How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.

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The Left Hand Of Darkness, Or: Maybe I Don’t Like Sci-Fi, After All

A25837084.jpgbout halfway through Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and about halfway through a snore, I realized that maybe sci-fi wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d read fantasy as a kid, and now and then read some sci-fi short stories. I gobble up dystopias; anything that whiffs of magical realism is added immediately to my queue. I like dabbling in the fantastical. The real world is real enough, thank you!

But The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole ‘nother ballpark. It’s not fantastical so much as it is scientific. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a different planet, LeGuin sketches out a world wildly foreign from planet Earth. Nothing is comfortable or easy on the the planet Winter, for Genly or for me. First, it’s essentially always winter (hence the name). LeGuin invented a new calendar, and a different name for each day of the week. In the limited inhabitable latitude, two countries with radically different philosophies and societal structures compete. For diplomatic reasons, Genly traverses the border. All that is just accompanies the juicy bit, though, and the one part that made The Left Hand of Darkness an interesting thought experiment.

What makes Winter so unique, though, is its inhabitants. While human, the population isn’t gendered. They are both man and woman. Once a month, during the “kemmering” mating process, they become sex-crazed and shack up with whomever else is in kemmering, be them a partner or stranger. This leads to some situations that seem askew: The king gets pregnant; characters embody both typically “male” and female” traits. LeGuin has fun skewering the notion of gender, and how it boxes us into learned behaviors. Genly flops around, not understanding. A typical man!

To be honest, I picked the book up because I thought it would be juicy (I know! Naive). I wanted LeGuin to really explore life without gender. And for the most part, she did. I guess my big complaint is — there is no sex in The Left Hand of Darkness! The characters, when not in kemmering, are completely subdued and almost behave as if they have zero sex drives. HellLO Ursula, why didn’t you take us into a kemmering sex den? While the rest of us down here are stewing in monogamy and trapped in our bodies, you could’ve showed us an alternative.

As a result of LeGuin’s chaste writing, Genly’s diplomatic trip is just that: Diplomacy. No snogs. No watching alien genitalia shift and morph. No trips to the kemmering houses.

I’ve realized now that sci-fi is more interested in world-build ing than in making out. While I respect the genre, I’m going to retreat to my erotic thrillers, thank you, where authors are more interested in warm-blooded planets than winter.

While I’m happy The Left Hand of Darkness exists as a thought experiment, I can’t deny its effect on me. Alas, it was to snooze.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.

9780571326105.jpgThen, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.

On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.

That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.

In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.

Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.

 “The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”

The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.

As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.

 “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”

My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.

In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.

For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.

Why I’m Reading Dear Sugar Today

There are some books that you pass on like good deeds. In fact it’s almost a crime to keep these books on your shelf, because they’re working books (as opposed to leisurely books that are ruined on beach vacations, their soggy carcasses left in hotels). Worker books shouldn’t be lying around unread. Their pages should be turned, their words making people stop pause consider and change. One such book is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

tiny_beautiful-330For years, Cheryl Strayed fielded questions from the “lost, lonely, and brokenhearted” under the guise of Sugar for The Rumpus magazine. Her empathetic, personal responses gained a huge following, and add to the myth of Cheryl herself.

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

Since reading that book the summer before my senior year of college, I’ve bought about 10 copies to give to friends. There is no inappropriate time to receive this book. Even if none of the advice columns directly relate to situations you find yourself in, Strayed’s responses are universal. They’re about striving to be a better, kinder person. She makes the specific apply to everyone.

Right now, many Americans find themselves in a surreal situation, something universal that feels like it’s also rocking your whole personal life. While the same footage of Voldemort getting sworn in is aired on TVs across the world, it’s all still very specific. I found myself this morning shaking my head and just being like: what the…

Then I caught myself. I caught myself because once, someone wrote Cheryl Strayed a letter that said, “WTF, WTF, WTF.” That’s all the letter said. Apathy and nihilism personified. Apparently that letter haunted Strayed. She didn’t know how to answer it. Then, she figured it out.

I give you her response. Read it the whole way through.

Yes, I’m Angry: Reading Men Explain Things to Me By Rebecca Solnit

The last time I attracted this many glances while reading on public transit was my sophomore year of college, when the entire sophomore class had to read the Bible and the Qoran as part of Contemporary Civilization. Naturally, being maniacal about schoolwork, I brought the books along on subway rides. So there I was, flipping through the Bible on the 1 Train41r8yICXM-L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg, attracting the stares of people who though they knew me.

A similar dynamic happened on the mornings I brought Men Explain Things to Me on the crowded train I take each morning to work. Only this time, I didn’t mind being typecast. I didn’t mind that men were looking at me reading a bold blue book with a bold white title. I’m happy everyone got to watch me nod righteously, be righteously angry, know that I wasn’t alone. I hope that all the men who gawked at me googled the book.

The essays are about how the cards are stacked against women, always have been. The essays are about the patriarchy and history and domestic violence, about power struggles and how individuals can be crushed under forces of apathy and cruelty. Such violence against women is structurally embedded into the system: how men behave, how law enforcement works. Such violence is allowed. Solnit is angry, yes, but her essays are based with facts and with proof, not emotion. This, of course, makes the essays scarier.

On the one hand, reading this book was satisfying because Solnit identifies a pervasive concept: mansplaining. But mostly, reading it made me angry. Putting a word on “mansplaining” doesn’t make it go away. Listing the awful statistics about domestic violence doesn’t make domestic violence go away. Lately I’ve been inarticulately angry — an anger so looming and large I’ve never been able to gather it into my hands, but like vapor it swirls around me as I walk through the world. I’m angry at the Big Powerful Forces, at having to live through this. How are we going to endure when Voldemort becomes president?

This book came out in 2014, back when I still thought we were headed towards some glittery land in the horizon called “progress.” In the essays Solnit concluded that while feminism has come a long way, there is so much longer to go. But she assured me that we were going there.

And yet. It’s 2017 now. Voldemort, tomorrow, will become the leader of the free world. In light of this, many of Solnit’s optimistic pronouncements ended up reading remarkably dated, like the whole book has been dipped into the present-day situation and came out dripping cruel irony.

Take an excerpt from this essay that she wrote condemning Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of a maid.

“The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the police believed this woman and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country that has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and well-being. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.”

And yet. It’s 2017, and 20 women have accused Voldemort Trump of sexual assault. A recently married Voldemort Trump said that grabbing a woman “by the pussy” was an acceptable means of seduction. All of this came out before November 8, and yet he still got elected. And to think — we could’ve had a woman in the White House. It’s not just that he won — it’s who didn’t win.

So, yeah, I’m angry. And confused. And want to reread this book and give it to anyone I know so they don’t fall asleep on what is happening and what will keep happening if we keep falling asleep.

Appreciating the Core Curriculum

My undergraduate college insisted that all of its students, whether math majors, start up gurus to be, or English nerds, would graduate having the ability to understand and appreciate the “greats” of “Western” literature, philosophy, music and art. I put those in quotations because those terms are so contested and cause a huge fuss on campus. What constitutes “great” is constantly in flux; so, the curriculum is constantly changing. For example, the book Beloved by Toni Morrison was just included in the Literature Humanities syllabus, marking the third book by a woman students read over the course of the year, and the first black woman. I’m all for updating and adapting the Core to make it less of a Dead White Man club. Because really, what the Core’s about is a road map for interpretation, something that helps with all the OTHER texts a person encounters in his or her life. It’s not about the books so much as it’s about the tools you get having read the books, or having analyzed the art.

But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about appreciation.

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I’ve found myself in the “real world,” which is also in quotations, because to be honest I have less of an idea of what the real world is than what constitutes the greats of Western art and literature. But I’ll find myself wandering cold city streets of reality and thinking how lovely it is that I have this treasury of great texts behind me. Because the Iliad, the Odyssey, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky–we’re not just talking about authors! We’re talking about the spine of all other literature!

My life has been so tremendously enriched by having read these books and having learned how to understand a work of art. My mind’s in dialogue with centuries of minds before me. Even if modern books are a reaction against the stiff classics, it’s important to have an idea of what the stiff old classics are. It was more than four years of coursework, but a way of going through the world with eyes wide open, and drinking in culture because I was taught how.

So here’s the kicker. I spent four years in an environment where the goal of my life was to discuss things that matter. Now, I’m in a world where other things (ie money and employment) take precedence. But these books are still in me like hard jewels, information congealed into diamond with heat and pressure and thought. I remember the things that matter, and just because there are other concerns now that might be ahead in line of the books I’m reading, I can still safely say: the books matter more.

 

Why Memorizing Poetry is Actually Worth Your Time

My senior year of college I decided I was going to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I scrawled the verses over and over in class instead of writing notes. I sought refuge in the voice of another mind–one whose was miraculously more neurotic than my own mind was during that crazy year. Now the time when the poem was necessary has subsided but the poem remains. I was walking in twilight Manhattan the other day, and it shot into my head: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.”

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my instagram post about Eliot, who I’m sure would have utterly reviled instagram were he around for it. and prufrock would not have had the nerve to follow anyone though surely he’d check out the ladies’ twitter pages a few times a day from his own anonymous account, where no one could see his thin legs

Yes, it’s good in the end to have things that’ll rattle through your mind that are more than just crappy pop song lyrics on the radio. (Although, diverging from point of post: I’m obsessed with that new Bastille song “Good Grief,” and I’ve been letting it roam around my head to an irritating degree lately).

It’s good, in the end, to read a poem so obsessively that you just, well, memorize it. I’m not at the point where I can whip out entire poems from the inside of my mouth flawlessly, like some Ivy League magic trick. But I can conjure up some convincing lines, and certainly have enough in my head to write in metallic sharpie on the little notebooks I carry around in my bag like I did the other day.

Why memorizing poetry’s actually worth your time.

  1. You’ll be reading poetry. There’s a misconception that poetry is stodgy, boring, and appropriate only for analyzing on standardized tests. This is false. Poetry is language at its best. With the fewest amount of words, a good poem can take you on the same emotional trip as a novel. Imagine that! I think people are scarred over by scarred over English teachers and ban poetry from their lives. This is a total shame, because you’re closing yourself off from all the somersaults language can do.
  2. People are impressed when you can quote poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or anything relevant, really. Is there anything cooler than having the appropriate line of literature for a situation? Don’t answer that question, it was meant to be rhetorical. I’m sure you can come up with things that you find cooler, but to me, there’s nothing sexier than effortlessly rolling out a line of verse. For example, when I became officially unemployed in September, I had a variation of Richard II’s opening line: “Now is the fall of our unemployment…” and it cracked me up for enough time to distract myself that I am unemployed. I also sometimes quote a particular love poem when I am in the particular mood, which is, at the very least, endearing in an earnest, 18th-century kind of way.
  3.  It’s a delightful mental exercise. The time for good old mental acrobats just for self betterment is marginalized. People go for runs, they do sudokus, they get facials all in the name of taking care of themselves. How about taking care of the soul?
  4. Finally, just having lines swimming around in your head can be a source of comfort, especially when they come up for air at just the right moment. I was on the train the other day, a day so beautiful that the sunshine was making it hard for me to read but I didn’t mind. I was excited for my destination (“joy is the ancitipation of joy”–rabih alameddine in his book an unnecessary woman) and a few lines of an Edward Hirsch poem came into my head. “My head is skylight / my heart is dawn” And that is what my head and heart were at the moment. He said it for me, better than I ever could’ve. For once I wasn’t struggling to put into words the world as I saw it, and felt it.

Okay, so those are the reasons that I read poetry to the point of memorization. I’m not deliberate about it–it just sort of happens.

If you’re going to start with a poem, I recommend Mary Oliver, because her poems are like iced tea at the end of a day spent at a lake in summer. You’re on an Adirondack chair. Someone’s just gotten up from the chair next to you, and it rocks gently. Someone’s cooking dinner, and you know you’ll eat outside, citronella candles ablaze illuminating bottles of wine and lots of food. Elsewhere you hear children laughing and your friends talking to each other. You have a book open on your lap but you’re not reading it. You’re drinking iced tea and watching nature flicker and move in the last moments of sunlight, when the light is at its most palatable. That is Mary Oliver.

So start with Mary O, and see where it goes.

Icelandic Lore

The lanky red-headed museum guide perked up when we asked him about the book he was reading. He sat behind the desk at Iceland’s Reykjavik Settlement 871 Museum, an underground den that displayed the site of a ruin dug up from under a street in the city. It’s not what I’m used to in terms of ruins, by which I mean they’re not Greek ruins, which jut up everywhere—on the subway, next to beaches, marble sparkling in the sun.

I find it hard to believe that anyone has lived on this desolate Scandinavian rock for centuries. And yet, they have, since around 800. The museum showed us pictures of the huts people used to live in. The wind was so strong outside the hotel we were staying in that I was scared the window would cave in the night before. Those must have been stubborn huts.

The guide, let’s call him Lars, was reading an ancient book of spells. “Folklore is kind of my thing,” he said.

This reminded me of a fact I’d read on the airplane: apparently, half of Iceland’s population believes in elves. This seemed a statistic too wonderful to be real. I’d once heard Irish people were so superstitious about fairies they wouldn’t discuss them. I wanted to see if I got the same spine-shivering reaction from my intellectual friend with the man-bun.

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He rolled his eyes, as if this was a question he was born to negate.

“That’s ridiculous,” he quipped. “Anyway, they’re not elves. They’re hidden people. They’re tall, with red hair, actually.”

Then I look at him. He fits the bill: tall, with red hair. I had to ask.

“Are you a hidden person?” My family looked at me with horror, and also amusement. They were happy someone asked the obvious question.

“No,” he said, after a pause, “You wouldn’t be able to see me if I was.”

Bummed that I missed an opportunity to see my very first Hidden Person, he continued to tell us about “his thing:” folklore. He was reading an old sorcery manual, with runes and recipes on each page.

Judging by my time in Iceland, if I lived there, these are things I would wish for with a book of spells: cheaper wine, the sun to poke through the clouds occasionally, weather that didn’t vacillate between hail and sun every twenty minutes, for fewer consecutive consonants in my words.

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could they be real?

The museum was pretty quiet, so Lars the Hidden Person took us on his own tour. It must get quiet, sitting behind a desk, selling museum tickets to Americans who usually don’t think to ask about hidden people and where to buy ingredients for spells.

 

Apparently, if we were to trust him, the Icelandic language has barely changed since it was first written down in the 11th century. Some Norse people stepped foot on Iceland and started writing things down—epic poems, laws, and town directories. With each word, they were cementing the language that Lars would speak on dates with his Icelandic girlfriend, say.

“Let’s say I met someone from this exhibit,” he said. I’m sure he’s fantasized about this many-a-time. “We could, quite easily, have a conversation together.”

“Iceland has been free from outside influence for so long that our language remains the same.” They’re also obsessed with keeping the language pure, and come up with Icelandic words when most languages just incorporate foreign elements. Instead of letting loanwords muddle up their tongues, the Icelanders invent words with Old Norse roots. Though their old settler counterparts may not be able to understand what a telephone is, the word telephone will be discernible, not something vaguely Latin or English.

The longest word in Icelandic is “Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur,” which translates to, “Key ring of the key chain of the outer door to the storage tool shed of the road workers on the Vaðlaheiði plateau.” I’m not making this up.

In addition to having pride in their language, the tour guide goes on to tell us about language education in Iceland. I’m happy he’s addressing this, because his English is so good it’s making me self-conscious. It’s at the point where I’m fairly sure his English is better than mine. Icelandic students also learn Danish, English, French and German. I think back to my Spanish class, in which the curriculum consisted in learning recipes for Mexican food, and grin nostalgically at the state of American language education.

Since Iceland is essentially a volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic, they’re able to keep piling up their language with purisms. I comfort myself that though the Greeks can’t run museums as well as the Icelanders, as my mother keeps shouting enthusiastically throughout our time at the museum, and though I can’t converse with Geoffrey Chaucer, I do have something.

This is the point in the essay when I should come up with something that I, as an American, have, that redeems my American nationality. Yes, we have some hotter weather, and yes, perhaps more skyscrapers. But judging by my time in Iceland, they have a lovely quality of life, an abundance of outdoor heated swimming pools, and limitless electricity and hot water. They may or may not have hidden people. They can practically have conversations with ancient ancestors, and if anyone has their things together enough to make a time machine, it’s the Icelanders.

We leave Lars and the museum a bit shaken up, and I for one hope he doesn’t cast any spells on us on our way out.

“Howl,” The Soundtrack of New York

The poem “Howl” transformed Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbian, into an “epic vocal bard.”

It’s something else to hear Ginsberg read “Howl.” This poem should be read, shouted, probably, from every rooftop in the city so it keeps vibrating, so the beat (or Beat?) goes on. My class on the Beat Generation just moved on to Ginsberg’s work, and I must say–it’s nothing short of electrifying. “Howl” hit me before I understood it. Hell, there’s so much I still don’t understand and that’s fine. It’s fine to be plunged into imagination blindly and be gripping around language for something concrete to hold on to, if that language is exuberant and exalting and inspiring and wants you to be angry and passionate and speak and wants you to be.

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“Howl” is a giant exhale. Each stanza is meant to take one breath to read, and the effect is certainly best appreciated if it’s read out loud. Ginsberg smashes words together that create sparks of understanding where you wouldn’t think there could be (“grandfather night,” “midnight streetlight smalltown rain,” “who ate the lamb stew of the imagination”). Each stanza’s a story about someone he knew. Each stanza is a world and a  whirlwind.

Most importantly I think it’s a poem that needs to be heard. It’s not a private poem. Allen Ginsberg is speaking to an audience–and the audience is not just you, but it’s all of America. So it should be read aloud because so much of it is aural, but also because it’s for an audience that’s bigger than yourself. Get swept up into the collective. Join the crew. He’s seen the best minds of his generation go mad, and he also goes mad, so we must conclude that he is truly one of the best minds of his generation.

Also, as a Columbia student, I’m so amused by the idea of a young graduate saying the best minds of his generation are these crazy wanderers, not his hotshot professors. I’m sure they loved that. Columbia isn’t fond of its Beat progenies and rarely acknowledges that on this very campus, a couple of scraggly students redefined American literature. But hey, it happened, and if you’re going to read it, howl it out loud, the way it should be read.

 

Jeannette Winterson’s a Star

I’ve read writers who write good paragraphs, and then writers who write paragraphs in sentences. Jeanette Winterson is the latter type. Take this example from her novel Gut Symmetries (which I haven’t read, but…)

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just damn, and it keeps getting better

Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene when she was at the shiny, enviable age of 26. She’d left home 16 years earlier after coming out as a lesbian, and her life experiences are printed all over her first novel, Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit. The semi-autobiographical novel is about a girl’s journey out of a fervently religious Evangelical household in an English mill town through discovering and embracing her lesbian sexuality. Though of course she never quite makes it “out,” because we can never make it out of our families. But anyway. It’s a damn good book, and I’m sure Jeanette’s mother would get mad at me for saying “damn” but luckily for both of us, she’s not my mother.

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Jeanette–but which one??

Winterson’s narrator, also named Jeanette, looks back and writes about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Jeanette was adopted as an infant by this mother, a woman who believes in stark binaries, to be groomed into becoming a pastor. All her life Jeanette is aware of her mother’s “calling” for her to join the church. But her destiny collides with her desires when Jeanette awakens to romance, to the Melanies and Katies of the world. It’s so interesting tracing the logic Jeanette uses to have love for women and church in her life, and when the icy realization that the community won’t let her do this begins to seep in.

Jeanette’s mother is kind of person who warrants an entire book being written about her, with enough idiosyncratic antics and wild beliefs that you stick with Jeanette to see how she navigates loving her mother and knowing she must leave her if she’s to survive. The title stems from one of the mother’s proclamations that oranges are the only fruit. But of course they’re not.

You’d think a book about a girl being shunned by her community/realizing her community is batshit would be bitter. But it’s not. It’s poignant, funny, and terribly kind to the people that she lost along the way.

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from Oranges, captures the poetic urgency of her way out

Winterson sprinkles in some fantastical elements in Oranges in brief fairy-tale-esque sequences mythologizing Jeanette’s journey out. Her book The Passion (which I think is my favorite Winterson) takes this speculative fiction to a whole new level. It’s about a love affair between a Venetian thief and a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Mostly I was swept away because it has extremely delectable quotes on love in it, and there’s nothing I quite like like good love quotes. Great stuff like, “I say I’m in love with her. What does that mean? It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly, she explains me to myself. LIke genius she is ignorant of what she does.” JEEEEZ. I mean, really, the woman knows how to write about the human experience and the human heart in ways that ring bells of truth.

Yet I know I’m being self-indulgent by swooning over how good The Passion is because it’s just a book that I would very much like.  Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit stuck with me for its sheer humanness. Knowing that it’s a true story certainly doesn’t make the reverberations any less strong.

It’s a comfort to know that I’ve only read two of her books, and there’s so much thought-provoking heartbreaking humanness to come.