As Close As It Gets

This post is about half-measures and redirections. I started my #20before20 with a list of 20 goals and resolutions. I’ve completed several — see my state parks and book reviews. Others… well, they haven’t been completed in the original sense.

I started a sweater over Christmas break. I fell in love with its intarsia.  I finished the body and started on sleeves. You can see my Instagram for pictures; I accidentally deleted most photos from the past year from my phone and computer.

I hated it. So I turned it into a scarf. It’s still wonky. I might join Fringe Association’s Fisherman Knitalong.

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Another goal was to go camping at a state park. My family went camping fairly often when I was young (we had a ratchet camper, and we were in the Serven Scouts. We had patches on our shirts, team flags, and a Serven Scout pledge), but I haven’t been in seven or eight years, and I’ve never gone by myself. In my one free weekend before #20before20 ends, no one would go camping with me, and I wasn’t confident that I could camp by myself and be safe from perverts and snakes. So I camped in the living room.

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We made s’mores.

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I can’t even pretend that it was real camping.

Another half-measure is #1, have a draft of my novel ready to pursue publication. I spent about 8 months working on a recent novel, under the working title of Blood. I still really love it, but I haven’t worked on it for a month. It was walking the line of melodrama in the first place, and now it has all of my emotions tied into it — I’m not sure. I’ve still been writing, though — I began a short story about a tornado, and an ex-con. I did sent a short story that I finished in the spring to several publications, but I haven’t heard anything back.

One goal was to learn InDesign. I’ve messed around some on my computer, and I tried to land a few design nights at our student newspaper, but I can’t say that I’ve learned a lot.

The major goal of this project was trying — trying to learn new things, meet new people, and get out of my comfort zone. I did not intend to become an expert in any particular area. I did not intend to become famous, or acclaimed. I just wanted to try new things. While I probably should have invested a little more effort in some areas, I don’t regret my time or the half-assed attempts. Chilling with my roommates in that tent was one of the best nights I’ve had so far. This project may not be perfect, or fully complete, but it’s as close as it gets.

Rescued from the Trash Bin

 

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This was rescued from the trash can. Please excuse the creepy cover art — it was too good to pass up. Warning — contains spoilers.

Book #3 on my 20before20 reading list was A Brave New World (see posts on #1, Absalom, Absalomand #2, This Side of Paradise)While I’ve read a wide swath of genre and science fiction books, I never made it to Huxley’s classic. 

Brave New World introduces us to a society founded upon “Our Ford’s” (e.g., Henry Ford’s) assembly line, where humans are grown in test tubes and are engineered for ideal social, physical, and mental states for their place in society. Only one place remains where humans give birth to their own children, raise them, and die from disease and old age.

Bernard Marx, an idealist, and Lenina, a young factory worker, travel to the land of the “savages” on a romantic holiday. There they find one of their own, Linda, who was stranded in the land of the savages twenty years ago, and her son, John. Bernard and Lenina take Linda and John back to civilization, but John, who has looked forward to this moment his whole life, finds himself laughed at as a freak, and his ideals are ignored. John’s treasured possession and his only defense against the “brave new world” are his books, his copies of Shakespeare’s plays. His knowledge of bravery and the ideal life are completely at odds with the World State’s inane desires, and so he flees to a tower in the country to escape from worldly desires. Even there the paparazzi descend on him, and John takes part in their orgy. The next morning, realizing that he submitted to the World State frenzy that he so despised, he hangs himself.

I read tons of science fiction and fantasy books as a teenager (I remember favorites being The Wheel of Time, Airborn, and Leviathan). Many of them, including recent fan favorites like The Hunger Games, build upon dystopian worlds envisioned by Aldous Huxley. Maybe that’s why I was initially unimpressed by A Brave New World. I read the third and fourth generations of science fiction, and only just got around to the original. Maybe it’s also that I have the benefits of hindsight; I know that socialism failed. 

But Huxley is too smart for me. Unlike Orwell, Huxley has more on his mind than socialism or communism. He’s not warning us against a specific political system; he’s warning us against our own desires and states of mind. He warns us against the groupthink that our American consumerism has already introduced us to. He warns us against the selling of sex without any emotion, against degrading people whom we judge to be physically inferior, against a dull desire to suppress anything uncomfortable or challenging. 

In that light, A Brave New World still has a lot to say about our current society. I don’t want to get too far into politics or religion, but Huxley’s scenes of test-tube babies and zippered jumpsuits make me think of the sexiness that is the modern entertainment industry, and the controversies about surrogate mothers, or the decline in interest and economic support of the humanities and literature. 

I read The Tempest in my medieval humanities class shortly after I finished this book. I found myself thinking about how important it is to me that I can recognize the beauty in Shakespeare. I thought of the terror and rage of Prospero as he fights to control Ariel. It would be easy to say that I’m Ariel, the free-wheeling college student who throws of the shackles of American consumerism. But Huxley is not making that point, unlike a lot of teenage dystopian fiction– he is telling us that we ourselves are Prospero. We are perpetuating a control system and the consumer society, and if we aren’t careful, we may slide into a Fordian world. But I’m not sure if Huxley offers any escape, or hope for us. Though A Brave New World may have been written 80 years ago, other people encounter our world every day, murmuring in confusion,

O brave new world!

That has such people in’t.

 

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Gilead

As I was moving into my first apartment this week, I stopped by the public library. In the gap before classes begin, I’ve had time to do some reading. I read Wild, by Cheryl Strayer, but I also picked up a book for my #20before20 reading.

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I’ve tried to read Gilead  once before, and I flipped through a few passages during the months that it sat on our bathroom shelf at home. Good writing, I thought, but there’s no story there. I was wrong.

Gilead holds the reflections of John Ames, an Iowan preacher near the end of his life, as he writes a letter to his young son. Ames recalls the stories of his grandfather, a firebrand minister who rode into Kansas with John Brown, and his father, who rejected war. Ames’s conception of family history and legend becomes mixed up when his prodigal godson, Jack, stumbles back into town.

It’s a simple plot, and really rather plotless. But Ames’s stories about the bonds between father and son, and about wisdom and grief and honor, don’t need a plot. Like Faulkner, the stories and reflections loop back upon themselves and create a deep and resounding vision of the beauty of God’s creation. 

Robinson is a Calvinist, like myself, but she dodges any stereotypes of the harsh, judgmental Protestant. Her writing is infused with a theologic sensibility, but she recognizes the limits of doctrine — Ames comments that “doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief”. Robinson strongly believes in her faith, but she presents that faith to us not as a set of categorical, unfeeling propositions, but as an enwrapping worldview with a deep assurance of grace.

I read Gilead as I was returning to a college campus, and it struck me so strongly because Robinson’s method of delivery and conviction is how I have wanted to speak about my faith, without ever having the words to do so. Ames muses about the Greek word sozo, (σοζω), which is often narrowly defined as salvation. This definition condemns Jack Boughton, the prodigal, and creates, Ames thinks, a false expectation for the sinner. But Ames thinks about the other meanings of sozo, healing and restoration, and knows that Jack has access, perhaps, to a wider hope than traditional belief. 

It is those balancings of smart doctrine and hope that make me like Robinson so much. I have always wanted to picture Christianity and Calvinism not as a condemnation but as an offering of grace, as a worldview that enables someone to see the beauty of a red dress, a well-laid table, a field, a child. Ames is overcome with the beauty and the glory. I also admire writers like David Foster Wallace who, even if they rejected the belief system of Christianity, still talked about the world in a symbolic and transcendent manner. Maybe if people had more conversations about beautiful things, rather than dogma, we would get somewhere in the world. 

I should stop now, or I’ll cease making any sense. Have you read Gilead, or any of Robinson’s excellent essays or other books? Any thoughts or experiences on Calvinism or Christianity in art and writing?

 

 

 

 

 

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A Teenager Again (And Tired of It)

Unknown-1I just finished Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. It only took me four attempts and two months. I was bored. I was annoyed. I didn’t care. It read like my Facebook posts from high school, which is exactly how it was supposed to read. But I could conjure up little sympathy for Holden as he flunked out of another prep school and wandered around New York City. 

I would have liked it better if Holden had been hurtling towards a doom, if Mr. Antolini’s fear of Holden’s heroic quest had come true. But instead he just drifts — like my Facebook posts, he is neither very enlightening, nor do they build towards a revelatory climax. We don’t learn much about humanity, because Holden’s insights into society are obscured by his immaturity. My favorite scenes were when Holden wondered about where the park ducks go in the wintertime, and when he and Mr. Antolini were talking. But the power of those scenes quickly faded during Holden’s whining about swanks and phonies.

Why is Catcher in the Rye considered a great work of American literature, and why did all of my friends at art camp love it? I think, to a teenage artist, Catcher feels a lot like Dead Poet’s Society. Many high schoolers, and perhaps especially the artistic ones, feel alienated, and as if they have special insight into a superficial world. Like Neil and Mr. Keating, they feel misunderstood. I heard my art camp friends rave about Dead Poet’s, and reference Catcher in the Rye, without knowing either myself. I only watched the movie and read the book several years later, and both times I was disappointed. Not because they don’t have valid points, but I feel like both speak only to  American teenagers, and say little about society or people as a whole. That’s not terrible — but how do those teenagers grow from being blasé, immature and alienated, and into thoughtful adults? Holden Caulfield and Neil Perry give us no advice or model, and it seems unlikely that Caulfield will ever grow up. We may pity the whining teenager, but we have no sympathy for the adult. 

Lest you think that I only read one book a month and complain about it, I assure you, that is not true. Though I may not recommend Salinger, here are a few books that I recently read that I will gladly recommend –

Let’s Explore Diabetes With OwlsDavid Sedaris

Where Good Ideas Come FromSteven Johnson

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Did you like Catcher in the Rye as a kid, and do you still like it as an adult? Is it an important book in the American canon? Have you read any books recently that I should pick up?

A Maid’s Story

There’s only 2 months left in my #20before20 challenge! I still want to knit a sweater, visit one more state park, and record a song on my ukulele — will I have time?!

I finished two things last night — A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read my thoughts here),

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aaand a quilt!

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I finally finished my quilt! I started with this pattern from Purl Bee. Since I’d never made a quilt before, was broke, didn’t own my own sewing machine, and bought fabric piecemeal, the end result is not perfect. The quilt has uneven corners, stitches showing, and some puckering.

I hand-quilted and hand-bound my quilt. I freewheeled a bit and did the quilting in triangle shapes, and added some embroidery on the top of the quilt.

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Seeing the top of the quilt laid out (unironed — I hate irons. And hairdryers), I didn’t think I would ever finish.

It’s a little ironic that I finished this as I was finishing A Handmaid’s Tale. I think most modern women associate traditional crafts like quilting and sewing and cooking with women’s inequality and subjugation. You know, these crafts are “old”, from an earlier age when women had to stay at home.

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Pondering the raw edges.

But I think that framework is too simplistic. Saying that modern women shouldn’t perform any “old-time” crafts denies the raw pleasure I get from crafting a warm, useful item. It denies the joy of making a beautiful object, even if that object is not technically perfect. And I like to think that lots of women before me, however politically or socially equal they were to men, also got pleasure in seeing their friends and children wrapped in a handmade quilt.

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Hand-sewing the binding. It started out boring, but became meditative.

In the end, this quilt not as big or as perfect as I might like. But imperfections show that it was made by a person. I am not a machine, and I chose to make this quilt. And I took great pleasure in sleeping under it last night, even though it was 85 degrees outside.

Just don’t expect me to start another one soon.

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The end: a hand-made quilt.

How do you view “home ec” and “womanly arts”? Do you embrace them? Are you glad for your store-bought clothes and microwave, or do you make things frequently? How does doing crafts or not doing crafts relate to your sense of personal freedom and equality?

 

Top cotton and muslin. Bottom Kona cotton. Machine sewn, hand-quilted. Based on Purl Bee’s Triangle Quilt.

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A Handmaid’s Tale

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Nearing the end of my #20before20 reading list, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I intended this list to cover American fiction from the 20th century; I didn’t realize till I finished that Atwood is a Canadian author. I decided that it should count towards my list anyways. No disrespect towards Canadian literature, but the book seemed similar enough to American literature, and it was interesting and important enough to review. And, based in Harvard, it seems mostly a reflection on the past and possible future of America and Americans.

Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred. After religious extremists gunned down the President and Congress, a civil war remade America into numerous districts. The most powerful district is Gilead, who, faced with a plummeting birth rate, decided to reorganize society. All single women become Handmaids, and are assigned to have sex with government officials. If they become pregnant and have a child, they are saved. Offred has been torn away from her husband and daughter, and is made a Handmaid to a manipulative Commander. As Offred struggles to maintain identity while interacting with the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, she is contacted by the Mayday resistance organization, which may offer hope of escape and a new life.

The novel closes ambiguously, as Offred’s escape is arranged by Mayday. We don’t know if she was able to find refuge in Canada or England; we don’t know if Gilead fell, or if an equitable society was ever established.

Margaret Atwood has been described as a feminist and a science fiction writer, but she disliked both groupings. She preferred to call the novel “speculative fiction”, saying,

“For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do…. speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth.”

 

A Handmaid’s Tale, to my eye, is not science fiction, and it is not about feminism. It is about power and agency. Gilead’s fundamentalism is always dangerously close at hand. Women may be the most easily subjugated, and have historically been the subjugated, but Handmaid’s Tale also warns us of how easily both the men and the women, of all levels of society, can be indoctrinated and how easily we take and mete out subjugation. The Commander may be as pitied and scorned as the sniveling Janine.

How close are we to the patriarchal society established in Gilead? Are there elements of that society in our lives today? How should we maintain agency and equality?

 

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Rabbit, Run

–N.B. This review will contain a big spoiler. Read at your peril.

 

Rabbit Angstrom, a former basketball star, abandoned his pregnant wife and son in search for revelation and salvation.

As this book built, I could sense inevitable tragedy growing against Rabbit’s boundless optimism. Rabbit ran between his family and Ruth, and between reality and his former glory. He ran towards a vague sense of destiny, formed by a shallow Lutheranism and a clammy friendship with Reverend Eccles. I knew Rabbit would eventually have to choose how the rest of his life would play out.

After wrenching pages of buildup the baby died, but the story was still not over. Janice chose the numbness of alcohol and paid for it, but Rabbit still wavered between duty and desire. He still hoped for a “thing behind everything” that would give significance to his life. So he runs, again.

I am glad for ambiguous endings. I don’t enjoy them; I long for a full resolution. But I am intrigued by the possibilities Updike suggests by Rabbit’s final running — is he running home towards his family, and an apology? Or away towards a fuller life? Or is the mere act of running, of movement, a declaration of life and salvation? I’m unsure.

I watched the movie version of A River Runs Through It, and I found myself wanting to watch a movie of Rabbit (played, of course, by Kevin Spacey). But I think that a movie would give an implicit slant to the ending, even though Updike wanted it ambiguous.

What do you think about this book? Does Rabbit achieve a resolution? What do you think is implied in the final scene?

 

 

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A Month of Reading

Well, while I haven’t blogged for a month, I have been reading!

The women in my family took a trip to Myrtle Beach for a weekend. I’m not hard to entertain; I spent three days reading on the sand, and knocked off 3 books on my 20before20 list! It’s also been a month of firsts, which is what this blog is all about — end of my first year of college, beginning of a new job, and beginning of a summer class. I’ve been keeping pretty busy. A side note that I realized when writing this post is that all of these books have movie adaptations; I just added A River Runs Through It, with Brad Pitt, to my Netflix queue. I’ll let you know how it compares.

Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron

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I began this book intrigued by Styron’s layers of background detail of the mysterious Sophie and her troubled lover, Nathan. But over the course of this book, which I read on the sand next to my twelve-year-old sister, I grew bored and exhausted. I grew bored of constantly having to shield pages of Stingo’s raunchy imaginings from my sister. I grew exhausted by Nathan’s mania, and Sophie’s defense of him. I grew exhausted by how close I was to liking the book — one less pornographic scene, or a little less buildup to Sophie’s Choice. When Sophie was forced to choose between her children, I almost missed it — and then the book spiraled on, to its dispiriting conclusion. I’m not sure what Styron was trying to say — if Sophie’s grief eventually caught up to her, or if the horrible end that she escaped at Auschwitz dogged her to a bedroom with Nathan, or if Stingo was always powerless to help the lost.

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

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I found this book’s prose and exposition slow at first, but then I became caught in the vivid Mississippi (Louisiana?) trawl of its characters. Maybe because the narrator, Jack, is a small-time reporter, or maybe because the story of Willie Talos (originally published as Willie Stark) is the inevitable arc of the politician. Talos’s change from small-town politician trying to make change for the common man, to a corrupt boss in the governor’s seat, is a mythic fall. But Jack recounts Talos’s story with an intriguing mix of venom and compassion, and Talos’s fall comes not from a lawsuit or another politician, but upon being revealed as an adulterer and a bad father. He built his career upon the faults of other men, and found his own faults exposed in a blinding instant.

I did not enjoy reading this book, but I liked it, and I liked it in the light of the last few pages, where Jack is looking at events in the light of his marriage. He has to live with the consequences of what Talos did, not only to the state, but also to his future marriage to Ada. The past and present do not exist in a vacuum, but are tangled ceaselessly together, and all the king’s men cannot right certain wrongs.

A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean

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I had to get away from the Holocaust and corruption scandals, so I picked up MacLean’s novella.  I knew only that MacLean was a Presbyterian and a writer, like me. I have never picked up a fly or a fishing pole in my life, but MacLean’s genius is in drawing in both the aficionado of fishing and the initiate.

Paul may be the best fly-fisher Norman has ever seen, but he parties and drinks at all hours, and Norman can never work up the courage to address Paul’s drinking problem. Drawn together by a lazy cousin who steals their beer, falls asleep naked by the river with a whore, and, worst of all, hates fishing, Norman and Paul share a moment of joy by the river. But MacLean quickly dashes a moment of foreboding, falling on the heels of Paul’s triumph: “‘Just give me three more years,’ Paul said… and I realized that the river must have told me, too, that he would receive no such gift.”

MacLean reminds me most of Wendell Berry, known for his pastoral elegies in rural Kentucky. MacLean enlists the natural world to tell us about Paul and Nathan, and the words we wish we would have said. Fly-fishing becomes a means to talk about brotherhood and debt. A River is not really about fly fishing; it is about the Calvinist shadow of debt and obligation that hangs over Norman while he struggles to make sense of his brother’s brutal death. I fell in love with this book in the closing paragraph, as Norman fishes and writes in a way to remember his brother. I fell in love with his turn of phrase that describes a river running through all things, and the words that lie beneath the water.

I need to go to the library to stock up on the rest of my classics, but I’m currently on a theology-philosophy kick, and have been reading some Lauren Winner and Frederica Matthewes-Green. On the 20before20 side, I also wrote a few letters and drew a sunflower with color pastels. And I started a new short story, inspired by Of Mice and Men. Have a lovely Monday!

 

 

 

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Big Brother Is Watching

I finished George Orwell’s 1984 at 1:30 last night. I thought, I don’t have much more to read, and it finally got to interesting torture parts. Maybe I’ll like the end better than the rest of the book. Maybe I’ll stop feeling like I’m reading Divergent or Hunger Games.

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I was correct. The ending surprised me. The book is about Winston Smith, an intellectual living in a totalitarian state, who begins to question the state (called Big Brother). Oceania’s chief weapon is thought-control and Newspeak, a way of reshaping language and eliminating memory so that, in the end, thinking anything other than what Big Brother wants “will be impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”. Winston, struggling with dissatisfaction, discovers love with Julia and an underground resistance, and tries to take down Big Brother, only to find himself caught and tortured by the police. In the end, pain causes him to abandon resistance, betray Julia, and eventually confess love for Big Brother.

The ending redeemed the book. I know that Orwell pioneered the genre of dissatisfied-angst-with-opressive-state, but the Matrix did it so much better. I was unimpressed with Winston’s inarticulate fumblings, and the long excerpts from the banned revolutionary’s handbook. But the ending impressed me. The ending is where Orwell transcends his fear of totalitarianism and gets to the heart of the matter, and the true downfall of Winston Smith: Winston was so broken by the state that he was made to love what he hated.

Is 1984 still relevant for me, a white, middle class American? I live in what could be called the freest country in the world, in the freest era. Sure, people grumble about how the NSA is like Big Brother, or how Google knows everything about you. Privacy may be coming to an end. But I don’t see freedom ending, or freedom of thought. And maybe I’m an optimist, but I feel like we would see it coming. I feel like there must be a resolution other than Winston’s gibbering retirement, or the other characters’ mindless acceptance. I have faith in people’s resistance, and of eventual resolution and restoration. I don’t think it’s a naive worldview, or that everything will always be okay. But in the long overview, I don’t see 1984 happening. I choose not to believe it.

 

 

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Beloved

I knew nothing about Toni Morrison or her novel, Beloved, except that it won a Nobel Prize.

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I began reading, and I was hit over the head with a malicious baby ghost, a strange family, and a lurking history. I was sucked in immediately by Morrison’s poetry of language.

How do you write about slavery? How do you write about families torn apart? How do you write about escape and loneliness and regret and anger? How do you write about murder and reunion, while sidestepping sentimentality and judgment?

Morrison manages all of these things when writing about Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter. And she transforms what could have so easily been a sensationalist story into a sweeping extended poem about love and family. Don’t wait to read Morrison, like I did. Place a hold at your library tonight.

What am I reading now? 1984, by Orwell. Stay tuned for another freak-out about Soviet communism!

 

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