A Girl Walks Into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me
About Life, Love, and Women's Work Miranda K. Pennington (Seal Press, 2017)
Even though my own acquaintance with the works of
the Brontë sisters is slight, and unlikely to get better, reading
about Miranda Pennington reading them is delightful. A Girl Walks
Into a Book is a fine example of a genre I love: it combines
historical insights about the lives of the authors with plot
summaries and critiques of the books, and a memoir of Pennington's
life as she encounters and rereads them. Jane Eyre (Charlotte
Brontë) and Wuthering Heights (Emily)
do not lose their strangeness and individuality under Pennington's
scrutiny, yet she can take some lessons from them for twenty-first
century life. Not that the lessons come easily: "I do wish I
could have filed away the most urgent lesson of Wuthering Heights: be
honest with yourself if the person you want to marry is still
obviously entangled with someone else." The romantic adventures
Pennington shares call up in me a certain horrified fascination–how
can so many bad choices come to a good end? But really, it's all
about growth. When her father gave Jane Eyre to the absurdly
bookish grade-schooler, he threw her a lifeline that would support
her for decades. "At school,...I felt like a freak, awkward,
dorky, and out of place, always spoiling for a fight. But inside, in
the pages of Jane Eyre, I
found sanctuary. And even when something unpleasant happened, I
consoled myself that it gave me something else in common with Jane."
Just as much to the
point, as the book progresses, she has something in common with
Charlotte Brontë. Both face the problem of supporting themselves in
a world that is not exactly panting for what they have to say.
Charlotte's early biographers contributed to myth-making that
emphasized how far from the centers of culture she lived, and
depicted an overnight success. As usual, that just means that all the
work that led up to it fades into the shadows. The Brontë children
wrote stories and created worlds among themselves; when Charlotte
sent her publishers detailed instructions about the design of her
books, she was not entirely new to the issues at hand, having made
her own small books of her family's stories as a teenager.
Pennington admires the under-sung Anne Brontë. Her Agnes
Grey includes little of the
wildness of her sisters' better known work; its plot, about a
governess who eventually marries a clergyman, is downright conventional. But the voice of Agnes, and her sharp views of her
sometimes feckless employers, shows how much Anne was learning in her
own situations, where she must have felt like the proverbial fly on
the wall. Pennington says, "Truth in fiction never makes it
weaker, but anchors it, unlike lying in non-fiction, which is like
robbing a tree of its roots."
Emily Brontë's entry in the three-headed publishing sensation that
Charlotte had begun, brings out Pennington's witty side. Of the
second generation produced by Cathy and Heathcliff, she says, "They
live as happily ever after as a pair of borderline inbred teenagers
with seriously dysfunctional parents and an alarmingly small social
circle could be expected to." And this lovely bit: "Retelling
it all is Nelly Dean, a maidservant with an impeccable memory and the
rare ability to survive for the duration of the book."
The same might be
said of the Brontës themselves, who originally numbered six. Their
mother died when they were small, and her sister moved in to help
raise them. The oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were mortally
sickened by unhealthy conditions at the school they attended, dying a
few months apart. The sole brother, Branwell, was perhaps an even
greater tragedy: he was crushed by the
pressure of not finding his way in the world, with three unmarried
sisters sure to fall to his care. When he came home after losing a
tutoring job, he went downhill by way of alcohol and opium to his
death. Charlotte is the only one who survives to marry, a Mr.
Nicholls, whose main attraction may have been that he was a clerical
associate of her father's. Indeed, he remained in residence with Mr.
Charlotte died in turn. But she certainly
made a mark in the world, both in her own work and in supporting and
promoting her sisters'. Though Pennington is, in a way, a tugboat
alongside the Queen Mary, the smaller vessel has an important
function. I have a much better idea of what I might like to sample of
the various film and television adaptations, the biographical
material, and, conceivably, the novels themselves. You never know.
Almost Everything: Notes on
Hope Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books,
As she neared the age of 61,
Anne Lamott determined to write down some things she knows about hope
and despair, for the benefit of the children in her life, and anybody
else who may be "both exuberant and worried." That is, by
turns, any of us may feel the pull of the edge of the cliff; we think
the unthinkable, or at least the unspeakable, all the time. Lamott's
gift is to speak what's unspeakable, in a matter-of-fact style that,
to some of us, comes as a great relief.
She's also more willing than
most people to talk plainly about the miraculous side of life, that
things don't always get worse; that in the blackest, bleakest night,
love has been a penlight. She's talking about the kind of big truth
whose opposite is also true: "Every day we're in the grip of the
impossible conundrum: the truth that it's over in a blink, and we may
be near the end, and that we have to live as if it's going to
be okay, no matter what."
We also get, as you expect
if you know Lamott, a bunch of stories in which her own demons come
to the fore, especially her tendency to think she can fix the people
around her. "The harm is in the unwanted help or helping them
when they need to figure things out for themselves. Help is the sunny
side of control." It can't be easy to be her relative, or her
How like life, though - it's
not always easy to be anyone's relative, or friend. Relationships are
always going to affect who we turn out to be, for better and for
worse. "Families are hard partly because of expectations, that
the people in them are supposed to mesh, and expectations are
resentments under construction." The roles we take on in
families offer us both constraint and comfort; they keep us safe
while they make us crazy.
If you don't already know
and like Anne Lamott, this is not the book to start with. Go back to
her novel Crooked Little Heart, or Bird by Bird, her
delightful book on writing. She's also been mining this current
territory of thoughts on faith for a while now, and may be running
out of new things to say.
yet – and yet – the old things are still worth saying, and
hearing. Anything that gives us the courage to face how tough things
are can plant a seed of hope, which skimming through life in denial
is never going to do. "There is the absolute hopelessness we
face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter,
even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth,
miracles, and resurrection."
The Blood of Emmett Till
Timothy B. Tyson (Simon and Schuster, 2017)
In a story with as many actors and events as the civil rights
movement, there are many possible ways to divide the world into
'before' and 'after', but it's fair to consider the death of Emmett
Till a major one. The tale begins in 1955, in a Mississippi where
black people simply did not vote or serve on juries, and where they
could be harassed or killed with near-perfect impunity. "In the
decades before the civil rights era, racial killings in remote
corners of the Deep South frequently went unreported by the national
or even the local press."
Rumbling threats from Washington about school integration had
spurred the rise of White Citizen's Councils, the professionally
educated, daylight-facing counterpart of the Ku Klux Klan. If the KKK
didn't burn you out or shoot at you, the Citizen's Council could cost
you your livelihood - there was nothing for it, either way, but the
next train north to Chicago.
Chicago, of course, had serious limitations as an escape valve,
being heavily segregated and economically unfair in its own right.
Blacks could vote, and compete for industrial jobs with immigrants
from Europe, but they lived in segregated enclaves, often amid a
network of kinfolk from back home in the South. Emmett Till's mother,
Mamie Bradley, was doing nothing unusual sending her son with her
uncle on a train to Mississippi, there to enjoy his cousins' company,
and help with Moses Wright's twenty-five acre cotton crop.
The teenagers had enough free time to go fishing, or down to the
store in Money, three miles away, for cold drinks. On the fateful
Wednesday in late August, Emmett was alone with Carolyn Bryant, the
young woman who was tending the store, for only a minute or two.
Later, in court, she would testify that he grabbed her by the waist
while uttering obscenities, but her lawyer's earliest notes describe
his behavior as 'insulting' her, with no mention of physical contact.
Even though he grew up in the North, fourteen-year-old Emmett
surely knew the rules about dealing with white people, but he was an
outgoing boy who liked making people laugh. There were no other
witnesses, and the details had long since slipped Carolyn Bryant's
mind when she spoke with Timothy Tyson fifty years later, but she
told him something obvious: "Nothing that boy did could ever
justify what happened to him."
That Saturday night, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his older
brother, J. W. Milan, were up late playing cards and drinking. At two
in the morning, they showed up at Moses Wright's house, where he and
his wife and the six teen-age boys were asleep. The white men took
Till away, beat the living daylights out of him, shot him in the
head, tied a weight around his neck with barbed wire, and dropped him
in the Tallahatchee River.
But his feet and legs floated, and he was found by a young man
who was out fishing. Though the kidnapping occurred in Leflore
County, Tallahatchee County's Sheriff H. C. Strider claimed
jurisdiction; he would soon tell reporters that he suspected the
NAACP of planting a body and making up a story. (A ring Till was
wearing, which had belonged to his father, made the identification
certain.) Milan and Bryant were indicted on September 7, and went to
trial on September 20th. "This left little time for a proper
investigation," says Tyson, " which was the point."
Meanwhile, however, Emmett's body had been shipped to Chicago, by
a funeral home outside of Sheriff Strider's jurisdiction; and though
a deal had supposedly been made to keep the coffin sealed, Emmett's
mother Mamie had it opened, and allowed photographs to be published
in Jet, a national magazine for Negro readers. Together with
the enormous crowds that came to view the mutilated body, this meant
tremendous outside interest in the trial, which drew national
television cameras, and international reporters, as well as the
ever-essential black press. "The very sight of white and black
reporters greeting one another and exchanging notes in a friendly
manner shocked the Sumner crowd. Therein was some of the trial's
actual drama, for if almost everyone involved could predict the
trial's verdict, few could predict its consequences."
Under all this scrutiny, the conduct of the trial itself appeared
to be fair, but no Mississippi jury was going to convict a white man
for killing a black boy who had insulted his wife. In less than a
week, Milan and Bryant were acquitted.
"In 1956 the U.S. Information Agency surveyed European
disdain for American race relations and found the Till case the
'prevalent' concern, though it would soon be weighed alongside mob
violence at the University of Alabama and in Little Rock." White
Mississippians would blame the NAACP and 'communists', which to them
might as well have been the same thing, for making them look bad.
The real question, I always think, is not 'Were there communists
supporting black civil rights?' but 'Where were the Americans? Where
were the Christians?' Of course, that's thinking from 'After.' The
light that shone on this murder, after all the others that happened
in darkness, would shine on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Improvement
Association; it would shine on lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom
Rides; and it shines on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael
Brown, among so many others.
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
I recently inquired of my
social media friends what impression they had of Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance, a strange sort of novel published by
Robert Pirsig in 1974. Was it A) a life-changing classic; B) a period
piece; C) a hipster cliche; or D), an impenetrable mess? "All of
the above" was a popular answer, and some people said that their
views might have changed over time.
I belong to the first group. My adolescent life
was lit up by the book's approach to certain burning questions of the
day: What's the right balance between living in your head and in the
world? Why is originality both praised and feared? Do we need anyone
to tell us what is Good? Pirsig has some humane answers, albeit
delivered by the sort of mad genius uncle that the adults tend to
write off as a flake.
Of those who remember throwing it across the room in frustration,
one complaint was that they could not find the plot. Is it even a
novel, in the first place? The author's note says it's all true, so
you could call it a lightly fictionalized memoir. The surface plot
goes like this: A man rides a motorcycle, with his son on the back,
from Minnesota to California, talking to himself the whole way.
But, mercy, such talk! The narrator describes it as a
Chautauqua, which is to say, the long-winded nineteenth-century
equivalent of today's TED talks. The subject matter is summed up in
the subtitle, 'an inquiry into values.' That lends credence to the
'pretentious hipster cliche' theory, especially considering that he
is undertaking to talk about not only Zen Buddhism, but Poincaré,
Kant, and Plato.
At the same time, though, he is talking
about the reality all around him: the weather, the terrain, how his
motorcycle is running. On this reading, I noticed how neatly the
metaphysical journey is mapped onto the geographical journey,
attaining a majestic altitude over the Continental Divide. No matter
how lofty his thoughts, sunshine is still hot and rain is still
The narrator's personal history is emerging, too,
involving mental illness and an episode of electroshock treatment.
When he's told “You have a new personality now,” that raises more
questions than it answers. The old personality, dubbed 'Phaedrus', is
a ghost worthy of the German Romantics, or Henry James. This is
ironic, because the man we meet is Classic all the way, a passionate
devotee of the Church of Reason. That's why he's so good at the
naming of parts, conceptually dissecting his motorcycle into parts
and systems. In the Chautauqua, he turns these tools of analysis on
logic itself. What he really wants to know is, what is the
relationship between the True and the Good?
It makes sense
that the book caught hold as a cult classic among the young people
who were also reading Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five,
and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pirsig argues through the
long-running contention between the Classic and the Romantic, the Hip
and the Square, and he shows how they might benefit from learning to
appreciate each other. Notwithstanding the quirks of the vehicle, the
passion of the argument still resonates.
McPhee's New Yorker pieces are always interesting, even when
his subjects might sound unpromising. He's far more interested in
geology than I am, as well as the natural world in general. Who else
could have got a whole book out of oranges? But in Draft No. 4,
he comes to a topic I'm deeply interested in: how does he do it?
McPhee has been teaching the writing of narrative non-fiction at
Princeton for many years. In these essays, which have themselves
appeared in the New Yorker, he both shares his own idiosyncratic
processes and lays out some broadly applicable principles.
of what is peculiar to McPhee has to do with the tools he's had
access to. He started with typewritten slips of paper laid out on a
table and grouped by topic. When he switched to using a computer, he
found a piece of data-manipulation software that he's now effectively
the last user of; he has the inventor's phone number. The essay on
structure presents some rather abstruse diagrams that McPhee used to
wrangle various stories into shape, including a couple of tours de
force where he devised the structure before he even knew what the
subject was. This is not recommended for amateurs.
there's plenty of useful advice, which acknowledges that, while we
can't all be John McPhee, neither can he be us. On taking notes: "Use
a voice recorder but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief
pitcher. Whatever you do, don't rely on memory." In fact, it may
be to your advantage that someone you're interviewing is aware of it:
"Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license."
When your subject is aware of you as an audience, "You can
develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit....If you don't
seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it."
you've done your research, you're going to need a starting point.
It's not a time to be too cute: "A lead is good not because it
dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is
absolute to what follows." A sound lead points the way through
your structure. What kind of structure? "A piece of writing has
to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there."
What to include? "It's an utterly subjective situation. I
include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That
may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have."
is all a lot of work, and unquestionably daunting. "To lack
confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn't matter that
something you've done before worked out well. Your last piece is
never going to write your next one for you." The point of doing
(at least) four drafts is that the first draft may be a mess, but it
can only be improved if it exists. If you're lucky, you're not
completely alone. "Editors are counselors and can do a good deal
more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the
publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those
who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and
they can all use help." Lucky for us, both The New Yorker
and Farrar Straus and Giroux still employ editors, and long may they
And here's the peroration, with which I couldn't agree more: "When
am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I
can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I
can do; so I call it done."
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!