Sunday, January 31, 2010

Traveling with Pomegranates

Any Good Books
February 2010

Thanks! to Suzanne Benton for recommending this book.

Traveling with Pomegranates: a mother-daughter story
Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor (2009, Viking)

The events of this joint spiritual memoir took place in the late 1990’s. Sue Monk Kidd was a writer, but not yet the novelist who would startle the world with The Secret Life of Bees; her daughter Ann was finishing college and trying to chart a course into adulthood. Traveling with Pomegranates braids strands of travelogue--real journeys to Greece and France--with journal entries detailing the unfolding of life changes that occurred along the way.
Ann’s school trip to Greece is a liberation for her into a more confident, independent womanhood; she connects powerfully with the image of Athena, though, as it happens, her transformation has just as much in common with Persephone’s period of wintry waiting. Sue, meanwhile, faces middle age: the approach of menopause, and her daughter’s progress toward leaving the nest, guide her to seek new icons of motherhood.
One of these is Demeter, mother of Persephone, who has her own watchful waiting to do. Another is Mary, the mother of God; Sue finds herself drawn to images from throughout Mary’s life story, and that story’s own history. All this is tricky territory for a nice Baptist girl from Georgia, and to her credit, she acknowledges it. “If I pursued [Mary], it would mean a whole compass-change in my spiritual life. There were people who would think it was fatuous, if not theologically egregious. I suppose some part of me thought so, too.” She can study her resistance to see what it’s made of, but when dreams, poems, icons, and paintings all point the same way, the time comes to quit resisting.
Ann struggles, at the same time, with conflicting possibilities for her life’s work. When she’s turned down for graduate studies in Greek history, depression swamps her, and she sleepwalks into a much less inspiring graduate program. She’s so listless on the return trip to Greece that her mother is worried. I liked this: “I’m worried she might ask me what’s wrong and I’ll have to lie, or worse, tell her the truth.” What Ann secretly wants is to become a writer, though she’s daunted by the prospect of ’going into the family business’. What if the difference in their talent is too great? She comes to realize that even if she follows in her mother’s footsteps, she will ultimately make her own journey.
Though the material is unavoidably personal and specific to these women, Traveling with Pomegranates will speak to women at many stages of our lives. What spoke most strongly to me were the ruminations on the writing life. Ann wonders, “If I was cut out to be a writer, wouldn’t I be better at it? Wouldn’t it come easier?” Like so many things in life, it’s a combination of will and grace; the grace won’t find you if you don’t sit down to the work. And her mother has new questions simmering inside: “What will I leave behind? What will become of the world? What indentation will my work make? Why do I make myself audible like this?”
It’s a risk, no question about it, but we can only be glad that both of these women have dared to write so boldly, and beautifully. It’s an exceptional gift that they were able to do it together.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness
Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

I've admired Karen Armstrong's writing on the history of religion, though it would be fair to admit that I found A History of God dauntingly, even overly, comprehensive--it took me a year of occasional bedtime nibbling to get through it. She is broadly knowledgeable, and a skillful writer; and she brings to her study of religion a passion for it as a human enterprise. "...I tried not to dismiss an idea that seemed initially alien, but to ask repeatedly, 'Why' until, finally, the doctrine, the idea, or the practice became transparent and I could see the living kernel of truth within--an insight that quickened my own pulse." The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong's memoir of how she came to work this way.

The book begins with Armstrong renouncing her vows after seven years as a nun, having entered the convent when she was seventeen. (Her earlier memoir, Through a Narrow Gate, describes those years.) She was midway through her courses at Oxford University, studying English literature. Emerging from the cloister in 1969, Armstrong encountered a world vastly different from the one she had left. She also found that the habits of mind formed in the novitiate could not be left behind as easily as the nun's habit. Obedience, in particular, made scholarly life difficult, as when she was called upon to find something original to say about the works she was studying--it took her a long time to get her own voice back.

The book is both frank and compassionate about the twists and turns of Armstrong's subsequent career: academic success and failure; teaching; and a detour into television production, spiraling back to a life of research and writing that bears a distinct resemblance to the solitude and silence of the cloister. The difference is instructive, however: no longer under pressure to believe in anyone else's vision of God, she finds the Holy by following her own path.

Because of her study of the relationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, she is now frequently called out of her solitary studies to help bridge the gaps among them. "Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies."
Hallelujah, Amen.

January 2005

Monday, January 18, 2010

Open House

Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own
Patricia J. Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Patricia Williams contains multitudes. She's the author of three books on American race relations; she is a columnist for The Nation, and a professor of law at Columbia University. She's the great-grand-daughter of a house slave, and the unmarried mother of an adopted son. She's a piano student distinguished more by determination than skill, and she possesses one of New York City's better collections of take-out menus. And what a story-teller!
Many of the stories are tales of Williams's family, a remarkable collection of (mainly) aunts who rode education as far as it could take them in their day, and encouraged her to push farther. "They always insisted that I work hard, but not that I be perfect. They worked hard with me, on me, for me." Any family has complications, of course, including some that are peculiar to black families: she had an aunt who married into a prestigious white Boston family, who wound up reinventing her white son-in-law as her own son, in effect disinheriting her daughter.
The essays in Open House are relatively personal, compared with the political bent of Williams's earlier collections.; but Williams here shows us that such a clean distinction would be a luxury in her life. From the time she was one of nine black women in her class at Harvard Law School, she has had a sort of evil twin, who exists in the opinions and prejudices of others. She has, as it happens, an actual public voice, a record of speech and writing about race, gender, and various legal issues; and then she has the straw man--the liberal feminazi of Rush Limbaugh's dreams, as pictured by some of her students, for polemical purposes of their own. She even had the dubious distinction of the full Lani Guinier treatment: when she was scheduled to give some talks on the BBC, she found herself reading about her supposed self in the British press, as a supporter of "favoritism, tribalism, liberalism, literalism, and the degradation of civilization as we know it."
Williams's view of the contradictions of African-American life is both entertaining and enlightening. On compulsive striving to overcome stereotypes: "...when huge amounts of energy go into jumping through those hoops for the sole sake of performance rather than personal satisfaction, a kind of bitterness settles over the enterprise. We risk a deep disappointment, an existential fatigue that can poison the entire enterprise." Ain't it the truth?

April 2005

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift; The Quality of Life Report; Southern Fried

E-mail only, May 2005
Just to get us in the mood for summer--and if that seems early, remember my internal calendar is based in Alabama--a look at the fiction shelf.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Elinor Lipman (2003, Random House)

The Quality of Life Report
Meghan Daum (2003, Viking)

Southern Fried
Cathy Pickens (2004, St. Martin's Press)

Not just fiction, friends, but Chick Lit: all three of our heroine narrators are going through life changes that make them ask the big questions, like 'What should I do with my life?' and 'Where do I belong?'

Elinor Lipman's Alice Thrift is, in one way, exactly where she belongs; she's a surgical resident, who all her life has suffered the social gracelessness reputedly common to surgeons. She's swept off her feet--sort of--by Ray Russo, who gives her the flowers-and-candy treatment so relentlessly that it seems less trouble to marry him than to figure out why she doesn't really want to. She's busy, after all, and not altogether certain that she'll make it through the first year as an intern. (I can tell you that the marriage is a disaster, because Alice tells us so herself, right up front.)
Now, who here hasn't at some time accepted a date, because, what the heck, you might turn out to be wrong, and have a good time? The disaster that is Ray happens to Alice because she isn't really paying attention, which is a neat trick for Lipman--to show us through her own eyes all that Alice is missing. And fortunately, she is a decent enough person to attract other friends and allies around the hospital, and we can believe the good they see in her. What Ray sees in her is a puzzlement, and feels rather phony, even to Alice; but she has a moment of clarity in just the nick of time.

In Megan Daum's The Quality of Life Report, Lucinda Trout enjoys much wider horizons than Dr. Thrift, but shares many of the same work/life conundrums. Is her immediate boss just cranky, or possibly evil incarnate? Are the ideas you talk yourself into the best ideas? Lucinda talks herself into a lulu--she moves from New York to a small city two thousand miles west of Central Park, to send back televised reports on the part of the country where one-room apartments don't cost two thousand dollars a month.
As the older narrator is embarrassed to confess, this amounts to cultural slumming on an impressive scale. Young Lucinda secretly imagines that midwestern standards are so far below those of New York that she'll receive an instant promotion in popularity, attractiveness, wit and all-around genius. Indeed, she is welcomed with open arms by the local liberal-hippie contingent, the crowd that runs the public tv station and the Coalition of Women. And she manages to send back a few reports on quaint local customs, even if she has to contrive them herself: it's the first Barn Dance they've been to in many a moon, but her local friends are up for it. (Unfortunately, of course, they're too chubby and badly dressed to appear on television in New York, unless they are actually confessing to methamphetamine abuse.)
The cultural clash is often very funny, in a painful way. Lucinda continues to describe Prairie City as a New Yorker would see it ("There are lesbians in the midwest?"), but her problems take on a reality and seriousness undreamt of by that old self. Faced with the empty propane tank, the boyfriend with three children and no money, and the growing awareness that her friends know she's been condescending to them but like her anyway--Lucinda gets to quit fantasizing about being a good, spiritual person and actually become one.

Moving even deeper into the realms of brain candy, Cathy Pickens's Southern Fried is a competent murder mystery; but it's also a coming-home novel with a real sense of place. Avery Andrews is a lawyer who has jumped off the corporate ladder (evil boss) in Columbia, S. C., and retreated upstate to her home town of Dacus. Pickens gives us a nice sense of why that's such a great distance: she was a loner in Columbia, but Avery has People in Dacus, including a great-aunt who feels free to drum up law business for her over cheese straws and petit fours.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The First Word

Any Good Books
January 2010

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
Christine Kenneally (2007, Viking)

In The First Word, Christine Kenneally is on the trail of a mystery: “Where, in (pre-)human history, did language come from?” It is a daunting question, to be sure: because words are made of breath, which leaves no fossil record, (when you probe beyond the advent of writing, only about six thousand years ago) it’s hard to see how to tackle it. It’s tempting to invoke the Garden of Eden, or the Tower of Babel, and be done with it.
By way of prologue, Kenneally also tackles an interesting question about the history of her primary question. Although Charles Darwin was curious about the matter, and included some philological speculation in The Descent of Man, major linguistic bodies of his day explicitly declined to countenance papers or talks on the origin of language. That philosophical embargo continued into the twentieth century: the field of Linguistics itself, to the considerable degree that it was dominated by Noam Chomsky, mostly left the question alone. Kenneally says, “Having stripped away all of the untidy bits of language as ‘performance,’ Chomsky defined language as an idealized, perfect, and elegant system. The brain, on the other hand, he said, was messy. How did something so messy develop something so perfect? It was a mystery, he said, one that was, for the time being, insoluble.”
How do you go from an insoluble mystery to an answerable question? It helps to rethink what sort of a thing ‘language’ might be. Of the other linguists Kenneally writes about (having narrowed her cast of characters for the sake of intelligibility,) Philip Lieberman is the most critical of Chomskyan ideas about the uniqueness and perfection of human language. He writes of language “as not so much a new thing that humans have as a new thing we do, and we do it with a collection of neural parts that has long been available to us. Moreover, when you think about language this way, it is not really a ‘thing’ at all but a suite of abilities and predispositions, some recently evolved and some primitive.”
Broken down, that suite of abilities yields to a variety of approaches. Studying apes in the wild gives scientists insight into the way our ancestors may have understood relationships of kinship and reciprocal benevolence. Parrots, dolphins, and chimpanzees have learned to use symbol systems to generate novel expressions. Preverbal human babies, and adults with deficits caused by brain injuries, have also shed light on how the parts of our language apparatus depend on one another.
The recent explosion of genetic data has contributed to the picture; I’m quite thrilled to know that humans have a gene, a bad copy of which inhibits the ability to speak, that is 98% similar to one in birds that allows them to learn how to sing; the current human version is roughly as old as language. All that tells us, though, is that FOXP2 is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human speech; that’s a long way from really understanding how even this one gene is expressed. Kenneally says, “Language evolution research has illuminated a complicated geometry of species, traits, and relationships, and in the face of this newly defined space words like ‘uniqueness,’ ‘innateness,’ and ‘instinct’ have come to mean everything and nothing.”
The First Word contains multitudes, far beyond what I can do justice to in this space. Kenneally writes well, folding the science smoothly into her narrative. While it’s early days for evolutionary linguistics, the good news is that students are coming along who embrace the insights of biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and computer modelling. More good news, says Kenneally: “At the time I wrote this introduction, pretty much every one of the main characters in this book, and a slew of others, was writing his own book to present at greater length his particular version of how language evolved.”
I can’t wait.