January 2013 Book Review: American Ghost: A Novel by Janis Owens

This prose is rushed and hard-scrabble. This is a hidden, receding history, full of the unknown and unattained. Backwoods harsh and cold and desolate and yet with a hidden quiet flickering. The writing style doesn’t match the story; there is little poetry in the austerity. The sentences are as terse and wiry as their subject.

This story follows a cast of modern Floridians over the period of a dozen years, with oft-repeated references to the past, to a history of violence and poverty, of silence and secrets. We follow two young Hendrix girls as they reach puberty in their tiny back-swamp, back woods hamlet in West Florida. Hendrix, a town of less than 300. A population less than 3% black, and no admitted Indian blood. A twilight zone of brash lies, lies about lies, and forgotten lies. A fuzzy dot on the verge of fading from the map. Here we find hidden woods and impenetrable swamp with a drowned history. Cleared fields, train tracks and concrete foundations lie buried in moss.

Teens Lena and Jolie are contrasts, talkative and quiet, coaxing and recalcitrant, hopeful and morose. As we learn about the girls, we are led into the greater world of Hendrix and Cleary, Florida, the po’ and the dandy side of the river. Lena’s family is not from Hendrix. She lives there but will always be unhampered by its history. But not Jolie. Jolie’s family defines Hendrix. Her family blood runs through every pine and river and every speck of dirt. Hendrix for her is a perpetual penurious embrace.

As we follow the girlish friendship, the great Scotch-Native Hoyt Clan is painted, first with outlines, but as the book progresses, with more detail until we are in the rotting shacks and ratty chairs and peeling linoleum kitchens. We are eating fried shrimp and sitting on falling down porches looking over the spectral verdant swamp. We can see the sun on the boat launch and smell the pork and beans. Our author knows this land and gives us a hearty taste of Cracker.

Doled out with a crooked tin ladle are these: Cracker pain and silence, despondency, machismo and covert sweetness. Hoyt cousins crowded and wise-cracking in camo, rifles and cans in toe. Shanty thanksgiving and old lady tea time. And always the poverty, the forcible receding into dust, into untreated ills and unspeakable emotions.

We peek into this destitution where things that happen, important things like murder and lynchings, love, hysteria, escape and sweetness, go unvoiced, shoved down into skinny bodies never soothed, never smoothed. And so they both fade into fragile spider-web dust and linger. And linger.

In this poor fading place, all emotion is suspect, is cautioned. We trail Jolie’s melancholy trajectory. In this place a young un-mothered girl like Jolie has only flickering motes as guides. She senses their whispers; she listens to their hush and knows that she is doomed. As we follow we can sense the netherworld of this vanishing corner of history, where tragedy beats beneath the visible.

Jolie has learned to step warily in to good times, good spaces. She is beloved and spoiled by her older Minister father, loved by her blithe brother, befriended by the most popular girl in town, Lena. Jolie is given a magical first love, and later, material success. Her beauty is handed down from a long line of trashy, something on the side Hoyt women before her who lived, and dreamed and were demeaned. Although good does live in this Hoyt home, luck has little power in the faded gloom.

Ghosts hover in every corner of the Southern Gothic landscape, crowded in, unwavering. Wherever Jolie goes, they follow, uneasy, restless, never exorcised. The corpses still hang from the Cleary town tree, even with the limb cut off decades since. The bodies still lie bloated on the ground, tricksters and unborn babes and innocent grandmas and brothers alike. Smug white men stand over them in preening, ghastly ignorance. Who were these people who won’t rest? Owens’ tale slowly unravels them, delicate flowers dried in a crease of Floridian memory. She drops their remnants into our consciousness so that we can weep and wonder over them.

If only there were more doorways into this guarded world. If we could pull the portal further open to better hear the thoughts and memories, the anguish and joy. I would have liked to know more of these people, more of their meanings and considerations. I wanted to unbolt and unfasten. I wanted to unseal these souls to hear Ray and Hugh’s talk, to know how Travis’ heart beat when he pulled the trigger, to feel Jolie’s solitude and ageing. I wanted to sit with Ray at his metal desk bent to task, and when he looked at his daughter. I wanted to hear his mind, and Ott’s, record the dread on that youthful murderous day. I wanted to listen to the memories of the elder Sisters, especially Sister Wright.

Through all the revelation of this little known world, I couldn’t help feeling that important layer fragmented and incomplete. My trip was hasty, my comprehension shallow. I left Cleary and Hendrix a trivial observer, unable to inhabit this hidden waning world before its tales shiver into the mossy air. This powerful story gave me dust and half-open doors.

Amazon link: http://amzn.com/1451674635

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January 2013 Book Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

A new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was published in November 2012 by Random House in the United States and Penguin in the United Kingdom, titled Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, at first stimulating, but ultimately a jumbled and flawed presentation of an interesting idea.

Has Taleb heard of the Feminist Revolution?

After reading dozens of reviews of Taleb’s new book Anti-Fragile, I don’t have much to add to the evaluations of anti-fragility itself. Many assessments are detailed and erudite, and it is clear that Taleb arouses and stimulates discussion. That alone is reason to be interested in his writing. Taleb uses colorful language and coins fanciful terms like ‘black swans,’ a continuation of earlier writing, and ‘anti-fragile,’ the subject of this volume.  Weaknesses pop up, however, early in the un-edited, verbose, flight of fancy pages, and grow larger as the book moves into middle chapters outlining the same concepts by drawing different pictures.

Reading the first chapters, the fresh concept and novel, anecdotal writing style drew me in. I was able to suspend the annoyance I felt with discrepancies and omissions. However, as I continued to read, I felt less able to focus on the concept and more thought: who is this bountifully opinionated, myopic, overly-confident guy? His personality overcomes the ideas so that Anti-fragile quickly becomes more about the author than the intended subject.

First, what I understand to be the subject. A person (or entity) who can weather a certain amount of bad times is what Taleb calls robust, which is good because it’s good to be strong. To improve on that, to be anti-fragile trumps robust because undergoing painful events—gaining from disorder—actually makes you stronger. What’s more, understanding and welcoming these events, will make you strongest. Since much of life is painful, this is a positive spin on the circumstance of most human life.  It’s appealing to read about how the pain in our lives is needed, that a certain amount of suffering and affliction is something to welcome, instead of dodge.

Taleb has what he calls logical papers and more mathematical writing; as I am not a scientist or a mathematician, nor have I read his technical papers, I can’t speak to that. But this book, aimed at being user-friendly, is less essay and more biography, with a strong leaning toward tirade. Flavorful, interesting, but based more on anecdote, even cult of personality, than laid out logic. I’d go so far as to say that good user-friendly writing is always sensible and logical, while this is not, although at times it can be. I wish for more of that, because these are worthy ideas.

However, Taleb’s ideas, like most, are not new. Yet he presents anti-fragile as such. the closest definition Taleb finds to anti-fragile is hormesis, which is defined as a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial result (improved health, stress tolerance) is gained from exposure to low doses of an agent that is toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.  Taleb outlines why the two concepts are not the same. His logic follows that anti-fragile is a unique and new concept. It’s true that this is a new definition; As he explains, no word has made its way into the English dictionary to define anti-fragile. Fragile breaks from disorder; anti-fragile gains from disorder.

Yet, the concept and practice of gaining from disorder, distress or pain is ancient and well-known in certain circles. This lack of awareness by Taleb leads me to read his writing with a grain of salt. For example, anti-fragility is one of the foundations of Buddhist practice. For those who have studied Buddhism, a good example can be seen in the Five Slogans of Machig Labdron (a Famous Tibetan Teacher who happens to be a woman):

1)  Confess your hidden faults. 2)  Approach what you find repulsive. 3)  Help those you think you cannot help (sometimes translated as those you do not want to help). 4)  Anything you are attached to, give that. 5)  Go to the places that scare you.

Without going further into Buddhist thoughts, these Edicts are clear: an anti-fragile being will thrive only by confronting the pain of living.

The other exasperating, foundational oversight in this peculiar book is that Taleb likes to note many revolutions and evolutions in history, but forgets a little phenomenon called the Feminist Revolution, sometimes called or connected to the Sexual Revolution. For most of the book, it’s as if the man is writing in a vacuum of time or from some hermetic back room where women barely exist. I recognize that many parts of the world, parts Taleb may have spent segments of his life in, have not had the benefit of this historical change. However, if you are going to be in print in English, and printed in New York of all places, the oversight is incredible. Taleb’s lack of ability to take women’s contribution and existence into his writing leaves a huge, indefensible—frankly suspect–hole.  For example, his one chapter where women’s contribution is noted is called:  The Touristification of the Soccer Mom, outlining in brief, puzzling strokes, how what he calls ‘soccer moms’ are the greatest hindrance to a child’s development.

Women are noted in less than a dozen sentences in a book of over 400 pages, and wow when he does make mention, his ignorance and bias is quite conspicuous. In the Soccer Mom chapter, he blames soccer moms for hindering their children, without any clarification for this assertion. Although later he makes a slight mention of a soccer pop, in this chapter it’s as if the males don’t exist, those men you hear about all the time in the news who become physically and verbally violent if their child is either a) hampered from participating or b) given what the father considers a bad call.

It’s as if Taleb has had no interaction with American families where the overwhelming opinion and historical evidence (news, print, popular media) is that mothers are the main nurturers of children, educational or otherwise. Although there has been an identified subgroup of people Americans call soccer moms, this is mostly for political delineation (as a voter group), and has little to do with the actual way American parents bring up their children. Soccer moms are defined more by the crazy driving schedules assigned to them in modern family life.  If you are going to ascribe the term Soccer Mom, as Taleb does, as a mother who is involved with their child’s scholastic and hobby practice, by what logic can one charge these mothers as hampering their children? Taleb’s writing could benefit greatly from more mindful judgments; Much of this writing is whimsical assumption.

Strange it would seem to Taleb that most first world parents consider it the role of both parents, mother and father, to raise and guide the education of to their children. In later pages, Taleb spends a lot of ink praising his father—disorderly, disvaluing education—as the main force behind his upbringing. He does not mention his mother in any direct way. From his personal experience there appears to be an extrapolation about families in general. I wonder, where included in the anti-fragile universe are the so-called non-soccer moms in the world? If you are not a soccer mom or a disorderly dad, where are you in Taleb’s spectrum of parenting? Non-existent? Quietly demurring in back rooms?

The chapter “How to Become Mother Teresa” reveals more jaundice. If Taleb wrote one word about how Mother Teresa was a positive force in the world that would have been great. Instead, in quite the opposite vein, Taleb paints a cautionary tale of a sweet-looking yet husband-swindling woman he knew to prove his argument that victims (sacrifices) create learning and anti-fragility for others (the men she didn’t marry). I know that when I think of the victims of this world, rich divorced men come to mind near last. How about you? Yet this is the major anecdote that comes to Taleb’s mind when wanting to portray victims.

Thoughts about economy and philosophy, however important, cannot exist in a bubble of masculine, platonic, hierarchical solitude. In the same chapter “A Lesson in Disorder” soon after, Taleb outlines what he calls his ‘barbell education’, further underscoring the problems with this book. Out of perhaps thirty writers he shares that he read when young, one was a woman, Anais Nin. I love Nin as much as the next person, but that style of authorship is but a small snippet of women’s writing—serious, deep, important writing that happens to be authored by women. Again, Taleb exhibits no attempt to acquaint himself with women’s impact, this time in literature. Taleb’s ideas, however erudite, need to reflect the modern world where women exist, took part in history, write and read books.

As a woman, a writer and editor and as a person who is part of the world (with husbands, kids, families), I found Taleb’s writing muddy and rocky. I wanted to forge ahead, but I kept tripping over flaws. How can I ponder the intricacies of an idea when its execution is so awkward? If you do not count the balance of all people in your readership that the modern view at least attempts to reflect, your ideas are going to be skewed, and thankfully outdated.

I’ve taken some time to look over the over 170 reviews on Amazon to test my theory and I find that I was right. There is nary one woman writer providing a review. Some reviewer names are “opaque” so I can’t tell about those. But the names that I could read were all men.

Most women are not patient enough to wade through a tome where they might as well be aliens—that is, if they are not prostitutes, gold-diggers or soccer moms, the major contributions Taleb attributes to women in history.

Taleb is obviously a brilliant guy, and it would make his writing far more readable if he recognized the other half of the human race who are in fact successful—anti-fragile—teachers, parents, bankers, economists, writers, thinkers and history-makers. I’d like to hear a point being made by a person who accedes that I am a person in the room with an opinion and a history that matters.

Sleep or Write? (Written At 1am This Morning)

otherwise known as: Why I haven’t written in a few days

When I was thirty-eight I worried about concepts like safety and survival for the first time in my heretofore careening up, down and sideways way of life. That was the year my daughter Mairead came into the mix. Up until then I had been happy to wander about, adventuring and learning where the wind took me. For most of my adult life I simply leapt in. I could try new things and go off to distant shores because I had no one to disappoint and no desire to be rooted. This was both by nature and deliberate.

When I met my then-to-be-husband Niall, the same held true. We both lived life the same way and chose each other to continue that roaming existence. Our wedding vows were all about freedom freedom freedom.

Yet, I was not wild. I regularly did my due diligence and asked myself that sagacious question: “If I did this, what would be the worst that could happen?”  My answer was that the worst would be to end up with nothing. …But then we could cut our losses and start over, which never seemed very hard for me, and which Niall and I did many times.

That’s not saying the losses weren’t painful. Our life was often painful. We often found ourselves smack in the middle of scary, embarrassing, and confusing piles of blunder. Just like everyone, it stung and it ached when I dove in and didn’t end up where I’d hoped. But it was always worth it, for the ride or for the lessons learned.

After more than twenty years of being my own captain o my captain, motherhood descended upon me and sang through me that it was time to learn about stability. For the first time I remember so well driving on the highway my usual 80mph and thinking: I have a family now. I have to slow down. And I turned into the slow lane. …Now I only take the fast lane if I have to.

Before I was a mom Niall and I moved every year. For eight years we lived in a new house each year. I’m not possessive, and I found it easy to sell off everything and start new. But now we had to keep a roof over our heads, and furniture in the rooms; useful furniture like high chairs and cribs.

I had learned to be afraid.
But dammit… An artist has to be fearless.

Maybe that sounds like a pasted up slogan or a wannabe intellectual’s teahouse cry. But damn if it’s not true. To create art, I’ve got to jam the outside noise  and only then can I hear the voices that live in me, just longing for me to tune in to them. Hordes of would-be distractions and concerns loom, ponderous and precarious, over my laptop. That doesn’t even account for the criticism, lethargy, bills, news, and social obligations that pull and pull and sometimes rend.

How can I weigh whether to do a load of laundry so that there are clean socks tomorrow—or to write? How do I know if I should work the weekend or spend time with the family—or write?

Date night or write?
Go food shopping or write?

While my choices are clear, my answers are opaque. Someone cheering me on would say write bllu write! Who cares if your house is a mess? If I could give myself that answer, that would be great. But that answer rarely feels doable or feasible or even right.

I’m not sure why. I’m not sure how much this is an emotional dilemma as opposed to a survival dilemma.

Which brings me to my final thought. One thing I think that I know is that mother as an entity is not compatible with most other roles. Yes, there is much successful co-existence. People juggle every day. …Sometimes this comes easily and with grace. Most of the time it can only be reached with much struggle, guilt, and not being sure what I am doing is right.

I’d love to write a book about how we all need a mother and a wife in our lives. While these are different roles, they both in some way mean: to take care of. Ahhh, doesn’t that sound goooood? Something every single person could use. But, when a mother and wife has no mother or wife to lean on, then what?

Many of us are lucky to have mothers, some even wives. But while the role needs to be filled by a person, I’m describing the role. That one who consoles, gives, hugs, calls, writes, talks to, endures, buys, keeps, carries, wipes, teaches, and of course loves.  Many a dad and husband fill this role; many a sister or cousin or aunt or grandfather or best friend. Mother energy is something we all need.

But to be a mother can one be an artist? Can one be anything else and do them both well? This is where I live right now, struggling to hear competing desires and unsure of how to answer. I do I try. I can’t say how often I succeed.  Blog entries, you keep score.

My Favorite December 2012 Book: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Reviewing this book as my first on this blog is appropriate because it is one of the reasons I started this blog. Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail helped push me one step further towards figuring out where the heck to go next.

There are books and authors that simply speak to you, who call to you, who strangely seem like they know you. Their story could be your story. Their life is your life, or so like your life that you feel a kinship. The details may differ, the locations and the faces possess different names, but your roots shoot from the same source. Your blood runs the same way.

Reading Wild was an important catalyst in my trying, trying, trying to get onto a new path. No, not a thousand mile hike along the Pacific Coast. But a hike, a leap, new soil beneath my boots. So, on a personal level I recommend this book as possibly greatly inspiring. Perhaps transformational.

Cheryl’s story touched me deeply. I am inspired by her honesty, but moreso by the poetry of her honesty. Even while facing brutal truths, her force is gentle. Even as she shares raw details of her life, there is a sort of peace underlying each sentence. The peace of writing from the other side of the life recounted in Wild –Yes. But deeper than that, my suspicion is that there was always a calm in Cheryl that led her to live the events she chronicles. More, this inner strength allowed her to experience and drive her story like few would.

This is why Strayed’s writing is so inviting. We see a woman who struggled mightily. But equally, we see a hero. From the first we recognize a woman who has a fighting chance because she’s got tools. She’s got powers. This is made clear in the quote her mother used to say that runs like a bright ribbon through the narrative: “We aren’t poor because we are rich in love.” If being loved deeply and knowing how to love is not a super-power, I don’t know what is.

Strayed’s story illuminates how she learned that every turn was dear in what it took from her but precious in where it got her. Even from the first page, a clear understanding hums between the lines of how she cherishes the expenses of living, no matter how painful. That wisdom, that ability to love the journey underlies all of her narrative to an inspirational level. By the end of the book we see a woman who has learned to see her journey as heroic. Her boots may have been too small, her heart may have been in bits, she may have wished to howl feverishly at the moon. Even so, each bloody, frantic, chaotic step was worthwhile, as worthwhile as the rare beautiful moments.

For anyone wishing to undergo a journey or seeking transformation, no matter how small, I recommend this book. Every step of Strayed’s passage from childhood to orphaned, to tailspin then fly-by-the-wind thousands of miles hike up the Pacific Coast, to final reward of a loving, comfortable family life, every step was compelling. Every hard-earned milepost that each chapter takes us through offers insight. I read Wild with the feeling that Strayed wrote this book as a gift from someone who knows what the edge looks like. She almost cast herself over it. She came close to tripping past it. She even slept there for a time, half of her body touching cold and unforgiving dirt, the other half hung weightless into the abyss. But Strayed found a way to claw herself towards a straighter, sweeter horizon. She wants us to know that if ever we find ourselves at that borderland of despair, we too can turn around and start back on the road to peace. What makes this book exceptional is that after reading this Wild journey, the journey of an every-woman, a person without special friends or privilege, we believe her. I see that hero in myself.

… Do you?

Cheryl’s homepage is: http://www.cherylstrayed.com and a list of places to buy it http://www.cherylstrayed.com/wild_108676.htm.

I like this: Edible Boston

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The Edible Magazines are part of the Edible Communities http://www.ediblecommunities.com. 

These magaziness are published all over the country and my local version is Edible Boston http://edibleboston.com. This publication is one of my favorites. It’s laid out beautifully, with great foodie photos, reams of locavore information, and local food people of every stripe. The focus is on local food, local producers and the local people who make them. Did you get that? In case you didn’t: local.

I find tons of new foods and new places to try here. This is one of those rare magazines where you like to read the ADS. They are a map of prettily wrapped foodie choices in a box. Yum!

The articles run the spectrum of healthy, consciously grown food. If you have any interest in food products that are good for you as well as good for the environment AND the community, this is the magazine for you.

Plus, the secret of healthy food is that, despite lore that it tastes like cardboard, real healthy food is almost always better tasting, juicier, creamier, spicier, moister, richer than industrial complex food. I dare you to try any of the recipes and foodie spots highlighted in Edible Boston–or your Edible version–and see if I’m right or wrong… tell me your outcome if you do take the dare. happy eating! mangia.. eet smaakelijk.

 

 

Almost Unknown

Hel-lo Out there! I know I won’t be read by almost anyone yet as I am just a-starting out fresh. I don’t know much about this brave new world of BLOGGING but I am willing to try it. I plan to go slowly. I do have a lot to say, hopefully helpful to others. I used to be a writer but I’ve been out of the scene for a while and when I used to write, blogging was not on the scene. Not like it is now. So… in short….  we’ll see.

I don’t have a book to review yet, so I’ll just put an open, pristine book up. Hopefully it will fill up.

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