In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.
It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.
Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.
“It’s an adventure you haven’t had yet, Thomas. Sit.”
Thomas smiled. He was thinking of his dog Sally.
For a long time I’ve had a fascination with westerners who expatriate themselves to remote places in the Asian Subcontinent. The way they make full and rich lives for themselves, steeped in eastern tradition, and yet often accomplish great things for the welfare of the local inhabitants, somehow intrigues me. I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories. Well, here’s a pretty amazing book:
In her novel White Bird, writer-scholar-translator Ruta Sevo skillfully explores the unusual demographics of present-day Nepal and the clash of cultures that confronts an American visitor and raises some very fundamental questions about what life is, or ought to be, all about. Thomas Rusak, the American, has come to Nepal with his brother’s ashes in search of the most meaningful spot for scattering them to the wind and rain. This mission turns, necessarily, into a search for his brother’s mysterious past in Nepal, a past that Thomas feels he must unearth in order to finally understand his brother and the lifelong complexities of their relationship. And Thomas cannot open up that past without intruding intimately into the lives of two extraordinary women.
As it turns out, Sevo tells this story with such pungent detail, such a “sensory onslaught” of Nepali life and landscapes, that it becomes more than just a story about individuals. It becomes a story about cultures. It becomes the equally mysterious search for the essence of that great magnetic pull that eastern philosophies have over westerners, who sometimes chuck it all for the rustic spiritual life in places like Nepal. Thus, White Bird is a dazzling, swooping mystery that lifts itself to different altitudes. Like all good mysteries, there may be answers for every question on one level, but ten questions for every answer on another.
I started reading a book by Walter Mosley, whom I had heard about and never read. I liked the style, I liked the dialect, I liked the way he develops his characters. But then a few chapters in, I got turned off—by gratuitous obscenity. By which I mean graphic sexual description or language. And I’m not talking about realistic dialogue by characters who simply use obscene words habitually in their speech. These were sexual episodes described in some detail. It wasn’t the worst I ever read, but it didn’t seem necessary to the plot. Perhaps it was, I’ll never know. But it seemed, in the context of the story, to be thrown in as pure embellishment. For no legitimate reason related to the book as a work of art.
I’ve cast away books by other great writers for the same reason: Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis. Books that are probably terrific but, to me, are spoiled by stuff that seems out of place and purely prurient. It’s unfortunate, it makes me disappointed, whether in those writers or in me I’m not sure.
This is unlike Henry Miller, where sex is graphic and constant, but is treated in a matter-of-fact way without any highlighting and is absolutely essential to the plot, to understanding the character himself. The joys and hard realities of life (including sex, and other primal needs) are what his books are about.
And there are plenty of great writers who manage to tell fine stories without obscenity thrown in simply as a spice. If sex is germane, they manage to tell us all we need, or want, to know in artful ways. Those books I do not put aside. I get to read them to the end.
It was violent. It was about violence. That’s why. And to me Three Billboards is probably the best movie since Crash.
I’m reading Song of Solomon(my daughter recommended it), and here’s something Toni Morrison said about anger, through one of her characters:
“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else.”
I think the whole country needs Anger Management. I think it should be a required class in high school.
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”
He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.
I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.