Friday, November 20, 2015

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

At one time, I devoured biographies and memoirs of my favorite actors.  Katherine Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor – to name two – seemed to me Hollywood royalty, and I loved them all.  Then I stumbled on a few others, and began to notice a pattern I did not appreciate.  I abandoned those books for years.  I hesitated a little bit, when I saw the release of a memoir by Carrie Brownstein.  In the event you might not be familiar with Carrie, she is the co-star of Portlandia, a clever, avant-garde comedy on the Independent film channel.  Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl reveals her as so much more than the strange characters she plays on the TV show.  Carrie also wrote several books about food and visiting Portland, Oregon

Carrie is also an avid musician, who struggled for many years to form a rock band, and finally succeeded with Sleater-Kinney, her band from 1994 to 2006.  The memoir is a wonderfully written, honest, and thorough review of her struggles to fulfill a dream she had from early childhood.  She never missed an opportunity to entertain family and friends.  Her mother was hospitalized as a result of an eating disorder, and the book opens with Carrie and her sister dealing with her absence.  When Carrie was about 20 years old, her father helped finance a trip to Australia to make a record with a musician the band had discovered on the internet.  If you have never seen Portlandia, you have missed a treat.  The humor involves bizarre, eclectic, and a very funny group of characters, who live and work in Portland.  Her co-star is Fred Armisen, and the two play most of the characters with changes of costume, makeup, and wigs.

The memoir itself is unlike many of the other show-biz bios I have read.  Carrie seems forthright and thorough in her examination of her life, family, and career.  She writes, “There is something freeing in seeing yourself in a new context.  People have no preconceived notion of who you are, and there is a relief in knowing that you can recreate yourself.  When you’re entrenched in a community of people who know you, it’s scary to proclaim wanting to be different and wanting to experiment.  We went to the other side of the world to make our own sound.  Usually this is a methodology you employ as a restart later in your career.  We did it right up front.  We traveled to a foreign country for our first record.  We had to uproot ourselves, not because we were deep into career ruts, or didn’t want to give credit to the places we had come from, but because we had no desire to sound like or emulate anything that had come before” (96).

Carrie continues, “It was an extreme way to start, but I learned later on how hard it can become to unsettle yourself, to trip yourself up, and I think that’s a good place to write from.  It’s important to undermine yourself and create a level of difficulty so the work doesn’t come too easily. […] The stakes should always feel high” (96).

Although she is talking about a rock band, I believe this idea can apply to nearly any creative endeavor.  I must admit I am not a fan of punk nor of indie music, but I do love Portlandia and Carrie Brownstein’s Memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 11/17/15

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Back in middle school days, I loved reading about archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology.  My favorite book then was Gods, Graves, and Scholars, an interesting look at some notable archaeological digs, including the Tomb of Tutankhamun and ancient Troy.  When I was in college, I took an anthropology course as an elective, and devoured numerous monographs on disparate cultures around the globe.  Recently a friend recommended Euphoria by Lily King, which is a fictionalized account of Margaret Mead’s adventures in New Guinea.  Ah, the embers of my old passion flamed in my find.

King has written three novels before Euphoria, including The English Teacher, which I already own.  She has won several awards, including named as an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award.  She has also gathered several awards from her home state of Maine, where she currently resides.

Euphoria is the story of three anthropologists studying tribes in New Guinea.  Fen is the husband of Nell (an allegorical Margaret Mead), and Andrew Bankson is a young anthropologist trying to discover an unknown tribe to make his name.  King plays with some of the facts of Mead’s life, in order to spin a love story of an unusual nature. 

I found the early chapters a bit confusing until I worked out who was whom, and the exact relationships between Fen and Nell, Fen and Bateson, and Nell and Bateson.  In real life, Margaret marries Gregory Bateson (Bankson in the novel), and she dies in New York City in 1978.  Mead won the Kalinga Prize, given by UNESCO for the popularization of science among lay people.

King really did an exceptional job of capturing the thoughts of Nell as she explores the peoples of the New Guinea jungles.  In this passage, King writes the diary of Nell.  “I found a language teacher.  Karu.  He knows some pidgin from a childhood spent near the patrol station in Ambunti.  Thanks to him my lexicon has over 1,000 words in it now & I quiz myself morning & night though part of me wishes I could have more time without the language.  There is such careful mutual observing that goes on without it.  My new friend Malun took me today to a woman’s house where they were weaving & repairing fishing nets and we sat with her pregnant daughter Sali & Sali’s paternal aunt & the aunt’s four grown daughters.  I am learning the chopped rhythm of their talk, the sound of their laughter, the cant of their heads.  I can feel the relationships, the likes & dislikes in the room in a way I never could if I could speak.  You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an over-dominant sense.  You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words.  Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away.  You then rely on their words, and words aren’t always the most reliable thing” (79).

The one thing which disturbed me about the book – especially in light of the plunder of precious artifacts in the Middle East – was the way some of these people manipulated and even stole artifacts from the tribes to sell to museums.  I am glad I ignore the Rule of 50 in this novel.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 11/17/15

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Letting Me In by Anne McCrady

According to the profile in the East Texas Writer’s Guild, Anne McCrady’s poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared internationally in literary journals, anthologies and magazines.  Her two poetry collections have both been prize winners, as have dozens of her single poems. Besides her writing, editorial and review publication credits, Anne offers keynotes, workshops, retreat programs, inspirational presentations and events in support of poetry, storytelling, community organizations and peace.  Anne lives in Henderson, Texas with her husband, Mike, and she is the founder of InSpiritry, where she is Putting Words to Work for a Better World.”

I met Anne McCrady at a poetry workshop a few years ago, and immediately felt a connection to her poetry.  In her latest collection, Letting Myself In, she deals cleverly with tremendously visual descriptions of worlds and lives in transition.  She captures the feel and the emotions of East Texas and the people who live and struggle to reach their dreams.

Many of her poems have become favorites of mine, so choosing which to quote for this review was not easy.  The second poem in the collection personally struck me close to my own view of my life.  The poem is “Aubade,” which is a poem reflecting on the dawn.  She writes, “Of all the time to travel / a new road, why choose now? / How hard it will be / to move from the hearth / just as logs are being hauled inside, / how odd to life from the hook / beside the door, my jacket -- / its weight an informal burden / on my September shoulders. // Turning to go, / I cannot think / what to take along: / a map, a dog, my books. / Maybe it is better / to travel light, / off on my own this time, / each step a reluctant soldier’s song / of how hard – oh, how hard – it is to leave home” (5).  I do a lot of traveling to visit far flung family members these days, and this poem felt like a warm breeze leading me down the road. 

Another favorite is "October Rain.”  McCrady writes, ‘In the garden, / leftover moisture clings / to bits of fading growth, / pools on cool, curled vines, / drips in strands of pearls / to the soggy earth beneath. // Time is muffled. / Day cannot climb out / of dawn’s damp blanket. / With no breeze, settled, / wood smoke sleeps in. / Live oak flags hang slack, / and pine boughs wait for word. // For now things can wait. / Like circling geese, / life and clouds float patiently / watching for signs / of a good, hard blow . to dry out the coming day / and open up a clear, cold sky” (13).

“Putting words to work,” is an excellent motto for the poetry of Anne McCrady.  Her collection is a warm, calming, and seductive exploration of the world we live in.  Letting Myself In will have that effect on you.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 11/8/15

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

According to the brief bio in my copy of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, he won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Lost in the City.  Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Known World.  He resides in Washington, D.C., and this is his first novel.  I am profoundly sorry this beautifully written work escaped my notice for so long.

This poignant tale of slave holders and slaves in Virginia takes place in the decades before the Civil War.  The head of the family was Augustus, who was a skilled carpenter; he and his wife Mildred had a son Henry.  Augustus’ owner allowed him to keep a portion of his wages, and he saved enough to buy his freedom, that of his wife, and later, Henry.  Caldonia Townsend was Henry’s wife.  All of these people were African-Americans.

Jones describes the day Henry died, “A few women had cried, remembering the way Henry smiled or how he would join them in singing or thinking that the death of anyone, good or bad, master or not, cut down one more tree in the life of the forest that shielded them from their own death; but most said or did nothing.  Their world had changed but they could not yet understand how.  A black man had owned them, a strange thing for many in that world, and now he was dead, maybe a white man would buy them, which was not as strange.  No matter what, though, the sun would come up on them tomorrow, followed by the moon, than dogs would chase their own tails and the sky would remain just out of reach” (60-61).  I read, re-read, and read again this and numerous other passages which brought tears to my eyes.  A must read.

I had heard of the complicity of rival African tribes capturing enemies and selling them to the slave traders, and I dismissed stories of African-Americans owning slaves.  However, Jones’ meticulously researched novel reveals much of the details of slavery at that time.  Henry was not able to buy slaves on the market, but he used his former owner as a straw purchaser of slaves.

Other characters included William and Ethel Robbins, white slave holders of 113 people, who owned Augustus and his family.  Then we have suspicious cousins from North Carolina, who railed against the freedoms some of the slaves enjoyed in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia.  Then we read of speculators, who would buy blacks, with assurances no harm would come to them, then immediately resell at a profit without any assurances at all.  Then the white sheriff, along with patrollers, who kept an eye on the movement of slaves around the plantation where they lived and worked.  However, not all these characters are what they seem to be, and several undergo rather startling changes.

The horrors of the Holocaust, numerous instances of genocide of millions around the world, and the slave trade all speak of the incomprehensible cruelty among humans.  The insidious slave trade was maintained by wealthy white people who ruled their “property” with a whip in one hand, a Bible in the other, and a black woman in their beds.  The more I learn of this shameful period in American and world history the more dispirited I become that we can survive as an intelligent, kind, and loving species.  What were these people doing owning their own people?  The mind boggles to think of what life must have been like for these poor wretched people.

Readers might know a lot about the history of the antebellum South, but read The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and I defy anyone to have a heart so stony not even a single tear is shed.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/22/15

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

In my rich, interesting, and varied reading life, I have made friends with numerous strange and weird novels.  From Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – the story of a house larger on the inside than on the outside – my mind has been bent, my logic challenged, and my thought processes twisted beyond understanding.  However, a new novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor has topped them all for sheer bewilderment.  Welcome to Night Vale stemmed from a podcast posted by the authors and presented as a radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, which reported on the strange events that occur there. The series was created in 2012.  Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the host, main character, and narrator of the novel.

The podcast typically airs on the first and fifteenth of every month, and consists of "news, announcements and advertisements" from the desert town, located "somewhere in the Southwestern U.S.”  In an interview with NPR, Joseph Fink said that he "came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real, and we would just go from there with that understood.” 

The novel is part suspense, part mystery, mostly comedic, and all mind-bending.  To give a taste of the novel, I will offer a few short passages, none of which will give away any the plot, but all will reveal details of the story.  That’s my version of a typical line by the authors.  Buckle up, here we go:

“Clocks and calendars don’t work in Night Vale.  Time itself doesn’t work” (4).  “There was always some world-ending cataclysm threatening Night Vale.  Feral dogs.  A sentient glowing cloud with the ability to control minds (although the Glow Cloud had become less threatening since its election to the local school board)’ (5).  Most mind-bending of all is this description of Jackie Ferro, a perpetual 19-year old woman who ran a pawn shop.  The authors wrote, “She understood the world and her place in it.  She understood nothing.  The world and her place in it were nothing and she understood that” (5).  Jackie meets a mysterious man she does not recognize, and decides “to make a list of everyone who might know about” him. […] She pulled out “a promotional pen from a festival put on by the city a few years ago.  THE NIGHT VALE SHAKESPEARE IN A PIT FESTIVAL.  FALL INTO THE BARD’S WORDS, it said.  The broken leg had been painful, but she did love the pen” (43). 

Jackie visits “Old Woman Josie” to find out if she knows anything about her missing son, Josh.  “She turned.  There was a being that was difficult to describe, although the best and most illegal description was ‘angel.’  Angels are tall, genderless beings who are all named Erika” (58).  Of course they do not exist. // “‘I was just doing some trimming,’ the being said.  They were holding hedge trimmers and standing by an empty patch of dirt.  There were no plants of any kind anywhere near them” (58).

I could go on like this for way more time than I have, or don’t have, or wish I didn’t have, or have, but this fun and breezy read will offer many hours of humor, suspense, tears, joy, and mystery.  Classified as a YA novel, adults are forbidden to read it.  In fact, everyone should read it.  Let me be the first to give you a hearty “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 10/20/15.