June 2010 Archives



In the first flush of hot summer weather, I have a perverse tradition of inaugurating the season by reading a book with an extreme cold-weather setting. Last year it was Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which opens in a Wisconsin blizzard. This year, seeing that I had the hot Hawaiian beach to look forward to, I knew just what to pack: Steve Zipp's Yellowknife, which takes place in the Canadian far north.

Actually, it's a bit of an understatement to say that it "takes place" there. Yellowknife is one of those books in which the setting is a character in its own right, perhaps the most vibrant and dynamic character of the lot. The book declares its uniquely Northern viewpoint early in on, when one character informs another that "a lotta people make a big mistake when they come here. They figure the North is just like any other place, only colder. They don't realize things are seriously different...borders exist for a reason." And Yellowknife's essential northernness continues to undergird the plot and structure of the book to an extent I didn't at first realize. In fact, I'm glad I've had a few weeks to think about this novel before writing my review; elements that at first seemed sloppy or confounding have percolated in my brain during the intervening time, and I think I understand better now what Zipp is doing.

Yellowknife begins with a fairly traditional structure: the narrative alternates, chapter by chapter, between field biologist Nora Lobachevski, who works for the Department of Wildlife and specializes in small mammals, and Danny Diamond, an itinerant seeker accustomed to living on the margins:

[W]hen he was canned from an assembly-line job for joyriding on a conveyor belt, and evicted from a boarding house for causing a flood when he fell asleep in the shower, he did not curse his luck. Adversity, he sensed, was a sort of hazard or frontier, the kind that could not be actively sought or courted. It had to arrive of its own accord, like love or a bolt of lightening.

Throughout Part 1, we alternate in an orderly fashion between Nora and Danny, and are introduced to their various conflicts: Nora's power struggles with the ever-evolving government bureaucracy that runs her job, and her mixed feelings about her recent engagement; Danny's process of arriving in and finding his way around Yellowknife, his acclimatization to living at the dump and subsisting on stolen dog food. The reader expects (I, at least, expected) that we would probably continue to follow Nora and Danny throughout the book; their paths would undoubtedly intersect at some point, and they would become somehow instrumental in each others' stories. Instead, there is a sudden break at Part 2, and we are introduced to a whole separate set of characters, only catching sight of Danny or Nora occasionally. As the book progresses more and more characters are introduced, the narrative focus shifting at an ever-increasing pace, until the characters begin to blur before the reader's eyes. As the denoument of this structural progression, the final chapter is not narrated by a human at all, but by a dog.

My first impression of these increasingly rapid-fire character introductions was that Zipp was being sloppy with his narrative; that he hadn't planned well and as a result his second half was overloaded with rushed action. As I've thought it over, though, it seems more a deliberate tactic emphasizing one of the central ecological points in the novel: as much as each of these humans sees him- or herself as the center of a vastly important nexus of events, the drama of one individual person is actually not of much account. Humans, Zipp seems to argue, are a basically clueless, bumbling animal, crashing around self-importantly and messing things up for the rest of our ecosystem. In the North particularly (this novel seems to say), the true center of life does not dwell with humans, but with the plants and animals and land adapted to life in its extremes. Humans believe we are the center of all action, but in reality we only become so when we manage to wreak irreversible damage on our surroundings; otherwise, we're most successful when we accept our role as just one more animal among the throng. By starting with a narrow human focus and widening gradually outward until he has left all individual humans behind, Zipp manages to underscore this point quite cleverly, demonstrating how "the story" needn't depend on humanity at all, much to our chagrin.

Not that Yellowknife comes off as a preachy novel. It's sometimes quite funny (usually situationally funny rather than jokey-funny), and often appealingly atmospheric. One of the things I loved about it is the way in which Zipp conjures a bizarre, surreal atmosphere, without (usually) straying across the line into magical realism. Nothing against magical realism per se, but I think it's often over-used these days; Zipp demonstrates that one can create an unnerving, surreal setting without explicitly magical elements. The town of Yellowknife, for example, is built on top of a honeycomb of now-derelect gold mining tunnels; different characters break through to this network, either on purpose or by accident, and discover that people are living in the tunnels full-time, leftovers from the mining industry who now cater to the large community of semi-homeless, marginal livers in Yellowknife. The intersection of this marginal community and the tourist crowd provides another source of surreality, as Dumptown dwellers seek out acquaintances employed by tourist-trap bars to dress up and act like famous Arctic explorers. The shifting sands of Canadian bureaucracy are yet another source of disorienting surreal moments, as Nora's new boss shunts her ever deeper into the bowels of their office building, upset that she refuses to spearhead a mole study and disregarding her insistence that such a study is impossible, as there are no moles in the North.

There was one pet peeve of mine that Yellowknife did fall prey to...sort of. As we are getting to know Nora, in Part 1 of the book, she is struggling with her feelings about marriage. She's in a relationship with a man whom she loves and who wants to marry her, but she has always been personally and politically opposed to the idea of marrying. After she agrees to marry her partner, who is also a biologist, they get into a semi-silly argument about name-changing; she gets upset that, while he doesn't care if she changes her name or not, he would never consider changing his own. Now, speaking as a woman with my own set of opinions about the oppressive history of marriage-as-institution, I was very impressed to see this kind of discourse dropped into a novel as a casual plot-point. Because in case you haven't noticed, it's pretty unusual for characters to criticize the traditions surrounding marriage in anything short of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. But then I got nervous, because in a good percentage of books and movies where women DO criticize marriage traditions, they end up seeing the light and being converted by the end, forgetting all their silly female objections as soon as the right man comes along (if, indeed, their objections weren't just a sour-grapes smokescreen to begin with).

This is more or less exactly what happens in Yellowknife. And yet, the book's non-traditional treatment of human drama makes me somehow less annoyed than I usually would be. By the time Nora decides to marry her second suitor (a Mounty with whom she seems seldom to converse), quit her job and raise babies in Toronto, the core of the story has shifted far away from her individual concerns. The romance angle is submerged in the detective angle, which is submerged in the adventure angle, which is all blurred together into something not easily classifiable. So many clichés, so many genres, are suggested and then cast aside, like overly-human flotsam. I was left with the idea, less that women are silly and feminists bitter spinsters, and more that all people are a bit ridiculous and contradictory, and that natural processes work in unpredictable ways—a much more compelling notion.


A big thanks to Steve Zipp for sending me a copy of his book! While not available in American bookstores, it's readily order-able from the publisher.

Moo Pak


I will try to write about Moo Pak without descending into one long, uninterrupted stream of block-quotes, but let me tell you, it will be a challenge. Because if there's one word to describe Gabriel Josipovici's critical-essay-cum-novella, it's "quotable." A bit surprising, really, seeing as this story of friendship between two men—Jack Toledano and Damien Anderson, talker and listener, writer/philosophizer and chronicler—takes the form of a single 151-page paragraph, with not a chapter heading or line break to be found. Jack's speech, or his different speeches, pieced together by Damien from memories of over ten years of walks and conversation with Jack, flows with seeming effortlessness from one subject to the next and back again, from Kew Gardens to Hampstead Heath, and the reader is swept along in its wake. (The style, which presents Jack's thoughts as seamlessly integrated with his actions and the sights he sees, reminded me incredibly strongly of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One's Own—although, interestingly, Woolf was one author Jack never mentions.) And yet, despite its all-of-a-piece nature, the text has a surprisingly excerpt-able quality about it, to wit:

The trouble with me, he said, is that I have classical aspirations but a romantic temperament. I not only like but believe in the notion of regular daily work, of there being no question without an answer, no problem without a solution. But when it comes to it I cannot work unless I am fired by a belief in what I am doing, and there are many questions to which I have not been able to find the answer, many works I have started with high hopes and then been forced to abandon because I was unable to find the right solutions or even to decide what such solutions might be like if I should find them. But that is what we have to live with, he said, and got up abruptly and we left the lake and plunged once more into the birchwoods.

[On a personal note, I'll just say Oh! how I relate to this passage.]

In their ten-plus years together, the dueling legacies of Classicism and Romanticism is just one of Jack's many subjects; he discourses, too, on the religious remnants in a secular society; on the role of art in life; on the relative eccentricities of literature, music, and visual art; on the lives and work of Kafka, Swift, Proust, Eliot and Eliot, Stravinsky, Wodehouse, Mozart, Klee, Beckett, and many others; on the perceived degeneration ("Americanisation") of modern society; on gardens as symbols of continuity; on what it means to be a Sephardic Jew from Egypt living in England; and, perhaps most intriguingly, on his magnum-opus-in-progress, the epic work he calls, at different times, Animal Languages, or Moor Park.

[Swift's] anger and despair, he said, lay in this contradiction, that he could only speak with ease when he donned a mask and yet he hated the thought of hypocrisy and cowardice and wanted to tear the mask off as soon as it was on. Why I thought of Moor Park as a title, he said, is that, like Animal Languages, it is a contradiction in terms, and I like titles like that. A park is precisely what is not a moor, he said, what has ceased to be moor, nature, and has become park, civilisation. A moor, he said that day in Epping Forest, is nature without boundaries. A park, on the other hand, is precisely the imposition of boundaries, it makes human what was once natural. All books, he said, are moor parks, whether they realise it or not.

There is so much to discuss here, so many different directions in which to go, but I think the above quote expresses one of my favorite elements of Moo Pak, which is Josipovici's treatment of contradiction. I'm a huge fan of the idea that contradiction, even paradox, is a defining trait of the human experience, and that the only thing to do is find a way to accept that fact, even if we can't always celebrate it. Whitman's "I contain multitudes," and all that. But most expressions I've come across of this notion merely say it in words; Moo Pak manages to illustrate it structurally as well. As an example of what I mean: in the first twenty or so pages of the book, I was completely enamored of Jack's voice (as edited by Damien); he seemed smart and wise and interesting, and was talking about so many things that are important to me as well. I was underlining like mad, passages such as:

A decent conversation, he says, should consist of winged words, words that fly out of the mouth of one speaker and land in the chest of the other, but words that are so light that they soon fly on again and disappear for ever. We don't formulate a thought first and then polish it and finally release it, he said. If we did that we would never get to speak at all. We let it fly, he says, and sometimes it draws something valuable in its wake and sometimes nothing.

Then, for the next sixty pages or so, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that Jack might be a bit of a blowhard. He spends an awful lot of time kvetching about The Kids These Days, and how England is nothing like it once was, and how everyone has lost touch with what's important. Readers don't read in the "proper" way anymore (fatally, he implies that there is One Right Way), and the populace worships false gods. He starts to sound like some combination of crotchety Harold Bloom and someone's querulous, passive-aggressive great-aunt:

Forster and Greene were bad enough, he said, but if their art is not up to much at least it has integrity. Today in the majority of cases our writers have substituted self-righteousness for integrity, they flow with the filthy tide and talk of subversion and risk. It is laughable, he said, to hear them talk on television and in newspaper interviews about how they are vilified and silenced and how the authorities deny them a voice.

This kind of talk is sort of ridiculous to me. I don't believe for a minute that Shakespeare, for example, would have failed to take advantage of the modern publicity machine had it been available to him, or that Beckett is necessarily a better writer because he was a recluse. Nor do I believe that the level of greed, cupidity, banality, or selfishness of "the young" or "humankind" is significantly higher or lower now than it ever has been. I was disappointed in old Jack, I must say, and in his author. Why would someone with capacity for such brilliant passages spend so much time on mediocre complaining? Jack seemed more or less a simple mouthpiece for Josipovici, and I wasn't digging what was being trumpeted through him.

Then I started to notice certain details. Certain contradictions, cracks in the joint between Josipovici and Toledano. I didn't begin to catch them until about two-thirds of the way into the book, but then they started piling on. Jack complains, for example, about all his English friends who moan about how much they hate England and fantasize about moving elsewhere; yet later on, he himself goes on about how "London is indeed becoming a most horrible place," and how he has considered moving to the country. Little things. He criticizes those who use other people as an excuse to monologue, and yet the reader's entire experience of Jack himself is as one long mediated monologue via Damien. I began to have hope of more distance between Josipovici and Jack than I had at first realized, hope that Jack was sometimes supposed to seem irritating or less-than-inspired.

Shortly thereafter, Jack himself acknowledges the importance of accepting contradictions, in passages like the one about moor parks above, or like this gorgeous snippet:

But what we have to do, he said as we fled from the Park and the cries of the caged animals and birds, is to live out the contradictions and to see what can be done with them. What I am after, he said as we waited at the bus-stop, is a work which tries to be generous to all contradictions, to place them against each other and let the reader decide. Even that, he said, is the wrong way of putting it. The reader too can only live out those contradictions, cannot adjudicate between them.

Ah, I thought. Maybe I'm starting to get what Josipovici is doing here. I as the reader must put Jack's annoying side next to his inspiring side, what he said last week next to the contradictory argument he made today, and accustom myself to the dissonance. Live through the contradictions, just as Jack himself talks of doing with all the different manifestations of the Moor Park estate in his epic history-in-progress.

But THEN! I don't quite know how to put this (and it's odd that such a plot-less book would have a spoiler), but the last few pages really took this whole dialectic of living through contradictions to a whole new level for me. It's as if Josipovici is saying to the reader "You think you're accommodating contradiction now—just you wait." What are we to make of the final pages, my friends? To what extent to they change our perception of what came before? Do they invalidate the rest of the monologue, or not at all? And what do we do with the fact that, in the last few pages, the usual interjection changes from "he said" (referring to Jack) to "he wrote" (referring to Damien)? Who is the real author here, and what is the real art?

I don't have answers to these questions yet, but I'm very much enjoying thinking about them. Moo Pak (despite the parts of it that contradict this statement) was a beautiful, thought-provoking read.


Moo Pak was June's pick for the Non-Structured group; please consider joining us in July for Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter.

The Price of Salt


Blog-buddy Frances poked fun at me the other day for making such an ambitious and, let's face it, such a GRIM selection for my first beach read in Hawaii. I have to admit she's perfectly right. What was I thinking? Soviet cancer wards? Chill, woman!

My second selection was, on the face of it, a more predictable choice for lounging on the beach: famous for being the one of the first lesbian novels with a "happy ending" (on which more later), Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is technically a romance novel, after all. It focuses on the relationship between the nineteen-year-old Therese Belivet and the thirty-something, married Carol Aird, whom she meets while working a seasonal counter position in the toy department of Frankenberg's department store one Christmas season in the late 1940s. The two women, one hovering on the brink of fully-fledged adult life and the other in the process of exiting an estranged marriage with her young daughter in tow, engage in an "am I imagining it?" courtship that winter in New York City, then embark on an "I'm not imagining it after all" road trip across the American midwest and far west, until reality catches up with them in the form of a private detective and a manipulative divorce suit.

Highsmith's prose, and the world she creates with it, snuck up on me so gradually I hardly noticed that I was powering through this novel in less than a day. One moment I was ten pages in, thinking "Hm, wonder what the fuss is about?" The next I was noting down passages showcasing Highsmith's eye for detail and ability to make the mundane seem intriguingly menacing, and the next—before I could believe it—I was turning the final page on Carol and Therese's whirlwind winter and spring. The central plot here may feature a romance, and there may be a fairly steamy sex scene or two, but Highsmith made a name for herself primarily as a mystery/suspense writer, and it was the mix of horror and delight (and delighted horror) that really hooked me. I loved the way she located psychological states in concrete, physical details, as in the moment when Therese tries to feel exhilarated about her first real job offer, "but could not recapture even the certainty she remembered when she had looked at the orange washcloth in the basin after Richard's telephone call." The way in which the orange washcloth, in Therese's distracted mind, becomes an ineffectual talisman of her former certainty, strikes me as so true to life. And here, Therese arrives at her stop-gap toy department job:

The little train was always running when she stepped out of the elevator in the morning, and when she finished work in the evening. She felt if cursed the hand that threw its switch each day. In the jerk of its nose around the curves, in its wild dashes down the straight lengths of track, she could see a frenzied and futile pursuit of a tyrannical master. It drew three Pullman cars in which miniscule human figures showed flinty profiles at the windows, behind these an open boxcar of real miniature lumber, a boxcar of coal that was not real, and a caboose that snapped round the curves and clung to the fleeing train like a child to its mother's skirts. It was like something gone mad in imprisonment, something already dead that would never wear out, like the dainty, springy footed foxes in the Central Park Zoo, whose complex footwork repeated and repeated as they circled their cages.

This is a lovely instance of illustrating a character's mental state through her perceptions of details, and several of the descriptive bits are deliciously creepy: the flinty profiles of the miniature train-riders; "something already dead that would never wear out." Therese has reached a pitch of desperation to match the toy train, perceiving her co-workers and customers at Frankenberg's to be almost as mechanical, and perhaps even more menacing, than the flinty-faced miniature rail passengers. The ironic thing is that, while meeting Carol helps convince her otherwise for a while, the dénouement of the book basically goes to prove her right.

Because if Highsmith's reputation as a rather dark and damaged (read: mean and nasty) person makes it surprising that hers should be the first "homosexual romance novel" with a "happy ending," I'd caution readers not to get too surprised before actually reading the book. The ending of The Price of Salt is "happy" only in comparison to the lesbian pulp novels of the same era, in which the heroines usually died or went insane. Instead, Highsmith gives us both Therese and Carol grappling with emotional devastation, remaining (much to their credit) sane, but struggling with Scylla and Charybdis choices to which there is no "happy" outcome. Carol is asked to choose between her little girl and the woman she loves; when she capitulates, the court takes her daughter anyway. And Therese, in a plotline I found almost sadder than Carol's, ends up alienating the man who, at the beginning of the novel, was her best friend. The reader is left wondering about the mechanical cruelty of people to one another; even the main characters are far from immune.

This is tricky territory, but I respect Highsmith for refusing to play either Carol's nor Therese's losses as manipulative tear-jerkers. The two woman are separated during the climactic scenes of their drama, meaning that the reader hears about Carol's situation only through the occasional letter or telephone call with Therese, and is left to fill in much of her story between the lines. As for Therese, by the time she receives the final proof of her former friend's self-interested dismissal, she no longer cares much about him one way or the other, and is certainly not dwelling on their former friendship with the same tenderness I was. This emotional detachment is actually a trademark of many characters in The Price of Salt: Therese may become sexually fixated on Carol, and the two women may eventually come to some kind of agreement that might be termed "love," but for a romance novel it's remarkably un-Romantic. Highsmith seems more concerned with obsession and cruelty and only incidentally, almost casually, gestures at a chance of coexisting passion and kindness. When, for example, after they've finally acknowledged their attraction and slept together, and Therese asks Carol why she's kept her at arm's length so long, Carol eschews the usual disclaimers about wanting to protect Therese, doing it for her own good, or not being sure Therese was attracted to her or knew what she was getting into. Instead, she basically confesses that she got a kick out of toying with Therese, and was afraid of getting bored:

I thought there wouldn't be a second time, that I wouldn't want it...And there was something else—to have you around reminding me, knowing you and knowing it would be so easy.

Terry Castle has hypothesized that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov's Lolita; although Therese is old enough to make her own sexual decisions (unlike Dolores Haze), there is still a hint of the predator about this side of Carol. Likewise, although Highsmith spends a fair amount of time establishing the unusual, if delicate, camaraderie between Therese and Richard, Therese has almost no thought of him at all once she's met Carol. In context, I suppose this can seem sort of sexy—an example of passion sweeping Therese off her feet. But when we see similarly short memories in others—when Carol's daughter starts to forget her in the face of ever-more expensive gifts from the girl's father, for example—they seem more dark reminders of how fleeting human connections can be. The strictures of a homophobic society are one hurdle that Carol and Therese face; another, equally large, is simply the fickle wind of human nature. Highsmith does not downplay the difficulty of living in a homophobic culture, but neither does she pretend that, given cultural acceptance of homosexuality, people would all be lovely and caring to one another.

Despite the capacity of every character in the book to be selfish and emotionally amnesiac, however, the dynamic between Carol and Therese still manages to "work" as a romance, as well as a portrait of the dark side of human nature. Their character arcs are sufficiently long and changeable, and their flaws and strengths are realistically enough portrayed, and the attraction between them is conjured well enough, that I wanted them to have a chance as a couple. I left the novel still undecided about whether, given everything both women lose as the price of togetherness, I still congratulated them on the victory. I do, however, congratulate Highsmith on a taut and fascinating study, and I look forward to reading more of her books in future.

(The Price of Salt was my second book for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name.)

Cancer Ward


[I'm back! I know, I know; my choice of beach reading is unorthodox. But this is the first novel I finished in Hawaii.]

In a hilarious piece of reverse synchronicity, I happened to attend a conference on "Patients as Leaders in Health Care" while I was in the middle of reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. At the conference, a smattering of Oregon health care professionals discussed how to involve patients and families in the decision-making processes at their medical groups and health plans; how to collaborate with patients and families to make the experience of treatment the best it can be; how to coordinate care so that patients and families take an active role in determining the course of treatment, making informed decisions and being a partner in their own care. What with national health care reform and state-level changes in the field, this is a pretty hot topic right now, and several early studies have tied a coordinated care model to improvements in patient morale, greater medical staff satisfaction, and significant monetary savings overall. The conference was focused on envisioning a future better than the present; but if the attendees had been interested in getting a clear picture of the absolute, perfect opposite of the care model they're trying to implement in Oregon, they would not have to look much further than Solzhenitsyn's semi-autobiographical 1967 portrait of life in an outlying Soviet cancer ward.

Medical transparency? How about doctors who lie sunnily to all their patients, telling them they have "no cancer whatsoever" when in fact their case is terminal, and insisting that there be no talk of death or illness on the ward, but only enforced joy at every new turn in the treatment. Patient involvement? Let's try regulations forbidding doctors to explain to patients the reasons behind, and even the side effects of, experimental treatments that will leave the patients addled or impotent. A holistic view of the life/death cycle? Here we've got a hospital that discharges patients on the brink of death, telling them they're cured so that they'll go die in a train station or public park, freeing up beds in the ward and improving the hospital's statistics, since the patient did not die on their premises. I couldn't help but chuckle when, at the conference, I was able to think of perfect Solzhentisyn-derived counter-examples to almost every point raised.

And yet, despite my horror at the way the Soviet ward is run, there is a bizarre kind of logic about its structure. Those running it aren't cruel or uncaring; they're legitimately operating under the belief that it's better for most people to remain in near-total ignorance most of the time. Even many patients agree with this; the following passage is told from the point of view of Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a government official with a throat tumor:

They had hung a banner across the wide staircase landing. [...] The message was written in the usual way in white letters on a long piece of red cotton: "Patients, do not discuss each other's illnesses!"
        Of course with such a grand piece of calico hanging in such a prominent spot, some slogan to celebrate the October Revolution or First of May anniversaries would have been more suitable. But this was an important appeal for the people who lived here. Pavel Nikolaevich had mentioned the matter several times, to stop patients upsetting himself and each other.
        (Generally speaking, it would have been more statesmanlike, more correct, not to keep the tumor patients all in one place, but to spread them out among ordinary hospitals. They wouldn't frighten one another then and one would be able to hide the truth from them, which would be much more humane.)

Regular readers will know that I have a fascination with stories about life in quarantine or on closed wards: Cancer Ward follows on the footsteps, most recently, of Saramago's Blindness and Mann's The Magic Mountain in this genre. Unlike those somewhat fantastical, metaphorical novels, however, Cancer Ward strikes me as a work of extreme realism. Sure, it's possible to extrapolate larger truths about the Soviet state from the way the cancer ward is run, but those extrapolations are right on the surface of the text, whose strength comes rather from the gritty, day-to-day portrait of life and death in this environment, and the ways in which the different characters react to that grim reality.

Solzhenitsyn's style combines elements I consider typical of Communist literature (accessible, workhorse prose; the depiction of characters as "types"; a portrait of an entire community rather than one unique individual) with harsh critiques of the Soviet mindset and other, more individualistic literary elements—the community depicted, for example, is far from unified. Particularly fascinating was observing the characters' different reactions to the shifting winds of governmental favor. Set in the Spring of 1955, two years after Stalin's death, the novel encompasses the beginning of the "thaw" in Soviet Stalinism, after which many political prisoners who had been sent into exile or imprisoned in labor camps were granted amnesty. Signs of this upheaval reach the patients and doctors in Solzhenitsyn's outlying ward: there is a complete purge of cabinet and prime minister, with all the officials privileged under Stalin swept aside, and the two-year anniversary of Stalin's death is hardly commemorated at all in the paper. Rusanov, who has a real belief in the Stalinist system and who has also benefited unfairly by it, feels shocked and betrayed at these developments. He remembers his devotion to Stalin, and is terrified that the men and women he helped denounce will return to find him. Oleg Kostoglotov, on the other hand, a former political prisoner who has been sentenced to "exile in perpetuity" (based on the author's own history), allows himself a cautious ray of hope upon learning of the governmental changes, and remembers the reaction in his camp to the news of Stalin's death:

People were moving along the bunks, sitting down on them and saying, "Hey, kids, it looks like the old cannibal has kicked the bucket..."—"What did you say?"—"I'll never believe it!"—About time!" and a chorus of laughter. Bring out your guitars, strum your balalaikas! They didn't open the barracks blocks for twenty-four hours, but the next morning (it was still frosty in Siberia) the whole camp was formed up in ranks on parade. The major, both captains and the lieutenants—everyone was there. The major, somber with grief, began to announce, "It is with deep sorrow...that I must tell you...that yesterday in Moscow..."
        And they all started to grin, they were all but openly crowing in triumph, those coarse, sharp-boned, swarthy prisoners' mugs. The major saw them as they started to smile. Beside himself, he ordered, "Caps off!"
        Hundreds of men hesitated on the verge of obeying. To refuse to take them off was still of out of the question, but to take them off was too painfully ignominious. One man showed them the way—the camp joker, the popular humorist. He tore off his cap—it was a Stalinka made of artificial fur—and hurled it up into the air. He had carried out the order!
        Hundreds of prisoners saw him. They too threw their caps in the air!
        The major choked.
        And now after all this Kostoglotov was finding out that old men had shed tears, young girls had wept, and the whole world had seemed orphaned...

It is this collision of perceptions and value systems in a changing time that makes Cancer Ward such a compelling read. Later still, we get the perspective of a man who didn't, like Rusanov, believe in the system, but still played the game in order to avoid Kostoglotov's fate. Shulubin, a former academic, has accepted ever less prestigious, safer jobs, has confessed and recanted whenever, asked, and quietly burned books when ordered by the government. He seems literally eaten from the inside by bilious self-hatred at never having spoken up against his the abuses of his government. So too, there is the younger generation, accepting or questioning the world into which they were born without the baggage or knowledge of their elders. Collectively, they make up a portrait of a society in flux—one that I found hard to put down, despite (and because of) all the cruelties and frustrations it includes, and because of the fascinating questions it raises about the nature of history, and how history can be different for each person who lives through its twistings and turnings.

(Cancer Ward was my third book down in my personal TBR Challenge.)

Texas, I was right


Sorry to disappear there! I'm still alive, just wrapping up my honeymoon on Oahu (see above!). Much reading but no blogging has occurred, so I'll be catching up with my back-log when I get back to Portland. Early in the trip, David and I visited my mom's childhood hometown of Kailua, where we walked for miles in the surf, lingered over cocktails at local institution Buzz's Steak & Seafood, and then walked 20 minutes into the town of Kailua, where there's a great little bookstore called Bookends. Looks kind of strip-mall-ish from the outside, but inside is bursting with an interesting selection of new and used volumes. My grandmother had given us some money for book-shopping here, and we had a great time obliging! These are my finds:


Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories in a pretty FSG Classics edition, and Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee. Two out of three used! The McCarthy is a particularly appealing find: its previous owner was apparently one Frederick Peppun, who seems to have been reading the book for his AP English class (AP is "Advanced Placement," for those readers not familiar with the bureaucracy of American education). Frederick was kind enough to leave Post-it notes throughout the novel, detailing his impressions and questions:


I mean, how considerate, right? Frederick's notes include gems like "The rain could be a metaphor for good & bad things happening"; "Texas, I was right when I thought of Maverick"; and "The style reminds me of Garrison Keillor."

That's one baaaaaad day in Lake Wobegon, my friends. I must have missed the broadcast where Oleg turned to Marge and said, "Listen, shit-for-brains, if it wasn't for this man I wouldnt be here at all. I'd of left your ass back up in that arroyo."

In any case, I'm off for another day of reading on the beach, but soon we'll be back in rainy Portland and I can tell you all about the several books I've finished while here. I'm looking forward to catching up with all your entries, too! Aloha, friends.
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A person must understand one thing going in: this is not "objective" history, if such a thing can be said to exist. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is written, and the companion volume Voices of a People's History is compiled, with a clear and openly acknowledged anarcho-socialist agenda, and if the titles (and the books' huge fame as touchstones of the radical left) weren't enough to clue you in, I definitely wouldn't recommend either volume to a person who wants their historical narrator to walk some kind of ideological "neutral" zone (nor, needless to say, to someone who expects a right-slanting bias). Zinn, as the title of his famous memoir You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train might suggest, makes no bones about his allegiances. In my opinion this can be a breath of fresh air, since every historian comes to the table with a set of biases, acknowledged or not, and getting them out in the open saves the reader time and energy. Not only that, but where should we locate this mythical neutral ground, anyway? Even the supposedly objective stance of one place or time comes to seem hopelessly biased when viewed from a different perspective. However I admit that, although I certainly don't agree with Zinn on everything, my political leanings are broadly in line with his, so take that for what it's worth.

A People's History deals with over five hundred years of American history in just over six hundred pages, meaning that it covers a LOT of ground. Not only that, but its avowed focus on the stories of the resisters, the everyday people who fought against their conquerors/oppressors, means that by definition the narrative is more multi-form, more fragmented than the standard history event line (discovery, exploration, colonization, expansion, etc.) Zinn's work is cut out for him to an even greater extent than if he were simply attempting to tell five hundred years of victors' stories. For me, this was the most difficult thing about reading the book cover-to-cover: there is simply so much there. I usually prefer micro-histories: books that cover enough of the bigger picture so that I can contextualize the particulars of the smaller story being told, but specific enough that I feel I'm getting to know individuals, glimpsing what it was like to live in a different time and place. That's simply not going to happen when the author must move along at such a brisk clip, devoting four pages AT MOST to each individual struggle prior to 1960, and ten pages at most to more recent developments. Most of the fascinating individuals Zinn touches on are present for a paragraph or a page only, providing a tantalizing glimpse before the narrative speeds on by. Having read entire books on a few of the subjects Zinn mentions, it was very clear to me how much complexity and interest is lost in super large-scale histories like this one. To choose just one example, in Elliot Gorn's biography of the labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, one of the most fascinating things to me was Jones's seemingly anti-progressive attitude toward female suffrage and union recognition for women; Zinn's only comment about this is "Mother Jones did not seem particularly interested in the feminist movement." It's not Zinn's fault, of course: just the function of this type of macro history.

These challenges were one reason I decided to read Voices of a People's History in tandem with its parent volume: as a compilation of primary-source documents, it gives the reader a direct window into the experience of individual people taking part in the struggles Zinn describes, at a specific moment in time. I'm so glad I read both books together, as Voices reinforces the element I find most inspiring about A Peoples' History to begin with: that is, not so much the leftist (re)interpretation of events all Americans learned in high school anyway, but these books' function as a treasury of struggles and movements too regional, grass-roots, or politically radical to be included in traditional histories. These stories are often utterly fascinating: complex, personal/political struggles that illustrate the ways in which the landscape of American politics has shifted and buckled over the years, and a reminder that "America" does not equal whoever happens to be President/Governor/Secretary of Defense at a given time.

I learned, for example, about the Anti-Rent movement in the Hudson Valley, a rebellion of tenant farmers against their Dutch-descended landlords, and against a system that amounted more or less to medieval-style feudalism, touched off by the financial crisis of 1837. I was reminded of the Irish-descended secret society of the Molly Maguires, immortalized antagonistically by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear and semi-sympathetically by Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang. Zinn portrays a complex picture of Civil War-era hostilities, in which poor white Southerners resisted being drafted to die for the right of the wealthy to own slaves, and Northern anti-draft riots escalated into ugly race confrontations between Irish and black workers. The complexities of race surfaced again in Zinn's descriptions of the Populism of the 1890s, a Socialist grass-roots movement turned political party (Zinn argues that it was effectively made impotent by its move away from direct action and into politics) that was surprisingly radical in its demands for fair treatment for small farmers, while still displaying huge amounts of white racism. I learned about the General Strike in Seattle in 1919, in which workers across nearly all industries shut down the city in support of a wage increase for shipyard workers. So too, Zinn chronicles the International Workers of the World free-speech struggles in the early years of the 20th century, and tells of the 900 people jailed under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against US involvement in World War I. From more recent years, I was glad to be reminded of the American Indian activism of the 1970s, when several tribes staged fish-ins to protest the federal withdrawal of ancestral fishing rights on the Nisqually and Columbia Rivers. Other native groups seized Alcatraz Island and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre in attempts to assert their rights to land and to basic visibility—a protest against the prevalent white American notion of Native Americans as a thing of the past, an extinct species, the "Disappearing Indian."

In Voices, I loved best the accounts of ordinary people relating their experiences: first-hand accounts of Virginia slave rebellions; of the flour riots of 1837; of the massive Chicago railroad strikes of 1877; of organizing the unemployed in the Bronx tenements during the Great Depression; of the Stonewall riots of 1969. In addition to these first-hand recollections, there are letters, speeches, a surprising number of statements from defendants to their juries, popular songs and poems, excerpts from novels and memoirs, and a few passages from other third-party histories. Some of these documents seem overblown or poorly written by modern/literary standards (the nineteenth-century speeches are particularly overheated for my taste), but most are fascinating, and a few made me genuinely want to stand up and cheer. The speech to which this passage belongs, delivered by Emma Goldman in 1908, has long been a favorite of mine, and the place I point when trying to explain why I consider myself a humanist, not a patriot:

Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those how have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others.

And the speech from which this comes, "Why We Fight," delivered in 1988 by Vito Russo and addressing the early apathy of those in power toward the AIDS epidemic: what can I say? It's amazing.

        So, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from homophobia. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from racism. If I'm dying from anything, it's from indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the President of the United States. And, especially, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the sensationalism of newspapers and magazines and television shows, which are interested in me, as a human interest story—only as long as I'm willing to be a helpless victim, but not if I'm fighting for my life.
        If I'm dying from anything—I'm dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a shit.

"If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms": brilliant. (Incidentally, this speech also made me realize just how fast the messaging around AIDS evolved, because by the time I was old enough to be getting middle-school sex education, which must have been only three or four years after Russo delivered the speech, the educational system was aggressively trying to reverse the mistaken impression that HIV was solely a "gay" disease. Russo's point, that our society should do its best to intervene even if it WERE solely a gay disease, or a poor disease, or a disease affecting people of color, still stands, however.)

As much as the United States has a despicable tradition of violent imperialism and oppression, both within our borders and abroad, it's good to learn or be reminded of concrete ways in which we also have a history of conscientious protest. To what extent the latter tradition can point to concrete results is another question, and I must admit that reading the Zinn duo does sometimes feel like being beat over the head with the atrocities committed by the US government and corporations through the years. Personally, there was nothing too surprising in this aspect of the book, although it's possible that someone who didn't grow up a lefty in Portland "Little Beirut" Oregon might be more surprised by the ongoing abuses Zinn chronicles. Despite whatever difficulties I may have had with this duo, however, I found them very much worthwhile. I plan to use them as starting points to more in-depth investigations of some of the most interesting stories, and I was glad to be reminded that no group, be it country or movement, speaks as a monolith.

The last books standing


I like to keep a good rotation going on my to-be-read shelf. Frequent infusions of new blood; nobody sticking around too long without being scooped up and read. Looking over the shelf, I have a general idea which books are new and which have been gathering some dust, but the other day I was playing around with my LibraryThing catalog and realized that I could sort my "toberead" tag by date added. A very interesting exercise! Perusing this list, I saw that there are ten books that have been waiting to be read since on or before my birthday last year (in other words, longer than a year).


A brief tour:

  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History, and the final volume of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy are by far the mossiest stones in this collection: they've been in my TBR since before I joined LibraryThing on October 23, 2006. A People's History has been waiting to be read in full since my freshman year of college, actually.
  • Alfred Allen Lewis's Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times is the last straggler in an overly-ambitious biography-reading project I had planned back in 2008.
  • Middlesex, The Crow Road, Ravage and The Cancer Ward are the last four remnants of last year's birthday trip to Powell's.
  • Balzac's Père Goriot and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow are a couple of stray volumes I picked up in April '08 and February '09.

Some things I find interesting about this pile:

I'm very surprised to find that it does not include any gift books, but only volumes I've bought for myself. When people give me books I haven't specifically asked for, I tend to feel a mix of eagerness to read and discuss with them, and slight anxiety that I haven't read the book yet (because I'm afraid they'll worry that I didn't like the present). Overall gift books tend to represent more of a feeling of obligation, which apparently motivates me to actually read them quickly, since none remain from longer ago than May 2009.

My first instinct was to say that I apparently leave the huge doorstops for later and gravitate toward the skinny books to read right away, but going through the catalog of things I've actually read in the past year, I think the truth is actually that I just tend to buy lots of chunksters to begin with. Nor is there the preponderance of nonfiction I would have expected; some of these books are ones I expect to be quite modern and easy-to-read novels. In the case of Middlesex, I'm pretty sure the reason I haven't made time to read it yet, is that I feel I must be the last person in the blogosphere to do so!

Also, I know that I buy more books by men than books by women, but it's still interesting that there are NO female authors in this pile. I must get to the female-penned books more quickly, overall, if none of them are left after a year.


I love the idea of working through this pile. Out with the old, in with the new! A fresh start! Only a year's worth of back-log on the old TBR! So I'm thinking I'll focus on these for a while, try to at least maintain a 1:1 ratio, reading one of these for every newer book I consume. I'm starting out by doing a tandem read of the two Zinn histories, reading a chapter of Voices followed by its analogous chapter in People's History. With a combined page count of over 1300 it's not an overnight project, but I'm enjoying it. If things are a little quiet around here for a while, now you know why.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography