Wandering with the Stars

January 18, 2012

After nearly four months, I finally finished reading Wandering Stars, a serial novel by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). Translated in unabridged form by Aliza Shevrin a hundred years after it was first published, the novel is slow-moving and wildly tangential but full of captivating characters, and it stole my heart in the last fifty pages. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

The wandering stars that have, as you know, been drifting toward each other without ever meeting have finally met. That was in America. But just met, nothing more! To really meet, to become one–that will never happen, never. Who is responsible for this, I or he? That I do not know. Possibly both of us. We both have made our share of mistakes during our lifetimes, though we hardly lived, hardly lived at all. Late, too late, the wandering stars met. No, dearest, apparently there is no happiness here on earth. There is only the striving toward happiness…

This book requires some commitment, to be sure, but its characters richly reward the reader’s efforts. At some future date, I think it will demand a second reading to produce a more complete review.

In the meantime, I’m re-reading Tony Kushner’s foreword and enjoying the opportunity to absorb literary analysis written by someone with a great deal more to contribute to the conversation than I would have.

If the heart of all diasporic tales of desire is desire for home, there’s a special, specific poignancy in averting the eyes at journey’s end […] It’s as if, after such a terribly long and bloody wait, obtaining the object of our desires has become almost impossible to vividly imagine, as if reunion with the loved and lost one has become almost unrepresentable, recognizable only in its elusiveness, in its receding and vanishing. […] Even those of the strongest faith must face an affliction of doubt and ask whether, for Leo and Rosa, for us, there will only ever be wandering.



Narrating Cries for Help

January 9, 2012

Before I criticize a book or film, I often feel obligated to permit it to speak in its own defense. For that reason, I went from reading Harry Potter, of which I am a devoted fan, to Eragon and Twilight. I enjoyed parts of each, raised an eyebrow at the sometimes-poor writing, and found other elements problematic. In 2010, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Blake; or The Huts of America. I wanted to understand the perspective that was deprecated in later publications.

This January, with similar misgivings, I picked up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Friends have recommended it; newspapers and online commentaries have alternately praised and berated it. Readers and thinkers whom I respect have excoriated the claim of a white writer to speak on behalf of and in the voice of black maids in the 1960s.

Narrative authority is one of the literary issues that I care most deeply about. Although I hesitate to make the claim that it is never possible to explore the voice of a character unlike yourself, the authors I most respect are those whose attempts to do so demonstrate a measure of self-awareness and self-critique.

For example, in Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee’s narrator writes, “I tell you the story of this morning mindful that the storyteller, from her office, claims the place of right. […] So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye” (104). I was looking for similar moments as I read The Help.

It is a page-turner, well crafted and, for the most part, well executed. A few passages came close to identifying the problems or risks of narrating on behalf of another. As Aibileen and Skeeter construct a book of the maids’ stories, they make editorial choices. “Let’s just move on,” Aibileen says in one brief exchange. “We don’t got to…count that one” (304). The story in question does end up in Skeeter’s book, but for me, this scene had the potential to problematize Stockett’s own role as an editor and narrator. To my disappointment, its potential never materializes.

Finally, in an afterword, Stockett describes her doubts about the project. She says, “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. […] I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity” (529-530).

On one hand, I agree with the sentiment, the effort to understand. I respect other books that have attempted a similar feat. The cover of The Help compares Stockett’s novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …If you read only one book…let this be it.”

It is true that both The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird rely in troublesome fashion on the intervention of a white character (Skeeter and Atticus, respectively) to give voice to their oppressed black communities. It is also true that in doing so, both books make an effort to tackle complex issues of racial perception and action. However, there is one key difference that I cannot brush aside.

In Lee’s novel, Scout attempts to understand racial segregation from the outside. She wrestles with what she can see, without being able to conveniently slip inside Calpurnia’s head, or Tom Robinson’s. Had The Help taken a similar stance, simply recounting Skeeter’s attempt to piece together a narrative that is not fully her own; had Stockett left the nested book Help unwritten and inaccessible to readers, I think I would have found the concluding commentary much more compelling. Unfortunately, the book itself is so consumed with telling a gripping story that it fails to reflect the doubt Stockett expresses in her closing remarks.

As a result, the book left me disappointed that a well-written story like this one wasted its potential to dig into the problem of narrative authority and, with the help of additional research and inquiry, to open a meaningful conversation about the narratives that were and were not allowed to emerge from the twentieth-century South.

Review: My Week With Marilyn

December 29, 2011

Point 1: Michelle Williams has earned critical approbation for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the recent film My Week With Marilyn (2011). Point 2: It was a quiet night, and I needed something to do. So naturally, I went to see the movie: a skeptic about the film itself, a fan of Williams.

For me, the film had moments of brilliance and others that lacked a certain spark. The choice to cast Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier was, to me as a moviegoer, particularly unusual; to me as a Shakespearean, doubly amusing. That being said, Williams’ representation of Monroe is captivating.

I think my own appreciation for the film was enhanced by the fact that I read Arthur Miller’s controversial play After the Fall (influenced by his relationship with Monroe) a few years ago. In many ways, Williams’ performance brought the sentiments of the play to life for me, while at the same time the play added another layer of nuance to the film.

All in all, it’s worth seeing, particularly if the buzz is correct and it will be on the lineup for this year’s Oscars.

Check it out!

Life in Hand

November 27, 2011

“The child is the father of the man.” – William Wordsworth

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” – The Tree of Life

This weekend, I finally had the time to catch up on some movie-watching. Although The Tree of Life may not have been the best choice to watch while recuperating from a cold, I’m glad to have seen it.

If you’re looking for a film with a clearly identifiable plot and progressive action, then this is probably not the movie for your Saturday night. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life  (2011) “reads” more like a Salman Rushdie novel: lyrical, intensely visual, nonlinear, at moments solemn, at others grandiloquent or psychedelic.

Quick shots and voiceovers show the fragments of memory that form Jack O’Brien’s childhood and his effort to make sense of grief and growth. In Jack’s family, loved ones die and cruelty reduces physical presence to a shadow. The best description I can give for this film is that it shows the search for the way of grace in the midst of the way of nature.

Call it a “coming-of-age” story or a tale about grief and the loss of innocence, this film, to me, is all about the images. There is something in the movement of nature—be it a flow of lava, natural hot springs, the sun rising over the curve of the earth, or the logarithmic spiral in a snail’s shell—that fills the gaps in language.

Yet through all of this, human touch remains central.  Hands are a prominent point of focus in The Tree of Life. A caress, a blow, or a brush of the fingers zooms in from the epic scope and pauses there. Compared to the expansive space and time Malick explores elsewhere, these moments are tiny and insignificant. However, as emblems of humanity’s potential to choose what Mrs. O’Brien calls the “way of grace,” they leave, at least for me, the film’s most lasting impression.

A thought-provoker, to say the least.

As You Were Seen

November 7, 2011

This month, I have been reading the book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler. I had read the title essay earlier this year for a class and was deeply moved by it, so I wanted to read the complete work.

To call literary criticism or theory “moving” might seem like a contradiction in terms. This book is an exception.

The piece begins with the experience of grief and attempts, from there, to work out a better way of responding to violence, one that does not provoke further violence. The scope and breadth of the implications are compelling, but it is the interpersonal aspect that has been most poignant for me.

Butler writes this, “Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others” (20). As a graduate student intending to enter a career in academia, transience is a way of life I am learning to accept: moving frequently, saying goodbye to friends, adapting to new environments. Being a socially constituted body is difficult in that context.

Butler continues, “When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are…” (22).

Earlier this summer, I read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Lengthy, like most of his writings, the novel is nonetheless one of my new favorites. At one point, the narrator speaks about loss in a way that echoes Butler’s sentiments:

“…whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools” (510).

In this way, we give select others permission to tell our story. We grant them the right — for good or ill — to name us. In doing so, we acquire a stake in each others’ lives. To lose, or to grieve, reminds us that we are not autonomous and in control. As Butler says concisely, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23).

As painful as that experience can be, I think we receive from it a new appreciation for our own vulnerability, and perhaps a new humility in our relationships with others as well.

As I said, plenty to ponder here…

Behind the Mirror

May 23, 2011

I just finished reading Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (William Morrow, 2003), and I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s subtlety and style.

Maguire situates the Snow White story, which I don’t particularly enjoy, in the world of Lucrezia Borgia in Renaissance Italy. In doing so, he changes the connotation of the question, “Who is the fairest of them all?” to reflect its political and ethical shades.

What I especially appreciate is that he makes this a story about not only familial loyalty and its liberating and imprisoning effects, but also about a human desire for absolution, and about the power of the imagination to form the self, to ensnare, to paralyze, and to make things of beauty that, although they cannot last, can lead to change.

This is one of my favorite passages:

   Out of our need we patronize our artists, we flirt with our poets, we petition our architects: Give us your lusty colorful world. Signal to us a state of being more richly steeped in purpose and satisfaction than our own.
Thanks to our artists, we pretend well, living under canopies of painted clouds and painted gods, in halls of marble floors across which the sung Masses paint hope in deep impasti of echo. We make of the hollow world a fuller, messier, prettier place, but all our inventions can’t create the one thing we require: to deserve any fond attention we might accidentally receive, to receive any fond attention we don’t in the course of things deserve. We are never enough to ourselves because we can never be enough to another. Any one of us walks into any room and reminds its occupant that we are not the one they most want to see. We are never the one. We are never enough.
The holy find this some mincing proof of God. Damn them.

If it is a human instinct to use another human as a mirror, an object that we expect to satisfy our unfulfilled longings, it is equally common to expect literature or other forms of art to do the same. Maguire’s novel invites readers to see such mirrors in terms of both the painstakingly polished glass and the poisonous quicksilver on which their reflections depend.

Book Review: Abide with Me

May 6, 2011

One of the first books I chose to read after I finished my thesis was Elizabeth Strout‘s 2006 novel Abide with Me. Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), for which she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Abide with Me is a national bestseller described by one reviewer in The Washington Post as a novel containing a “mysterious combination of hope and sorrow.” The reviewer goes on to say, “[Strout] sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation.”

I was excited to return to Strout’s writing after reading Olive Kitteridge three years ago. (Read my review here.) I had been impressed by the subtlety and compassion in Strout’s “novel-in-stories,” and I was pleased to find a similar tone in this earlier novel.

Abide with Me is set in a small New England town where pastor Tyler Caskey and his daughter Katherine attempt to respond to his wife’s recent death as well as to the situations that arise in a small-town congregation. Even though, as a novel, this book maintains a tighter focus on Caskey than Olive does on its central character, there are no truly “peripheral” characters. Strout captures complex human emotions in a way I can only describe as breath-ful: Strout’s narrator seems to breathe along with each character, whether in pain, shame, or joy, and readers are encouraged to do the same.

In the same measured rhythm that characterizes Olive, Strout circles back to the same basic stories, each time in a new voice, with a new detail, and from a slightly different angle.

In this respect, Strout’s work reminds me of a craftsman repeatedly polishing the same piece of wood with different grades of sandpaper until the underlying features are clearly visible. The most striking images of grace, intimacy, and vulnerability are not expressed by characters so much as felt in the novel’s denouement.

Readily recommended.