Monday, August 17, 2015

Balls by Nancy Kincaid

On the jacket cover of Nancy Kincaid’s 1998 novel, Balls, the reader is told the book “should be required reading for any woman who’s ever been involved with a man who’s involved with sports,” and while that claim may be a bit exaggerated, this is an insightful, humorous and occasionally frightening look at college football. By my count, there are sixteen voices, narrators, in this book, all women. It is primarily the story of one of these woman, Dixie, who, at nineteen, marries an ex-football star who is too small to make it in the pros, but who cannot leave football behind. Instead, he becomes a coach who quite quickly rises to the position of head coach at Ham U. In Alabama, where football is a kind of religion, Coach Gibbs (Mac), begins his coaching career with a team that wins few games, but due to Mac’s ability to recruit players, especially black players, he puts together a solid winning team, and when an old respected coach retires, Mac ascends to the throne with his young wife and two young children in his wake.

Each chapter in the book allows a different woman to describe her relationship with football and either a husband who is obsessed with football, or a son who hopes to come to fame and fortune via ball.
It was not by accident that God created the world in the shape of a ball. I came to understand that early. All the men in my life imitated God in this way by making small worlds of their own out of balls.  
As a girl, when I watched men pass the pigskin, pitch the cuveball, perfect the jump shot, I understood that they were playing war. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just a stupid ball they held in their hands, but the whole world being tossed about from man to man—like a game of keep away. 
From me.
While Kincaid obviously wants to describe the big business corruption in college football, and the toll football takes on the bodies and dreams of the players, she is sympathetic towards not only the mothers of the players and wives of the coaches, but also the players themselves who see football as their passport to the American dream.

Kincaid meticulously chronicles Coach Mac’s meteoric rise and sudden fall from grace and the parallel dissolution of the marriage of Dixie and Mac. I loved the stories of the coaches and players, but even more the subtext of the women and children who are essentially orphaned by their men’s obsession. Rose, Dixie’s mother, is one of the more intriguing voices of the many narrators. She understands long before her daughter does that women and children are secondary to balls, and that women who see or know too much are in peril.
Dixie is a pretty girl. I hope it doesn’t ruin her life. 
There are worse things than not getting chosen, like getting chosen too early. Or getting chosen too often. But you have to live awhile before you can know that. 
Dixie’s smart too, which if she isn’t careful can destroy her about as quick as anything else. I tell her, “Being smart can be a real detriment to a woman unless she knows how to go about it tactfully.
There are two other voices that recur throughout the book, Francis Delmar, the wife of an under-coach who never quite makes it to the big time, and Lilly, the mother of Jett, who played college ball with Mac and goes on to be a great star in the NFL. Lilly has given up on men as husbands or close friends, but is a fiercely protective mother. Both of these woman provide wonderfully wise and humorous commentary on the toll football takes on the lives of women.

Mac is not a bad man, and in fact is honestly dedicated to his players and their welfare. During the football season, he works from early morning till late at night allowing is wife and children to become afterthoughts. And the off-season, that is the recruiting season, is even worse. He travels around the country, wooing players and their parents, his at-home time seeming more like visits than really coming home.

When Mac comes home he seems delighted to have stumbled upon such a happy household where everything’s clean and pretty and he’s treated as if he were one of the family.
We make a home where Mac is a welcome visitor. “Drop by anytime,” we seem to say.

The story, itself, is an interesting and complex one, and I don’t intend to reveal many of the details. Suffice it to say that the storyline is very similar to Kincaid’s own life. Kincaid married at nineteen, raised two daughters, returned to college as her marriage deteriorated, and after her divorce, remarried the head coach at University of Arizona, so she knows intimately the lives she describes.
I first came across Kincaid in a wonderful novel about the south, Crossing Blood, in which she describes the lives of two families living side by side, one black, one white. The novel I’m talking about today shows the same sensitivity towards and understanding of race relations that caught my attention in the earlier novel.

While this is not a great book, it is a very good one, and it is indeed, “the novel every football widow will want to read.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

China Dog and Other Stories from a Chinese Laundry by Judy Fong Bates

Eight years ago, I reviewed a debut novel by a Chinese Canadian author, Judy Fong Bates, who was born in China but came to Canada with her mother when she was twelve years old. The name of that novel was Midnight at the Dragon Café, and I’ve been hungry for more of her writing ever since. Lately, I ran across a book of short stories she published in 2002, China Dog and Other Stories from a Chinese Laundry. With the same direct, and deceptively simple language as in her novel, Bates writes about what it was like to grow up straddling two cultures—what it was like for the children, and also what it was like for the parents.

She tells us that in typical small Canadian towns there was a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese hand laundry, and usually these were the only Chinese families in those small towns. Growing up among the lo fons (white ghost people), the children had to balance the demands of their current lives with expectations of their parents that they stick to old ways. While the Chinese saw Canada as a land of opportunity, referring to it as The Gold Mountain, they feared that their children would abandon traditional values. As the young girl in one of her stories says: “Although both of my parents were proud I had learned English so quickly, I knew they were concerned that I was becoming too Canadian.’”

While Bates pays special attention to the dilemmas faced by the children caught between cultures, she also shows great compassion for the parents of these children who, often enough, see their own lives as essentially over. The mother in her novel exclaims to her daughter,  “I’d be better off in China fighting for my life, here I just die a slow death.” The children can, although at great emotional cost, carve out a new life, but the parents, many of whom never really learn to speak understandable English are caught in a kind of limbo, saying to themselves, “This is not my real life,” but are unable to return to that real life or to adjust to the new one, suffering “…the loneliness in this land of strangers,” nurturing a “silent dream of returning home to rest, to die.”

Like the young girls in her stories, Bates is almost a hoo sung (Canadian-born), able to think in English, and to understand the values and desires of the white ghosts.  While the girls’ parents long for them to be more Chinese, often enough they wish their parents were more Canadian.

Still, while Bates sees and understands “a bottomless depth of sadness,” in so many of the older Chinese Canadians, her stories are filled with humor and insight. She gives us a picture of rural life in Canada in the 50s and 60s. As I read her stories, I often thought of the similar stories written by the Canadian writer Alice Munro.

While Bates paints a vivid picture of the racism directed at the few Chinese families in the small Canadian towns, she also shows in much subtler ways what have to be called the racist attitudes of the Chinese towards the white Canadians. Given the economic and political clout behind the racism of the Canadians, it is easy to sympathize with the Chinese immigrants, but Bates seems intent on pointing out how the suspicions of the Chinese parents towards the majority culture make it so difficult for their children to decide how to act, how to succeed, how to balance the often contradictory expectations of their parents. In one story, “The Ghost Wife,” a young girl is confused by the reactions of her mother to the upcoming marriage of a Chinese cousin. While there is great excitement in the preparations for the upcoming marriage, there is an undercurrent of hostility.
In a way I feel sorry for Gladys. She’s not going to be able to talk to her big shot son-in-law, you know. She can’t speak English and he can’t speak Chinese. And when they have children, the children won’t speak Chinese, you know. They won’t know anything about being Chinese. They’re going to be able to say anything in front of her. They won’t even want Gladys around. 
But Mah, just because Jean’s getting married to a lo fon, doesn’t mean she’s going to forget about her own family. 
Oh, it’s not that Jean doesn’t care about her mother. But once she’s married to a gwei loh, she’ll be spending all her time with lo fons. She’ll forget about being Chinese. I know. Jean will want to spend all of her time with her lo fon family. She’ll forget all about being Chinese. I know.
The mother concludes that her own daughter would never marry a gwei loh, because she has too much respect for her mother. Caught in a new way between the vice of contrary expectations.

This is a wonderful collection of short stories; I predict that once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Although I had previously read two Lily King novels and found them both very well told stories, I was really not prepared for the depth and profundity of her 2014 novel, Euphoria.

Based loosely on incidents in the life of Margaret Mead when she was in the territory of New Guinea in 1933, this short novel has much to say about anthropology and the arrogance of the western world and of power relationships between men and women—both those of the three anthropologists in the story (two men and one woman), and of the so-called primitive cultures that they studied.

Nell Stone is the character King builds from her meticulous research into the lives of Margaret Mead, her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and her second husband, an Australian social scientist. Andrew Bankson, the character King creates in the likeness of Bateson, has been alone in the field for many months, and he is lonely and depressed to the point of being suicidal when he first meets Nell and her husband Fen. Nell and Fen have recently fled from their study of a violent tribe, and with Bankson’s help are relocated with a people called the Tam, much more artistic and peace-loving than the culture they have fled. 

King begins her novel with two short quotes, one from Mead and the other from the wonderful anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Mead: “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.” Benedict: “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.”

As you read this excellent, fast-paced little novel, you will come to understand the relevance of both quotes, Nell and Fen settle into their study of the Tam while Bankson returns to his own tribe several canoe-hours upstream. 
Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.
Certainly, Mead was a central figure in that early progress away from the rigidity of western views. As Nell argues with Bankson in an early chapter of the book, there is no such thing as a purely objective view, subjectivity will enter, but we can at least try to step back, try to get a different, a larger, perspective on what we are viewing. 
She told me I sounded as skeptical as my father. She said no one had more than one perspective, not even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always, in everything we do in this world, she said, limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl.  Look at Malinowski, she said. Look at Boas. They defined their cultures as they saw them, as they understood the natives’ point of view. The key is, she said, to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is “natural.”
While most reviewers understood the historical importance of this novel, they also had much to say about the love-triangle that develops between the three anthropologists. Nell is not allowed into the mens’ lodges, so she cannot observe or question/listen as she can among the women and children. Fen, is more interested in weaponry and machinery than in the social relations of the culture, and is jealous of the success of a book Nell has published to great acclaim. Mead, like Nell, published a book that became very famous, Coming of Age in Samoa. Bankson is more interested in Nell’s daily work with the women and families than is Fen, and adapts more easily to her constantly working lifestyle. While Fen says the constant click-clack from her typewriter is driving him crazy, and actually slams and then tosses the typewriter, Bankson insists that the background typewriting noises make it easier for him to think. Their work-habits are congruous, and from the start, Bankson has had a tremendous sexual attraction for this fiercely active and engaged woman. While I found the blooming love-affair between Nell and Bankson more sweet than steamy, no doubt the ménage a trois aspect of the novel accounts at least partly for its fame.

King takes the love-triangle aspect of her story in quite a different direction than Mead’s and Bateson’s own lives, and unlike the real-life events, perhaps ties her story up a little too neatly, but the tale she tells has a charm to it quite aside from the Mead/Bateson story.

One thing this book did for me is make me more interested in Mead and her views of anthropology, as well as her views on relationships. I will close with a longish quote from Nell reflecting on her ongoing study of male-female relations, and her mounting disagreements with her husband, Fen.
In her grant proposal, she claimed that she would continue her inquiry of child-rearing in primitive cultures, but the Tam were tempting her with something even more enticing. At first she dared not hope, but the data kept coming: taboo reversals, sisters-in-law on friendly terms, emphasis on female sexual gratification. Yesterday Chanta explained to her that he could not go to visit his sick nephew in the far hamlet because his wife’s vulva would go wandering if he did. They were grand on the world ‘vulva’. When Nell asked if an elderly widow would ever marry again, several people said at the same time ‘Has she not a vulva?’ Girls themselves decided whom they would marry and when. Fen disagreed with every conclusion she drew on this topic. He said she was blinded by her desire to see them this way, and when she laid out her evidence he said whatever power the women had was temporary, situational…Whatever she saw was a temporary aberration.

This is a fascinating novel both in the story it tells, and for its many layers of speculation on the nature of anthropology and the possibility of objectivity in and science, especially the social sciences.