Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

As a lover of short stories, I have wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery” for some time. With Kate selecting it as October’s Six Degrees starting work, now seemed the perfect time!

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) pops up on blogosphere with some consistency, and is clearly well-regarded. Her career spanned two decades and, during that time, as the thorough Wikipedia article says, she wrote six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. Her debut novel, The road through the wall, and “The lottery”, were both published in 1948, though she had had short stories published over the preceding decade.

It was “The lottery”, however, which established her reputation – particularly as a master of horror stories. Wikipedia says it resulted in over 300 letters from readers, many “outraged at its conjuring of a dark aspect of human nature”. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 22, 1948, Jackson responded to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Many of you probably know the story, but, just in case, I’m not going to “spoil” it beyond that. I will, however, make a few comments.

I’ll start with Wikipedia’s succinct synopsis: it is about ‘a fictional small town which observes an annual rite known as “the lottery”, in which a member of the community is selected by chance’. It’s a great read, because the build-up is so good and the ending so powerful. If you were not forewarned, you’d have no idea you were reading a “horror” story, because there’s nothing Gothic about the setting, no eeriness, no overt build up of fear even. Instead, there’s the coming together of this village’s 300 people coming for this annual event. It’s summer, “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green”. Idyllic, in other words, or, so we are set up to see it is (or, could be?)

The children are described, then the men and women. It all seems benign, though there are tiny hints of something else, that you may not notice if you’re not expecting it. The emcee of “the lottery” is the ironically named Mr. Summers, who has the “time and energy to devote to civic [my emph] duties”. Many of the names in the story sound normal, but they also carry symbolic weight – Graves, Adams, Delacroix (pointedly, as it turns out, perverted to Dellacroy by the townspeople).

Anyhow, there is a long discussion of the “black box” that is used for the lottery, but, although it is “black”, it sounds quaint and unimportant. No great care is taken of it between lotteries. There’s a bit of camaraderie and joking between the townspeople; there’s confirmation of the formalities; but, slowly tension builds. Mr Summers and the first man to draw from the black box, grin at each other “humorlessly and nervously”. We are now half way through the story, and there’s nervousness among the attendees.

Then, plopped in here, is a little discussion about some villages – because this is not just this village’s tradition – having given up, or talking of giving up, the lottery. However, Old Man Warner (another interesting name), who has been through 77 lotteries, doesn’t approve of change. He sees “nothing but trouble in that”. When you know the end, you wonder what sort of person he is! Certainly not the archetypal dear old man, grandpa to everyone! Meanwhile, anxiety slowly builds, with another townsperson saying to her son, “I wish they’d hurry”.

The “winner”, when identified, doesn’t behave like a winner, which provides another dark hint, but which causes our aforementioned Old Man Warner to pronounce that “people ain’t the way they used to be”.

The final line of the story is shocking, but by then you have worked out what winning means, so it adds an extra layer to the story’s meaning (as you’d expect in a good short story).

You can find in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the web, all sorts of critical reactions and theories about what it means, but I’d like to return to Jackson’s comment that she intended a “graphic dramatisation of the pointless violence and general inhumanity“. Why do the townspeople accept “the lottery”? What makes some villages give up the ritual and others not? Why do some in this town act with relish and others not? It recalls, for me, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap. Yes, it’s a novel and a very different story, but I saw it as being fundamentally about the violence that seems to be be lying too near the surface of our so-called civilised society. I’ll leave it at that, but it makes me think, plus ça change.

Image credit: Shirley Jackson, New York City. 1940s. Contact: photography@magnumphotos.com. Low resolution version from Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Shirley Jackson
“The lottery”
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1948

Avalailable online at The New Yorker.

Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

Bill Curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. In 2011, when today’s post was first published, Barack Obama was in his first term as President and then Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, was pursuing a scorched earth policy of refusing to even allow Democrat legislation to be debated, with the stated aim of making Obama a one-termer. Obama got a second term, but then there was Trump, and racism in America seemed to take a giant step back into the light, giving new relevance to this talk from 1907.

This is the last Bill Curates post he sent me a few months ago. I intended to publish it then, but life, reading and blogging got busy, and I tucked this away in my drafts folder for another time. I think now is the time to post it and to thank Bill for the wonderful support he gave my blog through my dark year. It was so appreciated. Thank you Bill, you helped save my sanity.

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My original post titled: Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell. Public Domain, National Parks Service, via Wikipedia

I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue  in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.

Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?

I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.

But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:

As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …

The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!

She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is  a Jew,

… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.

You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!

Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:

… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.

Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?

* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.

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I love that Bill decided to choose a non-Australian post for this BC. It’s so depressing to think that no improvements seem to have been made in the decade since I wrote this – there, or I fear in most countries. Certainly, statistics coming out here in Australia are showing no improvement in important measures, like life expectancy and incarceration. Indeed there’s been some sliding. This is not good enough.

Thoughts?

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
379pp.
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)

Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Fannie Barrier Williams, Women in politics (#Review)

It’s been months since I posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, but this week’s piece by African American activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, captured my attention. Several LOA offerings this year have been relevant to the times – including stories about infectious diseases – but this one is so spot on for so many reasons that I could not pass it up.

Fannie Barrier c1880, photographer, public domain via Wikipedia

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was, according to Wikipedia (linked above), an American political and women’s rights activist, and the first black woman to gain membership to the Chicago Woman’s Club. According to LOA, she was also the first African-American to graduate from Brockport Normal School and “quickly became part of Chicago’s black elite when she moved there with her lawyer husband in 1887”. She was a distinguished artist and scholar.

However, it’s her activism that is my focus here. Wikipedia says that “although many white women’s organizations did not embrace their black counterparts as equals, Barrier Williams made a place for herself in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA).” She represented the viewpoint of black Americans in the IWA and “lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially black women, to have the vote”.

And so we come to her little (in size not import) piece, “Women in politics”, which was published 1894. It concerns women voting. Universal suffrage was still some way off in the USA, but Barrier Williams commences by arguing that the “fragmentary suffrage, now possessed by women in nearly all states of the union”, will certainly and logically lead to “complete and national suffrage”. So, with this in mind, she, says LOA’s notes, “challenged women to use their newfound political power wisely”. She asks:

Are women ready to assume the responsibilities of this new recognition of their worth? This question is of immense importance to colored women.

She then poses, provocatively,

Must we begin our political duties with no better or higher conceptions of our citizenship than that shown by our men when they were first enfranchised? Are we to bring any refinement of individuality to the ballot box?

Her concern is that women – but we could read anyone really, giving it broader relevance – should not vote on partisan lines. Her concern is that voting along party lines will achieve nothing, and that

there will be much disappointment among those who believed that the cause of temperance, municipal reform and better education would be more surely advanced when the finer virtues of women became a part of the political forces of the country.

Hmmm … this seems to trot out the belief that women will bring “womanly” virtues, those more humanitarian-oriented values, to politics, which history has not necessarily borne out. However, this doesn’t belie the main point about voting thoughtfully.

She then discusses the opportunity for women to vote in Chicago for the trustees of the state university, but notes that the two women candidates have aligned themselves, respectively, to the republican and democratic tickets. She says that “so far the campaign speeches and methods have not been elevated in the least degree above the dead level of partisanship”. She doesn’t want to discredit these women’s good motives but argues that

this new opportunity for self-help and advancement ought not to be lost sight of in our thirst for public favors, or in our eagerness to help any grand old “party.” We ought not to put ourselves in the humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.

It seems that these two women candidates were white women. What she says next reminds me of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism (2000)which Angharad of Tinted Edges recently reviewed. Angharad writes that “Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power.”

A similar point was made over 100 years earlier by Barrier Williams:

The sincerity of white women, who have heretofore so scorned our ambitions and held themselves aloof from us in all our struggles for advancement, should be, to a degree, questioned. It would be much more to our credit if we would seek, by all possible uses of our franchise, to force these ambitious women candidates and women party managers to relent their cruel opposition to our girls and women in the matter of employment and the enjoyment of civil privileges.

She continues that “we should never forget that the exclusion of colored women and girls from nearly all places of respectable employment is due mostly to the meanness of American women” and that voters should use the franchise to “check this unkindness”. She urges voters not to focus on “the success of a party ticket for party reasons”. This would make them “guilty of the same folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race”.

Strong words, but history surely tells us true ones. So, she asks voters “to array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines”.

For Barrier Williams, as for many who fought for women’s suffrage, the vote was not just about equality but about what you could do with the vote. It was about having the opportunity to exert “a wholesome influence in the politics of the future”. The words may be strange to our 21st century ears, but the meaning still holds true – and is a timely one to consider now!

Fannie Barrier Williams
“Women in politics”
First published: The women’s era, 1894
Available: Online at the Library of America

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the side of the road (#BookReview)

Book coverIn the last couple of months of my Mum’s life I bought her a few novels that I thought would give her pleasure. Although we didn’t know, then, how dire her health was, I did know that she was tired and needed good but not overly demanding or depressing reads. So, for Easter, I gave her Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words; for Mothers Day, I gave her Sulari Gentill’s A few right thinking men and Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments; and, then, when she went into hospital, I bought her Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road. Being the lexicographer she was, she loved The dictionary of lost words. She took A few right thinking men into hospital and read two-thirds of it before tiredness defeated her. She was finding the historical background really interesting, but she was keen to get onto Tyler whose books she’d read before. Unfortunately, she never did, but I picked it up as I sat by her bed on the last day of her life. It’s a long time since I’ve read Tyler, but it turned out to be the perfect book for my current state of mind. Even so, it took me two weeks to read it …

Anne Tyler has created some memorable characters and/or situations. I loved The accidental tourist with its travel writer aiming to show American businessmen how to travel without feeing they’d left home – the antithesis of how Mr Gums and I like to travel. I remember the opening of Breathing lessons with the couple squabbling about navigating as they drive to a funeral under pressure. And, her empty-nest-fearing character in The ladder of years who just ups and leaves in the middle of a family holiday is such a wonderful conceit. If she were Australian, we’d probably describe her work as quirky.

What makes Tyler’s novels so enjoyable, then, are her characters and her writing. Her characters are believable but just a little off-centre, and her writing is accessible, but tight and evocative. Her novels are character rather than plot-driven, but they don’t wallow in her characters’ lives. She keeps the story moving.

So, in Redhead by the side of the road, we have 41-year-old Micah Mortimer, “such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.” Routine is his mantra, and you could pretty much set your clock by it. He’s not particularly socially astute, and doesn’t understand the jokes his four older sisters make about him, particularly when he tells them that it looks like his latest girlfriend, Cass, has broken off their relationship. He doesn’t explain that the cause was his inept response to her announcement that she feared she was about to lose her flat – because he hasn’t realised it himself. This is one of the catalysts that forces him to reconsider his life. The other is the sudden appearance on his doorstep of college freshman, Brink, who thinks Micah might be his father.

Now, Brink is the son of his first serious girlfriend Lorna. Micah knows for a fact that Brink is not his son but he accepts this young man into his home and tries, in his own way, to help. While all this is going on, he also keeps an eye out on his apartment building where he “moonlights as a super” and he attends calls for his sole-trader business, Tech Hermit. I must say that, living with my own tech expert, I loved Micah’s interactions with his clients, so many of which I’ve heard Mr Gums have with various friends and family members. “Have you turned it off and then on again?”, for example. The password-finding escapade for a young girl who had inherited her gran’s home and computer is particularly entertaining.

However, that’s not the subject of the novel. What is, is Micah’s slowly growing awareness of life not being as he has seen it, of realising that striving for predicable order does not necessarily make you happy. When Lorna explains why their relationship had ended, our routine-focused Micah, who has never been good at seeing things from other perspectives, has “to adjust to this altered view of the past”. The novel’s title provides a little insight into this:

He slowed to a walk on the last stretch approaching York Road. He momentarily mistook the hydrant for a redhead and gave his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and now his life ran in a rut, really.

Micah, though, is not the only character muddling along. The thing I like about Tyler is that all her characters muddle along. She forces us to see below the surface, to see that while some may appear more successful than others, may have the trappings of success – like Lorna – all have their insecurities or uncertainties. The novel is full of gentle but no less pointed insights into relationships – Micah’s with his messy, chaotic family, for example, or, Lorna’s with her husband. And it has some sensible down-home philosophies, such as “what’s the point of living if you don’t try to do things better” and “try again, try again, and try again after that … because what else can a person do”.

All this might sound a bit cutesy, but the thing is that beneath Tyler’s apparent cutesiness, is a warm but clear-eyed view of human nature. She sees our foibles, our mis-steps, our little self-delusions, but she wants us to make our lives work. Redhead by the side of the road is no exception, and was just the right read for me for now. I must get back to reading Tyler.

Anne Tyler
Redhead by the side of the road
London: Chatto and Windus, 2020
178pp.
ISBN: 9781784743482

Joan Didion, Quiet days in Malibu (#Review)

Malibu from Malibu Pier, August 1993

As for many people I expect, Joan Didion’s now classic The year of magical thinking made a lasting impression on me, so I was keen to read her essay “Quiet days in Malibu” when it popped up as a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week back in November. I was also interested in the subject matter. Having lived in Southern California in the 1990s, I wanted to see what Didion had to say about Malibu, a place that has always conveyed the romance of Californian beaches to me, largely through Gidget! There, I’ve admitted my teen-girl secret.

What Didion had to say was not what I expected. She starts with:

In a way it seems the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, twenty-seven miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler’s dollar. It is not a resort. No one “vacations” or “holidays,” as those words are conventionally understood, at Malibu. Its principal residential street, the Pacific Coast Highway, is quite literally a highway, California 1, which runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line and brings Greyhound buses and refrigerated produce trucks and sixteen-wheel gasoline tankers hurtling past the front windows of houses frequently bought and sold for over a million dollars. The water off Malibu is neither as clear nor as tropically colored as the water off La Jolla. The beaches at Malibu are neither as white nor as wide as the beach at Carmel. The hills are scrubby and barren, infested with bikers and rattlesnakes, scarred with cuts and old burns and new R.V. parks. For these and other reasons Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life [my emph]. I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it. 

Things have, naturally, changed since Didion lived there for seven years through the 1970s, but only a little I think. Pacific Highway 1 still runs through it, alongside the beach, though the more inland 101 Freeway is the main north-south route. It is still home to many celebrities and other well-to-do living in expensive mansions. This opening paragraph, however, also introduces us Didion’s style – including her use of repetition (“The water off … The beaches at … The hills are …”) and quietly pointed commentary (as in “I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it.”)

This essay, published in a 1979 collection titled The white album, was in fact a reworking of two pieces published in Esquire in 1976. LOA’s notes say that those pieces “showcase the beach community” not through its celebrities but through “the lifeguards on the beach and the manager of a local orchid farm.” To these pieces, which form the bulk of the essay, Didion added the above-quoted introductory paragraph and a concluding section, about which more later.

The white album, LOA’s notes also tell us, opens with her famous line, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. The stories she tells in this essay are about “ordinary” people, as much as anyone, really, is ordinary. First up is lifeguard Dick Haddock. She introduces him thus – with that same use of repetition:

Dick Haddock, a family man, a man twenty-six years in the same line of work, a man who has on the telephone and in his office the crisp and easy manner of technological middle management, is in many respects the prototypical Southern California solid citizen.

She describes visiting his “office”, the lookout on Malibu’s Zuma Beach, on Thanksgiving morning in 1975, when

A Santa Ana wind was just dying after blowing in off the Mojave for three weeks and setting 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire. Squadrons of planes had been dropping chemicals on the fires to no effect. Querulous interviews with burned-out householders had become a fixed element of the six o’clock news. Smoke from the fires had that week stretched a hundred miles out over the Pacific and darkened the days and lit the nights and by Thanksgiving morning there was the sense all over Southern California of living in some grave solar dislocation. It was one of those weeks when Los Angeles seemed most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster …

Oh no! As I post this story, we are suffering similarly from bushfires. We certainly feel that we are living in “some grave … dislocation”. Note too another of those pointed comments – on LA seeming “most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster”. Anyhow, Didion’s description of Haddock, his colleagues and their work, is respectful and evocative, recognising both the drama and the tedium of what they do.

The second piece is about another prototypical Southern Californian, “a Mexican from Mexico”, or “resident alien” (just as I, a wife, was a “derivative alien” to my husband’s “primary alien”!) Amado Vazquez is anything but ordinary, though, as he’s an expert orchid breeder for Arthur Freed Orchids. Didion shares with us her love of greenhouses:

all my life I had been trying to spend time in one greenhouse or another, and all my life the person in charge of one greenhouse or an- other had been trying to hustle me out.

And here, finally, was her opportunity to spend time in one! Again, in her chatty style, she explains the work of an orchid breeder – of stud plants, of orchid fertility, of the naming of plants, of the business of orchid breeding. She references that racist name-changing behaviour that white people often do, whereby the orchid named for Vazquez’s wife “mysteriously” becomes “Vasquez”.

But, I want to close on the short concluding section in which, after significantly mentioning the drowning death, “a casualty of Quaaludes”, of one of her 12-year-old daughter’s friends, she describes another horrendous fire:

Within two hours a Santa Ana wind had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike. By the time this fire storm had passed 197 houses had vanished into ash …

This fire also destroyed three years of the orchid breeder’s work … Malibu, you see, with its peculiar geography, has is rife for natural disasters.

It was at this point that I realised the irony of the title. Through restrained, respectful reportage about the ordinary people of Malibu, Didion conveys that, in fact, Malibu is rarely quiet, and that few of its inhabitants enjoy an “easy life”.

Joan Didion
“Quiet days in Malibu”
First published: The white album, 1979 (sections published in Esquire in April and June 1976)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week. I usually “do” a few a year, but this is the first for 2019, even though I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to do. However, when Lafcadio Hearn popped up last week – and with a Japanese story – I knew I really had to break the drought.

Image of Lafcadio Hearn's houseLafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has appeared in this blog a couple of times before, the main time being in a Literary Road post from our 2011 trip to Japan when we visited Matsue. Hearn only lived there briefly but he met his Japanese wife there and it has a museum dedicated to him. Hearn is a fascinating man. Greek-born to a Greek mother and Irish father, he spent childhood years in Ireland before moving to the USA in 1869, where he then lived for two decades. Here he married a former slave who worked in his boardinghouse kitchen, and built his career as a journalist. In 1890 he went to Japan on a publisher’s commission. He married again, and lived out the rest of his life here, taking the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He became chair of English Language and Literature at the Tokyo Imperial University.

In their usual introduction, the Library of America quotes an article by another writer who appeared here only recently, Roger Pulvers. The article, in Japan Times, is titled “Lafcadio Hearn: ‘Japanese thru and tru'”. Pulvers provides a thoughtful, clear-eyed run-down of Hearn’s life, of his attitude to Japan, and particularly of his achievements as a writer. He says that Hearn:

was the shadow-maker, the illusionist who conjured up his own visions of Japan and gladly lost himself in them. He strove to leave Japan and return to the United States. Perhaps he realized that it was there that he had created his most accomplished work, attaining something he savored: notoriety. Again an ironical paradox emerges: He is remembered now in United States, if at all, not for his superb reportage on modern America but for his adoration of a long-gone Japan.

Pulvers says that Hearn loved “old” Japan –

He worshipped the static and wanted to see his beloved quaint Japan remain as sweet as it always was in his eye and the eyes of the world, bemoaning all progress: “What, what can come out of all this artificial fluidity!”

– but

loathed the modern Japanese male and what he stood for, and in this he recognized the futility of his task, a futility keenly felt toward the end of his years, where he heard “nothing but soldiers and the noise of bugles”.

Remember, when he died in 1904, Japan’s imperialism was at its height.

Hearn published roughly a book a year for the fourteen years he lived in Japan, but is best known for two of them, Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things (from which this post’s story comes) and Japan: An attempt at interpretation. Kwaidan comprises a number of ghost stories plus a non-fiction study of insects. Intriguing, eh?

Yuki-Onna, says the Library of America, means “snow woman”, and is “an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies”. Hearn explains in the Introduction to Kwaidan that he’d heard this story from a farmer as a legend from his village. He says that he doesn’t know “whether it has ever been written in Japanese” but that “the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.” Wikipedia confirms in an article about this spirit that it dates back to the 14th to 16th centuries, and can be found in many Japanese prefectures including Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime. If you know your Japan, you’ll know that these take us from northern Honshu down through the island and across to Shikoku.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, and given it’s just 4 pages long I’m not going to describe it here, except to say that it is about a vengeful snow spirit. Why she is vengeful is not made clear in Hearn’s story, but Wikipedia says that some legends believe she is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. The legends vary over place and time, particularly in terms of how evil or aggressive she is.

I suggest you read it at the link below, as it will only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this opportunity to remind myself of this intriguing 19th century character. Next, I’d love to read some of those American articles of his that Pulvers praises.

Lafcadio Hearn
“Yuki-Onna”
First published: Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, 1904.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Dominic Smith, The electric hotel (#BookReview)

Book coverI admit to a brief feeling of déjà vu when I started Dominic Smith’s latest novel, The electric hotel, because it starts by telling us that its protagonist 85-year-old Claude Ballard has been living in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles for over thirty years. Not another man living in a hotel like our gentleman in Moscow? Very quickly, though, I realised that this was a very different book. Towles was inspired by the idea of people living in hotels, while Smith was inspired by something completely different, the idea of lost films. The Library of Congress, he says, believes that over 75% of silent films have been lost forever. A figure familiar to retired film archivist me.

What’s the hotel got to do with all this? Well, apparently, the 1929-built Knickerbocker was, for much of its life, closely connected with the film industry. As Claude remembers in the novel, costume designer Irene Lentz committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor, and silent film director DW Griffiths collapsed in the lobby. Moreover, at least one person, the character actor William Frawley, did live at the hotel for thirty years. However, Smith’s story, unlike Towles’, spends very little time in the hotel. Instead, it follows the life and career of fictional silent filmmaker Claude Ballard, focusing on his most famous film, The electric hotel, which sent him, and the production team, bankrupt, not because it was a failure but because the film inventor Thomas Edison threatened to sue for illegal use of his patented film stock. While Claude and his film are fictional, Edison was a shrewd businessman who did try to control the film industry. Smith’s research, then, looks good, and while I’m not an expert in the silent era or its technology, I felt pretty comfortable with the history – right down to the concerns about the vinegar smell in Claude’s room, although I don’t think the term “vinegar syndrome” was much used in the early 1960s.

For a (retired) film archivist like me, The electric hotel offers a step down memory lane. Indeed, the framing story is that film historian Martin, who is writing his dissertation on innovation in early American silent film, has become interested in Claude’s career. We are neatly given the shell of Claude’s career in the first chapter via his first meetings with Martin. This segues to Chapter 2 and the largest portion of the novel which takes us from the young Claude’s meeting the pioneering Lumière Brothers in the mid 1890s, through to the heyday of his career when he worked with American producer Hal Bender, French actor Sabine Montrose, and Australian stuntman Chip Spalding, and which peaked with the release of The electric hotel in 1908. They are artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and together they make something quite astonishing. Gradually, however, and for various reasons that I won’t spoil now, they go their separate ways. We follow them through to the end of World War 1, with a couple of forays back to the novel’s original time setting, 1962, where we also end up.

It’s an engrossing read. Smith creates vivid characters, and conveys well the excitement and energy of the early film industry pioneers – Claude’s early fin-de-siècle days in Paris, his travelling around the world with the Lumières’ cinématographe, the development of his career in New York with Hal and Chip, and the war years. It’s a complex story, with a fair share of twists and turns, about art and money, success and failure, and, yes, an artist (Claude) and his muse (Sabine).

What, though, is the book really about? Besides being inspired by the idea of lost films, I mean? Smith himself says, as quoted in the press release, that his ongoing interest is “the gaps and silences of history”.  What does he say about these gaps and silences? I’m not sure, really. I think that perhaps he’s not so interested in commenting on the gaps, as dabbling around in them and bringing them to our attention. This is what he does for silent film, anyhow, but in doing so he also explores the increasing realisation of the power of this new movie medium. Early on Claude tells Sabine that “it turns life into moving pictures”, and a little later, Sabine’s coach and devotee of naturalism, Pavel, says that Claude had “managed to trap real life”. It’s in the war, though, that film’s darker potential becomes obvious, as German soldier Bessler forces Claude to produce the perfect propaganda movie, The victor’s crown. Claude, however, manages to subvert it to his own ends, proving to Bessler’s detriment that, indeed, “the camera sees the truth”!

The book is also an ode to the drive, the obsession, to produce art – and to the price paid by those who have this drive. Claude, who never goes anywhere without his camera, keeps his most personal negatives undeveloped because “until that second they hit the chemical bath, every image is perfect in my mind”. I’m sure many creators understand this.

But the book also has a personal dimension. It’s about love and loss, about escaping, hiding, and stalling. Claude’s personal life is peppered with loss, from which he never really recovers. He tells Martin, “I had every intention of starting over. It was like an errand I meant to run for fifty years.” And, late in the novel he says:

… the past never stops banging at the doors of the present. We pack it into watered suitcases, lock it into rusting metal trunks beneath our beds, press it between yellowed pages of newsprint, but it hangs over us at night like a poisonous cloud, seeps into our shirt collars and bedclothes.

It’s good writing – expressive, but controlled, and never overdone.

The smug German Bessler tells Claude that “art is art wherever it blooms”. The electric hotel explores that in all its glorious messiness.

Dominic Smith
The electric hotel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019
349pp.
ISBN: 9781760528621

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs (#BookReview)

BookcoverBack in 2016, I completed a survey about online bookclubs, and answered some supplementary questions about “my” sort of club. I also took part in a follow-up telephone interview with the two American researchers involved, Grace Chao and Amanda Shapiro. Now, three years later, they have completed their research and self-published it in their book, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs. Of course I bought it, because although it’s some time since I’ve been active in online book clubs (or, OBCs), I am interested in reading communities of all sorts.

Chao and Shapiro explain their research process in the opening chapter. They describe their work as an ethnography, and so used “anthropological methodology”. This involved the survey (for which they received 840 responses, a 22% response rate), followed-up by in-depth interviews with around 100 participants, and participant observation of a number of clubs in operation. They divide the clubs into seven genres:

  • Classics (which includes Literary)
  • Erotica
  • General Reader
  • Horror
  • Mystery/Thriller
  • Romance
  • Sci-fi

You won’t be surprised to hear that I slotted into the Classics group.

Anyhow, in this chapter they explain their aim as being to look at “how the nature of community is being redefined and shaped in the digital age”. I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that what they found was surprising – at least not in terms of my own experience of such clubs – but the book makes some cogent points about how international online communities can work, what they can offer, and some of the challenges they face too.

Of course, Chao and Shapiro found that, overall, female readers dominate most of the clubs, which is similar to face-to-face clubs, although in certain genres, like sci-fi, men are involved in greater numbers than in others. They found that people join these clubs to converse about books, “to deepen and enhance their reading experience”, and often, to seek both intellectual and social outlets. Face-to-face clubs can do these too, but OBCs can offer more.

For example, and this is something that I particularly liked, in a traditional face-to-face book club, there is limited time for discussion, usually just an hour or so. As Chao and Shapiro put it, these groups require “a faster thought process where there is less time to analyze or to react”. In an OBC, you can read a comment by another reader, mull it over, and write a response in an hour, a day, or whenever (within the rules or practices of the club.) I learnt so much during my 10 years or so of active involvement in these clubs.

However, it’s not only the extended time-frame which enables deeper or more expansive discussion. The global nature of these clubs allows for a more “diverse cultural exchange of perspectives and opinions”. This diversity can be generational, gender, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, political and/or religious based.

For some readers, Chao and Shapiro found, OBCs represented the only outlet available to them for book discussion. These are readers who live in countries/places/situations where “a shared reading culture is not prioritized” (or, even, approved of), or who read genres (like Erotica) for which it is not always easy to find local reading communities, or who, for some reason (such as being housebound), are unable to access activities like face-to-face reading groups.

A propos the first group, Chao and Shapiro write that “for members from more restrictive cultures and communities, a virtual shared reading community could be their first foray into a community which allows personal expression and choice”. They include some moving stories about such readers, mostly women, who are desperate to be part of a reading community. A member of a Romance bookclub told Chao and Shapiro about a member from Pakistan, who was being pressured to marry “an elderly gentleman”:

Shortly thereafter, she told us that her family was not allowing her to post in the group anymore and even restricting her access to the internet. In her last post, she wrote: ‘Think of me.’ I didn’t know what to do. We never realized the risk she was taking by being a member of our book club. Through our book discussions, she was exposed to different cultures, religions, politics, morals, and values; she was able to speak her mind freely, things we take for granted in Western society. It’s like the club was deemed a bad influence…

Stories like this are saddening, but not surprising.

They note, in fact, that the social aspects of these clubs disprove the popular misconception that OBC members are “anti-social because they prefer online to face-to-face interactions”. Socialisation does take place, they say, with “intricate networks of friendships” being created across “national borders, time zones, and cultural barriers”. Here I’ll share a quote from the book that I’m sure another survey participant wrote about me:

I met another gal from Australia when she and her hubby were visiting here. We went to a great museum in Los Angeles.

Mr Gums and I did indeed meet two OBC friends of mine, and we had a lovely day at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. My OBC experience has had a significant and ongoing influence on my life, even though I am no longer active.

The book is logically structured, with the main body comprising chapters focusing on specific questions, such as Who’s in charge? (on the role of moderators) and Who’s anchoring the club? (on the role of core members). Other chapters explore social connection in OBCs, how they create virtual safe havens, their role in exposing members to new ideas, and the way they are able to create a sense of belonging among members. Chao and Shapiro support these discussions with evidence from their field research and from relevant academic writings by anthropologists, sociologists, information scientists, and others. The chapters are carefully footnoted and there is an extensive list of references at the end.

I’m not sure whether what they found can be extrapolated to other online communities and the book ends with advice about OBCs rather than making such extrapolations, but they do make some cogent points about the way OBC’s support and promote diversity and inclusivity, and they identify the main factors that make these sorts of communities work (or not). For these reasons, Bookclub social is a worthwhile read, as well as, for me at least, an enjoyable one.

Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro
Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs
BookBaby, 2019
ISBN (ebook): 9781543947526