Thursday, May 9, 2019

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Expected publication: June 4th 2019 by Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9780525562023

This work is called a novel but it is a ball of flame tossed into a dark night, blinding, brilliant, searing. Who knows if it is poetry or novel or memoir; the language fills the mouth and is saturated with truth. We recognize it. We’ve tasted it. We are pained by it. It still hurts.

Something here is reminiscent of the epic poetry of Homer. Life's brutality, man’s frailty, the odyssey, the clash of civilizations, the incomparable language undeniably capturing human experience, these things make Vuong someone who heightens our awareness, deepens our experience, shocks us into acknowledgement of our shared experiences. What have we in common with a Greek of ancient times singing of a war and the personal trials of man? What have we in common with a gay immigrant boy writing of war and the personal trials of man?

The story is clear enough but fragmentary. In a Nov 2017 LitHub interview, Vuong tells us
”I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie. In a way, I’m curious about a work that rejects its patriarchal predecessors as a way of accepting its fissured self. I think, perennially, of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. This resistance to dominant convention is not only the isolated concern of marginalized writers—but all writers—and perhaps especially white writers, who can gain so much by questioning how the ways we value art can replicate the very oppressive legacies we strive to end.”
The novel he speaks of is this one. I did not understand that paragraph when I first read it as well as I do now. I am more aware, too, having looked closely for the Western world’s acknowledged historical tendency to erase or ignore pieces of experience not congruent with their own worldview.

The language Vuong brings is exquisite and extraordinary: “The fluorescent hums steady above them, as if the scene is a dream the light is having.” “…the thing about beauty is that it’s only beautiful outside of itself.” “The carpet under his bare feet is shiny as spilled oil from years of wear.” “…repeating piles of rotted firewood, the oily mounds gone mushy…” “He had a thick face and pomaded hair, even at this hour, like Elvis on on his last day on earth.”

Vuong repeats motifs to tie the experiences of one person to the rest of his life, to tie one person’s experiences to those of others: “I’m at war.” “We cracked up. We cracked open.” “…you never see yourself if you’re the sun. You don’t even know where you are in the sky.” “…my cheek bone stinging from the first blow.” “I was yellow.”

A teen, immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam with his mother, grandmother, and aunt finds himself fleeing his “shitty high school to spend [his] days in New York lost in library stacks,” from whence he, first in this family to go to college, squanders his opportunity on an English degree.

The teen discovers his gayness and does not flee it, though his white lover agonizes and denies all his life. We watch that boy fall, wither, die under the scourge of fentanyl and opioid addiction and Vuong places the scourge in the wider context of an awry world.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fragmented, shattered nature of the tale, there is a real momentum to this novel, Vuong telling us things not articulated in this way before: a familiar war from a new angle, the friction burn of the immigrant experience, the roughness of gay sex, the madness of living untethered in the world. The language is so precise, so surprising, so wide-awake and fresh, that we read to see.

Last year, in September of 2018, I reviewed Vuong’s first book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The poems had many of the same tendencies toward epic poetry—they were big, and meaningful. Below I have attached a short video of Vuong reading from that collection to give you some idea of his power.

Among his honors, he is a recipient of the 2014 Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a 2016 Whiting Award, and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize. He is an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Writers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is thirty years old.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub February 12th 2019 by Liveright, ISBN13: 9781631494369

Since beginning Buttigieg's book, I have travelled across the country and spoken with lots of folks outside of my usual cabal. Nearly everyone I spoke with had heard of Buttigieg, current Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, running for President as a Democratic candidate. Only one of the people I spoke with mentioned his homosexuality as a reason for his possible failure to connect, and the same person was also skeptical about his age.

Buttigieg himself would remind voters that his age has been the thing that conversely has energized people, particularly older voters, who recognize that their generation left his generation with a big problem when it comes to climate change. Older people who have no stake in what will come are unlikely to move the needle as far and as fast as it needs to move. Time to step aside and hope for fresh ideas. At least that is what Buttigieg is peddling.

When I listen to him talk, I agree. I just want all the old men and women who have left both parties in a shambles with attempts to hold onto power (What power do they exhibit, may I ask? It’s positively derisive.) to leave the stage asap.

This book is easy enough to read, though does not rank with Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father which broke the mold on literary presidential memoirs. Truthfully, I picked up the book in the midst of an infatuation with Buttigieg’s calm sense and blunt assessments, and before I finished, I felt the bloom had left the rose. I still admire him and definitely consider him a frontrunner but I am not infatuated anymore. This is a good thing. I go into my support of his candidacy with a clear head.

Buttigieg is genuinely talented in languages, and it makes one wish we learned what he did from his linguist mother. One of my favorite of his stories is when he told Navy recruiters that he’d studied Arabic in hopes of landing an intelligence job at a desk somewhere and they wrote down that he’d studied “aerobics.” That is classic SNAFU.

Buttigieg describes the feeling at rallies for presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The two rallies had the ambiance of a party, but while Bernie’s parties seem joyous and goofy—Bernie with the finch, Bernie riding a unicorn, buttons featuring glasses and hair—Donald Trump’s parties have a edge, like a party where “you’re not sure if a fight will break out.” This is good storytelling. We know exactly what he is saying and can feel the roil.

What kills me about Buttigieg is that he is so quiet about some of his biggest accomplishments, e.g., he applied for a Rhodes scholarship and got it, he decided to run for president and he is a frontrunner. He doesn't thrash about explaining his calculations: a nobody mayor of a small city calmly and quietly declares an exploratory committee and begins criss-crossing the country before anyone else has even thought to get into the race and captures a lot of press because of his youth and his self-possession.

He could see the Democratic party had lost its way, punctuated by the loss in 2016, to say nothing of the turmoil in what used to be a Republican party. He could see that sitting back and watching ‘the clash of the white hairs’ was not going to advance us because these folks appear bewildered by where we have landed. He thought he could be useful, pointing out the obvious and taking steps to address some of our most urgent issues. Gosh darn it if he isn’t.

One of the more startling and interesting things Buttigieg said about government is that
“some of the most important policy dynamics of our time have to do with the relationships, and the tension, between state and local government.”
I pulled that quote out for you to see because I think this is something national pundits and talking heads miss completely.

Way back in the 1970’s and 80’s Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist, figured this out and moved to capturing the heartland. That strategy has brought us gerrymandering and court-packing and other state-level indications of one-party dominance. But local governments are finding that counties walking in lock-step to the state does not always work for their particular conditions. There is great inequality as a result of GOP leadership at the state level. What is government about anyway?

A Koch Brothers-funded think tank called the American Legislative Exchange Council is pointed to as generating model legislation for adoption in state legislatures and finds sympathetic state actors to carry the bills.
“Legislation is often nearly identical from state to state—so much so that journalists sometimes find copy-paste errors where the wrong state is mentioned in the text of a bill. Tellingly, by 2014, ALEC had decided to expand its model beyond the state level—not by going federal, but instead targeting local policy through a new offshoot called the American City County Exchange.”
Democrats must be willing to compete in red zones—many times it is only because they are not competing that they have less support.

Buttigieg makes the point that many folks got involved in local and county government as a matter of course in their lives, as one aspect of community participation, and they chose the most organized party to help them on their way. That would be the Republican party. They are pretty inculcated with the party line after a few years, but they may not agree with everything the party posts. That is why Indianans could vote for both Mike Pence and Pete Buttigieg. Voters really can read, think, make up their own minds.

We have to be in it to win it. I am more and more reluctant to declare myself Democrat after seeing some of the shenanigans local, state, and national leaders get up to. But I’ll be damned if I’ll sit by and watch the plotters and weavers poison the well. If ever there was a time to stand up and participate with your voices, now is that time. Choose your issues, decide at which level you can intervene, look to see where you might have some degree of influence, and get engaged. No more cheering from the sidelines.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Hardcover, 402 pgs, Pub March 6th 2018 by Dutton Books, ISBN13: 9781101985625

Brad Parks’ compulsively readable standalone crime thriller is nearly flawless. The author takes risks by making his protagonist a woman, a young white mother married to a black man. While he might make a misstep or two in how a woman might react to rape or a first-time mother might react to being wrongly accused of several crimes and then having her child taken by social services, he has a strong enough case that we keep reading to see how he will explain it all.

Technically, the book moves smoothly between points of view, from accused, to police, to perp, to innocent victim. Our own opinions are in flux as we get pushed and pulled with every new development in the case against the mother. She is a victim several times over, and we can explain her reticence to spill her guts and tell all she knows to her attorney by first considering her foster-care background.

The whole builds up to a situation in which good people can get hurt by other well-meaning people because everyone is being manipulated by normal human perceptions and reactions. Preet Bharara, former Chief Prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, recently wrote in his memoir that one thing he learned in his time at one of the most visible courts in the land that “[a]nyone is capable of anything.”

I read this book at first because the author is the son of one of my brother’s best friends, but I am pleased to be able to report that the skill, talent, and sheer dare-devil chutzpah of the author is on full display. Brad Parks takes risks but is able to pull off the heist. Congratulations, Brad Parks!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Hardcover, 291 pgs, Pub Jan 29th 2019 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812995701

I just love this book. When I first heard Terry Gross interviewing Dreyer on NPR’s Fresh Air, I thought he was trying too hard to make amusing something that can be utterly stultifying. However, when I had the chance to listen to Dreyer reading the book, published by Penguin Random House Audio, I was entranced and delighted. How can this be, you ask. It is counterintuitive that reading a style book on writing would be amusing.

Dreyer’s delivery is dry, dry as a bone, so-o-o dry that I would be laughing aloud, missing his next entry, as he lined up all the stupid stuff we write—the adverbs, extra adjectives, and the ‘very unique’ emphasizers. I was amazed Dreyer could read this text aloud and make sense, filled as it is with examples he needs to capitalize or spell a certain way. I could follow it! And it was interesting. He rarely read from his footnotes, which are copious and useful and also funny, one good reason to get both the book and the audio.

One can even make the case that audio is an excellent format for this material, as rules run into one another and it is complicated and time-consuming to both separate the rules and look them up. Dreyer just gives it to us conversationally, in context, without taking out the ruler.

Practically all of us are writers—indeed, publishers—now, whether we write blogs, notes to friends, or posts for social media. We need to take care our words communicate what we want them to say and not what we did not wish to say. We all must be copy editors as well, and we need Dreyer to tell us what we really mean.

Benjamin Dreyer has worn a lot of hats, all at the same company. He began as a freelance proofreader, moved to Copy Editor, then Production Editor, and finally Copy Chief at Random House, now one of the largest book publishers in the United States. In this B&N podcast interview, Dreyer describes the distinction between those jobs and how, after he moved into management, he had an opportunity to circle back and spend time highlighting discrepancies between good and bad writing. He’s awfully good at it, he’s funny, and he’s seen it all in his nearly thirty years in the business. I kept thinking how much there is to know about using language, even for native speakers, and how useful this material is to all of us. So I went and bought the hardcopy.

Dreyer admits to hating grammar, that is, he hates grammar jargon. Which is just fine because I usually just skip those parts. What the heck, I figure. If I haven’t learned it yet, what good will it do me? I am not a completist. I tried to follow his rules in this review so far as I recall them, having laughed through half of them and listened with half an ear when he hit on something I'd worried over in the past…my memories probing that sore place like a tongue in the socket of a lost tooth. How reassuring it is to me to know that the past tense of wreak is wreaked, something with which I have struggled.

There was a point on a long drive when I started laughing uncontrollably at the sometimes stupid stuff he says. In this case it was
Gory crimes are grisly.
Tough meat is gristly.
Some bears are grizzly.
Mistaken references to “grizzly crimes” (unless committed by actual bears, in which case OK) are extremely popular, although good for a chuckle, and to be avoided strenuously.
“Grizzled” refers to hair streaked with gray—and by extension, it does make a decent synonym for “old.” It does not mean, as many people seem to think it does, either unkempt or rugged.
It’s okay if you didn’t laugh at that. I’m telling you, Dreyer’s wit is cumulative. If you have ever seen those old books by Richard Lederer, I recall one was called Anguished English, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Three generations of my family sat shouting and crying with laughter at the difficulty of writing well.

People who write for a living won’t want to miss this. Journalists, novelists, public speakers, politicians, business people who write reports, social media junkies: When he actually points out our common errors, we admit with chagrin it looks, and sounds, silly.

Below is a sample of Dreyer reading from the book. You can listen to this on a commute, can't you?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Let Her Fly: A Father's Journey by Ziauddin Yousafzai with Louise Carpenter

Hardcover, 170 pgs, Pub Nov 13th 2018 by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN13: 9780316450508

This book caught my eye across a crowded library. What must it have been like to experience the phenomenon that is Malala Yousafzai and what were the earliest manifestations of her exceptionality?

Ziauddin Yousafzai was unusual himself. He and his brothers all had severe stammers growing up, but not his sisters. Of course the boys bore the brunt of family expectations. He took on a challenge to become an outstanding public speaker, delivering a speech his father helped him to craft. When he won first place in the competition, he continued his effort to overcome his speech impediment through public speaking.

Ziauddin was a feminist before the word was popular in Pakistan and when he married and moved with his wife, Toor Pekai, to Swat, his wife took advantage of his encouragement to embrace small freedoms during their life there. Their first daughter would be a much more enthusiastic reformer, willing to cover her head but not her face. Malala often sat with her father’s friends and answered questions of opinion he would put to her. She became a skilled public speaker through his influence, and she won many public speaking awards on her favorite topic: the rights and education of girls.

Malala was exceptionally bright and curious from an early age and attracted the attention of visitors to the Yousafzai household. She also broke down the resistance to change by her conservative grandfather. She attended a school run by her father and excelled, far more than her brothers who were ordinary in schoolwork. The Yousafzai school encourage all local girls to attend, and had a large number.

The campaign in which Yousafzai and his daughter Malala engaged to save girls education had been going against the Taliban’s edicts for about five years when the attack on her occurred. She was fifteen.

There is detail about Malala being flown by helicopter from one hospital to another, to gradually larger ones with more surgical expertise, until she finally is set down in Birmingham, England, where they take off any blood pressuring her brain, happily discovering there was no impingement on her cognitive function. She began a long series of reconstructive surgeries to lessen the impact of the nerve damage to her face.

Living in England turned the family dynamic 180 degrees. Malala had been a strong presence and leader in the family. While she was incapacitated, her younger brothers took on critical roles interfacing with British culture. The parents admit they resisted the power inversion at first, feeling out of their element, but gradually they were grateful for the boys' facility in the new environment and relied on them. The family grew closer in crisis because everyone came to recognize and accept their strengths and weaknesses.

Malala’s recovery was undoubtedly due to support from her family, but also grew from her own inner strength. The damage inflicted on her gave her more opportunity to develop an extraordinary resilience, and the long recovery gave her the opportunity to concentrate on her studies.
Whenever anybody has asked me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the response "Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings."
The Yousafzai family members each have a quality of gratefulness that is so attractive, allowing each one to occasionally take a supporting role to another's exceptionalism. That less-lauded role is equally difficult to perform. The entire family deserves credit for surviving with such strength of character, but that specialness may stem from the leadership of Ziauddin Yousafzai, which is why this book is about him.

Friday, March 22, 2019

An Unlikely Journey by Julián Castro

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Oct 16th 2018 by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN13: 9780316252164

Memoirs are de rigueur for anyone aspiring to the presidency. And so they should be, to introduce themselves and to give us an idea from where their sense of duty emanates. Nonetheless, it is disorienting to read the memoir of someone in their forties running for president who never mentions travel abroad.

At least half this book is composed of Julián’s life before he was twenty. For those who argue that “youthful indiscretions don’t matter,” here is someone who clearly thinks one’s sense of self and others grows up with you.

While I might go along with that notion of human development, it is the time after age twenty when we have to make decisions that really show who we are. After graduating from Stanford University and Harvard Law, Castro returned to his home city of San Antonio, took a job with a law firm and promptly ran for San Antonio City Council in his home district and won.

Right out of the gate was a big conflict of interest. Castro’s law firm represented a developer who wanted to build a golf course over the city’s aquifer and get a tax break to do it. Castro quit his paying job with the law firm, ended up voting no on the proposal with the backing of 56% of San Antonio residents.

The initial project failed--not because of his vote--but another came right behind it, this time for two golf courses, but with stronger environmental protections and no tax breaks. Castro voted for the project the second time. He uses the example of this project to show the importance of local government work, but also what people can do when they have principled objections and work together.

The experience fueled Castro’s interest in higher office. He lost at his first attempt to run for mayor of San Antonio, and it looks like it was his first big public failure. He felt humiliated. But like everyone who eventually succeeds, he had to pick himself up and do it again, which he did, winning in 2009. After that, he went back and forth to Washington, as head of HUD under Obama, and then mentioned as vice-presidential pick during the run up to the 2016 election.

It takes a special personality to want the blood sport that is politics. Castro learned the power of the people from his mother, who was known for her organizing work. He has a twin brother who absorbed the same lessons and worked alongside him to set up and win elections while they were in college and after. But what makes one reach for the highest office?

We all have to find the answer to that one, and while I am not impressed with those who want to see their names in lights—or gold letters eight feet high—there are people who are at least as capable as the rest of us but who want the limelight. I’m willing to give it to them if it makes sense for the direction we need to move.

Julián Castro is not ready, to my mind, to run for the presidency. I do not get the reassurance he even knows what it is. I don't mind some learning on the job, but look at what Teresa May just went through. There is a largeness to the job that will always exceed our best attempts to put our arms around it. Do I think he would be worthy some day? Maybe.

What we are doing now in our presidential slates--going as old as we can and as young as we can--is unappealing to me. Precociousness is a real thing, and I don't want to stand in the way of talent. To me, Castro for President is premature, but I have to admit the world belongs to the young now, who are going to have to find a way to live in it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Article 353 by Tanguy Viel, translated by William Rodarmor

Paperback, 160 pgs, Pub March 12th 2019 by Other Press (NY) (first published January 3rd 2017), Orig Title: Article 353 du code pénal, ISBN13: 9781590519332

This mystery novel by prize-winning novelist Tanguy Viel is translated from the French but suffused with French melancholy and spirit. The dark, foggy atmosphere of the northern French coast comes through strongly in the conversation between two men: one asking questions, the other explaining the death of a man everyone thought they knew. Several times we are turned about in our perceptions of what happened.

The whole book would make an excellent play, if the backdrop behind the men in conversation was a large window opening onto the view of the old château on its five acres of maintained lawn sloping down to the sea. The down-on-its-luck coastal town had riches in that view.

We smell the salt air and consider wealth. What is wealth and how do we know when we have it? How does it makes us feel and how much wealth is enough? Everyone in the town worked at a metal fabricators for naval vessels but the factory was closing and severance payments, while large, had to last a lifetime for some of the middle-aged.

Along comes a property developer who wants to build a glittering resort where the château stands. It sounds like a good idea in a town losing its primary industry. Martial Kermeur lives in the château's grounds-man’s cottage for free, though he is responsible for keeping the five acres surrounding the château cut and trimmed. His son, only ten, lives with him after the divorce.

Kermeur’s tale is told after several years; his son is now seventeen. The story is not complicated, “just a run-of-the-mill swindle.” The villain in the piece is in sight the entire time. Here is a classic tale of right and wrong, good and evil; we must consider how far the penal code extends to protecting citizens from wrongdoing.

We don’t often get the opportunity to read current French novels that have captured that nation’s imagination—a nation which supplied some of the greatest philosophers the world has yet known. The tale retains the taste of France. Finishing up at less than one-hundred-and-fifty pages, this novelette makes us look deep inside for how we view right and wrong,