I used to wonder what it might have felt like to be a person living through any of those paragraphs about awful things that happened in my American history textbooks. Turns out, it feels pretty miserable.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Permission to burrow deep into the messy, chaotic, wonderful lives of other people is one of the big magics of great stories. This isn’t escape exactly because their lives are often more chaotic, messy and dangerous than our own, and yet, at the end we wake up feeling as if we have been given the gift of a second, third or fourth life.
Lady Oracle is such a story. Atwood gives a loose, jangling coming of age story in which the narrator, Joan, learns the tightrope walk of expectations from her overbearing mother, her aloof father, her mercurial husband and mass culture at large.
Joan is at constant war with her own body and struggles to own her creative gifts. There’s schoolyard bullying, lurking perverts, gothic romance, political satire and, nearly, a minor act of international terrorism.
I fell in love with Joan, just a little, which maybe tells you more about me than the story. Lady Oracle is a robust, funny story bursting with the vibrant wordplay for which Atwood is known.
Read it. You may fall in love with Joan as well.
I don’t honestly understand why I said it. Only that one moment I had been standing sensibly, peaceably, unobtrusively in the corner of the room trying not to call attention to myself. The next I was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up!” at full volume.
Shut up they did. The full party came to a stop and the sensible, peaceable, unobtrusive girl standing in the corner of the room was suddenly the center of everyone’s attention. No one spoke for a long moment though the music kept playing, which was a weird feeling like the movie and the soundtrack splitting apart and realizing they hadn’t ever really gone together well.
My friend, Audrey, was first to speak. I say friend because she drove me there and, also, she could always be counted on to check in on my welfare. We were the same age but she was always playing mother to me, calling me after a bad episode to soothe my feelings, check to see if I needed anything. When she came over, she inventoried my dorm room cabinets to be certain I had food in them. If she ever saw a pill lying out on the counter, she was quick to ask if I was taking my medicines. All of my medicines.
Now my good friend Audrey was just looking at me, wearing the face that everyone else was wearing. The worried, fretful but slightly irritated that I had ruined the party, again, face.
“Are you okay, sweetie?”
She calls me sweetie when she knows I’m not okay.
Yes, I try to tell her but having been so inappropriately loud, now my voice won’t come out at all. So I just nod.
“She’s okay,” Audrey translates for the others, but I can see that she doesn’t really believe it. This is just a thing she says to get people talking again, put the soundtrack back into sync with the action on screen.
People resume talking and the party slides back into its groove and I slide out.
She is at my elbow now, holding me like some priceless heirloom, a tiresome thing she has inherited and feels responsibility for but secretly resents because of the burden of its value. Like an expensive vase in which you can not even place flowers. What use is it?
She doesn’t say any of this. That is too gauche. Audrey takes care and doesn’t complain. Complaining is gauche.
“Let’s get some air,” she says. “Okay?”
It is colder outside than I expected. I left my sweater in the guest bedroom, mixed somewhere in the sexual heap of coats and jackets and sweaters. An orgy of winter wear. Such casual disregard.
Audrey is looking at me closely. I am looking at the driveway which is lined with cars. Audrey’s car is in the middle of that scrum. There’s no easy way for us to leave. The night is young. And so are we.
I haven’t been young for some time.
Age is just a number, they try to tell you, but, actually, age is a tightening in your lower back, a spreading awareness of pain and exhaustion.
I had been losing my breath but now my breath is settling.
I can feel Audrey looking at me and tell myself not to look at her. But it is almost impossible not to look when someone is looking. You can’t just turn yourself invisible with your own mind. I’ve tried. You have to distract them.
“I’m sorry I lost it in there,” I tell her, hoping an apology will soften that gaze.
Audrey shrugged. “You didn’t lose it. You just caught people off guard.”
“I’m pretty sure catching people off guard like that is called losing it.”
“Well, you seem fine now.”
“Good.” Another long look. “Did you take all your medicines today?”
“You think I’m crazy,” I told her.
“We’re all crazy, sweetie. Some of us just have a name for it.”
Audrey has a way of saying things that make me feel better.
“I just got a little bit closed up is all.”
Truth: I erupted like a volcano. The lava was still flowing around.
“Is it better out here?” Audrey asked.
“Yes. A little. A lot. There were too many voices.”
So much talking. Conversations stacked on top of conversations. They were crowding me out until there was no place to stand.
“Would you like to go back inside?”
“In a minute,” I told her. “You can go.”
“You’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I told her, smiling my brightest aw shucks smile. It was the payment she expected for services rendered. “Honest.”
“Okay, but if you aren’t back inside in five minutes, I’ll come looking for you.”
“You’ll find me right here,” I tell her.
Audrey nods and checks around the neighborhood. It is a nice night and I can’t help feeling that out here on the front porch is a better place to be. “See you in a few,” Audrey tells me.
“Okay.” And then, just before she reenters the house, I say, “Audrey. Thanks.”
She is glad for this small offering, and I am glad as well. I hate being the friend who can’t do parties. I hate being the friend whose crazy has a name, but standing on the porch watching the moon sail slowly up the sky, I am grateful to have a friend like Audrey. A friend who comes immediately to the rescue when the party slips and the good times are no longer feeling good.
I stand on the porch for a while, longer than five minutes for sure. Audrey has gotten herself into a conversation and has forgotten the time. Which is good. I am glad. It was just a weird, awkward moment. I didn’t ruin the party after all.
I wait outside until the bad feelings pass.
I watch the moon.
The moon watches me.
I wait long enough for the moon to become disinterested.
I wait just long enough to completely disappear.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
An unsettling, deceptively simple story about an unnamed narrator’s return to her childhood home in the Canadian woods and her growing desire to disappear into wildness, a desire which ultimately claims her or, more accurately, a desire she ultimately claims. Driven by a simple plot, my enjoyment of this novel came mostly from Atwood’s ability to slowly layer the tension and render the familiar unfamiliar. The narrator yearns to escape the sexual politics and unfulfilling materialism that is her everyday life. The traumas of her young life only gradually rise to the surface. The punch of this novel comes late as the narrator makes her final brutal decision and embraces the awful logic her own wildness brings.
Written in first person present tense, revelations arrive with almost hallucinatory grace. Surfacing is Atwood’s second published novel. It is very much an early novel written by an accomplished poet. A simple, spare frame draped with the fresh, succinct perception only powerful, honest poetry can provide. I recommend Surfacing for those already familiar with and curious about Atwood’s artistic gifts, but I would not recommend Surfacing as an introduction to Atwood’s work.
Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)
Songs That Found Me
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Having adored Letters to a Young Poet, I reached for this slim volume wanting to be well-introduced to Rilke’s poems. This collection did not connect for me. There are moments in a few of the poems that grabbed me (“Autumn”; “The Panther”; “Faded”; “Piano Practice”; and “The Child”), but I found most to be indecipherable.
MacIntyre’s introductory essay and closing notes are dull and impenetrably obscure. I don’t read German but can’t help wondering if Rilke’s poems would connect with me more in a different translation or, also possible, if German Romanticism just isn’t my thing. I will be interested to read these five poems in different translations to find out.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A worthy successor to The Handmaid’s Tale. Before reading, I had assumed The Testaments would be a thin, exploitive cash grab designed to capitalize on the current popularity of the Hulu series and the dystopian zeitgeist. I was wrong. The Testaments is an unusual sequel in that it adds moral complexity and texture to the original work while standing proudly on its own. You don’t have to read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy The Testaments, but you definitely should.
The Testaments is essentially a caper story told from three perspectives, giving nuance to the way the reader understands Gilead. The novel also places Gilead into an international context, which was something I found myself wanting in the original story.
I waved my way through an occasional minor plot hole and, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the story ends a bit too abruptly. These are minor gripes. The Testaments satisfies.
Atwood’s ability to tell big, philosophically challenging stories through the closely observed private lives of authentic characters is inspiring. Atwood never sacrifices the personal to reach the universal.
This sequel is as good as the first.
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
We did a yard sale last week. I despise the work of doing yard sales. I hate the weeks of gathering together all the unloved, unneeded, no longer useful things of your life into a pile for pricing. That sad, hateful pile is an exceptionally personal indictment of your own complicity in consumer capitalism run amok.
There is a part of you that will want to set fire to that pile of unnecessary stuff, freeing your soul and the souls of all you love from the reach of attachment. Instead, you will price that pile.
You will cut fluorescent folder labels down to the size of price tags and Sharpie each item’s true value onto that tag. The item’s true value has no relationship to what you likely originally paid for that item. The true value has no relationship to how excited you thought you were when you took that item off some store shelf and brought it home to fill space in your already too-crowded house. At this moment, sitting at the base of this gloomy mountain, the item’s true value becomes a tax on the imaginary person who is going to see this same item displayed on your front lawn and believe they too need such an item to fill space in their already too-crowded home.
You will write 25 cents on nearly 300 price tags. Occasionally adding helpful commentary like Works! Never Used! “Works” indicates that you cannot tell from the item itself if it actually serves a purpose. “Never Used” is its own damning confession that you have owned more things than you can actually use.
Once the tax is affixed to the items, you wait for the dread morning to arrive. You pass the time checking weather reports for Saturday morning and posting inventories to Facebook and Craigslist. The night before you realize you haven’t made signs so you do the arts and crafts project of painting signs that can be read through a passing car window at 40 miles per hour. If you are very fortunate, you will have a partner willing to do this part for you.
You will also need to visit your local credit union to withdraw some of the money you haven’t yet spent on stuff. You will ask for this money to be presented in an array of quarters, ones and fives. This money goes into the Special Box which must be protected at all times during the sale. You have never actually read an article about someone getting smashed in the head at a yard sale for a boxful of quarters and ones, but you are certain you have heard from somebody that it has happened.
When the morning arrives, you are not ready. You slept a bit later than you intended and, while it is still dark on your Saturday morning off from work, you won’t have enough time to sip your coffee and get the stuff outside before the presale warriors arrive one hour early to try and buy your best stuff at half its labelled value.
You will rush to get every table you own set up on your front lawn and the items merchandised for maximum appeal. You will try to position the tables as a kind of funnel, drawing guests toward the clothes rack at the back. You place a few large items at the front of the driveway to lure them in. The Rock Band Wii game (Works!) sits proudly roadside, tempting cruisers as they coast past that this sale is work parking for. It is the same principle as an ant trap.
This yard sale isn’t a trap. It has good stuff that you probably need. Or stuff that someone you know probably needs. Or stuff that you know you don’t need but remember once upon a time needing and now that you are here doesn’t it make good sense to buy it just in case you find yourself needing it again?
Even if you are happily married, you will argue with your spouse a bit while setting this all up. You will harbor uncharitable thoughts and feelings about them as they critique your merchandize skills. You will spend too much time trying to sort the tables into categorizes of use: housewares, toys, little kid stuff, outdated technologies. Your spouse will tell you just to get it out and on the tables. They are coming! They are coming!
And you look up to find it is true. They are coming. The hour is here. There is no escape. You are having a yard sale.
And then, a curious thing: you start not to mind so much. You welcome people to your home and invite them into conversation. You ask them if they are hunting anything in particular. Some are. Most are not. You talk to dozens of people you would never have the chance to meet or speak with in any other context and you are doing this in your own front yard.
Somehow, the morning starts to seem less awful. Someone who loves you brings you a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. You are talking to the busy, happy, productive early morning people and your front yard is now a kind of community. You met the sisters who live one town apart and yard sale every Saturday morning as a way to spend time together. You meet the guy who is remodeling his kitchen because he recently bought a house and his wife hates their new kitchen counters. You meet the hapless husband who walks around with his wife on FaceTime, showing her your wares and doing his best to sell her on them. You quickly realize he is desperate to please her, and she is not one to be easily pleased. You give him a deal on the framed, bathroom mirror because you imagine his wife will like it up close in person much more than on the phone’s tiny screen.
You spend twenty minutes talking to a retiree on a bicycle who lives five streets away. He recently moved south from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where the winters are fierce but the trail riding is unmatched. He is 75 if he is a day and he rides 15 miles everyday. Like you, he bought his house for proximity to the bike trails. He lost three friends in separate horrific bicycling accidents, one of which he describes in great detail. It is a kind of therapy for him, and at the end, you both agree that he should continue riding no matter what tragic fate ultimately lies unseen up the road. You have to do the things you love or you will die before you are dead.
And now you are wondering why you don’t stop to have conversations like this every Saturday morning. How interesting these people, all of them and how lucky you are to get to meet them, if only for a few minutes at a time.
And now, like me, you may begin humming “The People in Your Neighborhood” from Sesame Street. You can be forgiven if you are, but try not to do this aloud. It makes the customers worry.
And now you are no longer having a yard sale. You are just talking to people in a place with your stuff. Occasionally, some take things and give you money. The morning passes quickly.
The coffee maker you bought three weeks ago at Walmart (Works! Used Twice!) sells to the cafeteria worker at the county jail. “Those fellas love their coffee.”
A kid buys the abstract print of a cow’s face. This hung briefly in your kitchen but you took it down because it ruined the pleasure of cooking and eating hamburgers. He will hang it in his bedroom. At yard sales, we do not judge.
You meet the hospital volunteer who tells you that whatever stuffed animals you don’t sell can be donated to the hospital to help with kids. You check your watch and know that you aren’t going to sell many of these creatures at this point and offer to bag them all up for her. She carries a lawn/leaf bag of stuffed animals to their new home.
At the end of the sale, you feel tired and grateful. The sale wasn’t as painful as you had feared and you got rid of a lot of stuff. Don’t bother calculating how much you and your spouse made per hour. You could have worked a part-time job at fast food for one weekend and made more. Some of your unneeded things found new homes. Some will be placed in actual use, at least for a while. You kept all if out of the landfill, for now, and will take the rest to various donation centers.
Not a bad day’s work.
You and your spouse are glad to have all of this over. You tell each other this was the last one, that you will never have another yard sale ever again. And that, if one of you suggests a sale in the future, you should remind each other of this solemn oath.
Now, you have a box full of dollars and there is still weekend ahead. The credit union doesn’t open until Monday so you can’t deposit the cash. You wonder if you will manage to navigate the next two days without blowing through that cash on stuff.
Consumer-based capitalism is an elegant system. There’s really no escape.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A rather dull recitation of President Obama’s accomplishments. I had hoped to find an honest, searching, complex portrait of a person and president I admire very much. What I got instead was straightforward reporting of Obama’s handling of the recession; health care; energy policy; environmental policy; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; education; finance reform; same-sex marriage and race. Reads like 265 pages of newsprint. Illuminating if you have been a coma since 2008 and wanted to catch up on what you missed. The author offers a few insights into the complexity of Obama’s strategies and his ability to work many layers of complex, interrelated problems simultaneously.
The author is at his best when critiquing Obama’s shortcomings because he is able to do so with respect and admiration. Unfortunately, those sections come at the end and are far too spare. Not enough is made of the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes and civilian casualties. Massive violations of privacy and domestic surveillance are shrugged off in a few paragraphs.
The book reads as a first plea for history to regard the Obama years generously. I think history will be kind to Barack Obama but reading this in 2019 is dispiriting. Watching many of Obama’s accomplishments thoughtlessly attacked and dismantled by stupid, mean and venal people, I rather wish the author had found an adjective more descriptive than “consequential” to describe Obama’s contributions. It is probably too soon to know what the right word will be. The version of this book written after the end of 45’s term will be clearer. The 46th President will have a lot of repair to do but will find a template for success in the legacy of Barack Obama.
The poet Mary Oliver died today. I want her to know I am grateful. She, more than many, shows how the practice of poetry saves lives. The practice of poetry protects us from pedantry and meanness. Habits of poetry lift us from ugliness, inattention and boredom.
Mary Oliver offers patience and attention, how to be present in the world while living in it. I will write my whole life hoping for one clear poem, one paragraph or a sentence so finely observant, so clear and true. Mary Oliver tells us not to suppose or daydream, but wake up and see.
I once foolishly tried to explain the meaning of “Wild Geese” to a class of community college freshmen during a library orientation. I recited for them “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” They didn’t get it because I didn’t get it.
I thought I understood but only now, when the world is breaking my heart and I am feeling the limits of my own time and possibility, do I begin to understand. We are animals, you and I. We are not separate from the rest of creation. We are as confused and limited and small with no idea where we come from or where we are going. And yet, we can rise. We are not lost in our despair. We have a place. We belong. We are reminded, time and time again that we belong. But only if we listen.
Only if we listen.