Also, We Tried Making Fufu. . .

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is a bold, expansive story following the path of two Ghanaian half sisters and their respective descendants as each character's family tree spreads to the present day. The sisters' fates diverge when one is sent off to marry an English army officer and the other is captured and sold into slavery (and whose transport to the New World is overseen by the same Englishman). Homegoing takes a granular approach to trace, generation by generation, the fortunes of each side. Along the way the reader experiences the big beacons of recent history through the lens of each descendant. The effect is not totally unlike Forrest Gump, if Forrest's life had spanned from the 1770s to the present day, and if he had been a slave (on the one side) and the mixed-race progeny of an English colonizer (on the other side).

The book is written episodically, each chapter a snapshot of a subsequent relation on either root of this family tree, and while it's mostly unclear how the two branches will come back together in this narrative, by the end (spoiler, just so it's clear) it becomes obvious: the side that stayed in Ghana ends up emigrating to the US, and long-lost descendants meet one another, though they remain oblivious to their shared history. That reunion is rendered in a lovely, almost spiritual manner and is the payoff for the long foray into the stories of generation after generation; overall the episodes are compelling and good reading, but just when you start to feel fatigued by staying unmoored from a real narrative, the final parts come in to save the day. That said, the ending is slightly pat, though obviously you can't have it all . . .

There's something also about the two characters at Homegoing's conclusion — the two who fulfill the reunion of the two half-sisters — that seems overly cautious. The two characters — male and female — feel unaccountably chaste, and not because male and female characters need to feel lust for each other, but there's just something . . . chaste about their interactions that don't feel fully fleshed out (literally, I suppose you could say). Part of that might be that it would have been SUPER WEIRD for these two characters to have feelings for each other. Clearly we're not talking about Jerry Lee Lewis first-cousin territory here but it would have been completely strange to write this in given that the reader is only a few hundred pages removed. My other theory is that the author, who clearly used her own biographical details for the part of the woman (family immigrated from Ghana to Alabama, etc.) wasn't going there (I guessed also that she might have been religious or raised as such, which is the case).

Homegoing, despite it spanning eight generations of two sides of a family and having 14 different viewpoints, is wonderfully written and a quick (and enjoyable) read. That said, it being episodic and focusing on 14 different characters, it was difficult to remember a lot of what happened. That doesn't mean it's not a great book, but maybe the conceit is lacking in a few respects. Taken with the earlier comment about the conclusion seeming pat, I think the book is a little flawed. Still, for a first novel: Fuckin' A. Also, clearly this uplifting story could and should be adapted in some way, shape or form — and maybe then the stories can be less episodic and more part of a narrative and the ending done in a more artful way (some very popular, very emotionally clued-in song could clearly work magic at the end there).

A word about that ending: it was spiritual and emotional while still very uplifting — and I couldn't stop thinking that the symbolism (or what emerged for me) was a little jagged for this day and age. By this I mean — and correct me if I'm wrong or on an impertinent jag — it seemed like she was saying that the two characters, despite being on the opposite side of slavery, ended up in substantively the same spot in life: both well-adjusted and enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the US — in other words, two young, incredibly talented and smart people with lots of potential. It just seemed like a different message than has been circulating (systemic, intractable racism, for one, which is alluded to in Homegoing but never treated as an existential obstacle to success); you get to this charming end and it sort of — sort of — negates the painful past. Also, the book depicts the one side of the family as complicit in the slave trade; a bold move and kind of surprising to see depicted; the great thing about Homecoming is that the storytelling goes where it wants to go and not where it thinks it needs to be. (If Homegoing moves beyond just a book, I wonder if these choices will be called out — it would be a shame if that happened, in part because I don't think she could have positioned those characters any other way without it seeming like she wanted to poop in the punchbowl. Also, duh, this is what literature is all about.)

Posted: October 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

Forgive Me Father

Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy memoir has a fun hook: the author's father is a Catholic priest because of a loophole where married converts to Catholicism who were already clergy can become a priest. Lockwood's unusual upbringing is the focus of the book, where the conceit of the story is that she and her husband, down on their luck, move in with her parents in the church housing.

Priestdaddy is a buzzy, fun read. Lockwood is internet famous, so she's funny and readable, and notable for her poetry, so the writing is lyrical and important. That said, the humor often seems nervous, almost defensive, especially early on, weighed down with observational internetty quippiness (not unlike that last bit of non-English) (sometimes it seems the internet is either trolling, snark or humor, and the tone here definitely hits those last two, even if snark is somewhat stale). Later, when things get deep, the poetry weighs in a different way: weighing down the breezy flow of a quick read — stuff like "A sky rose up behind my eyes when I looked at him, a wide sky of clear and ruthless seeing, with a short stunted tree of compassion twisting in the middle of it" — prose that makes you zone out for the next couple of paragraphs while you ponder what exactly that meant. It's not a great fit.

Priestdaddy solves what my very literal mind perseverates on when it comes to memoir writing, which is the yarn-spinning fungibility of truth. I'm the person who is relentlessly asking "Wait, did that really happen?" My take is that the world is much funnier if things really happened the way it is said to have gone down, versus a David Sedaris segment. Lockwood is attuned to this, and there's a magical moment in "The Cum Queens of Hyatt Place" chapter where she literally steps outside the building to look back in at her mother, who is silently arguing with a hotel manager about a stained comforter. She looks in through the window and writes: "The scene begins to unfold, and it's more dramatic than even I expected," as she conveys this crazy telling of what her mother said to the manager. It's a great visual of a yarn being spun.

On the other hand, somewhere around the middle of Priestdaddy, everyone involved in it — Lockwood, her parents, her husband, her siblings — become self-aware that they're in a memoir, which is when the thing slows down and becomes kind of irrelevant — or at least you start to question the point of the book. She's meticulous about taking notes for the book, and writing about how she's taking notes for the book, and the people she talks to are suddenly concerned with the way they come across in the book, to the point where she acknowledges that her irascible father — the book's title — has probably smoothed his rough edges for the book. It's silly to question why a book exists — books exist because someone paid someone else to write something — but at the very least it seems like she missed out on some of the promise of the blurb. The last chapter is a trip with her mother to Key West — the implication seems to be that it's the result of a windfall from her writing — and . . . not really sure what that's about, but I suppose if you ask whether a book "goes somewhere" this chapter certainly does that.

This being a book about a priest in the Catholic church in this millennium, I suppose it's obvious that a reader would be suspicious about certain details that make Michael Keaton seek to perfect a Boston accent. Don't worry, Priestdaddy gets there, though not right away. When it does happen, it feels almost vulgar, like she's been waiting to tee up the revelation. Maybe not vulgar, but at least like a 9/11 story. Nothing is direct experience more than it's adjacent knowledge, if that makes sense. She makes similar (though less direct) references to Ferguson and 9/11 (as a matter of fact), as well as the sudden death of one of the church's custodians; the writing reaches out toward the topics, like someone dipping their hand into the wind on the interstate, sort of like in a music video, or a Volkswagen commercial.

It's as if she's able to wave away any hint of complicity by taking it on firsthand, regardless of the magnitude (though maybe these days everyone is meant to be culpable for everything). The effect, however, comes off as almost glib — an aside about an old priest who skeeved out her family many years back and who was sent away is wedged in uncomfortably alongside quips and poetical musings: "A real observation suddenly interrupts the flow of toy ones."

I couldn't quite put my finger on the tone until I saw Lena Dunham's Harvey Weinstein op-ed, which nails it:

In the fall of 2016, I performed at a benefit for Hillary Clinton organized by the Weinstein Company. I had heard the rumors. I felt that going onstage under his aegis was a betrayal of my own values. But I wanted so desperately to support my candidate that I made a calculation. We've all made calculations, and saying we're sorry about those calculations is not an act of cowardice. It's an essential change of position that could shift the way we do business and the way women regard their own position in the workplace. I'm sorry I shook the hand of someone I knew was not a friend to women in my industry.

Yes, we've all made "calculations" — but it seems that time was we silently lugged them around with us and didn't think to unpack them so breezily. I don't know if it's a generational thing or what, but there's a type of sincerity that almost borders on insincerity, if that makes any sense. Like Eddie Haskell in a negative image effect, and just as smarmy.

Posted: October 12th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

Fairy Tales Are Big In Europe

Was intrigued by the idea of fairy tales for book club, so we read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of her short stories that tweak the format by reconceiving the stories for a more modern, feminist voice.

In this way Carter takes an old weird tale called "Bluebeard", basically about a rich guy who kills his wives, and guides the reader more into the mind of the female character, while (spoiler alert) having her mother save her, as opposed to her brothers, as in the original.

Elsewhere, Beauty and the Beast receives an updated treatment in Carter's "The Courtship of Mr Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride". The updated "Puss-in-Boots" is playful and weird. "The Werewolf" and "The Company of Wolves" feel loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood (itself a deep dive into different texts it seems). The rest seem a little more obscure or patched together . . .

Carter's writing is bigger in the UK. Some of the stories are better than others, and while the writing is good/great, there are moments that seem kind of purplish, though I think goth-y type stuff is generally susceptible in that area . . .

Reading to young kids makes you hyperaware of every aspect of stories — everything from stereotypes to language to manners to encouraging positive behaviors. Which is how I became intrigued by the old bad fairy tales, the high water point maybe the uncut original Grimm fairy tales, before they became sliced up and edited into middle-class palatability (and even then, it's not like "Hansel and Gretel" is exactly "Horton Hears a Who" . . .). At some point it seems like kids heard shit — and now they don't. (And I'm not convinced it's specific to crazy old Europeans, either.)

Posted: September 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,