Sunday, December 29, 2013

Further Explorations


I recently went to the local art store for a particular kind of paper which it turned out they did not have, but I wound up purchasing a small squarish sketchbook from Bee Paper Company which has led me into a series of investigations. I did one series of small circular black and white abstract drawings, another series of square abstracts using colored pencil. (Most of those are posted on my flickr site). The last few days I've been working on this series of black-and-white abstracts. Each is 5 1/4 inches square.



There's something satisfying to me about working in small scale like this. Perhaps its primary virtue is necessity: all of our stuff, including most of my art supplies, not to mention our furniture, has already been shipped in preparation for our move to the mainland in January. So this is work I can do in a small space with limited materials. But I also like that I can begin work on one of these pieces and complete it within an hour or two. And because I make it a point of practice not to have much of a plan as I begin drawing, each one is a kind of experiment that plays out in the making, and the results are always something of a surprise.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Alice McDermott


A couple of weeks ago I was browsing in Barnes and Noble and ran across a smallish novel—a novella really—by Alice McDermott entitled Someone. I had heard of McDermott but never read anything by her. I picked it up and flipped through it, and it looked like it might be interesting, and so I went home and ordered it on my Kindle. (I know, I know. I feel some slight twinge of guilt about that. But B&N gets a significant chunk of my income anyway, and there are some times that I prefer reading an ebook.). Anyway, I found the book deeply engaging in a charming, old-fashioned way. The narrator, Marie is a woman from an Irish family in Brooklyn, and she tells the story of her life in a series of episodes, not always in chronological order. McDermott is patient and painterly both in her narration  of events and in her descriptions of physical settings, and through her intelligent, watchful narrator she often freights her descriptions with obliquely (and sometimes overtly) metaphysical overtones:

The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the cloth—starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s meticulous cross-stitch—had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don’t shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.

As the novel unfolds in its patient, unhurried way, Marie passes from being a nearsighted, socially awkward girl into a deliberate, thoughtful, courageous woman. There are times when her hopes are raised only to be destroyed, but Marie's resilience, optimism, and essentially good-heartedness make it possible for her to carry on. I'm perhaps making it sound like the novel is sentimental. It's not. It's realistic, but encouraging. I liked how I felt while I was reading it. I liked being able to spend time inside Marie's world and Marie's mind.

Right after I finished Someone, I happened to be looking in the stacks at my school library for another author whose name begins with M, and lo and behold, it turns out they had several other books by McDermott on the shelf. I picked up Child of My Heart and read that. Then, since she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy, I read that, and now I'm reading After This.

Of the three I've read, my favorite is Child of My Heart. Theresa, the narrator of this book, is a fifteen-year-old, also from a Brooklyn Irish family (now living on Long Island), but in this case all of the events take place within a single summer, in fact, the first 100 pages or so detail the events of a single day at the beach. Theresa is working as a babysitter for two children: the young daughter of a well-know artist in the community and her own younger cousin Daisy from Brooklyn, out to spend a few weeks on the shore and away from her claustrophobic family. Again, there is something patient and deliberate and totally convincing about McDermott's description, which serves as a kind of indirect characterization of her narrator, the kind of person on whom truly nothing is lost. She is completely present to and at home in the moment. And thus, necessarily, so are we. Here, for example, is a description as Theresa and Daisy approach the artist's house together for the first time:

Inside, the path was mostly grown over—only a sprinkling of tiny rocks and sand here and there among the weeds and the fallen branches. The path ran through a pretty substantial wood, this whole side of the property was heavily wooded, and because the sunlight came in stripes—thick shafts of it, ahead of us and to either side—the undergrowth still felt damp and the air a little musty. Suddenly the sun, which had been growing progressively, appropriately, warmer on our heads throughout the morning, seemed to have lost its pace, or its rhythm—its certainty, anyway—and for a moment I felt we could have been passing through any time of day at all, early morning, late afternoon, and nearly any season. I mentioned this to Daisy and she said, "It's nice." There was a scurry of salamanders or field mice near our feet, and the crossing shadows of birds high up in the leaves. I stopped to break a stalk of milkweed for Daisy, and she nodded earnestly, as she did at everything I had to show here. I took her hand. Cathedral light, to be sure, and the smell of the damp earth and the wet wood and, as I began to see the shape of Flora's house through the trees, the faint whiff of paint or turpentine, or whatever it was that Flora's father was using—something to do with art, anyway.

Something to do with art, indeed. This passage, while chosen more or less at random, is fully representative of McDermott's style. There's a physicality about her writing that works both as description and as metaphor, and brings us very deeply in under the narrator's skin.

McDermott is, I suspect, not for everyone. She's a miniaturist of sorts, and her great strength is that her writing is attuned to the mundane interactions of everyday life in a way that illuminates them and makes them feel, frequently, well, miraculous. There's a great scene in the early part of After This where a family (Mom, Dad, and three kids) spend the morning at the beach together. A rising storm brings wind that drives them into their car to have lunch, and the chapter that describes the five souls constrained in that small space for the meal shines a light down through the rest of their lives. I don't know exactly how McDermott carries it off, but I'm really impressed.





Thursday, November 21, 2013

Emergence


Here's another work of art that recently arrested my attention on Tumblr. I've always been interested in art, and particularly drawing, that has a realistic center of interest that seems to emerge out of the act of drawing, in some sense displaying both the product and the process. This drawing, but Sir William Russell Flint (via cacao tree) does that.


The foreground is sketched, the mountains in the background are partially rendered, and the most carefully rendered and darkest areas are in the middle of the picture.  I love the strip of light blue on the right, and in fact the whole horizontal stripe of colors running across the painting just below center holds the whole thing together for me in a way that feels grounded and solid, even though the top and the bottom essentially evaporate. I like the way the mound of earth leading into the center of the picture from the lower left starts as pencil line and takes on color and mass as it recedes toward the center. I like the feel of the piece, the way the picture seems to come alive on the paper. If the whole thing had been colored and the details filled in, it would have become pretty much just another landscape, and would have been of much less interest to me. As it is, it generates in me a feeling of peacefulness as I look at it,  as it illustrates and speaks to the watchfulness of its making. A lot of art seems to want to erase or disguise all evidence of its gestation. I'm drawn to art that includes that evidence. Here's another such drawing, "The Door to Freedom," by the often disturbing but always interesting Egon Schiele (via iamjapanese):



The door is sketched. The lock is painted, and the eye is drawn through the bars above the door to the color of the outside world. Less is more.



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In Praise of Matisse


I came to Matisse pretty late in the evolution of my art education. I had heard of him, of course, and had a couple of his iconic images (like "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_(Matisse)The Dance") parked in my brain. Once I started painting on my own, I came to appreciate his originality, his daring, his flexibility, his sense of color. Over the last few years, I've been even more impressed by his versatility and the sheer volume of his works. Since I've been keeping my Tumblr blog, I keep bumping into pictures by Matisse that I have never seen before, and they almost always knock my socks off. Like this one:

Reading Woman with a Violet Dress (1898)
This painting is of a kind I like to think of as "tweeners." It's not a photorealistic rendering by any means, and it's not a pure abstraction either. It's somewhere in between, and Matisse is having it both ways. 

Look at it as an exercise in color and form, and it's a pretty delicious abstract: a wonderful mixture of shapes and tones and movements that echo one another and move our eye around in a largish circle. Purple is a tough color to work with, which is why a lot of artists avoid it. (How many purplish paintings can you call to mind?) And yet here the violet tones manage to feel warm and inviting. There are strategically place elements of gold in the foreground that help to accent the blues and reds elsewhere. 

Look at it with the title in mind, and there she sits, hair in a bun, reading her book (or magazine, perhaps), table laden beside her, light coming in from above and to the right. Her dress is a study all in itself, no single color anywhere, but a scumbling of blues and reds and whites that "reads" like draped cloth but in no single place actually looks like it. In fact, there's not a patch of solid color anywhere in the picture. The intermixing and only partial blending of the colors gives the picture its painterly resonance. Everywhere you look there's something interesting going on in terms of the "how."Look at how economically the wine bottle, the cake, and the fruit are rendered. Look at the shadowed end of the white tablecloth in the foreground at the far left; surely no white tablecloth ever actually took on the turquoise hue Matisse has selected, but in this context that color—or mixture of colors—works perfectly. Look at the wall in the upper right background: not a square inch of solid color anywhere. One imagines Matisse wielding his brush with energy and rapidity and total self-assurance. You can see the brushwork everywhere, infer the movement and direction of the strokes. What you can't imagine—at least I can't—is how it must be to be able to paint like that. Looks easy enough, but go try it and see what happens. In any event, it's a gorgeous painting, and my guess would be that there are many people who know and love Matisse who have never seen it. 





Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Early Decision


My son recently recommended a novel to me. I am going to go ahead and pass that recommendation along to anyone who has ever applied to college, gone to college, taught in high school or college, or had any kind of personal connection to anyone in any of the first three groups. It's called Early Decision by Lacy Crawford and is the story of one fall in the life of an "independent college admissions counselor" working with students to help them learn how to write the essays that will get them into the college of their choice. Clearly based on Crawford's own experience as an icaa, it's a very smart and funny and at times painfully honest book.

What I am about to say here does not do justice to the strengths of the book as a story. I can testify that it is indeed a good read: I blew through it in about two and half days, and enjoyed every minute of it.  But my primary focus here is going to be on some of what the book manages to convey about the college admissions process and the role of writing—and writing instruction—in that process.

As readers we are first introduced to Anne, the counselor, and then to several of the students she is working with — both through the drafts of the essays they write and through her interactions with them as she works to help them find what they might truly have to say —and then, inevitably their parents, whose emotional stake in these decisions too often turns out to be even more complicated and conflicted than their children's, and who often fail to understand how much the college admissions process has changed since they themselves were applying:

Anne had come to her work at a fortuitous time. A combination of social and economic factors had sent application rates soaring. The sixties had opened the college gates to nonwhites and women, and all of those kids—the baby boomers—had grown up and created more college-bound seventeen-year-olds than the country had ever seen. Growing wage disparity between blue- and white-collar jobs made a degree necessary for a middle-class existence; shifting industries made it impossible to land even some blue-collar gigs without the advanced diploma. Add to that the fetishization of certain schools and the institution of the Common Application, the online form that students could submit to a hundred colleges simply by giving each a credit-card number, and you had a mad scramble for a handful of trophy campuses, a blood race buffeted by corporate hangers-on, some of them standardized testing toughs and some of them media companies producing annual publications ranking schools from one to fifty on dubious metrics pulled together from SAT scores, graduates’ tax returns, and the occasional interview with a hungover senior. And to hear of it, there seemed nothing but the darkness of outer space for everyone who fell short of the bar.  (Kindle location 294)
Given the circumstances, Anne's job is to help students find they way to write with enough authority and self-assurance to get the attention of the admissions officers. Here is a scene from midway through the novel where where she is explaining to a skeptical parent what it is that she is really trying to do on behalf of her charges:


“Okay...So, take a boy who, say, loves sharks...He goes scuba diving in St. Barths and decides all he wants to do is live in shark cages. So over the summer he goes and gets his diving certification, and now he can be trusted to take his tank off and put it back on in the water. Standard stuff. He writes his college essay about great whites, and for good measure he’ll mention that everything is endangered, and he’ll lean on the scuba certification as proof of his dedication. And then he won’t understand why he doesn’t get in anywhere. Worse, he won’t understand why he ends up ten years later in a job he hates and he’s browsing tropical hotel Web sites every spare moment he’s got. But that kid...if I get a chance . . . Let’s say he’ll let slip to me that he happens to have memorized all the Latinate names of the animals. Suddenly he knows genus and species for a zillion critters in St. Barths. This kid who can’t conjugate ĂȘtre and avoir. There’s ability there, because he cares. Because it’s his and his alone and he loves it. If I can help him to understand that he can take that feeling he had underwater and apply it to his life—that there is a whole field of approach to such things, populated by people who treasure them—maybe then he realizes that he’s fascinated by marine biology because it actually means devising smarter and finer ways to understand these creatures and what they do and what they need. Now, he could also be interested in maritime law or conservation ethics or underwater photography, I don’t know, but you get my point. So this kid will go home and, usually without telling anyone, research marine biology departments, and discover several universities with killer programs that allow him to spend entire semesters in flippers. Suddenly college is there for him, not for anyone else—his parents, the annoying college counselor, even me. So that fall he steps it up in his AP bio class and the teacher takes a shine to him, because the teacher is flattered, and that teacher wants to write him his recommendation. And the boy’s essay is focused and clear, and the school college counselor, who has sixty kids assigned to her and doesn’t know a thing about him, realizes that he’s a marine-biologist-in-training and that he’s a great science student, which is a good handle, so she writes him a stronger school recommendation. And his list of schools is whittled to the ones where he really wants to go, and in his supplemental essays he’s able to write intelligently about what each school offers and why it’s a good fit for him. Now think of the admissions office: if they’re assembling a class of people, not just grades, and they can hear this boy’s voice and think, Hey, this kid tells a good story, I’d like to bump into him on the cobbled path out there on his way to the lab, then maybe he’ll get in instead of the other kid whose transcript looks exactly the same, whose grades and scores are equivalent, but who wrote about something dull as dirt. Do you see? I mean, who knows?" 2063

One of the things I loved about this book is how it honors the act of writing in exactly this way: not as a vehicle of compliance (writing what you think you want someone to hear and only when they have requested it) but as an act of self-exploration and self-definition and, potentially, self-transcendance. It's a way of thinking about writing that has been at the heart of what I have been trying to do as an educator throughout my career. Writing practice, in this sense, is precisely what our schools so often manage to squash completely out of our students. Here Anne diagnoses the problem of "voice" in a way that is completely consistent with what I have seen every single year of my career as an educator:


When they’re asked to write in the first person...and for something this important, kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page—you can hear it when they read out loud—gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to. They choose a topic that bores them witless. Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’ They drop in semicolons everywhere because they think it looks stylized. They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative. They forget where they started and they forget where they were going, and when they start to feel really disoriented, they’ll use an em-dash. If they totally lose it, they add an exclamation point. Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major or ‘the future’ or ‘the rest of my life.’ If they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’ 2186

So given the diagnosis, what's the prescription?

If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful... you listen for the sound of their voice. Sometimes, it only comes up in actual conversation. They’re so guarded, especially in the first drafts. But something will slip through—an image, an idea, a memory, something that they talk about in a simpler, softer, lower tone...That’s the art of it, I guess. I have to help them to write about that thing, in that mode. And then it’s easy. From there it’s just Strunk and White.” 2203 
This is an excellent book at any number of levels. It's a compelling read, the characters are complex and believable, and the writing is terrific. But what resonated most with me was not just that it had smart things to say about kids and families and the college admissions process—and about writing—but that the stories of the particular lives of the students Anne works with are so engrossing and funny and ultimately encouraging. You could be reading it in five minutes if you download it from Amazon now. Go for it.



  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Output: Three Collages


Managed to find some time in what turned out to be a busier week than I had expected to come with three new small collages. I work with materials from old books: pieces of illustrations, bits of text, fragments of broken bindings.  Sometimes I work in papers I've found on the ground on my way to or from work, or segments from old photographs or newspapers. I start with a pile of stuff and just work from whatever goes down first to whatever comes next. I don't plan them out in advance. I paste the pieces down on heavy paper using acrylic matte medium, or, for heavier pieces, acrylic matte gel.

It's a kind of meditation practice for me, sitting at the table with the paper and the glue, maybe with some music on, piecing things together.  I usually try to work within a range of neutral colors and come up with a stable configuration of shapes. (I also like to do smaller trading card size collages, in which I'm generally a lot looser in terms of architecture.) The connections within the pieces are more felt than thought out. But I do feel like each one has its own wordless story to tell.

Traceries (8x9.5)



Books and Things (5x7.5)

entering the water (5x7)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log VII


October 6
45 Minutes
253-288 (end)

Well, I had hoped for an ending that would pull things back together, and I got that. I read the two last chapters today, Lindo Jong's "Double Face" and Jing-Mei (June) Woo's "A Pair of Tickets." The significance of the title of the first comes at the end of the chapter, as she and Waverly are visiting the hairdresser, who comments how much they look alike, which comes at first as an unpleasant surprise, but then leads them to examine one another's faces, and the mother, who has previously told the story about how her own mother had praised her for her straight nose ("A girl with a crooked nose is bound for misfortune" 257) notices that Waverly's nose is crooked, like her own, which was was broken in an accident on the bus. Waverly laughs it off, saying "Our nose isn't so bad... it makes us look devious (266). She goes on to say that people think they're "two-faced." At which point says, in the passage that closes the chapter and closes the book, so to speak, on Waverly and Lindo:

     I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other.
     It is like what happened when I went back to China last year, after I had not been there for forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charge me high foreign prices.
    So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks. (266)

I take that last line as a not-so-subtle indication that the long-standing hostilities between mother and daughter are at an end, that they have learned finally to accept themselves and one another.

The very last chapter belongs to Jing-mei Woo. I noticed today for the first time that while each of the other six narrators has two chapters, Jing-Mei has four. That observation leads to an obvious question: Why? And having asked the question, the answer pops to mind: as the book opens, Jing-Mei's mom has just passed away, and the aunties are asking her to take her mom's place at the Joy Luck Club. So in her Mom's absence, Jing-Mei gets to fill in for her. Which makes sense, right?

Also in the first chapter, questions were raised and left open about Jing-Mei's two sisters: why they were abandoned, and what happened to them. Those questions are answered by Jing-mei's father when the two of them return to China to meet their long-lost relatives and re-establish their connection to their Chinese heritage:

My sisters look at me, proudly. "Meimei jandale," says one sister proudly to the other. "Little Sister has grown up." I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go. (287-8)

I don't know that I'm ready yet to attempt an overall reaction to the book. I need some time to process, and I'll be interested to see what the students have to say as well. I do think that Amy Tan has done a good job of working out the complicated dynamics of this particular version of the immigrant experience, and in so doing has honored the obvious sacrifices made by the mothers on behalf of their daughters. I've been reading several other books (Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars) at the same time that I've been reading this one with this one  and the thing that seems to be sticking in my head that all three of them have in common has something to do with how difficult it is to appreciate and understand anyone else's subjective experience. Try as we might, the interior lives of even the ones we love best are in some senses unknown to us, much less the interior lives of the thousands and thousands of other souls who occupy the world of our immediate surroundings. It's deeply mysterious. On the last page of Prep, Sittenfeld has her narrator, Lee Fiora, make this observation shortly after graduation from prep school as she stands in the Park Street station in Boston waiting for a train:

I remembered it was Monday. And rush hour—that was why the station was so crowded. Around me on the platform, people passed by, or stopped in a spot to wait: a black man in a blue shirt and a black pinstriped suit; a white teenager with headphones on, wearing a tank top and jeans that were too big for him; two women in their forties, both with long ponytails, both wearing nurse's uniforms. There was a woman with a bob and bangs in a silk shirt and matching jacket, a guy in paint-speckled overalls. All these people! There were so many of them! A black grandmother holding the hand of a boy who looked about six, three more white guys in business suits, a pregnant woman in a t-shirt. What had they all been doing for the last four years? Their lives had nothing to do with Ault.


It seems to me that Amy Tan, in a similar way, is trying to honor the experience of the women whose sacrifices made their daughters' more comfortable but perhaps less heroic lives possible. It concerns me that in the last forty or fifty years the culture of parenting that I grew up with has been to a large degree replaced with a culture that is less about sacrifice on behalf of your children and more about fitting your children into a life whose primary purpose seems to be professional advancement and personal satisfaction on your own behalf. I'm overgeneralizing, of course. But it's out there, and I think that it's one of the less overt but nevertheless significant meta-messages of The Joy Luck Club.







Time Out


Got four minutes? Put whatever else you're doing aside, take a deep breath or two, and check this out. Click on full-screen first.




Sunday, September 29, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log VI


September 27-29
185-252
90 minutes (three segments)

Rose Hsu Jordan: "Without Wood"

June Woo: "Best Quality"

An-mei Hsu: "Magpies"

Ying-Ying St. Clair: "Waiting Between the Trees"

Two daughters, two moms. Rose is getting divorced from her husband Ted, and beating herself up about it, and asking for everyone's advice. Which is where the title comes in: "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people"(191) By the end of the chapter, she's stood up to Ted, and told him she's not giving him the house. She's got wood after all. The ending felt a little too pat, a little too easy, a little too predictable to me.

I am in fact finding myself reading more skeptically and more antagonistically than I was at the start of the book. One of the things that is bothering me is that while the book is elaborately organized— "orchestrated" might be more apt—it doesn't make me feel much. It's a book with a high IQ and a low EQ. While Amy Tan is clearly into the architecture of the story, I don't get the impression that she likes her characters all that much. She's good at depicting them, especially their foibles and obsessions, but there isn't anybody here I feel like rooting for. The mothers seem imprisoned by their pasts, and the daughters imprisoned by their personalities.

In her chapter, June is at her mom's for New Year's dinner, and much is made of the fact that there are not enough crabs to go around. June gets upset with the airs that Waverly is putting on and tries to embarrass her, but winds up being embarrassed herself, which leads to her end-of-the-chapter "aha" moment: "That was the night, in the kitchen, that I realized that I was no better than who I was... I felt tired and foolish, as if I had been running to escape someone chasing me, only to look behind and discover there was no one there" (207). Feeling for her, her mother offers her a jade pendant, telling her "This is your life's importance" (208). And you know what? I'm not much moved by any of it. On a scale of revelationary world-shakingness, June's feels like maybe a two. She's diminished by it, and so are we. And the jade pendant thing seems over-freighted with Symbolic Significance. It's a move I've seen maybe one too many times.

An-mei's chapter is mostly a flashback which tells how her mother reappeared in her life when she was nine years old and takes her to live in the household of Wu Tsing, to whom her mother is third concubine. The chapter ends with the mother's suicide, arranged in such a way as to force Wu Tsing to acknowledge An-Mei as his daughter and provide for her. All of this is related by way of conveying An-mei's disdain for and disappointment with her daughter as she wavers indecisively as her marriages breaks up.

Ying-Ying's chapter is also built around a flashback (surprise!) details how she grew up in a very wealthy family, how she married and was abandoned by her husband, how she aborted their child and moved to the city and essentially played Clifford St. Clair for a sucker in order to get him to marry her and take her to America, where she promptly withdrew into her own little world:

So I decided. I decided to let Saint marry me. So easy for me. I was the daughter of my father's wife. I spoke in a trembly voice. I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a wounded animal. I let the hunter come to me and turn me into a tiger ghost. I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit the caused me so much pain.
     Now I was a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen spirit. (251)
And now she wants to "use this pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (252).

Well, okay, I get it. I see why she did what she did, and why she thought she had to do it, Tiger Mom that she is. But I don't like her a whole lot more than I did before. And I'd argue whether this particular way of loving your daughter, or your husband, has a whole lot to recommend it.

Maybe there will be an updraft of sorts in the last two chapters. But it's hard for me to imagine, at this point, what that would look like. I'm curious as to whether June will in fact go back to China to meet her long-lost siblings, and how that will turn out. That question was planted way back at the beginning of the book. There's things I do like about the book, and I'm curious to see what the students will have to say. But I feel like the last few chapters have been leaking energy.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Deliriously in Love with Stories


When I moved into the office I am sharing with Brian this fall, there were some books on the shelves I had not seen, a book called The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading. It was edited by Michael Dorris and  Emilie Buchwald, and consists of fifty-something shortish essays by various writers, mostly describing how they came to be readers and/or the impact that reading has had on their writing. I've been dipping into it as time permits, and read one yesterday by Ted Kooser that cracked me up.

In it, he describes (with a precision and sense of humor my summary cannot begin to capture) coming down with pneumonia as a freshman in college and spending ten days in a hospital bed recuperating. He describes how he spent most of his time reading a book called King: A Dog of the North, which someone had left in the room. When his temperature went down, he started looking for the book, but it was nowhere to be found, and he eventually came to realize that in his delirium he had made up both the existence of the book and the very engrossing stories in it. Here's the concluding paragraph of the essay:

I've been a writer ever since. Oh, I'd written some poems before I got pneumonia, but it took pneumonia to make me serious about writing. The creation of King: A Dog of the North, a solid accomplishment of the imagination, may have given me the confidence to try my hand at letting my imagination carry me forward, toward other stories, and poems, and essays like this one. And whatever success I've had as a writer I may owe in some part to that magnificent silver-haired German shepherd who vanished into the frozen wasteland once he had finally seen me back to health. Writing late at night, sometimes I think I hear his great paws padding through the snow.

And as long as I'm at it, I thought I'd add in this poem (you can see him read it on his web site) that comes at writing from another, quite wonderful direction:


Memory

Spinning up dust and cornshucks
as it crossed the chalky, exhausted fields,
it sucked up into its heart
hot work, cold work, lunch buckets,
good horses, bad horses, their names
and the names of mules that were
better or worse than the horses,
then rattled the dented tin sides
of the threshing machine, shook
the manure spreader, cranked
the tractor's crank that broke
the uncle's arm, then swept on
through the windbreak, taking
the treehouse and dirty magazines,
turning its fury on the barn
where cows kicked over buckets
and the gray cat sat for a squirt
of thick milk in its whiskers, crossed
the chicken pen, undid the hook,
plucked a warm brown egg
from the meanest hen, then turned
toward the house, where threshers
were having dinner, peeled back
the roof and the kitchen ceiling,
reached down and snatched up
uncles and cousins, grandma, grandpa,
parents and children one by one,
held them like dolls, looked
long and longingly into their faces,
then set them back in their chairs
with blue and white platters of chicken
and ham and mashed potatoes
still steaming before them, with
boats of gravy and bowls of peas
and three kinds of pie, and suddenly,
with a sound like a sigh, drew up
its crowded, roaring, dusty funnel,
and there at its tip was the nib of a pen.