The Jungle

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.

The Jungle is one of those intimidating books that I felt I had to read — I was curious about the cultural implications, the hallowed ranking it has among other literary works, and the supposedly shocking subject matter. The copy sat in my bookshelf for years before I finally worked up the nerve to break up the fiction/comedy jag I’d been on and get fucking real with it.

This book is fucking real, but not exactly in the way I’d imagined. Yes, the descriptions of the meat plants in Chicago are brutal and nauseating, but those passages didn’t affect me nearly as much as those that detail the lives of the immigrant workers themselves. This line, specifically, is what pained me the most: “A man might work full fifty minutes, but if there was no work to fill out the hour, there was no pay for him” (p. 91). It encompasses everything you need to know about the futile existence of the working class at that time. Jurgis Rudkus, our battered protagonist, isn’t even really a guy to root for. Over the course of the book, he makes so many horrible, hot-headed decisions that lead him down incredibly obvious, destructive paths. And yet his tale is so deeply intriguing, so enlightening, and so curiously written that he’s impossible not to follow down those paths.

Upton Sinclair’s writing style is very dense, written from this very specific, omnipresent, lightly coddling point of view. He somehow captures the naivete of the Rudkus family without ever making them seem stupid, yet he doesn’t excuse any of their actions, either. Here’s an example, in which the wonder of the newspaper strikes the family for the first time: “There was battle and murder and sudden death — it was marvelous how they ever heard about so many entertaining and thrilling happenings; the stories must all be true, for surely no man could have made such things up, and besides, there were pictures of them all, as real as life” (p. 207). And here’s one of how advertising affected them: “In innumerable ways such as this, the traveler found that somebody had been busied to make smooth his paths through the world, and to let him know what had been done for him” (p. 58). It’s sad, really, that the printed word was taken so literally by all of these people, that they bought so easily into the housing scams, the useless products, the sensationalist headlines, but why shouldn’t they have? Coming from Eastern Europe, they viewed America as the territorial embodiment of a saviour, and they trusted it wholly.

I actually expected myself to be bored with the tone of the book, but it only got more exciting as I kept reading. Though Sinclair’s style was mostly comprised of that straightforward, couple-extra-words-there style, he’d occasionally unleash a beautiful flourish. Here’s a favorite passage, highlighting the Rudkus family’s instinct for survival and complete, utter tolerance for suffering: “Perhaps he ought to have meditated upon the hunger of the children, and upon his own baseness; but he thought only of Ona, he gave himself up again to the luxury of grief” (p. 191). The guilt Jurgis felt for mourning his own wife — the “luxury of grief” — is something that doesn’t really exist in the U.S. We wallow in grief here, even now. Probably more now than ever. We let it consume us. We have a grieving process. Jurgis felt he was practically debasing himself, thinking about his late wife.

As I mentioned before, Jurgis is kind of an idiot, bumbling around in a world of staggering dumb luck, but he changes his mind so often and heeds so many different opinions that you kind of have to respect the guy for being open (despite his generally conservative demeanor). At one point in the book, after his wife dies, he ditches the rest of the incredibly hard-working, crafty family to become a wanderer and survive at a new pace. As he acclimated to the lifestyle, he noticed that his health and moods would come in waves, and he struggled to redefine his comfort level. “This happened to him very time, for Jurgis was still a creature of impulse, and his pleasures had not yet become business” (p. 218). I love the way that’s phrased; I think it’s difficult for most people to realize that their instincts for fun or pleasure might actually be beneficial.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the book concludes with a proud, demonstrative shilling for Socialism. You can see it coming from miles (pages?) away. Aside from recounting lolling, drawn-out speeches by various leaders, Sinclair does a convincing job of showing how well the movement met the needs of an admittedly gullible person like Jurgis. Early on in his discovery of Socialism, Jurgis notes the fervor of its followers: “There was a look of excitement upon her face, of tense effort, as of one struggling mightily, or witnessing a struggle” (p. 296). He was pulled in by this zealous, unabashed display, by the seeming kindness of the group, by the common goal of freedom they all seemed to share. “That was the nearest approach to independence a man could make ‘under capitalism,’ he explained; he would never marry, for no sane man would allow himself to fall in love until after the revolution” (p. 327).

Socialism made him realize that he’d been doing it — life — wrong this whole time, but that he had to do it wrong in order to know how to do it right. The struggle was an important part of the movement, but Socialism removed the burden of the struggle from the individual and placed it on the whole — the ultimate comfort, the ultimate saviour. “They were trying to save their souls–and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?” (p. 226). Given the circumstances, it works out pretty well.

Read it. Thank your lucky stars that you know where your meat comes from, that there’s universal healthcare, and that Chicago’s pretty wonderful now.

Changing My Mind

I think I love Zadie Smith, even if I don’t completely understand her.

A friend of mine lent me Changing My Mind, perhaps sensing I’d appreciate it, and she was correct. Knowing Smith is out there — and wishing I’d known sooner — is an extremely comforting thought. She goes about the world with the eyes and mind that, ideally, I covet. I have to settle with what I’ve got, but I can attempt to glean inspiration from what she’s got in the meantime. “Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write” (p. 102). See, she gets me. Right?

This book is a collection of “occasional essays,” as she puts it. It’s stuff she already wrote and re-assembled under the admittedly transparent oh-shit-book-deal theme laid out in the title. And yet it’s a perfect theme, because it owns up to the fact that humans aren’t actually consistent about their opinions (shout out to R.W. Emerson), and observing one’s work grow and change over time is a great way of demonstrating that fact. People need to uphold this fact — nay, tenet — and shout it from the rooftops occasionally. Props to Smith for doing just that — the title is a literary neon sign.

So, the lack of understanding I mentioned before. Since this is variety of essays on very disparate topics, a few of them were bound to go over my head. This isn’t a bad thing, but I am in the unfortunate habit of reading all the exaggerated critic quotes at the start of best-sellers, and there were so many pull-quotes that claimed how clear and easygoing her writing was, how she could make the most obscure topic jump right off the page and into your brain. I found this to be only partially true. “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” was a pretty tough text, because I know absolutely nothing about either author, and “Notes on Visconti’s Bellissima” made me feel downright stupid. I actually started to question the point of criticism — and of my own blog — because if a critic can’t make the work inclusive and decipherable, who can?

Yet when she wrote about Zora Neal Hurston, she drew me right in, so I guess I have to forgive her. (Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who found the following excerpts extremely boring. To them, I say, “I get it” and “Go fuck yourself.”) “I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good,” Smith says on p. 5 in “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”. Her essay “E.M. Forster, Middle Manager” made me change my own mind halfway about something I thought was completely uninteresting when I started reading it. And in “Middlemarch and Everybody,” she gives a description of reading George Eliot that made me consider pausing her essay and picking up Eliot’s work instead. I didn’t, but I plan to. From p. 30: “… like the two hands of a piece for the piano, a contrapuntal structure is set in motion, in which many melodic lines make equal claim on our attention. The result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound.” Smith also let Eliot’s writing speak for itself on p. 32, which I found incredibly accurate and inspiring: “The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withhold the slightest sanction from that contains even a mixture of supposed error. When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant’s bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope.”

Her film criticism is pretty spot-on, too — an impressive feat for someone who doesn’t consider herself a film critic. Skewering actor Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl, Smith notes, “He cannot say a line without mentally enclosing it in quotation marks” (p. 183). And in describing Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica, Smith says she “has exactly the careful, over stylized physical movements used by those who aspire to the feminine and feel they do not naturally possess it” (p. 209), an interesting observation especially considering Huffman herself has been very public about her own insecurities with her appearance. As for the movie itself, Smith sums it up well: “To watch this film go through its paces is a reminder that all cultures, no matter how alternative, petrify into cliche in the end” (p. 208).

She covers broader cinematic topics as well. “Hepburn and Garbo” reveres both women equally, but I was particularly struck by the portion on Hepburn. Smith’s observations about how Hepburn carried herself and moved through Hollywood with an impenetrable, undeniable masculine femininity are so unique and flattering that I wish the subject could be around to read them herself. “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” is pretty amusing, too — Smith is unapologetic about her very removed, very British perspective, and I found myself identifying with its apathy very strongly.

Actually, I identified with her British perspective basically any time she mentioned it. On the movie Brief Encounter: “It’s not that the English don’t want true love or self-knowledge. Rather, unlike our European cousins, we will not easily give up the real for the dream” (p. 193). Amen! And comedian Russell Kane, who had “a typically British ressentiment for those very people his sensibilities have moved him toward,” she elaborated, “You start out wanting people to laugh in exactly the places you mean them to laugh, then they always laugh where you want them to laugh — then you start to hate them for it” (p. 247).

Her most touching piece, undoubtedly, was “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” someone whom she clearly loved and understood better than most people — which, sadly, still isn’t much. “Wallace saw his own gifts — not as a natural resource to be exploited but as a suspicious facility to be interrogated,” she notes on p. 256. What an ethereal awareness he had, then, and what accomplishments he amassed despite of it. She writes the whole essay in his lengthily-claused, heavily-footnoted, severly-self-conscious style, a true tribute if ever there was one. And she peppers it with his sorts of rhetorical questions: “What is confession worth if what we want from it is not absolution but admiration for having confessed?” (p. 271). That kind of writing should make us all the more thankful that she’s around to ask them, even if he isn’t anymore.

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years

Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett are friends, you guys. Really good friends.

Probably everyone over 45 knows this, but I learned it upon reading Andrews’ memoir, and now I’d like to be their third wheel, thank you very much. (J + C, please invite me over! Thanks in advance.)

It’s pretty common knowledge that I love Julie Andrews unconditionally, and it’ll probably come up in conversation if we talk about our top 5 movies. The Sound of Music is my favorite, Christopher Plummer as Capt. Von Trapp is my ideal man, and Maria is the woman I want to be. (Except I don’t want to be a nun or abandon nunnery for a life with seven children.) I also loved her in Mary Poppins, and upon seeing those two movies, decided that she could have chemistry with a rock, she’s that charming. But you’d think that my “unconditional love” statement would imply that I’d seen more of her movies or knew more about her. Nope! I’m a fraud.

It was time to reverse that fraudulence with a dip into her early years. I thought I might be a little bored by it, since my interest in her is mostly based on the two movies I’ve seen, but it turns out she’s just as eloquent and effervescent in talking about her childhood as she is playing a character in a movie or appearing on a talk show. Andrews is a delicate, clear writer with keen observation skills (“The newscasters had serious names like Alvar Liddell and Bruce Belfrage, and in their serious, well-cadenced voices they read the news with careful precision and crisp diction,” p. 37) who looks back on her childhood with some fondness and some pain. She’s diplomatic about recalling certain memories, but she doesn’t take too much care not to offend anyone — if someone from her past was an arse, she’ll say so. She’s also honest about her family’s problems, including the alcoholism of her parents. (This tone was an especially nice contrast after reading her aforementioned co-star’s wordy, pretentious memoir a few years ago, linked to above.)

She seems to literally sing through the pain, never letting herself get too down about anything, not really dwelling on having anything to be down about, and having quite a balanced perspective on her own life. Though she had a rather transitive childhood — moving around a lot between parents’ houses, aunts and uncles’ houses, taking trains to London to perform, flying to America to perform — she seemed to be aware of her capabilities and limitations, proud of her talent, and incredibly considerate of her family. The music truly seems to lift her up, and being such a diligent student must have genuinely helped her in her teen years — there are pages of descriptions about specific vocal and breathing exercises and visualizations that her coach taught her, and it’s truly fascinating to read.

Andrews was essentially a solo Von Trapp kid, which may be why she identified so strongly with the role of their eventual stepmother. Early on, her talent became pretty clear, so she became a child star — though she seemed to have a choice in the matter. If there was any intense pressure put upon her, it certainly wasn’t from her parents. Andrews simply acknowledged that her greatest asset was her voice, and found a way to enjoy it immensely. She’s one of the lucky ones, someone who was able to embrace the lifestyle that accompanied her natural skills. This quote, about her profound love for performing live theater, is truly inspiring:

p. 254 // “There is a sudden thrill of connection and an awareness of size — the theater itself, more the height of the great stage housing behind and above me, where history has been absorbed, where darkness contains mystery and light has meaning.”

She’s also a lot cheekier than you might think, but not in the braggy way that Plummer was about his conquests. Andrews was more passive, observing the insanity around her and waiting for just the right time to make her quip. These two quotes made me laugh:

p. 156, describing her experience of performing “Cinderella” onstage // “The ponies were adorable, but had a phenomenal talent for taking a dump onstage whenever I had friends in the audience.”

p. 171, on living with a roommate who brought her boyfriend over a lot // “They would occasionally become amorous, so I would retreat to the bedroom, but I couldn’t help overhearing the mounting sexual exertions taking place on the couch in the next room.”

I think I’d be annoyed at anyone else for writing a book like this — it’s generally pretty upbeat, and so inclusive of homey, random details. But she keeps these bits interesting and anecdotal. She doesn’t take them seriously, instead appreciating them genuinely, and that attitude rubs off on the reader. She’s a reasonably optimistic person — someone we should all strive to be, I suppose.

Fahrenheit 451

In my ongoing attempts to catch up on the classics — and, specifically, the numbered books — I’ve come to the conclusion that I end up liking post-apocalyptic books. War stories. Intense situations. So ol’ Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 seemed like it was primed for my liking. Except… it wasn’t.

I mostly hated this book so, so much. And I wanted to like it, because the setting Bradbury created was starkly fascinating. In his mind, the end of the world as we knew it would mean ubiquitous censorship, and the government would do everything in its power to rid the world of literary memories — including re-appropriating firemen as book-burners. But the problem is that the narrator, perhaps, took on this burden. And so the descriptions, while occasionally vivid, are mostly scattered, childish and inconsistent. Bradbury himself made the claim in the afterword that he’s a “passionate, not an intellectual writer” (p. 223), but I still can’t forgive him for not being able to reign in his whimsy and hire a good editor. The book feels like a semi-self-indulgent first draft, rife with nonsensical descriptions and unrealistic dialogue. Rich descriptions and empty dialogue would have made more sense, given what he was trying to accomplish.

Here’s one of those nonsensical descriptions that made me cringe: “He stared at the parlour that was dead and grey as the waters of an ocean that might teem with life if they switched on the electronic sun” (p. 95). Here’s a bit of repetitive action text that also made me cringe: “He ran steadily for six blocks, in the alley, and then the alley opened out on to a wide empty thoroughfare ten lanes wide” (p. 160). And here’s some dialogue (p. 33) that… well, you get the idea.

‘I’ve got to be going, so say you forgive me. I don’t want you angry with me.’
‘I’m not angry. Upset, yes.’
‘I’ve got to go see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I made up things to say. I don’t know what he thinks of me. He says I’m a regular onion. I keep him busy peeling away the layers.’

No one talks like this! Of course, it doesn’t help that he created a ton of characters with no distinct personalities. Again, this may have been an attempt to display that his post-apocalyptic world had sucked all the personality and culture out of everyone, but there’s nothing left but a shell in any of them, giving us nothing to hook into. That dialogue above is an exchange between the main character, Montag (a fireman who, according to p. 11, moved through the world “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”) and Clarisse, some random Manic Pixie Dream Girl teenager he befriended for reasons I don’t understand.

Another bothersome element is the completely non-threatening, abstract threat that looms over the book. It’s only sort of made clear by the end, and even then, I wasn’t scared for Montag. Since he was the only obvious sane person throughout, it was abundantly obvious that he’d find a way out of the hell he’d been placed in. Only after a drawn-out chase, in which an impossible-to-picture mechanical beast searches for an on-the-lam Montag — the rebel fireman who wants to save books! — do we get to the good stuff.

And that good stuff is, of course, Montag meeting up with some fellow rebels. These guys are far more interesting and logical and vibrant than anyone else in the book. They’ve taken to each putting a famous tome to memory, so that the world’s library can live on in the world’s collective minds, which is an absolutely beautiful sentiment: “Pick up that town, almost, and flip the pages, so many pages to a person” (p. 196). As they introduce themselves as books, rather than humans, to Montag, it’s easy to see why censorship is so terrifying. More terrifying than that mechanical beast, anyway.

Most of my favorite quotes come from the last 30 pages. When Montag comes upon the rebels, for example, and sees them standing around a bonfire, “He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take” (p. 187). Pardon me while I shiver. And Granger, one of the cool rebel bros, slides in this gem: “It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away” (p. 200).

Here’s the standout, though, from p. 107, when Montag is talking to Faber, a professor who ends up helping him connect with the rebels. Faber says: “No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

So, there’s beauty in this book about how there’s beauty in books. It’s just (sorry in advance) buried in a whole lot of ash.

Between the World and Me

If you think I’m going to provide an in-depth review of that which just won the National Book Award, you’re wrong. This book doesn’t need me, a white girl who doesn’t read the news every day, to chime in. This book does, however, need everyone to read it. So, this post is for the couple of people who may come across my blog without knowing who the Award winners are; had a friend of mine not handed me a copy of the book, I’m embarrassed to say I wouldn’t have known about it. (See: aforementioned poor news-reading habits.)

Between the World and Me is directly intended for Coates’ son, to paint him a very clear, detailed, unabridged picture of the world he’ll inherit as an adult. Perhaps it’s also intended for other young black males. It’s definitely not aimed at me, nor does it aim to sugar-coat, pad or soften anything in today’s world for anyone. It’s eloquent and honest and I’m thankful that it exists.

I’m thankful for the discomfort, shame and hopelessness I felt while reading it, because there are things described in the book that I’m sure I do without intending to. Even the most forward-thinking person in the world is still racist, by virtue of living in modern society, which evolved from however society operated in the past. I’m thankful for my consciousness being deepened and my behavior being scrutinized. I’m thankful that Coates’ call to arms, for lack of a better term, is being heard by so many people.

So, read, dammit. It’s one of the most important pieces of writing ever penned.

The Flamethrowers

I wonder if it’s fair to say that The Flamethrowers is a book about a number of people who believe they are living profound, meaningful lives, who may not actually be doing so. That could probably be said about a lot of books (and a lot of people). But their desperation for recognition stood out so prominently to me — and all but one really failed to leave an impression — that I thought it’d be worth mentioning. Leading with, even.

Rachel Kushner is a fucking talented writer. So talented, in fact, that 4 pages in I stopped writing down well-written quotes and instead wrote down “too many quotes to write down.” I even read the praise that preceded the book, thinking it would inspire me in my own writerly pursuits, or maybe take down the epic literary journey that I was about to embark on a few pegs, but it just filled me with envy instead. She did inspire me a little, to attempt to use more creative verbs and adjectives than I’m inclined to, so maybe I’ll try that as I hash out my feelings about this book.

Going back to that all-but-one thing I said before, the “one” is the main character, Reno. She’s a biker, an artist, a person who doesn’t take herself nearly as seriously as the people she associates with. She has context for her life. She knows she needs to work hard because she chose professions that won’t make her rich. She knows that she chose things that aren’t really even professions, actually. And yet she makes plenty of mistakes, because she’s human. She indulges herself by making those aforementioned associations and seeing what life’s like with them.

The biggest “mistake,” and reason for the whole story, is her relationship with Sandro, an older man who’s got family ties to a company that owns racing bikes. (It all works out pretty nicely for her for awhile.) She travels to Italy with him — the plot points of which I won’t get into, because I can’t recall them, and because they were my least favorite part of the book — and mingles with his friends and becomes a different person around him, but never really makes me (the reader) believe that he was worth falling for. Of course, she’s recounting her story after the fact, when the proverbial dust has settled, when she sees him for the dirt he is, when she’s moved on. But, as is customary in prose and in life, even this bad experience gives her a mental manual with which she can go through life, with which she can improve and grow and dream. It all feels very cliche when I say it, but to hear her (er, Kushner), reduce these painful moments into precious gems makes you see how worth it it was. For example:

p. 4 // “People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.”

p. 19 // “On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch’s idea of me was.”

p. 70 // “I was doing that thing the infatuated do, stitching destiny onto the person we want stitched to us.”

p. 204 // “It seemed important to convey that I understood. Isn’t that what intimacy so often is? Supposing you understand, conveying that you do, because you feel in theory that you could understand, and you want to, and yet secretly you don’t?”

p. 344 // “You couldn’t hate someone who saw the world so differently.”

Despite having never been a visual artist, or a biker, or the lover of an older man whose family owns racing bikes, these distillations made complete sense to me. They must make sense to everyone, too. They’re new universalities, reworded from cliche and filtered through Kushner’s eyes.

Like Reno, and perhaps Kushner, I do fancy myself some kind of artist, eventually, if I get around to writing that [insert type of written composition here] one day. While I can’t claim to want or be able to make the large-scale visual installations that Reno produces, I also found myself identifying with how she waxed poetic about the creative process. It sucks being one of the many, trying to “make it,” and her words — some of which were downright apathetic — make it suck less. We all know we’re not alone, but it feels that way. A friend, even a fictional one, is comforting.

p. 8 // “It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to be come an artist of the West.”

p. 154 // “…I had not put myself out there yet. I could delay it until I knew for certain that what I was doing was good.”

p. 364 // “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.”

And so, throughout this book, I latched onto these nuggets of wisdom, knowing that if Reno felt this way, surely the real person feeding her words did, too — and she produced a book because of it. Yet I also grew frustrated with Reno’s lapses in judgement, probably because they felt all-too familiar to me. One character, Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend and Reno’s one-night stand, was insufferable any time he showed up. He took his art too seriously (of course he was an artist to begin with), he cared about no one, and he found fault with the opinions of his friends for the sake of hearing himself talk. He’s the kind of person you’d claim never to be friends with, and yet you are because there’s no way to get rid of him. Maybe you, reader, would know how to, but I, and Reno, don’t. We’d let this person stick around because he’s not really doing much harm other than annoying us and sucking all the attention out of whatever room he’s in.

And then there was her relationship with Sandro, of course. Letting the romanticism cloud reality. Wasting time in Italy when she should have been in New York, fulfilling her dream. The Italy part of the book, as I mentioned, was my least favorite, because it dragged on. It wasted my time. Maybe it was intended to feel that way. Maybe the author wanted us to grow tired of Sandro and Italy so we’d be able to break ties with it before Reno could. By the time she returned to New York, I felt even more relieved than she did. She got rid of her sensationalist fantasies and she ditched a number of Sandro’s annoyingly political friends — these stragglers dragged her and the plot down as well, and made me feel just as isolated as she probably did. And I was elated to experience her re-discovery of the city she was supposed to love, and know that this time, she really loved it. Maybe I need to leave New York at some point to know if I love it.

I think I might eventually read some of Kushner’s other work, because I love her prose construction so much, and I have a feeling that not all of her books are about racing bikes. But mostly I want to read it to keep reminding myself that she’s out there, and that the feelings of jealousy and admiration can coexist peacefully. And that the latter can eventually blot out the sentiment of the former.