative Social Media?

I covered my eyes.  “Delete this comment if it’s vicious.”

“It’s medium,” my cousin the librarian said matter-of-factly. “She  hates you but only drips with venom.”

“Ack!”

There are three kinds of bad comments:  (a) sarcasm under a semblance of politeness, which may be just poor writing (consult the I Ching), (b) dripping with venom but the cocky commenter is sure you won’t detect the tone (delete); and (c) so brutal that you have no alternative but to eat a box of cupcakes (and delete all social media accounts).

And not only  bloggers encounter negative comments.

In a recent article at Slate, Heather Schwedel scrutinizes complaints by  writers on Twitter and Instagram who are disconcerted when amateur reviewers tag them on bad or mediocre reviews. They tweet that it’s rude:  they don’t want their weekends spoiled.  Though they must deal with reviews at The New York Times, writers Rebecca Makkai, Lauren Groff, and Carmen Maria Machado don’t want to read negative social media reviews.

This sounds sort of prima donna-ish to me but then I’m not on  Twitter, because I avoid brutality.  I instantly started sweating:  should I not write the subjects of my posts in tags at the blog (which I do for organization).  It doesn’t alert the writers, does it?  That must be a different kind of tag.

And should  I take a note from the novelists and remind commenters that it’s rude to be mean?  Would it work? Maybe for a prima…which I am!

Writers are tired of consumer reviews, and Goodreads is a trigger for many writers. You may have heard of  Y.A. novelist Kathleen Hale’s forthcoming collection of essays, Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker.  Hale sought  revenge on a popular Goodreads reviewer who wrote a bad review of her novel.  She stalked her.  Hale apparently drove this reviewer off Goodreads.

Kayleigh Donaldson, a feature writer at Pajiba, writes that she knew Blythe Harris in the Y.A. community at Goodreads,  and is horrified by Hale’s criminal stalking of her.  She writes,

Back in the good old days before I was a professional writer, I was a book blogger who focused heavily on young adult fiction. I spent a lot of time on Goodreads, where I cultivated a large circle of fellow YA loving friends who prized the community as much as the literature they discussed. In October 2014, the author Kathleen Hale, who had written a YA novel called No One Else Can Have You, published that same year, wrote a piece for the Guardian. It was entitled, ‘“Am I being catfished?”’ An author confronts her number one online critic.’ The piece was strange to say the least, but it waded into truly terrifying territory when Hale admitted to stalking a critic from Goodreads who gave her book a bad review. The ‘revelation’ of the piece was that the reviewer, known as Blythe Harris, did not live under the name she used on Goodreads. I, like many YA bloggers, had also negatively reviewed Hale’s book. I also knew Blythe and her disappearance from the community left many of us shaken. One of our own, someone who had done nothing wrong, had been stalked by an author, who then turned the story into a quirky essay that once again positioned critics as spiteful shrews. Stalking was simply the cute framing for the age-old tale of evil reviewers.

I looked at The Guardian piece and found it incoherent and scary. Oh, yes, we hate mean comments, but stalking is illegal. They’ll publish the book because it will make money.

O tempora! O mores!

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

From Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Fatigue Artist (1995)

“In the gatherings Tim has taken me to, sooner or later, after discussing the number of miles they log each morning to outrace mortality, or the relative merits and demerits of butter and margarine, people get around to “serious issues”—the destruction of the rain forests and the depletion of the ozone layer, the aimlessness of the younger generation illustrated by examples from their own children, the scourge of illiteracy, and, inevitably, why is it that some ethnic groups, e.g., Koreans and Jews, have been able to lift themselves out of poverty onto the plateau of the middle class while other ethnic groups… have not?

“Four possible approaches are taken to the issues, and they generally appear in fugue-like form: Bemoaning is the opening theme, followed by Blaming the parties involved; next comes Defending the parties involved by examining the problem in its social context—a kind of counterpoint melody—and finally, some form of Temporizing, usually offered by a peaceable person thus far silent. The four themes can go on indefinitely until they’re resolved in the harmony of grateful good-nights. I’ve often thought that on arrival the guests might choose placards representing their positions—for in the nature of things these positions are fixed in advance.”