8. Felicia Pearson, Grace After Midnight
In my last set of reviews, I wrote:
I want to know how the wives felt; I want their motives... I am asking the wrong question. I have missed the point. Not everyone's insides work the way mine do.
The gods of reading sent me Felicia Pearson's memoir to address this exact point. Before I read it, I wasn't sure whether I'd include it here, and I am still antsy, because it's a ghostwritten celebrity memoir. (From the back flap copy: "David Ritz's most recent bestsellers are Tavis Riley's What I Know for Sure
and Don Rickles's Rickles' Book
. He has also collaborated with Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Laila Ali, and B.B. King on their life stories..." Not only is he white, he's a Phi Beta Kappa from UT Austin. Hmm.)
Still, Pearson's such a remarkable person - jailed for murder in her teens, only to become one of the most spellbinding actors on The Wire
- that I just wanted to know more. There's definitely a voice in the book. Who knows, maybe it's Ritz, but it sounds a lot like Pearson in her interviews. And it gave me a clue to reading those Aboriginal myths.
"His being away might have gotten me mad. Can't say for sure.
Lots of things got me mad.
Back then, though, I wasn't thinking about how I was feeling.
I was just doing."
"Who did I think I was?
Why was I doing what I was doing?
I look back and wonder why.
I look back and ask myself questions that are hard, maybe even impossible to answer.
But at the time questions weren't part of my life. Questions weren't part of my thinking.
I didn't ask.
I just did."
"God knows what'll happen to me.
Does God even care?
Do I even care?
It'll be what it'll be."
In each of these passages, Pearson indulges the introspection that is afforded by the leisure of her post-Wire
life; no longer selling drugs, no longer living moment to moment. What I realized, reading this, was that the myths I read and wonder about may have been told and retold by people without the privilege of introspection. I don't have a lot of experience of survival mode. I've experienced it only in passing. But I know, at least theoretically, that it drives away every thought except what is necessary to survive.
I'm sorry if I'm labouring a point that is really obvious to everyone else, but this was such a kick in the pants to me. Psychological complexity of the kind I look for in books is an artefact of the bourgeois novel tradition as an outgrowth of an emerging leisure class almost by definition.
When I read a passage that is opaque to me, in which people behave in what seem to me weirdly passive ways, it would probably be smart of me to remember that the status of (for example) women in patriarchal hunter-gatherer societies can be anywhere between marginal and dire, and that I am almost certainly failing to give them the enormous credit they deserve for the resourcefulness it takes just to get by. They're not opaque people.
They're people who don't have the luxury
Sigh. I am sorry I did not already know this. What can I say, I'm a slow learner. Nevertheless, a resolution: in future I will read myths while bearing in mind that the people described therein are struggling for their lives. And I expect they will make a lot more sense to me.
9. Craig Laurance Gidney, Sea, Swallow Me
I enjoyed pretending that this was the book Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao would have written if he had been gay. The first story, "The Safety of Thorns", was my favourite; I'd had a similar idea but no clue how to tackle it - the old African gods made manifest in America during the slave era. Gidney pulls it off with beauty and melancholy and a defiant ending that pulls hope from a bad, bad place. Many of the other tales retell one of my favourite stories, a story that never grows old: a stranger comes to town, and finds out that he or she is not the only [gay|lesbian|other|just plain weird] person in the world after all. If Desire isn't exactly my friend,
one of these concludes, at least he isn't my enemy.
10. Varian Johnson, My Life As A Rhombus
This, interestingly, is a meditation on similar themes, especially the war between reason and desire. It's told, by a male writer, from the point-of-view of a teenage girl who is tutoring in math, and if Rhonda didn't quite ring true for me as a teenage girl, as a math whiz she jumped off the page. Some of the little math exercises set off in boxes beside the story were genuinely witty.
In any case, getting a teen girl's voice right is, I think, fiercely hard, and I may be an unusually picky critic of this. I was a total mess from 13 to 19 (and beyond!) with no insight whatever into my own needs or wants, although I certainly thought I was an expert on both. The protagonists of most YA today seem to me preternaturally ...organized. Rhonda, despite her pregnancy and her difficulty in coming to terms with its outcome, is a good example: straight As, attractive to boys and able to describe her internal state and achieve closure in simple declarative sentences. I'm sure there are teens like that, but I wasn't one, and I didn't know any.
Nevertheless, her story is engaging and affecting, and Johnson achieves one of his stated aims brilliantly. Race is present throughout the whole book without ever once being its focus. Here as in Angela Johnson's The First Part Last,
it's an inexpressible relief to read about African-American highschoolers thinking about things other than being African American highschoolers.
11. Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook
Maybe this is an exclusively Australian thing (or just a me thing) but did you ever have the fantasy that someone from, say, Sri Lanka would wander into anthropology from the English literature department, take a good hard look at some of the self-serving garbage being served up as delicious food by white apologists for empire even today, and write a long, erudite, witty deconstruction of the genre that is at once generous and devastating? Taking academia to task in its own language, with a knowing wink and the utmost skill? If you share that daydream or think you might like to, if you've ever been a subject of or had glancing contact with or even heard of the British Empire, I beg of you, read this book. It's the Orientalism
of the Pacific.
12. Samuel Delany, Tales of Nevèryön
Great God almighty, he's the love child of Henry James and Ursula Le Guin. WHY WASN'T I TOLD???