Monday, December 28, 2009

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

Sometimes I hear about a book for months, even years, before I finally pick it up and give it a try. My students and my serious reader friends have been urging me to read Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, for a very long time, so it may be old news for many of you by now, but having finally read it, I find I just have to talk about it today.

There is so much to be learned from this hefty novel, and while perhaps the most important theme is that of the many children born with ambiguous sexual organs and lumped together under the ambiguous title of hermaphrodite, there is also a wealth of information about historical struggles between Greeks and Turks, as well as about how the American automobile industry has, from its inception, treated its workers, and how the decline of that same industry has decimated cities. It is an ambitious and sprawling novel, but it also has the homey feel of a family story, and my prediction is that once you give it a hundred-page trial, you will be unable to put it down.

The main theme of the novel is announced on page one: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Fortunately for us readers, this twice born being, first named Calliope and only much later renamed simply Cal, found it necessary to trace his lineage and his story back to his grandparents who fled from a war-torn Greek island in the 1920s and landed finally in Detroit where they began their family. And so the first several hundred pages of this novel are about the miraculous escape of his grandparents, their eventual settling in Detroit, and the grimy and tumultuous history of that great American city.

Calliope’s grandfather, Lefty Stephaides, worked first for Ford Motor Company, though the complex of buildings was known to local residents simply as the Rouge.
And then the Rouge appeared against the sky, rising out of the smoke it generated. At first all that was visible was the tops of the eight main smokestacks. Each gave birth to its own dark cloud. The clouds plumed upward and merged into a general pall that hung over the landscape, sending a shadow that ran along the trolley tracks; and Lefty understood that the men’s silence was a recognition of this shadow, of its inevitable approach each morning. 

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds. 

But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine. 

On the factory floor, my grandfather was trained for his job in seventeen minutes. Part of the new production method’s genius was its division of labor into unskilled tasks. That way you could hire anyone. And fire anyone. The foreman showed Lefty how to take a bearing from the conveyor, grind it on a lathe, and replace it. Holding a stopwatch, he timed the new employee’s attempts. Then, nodding once, he led Lefty to his position on the line. On the left stood a man named Wierzbicki; on the right, a man named O’Malley. For a moment, they are three men, waiting together. Then the whistle blew. 

Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors—the carburetor, the distributor, the intake manifold—and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, huge spindles pound steampowered fists. No one says a word.
This description continues for several pages, as eloquent as Charlie Chaplan’s movie Modern Times in expressing the essence of the assembly line and its soul-sucking noise and repetition. We also hear of the so-called social workers Ford sends out to spy on the home conditions of the workers, telling them how to brush their teeth, how to raise their children, whom to avoid if they wish to continue working for Ford Motor. If there are too many families living in one apartment, that, alone, may be grounds for dismissal, since these audacious spies have decided that living in such crowded conditions makes for unreliable employees, and there are always more interchangeable workers to fill the ranks.

This novel would be worth reading simply for it social commentary and its description of the birth, life, and slow-death of cities like Detroit, but equally fascinating is the story of the thousands of children born with two sets of sexual organs.
Because of certain genetic and hormonal conditions, it was sometimes difficult to determine the sex of a newborn baby. 

The chief imperative in cases like mine was to show no doubt as to the gender of the child in question. You did not tell the parents of a newborn, “Your baby is a hermaphodite.” Instead, you said, “Your daughter was born with a clitoris that is a little larger than a normal girl’s. We’ll need to do surgery to make it the right size. {It was} felt that parents weren’t able to cope with an ambiguous gender assignment. You had to tell them if they had a boy or a girl.
A doctor in one of my classes confirmed that during his early days as a military doctor, determination of sex was done simply on the basis of appearance. If the penis was too small, the baby was pronounced to be female; it the clitoris was too big, the baby was pronounced to be male. Never mind that in the first case, undescended testes would cause a new crisis in adolescence (as was the case with Callipoe), just as hormonal changes during puberty would cause similar crises in the stipulated males who suddenly developed breasts and other secondary sexual characteristics of females. Over hundreds of years, various criterion have been used to determine gender: in the late 1800s looking at gonadal tissue under a microscope was deemed to be the definitive test; if it’s testicular, the person was a male, if ovarian, female. But a later discovery determined “that gender identity is established very early on in life, about the age of two. Gender was like a native tongue; it didn’t exist before birth but was imprinted in the brain during childhood, never disappearing. Children learn to speak Male or Female the way they learn to speak English or French.”

That there is no tidy answer to this question of male or female, nature or nurture, and that finally it is more a matter of stipulation than discovery emerges clearly over the course of this wonderful book. The only way to get to whole story is to read the book.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Some writers write with a grace and fluidity that seems to allow them to paint pictures without leaving  brushstrokes. Jhumpa Larhiri is such a writer, and the seamless flow of the stories in her recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, reveals so much about loneliness and exile, about family secrets and unspoken pains. The satin smoothness of the writing leads to a kind of emotional understatement, so that even scenes of great pathos leave hardly a surface ripple.

This set of stories is connected both by common characters and common themes, with the main theme being that of the struggle between American born children and their Bengali parents. Lahiri understands at a deep level both the struggles of the children to assimilate to their new culture without constantly disappointing their parents, and the isolation and fears of the parents who fiercely hold their children to them and to their cultural values and yet realize that they must somehow set them free.

For the most part, these immigrants, unlike so many before them who have fled to this country from impoverishment and political oppression, come from relatively prosperous backgrounds. Men who, with the support of their Indian families, come to attain professional degrees as doctors, scientists, and engineers, and who bring with them the wives from arranged marriages.  Certainly, it is the wives who have the most difficulty in adjusting. Often marooned in suburbs where there are no other Indian families and dressed in traditional clothes that will mark them out as foreigners forever, they seem merely tolerated by their busy husbands and often enough an embarrassment to their children who are frantically throwing off traditional values in an attempt to assimilate.
I began to pity my mother; the older I got, the more I saw what a desolate life she led. She had never worked, and during the day she watched soap operas to pass the time. Her only job, every day, was to clean and cook for my father and me. We rarely went to restaurants, my father always pointing out, even in cheap ones, how expensive they were compared with eating at home. When my mother complained to him about how much she hated life in the suburbs and how lonely she felt, he said nothing to placate her. “If you are so unhappy, go back to Calcutta,” he would offer, making it clear that their separation would not affect him one way or the other. I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly.
Of course, not all the men, even those whose marriages have been arranged, are as unfeeling and indifferent as this one, but Lahiri is quick to point out that most of them have from childhood never done anything for themselves, not even the making of tea or the picking up of their discarded clothes. Coddled and spoiled always by mothers and sisters, they expect their wives to serve them, to be grateful for the money they make and the homes they provide, and, of course, to raise children who at once are successful in this new culture and yet embrace the values of the old. If the children fail, it is the fault of the wife, and if they adopt the dress and lifestyle of their more wild and promiscuous American friends, that, too, is the fault of the mother.

Lahiri is meticulous in describing and analyzing the family lives and romantic attachments of her characters. Often enough, it is the female children who have some understanding of the intense loneliness of their mothers, as well as the nostalgia and sense of isolation of their fathers. The male children simply chaff against the expectations of their stern fathers and the suffocating concern of their mothers.
While Sudah (the daughter) regarded her parents’ separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer, Rahul was impermeable to that aspect of their life as well. “No one dragged them here,” he would say. “Baba left India to get rich, and Ma married him because she had nothing else to do.” That was Rahul, always aware of the family’s weaknesses, never sparing Sudha from the things she least wanted to face.
While I have spoken so far mainly of the isolation and exile of the parents, many of these stories center on the lives of the children when they are in college or boarding schools. Some dare to marry non-Indian mates, and must then enter into their own struggles of straddling two cultures. Others, who can neither yield to the arranged or semi-arranged marriages their parents want for them, nor enter into uneasy alliances with non-Indian men or women who will always view them as foreign and odd, simply choose to live as exiles. Lahiri seems to understand each of her characters from the inside. She displays an emotional intelligence and understanding that makes her stories shimmer. The lives she describes are neither happy nor overwhelmingly sad, but each seems to carry the weight of truth and lucidity.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Suppose you had been born in Jackson Mississippi in the 60s, had been mothered primarily by a black maid whom you felt closer to in many ways than you did your own mother. Now, you are a writer in New York City in the twenty-first century and you feel compelled to write about not only that particular woman, but about the many women who raised white children, loved white children, and in most cases were cold-shouldered by those same children once the children learned how they are supposed to behave towards blacks in Mississippi. You want to write about these women who have always been referred to by the rich white families they serve simply as the Help. How would you do it?

This is a question that Kathryn Stockett must have asked herself many times before she finally wrote The Help. She could, of course, simply have told her own story—told about her love for her Demetrie who had raised her, who had told her over and over (often enough when no one else would) that she was special, she was pretty, she was good. But Stockett decides on a different tack; she wants to tell the story of how the black maids really felt about their white employers. She wants to speak from the perspective and in the voices of those women. Certainly a brave undertaking, but is it also an audacious and presumptuous one?

I have to admit that I’m still asking myself these questions weeks after finishing this on the whole compelling and moving novel. The two main characters in the book are best friends—black  maids who have always cared for white families and their children.  The older women, Aibileen, is a very wise woman who has raised dozens of white babies, usually going on to the next home and to new babies as the children get older. The younger, Minny, is a powerful and sharp-tongued domestic who has an abusive husband and her own large family to care for, but makes her living cooking and cleaning for white families. She has a reputation as the best cook and the sassiest tongue in Jackson. At great risk to themselves, certainly risking their jobs, any job, and perhaps even their lives, they decide to tell their stories to Skeeter, a rich and rather idle young white woman who, in order to jump-start her writing career, has told a New York publisher that she can deliver a book, told by black maids, about what they really feel about their white employers. Skeeter is, on the whole well meaning, and she has, herself, been raised by a black maid whom she dearly loves, but she is also worse than careless and naïve as she begins her venture.

Skeeter has promised the publisher something she really cannot deliver, but eventually, getting Aibileen and Minny to speak for her with the circle of maids who have quickly and for good reason rejected Skeeter’s invitation to speak out, she is able to round up the stories of a dozen or so of these women.

Most of the chapters in the book are told through the voices and lives of Aibileen and Minny, both speaking in heavy black dialects. Their stories are incredible, and certainly I learned as I read just how naïve I was growing up in the 40s and 50s about what was really going on in the south (and in my own city had I had the eyes to see it). Of course, I had heard of the lynchings, the strict segregation of races, the early attempts at integration. But I certainly had no idea that the black domestic help were required to wear white uniforms, and that without their uniforms, they could not have gotten into the stores and offices they needed to go to in order to shop for their white families. Nor did I know that even the most loved of these domestic servants were required to use separate bathrooms (often in garages or other out-buildings separated from the houses they worked in).

At one point Aibileen begins to wonder what will happen to her and to the others whom she has persuaded to talk if the white women find out that they are telling the truth about what their lives are really like.
A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick. Miss Hill wouldn’t pull on pistol on me. Miss Leefolt wouldn’t come burn my house down.
No, white women like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em.
First thing a white lady gone to do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you’ll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month a rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles.
But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say Notice of Eviction. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife what’s friends with somebody. You start to panic some then. You still ain’t got no job prospects. Everywhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now you ain’t got a place to live.
Then it starts to come a little faster.
If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.
If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail.
If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family a her own. But a few days later she come home, say, “Mama? I just got fired.” She look hurt, scared. She don’t understand why. You got to tell her it’s cause a you.
Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby.
Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine.
They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why to done it. You can’t even remember why.
It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget.
And she ain’t gone stop till you dead.
This is a convincing and chilling book, and one that I think we should all read. And yet, just as I am uneasy about Skeeter’s risking not her own life and job but those of the women she is interviewing, I’m also uneasy about Stockett writing as though in the voice of these women. I would be much less uneasy were the author black. Maybe I’m being too critical; maybe this is how she had to write the book. If you read it, let me know what you think.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I want to talk to you today about an excellent and charming little book by a French author, Muriel Barbery, entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s possible that my own love of philosophy influences me more than it should in my assessment of this novel, but I think any passionate reader will fall in love with the two lead characters—both brilliant and lucid, and both (for quite different reasons) finding it necessary to hide their intellectual acuity from the world.

Paloma is a twelve year old girl living in a luxurious Paris hotel who has found it expedient, even necessary, to hide her extreme intelligence from her teachers, her friends, even her family. After all, at the ripe old age of twelve she has already discovered the absurdity of existence, and has decided without pathos to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to simultaneously set fire to her building. When I was first introduced to this character, I found myself flinching, withdrawing, thinking this novel would simply serve to reinforce a confusion (especially in the U.S) between nihilism and existentialism. In my view, existentialism is a guardedly optimistic philosophy that insists that the denial of an external telos (a human-independent purpose for existence) does not at all entail that life is without meaning. We make our lives meaningful through our actions rather than through fulfilling some sort of purpose given from on high. Fortunately, we soon discover that Paloma is simply in what might be called the descent phase of existentialism, discovering that meaning-guaranteeing myths are just that, myths that need to be overcome. Next comes the ascent phase in which one discovers that meaning is created rather than discovered. But in order for her to ascend, she must (as the heroes of all existentialist novels discover) leave her nihilist-leaning isolation and find others.

Her ascent begins when she discovers (or is discovered by) the hotel concierge, a self-described autodidact who has, herself, found it necessary to hide her intelligence and her secret reading of the most esoteric philosophers in order to disappear into her role as hotel concierge. The wealthy people for whom she works expect concierges to be dull-witted and to spend their time when not serving their superiors by watching endless hours of soap opera while dining on cabbage soup and other poor man’s fare. In fact Renee, the concierge, leaves her soap-opera blaring t.v. in one room, a decoy for any of the tenants who might pass by, while hiding out in another reading Descartes, Kant, Husserl and munching on delicacies she should not even know of. Commenting on instructions received from one of the hotel tenants, Renee remarks,
You know you have reached the very bottom of the social food chain when you detect in a rich person’s voice that he is merely addressing himself and that, although the words he is uttering may be, technically, destined to you, he does not even begin to imagine that you might be capable of understanding them.
Paloma, who sees herself as an intellectual who makes fun of other intellectuals, is particularly contemptuous of her family who profess socialist ideas and vote with the socialist party, but who live a luxurious and wasteful life and act finally as if poverty were a personal sin rather than a function of market economies. Her mother, in particular, is the target of Paloma’s contempt; she has spent a fortune on her ten years of psychoanalysis, but has little to show for it. “As far I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.”

The lives of both Paloma and Renee are profoundly affected when one of the longtime tenants of the hotel dies and a rich Japanese man first completely refurbishes and then moves into the vacated space. His name is Ozu, and simply because he really attends to those around him, really looks at them, he quickly sees through the facades of both Renee and Paloma, but instead of blowing their covers, he befriends both and acts as a sort of catalyst in helping them to find new lives, even, if this is not too grand a word, to find their salvations.

For the most part, this is a comedic novel; the reader is meant to laugh at the world as seen through the eyes of these delightful characters. But it also seems to me to be a deeply serious look at social class, biological determinism, the purpose of art, and finally even the meaning of life. Like so many existentialist heroes, Paloma’s first steps towards transcendence, her emergence from the despair of nihilism, is via art—first simply hearing a choir performance by her school peers and next via the simplicity and elegance of Japanese haikus. Allowing herself to be discovered by Renee, and at the same time seeing through Renee’s camouflage, takes her to the next step. And Renee, who has always lived in profound isolation after the death of her fellow-concierge husband, discovers through her friendship with Ozu and Paloma that she can finally look at the ugly events of her own childhood—events that have kept her in hiding—and emerge from her isolation to construct a meaningful life in and through others. 

In short, this is a delightful book, perhaps the best that I have read all year.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Every year or two or three a book comes along that is so good, so astounding, that I hesitate to even talk about it, knowing that my words cannot do it justice, and that even the effort might in some way profane the book. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, is just such a book. Thirty pages into this dense and profound little work, I knew I had to read everything Strout has written which, unfortunately, consists of only two other earlier novels. I have already gobbled up the first and started on the second; no doubt I will be talking to you about those books in the future.

The stories in this volume are all about what would be called ordinary people in a small town in Maine. Olive, a retired schoolteacher, appears somewhere in each story, and if you choose to read this book, I predict that you will anxiously await her entrance into each story. It is misleading to say that the stories are about ordinary people, because, like Alice Munro, another incredible writer of our time, what Strout shows us is the extraordinary complexity of each of her characters. I suppose one would say that the stories are written in first-person narratives, and each voice is utterly convincing. But through some magic that Strout possesses, the voices are not quite first person; the very complexity and contradictory nature of emotions that pass through each character (while experiencing what, from the outside, would appear to be everyday, even mundane events) requires a kind of second-person view. Few of us would admit or even be aware of just how conflicting our own emotional reactions are to events that occur—how anger and joy often fuse, how envy and admiration follow in such quick succession that we, ourselves, could not say honestly which is the dominant feeling.

Olive is a believable and wonderful a character; she is at once angry, spiteful, impatient, inconsiderate, deeply empathetic, wise, and kind. Strout refuses to do what so many writers do; she refuses to create heroes who are unmixed good fighting against others who are sinister and dark. Olive is light and dark, kind and merciless, incredibly strong and utterly lonely and weak. She is dogmatic and opinionated, a stern math teacher feared by her students and yet remembered and in some sense admired by all or most of them as well.

It is no mistake that I mention Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout in the same breath, nor was I surprised to see that Munro reviewed Strout’s first book, calling it “a novel of shining integrity and humor, about the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life.” I see Munro as quite literally the finest living author, and that I put Strout in her company is the highest praise I can give. Both write usually of small towns and unremarkable people, and both spin out stories that scintillate with a deep understanding of love and loneliness and fear of death.

Some books can be, if not captured, at least summed up by quoting a few passages or by describing general themes. Not so with Strout. To appreciate her greatness and her insights, one must read page by page, emotion by emotion. Still, let me see if I can say a bit about a couple of the stories that may entice you to read her. Death and dying are central to this book just as they are to real life. In one sad but lovely sketch, Strout describes the grocer’s wife, Marlene Bonney and the funeral of her husband Ed. Olive attends the funeral partly because she knows that her own husband, Henry, would have wanted her to go, though he has suffered a stroke and is in a care facility, blind and silent and vacant. But quite apart from what Henry might have wanted, “…she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” Instead, she hears how Marlene and her husband, even as he was suffering from an incurable illness, would bring out a basket filled with travel brochures, would talk of all the places that they wanted to go, all the trips they would take. None of the trips are taken; Ed dies, leaving Olive to wonder, “Who, who, does not have their basket of trips? It isn’t right, Molly Collins said that today, standing out by the church. It isn’t right. Well. It isn’t.”

Henry, Olive’s husband, is as sweet and optimistic as Olive is astringent and pessimistic, and his very sweetness and optimism gall Olive, provoking her to lash out at him and at his kindness to others. When their only child, a son, finally marries, Henry immediately accepts the new wife, feeling relief for his son. Olive’s reactions are much more mixed as she chafes against the know-it-all new wife.
Of course, right now their sex life is probably very exciting, and they undoubtedly think that will last, the way new couples do. They think they’re finished with loneliness, too.
This thought causes Olive to nod her head slowly as she lies on the bed. She knows that loneliness can kill people—in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
Yes, life itself is tricky business, as Olive and Strout well know. I suppose I could say that Strout is the master of describing the little bursts that keep us going, the little bursts that hold loneliness at bay, at least for the moment. One such little burst occurs for Olive late in life, after the death of her husband and the emotional distancing of her son. It comes in the form of a new and unexpected relationship with a man who has also lost most everything.
What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.
Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Of Cats And Men by Nina de Gramont

If one were to go by titles, then this set of stories by Nina de Gramont, Of Cats and Men, should be stories about, well, cats and men. Insofar as they have to do with cats at all, they are stories about cats and women. And yes, a cat does occur in each story, sometimes even in a pivotal role, but the stories are really about women and the men they choose, or choose to leave, and about the ways in which mothering metamorphoses women’s lives.  As for cats and men, I’m tempted to say that the men in her stories are as blind to cats (and their real natures) as they are to the women in their lives, but in truth she often paints sympathetic portraits of both men and women. I suspect the Steinbeck allusion was simply irresistible.

What immediately captured me about these sketches was the emotional honesty of the voice in each story. Sometimes it is the voice of a woman who married for love but has to come to the realization that she misses the comforts of her moneyed upbringing. Ashamed to admit to her hard working blue collar husband that she wants more, that she wants out, that she feels stifled and moldy in their ranch-style rental.

Most of the women characters find themselves either trapped in relationships that they shouldn’t be in, or stifled by the confinements of motherhood, but de Gramont  usually allows her women to escape. One of her characters survives a near fatal accident (while in her lover’s car), and afterwards shocks her stupefied sister as well as her dutiful husband by simply leaving her home and children behind, calmly explaining to her sister that the children will be better off with their father. Perhaps it is the trauma to the brain that has rearranged the priorities in her life, perhaps simply the near-death experience, but what is clear is that she can now run away, and she does.

Another of the mothers is unable to leave her large family, or at least to leave the house in which they all live, but finds another way to retreat into herself.
At first Simone minds terribly, that their mother has locked herself away in the attic. In the late afternoon before their father gets home, after the summer chaos has cooled with the sun, she can hear rustling upstairs, scraping, and sometimes footsteps. Lonely noises, and eerie: making their way through the far reaches of the kitchen, the butler’s pantry, the den. Even after they quiet, Simone thinks she can hear their mother breathe, intermittent but endless sighs, like the audible exhalation of this old, ever-settling house. 
Her sister Maggie is nearly ten, more than a year older than Simone. They are the only two who care that their mother has for all purposes left. The others, the older ones, barely seem to notice.
Mothers who run away from home, mothers who hide away in their own homes, anything for a space of their own, a life they can manage. While there is humor in many of the stories, there is also a somber earnestness. The decisions these women have to make in order to keep or rediscover their sanity are wrenching.  One young mother, afraid to confess to anyone how suffocated she feels by motherhood finds herself mentally making up ads like ones she has seen in the paper offering pets their owners can no longer keep.
Treasured infant needs new home. Caroline is five weeks old, healthy and beautiful, only cries when she’s hungry. Has been breast-fed but will take a bottle without complaint. We must give Caroline up, because her mother is overwhelmed by the scope and enormity of parenthood.
It is no wonder that couples so often find themselves mismatched in a culture that parades and advertises the cult of love—falling in love, living on love, dying for love, but never mentioning how difficult it can be to simply to live with another person.
I’ve never been the sort of woman who fantasizes about Marlboro Men. I don’t have a weakness for the strong, silent type who works with his hands and gets more  emotional over sunsets and Jim Beam than the woman in his life. I like civilized  people, who use correct grammar and have at least a vague understanding of silverware placement. People who understand the imperative of a college education and well-written thank-you notes. 
Needles to say, I fell in love with Charlie before he became a cattle rancher.
My suspicion is that the author of these stories, the voice behind the various characters, grew up in an economically privileged home, and there is an indelible  snobbishness  regarding both money and education in many of the stories.  Still, there is some real attempt to dissect the snobbery and to poke fun at it, and the writing is fast-paced and darkly humorous. It is a quick and pleasant summer read.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Honest Doubt & The Puzzled Heart by Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, writing under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross, has been turning out mystery novels for many years, and while I’m sure she would be the first to insist that her Kate Fansler detective novels are not great fiction, not even great mysteries, she has certainly found an excellent form for her feminist political commentary. Kate Fansler, the heroine of the novels is, like Heilbrun, a professor of literature, but much more outspoken and brash in her social and political views. Death in a Tenured Position is probably the best known of the Cross novels, and while humorous and fast paced, it is a bitingly accurate picture of the discrimination women faced in universities of the 70s. Her 2000 novel, Honest Doubt, shows that in the most important ways, little has changed since then. But Heilbrun decides to give us an outsider’s view of university life by introducing a new detective, Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, who has neither Fansler’s social standing nor her experience in the Academy. Woody is a much more blue collar detective, hired by a small New England university, Clifton, to try to find the murderer of a much disliked senior professor and department Chair. Woody is advised to seek Kate Fansler’s help precisely because Fansler does know the intricacies of university politics.

Besides giving us an outside and innocent view of universities, Woody also introduces a topic that Heilbrun obviously thinks is insufficiently addressed by left-liberal politics, namely, the discrimination against fat people. Woody is, herself, a large woman, and while her size has at times given her an advantage in detecting, namely that of being invisible to almost all men and most women, she nevertheless understands the societal bias against being fat.
I collect plump people who are accomplished as well as heavy. It helps to knit up my raveled self-esteem. People seldom realize it, but fat is the only affliction that has never been protected by affirmative action, anti-bias laws, or any other category like sexual harassment, date rape, or domestic violence, though I seem to remember someone once wrote a book called Fat is a Feminist Issue. The point is, it’s okay to say and do anything to fat people short of murder, and to refuse them a job because you think their failure to lose weight is a character and mental defect. They don’t even call it heft-disadvantaged or weightily challenged.
Discussions between Fansler and Woody show just how difficult it is for most even to see fat as a political issue and how tempting it is to suppose that weight is everywhere and always a matter of choice and free will. And while Woody is helping Fansler to understand what it is like to live as a large, indeed a fat woman, Fansler tries to help Woody understand the intricacies of university life and the tenure system. Heilbrun’s way of telling the story of how older men do (both historically and at present) determine who gets hired, fired, and promoted is so witty but also so accurate; I would like to quote long passages rather than trying to overview her descriptions, but time constraints force me to summarize. Woody, ignorant of how universities operate wonders aloud to Kate why Ph.D.s continue to be awarded and graduate schools continue to expand if there are so few jobs available to the new doctorates. Why, instead, don’t universities simply stop or drastically trim the number of doctorates granted? Fansler explains that the universities want the money graduate students bring in (both in tuition and grants and state assistance); they want to maintain their standing in the academic world. In addition, older tenured professors prefer to teach graduate students, folks who are clearly interested in learning what they have to offer (unlike many undergraduates), and even more importantly, they want graduate students to teach all the large lecture sections and survey courses, the real money-makers for universities, but difficult and time-consuming for the senior staff who, after all, are promoted and rewarded not for teaching, but for publishing. Never mind that no one save a few peers actually reads what they publish, since “…what every professor wants is time to research and write a book—any book ... Teaching is not what it is about ... Not after the first few years anyway. And those for whom teaching is a joy, those who don’t long for time off, don’t get tenure; they certainly don’t get the thanks of their academic institution.”

The second of the two Cross novels I’m talking about today is The Puzzled Heart, and while it, too, is all about universities and the sexism rampant within universities, the overriding topic is that of the far right and the tactics they are willing to use to further their conservative agendas. “….the right wing in this country, Christians though they may call themselves, are besotted with their message. They are like fundamentalists everywhere, certain of their correctness and of being ordered by God to destroy those who disagree with that certainty.” Kate Fansler’s husband, himself a law professor and ex-district attorney, is kidnapped by a right wing group and held not for a ransom of money, but instead to extort from Fansler a public denial of her feminist views.

Of course, I have no intention of telling you how the plot unravels or of which groups are responsible for the kidnapping and eventually a murder. Suffice it to say that there are many opportunities for Heilbrun to show how violence against abortion clinics and abortion doctors is one strand of a right wing agenda, how donations to universities by well heeled conservatives intended to influence hiring, firing  and curriculum  are another strand in that same agenda, and how even without any overt conspiracy or mastermind the strands work together for a common evil. Always, the plot and the humor are secondary to the social commentary Heilbrun provides.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Listen to the Podcast
Sometimes, even with writers whom I like quite a lot, I will arrive at a point where I am convinced that I have gotten from them what I can. I had assumed that to be the case with Richard Russo when I read Empire Falls. After all, he is not a great writer, nor does he have a profound understanding of human nature or of social-political history. And so it was almost an accident that I picked up and began to read his latest novel, Bridge of Sighs. I am now convinced that this is his best novel so far in its ability to create deep, convincing characters, in its understanding of life, and in its social commentary.

Russo’s male characters almost always have a gruffly good-natured quality to them—men who know they have not measured up even to their own expectations, but who muddle along in their relationships and their lives trying to do better while never deceiving themselves into believing that they are more or better than they really are. Usually, they have problems with commitment to spouses or even to lovers, and suggest that the women in their lives would, most likely, be better off without them. Most of them seem to have a kind of Walter Matthau charm to them, likable partly because of their own constant and critical self-analysis. Louis C. Lynch, the lead character in this novel, is again a character in that mold, almost morbidly self-reflective, but in my estimation he rises above the others both in his understanding of the relationships in which he finds himself and in understanding himself.

Louis C., maliciously nicknamed Lucy by his childhood friends, is a slow-talking, deliberate and lonely boy. Like his father, Lou senior, Lucy is big, good-natured and so measured in his delivery that he seems to others to be dimwitted. Add to this that he sometimes has spells, periods of time when he more-or-less blanks out, neither speaking nor moving, and it is no wonder that the people in his small upstate New York town, Thomaston, think he is at the very least odd. His best, and for much of his young life, only friend, Noonan, is Lucy’s opposite in almost all ways. Feisty, brave and dashing, Noonan is chosen by Lucy, latched onto, but always chafes at the affection and attention Lucy beams at him, and is relieved when his abusive, authoritarian father insists that he terminate the friendship. That Lucy’s love for Noonan is unrequited seems only to intensify his obsession, and he manages at a few different periods of their young lives to bring Noonan back into the sphere of his life until finally Noonan escapes not only from Lucy, but from Thomaston and even from the U.S., ending up as a relatively famous painter in Venice.

The reader is introduced to the characters as adults. Lucy has remained his entire life in Thomaston, content and seeing no reason to leave, and is looking backwards over his life while writing a clumsy memoir. His wife, Sarah, also an artist, and far less content with their sequestered small-town lives, insists finally on a trip to Europe where the couple hopes to meet up with the long departed Noonan. As Lucy looks back, the reader is invited to look at the close and loving relationship Lou junior has with his optimistic and upbeat father and at his more troubled relationship with his much more astute and realistic mother, Teresa, or Tessa as she is called by Lou senior. Tessa and Sarah have much in common; both are wise and efficient, understanding the naïve optimism of their husbands and taking steps to avoid the pitfalls that the men’s naivete would otherwise land them in. From the first, Tessa understands that her son’s love and devotion to his friend Noonan is almost all one-sided, and she does what she can to protect him from his own blindness. Likewise, she understands the financial ineptness of her husband, and does what she can to keep the family from ruin.

Through these two strong female characters, Russo is able to make clear (as he does in his earlier works) his conviction that women have an emotional intelligence that most men lack. He also paints his women as stronger than the men, more able to deal with the necessities of life. While the men dream and founder, the women have families, make decisions, and persevere. But there is a price for their loyalty and realism:
They’d both loved their husbands more than anyone even suspected, and in return had been adored. But each of them had walked through and open door, then heard it slam shut behind them and the mechanism lock. While neither regretted her decision, knowing the door was locked was disconcerting just the same, as was the fact that their husbands, if they’d heard that same slam and click, seemed untroubled by it. If anything, knowing that there was no turning back was reassuring to them.
While it is obvious that Russo admires the women in his own novels (and no doubt in his own life), there is a kind of essentialism that I find troublesome. I think he tends to forgive his male characters (and himself) for their faults in relationships by suggesting that it simply cannot be helped—men, given who they (by nature) are, simply cannot cope as their better and stronger women can. It is women who must finally understand the children, and help the men try to understand themselves. And while he suggests that men are probably more trouble than they are worth, something rings false in his analysis.

A commentator for the New York Post remarks that this book is very much in the Russo pattern but “is a departure into deeper, almost philosophical realms.” Yes, and why say “almost philosophical,” as if only philosophers and not mere writers of fiction can do philosophy? Russo does wax philosophical in this novel, and he does try to deal with real problems of economic oppression and racism and sexism, even daring at a few points to write in the voice of black characters. While there is still something myopic and unsophisticated about his political commentary, this is a novel that tries to look back and sum up what has occurred in this country in the last century, tries to expose some of the rifts in the American dream. Certainly, the novel has an intellectual maturity I did not find in his earlier works while preserving the humor and light-handedness of those novels.

Let me leave you with a longish quote that I think evidences some of Russo’s philosophical maturation in this book:
Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind the next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we’ll have found not just our true, destination but also its meaning....
But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end ... To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy ... And yet not all mystery is lost, nor all meaning.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Laws Of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Hendricks begins her novel with a wonderful if somewhat enigmatic quote from Collette: “It is the image in the mind that binds us to our lost treasures, but it is the loss that shapes the image.” Now all we have to discover is what has been lost, and how that loss has shaped the image.

There have been a number of very well written novels on the perils of growing up as flower children in the 60s and 70s. Many of us who were already grown tend to remember the courageous and in many ways successful student movements, the birth of the Black Power movement and the sense of empowerment of young people in this country and around the world. All too often, I think we turn a blind eye to the difficulties for many of the children who grew up in both urban and rural communes. One book that comes immediately to mind is Joelle Frazier’s excellent little autobiographical novel, The Territory of Men, in which she describes just how harrowing it could be for a young child hovering on the fringes of all night or all weekend parties at homes that were not your own—drugs and so-called free love just through the curtain, in the next room. Unlike Frazier, Hendricks is not moved from home to home, town to town, still she describes well how even the relative stability of an established commune provided too little protection and guidance for the children.
I was born at sunrise on June 3, 1971, on a commune near Taos, New Mexico. Delivery was accomplished with the help of a midwife as my mother squatted, panting, on her mattress, surrounded by her commune sisters, panting in sympathy, cheering her on. 
The men had hovered in the kitchen all night, playing cards and drinking, smoking, drifting in and out of the birth room unnoticed, like ghosts.
The girl’s mother, Gwen, remained on the commune long after almost all others, including husband, son, and daughter had left, convinced that what she gave her children was a better life and better values than they could possibly have had in a more conventional household. She names her girl child Soleil, but even the name (which the girl quite promptly changes to Sunny once she realizes that neither her teachers nor her classmates will ever say it right) seems to her to be a curse rather than a blessing.

In fact, this novel is the story of  Sunny’s bitterness concerning how she was raised and of her flight from her mother and all that her mother embraced. But in telling the story, Hendriks adds a layer of mystery to Sunny’s life via her handsome partner, almost husband, who wheels and deals in the world of venture capital. He starts small businesses, or seems to, only to sell them quickly and move to another such venture.  Questions from Sunny about his business ventures are quickly turned aside; sometimes there is a lot of money, sometimes none. Quite aside from the secretiveness and mystery of his business concerns, almost from the start, the relationship is compromised by too little communication and the boyfriend’s apparent total conflation of touch, even comforting touch, with sex. And then quite suddenly he is simply gone, presumed dead, and there are lots of angry men looking for him. One after another, these men confront Sunny, convinced that she must know more about her boyfriend’s shady deals than she is letting on. Sunny decides to uproot, run, disappear, in one fell swoop leave behind her mother and that hippy commune past as well as the precarious and seemingly dangerous present.

And what a move, what a change—from the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to the islands off the coast of Washington and a little town called Harmony, which, ironically, is also the name of the commune on which she was raised. Working in a restaurant and surrounded by women who have, due to their own pasts and soured relationships, escaped to this island existence, Sunny is essentially reborn. The attention and care that she receives from this group of women is so genuine and warm, so unlike the confused and selfish attention she is used to from men. One reviewer quoted on the book-cover says that Hendricks “calls to mind Barbara Kingsolver in her affinity for wise women and the power of close female friendships.”  And while I would not compare Hendricks social and environmental insights with those of Kingsolver, she does write very well about relationships between women.

Eventually and painstakingly, these women coax Sunny out of her shell of secretiveness, and as they gain her trust, they also gently and gradually persuade her to attempt some reconciliation with her mother. What men, her boyfriend in particular, could not do with sex, the women seem to accomplish via cooking. In fact the theme of cooking and baking weaves through this story; as Sunny says, “I believe in baking the way some people believe in God. It’s usually what I turn to on those days when the very thought of reality is enough to send me diving back under the covers.” Baking is also the thread that leads her back to her mother, helping her to recall the good things she has inherited from Gwen, despite what she sees as the disorder and chaos of life on the commune.

In the end, at least for me, the mystery that is supposed to lead the reader along, keep the pages turning, is heavier than the actual plot will bear. And the final resolution is neither quite convincing nor sufficient to justify the ominous tone set early in the novel. Add to this that the book is a hundred pages or so longer than it needs to be, and the net result is a satisfying but less than profound read. Hendricks has written other novels (also, it seems, with cooking as a major theme), and this book was good enough to make me want to at least start the others. She does have a talent for describing the restorative nature that relationships between women can have, and she does a good job of calling into question all overly rosy views of what commune life was like for the children raised on them. And if not profound, the novel is entertaining and easy to read.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Ghost At The Table by Suzanne Berne

"From a mustard seed of truth spring the most egregious lies. And, of course, the most enduring stories." So says Cynthia, called Cynnie by her family, and she could have been talking about her own life and family or about what she does for a living. She is an author who writes historical fiction of a very particular sort; she writes about the sisters of famous women, and her target audience is adolescent girls. "Sisters Behind the Sisters of History" is the marketing tag for the books she and her best friend, Carita, write, and Cynnie has already written books about the sister of Helen Keller, Emily Dickenson, and Louisa May Alcott. Her new project is a book about Mark Twain's daughters.

However, the writing life of Cynnie is only a teaser in this novel, a tool for getting to the real story which is about three sisters, their long dead mother, and their avoided, sometimes detested father, who is about to enter a care facility. The older sister, Helen, has also died a few years earlier, leaving Francis and Cynthia to deal with their past and with their invalided father. Francis, a successful interior decorator who is married to an equally successful doctor, has persuaded Cynnie to leave her west coast sanctuary to come home to New England for Thanksgiving. What she has not told Cynthia is that they are committed to collecting their father from his present much younger wife, who says she can no longer deal with him, and to depositing him in a care facility.

What Berne shows us in this novel is that she is a master at describing the psychological tensions of family life and the peculiar ways in which memory deceives and occludes. Both sisters and their father think they are carrying within them a dark secret about the past, a secret too horrible to allow to surface, and each thinks she or he is protecting another by allowing things to remain as they are. During all the time that the girls were growing up, their mother was gravely ill, only now and then, during momentary respites, managing to leave her upstairs bedroom to enter the swirl of family activity below. Cynnie, the youngest of the three daughters feels bad for her mother and sometimes goes upstairs to read to her. Francis simply wants to forget that she has a mother at all, ashamed in some odd way to admit to her friends that she has such an unusual and un-motherly mother. Helen acts as surrogate mother to her younger sisters and provides some care to their ailing mother, but most of the household chores as well as the almost constant care required by their mother is provided by Mrs. Jordon, a paid servant.

What I found particularly clever about this book was Berne’s ability to present a novel about family life and sisterly competition as a kind of mystery, almost a thriller, which keeps the reader turning pages in order to uncover the secret. While, in fact, what she shows us is the tricks that memory plays on us and the ways in which a single event can be interpreted in wildly different ways, depending primarily on the hidden, guilty wishes of each family member. Yes, the husband would like to be relieved of the burden of a wife who is no longer a companion, the daughters would like to be able to guiltlessly leave home to embark on their own lives. And not only our memories of past events, but our very ‘seeing’ of those events as they occur, are indelibly colored by our secret wishes and guilts.

It is unclear whether the ghost at the table in this novel is the mother and the suspicious circumstances of her death, or the old man in the wheelchair, a mere shadow of the angry, strong father the girls recall with a mixture of fear and hatred. Finally, as the mystery at least partly unravels, there is a kind of reconciliation in this book, an understanding, at least on the part of Cynthia, that she has in many ways manufactured the past in order to justify her present and her rather solitary life of serial lovers. She has demonized her father and made up stories about her sisters, but in the end it has been her own needs rather than real events that has shaped her vision. If she does not entirely forgive her father, at least she begins to understand how she has distorted events in order to keep her hatred alive.
Whatever he had done for us, or not done, must have seemed justifiable to him at the time. My mother, too, had done what she could in the midst of her illness, by asking little of us, except that we not watch her too closely. They, like most people, had done their best. You love whom you love, you fail whom you fail, and almost always we fail the ones we meant to love. Not intentionally, that’s just how it happens. We get sick or distracted or frightened and don’t listen, or listen to the wrong things. Time passes, we lose track of our mistakes, neglect to make amends. And then, no matter how much we might like to try again, we’re done. Whatever inspiring song we hoped to sing for the world is over, sometimes to general regret, more frequently to small notice, and even, if we were old and sick, to relief.
This may not be a great book, but it is insightful. It teaches us a lot about family life, and it does so while telling an intriguing story. Suzanne Berne also does her best.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Here And Somewhere Else by Grace Paley & Robert Nichols

Why not speak the truth directly? Just speak out! Speak to! Why not?

This is Grace Paley speaking to us from one of her essays, and that is just what she has done throughout her life as activist and writer. Today I want to talk to you about how she and her partner, Robert Nichols, speak out in a little collaborative volume of essays and stories and poems published by The Feminist Press in 2007, entitled, Here and Somewhere Else.

While I’m sure that most of you readers will know of Grace Paley, one of the truly great short fiction writers of all time, you may not know of her life-partner Robert Nichols with whom she has lived for almost forty years.

Perhaps the best way to introduce you to Nichols and to this little volume is to quote from the excellent introduction by Marianne Hirsch:
‘You don’t have a story,’ Grace Paley recently told me, ‘until you have two stories. At least two stories. That’s what I always tell my students.’ Two stories. Two writers. Grace Paley and Robert Nichols. Two by two. This volume tells (at least) two stories of two writers: one, a woman, a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, a poet, short story writer, essayist, feminist, political activist; the other, a man, son of Canadian and New England Protestants, a landscape architect, theater director, poet, novelist, short story writer, activist. And, in telling two stories, it tells one, braided by their life together, by the conversations and arguments they share as a writing couple living on a hilltop in Vermont, active participants in the political life of the second half of the twentieth century and now also the twenty first. Their political commitments and ethical values, their desire to heal the world, could not be more similar; their themes and writing styles, the ways in which they think and talk about their writing, could not be more different.
I’m talking to you about this book today more to celebrate the lives of these two wonderful political people than to recommend to you this particular book. In fact, if you have not already read Paley, this would not be the place to start. Instead, you should pick up her first masterpiece, published in 1959, The Little Disturbances of Man or her equally masterful Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories published fifteen years later in 1974. Once you are aware of the understated genius of her short fiction, you will come to the little pieces in this volume prepared for a feast of wisdom and attitude.

It is not just I who see the sharp contrast in the writing styles of this couple who write together, struggle together, fight for justice together, raise grandchildren together. He says of himself that he writes in response to a political problem (as you will see clearly from his little story in the volume, “Peasants”). She writes  “because I heard someone say something.” She describes herself as a story-hearer. What unites them is their moral and political vision of the world, a vision that also led them to establish a publishing house together, Glad Day Books, that was dedicated to publishing political writing that probably would not have been published otherwise. Both write poetry as well as prose (insisting that writing poetry makes them more attentive to language), but like their prose, their poetry is about as different in both form and content as could be.

I am bound to say more about Grace Paley in this piece than about Nichols; I know her work so much better than his, and she is the first in a string of short-fiction writers who rescued me from a life-long aversion to short stories. Her stories are quirky and unlike those of any other writer I know, but there is a strong current of feminism that runs through them. Indeed, she says of herself, “When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women,” and she described herself in early reviews as a housewife who wants to be a writer. In one of her many humorous but insightful asides on men, she says, “First they make something, then they murder it. Then they write a book about how interesting it is.” And one of her poems, “Is There a Difference Between Men And Women,” ends with the stanza:
 oh the slave trade
    the trade in the bodies of women
the worldwide unending arms trade
    everywhere man-made slaughter
While Paley’s writing is characterized by biting humor in stories about everyday women, stories that dance and flash across the page, Nichols’ writing is much more austere. There is little if any plot development and no attempt to provide psychological depth to his characters. What is very clear is that he identifies with working men and women, with the poor and disenfranchised of the world. But while his prose is transparently political and deals often with questions of race and class, his poetry is simple and personal. For example, in his poem “The Dream (On my fiftieth birthday)” he begins:
I dreamed I caught an owl        in an old coat
And it was my own heart
Although it is always impossible to capture a book in a page or two of review, this collection is even harder than most to sum up or describe. Two voices, two radically different styles, united only by the passion for peace and justice and by their own braided lives. Let me end by quoting one poem by Paley entitled “Here”.
Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last   a woman
in the old style     sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt    grandchild sliding
on   off my lap    a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth    I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa    ask him
to sit beside me for a minute    I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips