Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Girl Walks Into a Book

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.

     After Charlotte, 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."

     Wuthering Heights, 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. Brontë after 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.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Almost Everything

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, 2018)

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 friend.

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.

And 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."

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Blood of Emmett Till

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.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
Robert Pirsig (1974)
         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 wet.

    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.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017)

John 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.

Some 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.

But 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."

When 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."

This 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 reign.

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."

Email edition, August 3, 2018