Interestings… (March 27)

Gems recently unearthed from my online reading include:

George Saunders on what writers really do when they write is, hands down, the best description I’ve read of the writing process.

If you somehow missed the news, The Handmaid’s Tale is being newly adapted for television and is back on bestseller lists. Here’s Margaret Atwood on what her seminal novel means in the age of Trump.

I saw Get Out over the weekend.This movie works because it’s not only a chilling and entertaining horror movie, but it also comments in a meta way on the tropes of horror movies while exposing the societal issues we truly fear, which is what good horror should do. Here’s an interesting analysis on how Get Out exposes the myth of a postracial America, but beware–it has spoilers galore, and it’s best seeing this movie without know much about it.

Ever wonder why you never hear about Midwestern literature in the same sense as the Southern novel or the Western? I enjoy reading books with a strong sense of place. But I must confess that while I avidly track my reading of Southern, Western, and New England literature, and I can easily see the themes and connections running through those books, I never track my Midwestern reading. It just doesn’t seem to hold as much interest for me, as the Midwest doesn’t seem to be as much of a “character” as these other region are. Why literature and pop culture still can’t get the Midwest right.

Recommended Reading: Underground Airlines

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I highly enjoyed and appreciated Ben H. Winters’s gripping new novel, Underground Airlines, on three levels.

First, it presents a fascinating what-if scenario. In this alternate America, instead of having a civil war, the states came to a compromise that essentially made slavery constitutional into perpetuity. In the present day, slavery continues to be legal in four states–the “hard four,” as they are called–making the United States a political and trade pariah in the world. This hard-to-fathom reality of present-day legal slavery shades every plot point, character motivation, and line of dialogue, presenting a mind-warping vision of America.

Layered on top of this is a highly suspenseful, well-plotted crime story. The combination of tropes from two such disparate genres infuses both with a new energy. Winters has done this before, in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, but he’s upped his game here. The nameless narrator, once a slave, is now an undercover detective for the US Marshals who tracks fugitive slaves himself, with a hard-boiled sensibility but a nuanced character that gradually reveals itself.

All of this would be enough to make Underground Airlines a terrific read, but Winters has deftly woven piercing social commentary into his alternate history. This vision of America, in which people passionately condone the enslavement of black human beings, is so different from and yet so much like our own society that it forces the reader to re-examine all the assumptions that lie at the bottom of race relations in the United States today. Without preaching or lecturing, Winters makes us question how we view race as it affects poverty, education, incarceration, pretty much everything.

This book enthralled me on all levels. I so hope there will be a sequel, because I would definitely read it.

Recommended Reading: Crooked Heart

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Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans — Ten-year-old Noel Bostock is an odd boy, smart, a reader, independent. He lives with his godmother until she goes senile and then dies. Left bereft, Noel is evacuated with other London children at the start of the Blitz, when Vee takes him in on impulse. Vee lives hand-to-mouth, always with some small scam going, always on the point of eviction; she has a shiftless son and a doddering mother. Together, Noel and Vee are an odd couple, but Noel begins to help Vee improve her scams and their relationship deepens as the bombing of London gets under way.

This is a sweet and charming book about how people need each other, quiet for the most part, and often humorous, which is a take on the Blitz I’ve not yet seen. (I particularly enjoyed Vee’s mother’s letters to the prime minister and the scenes in the crowded shelters during the air raids.) I’m not sure how well it will stick, but I found it a light-hearted and quick read, and an antidote for all the horrifying WWII books I’ve been getting burned out on.

Recommended Reading: Generation Loss

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Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand — Cass Neary was once a young photographer on the burgeoning punk scene who made a name for herself with a ground-breaking book, but a couple of decades later, she’s burnt out, damaged, and still working in the storeroom at the Strand bookstore. A friend gives her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview her idol, Aphrodite Kamestos, who lives like a hermit on a remote island in Maine, and Cass takes it. When she gets there, she finds several people as damaged as she is, and she stumbles onto a mystery.

This is a story with a strong, unusual voice and a memorable, compelling setting, which more than makes up for there not being a lot of actual story, at least not until last third or so. I liked Cass primarily because she is so hard to like, because she does seemingly odd things mainly just to screw with people, and because her narrative voice seems so genuine. She is a person I believe in, not quirky just to be quirky, but quirky because that’s what humans are. Pairing her with the island setting–remote, isolated, difficult both to get to and to get away from–works to take Cass out of her long-time comfort zone and yet situate herself in a place that might feel like home. Toward the end, the story is permeated by a wonderful neo-gothic atmosphere. All of this does make up for the rather breathless (and somewhat unbelievable) wrap-up to the plot, which almost felt beside the point anyway.

Very useful words: Cavil

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I’m starting a new occasional feature where I highlight words I’ve recently spotted in the wild that are useful to know. Today’s word is cavil.

Cavil (caviling, caviler), a verb, means “to complain about things that are not important” or “to raise trivial and frivolous objections.”

Synonyms: carp, quibble, fuss, niggle, nitpick.

Cavil is a very useful word because it so precisely conveys a behavior that we see all the time, especially as a means to derail discussion or sidetrack an argument. Here’s a recent example: “While the president is spewing and caviling and spurting all over Twitter about unimportant things like the terrible, unfair Nordstrom, people like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price (2:11 am confirmation), and others are taking over the reins of government.”

In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Dean Stockwell played a character named John Cavil, who was the main antagonist of the series. Cavil’s quest for vengeance is motivated by his rage at being an android saddled with the weaknesses of humans: “I’m a machine, and I can know much more, I could experience so much more, but I’m trapped in this absurd body.”

 

Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

Interestings… (Feb. 19, 2017)

This week, sharing some good reads from various places…

The Age of Rudeness, a wonderfully written essay by author Rachel Cusk

Ryan Adams shares the story of the first time he was rattled by a heckler

Diet culture is just another way of dealing with the fear of death (from The Atlantic)

One thousand new words added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A Wikipedia editor takes on the antifeminist Wikipedia trolls

A list of books selling more copies because of Donald Trump