Friday, March 27, 2020

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is about narratives that we construct about our lives with the information that we have, as well as information that we don't have. When an undocumented Chinese American mother, Polly, never comes back from her job at a nail salon, her 11-year-old son Deming experiences all the emotions that a kid would experience under such circumstances: shock, denial, anger, sorrow, shame, and acceptance. Actually, I'm not sure about the acceptance part. When tragedy strikes, maybe we walk around intoxicated with a cocktail of anger and sorrow that we mute by stirring in a dash of a somber rejection of reality. Maybe that's how depression gets born.

Deming, who becomes Daniel Wilkinson when he is adopted by the Wilkinsons, enters his adolescence constantly under the influence of this cocktail and constructs a narrative that his mom doesn't love or care about him. After all, his mother is not a stayer. She's a leaver. She's an abandoner.

Though the Wilkinsons are loving and caring adoptive parents, Deming never feels like he fully belongs with them. And so he too becomes a leaver.

When Deming learns the truth about why Polly never came back that day when he was 11, he realizes that the narrative he constructed was all wrong. Sadly, regardless of his efforts to revise that narrative, he is who he has become within a context that got created when information was lacking.

And isn't that the tragedy of the human condition? That we never fully know everything about anything. And so we fill in the blanks. We exaggerate some. We understate some. We try to be stayers and convince ourselves that we belong. But often times we become leavers, always and already searching to belong.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST by Jerry Saltz

When I feel lost and desperate, the only reassurance that penetrates my thick and stubborn ego is when the reassurance comes from a source that has gone through the same severity of despair. Like if you haven't gone through my shit, shut your fucking mouth and keep your unsolicited life coach quackery the hell away from me. 

In his book, How to Be an Artist, Jerry Saltz provides reassurance that benefits not only the ARTIST me, but the HUMAN me. Jewel-like reminders that when I read them, I curiously find that I already know them quite intimately. But to know them intimately doesn't mean that I actively remember them. That's why this book is so great. Each segment is like a little meditative excavation of what I already know but need to be reminded of. And some meditations resonate with me down to my bones. 

Like how "A work of art cannot depend on explanation. The meaning has got to be there IN THE WORK" (Segment 19). 

Like how the subject of art isn't necessarily the content of that art, "The subject of Michelangelo's David is a young man. The content is beauty" (Segment 32).

Like how demons not only speak to me at 3AM, but that they also speak to Saltz. Every night and every day (Segment 62). That this Pulitzer-prize winning art critic who from a distance appears to have it all could admit that the demons say to him what they say to me ... like that I suck, and that my art sucks and that my ideas are shit ... makes me feel reassured ... and readies me to accept his ultimate call to action, which is to reply to the demons by getting back to the audacity and genius of my work.

PS: I love the sleeve of this hardcover book but I love even more, the pink and orange with embossed pink foil design that is revealed when the sleeve is removed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

In 2017, when Dr. Vivek Murthy (the 19th US Surgeon General) was asked what he thought is the biggest public health crisis for Americans, he stated that it is loneliness. Because when we are lonely, we don't know WHERE we belong, or IF we belong. When we are lonely, we are susceptible to all kinds of shams and radicalizations triggered by unworthy voices that can enter our psyches to transform that loneliness into destructiveness.

Kya is the protagonist in Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Given that Kya has had to fend for herself all her life, she knows loneliness. And though she yearns to be a person who doesn't need anyone, she knows that she does: "Kya knew it wasn't so much that the herd would be incomplete without her, but that each deer would be incomplete without the herd" (page 272).

Jerry Saltz was recently interviewed by David Chang and stated that as humans, we each have an undeniable desire to not only dance naked alone ... but to also dance naked in front of people. Based on our personalities and circumstances, some of us are content with a small audience for that dance, and some of us desire a much larger one.

The fact that Kya eventually gains a huge audience through her published books isn't because she pursued the audience. In fact, Kya notices male birds who are not smart and unable to hold good territories "parade their smaller forms around in pumped-up postures or shout frequently—even in shrill voices. By relying on pretense and false signals, they manage to grab a copulation here and there (page 182-183). But ultimately, "males who send out dishonest signals ... almost always end up alone" (page 183). I'd say same goes for females.

Another character chimes in to observe about peacocks that "over eons of time, the males' feathers got larger and larger to attract females, till the point the males can barely lift off the ground. Can't hardly fly anymore" (245).

Owens expertly extrapolates these insights about birds and applies them to humans, with the character Chase symbolizing the bird with all the fancy feathers and false signals in pursuit of the largest audience ... ending up with no audience at all. Poetic justice.

It is ironic but mostly true that it's when I don't CHASE the thing but just hunker down and DO the thing that I become an expert on that thing. And then it becomes my choice regarding who (if any) I allow to watch me dance naked and with abandon.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

RUBY by Cynthia Bond

It was James Taylor who explained in an interview (with Marc Maron, I recall) that there are maybe five or six subjects that songwriters write about. And that he's been writing those five to six stories throughout his career, again and again, from slightly different angles.

I think that's right. Not only in songs but also in literature. Let's see. What would those five to six stories be about?
1 Love/lust
2 Yearning/unrequited love
3 Betrayal
4 Abuse
5 Death
6 Despite 1-5, it'll be ok (or it won't) and things will go on

I'd say the book RUBY by Cynthia Bond covers it all. Ruby is the beautiful, innocent girl who is so violently abused from childhood into adulthood that she checks out of reality in order to survive. This checking out is characterized by the cruel gossips in her community as mental illness.

The different angle that Bond uses to tell this story involves magical realism where characters in the now wrestle for survival, from Dybou, a force of pure evil. No, Evil. With a capital E.

A unique detail that Bond also uses to tell the story is the angel food cake that Ephram's sister bakes and Ephram uses to retain his resolve to declare his love for Ruby. It's just a cake but it's a symbol that demonstrates that regardless of how deep the hurt, how unjust the betrayals, we can put all that in the "it doesn't matter" column and pursue the column of redemption. No, Redemption. With a capital R. For Ruby.


Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Given that I consider myself a super fan of Donna Tartt, I admit that reading The Little Friend surprised me because it was extremely difficult to get through. And once I got through it, I didn't experience the deep fulfillment that I felt from reading her other books, The Goldfinch and The Secret History.

Last night, as members of my book club, Literary Eves, gathered to discuss this book, the fulfillment came. We discussed the phenomenon of how we humans construct narratives that we choose to believe, even if the constructions are the opposite of truth. This truth had been beautifully presented in the prologue of the book, which in hindsight, was the foundation that Tartt set up, in order to have readers experience this phenomenon of chasing down rabbit holes to try and solve a murder mystery ... allowing us to get tangled and mired in strands of ambiguous speculation and suspicion. Finding purpose in the weirdest of strands, and losing meaning that exists outside of them.

The protagonist, Harriet, who led the hunt for finding the truth about her brother's death also raised many questions about the implicit biases (based on class, and race) that we all hold, which influence who we become suspicious of and who we allow to fly under our radars of suspicion.

Ultimately for me, this book is about how each of us live with death. The death of a loved one, the death of a perceived wretched one. The death that also belongs to us, in the context of life. Do we try to kill it? Do we get gripped by it? Do we ignore it? Do we pretend that it doesn't happen? I think how I live with death mirrors how I live with life. Because death isn't the opposite of life. It is a facet of it.

Monday, January 13, 2020

UNCIVIL AGREEMENT by Lilianna Mason

Of all the research studies that Lilliana Mason sites in Uncivil Agreement, there are two that astound me.

THE FIRST is by Muzafer Sherif (1954) where he recruited 22 fifth-grade boys with very similar backgrounds. They were divided into two teams (with neither team knowing of the other team's existence) and asked to come up with a team name. One group came up with EAGLES and the other came up with RATTLERS. In the second week when the boys were told of the other group's existence, the boys started to characterize the outgroup with derogatory names, eventually escalating into all-out combat, fighting, and bad-faith accusations.

THE SECOND is by Henri Tajfel (late 1960s) where he recruited subjects who were asked to estimate a number of dots on a screen. After a subject gave an estimation, the researcher randomly assigned the subject as being either an overestimator or an underestimator. In the next phase, each subject was given the opportunity to allocate money. Option A allowed subjects to give everyone the same amount, say 10 dollars. Option B allowed subjects to give his/her own group a little bit less (like 9 dollars) and the "other" group even less than that (like 8 dollars). Tajfel assumed everyone would choose Option A, where everyone benefits equally. Surprisingly, Tajfel found that subjects preferred Option B, where they opted to privilege their own ingroup over the outgroup, even if it meant that their own group received a little less, as long as the other group became less victorious than them.

Mason also presents a rich historical review that shows how our identification with our respective parties have become hyper-identifications. The hyper part has to do with how a political party not only reflects our public policy preferences but also our experiences as they relate to sex, class, race, age, and more. Mason points out that our self esteem strongly correlates to whether a person's hyper-identity (as represented by D or R) is winning or losing. In fact, winning has become more important for most of our citizenry than the nuts and bolts of a particular policy. In other words, even if the policy that wins gives a person fewer dollars, that person is likely ok with that, if it means that the "others" on the opposing team get even fewer.  Winning and becoming privileged is more desired than strengthening common good. Identity politics doesn't affect just the progressives. Identity politics is the foundation upon what Trump has created:

"While many conservatives lament his lack of consistently conservative policy positions, he remains remarkably popular with the base of the Republican Party to date, and this encourages establishment Republicans to fall in line behind him. This popularity does not come from his policy-based bona fides but from his use of the power of simple identity to rile up a significant position of the American population (127)."

Mason points out that once upon a time, we used to say that we shouldn't talk about politics and religion at the dinner table lest conflicts arise at that table. But now, she points out there's less of a problem talking about politics and religion at the table because more and more, we are surrounding ourselves with people from our own hyper-identities who have no distinctions or disagreements. In other words, we are creating isolated pods where we surround ourselves either with Eagles or Rattlers and therefore have no other point of view enriching or challenging our ideas.

Interestingly, when I've brought up this book to my friends and specifically pointed to the two experiments by Sherif and Tajfel, most of my friends have all been aghast at how "those subjects" could be so terrible and how they would never behave like that. When we learn about disturbing human tendencies, one popular way to cope is to signal that we are above all of "those other" humans, thus creating a weird ingroup/outgroup dynamic without even realizing that it's happening.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

There are three sections to this book, The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. (It was originally written in the Korean language and then translated into English by Deborah Smith.) I imagine that most readers can keep up with the first part, even though it is horrifying and mysterious. There is a particular scene where the father of the protagonist, Yeong-hye, responds with such cruelty and violence toward her decision to be a vegetarian that I doubt anyone will soon forget the horror. As awful as the scene is, there's something culturally accurate about how he responds. Something that feels familiarly Korean. 

As we start to better understand the violence that Yeoung-hye has experienced, we realize that she is trying to leave the earth by leaving her body and ironically return to the earth. And in fact, her body becomes increasingly void of life:

"This was the body of a beautiful young woman conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated ... what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented" (page 92).

In parts two and three, the book becomes much more abstract, with echoes of Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami, as the writing becomes laced with magical realism, and hard-to-grasp abstractions. 

The hard-to-grasp aspects have much to do with how we define reality. And what constitutes sanity versus insanity. It also ultimately questions what value there is to life when life becomes void of desire, and what reason exists for any human to not end it. 

In other words, why continue to live when your essence has already died?