Monday, February 09, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with the line, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so I’ll be giving nothing away by telling you that this is a book about how and why a young Chinese-American girl died. It is a debut novel by Celeste Ng, although few would guess that this is a first novel, since it is a very finished piece of writing. 

The themes of racism and feminism are woven through this lovely but sad novel. Raised by a mother who feels she sacrificed her life and academic talents to marriage and children, and who lays all of her frustrated ambitions onto her daughter, Lydia feels the enormous weight of her mother’s expectations. Her Chinese father senses that he has never fit into American life, and he wants desperately for his daughter to pass, to be normal and popular. Each parent unintentionally puts tremendous, but in some ways opposite, pressure on  Lydia, and she staggers under the weight of trying to do for her parents what each feel they failed to do for themselves.

Lydia has an older brother, Nath, who somehow slips through the net of expectations that entangle Lydia. Only Nath understands what Lydia is going through, and yet he cannot quite rid himself of resentment towards her, since everything, always, seems to be about Lydia. Neither parent seems to notice that it is he who has the true love of science and learning, and so his talents are largely ignored by both parents. More and more, Lydia, who is in fact friendless, but talks to imaginary girlfriends on the phone to convince her dad that she is happy and popular, depends on her older brother for support and friendship. But he is soon to leave for college, and is eager to escape living in the shadow of Lydia, and the disappointments of the parents that both children feel.

At one point, the mother finally (and briefly) wrests herself from the family and takes up the scientific studies abandoned when she married a Chinese grad student and quickly had two children. She seems to have the academic skills her daughter cannot quite muster, and although an older student, is doing very well in her studies until she realizes that she is once again pregnant, and dispiritedly rejoins the family that she has abandoned.

Lydia, confused and frightened by her mother’s disappearance, vows to do everything her mother wants of her when she returns in order to keep her from running away again. So eager to please her mother, she never confesses that she feels overwhelmed by and unable to live up to the high expectations placed on her. Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, gives up her own academic dreams,  but made plans for Lydia,
Books she would buy Lydia. Science fair projects. Summer classes. ‘Only if you’re interested’ She meant it every time, but she did not realize she was holding her breath. Lydia did. Yes, she said, every time. Yes. Yes. And her mother would breathe again…Yale admitted women, then Harvard. The nation learned new words: affirmative action; Equal Rights Amendment. In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.
And meanwhile, her father who feels he has lowered himself by accepting his small college position, and who feels always out of step with his peers,
“… mulling over the slights of the day… Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have friends… She would be poised and confident, she would say ‘Afternoon Vivian,’ and look right at her neighbor with those big blue eyes. Every day, the thought grew more precious.
And every day, Lydia feels more desperate, more unequal to the task before her. And now her only support, Nath, is about to leave home, escape from the frustrated hopes and dreams of their parents into a life of his own. He alone realizes the desperate situation of his sister. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.”  Finally, looking forward to what he sees as the start of his own life, “Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say…He had been the only one listening for so long. Since their mother’s disappearance and return, Lydia had been friendless.”

All in all, this is a sad little book, but so beautifully written, and by an author who understands so intimately what she is writing about. She understands the father who never fits in and so wants his daughter to do what he cannot, understands the mother who puts all of her frustrated hopes onto her daughter. 
And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.
There is also an element of mystery in the novel as the story of Lydia’s disappearance unfolds. But I’m not about to reveal the mystery; you will have to read the novel to see how the mystery unravels.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing fiction, so that I can talk to you about the incredible naturalist writer Ellen Meloy. I’ll be paying special attention to her last book, published shortly after she died in 2004, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, but each of her four nature-study books deserves to be read and praised. 

Meloy loved the desert, and especially the band of wild bighorn sheep thought for many years to be extinct. A sub-species of mountain sheep found only in the Four Corners area, Meloy named the little band she followed and watched for many years, the Blue Door band. Even in the time she was studying them, she remarks on their elusiveness, noting that on one particular sighting, the band disappeared into a crevice of rock, not to be seen again for many months. At the time, she thought they may have vanished forever.
For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the lands every contour—when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have to do: make the perfect match of flesh to earth.
Meloy has the eye of an artist, and a facility with language that lets her word-paint for her readers  what she sees and understands about nature. Her first  college degree was in art, and upon graduation she became a wildlife illustrator until returning to school to get a Master’s degree in environmental science. There she met the love of her life and her eventual husband, Mark Meloy, a river ranger; their marriage and their love affair with nature continued until she died suddenly at fifty-eight in their home in Bluff, Utah.

Although Eating Stone is ostensibly about the Southern Utah big horn sheep, it is also simply  about beings of the desert, plants and animals. Her understanding of geologic history and biology shines forth on every page, and I found myself as astounded by her lyrical use of language as by her profound understanding of nature.
Home sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth  of them.
Meloy talks a lot about arctic big horns and the vanishing herds of desert big horns in Arizona and California. She even takes the reader on a side trip along the Baja peninsula with lively descriptions of its history and of the steady and rapid encroachment of modern living on that so recently wild land.

Although a passionate advocate of wilderness preservation and critic of environmental degradation caused by corporate greed, more and more golf courses, and expansion of dwellings onto wildlife habitat, it is more her love and understanding of wild things that comes out in her work. Given her travels and her tireless exploration of nature, she cannot but see and warn us of the perils of the future, and yet her voice is hopeful. As one critic notes, she  seems hopeful that the power of words (and of really looking) may change things one reader at a time.
…in the desert there is everything and there is nothing. Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors, plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.
She certainly took her own advice. Midway through this lovely book, I decided I would read everything she has written; let me mention the titles of her three other works. Raven’s Exile. A Season on the Green River; The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, art and spirit.

Meloy is warm, witty, deeply insightful and extraordinarily patient, as anyone must be who decides to see and understand the quiet life of these ruminant creatures who return year after year, decade after decade, eon after eon to the same lambing grounds, the same rutting grounds, who depend on expansive vision and quick vertical escape. As faithful as they are to place, they are also so careful that they may abandon a favorite feeding or sleeping ground forever because of one encounter with a helicopter or some other feared predator.
There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar. There is in me, as in all human beings a glimpse of  the interior, from which everything about our minds has come.
Meloy has an acute eye for where we have come from and, I think, for where we are going.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

I want to talk to you today about an ambitious novel by a local writer and political activist, Benjamin Parzybok. The name of the novel is Sherwood Nation. A problem for all fiction writers is that of inducing the reader to suspend disbelief, and for dystopian or utopian novels, the suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult to achieve. The setting for this book is a possible future for Portland after a profound drought has set in and water rationing is mandatory. As the drought progressed, the Deschutes dried up in a single summer, and,
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its death-song through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
I have to admit upfront that I found this novel tough sledding, and not only because I had trouble suspending disbelief. Since I am fortunate in that I can read whatever I want, and reading is my main work, I am spoiled and used to fine writing. In the end, I think this novel is much more interesting and important for the political questions it raises than for the story itself. For the most part, I’ll leave the political questions up to Norm Diamond in his interview with Benjamin also included in this show. Unlike many futuristic books including those that attempt to raise political consciousness, this is a serious and mostly successful attempt to create real characters, and to let much of the action be determined by the characters portrayed. By the end of the book (though not during much of the long middle sections), I found myself really wanting to know the outcome—concerned for the fate of the main characters and for the city-state they had created. 

The plot of the book is long and rather complicated, and I have no intention of giving way the story, but I will say that it begins with a brave act carried off by a few people who decide to call attention to illegal water deliveries being made to rich folks in the West Hills. This small group decides to waylay one of these unmarked water trucks as a way to call attention to the illegal distribution. Renee is one member of this small band; she is injured in the attempt to commandeer the truck, and the local media get plenty of footage of her bleeding and wounded but handing out water to the group of onlookers who surround the truck. She is dubbed by the media as Maid Marian of Robyn Hood fame—one who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Renee (a.k.a. Maid Marian) has a boyfriend named Zach who is one of few who still has a job; he works for an advertising agency that works for the Mayor. Although sympathetic to Renee’s anger and frustration about city management and water distribution, he is unable to act with her, because he sees no fruitful outcome from her activities. Like many activists, Zach is paralyzed by uncertainty and the need to make sure causes he fights for are pure and have some real chance of succeeding. His need for purity and certainty frustrate Renee,
Zach—you’re always planning. And organizing and cataloging and recording and doing every preliminary step so as to avoid acting. I think what you do—writing ads, trying to make what the city needs palatable—is great. I mean it’s a mixed bag, you know that, and you’re doing what you can in there. But somebody has got to be out here on the front line.
I have heard complaints like this one from many activists, and I certainly see myself as one of those who stalls and waits for the right cause, the right moment, and it seems often simply to be an excuse for not acting. And yet, what to do? How do we bring about real change?

Because Renee’s water action is caught by the media, she quickly becomes a popular celebrity, and heads up a plan for a NE neighborhood to secede from the city, take up the task of water distribution as well as the safety and security of the neighborhood. Before long, she heads up what gets called Sherwood Nation, a kind of city-state that cuts itself off from city services and governance. 

Soon Maid Marian forms an alliance with a person who has been a powerful drug-lord in the neighborhood, and he becomes her general while his son Jamal becomes Captain and leader of the Green Rangers.

The credibility of the storyline is shored up by Parzybok’s intimate knowledge of Portland neighborhoods and of local governance. The Mayor and city council are other players in the action that ensues, as is the National Guard which is in charge of water distribution. 

While the storyline is very difficult to believe, I applaud the author’s effort to address questions of political action and expedience in the times we face now and the even harder times it appears are coming. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s 1975 novel Memoirs of a Survivor in which she scolds both the left and the right for acting as if the end of times is near—that all will end in a grand apocalypse.  There will be neither complete salvation nor destruction. Instead, contends Lessing,  there will be survivors, and life will continue one way or another. The questions will always be how we will act from where we are then, and how we should act now in order to prepare for a better future. Lessing’s novel predicted much that would come to pass in London as homeless kids grew in number, unemployment skyrocketed and social services broke down. Renee, Maid Marian, comes to similar conclusions about end-times.
“There are no end times,” she whispered into the room. It was a mantra she’d taken up since her first night in Sherwood. A poem of sorts that had taken shape in her head, the words reeling out of her. “There are no end-times. This time is simply a tunnel, from one time to the next.  I work here to see us through. The darkness is a passage.
The reader is told that crime-rates plummet, schools and clinics reopen and run better in Sherwood Nation than in the rest of the city, and yet we are also told that Sherwood Nation only lasts for nine weeks. Even with the combined efforts of a multitude of volunteers, it is hard to see how all of this could take place in a mere nine weeks, a blink in history. 

Whatever the plausibility of the events described in this book, the stories of the individual characters are well told and interesting. including the intense soul-searching each does as events come to pass. 

I would say that the political aims of the novel are noble, and the questions raised about how and when to act crucial not simply for Sherwood Nation, but for us-here-now. Whether this is enough to make it a good book, I will leave up to you readers.