Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk

Paperback, 224 pgs, Pub Mar 1st 2003 by St. Martins Press-3pl (first published 2002), ISBN13: 9780312311308

This work was initially published in 2002, and fifteen years later we learn that it had a rocky reception. Womenkind may indeed be split into two irreconcilable halves because I have no idea what could incense people about this book: I laughed through it, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was marking her passages to relate later, so clearly did they capture the ambiguity we feel between love and distress at being so loved and/or needed ourselves.

This memoir of the circumstance surrounding the conception, birth, and first years of a child’s life is really a tight series of essays. Cusk manages to capture moments that illuminate the despair mothers can feel when they discover the true disorientation that comes with bringing the baby home—feelings like cotton wool has supplanted one’s brain and that one cannot find the wherewithal to make a plan—the whole exhaustion of it.

No one really prepared her for the sense of having one’s life hijacked—she admits she’d jumped right over references to children or infants in the writing of those she’d enjoyed before. The children part wasn’t relevant and didn’t matter—a little like me when as a teen I skipped the foreign names in any book I read. I would note the first letter of the name and gauge the length of the word by blurring my eyes. I could distinguish individuals by something distinctive the author had shared about them, so why even bother to learn to pronounce their names?

Cusk’s own story is different than everyone else’s: her daughter “sucks well,” sucking for hours at a time, giving her a short break before starting up again. The nurses she consulted all considered this to be good news, generously praising mother and child for being able to move onto the next phase, bottle-feeding, whenever she had spare hours to sterilize the equipment and make up the formula—or pump and freeze her own milk to put in sterilized bottles.

With motherhood, Cusk has discovered her presence “has accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter.” There was never any slack, no “lubricant empty hours” in which nothing is planned or paid for. When interviewing babysitters, sometimes she might find herself giving overly-detailed instructions about every aspect of her daughter’s care, as though the caregiver could in some way understand “what it was like to be me.”

A very funny but telling paragraph or two is given over to describing a scene she happened upon one night on a television documentary in which a pampered American housewife admits she would prefer her child get less attention from her South American nanny rather than have the nanny care for the American children as though they were her own: “I’m like, you know, put her down, she knows how to sit in the hot tub!” A hot tub. A baby.

Towards the end of this memoir is a chapter entitled “Don’t Forget to Scream!” about the family’s move to a university town. Mother appears to miss her London life in the way she had missed it when she had the baby. The baby is a toddler now, and when invited to the local play group housed in a church hall, she is manhandled by the other children. Mother could see that successful mothering ventures contained a measure of military organization:
“…conscription to the world of orthodox parenthood demands all the self-abnegation, the surrender to conformity, the relish for the institutional, that the term implies…Here the restaurants had high chairs and changing facilities, the buses wide doors and recesses for prams.”
The chaos of living among those outside the …hood cannot be found here in the privileged, patriarchal enclave of the university town where everyone asks, “What does your husband do?”

Cusk is out of step, gloriously, and can tell us what we look like, those of us who haven’t stepped back long enough to think about it. The mothers in the university town are older than she is—far older, some grey-haired and pregnant-bellied. This societal change she notes casually but is an observation that should make us sit up and think. Practically everything she says makes me think, which is why I think any one of these chapters would work well as essays—a short sharp strike across the noggin.

The language she employs to describe a year of sleeplessness recalls young men on the front lines in war.
“The muddled nights began to attain an insomniac clarity. My insides grew gritty, my nerves sharp…I no longer slept in the intervals, but merely rested silently like some legendary figure, itinerant, doughty and far from home. The reservoir of sleep I had accumulated through my life had run dry. I was living off air and adrenalin. Mercury ran through my veins."

What can I say? She makes me laugh, she makes me think. Her writing electrifies me. Reading Cusk novels and memoirs back to back is pure indulgence. Below please find reviews of Cusk's other work in order:

In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea











Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Jackrabbit Smile & Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub March 27th 2018 by Mulholland Books, ISBN13: 9780316311588, Series: Hap and Leonard #12

The Hal & Leonard series is full up with crazy male bravado and vulnerability, pressing hard on our moral, sexual, and racial understanding until we squeeze out a guffaw and decide to fall for these guys sitting on our faces. These two take on challenges others would let fall into a fast-flowing river, and now that the series has become a regular gig on Sundance Channel as an Original Series, starring America’s own brilliant, tough-seeming, and comedic Michael Kenneth Williams and British star James Purefoy, hopefully Joe Lansdale will get more airtime .

Lansdale barrels ahead riding roughshod over anyone who hasn’t updated their hard drive with new information about the lives of gays, trans, and people of color. No more excuses will be made for those faltering on the road to total acceptance of these folks living in America. Lansdale doesn’t make any bones about it, just assumes the bad guys are the unreformed who ‘haven’t quite gotten there yet.’ There is damage being done daily to the psyches of ordinary folk with extraordinary skills who have to put up with crippling prejudice.

This fast-paced addition to the series addresses white supremacy head on: WHITE IS RIGHT is emblazoned on the T-shirt of a young man seeking the investigative services of Hap & Leonard, not knowing Leonard can be rattlesnake mean to those who disparage him for his color...or any old thing he might take it in his mind to do. This is the book #12 in the series so Lansdale doesn’t spend much time explaining the two main characters. The chapters are short and speedy, racing to a gruesome dénouement that features a hog farm, some mean twins, and a jackrabbit smile.

This is the kind of book one can read in a day, relaxedly, since it is mainly composed of dialogue and a few hard whacks of a rifle butt. But it will put you in a good mood since the bad guys get theirs and the good guys, well, they may not ever get paid, but think of what they’re doing for the planet! I ❤️ Joe Lansdale.

------------------
-
Hardcover, 292 pgs, Pub Mar 27th 2012 by Mulholland Books, ISBN13: 9780316188432

Is there a more prolific writer of Westerns than Joe Lansdale? Endlessly inventive, Lansdale has both a series featuring Hap & Leonard, and a slew of standalones in which he shares the way even good people can get themselves in a bad way in a world with evil in it.

In this standalone novel, published in 2012 by Mulholland Books, 16-year-old Sue Ellen is narrating. She lives in a small southern town and has two friends her age: a white gay boy named Terry who is reluctant to let anyone know his inclinations, and Jinx, a black girl friend since childhood. Lansdale is so natural in his use of skin color that he can teach us things we never knew we needed to know.

Sue Ellen, Terry, and Jinx discover the town’s beauty, May Lynn, killed and submerged in the river, tied by the ankle with wire attached to a sewing machine. None of the grown men in the town seem to want to pursue the matter, but merely shove the body in a casket and cover up the evidence. We get a bad feeling, but mostly we sense any sixteen-year-olds ought to pack up & leave that place, so when the kids decide that’s what they’re going to do, we’re onboard.

They’re floating, by the way, on a wooden raft, and along the way they pick up more than one who decides to go with them. Seems like practically everyone who knows their plans—to go to Hollywood—wants to go with them, if not the whole way, at least far enough to get out of town. There’s a posse of folks, more than one, following behind, looking for them, so it gets hectic and dangerous and the hangers-on fall off, one by one.

Lansdale always seems to get the tone right, however, and when there is a chance for evil to thrive he makes us question whether or not that’s the way we want things to play out. After all this is kind of a crime novel, kind of a police procedural, kind of a mystery, but it’s got heart…more heart than we’ve come to expect of the genre. I like the way people think and make choices that seem fair and right and good.

Lansdale himself is really kind of a standalone guy. As far as I know there isn’t anyone else doing this kind of crossover writing with lessons on race, human nature, and on right and wrong. It is never sappy, often funny, and always deeply thoughtful. He is not religious: “I got misery enough in my life without adding religion to it,” says a character in one of his later novels. The language he uses is country, and can be extremely descriptive, if not entirely proper: “Expectations is a little like fat birds—it’s better to kill them in case they flew away” or “certain feelings rose to the surface like dead carp.”

The Hap & Leonard series has been made into a TV series starring Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy. It is a rich stew of southern storytelling, darkened by reality but leavened with laughter. I don’t think I need to state how difficult it is to create new characters, new language, and new situations every year (sometimes more than once a year? is it possible?) and hit the bell each time. I’m a fan.



Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub May 26th 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374184032

One has to ask oneself why we read memoirs of travels. Wouldn’t it be better to just take off on our own, not knowing of other people’s troubles or joys in case we are fearful or disappointed? But Rachel Cusk reminds us why we read other people’s tales: she is observant, and terribly funny. Tales of her trips make ours resonant with laughter, too. How did we first manage when confronted with grocery stores without anything we would consider food in them?

Oh yes, training one’s palate until we recognize what is so special about food, in this case, in Italy. The simplicity of it. We meet the brusque-seeming, loud and insistent butcher, the tennis-playing hotelier who smokes incessantly, and the “four Englishwomen [on the train] their own laps full of purchases from Florence boutiques…returning to their rental villa in the hills….They seem to have outlived the world of men, of marriage and motherhood and children. They laugh hilariously at anything any one of them says. They are a third sex, these happy materialists.”

One of the best afternoon’s amusements is listening to Cusk detail the paintings she comes upon in her travels; endless pictures of Madonna and any number of versions of the Child. She gives the backstory of Raphael, his adoration of the work of Michelangelo, and his death at the early age of thirty-seven. The observations she makes about the “congested alleyway toward the Piazza della Signoria, where a riot of of café terraces and horse-drawn tourist carriages and pavement hawkers selling African jewelry is underway.” How much has this scene changed in millennia of Italian history? Or has it always been just like this, where people
“push and shove rudely, trying to get what they want…I have seen a fifteenth-century painting of the Piazza della Signoria, where children play and the burghers of Florence stroll and chat in its spacious spaces, while the monk Savonarola is burned at the stake in the background outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Here and there peasants carry bundles of twigs, to put on the fire.”
So few are the antiquities that people from the world over wait in long, snaking lines, “an overgrown humanity trying to fit into the narrow, beautiful past, like a person in corpulent middle age trying to squeeze in to a slender garment from their youth.” It takes one’s breath away, the clarity with which Cusk writes, reminding us of what we may have once observed but could not convey.

The Catholics have a large presence in Italy, the Basilica di San Francesco lending credence to “the giantism of Catholic architecture…which harmonize unexpectedly with the iconography of late capitalism…the airport terminal…and the shopping mall.” Cusk takes the stuffing out of adults who use “Christianity as a tool, a moralizing weapon they had fashioned in their own subconscious…the strange, dark chasm of repression and subjectivity…judgment lay down there…flowing like a black river.” Do I need to say Catholic school growing up in England was a less than satisfactory experience?

This is the book I would give a friend to explain why I love the work of Cusk so. How can one not appreciate the quiet way she inserts her family into an unfamiliar world and does not spare herself nor anyone else the sharpness of her observations. The family moves over a period of months, down the Italian coast, just south of Naples.

The last day of their southern journey, the ‘bottom’ of their vacation, they are denied a trip to Capri by boatman strike. Instead they boat to Positano where father, mother, and two children paid fifteen Euros each to lie on the beach. Beside them were young American newlyweds in white bathers, ‘groomed as gods” but timid and self-conscious. Cusk wishes she had a Raphael to paint them for her, and I do, too.

Cusk has a warmth in her writing for the magnificent, the ‘theatrical and sincere,’ the elaborate, the splendid Italians, and she tells us her children will always remember Italy as a place they want to live. Her husband gets no notice, and if we did not know she travelled in a family of four, we would not know he was there at all. This book was published in 2009, and three short years later her marriage lay in ruins. We see the beginning of that split here, methinks.

One feels quite as though one had done this journey, too, traveling along with sunburnt girls in the back of a car with the windows wide. The final week in a faded blue tent strike us as real as real can be—even with the call from the publisher saying the rights to publish her last book in South Korea allowed them the possibility of a glorious, comfortable night in a seaside resort with gold bathroom fixtures but an unused swimming pool and a beautifully-appointed restaurant in which no one ate.

‘Rewarding’ hardly seems adequate praise. I savor her work like Peruginas. Her writing is for me like one of those moments she describes whose effects will last forever…visually stunning, thought-provoking, delicious to remember. The summer feels lived.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea





Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Bradshaw Variations: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub March 30th 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2009), ISBN13: 9780374100810

Moving backward through Cusk’s oeuvre I come to this novel featuring flawed suburbanites—couples whom Cusk, in the end, treats gingerly. There is no need to be cruel since we all suffer from some sort of imaginative lapse, whether or not be can recognize our own among those described here. One character is a woman often silent and dressed in black, standing watching, judging, and sometimes relating the action to readers. But she can wear blinkers in her own household, not recognizing how untethered and unsure her husband has become in his role, until he abandons part of it.

This is another of Cusk’s book that begins with a challenge, in this case, the question What is art? Readers will look forward to how this book relates to that question, repeated time and again throughout the narrative, just about the time the reader feels far removed from that promising interrogative start. And the final scene is another of Cusk’s remarkable, unforgettable bloodbaths which recall theatrical roots that seem to underpin much of Cusk’s work.

Three couples, the husbands all brothers, hold special delights for those tracing the effects a father might have on children and grandchildren, though the father, now an old man, is mostly just a memory.
“[Leo] has never heard his father raise his voice. There has been no need to raise it: it is in the leveling persistence that the violence is accomplished…it goes over everything and mechanically levels it, like a tank. It is benign, ruthless, unvarying…His voice has talked in Leo’s head about the world and its ways since he can remember.”
The father barely shows in person until that fateful last scene. We realize then that any failures or successes of the now-grown sons probably have little to do with the father after all this time. The range of the boys’ personalities prompt sniggers of recognition among those who have grown up with siblings, so used are we to the way the confident, the envious, and the spoilt interact.

We also get three different views of marriage, four, if you count the parents, still married after all these years. Howard and Claudia seem so unlikely until near the end when we see what holds them together. Leo and Susie limp along together, Leo relying on Susie to interface the world for him, despite her frequent tipping over into barely managing. Tonie has her own job, dresses in black, and generally stands aloof while her husband Thomas struggles with his own identity and sense of self-worth. Each brother is a little jealous of the others, except perhaps Howard, the entrepreneur. He sees the world for what it is and works with it.

This is a wonderful novel filled to overflowing with characterizations of people, of events, of passions, of depressions. We are not necessarily led anywhere—that is, it is essentially plotless, like a life is plotless. But it makes us recognize actions which will lead to an unhappy outcome, barring any intervention. It can be a mirror or a map, depending on where the reader finds him- or herself. It is beautifully deft and concise, the prose that brings us the struggles, joys, failures, and ambitions of the Bradshaws. And it features a dog and a piano and an adagio that tick-tocks like a clock. Time is relevant.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Medea (Oberon Classics) by Rachel Cusk, Euripides

Kindle Edition, 96 pages, Pub Sept 30th 2015 by Oberon Books, ASIN: B015ZT58N4

Rachel Cusk was invited by London’s Almeida Theatre to write a new version of Euripides’s Medea. The new play is both thoroughly modern and bears the stamp of personality of this talented novelist and memoirist. That she fiercely loves her children, two boys, is apparent. She followed Euripides’s formula, creating a storyline which places the blame differently.

If you remember the story, Medea kills her sons when her unfaithful husband marries the young & well-tended daughter of Creon. Considering how difficult it would be for anyone to contemplate such an act, and considering Cusk was severely castigated by readers for her memoir about motherhood, A Life’s Work, Cusk manages to make her work, like Euripides's work, many things at the same time: strong, agonized, righteous, and tragic.

Commentaries on the original Greek play had different interpretations of Medea herself. One made her out to be a young lover who changed her view of her husband when she’d had children. The things that she liked about her husband when he was a young man annoy her when she’s older. When she learned he was unfaithful and was looking for something new, she poisoned his new wife and killed the husband and sons out of pique and revenge.

A more nuanced interpretation, suggests Medea pursued her ambitious middle-aged husband Jason hotly, helping him to secure the fleece of the Golden Ram and thus develop a reputation as one of the most daring heroes of Hellas. But Medea was an foreigner and when she returned to Jason's home with him, her combative and fiery alien nature grated on the conservative natives . She grew tiresome for Jason and he sought another, younger, wealthier alliance that would increase his standing. Then Medea sought revenge.

Cusk’s Medea has less backstory, though from the voices of the chorus (a group of mothers meeting while their kids playdate, and who cross paths picking up their children at the school gates), we learn that Medea is not liked. She’s smart, but no one really likes her writing, if they read it at all. She’s opinionated, which doesn’t work if one wants a marriage to run smoothly ("she asked for it"). She’s a “snooty cow” because she doesn’t always recognize the women in different settings, her mind on other things. Cusk slips in a Holocaust joke: “She gone very Belsen,” referring to how Medea has stopped eating. “It’s called the divorce diet.”

Meanwhile, Medea turns to the audience and makes her case:
“A bad thing has happened to me
You’re scared that if I name it, it might happen to you, too.
…Sleep, woman, sleep.
You won’t even feel it when he creeps to your side
and slits your throat.
What’s that you say? What about love?
Yes, you’re loving souls aren’t you?
You love the whole world,
You love your little hearts out.
It’s all right, you can hate me.
Go ahead, feel free.
It’s so much easier than hating yourselves.
Medea has other voices speaking with her, ones more intimate: the Tutor and the Nurse and the Cleaner. The Cleaner is clear-eyed and clear-spoken and shares what she learned from her mother: the best revenge is to be happy. Pretend if you don’t feel it. Women are good at pretending.

The eventual playing out of the story is unique yet retains the pain of the original. We hear Creon slyly telling Medea “You know, you look completely different when you smile” while she is in the midst of her life’s most curdling trial. “There’s the sourness again. The problem with you is you don’t know how to love…an unloving woman is a freak.”

The audience undoubtedly feels stress levels rising as the characters have interleaved speaking parts—talking over one another. If you’ve ever been witness to a disagreement, this is one…after another…after another. Any uncomfortableness we feel when Jason and Medea are speaking is relieved by Nurse, Tutor, and Cleaner pointing to the absurdities of male expectations. But the best joke goes to Aegeus, who will become Medea’s second husband.

Aegeus, speaking to a Medea distraught about the money Jason expects from the marriage says he understands Jason is about to get his needs “assuaged” by a wealthy heiress. This word comes as a surprise in the midst of conversation and surely would elicit a burst of laughter in any theatre. The word joke may only work in English, but its excessive formality and sound-similarity to “massage” is a perfect bomb.

Cusk’s originality in portraying the oldest stories of all—love and infidelity—continues to entrance. I am even more impressed now with her fictional trilogy Outline than I was before I read whatever I could of her work. This author is special. In a book talk at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., Cusk says a criterion to use when creating is that a work should be “useful.” Exactly. That’s why her work, her honesty, her humor, her willingness ‘to go there’ is so exciting. What she does keeps us alive.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea



Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Hardcover, 204 pgs, Pub May 22nd 2018 by Drawn and Quarterly, ISBN13: 9781770463165, URL: https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/sabrina, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018)

This is the first graphic novel in the history of the Man Booker to be considered for an award. To say it is worthwhile doesn’t capture the real slap these big-bodied, small-headed figures levy. Lives of quiet desperation indeed. There may be some features missing in the frames…don’t all our lives have features missing? This feels terribly urgent, and painful, as though we cannot go another day without talking about it.

Sabrina lives in Chicago and has a life that includes a live-in lover, a cat, a sister, and a mother. One day she doesn’t come back from a walk. Drnaso shares the aftermath, picturing what life was like for those who remained, particularly for her boyfriend Teddy.

What is this story about, besides the central mystery? It is about what we do when our lives are upended, how we act, how we carry on. There are people we will remember as kind, and helpful, and others we will remember as clueless, and poisonous. We have to live in the world despite the horror it can hold. We obviously can decide not to do that as well.

The drawings have a real momentum that ratchet up our stress and fear levels. We are not completely clear on exactly what has happened until some distant midway point. We are as in the dark as the characters. When we finally get the news, we are disinclined to believe it, given all the peripheral noise. And finally, the darn conversations with Florida, and the workmates ostensibly helping with job prospects…they are so real they do not seem fictional at all.

What about the creepy guy in the white pickup looking for the cat? Why was he there, and what did he want? Was he meant to be an ambiguous figure meant to toy with us when we were so suspicious of everything? Was it the suspicion in our own minds that made the experience of meeting him and accepting his help so uncomfortable? If the frames were lighter and the background noise of a woman’s disappearance not concurrent, would we feel such strain upon seeing him in the street?

The ennui we feel upon hearing of a preventable tragedy like a mass shooting by a disaffected youth is not inevitable. Whether or not this is Drnaso’s message, I think those who pick up this book will see that we must not succumb to despair, and that sometimes we have to rely on ourselves, so inner resources are critical. We need to store up those inner resources for rainy days, while working to be kinder, and changing the way we treat one another.

The drawings and captions are extremely effective in conveying mood, attitude, situation. For some reason when characters looked through the closed blinds, I always had a frisson of energy. This sense of one hiding away and being afraid to look at reality stays with me. Maybe we’re all a little like that: too wrapped in our insular worlds an not paying enough attention to people and things around us.

Wake up, Drnaso might be saying.
Regarding the conspiracy theorist Albert Douglas, his resemblance to Alex Jones cannot be overlooked. It occurs to me now that the real Alex Jones may have been trying to see what it would take for some rights to begin to be abridged. I find it difficult to imagine the man is as mad as he pretends: Has anyone camped outside his house to videotape his interactions with family and friends neighbors to see if he is a lunatic off-screen? (I assume he has no friends. Is this wrong?) He may indeed be so conservative he wishes to hoist liberals on their own petard. For many of us who don't listen to Jones, it can be useful to actually hear what he has been saying and how close he strays to the edge...of sanity, or legality.




Monday, August 13, 2018

Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 147 pgs, Pub Aug 7th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2012), ISBN13: 9780374102135, Lit Awards: J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography Nominee (2013)

It used to be rare for me to read through a writer’s oeuvre at once. I was afraid I would show an author I admired to disadvantage. With Rachel Cusk, each book is another, deeper aspect of the same theme so one may move from one to another, gorging intemperately on the ideas there and stagger out like a bee drunk on honey.

Honesty, she says, is critical. If one is going to pay any attention to an author, honesty about the human experience, however coruscating, is key. Men write about war which tears the heart from the body. Women write about domestic issues which tear the soul from the heart. One day this may change. To date, thousands of years since the Greeks, it hasn’t yet.

Clytemnestra took over her husband’s work while he was away fighting the wars in Troy. Cusk calls her unisex, that she seeks equality, now that she’s seen men’s work and can handle it herself. But the ‘pure peace of equality’ does not engender children, or border expansion, or empires.
“It is all aftermath, predicated on the death of what was before…Clytemnestra wants no more begetting. She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence. To reach the aftermath, first there has to be the event itself.”
Reading backwards through Cusk’s work, I realize this book is the third piece of a memoir in acts. It begs to read through in a sitting, her writing is so clear, so inescapable, so sharp, so quivering and naked. Her husband barely appears and yet we hear her silent wail, like reverberations impacting eardrums. The children are her Iphegenia, “the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages.”
“Grief is not love but it is like love. This is romance’s estranged cousin, a cruel character, all sleeplessness and adrenalin unsweetened by hope.”
“I blame Christianity,” she says, lashing out. “The holy family, that pious unit…has a lot to answer for….The day feeble Joseph agreed to marry pregnant Mary the old passionate template was destroyed.” Honesty. Where was it then? Where is it now?

She doesn’t eat. In the chapter entitled “Aren’t You Having Any?” her children essentially beg their mother not to disappear, but “it is impossible to eat and stay vigilant.” Her daughter is invited to the party of a close friend, but when the time comes to pick her up, the narrator realizes the friend invited other people for a sleep-over, but not her daughter. She immediately attributes this to her divorce and considers it a calculated cruelty, but someone less involved would certainly make a different assessment. The daughter, perhaps ten years old, is the more adult in this case, urging her mother to drop it:
“They probably didn’t even think about it. That’s just how people are.”
Indeed they are. The chapter called “The Razor’s Edge” reminds us of Antigone, where sacred law meets state law. Creon is Antigone’s uncle who has ordered her not to bury her slain brother because of his alleged crimes against the state, of which Creon is in charge. Creon eventually retracts his threats, but too late. When Teiresias, the blind soothsayer, tells Creon to relent and forgive Antigone lest he perpetuate perversity, Creon first insults Teiresias, and then admits that he is frightened. This, Cusk tells us, is
“aftermath, the second harvest: life with knowledge of what has gone before…true responsibility is an act of self-destruction.”
Am I wrong in suggesting the narrator is right? We will all go through these stages in our life. Cusk is so close to it here, and so invested in her own version of it, that she does not realize this is natural, normal, perhaps even healthy. None of us was ever perfect, so perhaps a little self-destruction (read: ego-destruction) is called for. It’s the rebuilding that makes true love, true generosity possible. It happens regularly in good marriages: the breaking and restitching. Doesn’t it?

This narrator has a larger capacity for love than she ordinarily shares. This is clear in her story about the witch’s house: how she and her daughters rented a set of rooms in an old house but were kicked out by the proprietor before the agreed-upon time was up. She felt the wrong keenly and when she complained, she was deserted in a distant location by the proprietor. Cusk told her friends how she bravely got her own back, but she admits to us that a greater achievement would have been to acknowledge the lack of love and attention the place and the people needed. She sought safety for herself and her children, but sometimes safety is best found by opening up and letting go, rather than by holding on.

This astonishing end to a trilogy of memoirs only makes Cusk's writing all the more precious, knowing it was first written in blood, by her fingernails. It always amazes me that voices of such extraordinary power are not immediately recognized, nourished, protected. We need writers with skills and sensibilities like this, without which we’d have no standard to set the bar. Many thanks to this brave woman willing to share her innermost agonies in exquisite prose for our improvement.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea



Saturday, August 11, 2018

Transit by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub Jan 17th 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 1st 2016), ISBN13: 9780374278625, Series: Outline #2, Lit Awards: Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2017), Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2016)

It is strange, I suppose, for me to describe this trilogy of books as though they were thrillers, but they acted that way upon my consciousness. I read them out of order, 3-1-2, so I will discuss the totality of them in recognition of their separateness. There was a propulsiveness to the story as told by Faye, writer and teacher, former wife and current mother, and narrator of these three slim volumes. These easily contain some of the best writing I have enjoyed for many years.

The perspective in these novels is female, but Cusk gives us a wide range of male personalities to consider. She is not cruel, though it may be true she leaves out that ‘divine spark’ that gives the male its essence, its truest expression. Her observations are deep enough to border on psychoanalysis, giving us the material with which to draw the conclusions. It is fortunate she is so funny because we recognize then that this is fiction. Real life is never so funny. Is it?

The final scene in this novel recalls the title of a memoir of hers, The Last Supper, which is definitive, even conclusive, in some way. I have no idea whether the two are related in subject matter, but somehow I am tempted to believe they are. One leaves the dinner party shattered, with only shreds of one’s understanding of what makes a good spouse, a good parent intact. Everything we understood about marriage and parenting has been challenged and we are distraught to realize the only thing left of our understanding is that love must be in the equation somewhere. Scratch that. Everywhere. In great abundance.

As a set-piece, this scene has no parallel that I know of in modern literature. The utter compulsion with which we listen to each new voice, each new revelation, gives the book its thriller aspect. What new terror is around the turn in the conversation? Parenting is something about which everyone has opinions. Even when we think we don’t, as soon as someone else acts, we realize that oh yes, we do indeed have opinions.

During the dinner party, and several times in the course of this series of novels, Faye takes calls from her own sons, who for one reason or another are on their own while she is away. We see how she reacts, and sometimes, though not always, we learn what she says. We form opinions about her in these moments. Can anyone disapprove of how she handles these intimacies? We have to ask ourselves why she includes these moments in her novels. Is she modeling how love manifests? I think it may be so.

This narrator, I should remind everyone, is practically invisible in these novels. She had a few opinions in the first novel, delivered to a man she met on an airplane and about whose life she really shouldn’t have had much to say, since he was essentially a stranger to her. Opinions like these gradually peter out over the course of the novels and when she is asked directly for her opinion on some topic, she may instead offer a memory of something that happened to her that could be construed as an answer.

She uses this technique in her writing classes as well. She is challenged when she is teaching writing sometimes that she does not actually teach, and that her novels make no sense. What we learn is that her questions in class about classmates’ experiences are meant to expose those things worth writing about, and how to get to that kernel each time. I think we can assume the author Cusk interrogates herself and her experience in this way to uncover her own heart, though that can never account for the alchemy that makes these books literature.

Struggling through her days as a single mother of two boys, Faye manages to engender rage in the residents below her second-floor flat. She determines to hire someone to soundproof the floor while updating the cabinets and finds the most expressive, articulate, introspective builder who reveals he would prefer to live “somewhere completely blank…where there’s nothing, no colors, no features, maybe not even any light…” Similarly, she finds a hairdresser who casually makes the deepest cuts: “To stay free you have to reject change.”

Later, Faye will tell an old friend, “Freedom is a home you leave once and can never go back to.” Does she mean freedom, or innocence? Are they the same? Still later yet Faye wll say to that same friend that desire and self-control are not the whole story when we speak of ourselves in the world. There is also something that happens that some call fate but others might call powerlessness. This phenomenon may be especially observable in relationships when others exhibit will, but not, perhaps, exclusively. It is existential, a reason there are gods.

Faber published this book in New Zealand and put this cover on it.

Heidi Julavits interviews Rachel Cusk for The Cut after the publication of Transit in 2017. “Silence,” she said, “is going to become a very powerful thing.”

Completely convinced of the potency and success of this trilogy, I am surprised to see how many of my fellows in literature did not share my opinion. She tried something unique in these novels that began as an answer to critics of her autobiographies. It worked. I am eager to discover all I can of her writing, and believe she should be close to the top of the list of our best for what she delivers and how she delivers it. Kudos indeed.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea




Friday, August 10, 2018

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Jan 13th 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published September 14th 2014), ISBN13: 9780374228347, Series: Outline #1, Lit Awards: Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2015), Governor General's Literary Awards / Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général Nominee for Fiction (2015), Women's Prize for Fiction Nominee (2015), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2016), Folio Prize Nominee (2015), Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2014)

The third volume of Cusk's fiction trilogy is what first introduced me to Cusk. I am astonished I’ve not been badgered about her constantly—she is so funny, so illuminating, so exacting. My enthusiasm for Kudos prompted GR friends to insist I read the three-books-in-one so I picked up Outline.

I’m pleased I read the third book first. It is even better than the first by orders of magnitude, though I’d feared I’d begin to see the seams if I read all three books at once. Never mind. Cusk has talent enough to hold one’s attention easily, and I can see where the last scene in the trilogy comes from…not from nowhere as I’d imagined.

Cusk manages to carry the conceit through to the end—“what did you notice on your way here?”—though she places it in the hands of different actors as she carries on illuminating for us the nature of relationships and marriage, of meaningful work and children, of money and it’s opposite. Only the supremely confident could laugh at “those who have,” all the while exposing how little they in fact have.

So the notion of ‘outline’ in this story is not revealed until the end, when two people sitting next to one another on an international flight find themselves talking. One person is often doing the asking, the other…sometimes asks questions back, but only if they’ve been trained to do so as a result of their lives. The answers to questions about one’s life give the questioner the opportunity to occupy the ‘negative space’ as it were. That is, they did not have the experiences being related, so only an unfilled-in outline of who they are remains until someone asks something about them.

We learn in the last book in the trilogy that negative space, when properly illuminated, can look like it has more there than when it actually contains something. It is a notion, and Cusk may be saying that she is not trying to steer this thing, this novel…"not trying to convince anyone of anything"…because she is done feeling capable and competent and sure of her skill. But really, there is plenty she does know, and plenty her girlfriends know, about how they want to be treated, or not treated. They deserve to be carved in marble and dressed in soft-looking garments and set in an alcove, even if headless. Like goddesses at the Agora in Athens.

What strikes me is that the narrator has much more to say in this novel than she does by the end of the trilogy. In this novel she is commenting on the actions and decisions of her ‘neighbor,’ the man she met on the airplane, often enlightening him when she thinks he is being self-delusional. He understands her criticism to mean she cares. “What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity…the two of them see different things.”

The three novels of the trilogy were published in a relatively short period of time, the first in 2014, the last in 2018. The outline of the main character is filled in gradually, illuminating what she is not…not a wife any longer, but a mother still, not a writer so much as a teacher (or the other way around?).

Stay tuned.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea




Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 224 pgs, Pub June 5th 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374279868, Series: Outline #3

Wow. What power this author has. I’d not read anything by Cusk before this, though part of her trilogy had been noted on my to-read list. She is another thoroughly unique and powerful Canadian voice now hailing from the British Isles. What about that last scene? Is that a statement completely in tune with the state of the world today? Or not?

I cannot speak to what the book means in the larger trilogy, and can’t even speak to what this book means outside of the trilogy. It is just a fantastic read, the language so streamlined and uncluttered, and one can go back to it again and again and pick out pieces which lead to a theory. Finally, female voices to face off more well-known male authors…and I think of Americans, John Updike and Philip Roth, writers of the male experience.

The narrator in this novel, an author also, did not speak, so far as I could tell—well, only to answer questions. Her observations are internal. We just get someone who answers a question the long-way-round, with a heartfelt saga that moves the air in the room and subtly changes us.

Cusk made me laugh. What about the gaunt man at the literary soirée who looked as though he’d undergone a failed surgery? He’d only stopped eating so much and was now exercising. He was trim in fact, not gaunt at all. His hair, which had looked so windblown and as though he’d just risen from his hospital bed and rushed to the party, was in fact artfully arranged with spikes and whorls like a young man’s. His suit was the baggy style popular now, in an expensive lightweight fabric--a type of silk maybe--that looks well in a boxy cut. He was having the time of his life.

Our narrator was doing a book tour, undergoing a series of interviews, some back-to-back. One interviewer came armed with only one question: “What did you notice on your way here?” I laughed because I had done the same thing once, though I rarely interview authors. The author was Nigerian first, British second, and American third and was feted in all three countries. I’d read every interview I could find in all three continents and over a period of thirty years. I was prepared…I was over-prepared. I had nothing original to ask; I could only ask questions about what he was noticing now about his life in Chicago. He never answered. Maybe one day he will write a book in response.

It is not hard to imagine what Cusk thought of the Brexit vote. An author at the literary soirée has an opinion: “It was a bit of a case of turkeys voting for Christmas,” he said. Indeed. And of the reviewer who wanted to be a writer himself? He couldn’t stand the mediocrity of successful writers. He’d never begin a work without knowing exactly where it was going, anymore than he would leave the house without his wallet and keys. Of course. People preferred his savage reviews to his fiction. I guess everyone could see where he was going.

Cusk says so much about the state of the world without saying a thing about it, just by reminding everyone of Louise Bourgeois—how she was discounted and ignored for so long and how really, the worst possible thing to be in today’s world is an average white male of average talent and intelligence. Surely they feel the pressure, and can imagine the abyss that faced so many of us in the past…the looking-past, the discounting of one’s lived experience, the so-whatness of it all. What goes around comes around.

Consider this characterization:
“She was a tiny, sinewy woman with a childlike body and a large, bony, sagacious face in which the big, heavy-lidded eyes had an almost reptilian patience, occasionally slowly blinking.”
I had to read that description several times before I could put together all the seemingly-disparate features. Which is how one feels when one enters a big city: it is confusing and unfamiliar and how does it manage to work?

This is ravishing, mature, adult, female, intelligent writing. Now suddenly I am thinking of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, both of whom are terribly amusing while sharing truths we can all recognize. This is literature. Go there.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation
Outline
Transit
Kudos
Medea




Monday, August 6, 2018

Costly Grace by Rob Schenck

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub June 5th 2018 by Harper, ISBN13: 9780062687937

One day on the radio I heard Terry Gross of FreshAir interview a reverend of the evangelical school recant his less-than-spiritual political teachings to his parishioners. The interview did not really tell the moment this man realized violence, bending the truth, and shaming of public figures was not the best way to spread the gospel. I was curious, given present evangelical support for a clearly ethically-challenged president.

If I were to say Costly Grace is just another way of Rob Schenck of achieving what seems to be his lifelong goal—fame & a degree of fortune—it sounds like sour grapes from me. From the start of his ministry Schenck felt he was underutilized. Many of us feel that way in our lives, and supplement our jobs with more meaningful work. In his case, Schenck brought that extra-curricular political work into the pulpit, declaring that defenders of abortion rights are evil. Increasingly strident calls for shutting clinics led to the murder of an abortion doctor by someone Schenck did not know but who lived in his home town of Buffalo, New York.

Though Schenck professed not to advocate violence, his words as reverend were profoundly divisive. Even when he attended the funeral for the slain doctor, he pushed his message in the bouquet he sent to the widow. The pushback he received forced him back a step, but he continued his message, convinced of his righteousness. Faith and Action is a christian not-for-profit ministry he founded to lobby Congress and which he based in D.C. He says
“I struggled with how oversimplifications of difficult and complex human problems and actions were a convenient shortcut for me…Decades later, that cheapening of human experience would haunt me. But not yet.”
I don’t resent his admitting wrong-headedness after a long life. I just question whether spending so much time relating his own life and experiences was the best way to do it. Surely a more robust discussion of the reasons such views do not actually follow Christian teachings would be useful, rather than a personal memoir.

Schenck had first been radicalized by Jerry Falwell who thought Christians had been silent too long and needed to make known their political concerns. He was encouraged by Reagan’s “city on a hill” metaphor and W’s answer to ‘the philosopher he admired most was “Christ, because he changed my heart.”’ It is interesting that the beginning of the crumbling of Schenck’s defenses came with the election of Barak Obama, and his understanding of race in America.

Schenck didn’t consider himself racist, having been born to a Jew and subjected in youth to slurs, but he could see why black men and women were rejoicing, could see we lived in a society that had discounted them. He had to admit that God probably loved Obama and the liberals as much as he loved conservatives.

Probably the most important part of Schenck’s re-education came about as a series of visits he made to Morocco to engage with Muslim clerics and a series of therapy sessions instigated by his wife. Schenck had considerable fame at this point, and perhaps an inflated idea of himself and what he had come to believe. He discovered that Muslims are really just humans also, and his wife helped him to see discrepancies between the man he felt he was and how he manifest in the home.

If you aren’t beginning to see why this man annoys me so, you may not understand why this book was unsatisfying. Schenck had not attended college when he left high school but did a course of bible studies for four years and attended a short course in the ministry. His historical, scientific, psychological, and philosophical learning came through life lessons and his work.

This way of learning has a very long ramp up time and Schenck’s life demonstrates that phenomenon. His wife, on the other hand, was interested in her own education and gradually developed more liberal views sooner than her husband. Her influence on her husband, and her views put pressure on him to understand the world in a larger way.

When Schenck was offered the opportunity to study for a PhD, he admits he did it so that he could be called "Doctor" instead of just "Reverend." He decided to study Dietrich Bonhoeffer and travelled to Germany for a short course on his life and writings. Bonhoeffer’s experiences in WWII made a big impression on Schenck, himself the son a Jew. He began to see all people as God’s creation, forcing him to look at his life’s work in a new way.

Called upon to intervene when Pastor Jones of Florida declared he would burn a tower of Korans, he began to see a grotesquerie of passionate evangelicals and extreme nationalism when he discovered Jones’ church escorts were armed. Further, he discovered the evangelical churches operating in America “shared a generic disease with German churches of the 1930s: they’d traded “the supreme lordship of Jesus Christ for the demigods of political and social potentates.” Yes, finally. Long road.

But when he wrote his dissertation, he was afraid if it was circulated that he would become a pariah in his own religious community where he’d been teaching all these years. It was guns finally that changed the argument. How can someone pro-life be pro-gun? When Trump won the nomination and then the presidency, Schenck could clearly see how far evangelicals had strayed from their religious roots.

I am grateful his conversion took place. I wish I could feel as confident that he’d given up his unhealthy attraction to fame and self-aggrandizement. Is it wrong to like the limelight? It could be. That is something he will have to ask himself in conversation with his God.

He writes in the Afterword that his editor at HarperCollins was responsible for “pulling the story out of him.” He also gives credit to his collaborator on the 2015 film The Armor of Light that asks if a pro-gun stance can be reconciled with God’s word. So perhaps this memoir is not a promotional vehicle for the film, as I previously imagined. Again, I can’t judge that. But since we haven’t had many pastors reveal their ‘road to conversion,’ this will have to do.



Friday, August 3, 2018

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Away by Jaron Lanier

Hardcover, 146 pgs, Pub May 29th 2018 by Henry Holt & Company, ISBN13: 9781250196682

Actually I thought I knew what Lanier was going to say in this book and wasn’t going to read it. Then I listened to a podcast with him with Ezra Klein, and beginning about the 60-minute mark, Lanier speaks of how we should be ‘lone wolves’ instead of ‘pack wolves’ in our social lives and I stopped cold. Wait. I kind of understand he is saying “think for yourselves,” but aren’t we supposed to be working together to achieve something bigger than any one of us could do alone? I thought he might expand on those ideas in this book.

He didn’t, but the book is well worth reading anyway. In all the ways you will have noticed as you spent time online, sometimes online interactions push us toward less civility and less sense of responsibility. The thing I like so much about Lanier is that he seems to recognize that even close friends and family are individuals outside of himself who will have different points of view and attitudes. He seems perfectly willing to entertain, refute, condemn those points of view but he will actually listen to them first. That doesn’t happen always in marriages or families I have seen.

Anyway, this small book had so many moments of insight that I won’t be able to share them all. He speaks of algorithms:
“One of the secrets of present-day Silicon Valley is that some people seem to be better than others at getting machine learning schemes to work, and no one understands why. The most mechanistic method of manipulating human behavior turns out to be a surprisingly intuitive art. Those who are good at massaging the latest algorithms become stars and earn spectacular salaries.”
One of the things Lanier despises most about social media as it has developed is that we are watched constantly and can’t experiment without constant judgment. How can we be authentic, knowing we are being watched, even corralled? Without being authentic, how can we be happy?

Lanier reminds us that when the web was being invented, many libertarian voices wanted everything to be free. At the same time, tech business leaders were considered visionary when they got rich. How can those two ideas be reconciled? Advertising was chosen to become the dominant business model. “This didn’t feel dystopian at first,” Lanier writes. “But as the internet, the devices, and the algorithms advanced, advertising morphed into mass behavior modification….The purpose…was to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.”

Yikes. Lanier kindly creates an acronym for us to remember what happens when we allow the machine to take over our decision-making: BUMMER. Lanier suggests it may mean “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent,” but it can mean anything you want it to mean as long as you get the point that BUMMER
“is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds….Even at their best, BUMMER algorithms can only calculate the chances that a person will act in a particular way. But what might be only a chance for each person approaches being a certainty on the average for large numbers of people. The overall population can be affected with greater predictability than can any single person. Since BUMMER’s influence is statistical, the menace is a little like climate change. You can’t say climate change is responsible for a particular storm, flood, or drought, but you can say it changes the odds they’ll happen.”
Drop mike.

Lanier stopped using social media because it made him an asshole, or so he thought. He was happy when he got ‘likes,’ boiled with rage at some comments, and had to give up his connection to context. “BUMMER replaces your context with its context.” All this is true. He suggests ways to get around using the big platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter. He suggests that we give them up until a time comes when we can pay for the interaction, get paid for our content, and have some regulation.

I will still be looking for him to clarify the ‘lone wolf’ statement, maybe in his next book.




White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Paperback, 192 pgs, Pub June 26th 2018 by Beacon Press, ISBN13: 9780807047415

The provocative title of this book is a draw. What are we doing, saying, and thinking that is unconscious and yet still brings out some kind of anger or fear response in us when challenged? I am constantly learning how much I don’t know about race in America and much more there is to know. DiAngelo is also white, by the way. She, too, makes racist mistakes, though more rarely now, even years after immersing herself in how it manifests. We can’t escape it. We have to acknowledge it.

That is basically what this book is about. How we must acknowledge our race, that we do in fact see race, that we make assumptions about people based on race, how we need to disrupt habitual patterns of interaction, and then consciously try to put ourselves in the way of disrupting the patterns of racism which are literally claiming the lives of too many people of color for reasons we would never recognize as legitimate in our own lives. It’s been, give or take, one hundred and fifty years since the Civil War. Sometimes it feels as it hasn’t been won by anti-slavers. Shame on us.

The first part of the book is a slow and careful baby-steps leading to a hot-button topic, giving readers/listeners time to blow off their indignation and stop being surprised that yes, she is going to talk about white supremacy in American life and how this consistently sidelines the needs, emotions, and opportunities of people of color. She is going to talk about the ways white people consistently deny this truth, do not recognize it applies to all white people, all of whom benefit from the system as it operates in the United States. But the best part comes at the end, when she cites people like me who have said, "Yeah, but I know this already," or "But I’m not racist," or "I have friends who are black," or "I’ve lived overseas," etc.

DiAngelo talks about white solidarity:
"The unspoken agreement among white to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic…Why speaking up about racism would ruin the ambiance [at the dinner table or in a social situation] or threaten our career advancement is something we might want to talk about."
and
"meritocracy is a precious ideology in the United States, but neighborhoods and schools are demonstrably not equal; they are separate and unequal."
and
"We are taught we lose nothing of value through racial segregation."
Racism is systemic, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded in our reality, according to filmmaker Omowale Akintunde. It is not like murder: we don't have to "commit it" for it to happen. It can be unconscious.

The best argument I have ever heard for why we falsely assume racism doesn’t exist when we don't mean to do something racist is this: a woman married to a man would never say, "Because I am married to a man, I have a gender-free life." Even a married woman will carry prejudices with her about men. Di Angelo insists we do not set up a false binary: racism is bad, non-racists are good. It is probably better to think of ourselves on a continuum. With effort, we can improve our understanding but because the system operates without our consent, we will never escape it.

We are reminded that the white identity needs black people in order to exist. Around blackness we have created certain myths (about dangerousness, laziness, etc) which we may have thought we’d eradicated until some stray incident makes them come flooding back to consciousness. Whiteness is then a false identity, of superiority. A black person who steps out of their ‘place’ and demands to be treated equally, as in sports stars or popular singers, may trigger a backlash. DiAngelo gives a brilliant exegesis of the book/movie The Blind Side about a poor black high school football player adopted by a rich white family, and how it perpetrates dominant white ideologies. That book came out to great acclaim only in 2007. It seems like a lifetime since then, but it is only ten years.

Race and racism are emotional subjects. We may discover the ways whites have perpetrated a system of injustice against people of color out of ignorance, but ignorance is no longer a good excuse. We have work to do disrupting what we see as race bias in America today, making sure our kids are educated in a way that improves their understanding of conscious/unconscious race bias, and also so they understand that their lives will be deficient without interaction with and understanding of black lives.

We must work to widen our circles so that people of color are a part of our worldview, always remembering we are doing this for ourselves, not for the benefit of people of color. We are not being generous; we are seeking justice. Ask for feedback, but don’t be overly sensitive when people respond. Feedback is useful. Make sure to keep the focus on learning, not on one’s own fragility. And remember, one doesn’t have to intend to be racist to act in a racist way. It’s the water we swim in.

I listened to the audio of this, narrated by Amy Landon, and had access to a paper copy. DiAngelo gives a terrific short ‘Continuing Ed’ bibliography in the back, sharing other excellent titles. There are sure to be a couple of articles or books or podcast you still haven’t seen. There was only one book I admired that I did not see listed there: Good White People by Shannon Sullivan from the University of North Carolina. DiAngelo makes note of the terrific podcast, Seeing White, put together by a team headed by John Biewen out of Duke University. All of it is worthwhile.

Below please find a 22-minute video about the subjects in this book:



Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Conservative Heart by Arthur C. Brooks

Hardcover, 246 pgs, Pub July 14th 2015 by Broadside Books (first published January 1st 2015), ISBN13: 9780062319753

It could have been I first ran into Arthur C. Brooks in the NYT where he is apparently a regular columnist. Something he said about the Dalai Lama intrigued me; I wondered how he was connected to NYT conservative columnist David Brooks and went looking online. A couple of years ago the two men spoke together in Aspen and the difference between the two was immediately apparent. David Brooks gives us his opinion. Arthur Brooks wants to convince us of his opinion.

This book sketches Arthur Brooks’ growth from college dropout and musician to head of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute whose attendant scholars have included Dinesh D’Sousa, Irving Kristol, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Antonin Scalia. We learn what Brooks perceives as influences on his thinking as he moved from liberal to conservative.

“I believe that poverty and opportunity are moral issues and must be addressed as such.”

and
“We know that human dignity has deeper roots than the financial resources someone commands. We may wear the rhetorical uniform of materialists, but conservatives at heart are moralists.”
These are troubling statements from Brooks. One wonders what he meant. It was my understanding that conservatives are always belittling liberals for being bleeding hearts and politically correct. Liberals are particularly keen on the morality of fairness, particularly in wages and opportunity. Could we actually be closer in [unexamined] attitudes than we think?

Brooks focuses on the dignity of work, welfare reform, poverty in his comments, and goes after Barak Obama pretty hard, all the while never acknowledging race when talking about poverty.
“Welfare spending also massively increased under the Obama administration…More important than anything else, though, the administration was turning its attention away from poverty per se and instead toward the old progressive bogeyman of income inequality.”
Brooks felt the president was attacking “wealthy people and conservative Americans.” He’d explained earlier that conservatives give more to charity than do liberals. Brooks and fellow conservatives “were indignant at the president’s ad hominem attacks.” But Brooks and his fellow conservatives saw themselves in the president’s remarks. Obama did not point them out specifically.

I think I see where the problem might lie: conservatives, patting themselves on the back for being generous, are willing to give back via charity whatever money they collect in an unequal system that may give a little too much to business owners and high-level managers and may give too little to the people actually working the business. Of course, these generous wealthy donors decide which charities they will support, and so steer society. So those that have…perpetuate their havingness and the rest of us don’t really have much say. Does this sound healthy to you?

Brooks claims to be an economist. He must be being disingenuous then when he crows,
“…inequality actually increased over the course of the Obama administration…Consider the facts. The top half of the economy has, in fact, recovered from the Great Recession in fine style…a whopping 95 percent of the real income growth from the economic recovery flowed directly to the much-regretted ‘1-percent.’…And how about the bottom 20 percent of U.S. households? That group of earners was hit the hardest during the recovery. Their real incomes fell by 7 percent on average from 2009 to 2013, the largest percentage decline of any group.”
Yes, Obama tried to save the global economy from tanking as a result of conservative economic policies. I think Brooks and I can probably agree that if Obama weren’t blocked in Congress, he would have done more to fix the inequality that came as a result of repairing the mess Republicans left him. Maybe Obama should have let the ship sink instead? Brooks is getting no buy-in from me for dishonest arguments like these.

Chapter Three has a subtitle: “How Honest Work Ennobles and Elevates Us.” Finally, Brooks and I can agree on something. We agree that work can be a source of happiness, wealth, and meaning. But Brooks is being disingenuous again, talking about putting a broom in the hands of the homeless and enlivening them with the dignity of work. It infuriates me that he can trivialize the discussion of the enormous national problems we have with inequality in our society. If he put a broom in the hands of every homeless person in the country we would still have a serious problem with our economy.

Let’s be frank. When work is not acknowledged by all parties to be worthwhile enough to pay a decent living wage, we run into problems. Either the work is important for a company or it is not. Don’t tell me companies will look after the concerns of their workers because it is in their best interests. No. They won’t. We have centuries of evidence that corporations hold workers over a barrel and maximize profits at the expense of workers. Human labor is expensive. It should be expensive.

I should be honest about my own prejudices. I distrust charity because I distrust the organizations handing it out. I don’t want Brooks to feel good “lifting people up.” I just want what I earned in a system that is fair. I expect many women and people of color in America today would say the same. Kind white men dispensing charity but who have also been part of a system structured to offer unfair wages to the majority of “workers” would do well to take note. Just give me what I deserve, what’s fair (hint: you may need to listen to someone besides yourself and your peer group), and then we’ll talk about who gets charity. It may be me, giving to you. Think how happy it will make me, to give you uplift.

To be fair, when Brooks discusses social justice, he says liberal efforts to attain this include redistributive taxation (oh yes) and social welfare spending. To conservatives, a social justice agenda …means improving education (for everyone, or just those who can afford to pay for K-12?), expanding the opportunity to work (no objection there…if only resumes from black-sounding names weren’t weeded out at the start of the process), and increasing access to entrepreneurship (don’t even get me started on who gets loans and at what rates). Of course, Brooks adds “true conservative justice must also fight cronyism that favors powerful interests and keeps the little guy down. (Tell me more about that please.)

A few pages later, Brooks is comparing parents experiencing poverty to children:
“…moral intervention must accompany economic intervention for the latter to be truly effective…I’ve never met a parent who believes that their kids have to receive their allowance before it is fair to ask them to behave decently. It’s the other way around! So way are these values good enough for our children, but not good enough for our brothers and sisters in need? When we fail to share our values with the poor, we effectively discriminate against them. And that hidden bigotry robs them of the tools they need to live lives of dignity and self-reliance.”
Brooks undoubtedly means well, but it sounds to me like he will withhold assistance unless we go along with his beliefs and values. Would be that we all had the same opportunities he did/does. I am all for behaving well and being socialized to be better people. But where is the open-handed generosity Brooks was talking about earlier, when he led by example instead of by punishment? What do our Christian teachings say? Wait until someone is behaving well to help or to wash the feet of prostitutes and criminals?

Anyway, the problems of poverty are very difficult to resolve and we need people who think, hope, and try, like Brooks. All these years and we haven’t resolved them yet. But my guess is treating everyone with dignity and paying them well for their contribution to society, maybe even at the expense of one’s own take-home pay, may move the ball down a field a little faster. I mean, if you’ve got all the values and stuff, you can show us how it is done when you start with nothing.

This book is an attempt to show liberals how conservatives have areas of overlap with them and really do have compassion they claimed in the label Compassionate Conservatives…until that was thrown under the bus in the last election. It is a feel-good attempt to show crossover values. And I am picking apart about the ‘other side’s’ notion of social justice. Let’s face it: We need all the social justice we can get. And we do not need to convince anyone to begin using it ourselves right now. Give me what you’ve got in terms of social justice. I’ll work with that.