Archive for March, 2020

Review: In The Dream House

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado has brought a remarkably powerful work into the world with In The Dream House. Any short summary would belie the honesty, power, and craft she employed. That said, it’s a memoir of her years as a victim in an abusive relationship.

Abuse is complicated, layered and yet invites simple judgement from us. Everyone has preconceptions about what it is and perhaps insight from being involved. Whether the reader believes that one brings it on oneself or that the abusers are possessed by overriding malice or many many other explanations, each person and relationship differs.

Machado tells her story in tiny, bite-sized chapters that slowly cohere into the narrative. They also cohere into an introduction to her remarkable mind. She has dissected her experience deeply from many angles. Each chapter is a facet of those thoughts, captured at different moments in time and reflecting aspects of the situation. That creates bounds around her experience that neither define or encapsulate it. Other people’s experience is never our own, and Machado doesn’t let us believe so. The corral she draws around the thing clarifies it remarkably.

She attacks the thing from so many perspectives. She is a scholar of the literature and the statistics. She is a queer woman living with her understanding of others’ assumptions and judgements. She has dug deeply into how those preconceptions have shaped her own ideas of her identity. She is a hurt child. She is a Star Trek fan. She is a literary scholar. She is a young, sociable college student. She is a writer. And so, so, much more. She is a human, and one I find remarkable.

I have to stress hat last facet – being a writer – because she is a remarkable one. Each of these facets is a gem in itself. The memories are evocative and poetic. The musings are clear while capturing the thoughts that led her to them. The scholarship is professional. And the whole thing intertwines in ways that make it all more of what each is.

A must.

Review: To A God Unknown

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

To A God Unknown contains a simple narrative presented with all the complexity and style that literature can muster. I have not read a lot of Steinbeck, and I’m surprised how much of the human condition he can illuminate with his spare, direct prose.

Unknown lays out the characters and their lives without obvious artifice, but it’s pretty hard to miss the symbolic role they are to play. Everyone is iconic here, and the stakes are both trivial – a single family ranch in Central California – and monumental. The ranch is nothing to the world and everything to these people. The events are pedestrian in that any rancher can relate and lyrical in that no one can explain them. The characters play their literary roles in the drama without deviation while stinking of humanity.

The result is a powerful concoction. I didn’t wind up caring a lot about what happened to these characters, but I did come away with a lot of empathy for the people whose lives are at the whims of the ineffable.

Steinbeck also opens the door to think about how people think about and try to bargain with the ineffable. No conclusions, but lots to think about, if you are of that mind. And I certainly am.


I went to the grocery today

Friday, March 13th, 2020

A trip to by some food and firewood is not worth posting about, but with the COVID-19 outbreak and response, I think it is. I was reaffirmed and calmed by the trip. I found a business well-stocked with food and other supplies – modulo an absolute dearth of toilet paper – filled with people being served in orderly lines.

Lines were long. I spent close to an hour and a half in line, but I passed the time in a delightful conversation with a couple of fellow citizens. We talked about quite a lot, but it really took off when the two others realized that they were fellow poker players. I learned quite a bit about local cardrooms and even less official venues where local folks play. I admit I was surprised that the cheerful grandma I’d been chatting with was such a knowlegable and succesful player. The fellow behind me bought a business that he still runs based on his winnings from a bowling tournament. He copped to only playing games for money.

One of the reasons I wrote this post is to report my experience. Some of the reports in my media bubble made shortages sound more widespread. I had stopped for the same items I bought today last night and I was alarmed to see the full parking lot and long lines. I knew I had what I needed, and bailed for home. I admit I was frightened by last night’s surprise, and left before I’d sized up the situation. Today’s trip restored a lot of my faith in people and in our community.

Stay safe, all. Follow preventative advice and be kind to your neighbors.