Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

"A Little Life"

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I heard an NPR interview with David Denby about his new book “Lit Up”and his concern that the distraction of the ubiquitous screen is crowding out the pleasure of reading for today’s children and young adults. I was hearing this just as I had had that mystical experience of coming to the end of an engrossing book, closing the cover, and continuing to live in its world. It’s a feeling I’ve had many times throughout my life, one I know my daughters have had, and one I hope my grandchildren and their peers do, too. I can’t imagine my life without books. For me, one of the basic questions for those close to me is, “What are you reading.”

And what I just read is “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. Remarkable, absorbing, provoking much thought and conversation. A tough book, dark and sad—be warned. But read it anyway.

The jacket flap copy mentions “brotherly love” and some reviews say “gay novel” but neither of those descriptions feels right to me. What I saw was love and human connection with no limiting description. The central relationship is, yes, between two men, but it’s love between two human beings; gender doesn’t feel like what matters.

A lot has been said about the novel’s darkness. It certainly has sadness at its heart, along with unspeakable cruelty, degradation, damage. But also compassion, kindness, and love at its most unquestioning and unconditional among a remarkable assortment of people.

One of the main character is a painter who becomes wildly successful (one of the book’s oddnesses is  just how wildly successful each of the original four friends becomes) with several series of paintings of the other three at mundane moments in their lives, most memorably, listening to someone tell a story. There is also a moment when one of the characters looks around at a room that holds signs of an absent beloved—clothes draped across a chair, a book splayed open—all signs of  how our lives are lived not only in large moments and large events, but also, powerfully and memorably, in the small moments that make up the little lives we are given.

The jacket photo is titled, “Orgasmic Man,” but it looks to me like someone who is reacting, not necessarily to sexual pleasure but to the intensity of those “little life” moments—to the cruelty we want to look away from, to love of incomprehensible magnitude, to losses, to pleasures, to the whole enormity of what they add up to.

I do have to say, unfortunately, that the book illustrates the importance of editors, noticeable here in the breach, with passages that can go on too long and lead nowhere, with the singular masculine pronoun whose referent can be nearly indecipherable. And copy editing—idiotic things like “binging” for “bingeing” that feels like an infuriatingly sloppy betrayal of a gifted author who has, for 720 pages, worked to give the reader an unforgettable experience.

But that’s small potatoes. My annoyance with that is just that it interrupts, taking you out of the beautifully-written flow of the words. I wanted to stay in those words, in that world in which, for all its darkness, I found optimism. I found hope in the thought that someone so irreparably damaged in body and spirit could endure as long as he did, could find moments of true delight, could be surrounded and supported by the love of people who hoped that would be enough. That it wasn’t didn’t feel like a triumph of the darkness, but a testament to the power of the human connections that, at least for a time, were successful in sustaining the light.

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Summer Reading

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Was it only a week ago that the two weeks of conventions ended? Needing a little non-substantive refreshment, I went to the gloriously renovated Boston Public Library for a little frothy palate-cleanser before getting back to the weightier books on my list.  I grabbed “The Summer Before theWar,” by Helen Simonson.  I was hoping for light reading, a confection. Funny how that worked out.

1914 England and the sun is shining down on those it always shines on, English upper-class fortunates. A thinly-disguised Henry James even makes an appearance. These fortunates are in Rye, walking in their gardens and trying to ignore the slow-motion slide into The War, the one before numbering was shown to be necessary. It was a moment when a woman of privilege could speak of never riding on public railway cars but, instead, having a private car which was cleaned by two of her maids before she got it. (A private railway car? Just for her use? Did the train wait at the station while the maids cleaned it? I am still wondering.)

I had echoes in my head of Hillary’s acceptance speech as I read how the (unmarried, of course) heroine was forced to account for every penny she spent from her own inheritance and how she had to fight for a job she was more than qualified for. And, beyond that, the casual cruelties of 98 years ago:  a gay man threatened with being outed—a way too modern term for what discovery would have meant, a lesbian couple living in shadowy ambiguity, a pregnant rape survivor shunned by “polite society.” Human rights…..women’s rights….The pieces of the plot, totally right for the time, felt shocking in the context of what I had been watching for the past days.

And underneath it all, the war. Waving banners, patriotic parades, young women handing out white feathers to brand unenlisted men as cowards, and only the most astute observers understanding that this was not likely to be an exciting and brief adventure. Especially for the poor recruits on the front lines. Especially given the class distinctions which persisted through who got on the ambulances, who was treated in which hospitals.


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Mourning in America

Friday, July 8, 2016

This morning I am, like so many others,  heartbroken. For the lives lost. For the families whose empty places will never be filled. Mostly, though, I am heartbroken for America.

America, which can only be "great" if its promise as the land of opportunity is there for all its people.

Years ago I had the honor of working with the late Jonathan Mann on a project to encourage college students to become human rights advocates. His message was that, though there are many important actions to be taken, what underlies them all, what makes you an advocate for human rights is acknowledging every human being’s right to respect and dignity. 

I’ve been thinking about that message lately, and especially this morning, just days past the celebration of our country's beginnings, when we’re focused, through the political campaign, on emphasizing differences, seeing people as “Other” instead of seeing commonality, beginning with respect for the dignity of each person..

In his brilliant musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda has the dying Hamilton sing, “America, you great unfinished symphony.” The next movement will depend on how we see each other.

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